Lykke Li refuses to play nicey nice
The temperature plunges as Lykke Li contemplates her least favourite question in the universe. Did she really say she wanted to be bigger than Madonna? "Aaaah, I am gonna die," she exclaims. "I don't know to whom I supposedly said that. I just want to know -- where did I say that? And to who? Can you show me, please?"
Well, we read it. Somewhere. Wikipedia possibly. Come on, Lykke -- it's a fantastic quote.
"What I did probably say is that I listened to Madonna when I was seven. But that period vanished, you know."
Recently the 'new Madonna' chatter has dried up. If the 24-year-old pop banshee -- we'd call her a shamanic indie babe only she'd probably thonk us on the jaw -- is spoken of in the same breath as anyone nowadays it's Lady Gaga. Superficially, it isn't an entirely insane comparison. Both are outsider artists possessed of a taste for the weird that runs towards kinky but with a grasp of the fundaments of a fantastic pop song. Lykke -- and by now this shouldn't come as a surprise -- doesn't quite see it like that.
"It makes me cry. More than laugh. God, I don't know. I have nothing in common with those girls [Gaga and Madge]. I don't particularly enjoy their music. I don't know what to say about it."
Sitting down for a chat with the Swedish singer isn't exactly a freewheel through the petunias. Before we even start she requests a five-minute break to "go take a pee". She adds that she's been doing promotion all morning. It's only 9.30am and already she sounds profoundly, almost existentially, fed up. At one point she says she wants to cry. She isn't the only one.
Why so prickly? It would seem we've run into her at an awkward moment. For the past two hours she's been fielding questions about her personal life and has apparently had it up to here. The real mystery is that this line of questioning should come as a surprise to her. The press release accompanying her wintry second record Wounded Rhymes asserts several of the songs were inspired by a romantic break-up she went through living in New York. Prodded for a little juice, though, she flat-out denies a broken heart was one of the LP's constituent ingredients.
"No, it's not a break-up album. It's about separation. That doesn't mean break-up. It can be loss, it can be heartbreak. Everything in the album is from my own life. It's very personal. It's like looking into my diary, actually."
We are on sturdier ground when conversation turns to Los Angeles, where she recorded the album (produced by Peter Bjorn And John's Bjorn Yttling). What drew her to the city, she says, was the mix of glamour and squalor. Fleeing the Swedish winter, she luxuriated in the year-round sunshine. But LA's seedy underbelly never felt far away.
"It's certainly a curious place. It's the devil's pot. It's super interesting. Good and bad. Such beauty -- the kind of place that can be deceiving. Also I was freezing. And LA has really good milkshakes."
In a recent interview she said she went there, in part, because she was "looking for David Lynch and Leonard Cohen". Was she speaking metaphorically or did she hope to literally run into them? "Both. I did go to the store where Leonard Cohen's daughter was working. I asked about him. She said he was missing in action."
Amid the palm trees and the rollerbladers, she recorded an album as baroque and marrow-curdling as it is compelling. Three years ago, Li caught the ear of taste-makers with the intriguing, if ultimately slight, debut Youth Novels. She returns a little more cynical and with a cultivated appetite for the dark side. Consider the single Get Some, in which she tosses out the line "I'm a prostitute, you're gonna get some".
"I wasn't thinking about anything. I just wrote whatever came to mind," she says of the lyric, which is causing a bit of a hoo-haa on the web. "I find it interesting that it can be such a provocative word. I think people are just taking it out of context, you know."
The success of Youth Novels left Li burnt out and craving escape. Starting at 19, she toured endlessly. By the end she wasn't even sure if she wanted a career in music any more. Disillusioned, she moved to New York, throwing herself into the Brooklyn party scene. In interviews she has hinted at falling in with a bad crowd and losing her sense of herself.
"What got to me wasn't the shows," she says. "It was sleeping on a bus and eating a Tesco sandwich. That affects to you after a bit. And always being away from the people you love. That can get to you."
It has been suggested that the new album's wintry tone is Li's response to her first album, which was both praised and dismissed as quintessential Nordic pop -- gorgeously ethereal but a bit soulless. "I am so tired of people having opinions on me," she replies. "I do my art because I want to follow my vision and my instinct. I don't care about what other people say. They are always going to have their opinion. They are always going to get you wrong. People need to live a little bit more and not spend so much time on the internet."
Li's was a bohemian childhood straight out of a Cameron Crowe movie. Her father Johan Zachrisson is a famous Swedish musician; her mother, Karsti Stiege, an acclaimed photographer. Confirmed hippies, when Li was six the family upped sticks and moved abroad, first to Portugal, later to Morocco and India. When she says that nowhere truly feels like home she isn't being melodramatic. She's been rootless since childhood.
"For me, home is not a constant thing. I'm travelling right now. I'm debating where to live. I'm in Stockholm at the moment. I don't have a home in the sense that other people mean it. For me, home is where I am happy."
Could the transient nature of her upbringing explain her restlessness as an artist? "I understand why my therapist would be interested [in her childhood]," she sighs. "But I don't know why [everyone else] is so interested. It's kind of crazy."
The icicles return as we get around to her 2008 collaboration with Kanye West, on an album by the LA rap duo NASA. She and Kanye aren't close, she says. In fact, she met him only once, at a festival. They weren't even in the same room for the track they cut together. Lykee was sent the tape and added her vocals in Sweden. "We didn't work at the same time. I just met him once backstage. You'll have to ask him what he liked about my music. He's cool with a vision."
Did her opinion of him change after his ungentlemanly conduct at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, at which he bum-rushed Taylor Swift? She pauses, her voice edged with caution. "I don't know anything about that."
Maybe we are simply catching her on a bad day. Were this interview 24 hours later, perhaps she would have been girlishly charming. Anyway, does it really matter? Li's low tolerance of those she considers idiotic certainly isn't enough to put you off her music. With its roiling, tempestuous grooves and haunting vocals, Wounded Rhymes is a remarkable album. A major inspiration, she reveals as we are wrapping up, were the early 20th-century American folk recordings of music historian and archivist Alan Lomax. "That was one of the biggest influences. Not the American aspect. But because it is primal. It is music that comes out of necessity. Music that you make because you must."
Wounded Rhymes is out today. Lykee Li plays Tripod, Dublin, on April 16
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