A Not-So-Silent Jens
Jens Lekman is irrepressible: earnest, irony-hating, wearing his admiration for Jonathan Richman proudly, like a Scout badge – and preternaturally brilliant at the nearly-lost art of bandleading. His genuineness, coupled with his gifts for melody and lyrical hooks, make him a potent combatant against the cynical self-referentiality currently plaguing both mainstream and underground music in the U.S.
I interviewed Lekman last October, in a Brooklyn brownstone above his touring band’s rehearsal space. A few days later, he would embark on the exhausting North American tour that would lead to his (brief, temporary) retirement from music.
Lekman’s English, spoken with sweetly clipped consonants, was impeccable and energetic; only one word I used gave him pause. “What is ‘wistful’?” he asked, unintentionally unleashing some irony of his own: perhaps the most wistful songwriter since his hero Richman, and he doesn’t know the word! (Unsurprisingly, he grasped its meaning after very little explanation.)
Lekman has released two full-lengths and three EPs for Bloomington, Indiana’s Secretly Canadian, also home to Antony & the Johnsons, Jason Molina, Danielson, and Damian Jurado.
What was it about the music that Secretly Canadian put out that you were first drawn to?
I think I was drawn to them aesthetically, actually. I picked up the first Songs: Ohia record when it came out, just because the artwork was so extremely beautiful. Of course, that was some sort of special edition, made out of handmade paper, and there was a little catalog inside so you could see the other records that were going to come out, and that was also handmade. I was really drawn to that aesthetic. I think the first record [on Secretly Canadian] that I really liked was Dave Fischoff’s Winston Park – I don’t think he sold many records or anything. I just love the way he worked with tape loops and all that. I was just getting into that, too, at the time – and he didn’t really seem to do it as perfectly as the Avalanches or whatever – he just used it as atmosphere, more in the background….He didn’t make actual songs out of loops, he would just use the sounds in the background – I love that.
And so you sent all your stuff to SC, and they were the first people to hear it.
Actually all my stuff, that is correct. I sent them 10 songs in the beginning, and they got back to me right away, and said, “send more songs,” so I sent them 150 songs or something [laughs].
And did you have a backup plan in case Secretly Canadian weren’t interested?
Not really. I had started to check out other labels, but I never liked the idea of sending out songs to labels and all that. It’s not a bad thing at all, but it’s just the thing of pushing my music onto people….All my friends were always playing in bands, putting up stickers on the walls. All those bands who do that – every time you’re in a green room at a club, you see the same stickers, and you’ve never heard of those bands, so it’s obviously some kind of thing that bands that never get anywhere do – they’re always the ones that make the most noise, I guess.
Or make the most stickers.
Every few days, Lekman posts a new journal entry on his website, www.jenslekman.com. Each entry includes a few song recommendations, which run the gamut from tracks by like-minded indie artists to jokes from old comedy records, to experimental electronic pieces, and beyond.
What new music are you excited about right now?
I will definitely answer that question for you. But I might have to check on my laptop because I haven’t had a chance to listen to music for a week now or something. Let me just check what I have on my iTunes. Is this cheating?
I don’t think so.
I’ve been listening a lot to a Russian folk singer by the name of Novella Matveeva. I heard this when I was in Finland – because Finland is really close to Russia, they play Russian folk music a lot. I’ve got to play this song for you. She sounds like a little bird when she sings. I’ve never really been a fan of the whole ”folk music explosion,” but this is just amazing.
Her voice is so otherworldly.
Yeah, it is. It’s great.
Apart from that I’m listening a lot to a lot of mostly Japanese bands that play a kind of naïve school orchestra pop. Have you heard Maher Shalal Hash Baz? It’s Tori Kudo, who’s been doing music for a long time – he was some sort of political radical, and was wanted by the government at one point….He always works with people who just picked up their instruments a week ago, so it sounds like a school orchestra. But it sounds really good. They play really complicated sort of Burt Bacharach songs.
Like big orchestral pop sound, but not with polished musicians?
Sometimes they have like 20 people on stage, but no one can really play their instrument. So they’re really trying, and he just loves that, and there are a lot of bands that have appeared around him, like the Tennis Coats. And just last week I played with Bill Wells, and he’s toured with [Kudo] too. They have a lot in common. [Wells] would only rehearse for 20 minutes, so he just knew the melody. When we were on stage, he’d just go like “okay, play something in C,” and he’d start morphing around with his sampler, and we had no idea what was going to happen.
That reminds me - you said somewhere that you wanted to have a song backed by 20 schoolchildren playing ukeleles.
Oh yeah, yeah. That was actually inspired by [Kudo et al.]. I was playing at this festival in Gothenburg this summer, and my old schoolteacher and her music class were there. She had used the money that she got from the school to buy ukeleles for all of them. So there were like 20 kids playing ukelele, and they were playing this song called “Hot Dog Boogie” – I don’t know if you have that song here. It’s just this hilarious song. They didn’t know the verses to the song. They’d just go la la la, but then in the chorus, they’d just be so extremely excited, and be like “Hot Dog Boo-gie!”
They know the chorus!
They know the chorus, and I just love that excitement, when kids actually get into music. I get really tired of working with people who have graduated from music school and really know how to play instruments.
In interviews, when someone asks you what musicians you’re most into at the moment, it seems like almost always they’re female. Do you notice that preference – have you found yourself focusing on female singers and musicians?
I never thought of that, really. It surprises me, in one way. I love a lot of female singers, of course. No, I don’t know why. It’s a bit weird, because my band in Sweden consists of all girls. And that was never my intention.
It just happened that way?
Yeah, and everyone thought that was a political statement as well.
It could be very loaded if people wanted to make it that way.
Oh yeah, definitely. I know a lot of great female songwriters. Hmm.
Statistics show that maybe eight times out of ten you name a female singer.
Oh wow, maybe there’s something. I had a theory once because there was one point where I realized that all the records I had bought that month were female songwriters, and I had some kind of theory that no one’s ever written a love song for me. I’ve only had one girlfriend, and she wrote poetry, but she never wrote poems for me. And I guess since I’ve been writing so many songs for a lot of different girls, so I’ve always wanted someone to write a song for me.
So maybe you’re trying to find it.
Yeah, so maybe I’m trying to. I mean, I know sometimes I’m listening to love songs by girls and pretending they’re about me.
So maybe there are some deeper psychological ramifications?
There might be. And there might be some kind of subconscious thing about the band as well, because I usually only hang out with girls. Almost all my friends are girls, as well.
On your website you always post your favorite songs – is the song your favorite musical form?
Songs are my favorite form, in whatever way they’re released. I love the whole filesharing thing. I usually just type in a word that I like for a moment, the name of a city or something. I tried to do that for this tour, actually – I tried to find a song for every city that we were playing in, so I could play a song about the city in every city. But I couldn’t find songs about every city….I like just typing in a word that I like, and just downloading anything that comes up.
Is that how you find a lot of the new music that you talk about and recommend?
Yeah, and also just finding a lot of different cover versions of popular songs that have been covered. I think I have over 100 versions of “Moon River.” Or “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” I think Syd Barrett did a version of that one.
So, if you’re thinking of kittens, you’d just type in “kittens” and see what happens?
Yeah. It’s the same idea that I have when I buy records in the ten-cent bin at the flea market.
Lekman’s genuineness makes his often-naïve songs compelling, and even refreshing – few contemporary songwriters seem willing to work without security-blanket layers of symbol and metaphor from which meaning must be extruded. He refuses to detach himself from the personae – often foolish, selfish, or obstinate – that he adopts in songs like “Maple Leaves” and “Black Cab.”
You’ve said that your songs are not metaphorical – that you mean for people to take your lyrics literally. Do you think that will change in the future?
Well, I’ve never used metaphors that much, and I’ve never written songs that have been very hard to understand. I mean, there have been a lot of misunderstandings of course, but they’re never really open to interpretation, my songs, because they’re usually very straightforward.
But you find that often people are looking for hidden meanings.
Why do you think that is?
Because I think that in the last 15years or something, there’s been so many bands – I guess it started with grunge or something – where people just got into writing metaphorically, and writing very abstract things, and all bands have always been saying that people can interpret these songs however they want….So people are kinda caught up in the whole metaphor thing – like in “Do You Remember The Riots,” they’re always like, “oh, is this like a metaphor against this or this?” - you know, as if there’s supposed to be some kind of hidden political statement.
“What’s your political agenda?”
Yeah, and I always say, “No, it’s just the things that I’m singing about. There are no hidden statements or any metaphors or anything.”
By Anna Bond