When Swedish songwriter Jens Lekman croons about avocados, seashells, or his juvenile memories, he uncovers more than the rattle of clever words. The songs on his debut album, 2004's When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog (and the also-solid compilation Oh You're So Silent Jens), turned his stories, longings, and fantasies into the journals of a wistful romantic who's willing to play the clown. Much as he likes to build songs on samples of everything from African music to Swedish electronic pop, they aren't a crutch. Last year's Night Falls Over Kortedala asserted his vocal power and his way with luxurious pop melodies more boldly than ever: 2007 produced few songs as catchy, or as serenely odd, as Lekman's "The Opposite Of Hallelujah" and "Your Arms Around Me." Before starting his American tour, Lekman spoke with The A.V. Club about audience reactions, humor, and the spiritual wonder of haircuts.
The A.V. Club: How much do you revise or vary a song in the process of recording it?
Jens Lekman: There are a few songs that I've been having a lot of problems with—do you mean production-wise, or the actual song?
AVC: Either one, really.
JL: Usually, I come up with the title first. Then I figure out what that title means, and I write the song from that title, and in about 25 percent of the cases, it's a story that hasn't happened yet. I compose the song and then I make the story happen.
AVC: Isn't that kind of convoluted? Or is it natural for you?
JL: It's extremely natural for me.
AVC: You shared some tour dates with comedian Todd Barry recently. How did that work out?
JL: It was strange, and in the end, it was magnificent, I think. I've always been kind of sick of the idea of having more than one band play at the same time. I never understood that. I thought it would be a great thing if he opened for us. I met him at a festival in Chicago and asked if he would be interested, and he was up for it. Stand-up comedy doesn't exist in Sweden, almost. It's not a very big thing. At first, I think, it was pretty weird, but he's such a professional comedian, so he won everyone over in the end—by doing jokes about me, basically. Just joking about how I picked him up at the airport and I don't have a car, so I took him on the bus instead and put him in a shitty hotel. Stuff like that.
AVC: A lot of your songs are love songs, but you also sing about friends and family members. Do you have to push yourself to get comfortable writing about all these different things?
JL: Yeah. When I'm walking down the street, I always pick up things and I think, "Can I write a song about that?" and a voice in my head says, "Sure you can." I'm definitely interested in seeing how far you can go and still make an interesting song, and an honest song. Something that I've been thinking a lot about lately is being a touring musician. You definitely choose what you write songs about, but I could not pretend that that's not part of my life.
AVC: You've said that you haven't been through a lot of relationships. Do you think this affects the mood of your music overall?
JL: I think that's the fact that I'm not sick of it yet. I still have a very romantic view of certain things that I haven't yet become cynical about. But I don't know. Lately, I've kind of stopped believing that relationships are something for me. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you mostly approach songwriting as a storyteller?
JL: Sometimes I feel like I'm working on a sitcom or something. I almost see the little studio, and I think of it as a good comedy show or something like that, with the characters lined up, and I'm trying to make the characters come alive somehow. There's a lot of silly stuff happening, but in the end, there's always that feeling of "I've gotta wrap this up with some kind of dignity and a little tear in the eye." At some point, I was thinking of how I wanted to write my own sitcom for TV, especially when I was in Australia the other month. I was watching a lot of daytime TV, and just being very repulsed by what I saw—the stereotyped characters and all that. I'm just waiting for someone on TV to write to me and say, "Hey, let's make a sitcom, you and me."
AVC: What would it be like?
JL: Pretty much like one of my songs, I think. It would take place in a very short time, maybe in real time, almost. It would be… I don't know. The problem with that is that I'm not a very funny guy, really. I kind of gave up on that idea. I'm not funny in person. I can construct humor, I can construct comedy, but I'm not funny when I talk between songs, for example. I have to sit down and think out jokes.
AVC: It feels like you use humor to disarm people.
JL: Well, I never do that when I write the song, but afterward, it's something that I think makes me want to keep the song. I want to be vulnerable in a song, and personal.
AVC: Are people ever taken aback by that?
JL: Oh, yeah, for sure. That was something that I really reacted to when I started performing live. That was the point when I realized that people would laugh at the parts of the songs where I wrote something that was very difficult for me, and when I tried to be funny, they would cry. Or not cry, but at least they would look sad, like I'd been telling them something very sad about my life. I started realizing that they weren't really laughing at the characters or anything like that. They were just laughing because they recognized something and didn't really know how to react. My songs always start out as silly, stupid, whimsical stuff, but it's very important for me to wrap it up with some kind of sadness or real feeling.
AVC: What is it about little commonplace details that interests you so much—like weather and food and certain kinds of cars?
JL: Maybe that's the sitcom thing again. I don't know if sitcom is the right word, but it's really important for me to establish some kind of theme. That's why it's important for me to incorporate geographically where the song takes place, because all my songs are addressed to very certain moments or a very special person. They can never be applied to something else. They're always about that specific moment, they're always addressed to something special, and they always have me as the center of the song. Like "A Postcard To Nina," for example—that song could only take place in Berlin, and all those little details are very important in there.
AVC: What were you trying to do differently on the songs for Night Falls Over Kortedala?
JL: I wanted to move out into the world and be inspired by a lot of sounds that I heard from a lot of different places. I wanted to make something completely different, and in the end, I think I definitely failed at that. Which was not a bad thing, because I felt like I had to define what I'd been trying to do from the very beginning. These days, it's just impossible to control the way the world perceives you, and I felt like Jens Lekman was going in so many different directions, depending on what people liked about me. There was the funny troubadour with the ukulele traveling around on YouTube. Then there was the crooner guy in another corner. So many different Jens Lekmans traveling around. Which was fine with me, but I sort of wanted to define what I had intended to do with my music from the beginning. It was more definition than the development of my music.
AVC: The cover image is a reference to the song "Shirin," about a friend who cuts your hair. How'd you decide to use that photo?
JL: I realized that I only have that look on my face when I'm having my hair cut. Getting my hair cut is just a very special moment for me. I don't know exactly why, but it's such an intimate, almost religious experience. I'm very careful with who gets to cut my hair.
AVC: Didn't you end up doing little after-sets in some towns on your last U.S. tour?
JL: Yeah, I've always wanted that to happen. The whole thing with playing on a stage with mics and all that has always been kind of uncomfortable to me. I like doing a little show afterward. It happens, like, every third show that I do. The best thing is when people take you to a place outside somewhere, like a park or something. I've ended up in basements and clubs afterward, and it's not the same thing. I want to see the city, see where I am.