Catching Up With Lykke Li

Music Features Lykke Li

Lykke Li was in her physical therapist’s office last week, being treated for an agonizing dislocated shoulder, when she first got word. And the news was so uplifting, she got over that pain almost immediately. U2 had just stunned the music world by announcing that their long-awaited new album Songs of Innocence was not only ready for release, but initially would be offered to fans for free on iTunes. And there it was for all to hear as the set’s closing processional—“The Troubles,” the duet Li had recorded with Bono a year and a half earlier and nearly forgotten. And she hadn’t told anyone about the honor, either, outside of her management and a few close friends and family members. So she was positively jubilant when she phoned a day later to discuss the coveted collaboration, plus her recent Phil-Spector-plush album I Never Learn, the third in a naïf-to-adulthood trilogy that began with Youth Novels in 2008 and continued into 2011’s percussive Wounded Rhymes.

Paste: How on Earth did this U2 thing happen?
Lykke Li: I don’t know! I got a text from Danger Mouse [Songs producer Brian Burton] a while back, going “Hey—do you want to sing on this U2 track?” And I was so busy that day and I was in L.A., so I was just like “Alright. Sure.” And I did it [alone] in the studio with him. And I think then they went back and forth and changed the key a bit. But I was in London this summer to play Glastonbury, and I got called back, like “Do you want to sing again?” And the [U2] guys were all there this time, so Bono was like my choir director. It was really interesting.

Paste: What did you learn from a huge star like that?
Li: Well, he’s very funny. And I think you learn that in the end, that—to be an artist— we’re all the same. We’re all searching for music, and we’re like little children who still get excited about it. About music and dreams and things, you know? But whenever I do something, I kind of never expect anything out of it. Like, I just did a film with Terrence Malick, which I have no expectation that I’m ever actually going to be in it or anything. But I do it for the experience, you know? And then you have to just let it go.

Paste: Speaking of dreams, you were recently doing some Jungian dream work. What is that, exactly?
Li: I guess it’s like analyzing your dreams, and also in one way connecting with them. Because when you’re analyzing your dreams, it’s almost like you enter a heavier dream state, too. So every night, I have these heavy, trippy dreams. And I use them in my art.

Paste: Is there one crazy recurring dream that haunts you?
Li: Yeah. I have several different dreams. Sometimes, I’ll dream a lot about snakes, which is a bit annoying, but it’s also very powerful. The snake is almost like the highest spirit animal—it represents change and transformation. So I dream a lot about that. And then probably like most people, I have the one where you’re on the highway and you’re in a car that you can’t control. So there’s no way of pulling the brakes. And there are many ways to find out what your dreams mean.

Paste: Through this process, you were trying to better yourself. What did it teach you?
Li: I learned that there’s so much in our subconscious that we’re not aware of, and that everything we’ve been through—even the most mundane things, or the smallest things, especially in your childhood—leaves an imprint. So it would be silly not to try and find out more about who you are and what made you that way. I feel like maybe I was a poet in my past life.

Paste: Have you considered writing some poetry books?
Li: Yeah, for sure. But I feel like that’s something to do when I’m older. I still have so much more to live, so I can then write about it. So I’m saving that for my golden years.

Paste: How was it working on this as-yet-untitled Malick project in Texas?
Li: It was wonderful. And it reminds of what I’m doing already, with my art, with my music. And when I’m doing my little self-directed videos or performances. It’s all about staying open and spontaneous and free. And that was what I learned from him—to be open. Or “to be like the wind”—that’s what he told me.

Paste: What does that mean?
Li: Yeah. Exactly. Everyone has to figure that out for themselves. But I had the coolest conversations with everyone there. It was just such a great time, period.

Paste: Any more film offers coming in?
Li: I’ve turned down a bunch of stuff to focus on my music right now. So we’ll see. I’m all about the question “What will I learn the most from? What will challenge me the most? And where can I be the most free and expressive?” And so far, I feel like music really provides that for me. But if I could find something that would be as soulful as that, then I would do it. But it’s tough out there—I don’t think I’m on top of anyone’s list for people to hire, you know?

Paste: And you worked with David Lynch on music. Did he give you any of his personal coffee brand?
Li: Yes. And we’ve had several cups of coffee together, he and I. He always tells me that life isn’t so serious. And I try to live like that, but I fail. But that’s what I try.

Paste: But you sound so happy today. Have you reached a new level of contentment, now that your cathartic trilogy is finished?
Li: I actually think so. And it’s unbelievable, too. I think that’s why it was so hard. And it was painful, too—it was like giving birth. Because I knew that I had to go through all that darkness to find the light. And I’m really surprised, too, that I’m so chilled out these days.

Paste: Did the darkness come from without? Or within?
Li: From both. And I’ve read so much about these types of things. So I was doing not only that, but trying to find answers through poetry, or through books, or therapy and meditation. I’ve read a lot. And now I try and treat my body and soul in a kind way—I really pay attention to what I eat and the people around me. And I monitor things, so when that [darkness] happens, there’s a bunch of different things that I do.I feel it, but I let it pass through me and I don’t try to hold it in. And I talk about it and I meditate and I read even more.

Paste: What were some crucial texts for you?
Li: Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet. And then When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times by Pema Chodron. She’s this Canadian woman who went through a divorce and decided to become a Buddhist monk. So she wrote this Buddhist philosophy, but because of where she’s from and who she is, it’s kind of more approachable and Americanized.

Paste: But in tracks like “Sleeping Alone,” “Heart of Steel,” “Never Gonna Love Again,” and “No Rest For the Wicked,” I Never Learn sounds downright mournful.
Li: Yeah. I was in a lot of pain, so in doing this album, I went through God knows what. I had a lot of physical pain, and I had this immunity thing, so I got really sick. And I was sick all the time, sick to my stomach and I couldn’t eat anything. It was terrible, and I was literally in so much pain all the time.

Paste: You haven’t had good luck in love. Have you found happiness yet in that department?
Li: That’s a very private question. But yes, I am very happy. I’m very, very happy right now.

Paste: You were never that certain of your vocal abilities. Surely, after this U2 duet, you’re feeling confident?
Li: No! I don’t feel at all confident. And in many ways, I feel like I’ve failed with this album, because it didn’t really, uhh…more people could have heard it, if you know what I mean. I really wanted it to be about the songs, but I’m still on the same indie level. And many people would probably see this as a failure. And I’m happy that I did it, but I didn’t mean to be so direct that it wouldn’t end up on the radio.

Paste: But art should theoretically please the artist first, right?
Li: Yeah. But you kind of want to have a “Nothing Compares 2 U” moment, you know? But I guess now I’m free to do whatever I want. But commercial success may not always be on my side.

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