Swedish songwriter scrapped an earlier album for new optimistic record Life Will See You Now
In 2014, a couple years after the release of Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman's breakup record I Know What Love Isn't, Lekman sent off a new batch of songs to his label and some friends.
“They all told me for different reasons that the album wasn't working,” Lekman said in a recent phone interview. “I had about half a year of just spinning around and being depressed about it. … There were signals that I wasn't doing too well, so I started going to therapy around that time. I started thinking of everything in my life as this movie script that wasn't working — like I was taking it to a movie script expert to figure out the motives of the characters in this movie.”
Therapy helped Lekman regain his confidence, as did an endeavor he dubbed the Postcard project, which entailed writing, recording and releasing a song per week in 2015. “I was able to free my creativity, because [previously] I felt like my hands were tied,” he said. “I used to put out all these tour EPs and songs for compilations, and at some point everything got so serious. It was like I couldn't do that anymore.
“I had people I worked with telling me, ‘You shouldn't put out half-finished tracks in any form. People will think it's your new single, and then they'll judge you and forget you and then your career is over.' It was like doomsday every time I tried to release something just for fun. Every time I sat down to write a song, I was like, ‘OK, I gotta write a classic now. I gotta write the best song I've ever written.' And that's the worst way to write something that's actually good.”
Even though about half the songs on the scrapped record from 2014 ended up on new album Life Will See You Now, Lekman said the tracks are now fully realized versions of the songs, which previously sounded half-finished.
In some ways, the record is less personal than Lekman's prior releases. Instead of gazing inward, Lekman focused his songwriting on others. On leadoff track “To Know Your Mission,” he sings, “I just want to listen to people's stories, hear what they have to say … In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear.”
But in telling those stories, Lekman still reveals essential parts of himself. “Every song is emotionally autobiographical. I wouldn't write about anything unless I've experienced it,” he said.
Lekman also writes with a specificity that roots his songs in reality. “Evening Prayer,” for instance, came from an article Lekman read about a surgeon who used a 3-D printer to print the tumors he was scheduled to remove.
“That's such a brilliant idea — to print out your own fear as a plastic object that you can put in your breast pocket. I wish I could do that with every fear I have in my life,” said Lekman, who was also inspired by friends who were going through cancer treatment. “I'd had relatives get ill before, but it was always distant, never anyone that was very close to me. The first time it happened to friends, it posed the question: How close are you really? So I wanted to write about that, and also how to cope with something so abstract as an illness — something that's happening in your body that you can't see.”
Life Will See You Now is also a sonic departure for Lekman, whose albums often feature the songwriter's baritone croon with guitar, ukulele and ornate string arrangements. For this record, Lekman teamed up with producer Ewan Pearson, who encouraged him to experiment more with drum machines and digital instruments.
“Ewan kept saying, ‘You're making your Latin party dance record,'” said Lekman, who also took inspiration from the Pet Shop Boys record Bilingual.
After the dour vibe of I Know What Love Isn't, Lekman also made a concerted effort to inject the sounds and stories of Life Will See You Now with some levity. “I have a responsibility as a songwriter to not leave the listener with a lot of problems and sadness and dread,” he said, “but to offer some sort of a way forward — a way out of the darkness.”