Lykke Li on Broken Hearts, Broken Characters, and Battling Self-Doubt | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Lykke Li on Broken Hearts, Broken Characters, and Battling Self-Doubt

Just Short of Perfection

Jul 09, 2014 Lykke Li Bookmark and Share

When I ask Lykke Li if her songwriting process is cathartic, she seems to feel insulted. It’s a lazy question, I admit, one that’s almost guaranteed to elicit a certain answer from a songwriter who writes songs so full of insecurity, restlessness, and self-reproach. But as much as she seems eager to place herself in the company of the kinds of artists who use their art to make sense of their inner turmoil, she also seems reticent to fully embrace that caricature.

“I hate when people talk about how [songwriting] is like therapy,” she says. “It is cathartic, but it’s also cathartic to live. Every day you move forward. It has helped a lot [to write songs], but it hasn’t fully…” she says, trailing off, as if mulling over the original question. “I don’t know. Yeah. I guess so. Yeah.”

She sounds frustrated, as if goaded into agreeing with an assertion that isn’t quite true but isn’t quite false, either. One gets the impression that this sort of sentiment is typical for her. Nothing is ever quite good enoughno song, no relationship, no questionand she always falls just a little bit short of getting exactly what she wants. Those themes also dominate I Never Learn, a starkly straightforward set of songs that capture her in various stages of grief and self-blame for ending a romantic relationship. Unlike her previous two albums, this one cuts deep and straight to the heart of her art, with fragile melodies, aching vocals, and streamlined

arrangements allowing her gifts as a craftswoman to take center stage. Here, on a chilly Manhattan morning, Li talks about her songwriting process, fighting her feelings of doubt, and how she finally found what she always wanted. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Lykke Li, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on her.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So did you know when you started working on this album that you wanted to do something more stripped down?

Lykke Li: I think, when I started working on it, I didn’t realize that I was going to be doing a record, because I was quite exhausted from touring the last record. I just wrote songs for my own healing, and I wanted to get lost in the process and not think about the end results. So I opened up all these doors into self-discovery, both of myself and my art. So it was only very recently that I tried to make it into a record.

Some of these songs almost sound like demos, like “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.” Is it?

It is, yeah. “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”that’s the actual demo that I did. We recorded that one on a tape machine when I was writing it, and that is the actual song. That’s the ultimate goal, to always do it like that, but sometimes you fail. For that one, I didn’t even know if that song was going to make the record. But when it was time to get to that song again, I was like, “What am I going to do?” And I had the demo, so I was like, “I can’t see how I could possibly top this, so I’m just going to be brave and let it be as it is.”

Do you think you would have resisted leaving things so unadorned in the past?

I wanted to do it, but I don’t think I was ready for it. I feel like I’ve finally found my voice and how I work best as a songwriter. It’s an ideal to work like that, but it takes some practice to get there. I wanted to make something even more stripped down with this, but I get so excited about painting it more. You finally have the bone structure, and then you want to put the clothes on it and follow the dream. So I had to really pull back a lot. Obviously, some tracks I couldn’t manage to pull it back.

Was it easy to get on the same page with Björn [Yttling, producer]?

No. We produced it together, so it was really a bit of a tug of war. We fought a lot on this record, but I think that’s also a good thing. You can hear that tension on the record, like I want to go in a certain way, and he pulls it in a bit of another way. So there’s life between us. He loves drums. I do, too, but I also love not drums.

It’s such a personal record. Does it seem strange to be opening up so much of your life in your songwriting?

Only when I have to talk about it. Because when I [write a song], I don’t ever think that someone is actually going to hear it. I just try to stay as true to the process as possible and write exactly what I feel. That’s the only way I can write and feel something. So I never think about that, but it can get a bit strange in interviews, I guess.

You’ve also said that you’d rather be seen as a singer/songwriter than a pop singer. Why is that?

I guess it’s just the public eye. Whenever you’re a woman and you’re my age, you’re bundled with all these other female singers, and most of them probably don’t write their own music. So I wish that I could be like a poet rather than something else.

Are there things you can do to push against that impression, like how you choose to be photographed?

You try, but the world always tries to make you into something else. It’s also frustrating being a woman, period, in this world. So I’m probably way more lucky than most of us.

How so?

Because I run my own shit. I’m my own boss.

Don’t all artists have the opportunity to do that to some extent?

No, they do. But I was thinking in general about women in this world, about females in offices. They don’t get the glory or the money for what they do, nor the acknowledgement. The world is run by men.

You seem to be incredibly critical of your own work. That seems pretty rare among artists.

I don’t know. I don’t really know that many other artists. [Laughs] I just know that I’ve always had great difficulties with myself. I never think that I’m good enough.

A good enough songwriter?

Yeah, yeah. In my personal life it’s even worse.

Do you think exploring these negative feelings is essential to your process? Could you make an album from a happy place?

It just happens to be that I’ve had quite a tumultuous life so far. That’s something that I’m curious about. Could I make art from a happy place? But I can’t say that I’ve been that happy. So that’s something that I’m looking forward tobecoming more happy and seeing what I could create from that. But it might not be music. It definitely wouldn’t sound like this, that’s for sure.

Given your self-criticism, is making an album even enjoyable for you?

Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s so painful, when you have this vision that you’ve labored so long for. On most days, when you’re making a record the only time it sounds the way you thought it would is when it’s mastered and done. And the whole process of getting there is basically having something that doesn’t sound the way that you’d want it. There’s always a problem to fix, something not right. So it’s a very painful process to be stuck in that for two years.

But then a song like “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” is perfect with one take.

Yeah, but that was only one song on the whole record. And that’s not the song that will set me up. That song will never get played on the radio or anything like that. But most of my songs will never get played on the radio, now that I think about it. [Laughs]

Do you care about getting played on the radio?

No. Not at all. But I guess it’s difficult maintaining a career if no one buys your albums and you don’t get played. It costs some money to make records, so you’ve got to stay afloat. And it’s difficult in this modern time when people just listen to it online or on YouTube, and that’s it. You worked on something for so long, for years, using tape machines and analog gear, and people just download it and listen to it on their phones.

How would you like your listeners to respond to your music?

I want them to feel, if possible, less lonely, and that art really matters.

It must be gratifying to know that your listeners connect to your music so deeply.

Yeah, and that is really wonderful. I do feel like there’s a pure communication from them to me, and they really get it. That, to me, is so beyond anything. I don’t care if I get played on the radio or if I sell records or whatever. The fact that some people seem to get it, that’s absolutely a dream.

You also did some acting in Tommy. Would you like to do more non-musical projects?

I would love to, if it’s the right thing. It has to mean as much to me as my music does, and it has to have a depth. I don’t want to sell something to the world that’s not real. I’m always interested in broken hearts and broken characters, so I think it would have to be in that vein. I photograph a lot, as well. I could really see myself doing that more.

Do you think you’re drawn to those sorts of broken characters and downhearted themes in all creative mediums?

I do. I think it’s like that Leonard Cohen quoteit’s the crack where the light shines in. Or something like that. I think the breaking point is interesting. It’s our mistakes that make us. And our wounds and our scars and all that.

It seems like you were very careful to make sure your scars were visible on this album, both in the writing and in the production. It’s striking just how raw the production is, with even studio chatter turning up between the tracks.

Yeah, every song on this record, every lyric, it’s self-lived. I knew that was true. And then it was hard to find a performance that felt alive. So that’s what I struggle the most with, trying to capture something vibrant. I always want to have as much life as possible. You want to feel who played on it, who was there, what happened. Especially in this day and age, it’s so important to be together with people. I could never make records where you just send parts and sing on top of them. I had to be there for every single moment of it.

So where do you think this album will fit in your body of work?

I guess this was finally when I tried to accept myself with all my flaws and ambivalence and open myself up, both creatively and as a woman.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital/tablet/smartphone version of Under the Radar’s June/July issue (Issue 50).]


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