Photos by Tim Boddy.
It’s an intimidating start to an interview when an artist looks you dead in the eye and tells you this interview is going to be like a therapy session. “You’re the therapist,” Jens Lekman tells me as I stutter something about ‘oh er not sure I’m qualified haha but let’s give it a go’. In a way, it’s the perfect way to treat a discussion of his therapeutically-minded new album, Life Will See You Now, a record about doubt and death and anxiety and aging that’ll have you dancing in the streets.
Jens Lekman songs have always tended to be tiny biographies where the lines between art imitating life and life imitating art blur. At times, this album is no different – in ‘Hotwire The Ferris Wheel’, for example, a real life line from a real life friend is a repeated refrain over a languid calypso beat: “If you’re going to write a song about this then please don’t make it a sad song.”
Talking to Jens, I get the impression that this could so easily have become an album of sad songs. Getting it cracking was a struggle, so he set himself the task of writing and releasing a song once a week every week for a year throughout 2015. “I started Postcards just after I’d been through this really big struggle with whether I should do music and where I was going – really doubting myself, my ability to write and everything in my life,” Jens explains. He describes Postcards as the musical equivalent of signing up to the gym – and posting the final song felt as gargantuan as a physical achievement. “I felt like I was on top of Mount Everest or something. I cried a little when I did that.”
After working through that self-doubt, he was left with 52 new songs and the very beginning of the idea that would become Life Will See You Now – but it still took a bit of work to figure out exactly what it was going to be. “Usually albums are very much like greatest hits collections of that period in my life, but now it’s very much about finding that theme for the record and what that record is about – and why I’m releasing the record at all. For this one it took a long time to see what it was about.” What it wasn’t about, it turned out, was men, despite the rule he imposed on himself at first to only write songs about them.
“I’d written so many songs about female characters,” he explains. “But it didn’t work out completely. There were a few songs that worked, that ended up on the record but writing about masculinity was just very depressing. It was not a happy path to take.” One of those songs that did make the cut was ‘How Can I Tell Him’, an acoustic love song about the platonic love between two friends. Amid gentle strings and piano trills, Jens critiques the toxic masculinity that stops men from expressing their feelings for each other. “It’s so deep within me, the way a man should be/Passed on through generations of men before me”, he sings before ending with, “Before he’s gone he shouts ‘later dude’/I think ‘yeah, I love you too'”.
“I don’t think I have a very bright idea of masculinity, basically,” he explains when we discuss why it was so hard to write about men. “I see a lot of problems that I struggle with myself; there’s a genuine sadness in there that can work – in the case of ‘How Can I Tell Him’ there was some sort of genuine longing for it to change – but in a lot of the other songs it just became so dark and so hopeless.”
‘Dark’ and ‘hopeless’ are not two words you would use to describe Life Will See You Now, despite its existential question marks and overarching anxieties. It’s bursting with Latin rhythms and jaunty hooks that get stuck in your head for days on end (take a bow, ‘What’s That Perfume That You Wear?’). As an album it stretches gently into new musical territory for Jens – “Oh you’re making your Latin party dance record,” producer Ewan Pearson kept telling him while they were recording – so playing the songs live for the first time to a dedicated fanbase was “nerve-wracking”, he says. “It feels like introducing your new girlfriend to your friends who really liked your old girlfriend. And they’re like, why are you with this new person?”
Even more nerve-wracking is playing songs to the people who are literally in the songs, although he tends to write more fictionalised accounts now than he used to. “I make stuff up more these days,” he says. “Everything on this record is stuff that I’ve experienced or felt, or that close friends of mine have experienced – I wouldn’t write about something that I hadn’t experienced. But I’ve become pretty interested in magical realism.” The books of Junot Diaz, the Dominican- American author of The Brief But Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, were a big influence on his lyrics. “I love how he mixes the mundane with this very colourful, magical realism. That was a very big inspiration for the lyrics and the stories for this record.” So if you’re wondering if he and Tracey Thorn actually hotwired a ferris wheel… probably not.
“Your 30s are just, like, a sad Judd Apatow movie or something. I hate that when you see depictions of people in their 30s in popular culture, they’re always these pathetic, sad people. I think that’s problematic because there’s a lot of stuff that you go through at this time of your life – all of a sudden you realise how serious it is, in a way, and how every time you cross a bridge it burns behind you. You can’t go back. It creates a lot of anxiety. I’m hoping that someone will be able to relate to it that way and get something from it.
“Your 30s are just, like, a sad Judd Apatow movie or something.”
“Ultimately, what Life Will See You Now is about is aging. Being 30-something and still not quite having it all figured out, watching as the consequences of your youthful decisions play out, years too late to do anything about them. “It’s very much a 30s crisis album. Your 30s are a transitional period in your life that’s not very romantic or glamorous – like the teenage years but without all the romanticism and rebellion and all this pop culture that you can relate to and want to be part of, and all these roles that you can play.”
Is life getting easier or harder? Have we made good decisions? Did we just have a successful therapy session? Neither Jens nor I have the answers – but while he may be riddled with doubt about life, one thing is for sure: the soundtrack is pretty damn good.