Lykke Li is sitting in the plush nook furthest away from the entrance of Manhattan's Tribeca Grand Hotel. She's black-on-black-on-black, cloaked in layers of darkness from hat to oversized leather jacket to skirt. The look is part Ramones badass, part Cure goth ghoul. And it fits her mood, which can be depressive, dreamy, vulnerable, and brash depending on the topic at hand.
"It's a complicated situation," she says at one point while talking about her ambiguous artistic proclivities. And she expounded on her conflicting desires, talking with equal passion about leaving her world-touring ways behind and wanting to reach the most people with perfect songs she has yet to write. She's a grown-up 24, a fact backed by the grittier sounds of her new album, Wounded Rhymes, which ditches the cuteness of her breakthrough, Youth Novels, for clanging guitars, near-tribal percussion, and newly dramatic and powerful vocals. Inspired in part by a L.A. sojourn-- including several key visits to the California desert-- and bouts of emotional trauma, the record is appropriately stark and brooding. Song titles include "Sadness Is a Blessing" and "Unrequited Love".
We chatted about hustling, Twilight, and why "it's not a very sane thing to try to be great all the time."
Pitchfork: Considering all the opportunities that arose from the success of your first album, did you ever think, "Maybe I don't want this to be such a big thing."
Lykke Li: Yeah, I probably thought that about most of the things I did. But you wind up in situations where you have to make decisions very quickly, and you just go for it a lot of the time. Like, I don't necessarily love all the collaborations that I've done; the more I work with other people, the more I realize that I want to work with myself. I'm always trying to record and produce myself, but then I just end up smashing my apartment because I'm so fucking impatient.
Pitchfork: What about the song you did for the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack, "Possibility"?
LL: I considered that for a long time. I'm not so interested in being indie just for the sake of being indie. There are realities, too. And the way I work costs a lot of money because I do it live on tape with a band. It's not like I'm doing electronic music with a laptop.
I don't relate to the Twilight books or movies at all, but I'm obsessed with it as a pop culture phenomenon-- all these people just screaming like it was the Beatles. I like that age when you feel misunderstood and still believe in the pure idea that love conquers all. I feel like those young girls could really relate to my music. So I wanted to sneak my dark love stories into prime time. Why the fuck not? I didn't compromise at all with my song.
I remember watching Romeo + Juliet when I was 14 and listening to the soundtrack. When I hear that soundtrack now, all those emotions come back. It's really beautiful when you're at a certain point in your life where most of the adventure lies ahead of you. And it's a sad thing when you feel like you've lost that. But you can get it back.
Pitchfork: You're kind of hidden on the cover of Wounded Rhymes.
LL: I wouldn't say hidden, I'm just behind black silk. It's a bit abstract. I shot the cover on these dunes outside of London and the deserted landscape shows this longing for something that never became. I was inspired by [Michelangelo] Antonioni's Red Desert-- very big and moody.
Pitchfork: Last year's mirror-filled short film you made in the California desert, Solarium, also has a similarly abstract feel. How did that come about?
LL: I was going on this desert adventure with some friends and we were like, "How amazing would it be to just drag all these mirrors out there?" A lot of times I do things as an impulse and find out my inspirations afterward. Even with songs and lyrics, it can take me years to find out what I was actually trying to do.
Pitchfork: Solarium reminded me of Maya Deren's avant-garde short Meshes of the Afternoon.
LL: What's crazy is I didn't even know about her until a few months after. Somebody showed it to me, and I'm like, "Who is the magical woman? I want to be her." It was so strange. It could be that she's in my body somehow, reincarnated.
Pitchfork: Where did you get all those mirrors for the film?
LL: We bought them at the Home Depot and returned them afterwards. A few were scratched but we stacked them up and put some totally unused ones on top. Just the same old hustling.
Pitchfork: Solarium is pretty experimental. Are you mostly into art-house movies?
LL: I love art house films, but I also just love a good fucking film like The Godfather: Part II. [Alejandro González] Iñárritu is one of my favorite current directors. He did Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros.
Pitchfork: After watching 21 Grams, I remember thinking it was almost too depressing.
LL: Yeah, but I'm like, "Ah! Finally something that can reflect my mood!" For me it's like taking a bath. That's the thing-- I'm really depressing. Some people watch comedy to relax. I watch 21 Grams. I can recognize sadness and tragedy really easily because it's been with me forever.
Pitchfork: Is that like a gift and a curse?
LL: Yeah. My whole art is based on escaping life and reality, which might not the best tendency to have when you're trying to be a good person in general. But people can escape into my world easily-- artists are supposed to create a keyhole that people can look into.
Pitchfork: Did you do Solarium before you started writing Wounded Rhymes?
LL: Yeah, I was running dry on inspiration at that point. It was definitely the inhale before the exhale. Something was definitely born in the desert because I was just so tired and delusional, and all I wanted was to stay on that rock forever and never go back to civilization. I don't believe in how things are moving so fast.
I had a period after touring the first record where I didn't agree with the way things worked in the music industry as far as how you release music, demand, the pace of everything. You don't know who's talking to you. Who's Spotify? Who's iTunes? Who are all those bloggers? Who says I have to do this? Why do you have to do all this press? Why do I have to do so many shows? Why do I have to do a regular album right now? I don't understand it.
Pitchfork: In a perfect world how would you want to go about things?
LL: I would want to create an amphitheater outside of California where I would play everyday, and then people would have to come to me. I would create all this crazy stage decor and film it. Or I would just stay inside my home and do films. I would be like the modern Maya Deren.
Pitchfork: Well, what's stopping you?
LL: I want to get my music out there. I enjoy playing shows; I just don't enjoy airports. I want to be more creative, but it's hard to get into that zone on tour.
Pitchfork: Do you ever dream about a more stable existence?
LL: Yeah, definitely. I'm looking forward to some peace and quiet. I fantasize about having a home, which I've kind of never had. It's not a choice for me, though. I had to do this album. I tried thinking, "I'm not going to do it." But then I'm sitting there getting all suicidal and depressed, and I just start writing. It's like this inner drive. If I could choose, I would probably be living in the countryside and be fine with that, but I'm not.
Pitchfork: So there were moments when you thought you might not make this record?
LL: Yeah, because it's costing too much of my sanity. It's not a very sane thing to try to be great all the time. You want to make something magical; you want to make something wonderful; you want to give to everybody; you want to heal people; you want to still be inspired. That's not easy.
I can cry myself to sleep because I'm not as great as Leonard Cohen, but who cares? Maybe you can't be as great as some people, but it's a tragedy when you don't follow your dreams. So should I just shut the fuck up just because I'm not great? Or should I just do it because I must? It's a complicated situation.
Pitchfork: Did you go out of your way to make Wounded Rhymes sound rougher than Youth Novels?
LL: It's just progress. I think I've been a bit misunderstood; the first record was more timid than I wanted it to be. I don't like getting pinned down by sex or how I sound like because it's not who I am or what I want to be. I always want to keep things unwritten. I'm inspired by Bob Dylan, who's kept evolving and changing his sound. I think that's what you should do as an artist. Why be comfortable?
Pitchfork: A lot of the new songs seem to be about prematurely losing your youth.
LL: It's not about losing youth as much as it's about losing the willingness to jump into things recklessly. The older you get, the more baggage you have, and the harder it is to just split. So it's about losing that naïveté. After you've been wounded a few times, it's hard to let somebody get that deep again.
Pitchfork: While recording this album, were there moments when you thought about not giving so much away emotionally?
LL: The problem is that there's no other way for me. Otherwise there's no tension, no conflict, no sparks, nothing. I know that I'm dealing with some kind of wound through my music. Life is greater when I'm dealing with something than when I'm just dreaming away.
Pitchfork: Some of the most powerful songs on the new album-- along with the B-side "Paris Blue"-- are really spare, sometimes with just you and a guitar. Would you ever consider doing a whole record like that?
LL: I want to do a stripped-down album. That style is actually where my heart is-- storytelling and just letting the voice and the lyrics talk for themselves. I still want to write the perfect song and sing it in the most honest, undressed way. But I feel like I have to gather more experiences and more layers in my voice. I have to live more to be able to tell this tale. So I'm saving my folk record. I have a feeling nobody will understand it [laughs].
Pitchfork: A few rappers have sampled your songs recently, are you aware of that at all?
LL: Yeah, a little. I don't love all hip-hop, but I do relate to stuff like early Nas, 2Pac, Biggie, and MF Doom because they're also trying to escape a scenario. I relate to hustlers who want to get out of where they are and create something different for themselves.
Pitchfork: What's a hustler-type experience you had to go through?
LL: Just for me to sit here today with this second album at the Tribeca Grand Hotel-- I hustled my way here, believe me. I'm a girl from Sweden. I took a lot of risks and went to New York by myself when I was 19 just because I read about it in a few books. I came here knowing nobody, having no money, and now I'm doing all these things like making records and videos every day.
Pitchfork: Do you have any goals for Wounded Rhymes?
LL: It would be amazing if people listened to it when they needed shelter; it would be lovely if they didn't spit on it.
WOUNDED RHYMES REVIEWS
Allmusic: 4/5 (review)
Clash: 8/10 (review)
EW: A (review)
The Guardian: 4/5 (review)
NME: 7/10 (review) what a fat bitch tbh
PopMatters: 9/10 (review)
Rolling Stone: 4/5 (review)
Slant Magazine: 4.5/5 (review)
Spin: 8/10 (review)
+ the i follow rivers remix EP is out now and it is FLAWLESS so go & buy it on itunes
+ tyler, the creator also remixed i follow rivers so you should listen to that too i guess
it is so refreshing to see somebody who can sing + write + compose + produce without relying on gimmicks and staying skinny at the same time!!!!!!! WOUNDED RHYMES IS OUT TODAY, GO AND BUY IT NOW.