Still Love Safe Love
Lykke Li was brought up a wanderer, always on the move. Complacency has become antithetical to her reality. For the Swedish singer, just turned 28, lifelong travels have brought certain wisdoms, but mostly endless questions. On stage, with cocked brow and clenched fist, her anxieties are for a moment channeled into a gravitational energy that leaves audiences short-winded. Li matured compositionally and lyrically on this, her third album, but the aptly titled I Never Learn reveals a person trapped by life. She searches quixotically for a love promised while admitting to its very impossibility.
Are you a very private person?
I’m a very private person with strangers, but I’m very open with my close ones. I really enjoy deep exchange and to share secrets, especially hard ones, inconvenient ones.
Are you able to continue to write while on the road?
Unfortunately, no. That’s why it always takes me so long to get a record out. The whole process of making a record is my favorite time. I love writing and being in my own bubble. It’s such a solitary process and I don’t need the outside world. I just walk around by myself a lot.
When it’s done, it’s a bit of a sorrow. You have to abandon something and it’s not perfect. That’s what you have to learn every time, Oh my God, I’ve failed again. Do I continue to perfect it? Do I grasp it? Or do I let it go and move on? In the past I’ve gone crazy trying to make it so great that I couldn’t live at the same time. That’s where I am. I think I need to let go. It’s a heartbreaking process.
Tell me about your travels growing up.
I went to eleven different schools. I was born in the south of Sweden, and then moved to Stockholm. When I was four we moved to Portugal, where I lived for five years. We would spend winters in India, Nepal, Morocco. When I was nineteen, I moved to New York. I’ve been on the road ever since.
It sounds glamorous, but you’ve struggled with it because you were without an anchor.
Yes, I’ve had physical struggles with it. My doctor said I have post- traumatic stress; I can never fully relax. It’s been difficult both on my immune system and spiritually. In your 20s, you’re suffering from your childhood, but still not quite an adult. For me to end my last album and tour, I was like Whoa, I’ve been traveling my entire life. Where do I return when I really need to mend my broken heart or rest? I don’t have a home. It’s been really hard for me to feel safe and okay and relaxed. It’s a lot of adrenaline, up and down. Fight or flight all the time.
At what point did you decide you wanted to pursue music?
When I’m trying to deal with other personal stuff in my life, when I’m in therapy, I’ll often get asked the question, ‘How can you be so strong, so fucking forceful in your music, and personally still struggle?’ And I’m asking myself that too: How can I have so much blind faith that it’s going to work out?
I think it was something that I was born with. It’s been difficult, and I’ve been angry at my parents for it—I know that it was in preparation to be an artist. And now I’m thankful and understand them. I remember so many times feeling overwhelmed, sitting in India, or a rave party in Portugal, feeling so looped out, and all I did was listen to my freestyle, and I would feel safe.
We didn’t have a TV for a long time in Portugal. When we finally got one, the first thing I saw was Michael Jackson’s “Black and White,” and I was like, Oh my God, that’s exactly how I want to live. Out in the desert just dancing around. That’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve been working at it my whole life.
You open up on stage in spite of your self-doubt. Do you feel vulnerable performing?
It’s weird, I have some psychological…some wrong wiring. My teenage years were the worst. From 15 to, even 25, I’ve been so angry and sad with self-hatred. I felt so out of tune with the world, so different. I didn’t enjoy anything that young people do. I felt so alone. My parents are amazing, but they’re not really nurturing. I didn’t have direction or guidance. The only place that I would feel safe is on stage expressing something. I felt unsafe in school, unsafe with guys; I was almost suicidal in my teens. The only thing that got me going was to sing about it.
Where are you when you’re performing? Completely inside your own head, or connecting with the people out in the crowd.
I’m getting better at that too, because I’ve started to meditate. I’m such a heady person, so it’s the only time when I’m fully in my body, in the moment. It’s almost like there is a wire from the audience to me, and I feel the energy. I’m just there.
How do you battle your anxieties to calm yourself?
I began meditating during the end of my last tour because I was breaking down all the time. I couldn’t handle it. I met David Lynch and I was telling him about my worries and troubles, and he told me that I’ve got to mediate. It put me on such a different path, it’s unbelievable.
What goes into the practice?
You have your own mantra. You sit down twice a day, close your eyes, and repeat your mantra. For anyone creative, for someone who knows what it feels like to be in the zone, you already know. But you never think that you’re going to find that anywhere else. I think that’s why a lot of people take drugs, because they can’t find that peace anywhere else. This is a place where you actually can do that.
Tell me about working with David Lynch. The two of you made a song together.
It was magical. He’s so in tune with his gut instinct when it comes to art. I feel like I am too, but sometimes people that I work with think I’m really difficult because I can’t express myself in musical terms. I always go with how it should feel, and he’s the same way. He’d be like, “No no no no, that don’t feel right!” or “That feels fuckin’ great!” Time would fly by. We would improvise. As we were both meditators, you could really tune in.
David Lynch is not only a legend, but of a different generation, yet you seem to have found a kindred spirit.
I have a few people like that in my life. My idols are like 70 [years old]. I have a few people in my life that I connect with deeply, and they are about that age. I think that’s the beauty in it. [David and I] talk about life, and he gives me advice. He is a legend, but he’s not shadowed by that. He’s still so curious, so eager to try new things. He seems like a happy man.
Tell me about developing your identity on the road and through your music.
It’s been difficult. I started out doing it in my own name, purely for my own survival. There was no separation, I’m fully what I do. It’s been great, but difficult to deal with. Now that I’m 27, I’m like Okay, who am I as a woman? There’s a lot of stuff that I’m bad at as a young woman, and I don’t know who I am, though I know fully who I am as an artist. I’ve been trying to create a separate life, but they keep getting mixed in all the time.
It’s hard actually. I’d like to stay at home, and chill, and have a garden, and read books. But now I have to be on tour. One part of me is a homebody, one part of me is on the fucking road, and I don’t know how to combine those two.
Your words are very poetic. Can you talk about composing lyrics in a second language?
It’s weird. I’m a real romantic. English is the language of love, or heartache. There are so many words for that that don’t exist in Swedish. I guess I’m kind of putting things together in the dark— what I think they mean. I just do it naturally. The longer I’ve lived here, the better my vocabulary has become, and therefore I think that my poetry is better too.
Which lyricists or writers do you admire?
I love Rumi, Hāfez, all the old school poets. They know exactly what life is about. I love Joan Didion, John Fante, especially Ask The Dust.
There’s this Graham Nash song called “Simple Man” that I listen to a lot. It has this line, “I just want to hold you / I don’t want to hold you down.” That line is unbelieveable. So simple, but…
“No Cure For Lonely” by The Swans, what an amazing line. There’s a lot of folk songs that I love. “Reason To Believe” by Karen Dalton.
I’ve even been going into more cheesy territory, [Lykke pauses, and with fists clenched sings:] “I want to know what love is / I want you to show me.” I’ve been listening to those lines [by Foreigner].
Harry Nilsson, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” I wish I could have written that.
Your words deal with the highs and lows of love and loneliness and isolation. Is love something that you are looking for in your life? Is love an existential need of ours?
It’s the highest. But I think I may have been delusional too in the past, of what I thought love was. I was really going for that extravagant love. In the past, love for me was suffering—if I suffered enough, I loved them—which is kind of fucked up. That’s where a lot of my music came from, I always felt heartbroken. I’ve had very few experiences of still love, safe love.
I don’t know if I’ve been chasing it because it fuels my music, or vice versa. But love is the most interesting thing to me. It combines us together, it defines you. If you go through a deep, deep separation, you become someone else. But I don’t know if love is obtainable.
Do you believe in true love? Do you think you will find it some day?
I don’t know. I think our perception of true love was created when we were super young, and influenced by attachments to our parents. If you feel like you never got enough, that’s something that will haunt you for the rest of your life. You’ll always feel like you’re not loved enough. I think that music, books, literature, and film kind of fuck us up a bit too.
It’s a Buddhist thing: nothing lasts forever. I don’t know if you can find true love and call it a day. But I do believe that you can find true love. If you are not so attached to one single person, you’ll realize that true love is everywhere—friends, art, the world. I want to someday have a long relationship, because you learn so much.
You’ve been a wanderer your whole life, do you envision finding a home someday?
It’s what I dream about. I think I’ve been looking for it for so long, desperately. Where is my home? That’s been torturing me. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am a wanderer, I’ll always be.
Tell me more about composing the songs musically.
I’m into the routine [on this new album]. Before I thought that every song was an accident, a miracle every time. Now I realize that I can tap into that relatively easily. If I jam with someone, or alone, melodies come to me. It’s the words that are the hard part.
Why are the melodies easy to access but the words difficult?
Music is everywhere. It’s accessible, easy, and fluid. Melodies are everywhere, all of the time. With words, you actually have to say something. You have to figure out what you are feeling. It’s like doing a puzzle.
Is there a story arc to your collection as it stands today?
This is all in retrospect, but I really feel that this is a trilogy. It’s a chunk of my life from 21 to 27, that’s one chapter. I’ve made three albums about myself and how it feels to love and to leave. When I’m writing, I don’t even think about doing an album, I’m just writing. Then you figure out that there is a theme, and you polish it. You create from your wounds. It’s usually the same wound over and over again. Broken love is probably a problem of mine.
To draw from these wounds, is it therapeutic? Or are you not allowing them to heal?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out. There are so many little holes. You access one, you get it out, and okay you dealt with that, but then there is another. But that’s us as people, we’re never going to fully learn or heal. To be a human is to be in a fucking battle. There’s always something.
Even when I talk to my older friends, my friend who’s 70. She has love but says, “I have love, but all I want is to live.” She says, “I knew I was going to die, but no one ever told me I would grow old.” There’s always something.
Describe the visual element to your music.
When I’m making music, I stand up and stomp my feet. If I can groove to it, I know that I’m on to something. When I’m in the studio, it’s a terrible process before everything is mixed, but when it finally starts sounding good, that’s when I can start seeing pictures or the video or imagine it on stage. I’m very visual and very in my body; it will hurt me if something sounds bad, or it will feel really good.
What advice have you for a young artist?
No feeling is final. It’s always a process, there is no end. If you decide to walk that path, know that it’s relentless. Martha Graham describes it as: “There is no satisfaction.” You have to be okay with that.
Do you find moments of peace and satisfaction?
That’s the whole problem with it, you find ecstasy and complete bliss. That’s why you keep on going, but it’s so short. It’s the highest thing when you have a dream and a vision that’s been living inside of you and all of a sudden you can see it. It’s the most amazing thing. It’s like creation—it’s like recreation—that’s probably what it is like to have a child. All of a sudden it’s in your arms.
The sad thing about making a film or a record is that when you give birth to it, it’s gone. Your baby, hopefully, stays with you and loves you back.
What is your WILD Wish?
Becoming a housewife. Living on a farm. Having kids and a garden. Being able to make films, music, and books. That’s my dream.