"Most things in life come as a surprise," Lykke Li says the day after U2 surprised the world with their new record, Songs of Innocence. The Swedish-born singer is the lilting voice sublimely singing "Little by little..." amid the swirling strings and Bono's impassioned croon on the album's downtempo closing number, "The Troubles." When the band announced that half a billion people would be able to download its record immediately for free at Apple event this week, Li was "lying upside down" at her chiropractor's. Like everyone else, she was surprised. "This is kind of out of the blue," she says. "I have no idea about anything."
The vocalist – who put out her third album of dream pop and torch songs, I Never Learn, in May and will be touring the U.S. beginning later this month and into October – was invited to sing on the tune about a year and a half ago by one of the album's producers, Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton. "He texted me, 'Hey, do you want to sing on a U2 track?'" she says. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, I don't know. Sure.' It was a random question to ask."
So she went to a Los Angeles studio where she cut her vocals at a time when the band wasn't around. The group changed the song's key this past summer and needed her to redo the track and, since she was already in Europe, she met up with the band in London to recut her vocals, this time in the presence of the band's singer.
"Bono was very kind," Li says. "He was kind of like the quiet leader, instructing me how to sing in tune – which I usually don't." She laughs. "Mostly, they let me do my own thing, but we tried different things like to whisper it to someone or to scream it to someone, but it was all about creating intimacy. We turned off all the music and sang only to the drums, so it was really getting to what the core of the song meant. I had a wonderful time." (Incidentally, Li says she has no idea what the "alternative version" of the song that will be available on the deluxe edition of Songs of Innocence will sound like, if it's culled form the same cuts as the album version, when it comes out as a physical release in October.)
They didn't discuss the meaning behind the lyrics to "The Troubles," which a survival song, but Li says that it didn't matter. "The song already has so much depth to it, you don't even need to fully understand what the lyrics are about to understand it in your soul and heart," she says. "It's a really wonderful thing to be able to align myself to, to that emotion."
Li estimates she had to do only a couple of takes, between which the U2 singer would regale her with "tales of the road or rock & roll." The singer says those stories are "strictly confidential" but said one had something to do with Jack Nicholson and Nina Simone. "Super interesting," she says coyly. "It was really fun. He cracked a lot of jokes and referred to me as a 'little voodoo child.' I really had a blast."
One thing Bono and Li discussed, though, that still stands out to her is what he had to say about her. "He said I blew everyone out of the water," she says. "I like that." The U2 singer also told her that his favorite Lykke Li song was I Never Learn's "Never Gonna Love Again."
Li says that keeping her contribution to Songs of Innocence under wraps wasn't hard, because, even though she is not a gossipy type, she wasn't sure if her song would make the cut. She only told a few close friends of the possibility. She heard the song for the first time along with everyone else. "I thought it was great," she says. "I played it in the car and it probably sounded even trippier than it does on the record."
Now that it's out, she was most excited to share "The Troubles" with her dad. "He won't believe it," she says. "It's such a trippy thing to have your daughter sing with U2." The singer says that although she sent the song to him, she hasn't heard what he thought of it yet because, as she says with a laugh, "he was on a mountaintop somewhere."
Ultimately, Li is just happy that the song is now available. "I'm just the backup vocalist," she says. "It's a great thing. I guess they're kind of like one of the biggest bands in the world, and I guess if Mary J. Blige can do it [on 'One'], so can I."