On Lykke Li’s wrist are three thin, faint black lines. They look like an accidental pen doodle but are in fact a tattoo. “I was 21 and homeless – such a broken, lost woman. I chose three lines because I knew I was going to make three albums and I knew they were going to set me free.”
So here the Swedish indie-pop artist is, seven years on, having just released her third album, “I Never Learn”, a heartbreaking collection that continues the theme of broken love from the critically acclaimed “Youth Novels” (2008) and “Wounded Rhymes” (2011). Her mesmerising performances take her to festivals around the world, including Glastonbury this weekend and Latitude next month.
Although she still considers herself a “boutique singer”, not a mainstream one, her fame is growing fast, bolstered by projects such as writing a song for the soundtrack of a Twilight film, a music video with the celebrated Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård and even a role in a Terrence Malick film, which is shrouded in secrecy.
The three-line tattoo worked, says Lykke (“it’s pronounced ‘Leeck-ee’, but here [in the US] they say ‘Likey’ or ‘Leaky’”). “The truth has set me free. I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.” It’s an unexpectedly positive statement from a woman whose stock-in-trade is unremittingly bleak songs. “For me it’s completely revolutionary. I really went to the bottom and let out all of my sorrow,” she says. But happiness is not a state of being that she thinks will last. “I’m happy right now, but tomorrow I might not be.”
The lyrics of her latest songs describe a tortuous break-up with a boyfriend. “Everything is about me. I was feeling every word. I write everything out of necessity… In a commercial sense this album is the worst move I could make: nine songs that just rip your heart apart.” Although she instigated the break-up, it devastated her, and she took no comfort from the thought that one day she could turn the material into music. “I’m lying on the floor thinking, ‘I’m going to die’ – I was in that much pain.”
We meet in Venice, Los Angeles, at a hip vegan café that is so noisy I have to hold my dictaphone up to Li’s mouth to catch her soft words. She is wearing a long white Italian men’s shirt, which hides a pair of denim shorts underneath, and black patent loafers. Declaring herself starving, she orders a macrobiotic bowl of yams, adzuki beans, kimchi, sea palm and gomasio – but asks the waitress to leave out the quinoa that is listed. After a couple of bites Li decides the dish is missing something. “Can I add the quinoa back?” she asks the puzzled waitress. “That’s how I live my life. I change my mind.”
Despite the choice of venue, she says she is not a health nut. “I drink whisky. A lot, actually. And I love champagne – especially champagne and marijuana. My father told me that was the ultimate high. I do everything: I’ll have a green juice then a melted chocolate ice cream. I stay up very late, I get up very early. Life’s too f— short.”
With typical Li logic, she says she feels that she has become younger as she has grown older. “For about 28 years [her age now], I thought I was 45. And now I’ve started to go backwards. For the first time I’m aware that I’m actually quite young, but it’s almost too late as I’m not even that young anymore. So I feel a bit stressed out that I kind of missed my youth. Now I just want to do everything – I want to live life and make art and make love.”
Over the years Li has evolved as a singer without losing the rawness of emotion that makes her so compelling. Singing, she once said, “feels like crying, almost”. “I Never Learn” proves that in fact she has learnt, if not in her love life then at least as an artist. “I cannot stand my first album,” she says bluntly. “It is so bad. I sucked.”
She may be her own fiercest critic, but she is also her own strongest advocate. “I knew that one day I would arrive. I’ve worked so f— hard, harder than anyone would imagine, and I’ve done everything alone. I deserve to be here.”