*God, this one was hard work. I interviewed Lykke Li in the bar of a Leeson Street hotel. She’d just arrived in from London, was hungover, monosyllabic, complaining about how some bloke had kept trying to touch her hair the night before, and was generally monstrously grumpy. Just as well that her album (and live show) was brilliant. Her second record is due “soon”, apparently.
Originally published in Hot Press, July 2008
LI LYKKE Zachrisson – that’s Lykke Li to you and I, if you please – wearily removes her oversized sunglasses, shakes my hand with a thin smile and politely orders a cappuccino from the waitress. If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if I’d somehow manage to somehow inadvertently offend the 22-year-old Swedish popstrel – but it soon becomes clear that Ms. Zachrisson, fresh off a delayed flight from a flurry of UK dates, is just tired. Very tired.
“It’s a positive thing,” she says of her recently-devised hectic schedule, “but it’s not really positive when you’re right in the middle of it, because you don’t really have any time to think. It’s really changed over the past six months – it’s gone from nothing to everything. Sometimes it’s hard, because I don’t have any time to be creative, and that’s boring. Everybody wants to be successful, so I guess it’s a good thing – but it can be quite scary, as well.”
Since the Scandinavian release of her debut album ‘Youth Novels’ on her own label LL Recordings in February, a steady stream of bloggers, music fans, journalists and tastemakers have been developing crushes of mammoth proportions on the Stockholm-born singer. The album, which recently got a major label release through Warner in the UK and Ireland, is a beautifully rich, diverse and endearingly romantic collection of experiments in pop.
It’s clear from her responses, however – which range from purposeful, enthusiastic answers to brusque rejoinders – that an already-cynical Lykke Li is very conscious of being taken seriously as an artist with no ties to any scene – Swedish or otherwise. Still, I tell her that Adam Olenius from her former touring partners Shout Out Louds called her their ‘little sister’ when I spoke to him earlier this year, which raises a fleeting smile.
“I feel totally isolated. I’m alone,” she says in relation to the apparently mythical Scandinavian indie-pop community. “I mean, there is no scene – all the bands are on tour all of the time, and Stockholm’s actually a really dead place. I think it’s terrible, actually. I saw posters here for Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Morrissey – that would never ever happen in the same week in Stockholm. There’s nothing, just nothing.”
Perhaps such a fervent sense of displacement stems from Li’s nomadic childhood of-sorts. Born to a photographer mother and a musician father, her family travelled through Europe and Asia during Li’s formative years, and she herself moved to New York at the age of 19 – spending a year playing coffee houses and open mic nights to “just learn how to do things, really.”
Whatever her methods, ‘Youth Novels’ is a triumph of a debut record; an album which many place under the ’indie-pop’ banner, but which combines a curiosity and predilection for musical experimentation with melodies catchier than a well-worn baseball mitt.
It’s not until I explain how the album worked its magic on me over a couple of weeks, not immediately, that she uncurls from her semi-foetal position. Recorded last year in Stockholm with the man who’s fast becoming Sweden’s answer to Timbaland – Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John fame) – Li speaks with a genuine respect for the producer.
“He’s a genius,” she states. “He works so fast, it’s crazy to watch him work. I can come up with a song on the piano, and if it’s quite shitty, nothing special, he’ll be like ‘No, we’ll do it on bass instead, do it like this’, and all of a sudden we’ll have this brilliant pop song. He has the best ear. He taught me so much about the industry, too.”
I ask her whether the fourteen tracks that comprise ‘Youth Novels’ were originally skeletal, simplistic tunes, or if she had a clear idea of how she wanted the record to sound before entering the studio late last year.
“No, I had some songs – but it was quite a rush the way everything happened. I started a label, and it was like ‘We need to get a record out now while I’m still hot’. So I had half the album, but the other half we did like this (clicks fingers), it was really instant.
“When I listen to it now, I’ve grown so much in the last six months. I think ‘Oh my God, I was so young, and it was so unfinished.’ But I think it’s a good thing, too, that I just did it, and it’s out, and now I’m moving on. I can still listen to it now and be like ‘Oh no, I should have done that’. Even my voice – I sing so much better now than I did then.”
Many of the songs ‘Youth Novels’’ are implicitly poignant love songs, not least album-starrer ‘Little Bit’, which sees her softly croon “And for you, I keep my legs apart / Forget about my tainted heart” over a sweet ‘n’ sour electro-pop melody.
“They were inspired by this relationship I had at the time that was an off-and-on thing,“ she nods. “We never really said we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but it was quite a passionate affair that was going on for years, and it kinda broke my heart at the end.”
I tell her that I get the impression that she doesn’t necessarily want to be perceived as a ‘pop star’. Touching on early influences, she mentions that she saw early Madonna as a “hero in life, not a musical hero.”
“I don’t want to be a singer,” she says, quite seriously. “I hate that. I don’t care about that. I want to be passionate, touch people. I want it to be as good as… as good as Nina Simone. I mean, when you listen to a Nina Simone song, immediately you feel her. It’s almost like she’s crying, not singing. I want to be that way some day.”