Lykke Li has had the blues and that's okay with her. Without the melancholy and ennui that followed the break-up of a relationship, the Swedish singer reckons she wouldn't have made an album like I Never Learn. Just don't mistake it for sadness.
“People keep asking me, ‘Why are you so sad?’ but I’m not sad at all. I was in the thick of a storm and I wrote exactly what I was feeling at the time and it was not sadness. It was fighting and anger. I had the blues and that was a good thing. Anything beautiful has melancholy in it, like Bach or whoever.”
Melancholy also coloured Li's previous two albums, but it's the primary shade on her new record. I Never Learn is moody and wistful from tip to toe, full of tender bruises and scars from all those blue-of-the-night dramas, which underpin the songs.
This might be the end of her tapping that mood music for a while. “I know it probably feels a bit tiresome for people, like ‘Oh my God, is she heartbroken again? We have to listen to this again?’ ” she laughs. “I would be tired of myself too. I think society is just not into that. It’s like they can’t handle or don’t want to handle the crying and the melodrama. I feel it’s like too much to handle, crying like an Almodóvar actress all the time.”
In any case, she has now moved on. “Three is the charm. I’m making up with my past on these records and I feel like such a different person now. Really I do. I’m happier, I’m lighter, I had to get this s**t out.”
For I Never Learn, Li leaned on a rich catalogue for inspiration and leads. She reels off a list of albums – Blood on the Tracks, Astral Weeks, Songs of Love and Hate and Tapestry – singers such as Roberta Flack, Karen Dalton and Joan Baez, and Anaïs Nin's diaries.
Then, there was geography. For the past while, Li has called California home, a solid base for someone who had a peripatetic childhood that included spells living in Portugal, India, Morocco and Sweden.
“There’s something in the air in California which appeals to me,” she says. “It’s a place that attracted so many creative refugees in the 1970s to write and create and make music. The weather is so right for that mood too – the sun shines on you and all your demons come out into the light. You’re left to your own troubles.
"I was left alone in the house or in the car, and I'd listen to Van Morrison, and songs like I Miss You by Randy Newman, or anything by Harry Nilsson or Simple Man by Graham Nash. That line 'I just want to hold you, I don't want to hold you down' really resonated with me. All I wanted to do was listen to them and rob them."
Having streamlined her palette for the new album, she feels there may be more minimalism to come. “The ultimate challenge for me would be to make a barebones, stripped-back album. I’ve always been so jealous of Bon Iver or Cat Power, who can sit down at a piano or with a guitar. That’s enough; that’s all you need. That’s my dream scenario. I’m so impressed by singer-songwriters who take that approach. I’d like to try that.”
What's interesting about I Never Learn is that it's a world away from the pop frills and fancies that Li put around her words on her earlier albums. She puts this down now to youthful indulgence and peer pressure.
“When you’re younger, you’re curious about things. I thought sounds were interesting, so I was willing to experiment and try things. It’s like seeing young girls who wear a lot of make-up. You’re trying to hide because you’re not comfortable with yourself. The older you get, the more refined you become, and you can step into the light and become a real woman.”
She’s also a much different person to the young one who headed off to New York with dreams of emulating Madonna and becoming a pop star. “The desire for fame and fortune that you often have when you’re starting out is very juvenile,” she sighs. “You’re too young to know any better. You want to take over the world and be the king, which is so childish. Anyone who knows what that means would never want to be the king.”
Meditating with David Lynch
One of the reasons Li cites for her heightened state of creativity of late is a growing interest in mindfulness and transcendental meditation, largely prompted by a friendship with film-maker David Lynch. “It has changed my life in so many ways,” she says. “David told me that I’d see, that it would glow out at me, and it was so f***ing weird that that is what happened.
“It’s really interesting from a creative point of view. Before, I could only write a few sentences and I’d have to take a break for a few days before I could go back to it. All of a sudden, I could write and finish a song in one go – verse, verse, verse, chorus, the lot. And that would happen with song after song. Finally, I unlocked the gate.”
She believes transcendental meditation could benefit many creatives. “I’ve been reading a lot about transcendental meditation and creativity, and it’s no accident that they do it at Apple and Google. Creativity is about solving a problem and when you’re solving a problem, you need your brain to come down to the alpha waves. There’s no way of thinking harder, your brain has to adjust its pattern, and the only way to do that is by sleeping or meditating or taking walks. More people should try it, because you see things in a new light.”
You get the feeling that Li is more than ready for whatever comes next. There may be temptations from the worlds of film (she has already starred in Tarik Saleh's crime drama Tommy and is set to appear in Terrence Malick's upcoming music drama), but music still has a hold of her heart.
“I feel free right now, which is an amazing sensation. I’ve finished the trilogy I set out to do, and now I can do whatever I want. I don’t want music to become a burden. I don’t want to be part of that circus where people want to make you a pop star. That’s no fun. All these timelines and deadlines and blah, blah, blah, it’s so square. I want to just go with my instinct, be that doing solo shows or starting a girl group or doing an instrumental album. I still want to do a lot of music.”
I Never Learn is out on Atlantic