Feb 17, 2017
Photography by Ellika Henrikson Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary
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In 2014, Jens Lekman was an artist in crisis. He had spent the year working on a nearly-finished album that "sounded like crap," he had a wicked case of writer's block, and he was starting to doubt that he even should be making music at all. He decided to throw the songs away and start over. He needed something to push him, something that would move him away from trying to "write a classic song" with every track. He came up with a solution: he would write and release a new song every week for 2015. He called it Postcards.
"It was sort of like me just realizing that I had to do something very drastic to get out of it," Lekman says of his period in the creative wilderness. "Postcards was really that. It was me signing up on a contract with the world that I would keep being creative and keep writing and exploring. I think that was one problem. I wasn't really exploring when I wrote those songs in 2014."
And so he explored, day after day, week after week, until he had 52 songs that represented a year in his life. Some of the songs weren't great, he admits, but they were honest and heartfelt, and more than a few managed to capture the sort of magic his abandoned songs had been missing. When not worrying about trying to find themes and topics that would be durable enough to resonate years beyond the moment in which the song was written, he realized that he had reclaimed some of the original joy of creating songs. While working on the Postcards songs, Lekman was simultaneously crafting his fourth full-length, a confessional dance-pop album titled Life Will See You Now.
Starting with the intention of keeping himself as a character out of the storytelling—no small feat for an artist whose best work has been vividly autobiographical—he began crafting an epic titled "To Know Your Mission." He would not be able to keep himself out of the narrative. Based on an experience that Lekman had when he was approached by an American Mormon missionary when he was 16 years old, the song deftly explores the fears that had dominated his mind for the previous year. "I was fascinated that he had this mission; he had this purpose already in life," Lekman continues. "He knew exactly what he was going to do, and I was this super confused 16-year-old. I think it's not until right at this very moment [when the song was written] that I figured out where things were going and what my mission is."
By the end of the song, Lekman has concluded that his mission is to be a musician who tells his and his fans' stories through his songs. (Or, in the words of the song, "In a world of mouths, to be an ear.") The rest of the album follows suit, exploring the human condition through domestic squabbles ("Our First Fight"), the lack of intimacy in male friendships ("How Can I Tell Him"), and how even 30-something adults often feel like lost, little kids ("Wedding in Finistère"). By the end, he has, perhaps better than any other contemporary artist, created a piece of art that perfectly captures the period of life that falls between youth and middle-age.
"It's not a very attractive period in your life, and I think that's what drew me to it," he says. "But I think for me I've always loved the idea of growing old with my listeners and my fans, because I can write about things that have happened in my life, and they can probably relate to it in one way or another. And that's what I want to keep on doing."
[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue (January/February/March 2017). This is its debut online.]
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