Jens Lekman Steps Out of Character
Lekman is still charming, just a little older.
Ever since his first self-release, in 2000, Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman has serenaded fans with charming numbers about his awkward interpersonal encounters, delivered in a lounge-singer baritone and backed by dramatic vintage string samples. He's often very funny, but it's his shamelessly emotional confessions that stick with you. "I would cut off my right arm to be someone's lover," he sings on one song, with total sincerity. Listening to him can make you feel like you're a teenager again.
It's easy to regard Lekman with this kind of rosy nostalgia, because he's been absent for a while — it's been four years since he released his most recent album, I Know What Love Isn't, and even longer since his acclaimed breakthrough, 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala. That's in part because he needed a break from himself, he tells the Voice. "I was just really sick of the 'Jens Lekman' character that I kept writing about," he says, a little sarcastically. He started trying to write from other people's perspectives, to escape from the claustrophobia of his self-reflexiveness. That didn't feel right, either. "I was really filled with doubt, feeling like everything I did was worthless," he remembers. "It scared me, because there was this voice in my head all the time saying, You should quit, you should do something else."
At the beginning of 2015, Lekman set out to renew his relationship with songwriting, taking on two ambitious exercises to force himself along. The first, Postcards, was a commitment to write and record one song each week of the year from wherever Lekman happened to be. The diaristic tracks that resulted range in subject matter from the Syrian refugee crisis and the Paris terror attacks to mundane stories of romance and disappointment.
He called his other effort Ghostwriting. The two-part project was inspired by the personal stories he receives via email from fans. It's not surprising that people feel they can confide in Lekman: His work and online presence are open and knowable, like a friend you'd chat with over drinks. He decided to solicit new stories specifically to make into songs. This turned into two week-long sessions, one in Cincinnati, the other in Gothenburg.
For the U.S. iteration, Lekman collaborated with Drew Klein, the performance curator at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. "Some of my favorite memories of those sessions are Jens worrying about the final songs — whether anything could have been done differently to make them just a bit more impactful," Klein remembers. "He wasn't concerned about what anyone thought about the work critically, but rather that what he had made honored the story it told."
Klein, who has been a fan for years, commissioned Lekman to work on Ghostwriting in Cincinnati as soon as the songwriter announced the project. "The thing that drew me to his music in the first place was the feeling that you are there with him in every song. The details he includes are almost like invitations; you're invested and want to know what's going on with Shirin, or Nina, or the girl from the anti-war demonstration" — characters from Lekman's songs, all based on people he knew. "He excels at making the everyday feel extraordinary." Both in and out of his music, Lekman is determined to create these kinds of spaces for intimacy. To that end, he played a series of shows last year in houses and small venues he was invited to by fans, outside of the big cities in Sweden to which most musicians are drawn.
Ghostwriting allowed Lekman to reach outside of himself for inspiration, while Postcards pushed him to keep writing no matter what. "Both of those projects sort of kicked me back into loving what I did again. Loving music again," he says. Emboldened, Lekman trashed the songs he'd written before the projects and began work on a new album (it will be released early next year on his longtime label, Secretly Canadian). Some of the new tracks chronicle the self-doubt that inspired his experimental projects in the first place. "There are a lot of songs about people facing their fears, taking control over their fears, and being defeated by their fears," he says.
And while aging is, for Lekman, not exactly a fear, the record is also about his getting older — having started writing songs as a teenager, he's now 35. "It's kind of an existentialist album, Kierkegaardian almost," he says. "I remember reading Either/Or as a pretentious nineteen-year-old and feeling kind of cool. Reading that book again just a few years ago, it really gripped me. I think [I'm now at] the age where you start to see the consequences of your choices.
"You could also call it like a midlife-crisis record," he laughs. "But it sounds sexier to call it existentialist."
Jens Lekman plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg on November 6 at 8:30 p.m.
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