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Interview: Indie icon Jens Lekman finds adulthood has a disco beat

Shaun Tandon meets Swedish indie icon Jens Lekman, who explains how he overcame his writer's block.

Interview: Indie icon Jens Lekman finds adulthood has a disco beat
Jens Lekman photographed in 2012. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

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

SWEDEN AND INDIA

IndiskFika: The Indian dance group taking Sweden by storm

IndiskFika are a group of Indians in Sweden with a shared passion: dance. Two of the group's leaders tell The Local how they came to be finalists in Talang, one of Sweden's top TV talent shows.

IndiskFika: The Indian dance group taking Sweden by storm

“We’ve been very passionate about dance from childhood,” says co-founder Ranjithkumar Govindan, who shortens his name to Ranjith. “I’ve been dancing from childhood, like first grade. So once we got into our professional lives and career, I wanted to continue my passion.”

“Like Ranjith, I have been dancing since the age of three, ” adds Aradhana Varma, who joined the group in 2020. She’s been competing in and winning dance competitions back in her hometown of Mumbai ever since. 

With just a handful of members back in 2019, the group now numbers over 50, including dancers, videographers, choreographers, editors, and production crew, and they are still growing.

Listen to Aradhana Varna from IndiskFika on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Govindan says started by dancing at various events in Stockholm alongside fellow Indian dance enthusiasts before the idea came to form the troupe. “Then, one fine day, me and one of my friends, Vijay [Veeramanivanna], said ‘why don’t we do a cover song?'” he remembers. 

“He’s very passionate about camera work, cinematography. I’m very passionate about dance,” Govindan says of the collaboration. 

Their initial idea was to take advantage of their location in to shoot dance routines out in Swedish nature, in the same way that Bollywood movies sometimes shoot routines against European scenes such as Swiss mountainsides or Italian plazas. 

“Indians are very famous for movies, like Bollywood, so we wanted to do a cover video of a particular song from a movie which was going to be released. Since we are living in Sweden, we have plenty of opportunities to cover good locations and nature, so that was an idea,” he explains.

The name ‘IndiskFika’, (“Indian fika”, a fika being a Swedish term for a coffee break in the middle of the day) came from Govindan and Veeramanivanna’s wish to combine Swedish and Indian cultures. 

IndiskFika performing in the Talang talent show. Photo: TV4

“We started with five to seven people in 2019, that was the first thing we did, and we did a shoot and edited everything, then we realised that if we wanted to release it, we should have a name,” Govindan says.

“So we started thinking ‘what name should we pick for this team?’. We came up with the idea IndiskFika. Everyone knows about fika in Swedish, right?” 

Their videos, some of which have over a million views, became popular both among Indians at home and among members of the Indian community in Sweden, whose interest helped the group grow further.

More and more Indians living in Stockholm started asking to join, and soon they were doing live performances:  one at the Chalmers University in Gothenburg, and another at the Diwali celebrations held by the Västerås Indian Association. 

When the pandemic hit, IndiskFika didn’t let it stop them. They started planning a digital one-year anniversary for the group, and began looking for other groups to collaborate with. 

That was how Govindan began collaborating with Varma, who had been performing with a different dance team. “I had been performing at various events like Namaste Stockholm with a different dance team based in Stockholm since 2017, but during pandemic, everything had come to a halt since it was a tough time for all of us,” she explains.

When new people joined IndiskFika, it gave the group a new impetus. “That’s when the boost started,” Govindan remembers. “We became stronger and stronger. So, so many things happened.”

IndiskFika first came to the attention of ordinary Swedes with an article in Ingenjörenthe members’ magazine for engineering union Sveriges Ingenjörer. Many of the group’s members are IT engineers or students at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “They did an article about us, about the engineers continuing their passion for dance, so that reached a more Swedish audience,” Govindan says. 

This led to more in-person performances, which in turn caught the eye of the producers responsible for Talang at Sweden’s broadcaster TV4.

“The Talang people said ‘we read about you and we’ve gone through all your YouTube videos, why don’t you come and participate in Talang 2022?’. The rest of the story you know. We participated in Talang, and we got a golden buzzer from David Batra in the prelims, so we went direct to the finals.”

David Batra, a Swedish comedian with an Indian father, is known for comedy series such as Kvarteret Skatan and Räkfrossa, as well as Världens sämsta indier (“World’s Worst Indian”), a series where he visits India, alongside public broadcaster SVT’s India correspondent Malin Mendel, and tries his hand at living and working in the country.

Batra is also one of four judges on Talang, whose golden buzzer meant that the dance team were awarded one of eight places in the final – four are chosen by votes and four are chosen by the Talang judges.

The group were among the top eight teams in the finals on March 18th, but for Indians in Sweden, reaching the final was a win in itself. They were invited for a fika with India’s ambassador to Sweden, where they were treated to both traditional Indian and Swedish treats.

The IndiskFika troupe on stage at TV4’s studios. Photo: TV4

Many of the group’s members work full-time alongside dancing, which can be difficult at times.

“It’s not easy to be so dedicated by spending extra effort after office hours, with hectic weekend schedules for rehearsals especially when everyone in the team has a full-time job,” Varma says. “There’s a lot of things that take place in the background from logistics to costumes, hall bookings, co-ordinating everyone’s availability, social media activities and so on.”

Like many foreigners, though, Govindan and Varma have taken their time adapting to life in Sweden. 

“All I knew about Sweden was that it was one of the cold and dark countries,” Varma says. “Eventually you start liking it, and you know, everything is worth it for the summers that you get here. The fika tradition, the amazing work/life balance, the nature, that’s the best part that we have here.”

“I didn’t have much of an idea about Sweden,” Govindan agrees. “The temperature, where I come from, throughout the year is between 25 to 40 degrees. In terms of temperature, nature, the people, everything is different.”

“India is very rich in culture, right?” Varma says when asked about the differences between Swedish and Indian culture. “We have a lot of colours and a lot of different flavours and you know, that’s the kind of performance we gave. That was the plan: to give a very energetic, powerful, and colourful performance.”

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