Swedish crooner Jens Lekman is back in Shanghai this week dining out in Old Town and preparing for two shows as part of the Music in the Summer Air (MISA) Festival. I last spoke to the man behind “Black Cab” and “A Postcard to Nina” in 2008 during a sound check at the Glamour Bar, the day after he played a great gig at JZ club. He was exhausted — the interview, which I buried in an obscure corner of the internet, ended with him going for a nap — and the conversation was stifled by the uncertainty and longing that he puts to such good use in song. Jens didn’t have a home, he hadn’t had a girlfriend for eight years, and he said he had “no plans at all”. He wore an uncut key around his neck but wouldn’t say whether it signified possibility or futility. This time around, thank god, he was much more forthcoming.
Have you cut the keys you were wearing on your last visit?
Oh gosh, there was so much symbolism I attributed to those keys. I think back then, last time I was in Shanghai, they were just something we wore because they looked good. I had seen some photo of Scott Walker wearing a gigantic key and I wanted something like that. Then I started selling them as merch and I got so many questions about them that I had to decide what they meant. I thought about all the people who wrote me, often about their longing for something or someone particular and how they didn’t dare to take the step towards doing what they wanted to do or telling that special person how they felt. You know, they’re all dreamers, my fans. So I decided the golden key was something you’d wear as a reminder to take that step. There was something I used to say about the Jonas Brothers too and their purity rings, that because their ring was about waiting my golden key was the ‘anti purity ring’. But then I realized that just sounded creepy so I dropped that part. As for my key, it’s still not cut. I don’t think it’ll ever be.
Do you still describe yourself as homeless?
In a sense yes. Homeless was and is not a good word to use though, I may not have a proper home because of my restlessness and my touring but right now I’m sitting in a four star hotel. I’ve got a roof over my head. When I was here last time I had just moved out of New York and went directly to Melbourne where I moved from place to place. When my visa ran out I moved back to Gothenburg and moved into a room that is eight square meters which is great because I can’t fit a lot of useless crap in there but I also won’t be sad if I get kicked out. My real home is my suitcase which is an amazing suitcase. It’s the size of a refrigerator, I can literally live in it.
Last time you said you felt okay with people not listening to your songs, talking through them. That seems less likely to happen with an orchestra behind you. How do you feel about the bigger scale of these performances?
I feel like they are my greatest hits records. You know how bands these days don’t really release greatest hits records anymore? I guess probably because all songs are available all the time it seems a bit useless to repackage them the way they did before. But it’s nice to once in a while stop and do a Las Vegas style show with all your hits in full bloom. Like a greatest hits record. And then move on. I wouldn’t do these kind of shows more than once every ten years or so though, it makes me think of the part in Steve Martins autobiography where he talks about going from small clubs to stadiums and how he lost interest in performing at stadiums because he couldn’t hear the hecklers.
Regarding the album “I Know What Love Isn’t”, Brian Eno says negative ambition, not wanting to be all kinds of things, is what leads people to be artists. Still, it seems like a longer, more difficult path than going after something you want directly. Any way around it?
Well, I don’t think it’s about going after the things you don’t want. It’s more about going after the things you want and then finding out they weren’t what you wanted at all. And then being fine with that and understanding that at least you can cross that off your list now. I love what Brian Eno said but I think what led me to be a musician was failing at a bunch of other things.
How has the way your process for making music changed over the past six years?
“Night Falls Over Kortedala” was an explosion in a paint factory. Which made me intentionally tone down “I Know What Love Isn’t” to a more strict palette with quite cold and faded colors. I think the next one will be made with a strict palette too but with warmer colors. I’m learning about rhythms right now, my drummer Hampus gave me a nice trick to build unconventional rhythms by using the names Tommy and Annika (not sure if you ever watched or read Pippi Longstocking but Tommy and Annika are the boring sidekicks in those books). So since Tommy and Annika together contains five syllables you can build rhythms like “Tommy-Tommy-Annika” (2+2+3=7) or “Annika-Annika-Annika-Tommy” (3+3+3+2 = 11). Anyway, sorry for boring you with music theory, I just never went to music school so stuff like this is mind blowing to me, ha ha.
Admission 50RMB // Date Fri 11 Jul – Sat 12 Jul // Time 7:30pm-late // Shanghai Urban Music Lawn //Telephone 40 0821 0522 // Metro: Dashijie // 523 Yanan Dong Lu, near Jinlin Zhong Lu, Huangpu district // 黄浦区延安东路523号, 近金陵中路 // www.misa.org.cn
By Sam Gaskin