Jens Lekman is an Ear

Published September 4, 2012

IMAGE COURTESY OF KRISTIN LIDELL

In 1970, New York artist and writer Joe Brainard published I Remember, a book that blurred the lines between memoir and poetry. Deviating from the standard essay format that has come to define the genre, Brainard instead opted for a string of witty anecdotes and sketches from his life, with observations such as “I remember one very hot summer day I put ice cubes in my aquarium and all the fish died.” Though I Remember failed to find mainstream success, Brainard’s words resonated with fans, earning the author a devoted following.

One of Brainard’s fans is none other than Jens Lekman, a man whose candid approach to storytelling has struck a similar chord in the music world. Whether humorously musing about his coworkers (“So this guy at my office / I think he’s soft to something / He smells like Earl Grey”) or about the lady who cuts his hair (“When Shirin cuts my hair / her mama’s sitting in the rocking chair / She tells me stories from the war / in Iraq, ’cause they were there”), Lekman writes what he knows with biting, self-depreciating wit and gentle clarity.

I Know What Love Isn’t, out today via Secretly Canadian, is something of a departure for the Swedish singer-songwriter, who spent the better part of the last decade gleefully penning quirky—and typically unrelated—vignettes. Rather than open with Lekman’s signature milk-and-honey deadpan delivery, the first minute and half of the record belongs to a lone piano. Love, inspired by a recent breakup, captures the bittersweet comedy of Lekman’s past with newfound maturity.

Lekman answered our Skype call at home, where we discussed touring, a small riot in South Korea, fans, cults, fights, beards, and—last, but not least—love.

JOHN TAYLOR: Before we start, I wanted apologize for my room being a mess. I’m packing to go on a trip to Texas. Have you traveled anywhere recently?

JENS LEKMAN: I just came back from Italy. I played a little show in Medina Village, on the east coast. It’s really beautiful. A small festival in a village of about 50 people. I think there were 50 people there. A lot of old Italians. Like, really old Italians… they eat all that olive oil, so they get really old. Like, 100 years old, all of them—and they were dancing.

TAYLOR: Were all the fans at this show in Medina Village elderly?

LEKMAN: No, not all the fans. But it felt like the whole crowd consisted of the villagers. People from the village. I think most of the people from the village were really old. They’re really nice. All the guys had these suits on. They looked like what you would imagine old Italians in an old medieval Italian village to look like. Smoking cigars, really nice suits, and everything.

TAYLOR: These elderly people, did they know who you were?

LEKMAN: There were a few who knew who I was. It’s sort of like that when you play remote places like that. I played Alaska a few years ago. It wasn’t even one of the bigger towns in Alaska. It was Sitka, a small town in Alaska. After the show, people came up and said, “Thank you for playing music here.” It wasn’t like, “Thank you particularly for coming here,” it was, “Thank you for music.” The idea, or concept of music. It’s not something that you’re really used to, because I play a lot of shows in New York where there’s a million bands playing every night. And then you go to places where it’s like, “We’re going to have music tonight? When was the last time we had music here? I guess it was last year, or something.” It’s a very different approach—how do you do that show? I got really nervous about it. “How should I perform tonight? How will this go down if they haven’t heard music in a really long time?”

TAYLOR: How does one go about providing enough entertainment to keep a small town satisfied for a year?

LEKMAN: I realized that I couldn’t do that, because I was only going by myself—it was a very small show. It was just me and a guitar, basically. If people don’t really have a music scene, you want a string quartet. That way, you can impress any place in the world, because everybody loves string quartets. But if it’s just you and your stories, it gets a bit difficult. Especially when people don’t speak English. I said, “If there’s anyone here who does speak English, if you could please just turn to your friend who doesn’t speak English and translate the stories, that would be great.” I’m not sure if they did that. I should have a translator with me when I perform. I actually did have a translator with me in China when I performed on stage. South Korea, too.

TAYLOR: What was playing South Korea like?

LEKMAN: I think South Korea was one of the best shows I’ve ever done in my whole life. The people there were crazy. It was literally Beatlemania. I was touring as a duo, and we had these projections. It was really hard, because people didn’t speak English well, and we were trying to explain, “At this point in the show, there will be projections, so if you could just turn on the projector and lower the screen at that point…” We were just praying that they had understood what we said, and we didn’t realize that the projection screen was in front of the stage. So at one point in the show, they started lowering this projection screen, and the crowds thought that the promoter was trying to shut down the show—as if they were pulling the curtains. Everyone just went crazy and they just tore down the projection screen. A small riot started. [Eventually] someone was able to explain to them that we had been trying to do our projections, and then everybody went, “Okay. Cool.”

TAYLOR: I think it’s great how much the fans look up to you. I was reading your blog before our interview, and laughed when I came across the post reminding fans who write to you, “Please, no breakup stories!”

LEKMAN: [laughs] There was a point where I just got sick talking about relationships. I didn’t get a lot of e-mails that month. The ones I did get were very interesting. It was like they had actually been thinking about [their responses] for a long time.

TAYLOR: Do you ever feel like a therapist with all of your fan mail addressing relationships?

LEKMAN: In a way, yes. I think a therapist’s job is to listen rather than give advice, and I think that’s my role. I don’t usually give advice. I don’t usually tell people—unless they make it clear for me that someone should tell them what they already know. Like, “My boyfriend’s an asshole.” And, “Okay. You should break up.” I think in a world of mouths, I want to be an ear. I think that’s how I see it. I think I want to make a record about that at some point. Fill it with stories that I got from people.

TAYLOR: Do you get lots of drunk emails with terrible grammar?

LEKMAN: It happens, yes. I get a lot of “day after” emails. Like, “Whatever I wrote last night, just delete it.” [laughs]

TAYLOR: I’ve been meaning to ask—and don’t take this the wrong way—but there’s this cultish sensation I get from your fans in particular.

LEKMAN: Yes. And the interesting thing about that is cults are usually circled around a charismatic, odd, and perhaps slightly crazy person. And I’m the most normal, boring person in the world. So it’s like people have chosen to follow this “Joe the Plumber” guy. [laughs] “You like jogging too? So do I. Crazy.”

TAYLOR: “You like jogging? Let’s start a religion.”

LEKMAN: [laughs] Exactly.

TAYLOR: It’s probably due to how you actually take the time to interact with the fans.

LEKMAN: That’s the thing. The whole cult is basically built of their stories. It’s not so much about me. It’s more about them.

TAYLOR: I was in Indianapolis last week, and I had a told a few friends that I had the opportunity to interview you. So, to make my questions a little less boring, I asked them to see what they wanted to know. I think the general consensus was that everyone I spoke to wanted to marry you.

LEKMAN: That’s really sweet. I’m not going to marry someone from Indianapolis, though. You can tell them that. [laughs] You can break their hearts for me.

TAYLOR: You have my word. I won’t do it in person, though, because I’m afraid of being slapped across the face. Have you ever been slapped across the face?

LEKMAN: We used to do that with the band a lot before we would go on stage. It really turned violent after a while. I still do it to myself when I perform, but in the past we did it a lot just to wake up. But I don’t think anyone’s ever done it because they were mad at me.

TAYLOR: I’ve always seen it in movies and television. But I don’t ever recall seeing, or hearing  secondhand from a friend, of it happening. I wonder how often it actually takes place in real life.

LEKMAN: I’ve actually seen people getting brutally punched in the face more often than I’ve seen people getting slapped in the face.

TAYLOR: I would rather just not see any violence, personally.

LEKMAN: Yeah, me too. Actually, I think face-slapping should be introduced again, because it doesn’t break your nose. Basically, it just makes your cheek red. I mean, I’m against violence, too. But it seems like, if you’re going to hate someone, you should do a little slapping instead of actually breaking someone’s nose. Have you ever broken up any fights?

TAYLOR: Gosh, that’s a great question. I don’t think I ever have. Hopefully I’ll break up a fight someday?

LEKMAN: I just find it interesting, because that whole breaking of the barrier of what you’re supposed to do in such a situation… in Sweden, they were talking about some new laws that would make it compulsory to actually report—to step in, somehow. Not to necessarily break up a fight—but to call the cops, or to do something, at least. You know, because there’s been lots of instances where people just stood there watching, or walk by.

That reminds me of this situation the other day, where I got on the tram, and these teenage boys were sitting there talking about what sounded like, they had beaten someone up. They were really pumped up about it. On the next stop, these cops came on, and the teenage boys froze. They took out their iPhones and started looking really busy. The cops walked around for a while, and then they said, “Has anyone seen a fight here?” And I realized, these teenage boys had been talking about it. But I couldn’t just be that guy who said, “Well, these guys were talking about it…” Because I hadn’t seen a fight at all;  I had just gotten on the stop before that. And that was a really weird situation—I got nervous about it, because I felt like I knew something, but I didn’t know if it was enough to say anything.

TAYLOR: I would have done the same thing. I will draw the line at your new haircut, however. I don’t think I would ever get my hair cut that short.

LEKMAN: I just don’t really have much hair, is all. Natural progression, I guess. Older men in my family—back to my grandpa—were basically completely bald. So, just keeping it shorter for every year.

TAYLOR: Do you think you’ll grow a beard?

LEKMAN: I like short beards. Not a big fan of the bigger beards. I’ve tried a couple of different things when I’m on vacation. It doesn’t really suit me that well.

TAYLOR: I’m jealous, I wish I could grow one.

LEKMAN: How old are you now?

TAYLOR: 23.

LEKMAN: Oh… Right, right. It takes a while. I couldn’t grow a beard when I was 23, either. [laughs]

TAYLOR: If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?

LEKMAN: 31.

TAYLOR: Wow. You don’t look it.

LEKMAN: Oh, thanks. I’ve felt like 31 since I was 17, though. It feels like I’ve finally reached the age that I am in my heart.

TAYLOR: Let’s end our conversation with some imparted wisdom. Jens, tell me what love isn’t.

LEKMAN: It’s the moment when someone kisses you, and you wish they didn’t. And when you stay with someone just because you’re scared of what it would be like not to. And when you fall for someone because they will “solve all your problems.” It’s the idea that you have to be with someone and that it has to be in a certain way. That’s as far as I’ve made it.

I KNOW WHAT LOVE ISN’T IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON JENS LEKMAN, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.