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Lykke Li: A Swedish starlet determined to keep moving forward

Lykke Li

Feature by Jack Foley

BY her own admission, Swedish songstress Lykke Li can’t stay still. Her life and her career are relentlessly pulled forward by an impatient desire to see what’s just around the corner, her music full of ideas about moving on and breaking free.

Just 18 months ago she was complaining to her mentor, Bjorn ‘of Peter and John fame’ Yttling, that everything had gone wrong because she was 21 and still hadn’t released an album.

Now 22, she’s finding that things are on track. With the release of that album Youth Novels she’s been surprised and maybe a little embarrassed to find that the world is falling at her feet. She’s just the kind of person people can’t help falling in love with.

“I’m always looking for something raw and pure,” she says. “I want to create a direct, intense, intimate feeling; a vision which is uncomplicated but with a depth.”

Hence, the stories that comprise the songs of Youth Novels are so moving because the stories are true: they’re stories about Lykke Li and her extraordinary life, told with unusual honesty.

If you’re wondering where Lykke Li (first name Lykke Li, surname Zachrisson)’s fidgety, keep-on-moving attitude began, it’s best to rewind 22 years to the very beginning of her nomadic life.

We’re in northern Europe and Chernobylised clouds have chosen to dump their radioactive rain down on Stockholm. A new sense of environmental consciousness grips the country and her parents – Lykke Li’s mother a photographer, her father a musician – move first from the city to the country and then, selling everything they own, they move to Portugal, where they buy land and build a house in small village in the mountains.

As the years tick by the family move to Lisbon, then back to Sweden. Every year the family escape Sweden’s gloomy winters to India, then return in the summer. Her passport may be Swedish, but Lykke Li is from a little bit of everywhere with a perfect balance of city and suburb that pours from the organic, digital feel of her songs.

Lykke Li danced her way through childhood. When she was five, when her most prized possession was a cassette of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection hits album, this Little Miss Sunshine would slap makeup on her face, stuff a bra and put on dance shows for her family based on the entire album, taking in everything from Like A Virgin to Erotica.

Back then dancing was her chosen mode of expression and though her emotional vocabulary has now broadened it echoes through Youth Novels – on Dance Dance Dance she sings: “Having trouble telling how I feel but I can dance, dance, and dance; couldn’t possibly tell you what I mean but I can dance, dance, dance.”

“I didn’t fit in,” explains Lykke Li. “I hated my school and everyone in it. Dance Dance Dance is a song about dancing away the silence and the awkwardness.”

By her teens she was dancing on Swedish TV, backing up other artists.

“Then I made things difficult for myself, like I always do. All my friends were dancing, but I stopped that. My dream had been to dance, but I was bored of it. I was writing songs and decided to start singing, but I sucked.”

So, she joined a gospel choir. By this point artists like Prince and Kate Bush were on the radar: fantastical eccentrics with extraordinary, otherworldly talents.

“I seek comfort in artists like that, and even Edith Piaf, because I read about them and think ‘yes, someone feels like me’,” she smiles. “I feel inspired by people who feel different.”

The influence of that Madonna cassette was not forgotten, either: when she was 18 Lykke Li decided that she would finish school, move to New York and become a singer.

Once she arrived in New York, the 19-year-old gave herself three months. She rented a room in a dodgy four bed apartment in Brooklyn, signed up for improvisation classes at an acting studio to boost her confidence and turned up at open mic nights to perform her songs.

One night, during a spot at the legendary SOB’s club, a punter shouting “Get this white girl off the stage!” prompted the audience to boo Lykke Li out of the building.

“The next day I knew I’d experienced the worst,” she recalls. “I was happy, somehow. You need to do that stuff before you can be a real artist.”

She changed tactics – she reinvented herself, turning up at venues glammed up, claiming to be a huge Swedish star who was, as Lykke Li puts it, “tired of all the attention”. She wrote a fictional biography and had photos taken.

“I was a Swedish superstar,” Lykke Li grins. “I’d sung on every stage.” The plan started working… Then her visa ran out.

When she returned to Stockholm her family was in India for Christmas. Lykke Li spent the long, dark winter days working in a retirement home, clearing up sick.

“I’d just sit there,” she recalls, “thinking ‘fucking hell’.”

One day, in between thinking ‘fucking hell’ and wondering how she’d ever earn enough money to get back to New York, she started fiddling around with her songs. The next week she set up a MySpace page and almost instantly people around the world started paying attention.

One producer told her that her demos sucked and put her in touch with his friend Bjorn. Bjorn was busy. Lykke Li kept calling him, once a week, every week, for three months.

“Eventually, he said, ‘let’s do a demo’, but then his band blew up and he was away all the time,” she recalls.

Lykke Li managed to grab a few hours with Bjorn every few weeks – he’d have been in LA or Japan promoting Young Folks while she’d been clearing up after old folks.

“My life was fading away!” she laughs. “I was going ‘I’m 20! I’m going to be 21 in a month!’ He told me I was crazy.”

Once again, Lykke Li’s impatience took hold. She went back to developing her own songs, producing them and putting them on MySpace, where word was beginning to spread and songs were being hungrily devoured by bloggers.

At her first proper gig, with beats played off an iPod, a journalist who wrote a glowing, ‘star in the making’-style review for a Swedish paper. The ball was rolling, and once again, Lykke Li had been the mistress of her own destiny.

“You have to do everything yourself,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I never trust people to do things, because they never do. Except for Bjorn.”

As it happens, despite his frequent absences, Bjorn had seen something quite special in Lykke Li and, as time went by and he was able to spend more time developing tracks on Youth Novels, a close bond developed.

“I’ve always wanted to find a genius who thinks I’m a genius,” she laughs. “And a lot of my album is there as a result of Bjorn seeing something in me – he knew I was never going to be a big singer like Christina Aguilera, standing there and wailing.”

She didn’t realise it at the time, but she had found a partner who totally could make sense of her intense, wounded vision of pop; who “believed in me and gave me time to get better”.

Without noticing, Lykke Li had also gone from impatiently waiting for the world to catch up, to a point where she would desperately try to slow things down. Fans wanted more music; festivals wanted summer appearances. She was recording with Royksopp and Kleerup

For Lykke Li, a born perfectionist with a hands on approach to everything from songwriting and artwork through to marketing, things were close to getting out of control. “I only had four songs and I was doing all these festival gigs, getting this hype! Everything was getting too big!”

In October 2007, she returned to New York to finish recording her album. New York was different this time round – she stayed in the East Village, she had some money, she was on all the lists for the clubs and gigs. Everything that was wrong about her first visit was somehow turned on its head and the result is one of the most joyful debut albums you’ll hear all year.

Watch the video for I’m Good I’m Gone or read our review of Youth Novels