Jens Lekman has been thinking about Bruce Springsteen. Specifically, he’s been mulling over an interview The Boss did on Marc Maron’s podcast in early January, where he and the show’s host discuss the sort of existential questions you ask in your 30s. Turns out Springsteen’s sentiments mirror Lekman’s at the time he began writing his fourth record, Life Will See You Now, arriving on Feb. 17 via Secretly Canadian.
”[Springsteen] was talking about how when he came into his 30s he felt like he had just created this dream for himself, and then he was realizing how lonely he was and how, instead of a dream, [he had created] more of a fortress,” the Swedish indie-pop luminary tells me over the phone. “He was like, ‘Why am I the only one that’s not married? Why do I keep going from girlfriend to girlfriend, and why am I avoiding these things?’
“I think when you get into your 30s you start to realize all of the patterns you have in your life and all of the stuff that you’re avoiding,” he continues. “It’s a terribly unsung period in people’s lives. I can’t think about many artists who have sung about it because it’s so not sexy. It’s like your teenage years but without The Ramones, without all the subculture heroes, basically.”
Lekman says he was equally struck by another Maron-Springsteen topic: how Springsteen writes himself as a character his own songs. That’s something Lekman used to do constantly (“Oh you’re so silent, Jens” he’s chided in the third person), but he actively tried to stop on Life, simply admitting that he had grown “tired” of himself. “It’s a long story that I haven’t really grasped yet,” he says. “I think that’s why I’m going to therapy these days, to sort of figure that out.”
Still, he crept back in. Take the album’s jangling opener, “To Know Your Mission,” which recounts a chance meeting with a Mormon missionary. In listening to the missionary talk about his life, Lekman winds up ruminating on his own: “I write songs sometimes / But they’re kinda bad / So if that doesn’t work out I want to be a social worker / just like my Dad / I just want to listen to people’s stories / hear what they have to say.”
So why the return to form? “I realized that even though I had this urge, this longing, to write about other people, in order for it to be emotionally gripping, I needed to be in there somehow,” he says. “So instead I ended up with these songs that do include a lot of other characters and other people and friends of mine, but I’m still in there and it’s more about the relationships that I have with these people. Maybe more of me as the listener, I think.”
Below, Lekman opens up about his conflicted mindset while writing Life Will See You Now, attempting to explore male vulnerability (or the lack thereof) and what the defining lesson of his 30s has been.
: You’ve said that this album is meant to be less about yourself. How challenging was it for you to change perspective on Life Will See You Now?
Jens Lekman: I was listening to the Bruce Springsteen interview on Marc Maron’s podcast the other day, and I think he was telling this story about something that happened to him when he was young. And Marc Maron asked him, “And you were Bruce Springsteen then?” I was just enjoying that someone else was thinking of themselves as that kind of character as well. I mean, Bruce Springsteen would be someone to do that, I think. He is a character in his own songs.
I think the reason why I grew tired of Jens Lekman is a long story that I haven’t really grasped myself yet. I think that’s why I’m going to therapy these days, to figure that out. I guess I was just looking for different perspectives, and I think it fits together with something that I think a lot of people go through in their early 30s where you start to reevaluate yourself. For me I think it was very important to start with a critical analysis of who Jens Lekman was. That led me to a point where I didn’t feel like writing about him. I felt like writing about other people and other people’s perspectives and other people’s stories.
But I have to say that in the end this album became more about me than I imagined in the beginning. I’m in every song. It was more like a journey where I started off with this idea that I would be a third-person character in the first and last song; [someone] the main character in the story would bump into. Then in the songs between there would be no Jens Lekman at all.
: In “To Know Your Mission,” you sing about choosing to be a social worker over a singer. Is that coming directly from you?
Lekman: Yeah, that comes from something that happened when I was 17, or 16 I think. I had an encounter with this Mormon missionary who came up to me and started trying to get me interested in religion and the book of Mormon. And I was more like, “Wait, you’re from the U.S.? Tell me more about that! You’re on this mission? You already know what your life is about already and you’re just a few years older than me? How is this possible? What are your dreams and what’s your idea of life?” I have these dreams and I have these crappy songs that I’m writing. I mean, that song didn’t start like that; it just started with this image of a Mormon missionary walking through Gothenburg. After a while, I remembered that meeting I’d had when I was 16 and it just sort of grew into that.
I’ve always been interested in listening to people’s stories. Actually, this situation right now where I have to just sit around and talk about myself and my own work is kind of—I don’t know, I’ve never become entirely comfortable with that.
: You said you’ve started seeing a therapist yourself. Is this the first time that you’ve done that?
Lekman: No, I think it’s the third time. I wrote about this when I was doing the Postcards project in one of the songs there. I’m not going to go into it too much, but I think the one thing that stands out this time is that I did it because I did have some stuff that I wanted to talk about that were complicated in my life. Also, for the first time in my life there was this adult form of curiosity where I wanted to learn more about myself, whereas when I was younger it was more like “something’s wrong with me, this is terrible and embarrassing and I have to go see this person.” There was this stigma around it that made me not want to talk about it with my friends and be very secretive about it and ashamed. Now it feels like the first time I’m actually doing it to explore myself and explore why I work the way I do. It’s a lot more interesting right now.
: In “Wedding in Finistère,” it’s like you’re looking through the eyes of a friend of the bride, and the bride is saying how she feels and she feels “like the five-year-old watching the ten-year-old shoplifting, the ten-year-old watching the 15-year-olds French kissing.” And then you go forward and you end at “the 30-year-olds vanishing.” What is that feeling she’s describing?
Lekman: I think those lines are about how life always makes you feel like you’re slightly behind and you’re always looking at things like a little kid. You’re looking at everyone else doing what they’re doing and you feel like you’re behind. It always feel like people are doing more grown-up things than you are.
: It’s almost like the bride isn’t sure if she’s making the right choice to get married and have this permanence in her life. And you say, “Marry and regret it, don’t marry and regret it too, whether you marry or don’t, either way you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
Lekman: Well that’s actually a quote from [Søren] Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, from his book Either/Or. I’ve always loved that quote.
: Weren’t you planning on naming the album that until you realized Elliott Smith had taken it already?
Lekman: Yeah, exactly. It would have been a good title in that sense; it’s about a lot of those kinds of things. I’ve just always loved that quote. It sort of encapsulates the sort of panic you can feel over all of the choices you can make but at the same time it also shows you that it doesn’t really matter that much in the end, so try to relax a little bit. Either way, you will regret it, so just make your choice and move on.
: You’ve written that when you started this album, you wanted to focus on male characters. Can you expand on what prompted you to do this?
Lekman: I started wondering at some point why I couldn’t cry anymore. Like I literally couldn’t cry, no matter what happened there was nothing happening. I think at some point when I started high school I had some friends who were talking about feminism and gender issues and stuff like that and I started reading a little bit about it. So, I’ve been thinking about it ever since then, but I think when I came into my 30s, that also affected that a lot. When you’re in your 20s you have a lot of superficial relationships and friends and you can sort of have that relationship, at least for me, with male friends. It was quite superficial. We would go out for beers, and we would have this gang of friends, and I think in my thirties it sort of became obvious how superficial it was, to some extent. Because that scene started disappearing because people started having families and becoming grown-ups and moving to the country and whatever, and all of a sudden it felt real important to establish real relationships and have real friends. And that was just such a real, hard sadness for me to realize how ingrained it was within me and I think in my friends too, where it felt like “I don’t know how to connect with these guys. I don’t know how we can be close.”
That was really something that I wanted to explore, but I didn’t really feel like I was doing a good job with that because it just became so dark. I’ve always felt like if you’re going to write about problems it’s sort of unfair to do that without offering any sort of solution to it. It’s like when you write about politics, it’s so easy to write “everything sucks” or “everything’s fucked up,” instead of writing “here’s what I think we should do, here’s the solution,” which is actually really brave. I think that’s why I abandoned most of those songs; it felt like I was addressing problems and not offering any kind of solution.
: It’s also hard not to notice the tonal change, sonically, on this album compared to the last. You wrote that when you played the song “I Know What Love Is” for some French journalists they were like, “Whoa, what happened? You sound so happy! What’s going on?”
Lekman: The interesting thing, I think, with the French journalists, is that they thought it was too happy. They didn’t like it. It took a little while before I understood — and this might be a prejudice — but I have this idea that some people in France don’t speak English very well. It’s different in different parts of Europe. In Sweden everyone speaks English really well because we’re so Americanized, whereas France has this different sort of pride, where for a long time they didn’t subtitle their movies; they dubbed them in French instead. I realized that if you haven’t really listened to the lyrics of the record, it’s got a sound like, as my producer called it, “a Latin dance party record.”
I think what I’ve always done is I’ve put sad lyrics to happy music and vice-versa. I think with this record a lot of the songs, musically, came out of having fun. They came out of me just experimenting with rhythms, with percussion, with different kinds of sounds, and trying to sometimes make music that was childishly simple and joyful. I think there are a few songs that were actually inspired by children’s songs. I think the music on this record is me trying to offer a solution to the more difficult things that I sing about. Instead of doing it through the lyrics specifically, by offering rhythms and percussion and happier melodies and stuff like that, you can also offer a solution musically.
: Upbeat melodies paired with depressive lyrics is a trademark of Swedish pop music, I’ve noticed.
Lekman: I wonder if that stems from [ABBA’s] “Dancing Queen,” now that you say that. I think I read this somewhere, but if you look at “Dancing Queen” the song, it’s actually a terribly sad song because it’s sung from the perspective of someone who used to be the dancing queen, or someone who’s old now looking back at someone being young and being the dancing queen. In that sense it’s actually a song about death. It’s a song about feeling your mortality and being aware of it. So, I don’t know, I’m just riffing here, but if I’m going to make some sort of connection between being Swedish and writing songs like that, then “Dancing Queen” might be the key. And that’s one of my favorite songs, actually.
: Since this record sounds so steeped in mid-30s meditation, what would you is the defining lesson of this decade for you?
Lekman: Things feel more true now. They feel real and more alive, even though I think this time in your life is a time where you’re forced to examine yourself and go through a lot of stuff and face your fears and all that. I’m about to turn 36, so I’ll be tipping over to the other side of 30, and I do feel like this is actually the first point where I feel like, “I’m going to make it through and I’m going to be a better person after this.” So don’t be scared! Things are going to get kind of bad and then they get better again, sort of like when you’re a teenager.