When Hive called Jens Lekman in his native Sweden, he was stuck in traffic. “Sorry about that, by the way,” he said on the second try, after arriving at his office. “They were digging up the whole town between my house and the place where I do my work.” Lekman’s staying busy these days, and already thinking about his upcoming releases despite the fact that his first full-length album in five years, I Know What Love Isn’t, doesn’t drop until September 4. That full-length, which was inspired by a particularly heartbreaking relationship dissolving, changed the way he thinks about making music. The result is his first album-oriented album — a collection of songs meant to be together as opposed to just getting released together. Lekman explained this evolution to Hive, how Tracey Thorn and Paul Simon played into it, and why push-ups are helpful after a break up.
“If you write or create or anything like that, [creating after a break-up is like] pouring manure into an espresso machine; nothing good is going to come out of that.”
So you’ve got some office space where you work?
Yes, it’s like a little work space. I’ve got my microphone and my computer and a little piano. And one of those punch clocks, so I keep some sort of discipline. I don’t really have much else to do, so I try to keep it focused. Otherwise, I’ll just sit up all night. It’s mostly to sort of limit my work so I don’t work all day. You know, so you don’t become completely isolated, can still do some cooking, hang out with friends.
You didn’t intend to make this album so heavy, but then you went through a break-up. How did the transition in your writing occur?
I did start writing those terribly sad, broken-heart songs from the very beginning, but they were terrible. They were very bad songs. So I switched the focus from that, and tried to write more without an idea where the songs were going. I was just sitting down to write what I was thinking about. Just working with imagery and situations and dialogue, stuff like that. To make some kind of sense of where the song was going. Which just led me back to the break-up, so it was kind of a failure.
Were there a lot of songs that had to be discarded?
Yeah, but they were the songs that made sense from the beginning. They seemed too preachy or something. One of my favorite writers, Amy Hemphill, once said something about that — ideas are just not sexy, you know? If you start with an idea of writing something, it just becomes preachy, like you’re a teacher and you’re telling someone about something. It becomes like a Wikipedia article.
“Become Someone Else’s” fits into the broken-hearted theme of the album, but it’s also very motivational.
That song took so long to write. It had so many verses and so many different story lines. I think that was one of the first songs I started writing for the album, and it took me so long to realize what it was about. I started writing that song when I got this song from Tracey Thorn in which she sings, “Oh Jens, oh Jens, your songs seem to look through a different lens.” It was kind of interesting, because, at that very time, I was going through these changes, and my songs were changing too. I realized she was putting her finger on someone I used to be and the songs I used to write in the past. It took me a long time to understand why I was so obsessed with that line. It kind of made me awkward in the beginning, but at the same time, it felt like advice from an older generation.
You’ve talked of this as a capital-A album compared to your catalog. How does it feel to put together something more cohesive?
It feels great! I’m really happy with the album. In the past, when you finish a record, you’re so sick of it, because you’ve sat around mixing and mastering, going through every tiny detail of these songs, over and over, and you’re just so done with it you never want to listen to it again. But with this one, the tracklisting came together so late—I mean, I wrote two of my key songs for the album in February, like a few months before it was finished. It feels like someone else made it, like I’m listening to it from a third-person perspective almost.
Do the experiences that inspired the songs feel that way now too?
Not really, no, I can see that it’s me in the songs. But the idea of making something that runs from song number one to song number 10, it was just so alien to me before. I’ve already started thinking about the themes for my upcoming albums. I can’t tell you about them yet, though. [Laughs.]
On “The World Moves On,” you sing, “You don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully.” How do you feel about that statement now that there’s some space between the events that inspired this album?
The interesting experience I’ve had with this record was that, if there’s any conclusion, I mean, I don’t like conclusions, but if there is one, that would be it: You don’t get over a broken heart, you just carry it gracefully. But at the same time, when I started doing these interviews, a journalist would sometimes bring a CD and put it on the table, like, a preview copy of the album. I sat there and I saw the CD, and I realized, “That’s the last three years of my life, all those feelings on that record.” It really felt like a tombstone, like I could just light a candle next to it and move on. It’s a completely strange feeling. I did not expect to feel that.
That song is another example of sadness mixed with positivity. Did you strive to balance it?
That’s one of the songs that I wrote where I had an image of me lying on the floor. Why was I lying on the floor? Oh yeah, the intense heat. And around that time was my birthday. And I just started remembering all these images. I think I wrote maybe 12, 13 verses like that, and I had to cut it down. But even when I had cut it down, I remember friends listening to it and saying, “You know, there’s, like, three verses in the middle where there’s just nothing happening. Maybe you should cut them out.” And I said, “That’s exactly what the song is about! It’s about that aimlessness that follows a break-up. When you’re wondering why the world isn’t grieving with you, when actually things are just moving on.”
Do a lot of your songs start with, “Here’s a funny thing I remember!”?
I don’t know if that’s happened a lot or not. When I was working on Night Falls Over Kortedala, I was listening a lot to Graceland, the Paul Simon record. I really got into the lyrics on that album. The opening line is so brilliant, the way he sets the scene. “Fat Charlie the arch angel sloped into the room.” That’s a great opening line, I just love that so much. I think that’s sort of where I got it from. I love the way a first line can set this image and you just start wondering, “OK, where is this going from there?” I was discussing that line with my dad the other week because Paul Simon did this Graceland 25th anniversary concert we went to. And when I started playing that song, I said, “This is such a great line.” And he said, “Who’s fat Charlie?” And I said, “Exactly!”
What do you turn to after a break up?
Running. And push-ups. And exercise in general. If you write or create or anything like that, [creating after a break-up is like] pouring manure into an espresso machine; nothing good is going to come out of that. But if you exercise, you sleep better, you feel better. Your thoughts go on vacation, like meditation. Then you come out of it and you feel a little bit better, and you’re also really healthy. But I started doing push-ups, and then I started running, and that was the best. I run a lot these days. I’m actually working on a running mixtape for the website right now. I’ve started listening to music in a new way after I started running. When it comes to running, I really got into the idea of tracklistings that way too. I started running to different albums and I was starting with the short albums and moving on to the longer albums. I was interested in how they built up, in tempo and intensity. it made me interested in albums again, too.
I Know What Love Isn’t is out 9/4 on Secretly Canadian. Watch the video for the title track below: