Q&A: Jens Lekman on New Album, Doing Push-Ups and His New Favorite Chord

'I Know What Love Isn't,' first album in five years, out today

Jens Lekman
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
Jens Lekman
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Jens Lekman is back in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweeden, renting a room that's just eight square meters. There's enough room for a bed, his guitar and the refrigerator-sized suitcase he's been living out of for quite some time now. It's been five years since the Swedish singer-songwriter's last album, Night Falls Over Kortedala – a record of dryly poignant lyrics and lush orchestral pop built partly from samples – and in that time Lekman lugged his case from place to place (almost settling in Melbourne, Australia), went through a particularly hard breakup and almost committed to a green-card marriage.

Those last two provided much of the inspiration for Lekman's long-awaited follow-up, I Know What Love Isn't, which Secretly Canadian releases today (last year he released the EP An Argument With Myself). It's the breakup record Lekman did not expect to write – a forlorn affair, certainly, but one that sparkles with streamlined strings, saxes and flutes and finds hope in the most nonsensical sentiments: the end of the world is bigger than the spider floating in your cider, the Flatbush Avenue Target and, especially, love. Lekman chatted with Rolling Stone about his new favorite chord, how his abstract lyrical inroads always led back to the breakup and the role running and push-ups played in shaping I Know What Love Isn't

It's been five years since Night Falls Over Kortedala. When did you start working on this album?
I think I started early 2009. Around my birthday, actually. I had about a half-year hiatus before that, because I'd been on tour after Night Falls for about a year, and I was really tired of music and all that stuff. So I took about a half a year break and thought, "My birthday's probably a good day to get back to creating," in honor of my own creation.

Did anything you wrote on your birthday make onto the album?
I don't think I wrote anything on my birthday that ended up there. I probably just wrote a bass line or something [laughs].

Just starting small.
Yeah, exactly. Which is kind of interesting: The way I used to write songs was I built all these collages with samples and stuff and went from there. But now I started working more with vocal melodies, starting from the other end.

You used samples a lot less on this album. How did that shift affect your songwriting?
Made it groovier somehow, more soulful and more jazzy, I think. I worked more with chord progressions and chord structures, things like that. I found a favorite chord, which is B flat 7 – that's my favorite chord. I work a lot in songs around a C major scale and going down to a B flat 7 from there is just a beautiful little jazzy thing that breaks off the dream-in-a-city of a C major 7 scale.

Even though you wrote much of the album in Australia, did you feel this was a more global record, or that it encompasses all the traveling you've done over the past few years?
I think in many ways I was looking for some sort of neutral geography. Like the way I picked the artwork for the record – I tried taking some photos in Melbourne, and they just felt like, "Oh, this is going to be a record about Melbourne." I tried taking some photos in Gothenburg and it just became too connected to Gothenburg. I really wanted something that was just very, very neutral. That's why I picked these sand dunes and the desert that I'm walking through. I think there's a lot of references to places in Melbourne and things in Melbourne that you might only pick up if you are from Melbourne. But apart from that, I was looking for something more neutral, because I felt like the themes for what I was feeling were too personal – like I was singing my diary, basically. After a while I realized that they had reached something that was more, essentially, human, I guess. And because that was what I was looking for, I also reached a more of a neutral scenery.

You've written about personal things in the past. What do you think is necessary to make the very personal also universal?
Hmm. I wouldn't be able to give you a concept of that, I think. For example: I remember writing "A Postcard to Nina," and I think that song – I mean, it was a funny story, but it reached something in the very last lines. It's often in the very last lines. For this record too, I was writing more freely, more abstract, just trying to see where it would take me without a story in mind, and often it would wrap itself up in the very last lines.

Did you find your songs turning into stories despite their more abstract origins?
Yes! I had been through a breakup, and I was trying to not write about that breakup. I thought that was the last thing I wanted to write about. And that's why I started writing like that – I was trying to get away from it, and I was trying to write to find out what I was thinking about. And of course that method just led me straight back to the breakup.

Is that what happened with a song like "The World Moves On," a track that's comprised of a whole bunch of stories?
I think that song is exactly what I was talking about before – I was making associations between images. I started with the image of me hugging a bag of frozen peas, lying on the floor. I liked that image and I was wondering why was I hugging that bag of frozen peas, and I thought, "Oh yeah, that was because it was during the heatwave, when it was 50 degrees Celsius. Now when was this? Oh yeah, this was around the time of the bush fires." Then it started coming along, all these images. I had no idea where I was going with them. I think I wrote 20 verses or something, just random images, things that had nothing to do with anything at all. Then I started cutting it down and ended up with the verses that are in there now. I played it for a friend of mine and she just said, "There's still like three or four verses in there where there's nothing happening." And I said, 'Well, that's exactly what I was aiming for!" I just realized it – that's exactly what the song is about. It's about the aimlessness that follows a breakup.

That song has the line "You don't get over a broken heart/ You just learn to carry it gracefully," which seems somewhat like the album's thesis statement, almost.
I think what the line is about is we all look for closure after something like that, and I think closure feels a lot like a modern invention. This idea in our head that everything will be fine all of a sudden. I don't think it works that way. And so there was a point where I was looking for some sort of method of reaching closure, and realizing, "OK, yeah, that's not how it works."

Do you have any personal favorite breakup songs or albums?
No. The concept of a breakup record is something that feels kind of foreign to me. I can't believe that's actually what I did. When I've been going through this kind of thing before – especially this time – I've turned to very, very primitive forms of occupying my mind, like running, or this time I started doing push-ups. It's the best thing to do, I think, when you've been through something like that.

How so?
It doesn't involve any thinking at all. When you move, you release all these – what are they called? – endorphins or dopamine, something like that. It's just the best drug in the whole world. Then when you start feeling better after a while, you're also physically stronger. A lot of good stuff comes out of that. Running has really become a drug for me, and something that's made me discover music again.

Do you listen to music while you run, or think of melodies?
I don't think I'd be able to write songs while I run, even though I know the guy from ABBA used to do that, like with "Take a Chance on Me" [laughs]. How I started running, I picked out really short records in the beginning, and I thought, "I'm just gonna run through this record." Then I made a goal to run through longer records every time, and I rediscovered all these albums that I love. I sort of got a feeling for albums again, the album structure and how you build albums. It's so important when you're running – you don't want that one song that just ruins the whole thing.

You mentioned in an interview recently that you kind of see this as your first record. Did you go into this record with the intention of having it be an "album," or did it just take that shape?
It's weird talking about the album as a living being with its own thoughts and direction, especially if you're the one creating it. But I did feel like the album was trying to tell me that it wanted to be an album. It took a while for me to realize that, and it wasn't until I put out the Argument With Myself EP last year that things started falling into place, once I got rid of those songs.

Was there anything you were keeping in mind when you were sequencing the album?
In the beginning I think I was trying to put it together like the classic album, where you have the intro song and then an uptempo song and then a single, the big single, then you have a ballad. Every record, at least in the Nineties when I grew up, was like that. And then you would end sort of with an epic song. And the song before that would be the worst song on the album [laughs]. I think I started realizing after a while that I liked the idea of the record progressing and ending almost with the most upbeat song. That's why I put "I Know What Love Isn't," not last, but second to last. It's sort of building up to that – some sort of hope. Even though, I guess, "Every Little Hair" then brings it down again, but in a nice little classy way.

You keep an open dialog with your fans on your website through the "Small Talk" section. What do you like about that back-and-forth?
Well it's a way to develop my thoughts, most of all. You put something out there in the world – your songs – and then people react to it. And also, I think when I write to people, when I correspond with them, the way I write to them is so much more loose and spontaneous than when I try to write songs. The "sent" folder of my email program is really my biggest inspiration and my biggest source of lyrics. That's where I go to pick up a lot of the lyrics that I'm writing.

Have the emails you've received ever inspired lyrics?
They haven't so far, but I really want to, at some point, make an album of other people's stories. I'm getting a little bit sick of this Jens Lekman character, so I kind of want to do an album where I sing other people's stories from their perspective. I really love the idea of stepping into another character and being able to sing maybe stuff that is not my thought and my own opinions, but be able to portray someone else and take a walk in their shoes for a while.

Did you find yourself "growing tired of this Jens Lekman character" while you were making this record, or did you feel that way afterwards?
Oh it's not because of this record – it's after all my records. I've been doing this for 10 years now. I think he's a lovable character, but I just need a little bit of a break from him.