Suffering from writer's block so severe he felt physically ill, singer Jens Lekman found a way to jumpstart his creative energy – forcing himself to write and release a song, a “postcard”, every week.
“It was almost like getting a gym card or something to force myself out of bed every day to do something productive,” he said. “I had to write. I had a contract with the world.”
A decade ago, Lekman was hailed as a pre-eminent voice of indie pop, with wry, witty lyricism that spoke to sensitive 20-somethings and created a romanticism around his hometown of Gothenburg, which figures prominently in his songs.
But Lekman was stung by the more subdued reaction to his last album, 2012's 'I Know What Love Isn't', a stripped-down, often sorrowful work haunted by a breakup.
“I struggled with a lot of doubts around my songwriting and around what I was and what my purpose and mission were,” Lekman, who speaks in a calm reserve much like his deadpan songs, told AFP at a coffeehouse in New York.
Lekman's new album, 'Life Will See You Now', comes out on Friday with, after his years of darkness, a surprise – the joy is back.
'Life Will See You Now' – a title that plays on how doctors call in patients from the waiting room – revives the ironic voice that defined Lekman's early songs.
Lekman goes further than before with electronics, with songs such as the sensory, readily danceable 'What's That Perfume That You Wear?' bursting into disco with touches of samba.
Two of Lekman's postcards – 'How We Met, the Long Version' and 'Postcard #17' – made the album.
But Lekman said the postcards more broadly helped him focus on what he wanted to be writing about – existential thoughts on getting older.
Lekman recently turned 36 – an age, he said, where “you start to see the consequences of your choices and how life keeps repeating itself”.
In an essay to introduce the album, Lekman described one's 30s as “like your teenage years, but without all the cool role models”.
“When you were a teenager you had The Ramones. When you're in your 30s you have the characters from 'Seinfeld',” he wrote.
The album starts off with the bouncing 'To Know Your Mission', in which Lekman recalls an encounter with a Mormon missionary in Gothenburg.
“I remember being very intrigued that this missionary had this very clear idea of what his purpose in life was – he was going to spread the Gospel,” Lekman said.
“He was 19 or something. For me, it's not until now that I'm starting to grasp a little bit what I'm supposed to do and what makes me happy and what I'm put here to do.”
Lekman, in an experience that became a separate song, stopped at a gas station in deep America and bought a 'WWJD' bracelet.
The acronym, popular in the Bible Belt, stands for 'What Would Jesus Do?' But Lekman found his own message: 'What Would Jens Do?'
“I started thinking, what if I just tried doing the opposite of whatever my initial instincts would be?” Lekman said.
“I wore that bracelet for a while just to remind myself,” he said. “I think that's something more people should try if they feel that they keep repeating their patterns and making bad choices in life.”
Jens Lekman at a concert in 2007. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT
Lekman in late 2015 started the Ghostwriting project with the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and the Gothenburg Biennial in which strangers submit stories which he turns into songs.
He wants Ghostwriting to expand into a small festival with a range of artists composing for their fans.
“I would love to hear Marilyn Manson's fans or something, what their stories would be like,” Lekman said of the occult-dabbling rocker.
Even if his music is looking brighter, he is not optimistic about the future of the business. Traditional album sales have plummeted, which he called a “nightmare scenario” for an indie pop artist.
But Lekman carefully laid the financial groundwork to take a full band on a tour of North America and Europe that opens on February 23rd.
He is adamant about playing smaller cities, remembering his youthful excitement when bands visited Gothenburg.
“For me, it's sort of like a cultural democracy or musical socialism to take a stand and get out of the major cities if you can.”
Article written by AFP's Shaun Tandon