"Right now, I'm not sure where I live," the globe-hopping musician Jens Lekman said when we reached him in Gothenburg, Sweden, his hometown. If you're a fan, you know the place as the setting of several of Lekman's hilarious, insightful, elaborate indie-pop autobiographies—but are they really as autobiographical as they seem to be? Being the INDY's resident heart-eyed superfan, I probed this and other Lekman-esque mysteries in a chat that also revealed why he's playing a venue as small as The Pinhook when he can sell out larger halls, why he writes so much about friendship, and why his sent email folder is his biggest inspiration. I didn't solve every riddle of Jens—and who would want to? But I was delighted to find the unique blend of earnest empathy and deadpan sarcasm that distinguishes his music fully present in his personality.
INDY: Last year I saw you play at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, a much larger venue than The Pinhook. Is this a fill-in date, did you want to do a more intimate show, or what?
JENS LEKMAN: I do weddings as a sort of side job. I got an offer for a wedding in Miami and another in Mexico, and there were three weeks between them. I thought, I can just do a little solo tour and see some friends. After I've done the album-cycle tour, which prioritizes the big cities, I always try to do a little tour where I play places we don't usually hit. I'm going to play songs from all my records and probably some new songs. I'm not there to promote anything, really; I just wanted to play some shows.
But wait—one can book Jens Lekman for a wedding?
That's correct. I've been doing this ever since I started putting out music fourteen years ago. I had a song on my first record called "If You Ever Need a Stranger (To Sing at Your Wedding)." For some reason, people took that song literally and all these offers started coming in. I just did it for the fun of it, but then I realized it's a really sweet way to see what your music means to people. You're so honored to be there. Also, for me, it's a way to make a living, to survive making music.
I understand if there are some mysteries you don't want to dispel, but I've always wondered to what extent your songs are autobiographical versus staged to seem that way. Did you really chase Kirsten Dunst around Gothenburg while she was filming Melancholia? Do you really have a friend who carried around a 3-D printed model of his tumor?
I think all my songs are emotionally autobiographical. I never write about something I haven't experienced. Some songs are very in-detail autobiographical. "Waiting for Kirsten," for example, the lyrics are basically an email I wrote to a friend describing what happened that night. People keep asking me, did that actually happen? And I'm like, did it happen that I didn't meet Kirsten Dunst? Yes, it happened. It happens to me every day.
Other songs, I always use responsibility to not give up too much of my friends' lives. I've become more interested in taking the experience and turning it into a completely different story. "Evening Prayer," I wrote that song because I had a lot of friends who were going through chemo or had a tumor. At the same time, I read a story about a surgeon who was using a 3-D printer to study tumors. The last couple of years, that's how things have been working for me: things go on in my life and a story happens on the side, and the story and the experience find each other. For me, that's more fascinating, to work with fiction a little bit.
Yeah, of course, that's one of my favorite songs of all time. That's always been a very natural way for me to write. My sent folder in my email is my biggest inspiration. I often write songs as letters or messages to friends, birthday wishes or a pat on the back or love songs. Right now, I'm doing this project called Correspondence, which is me being in my element, in a way, because it's about the song as a letter.
And you did the whole Postcards project a few years ago. How did Correspondence with Annika Norlin come about?
After I did Postcards and Ghostwriting—a lot of positive things came out of that, but there were also things I missed, like the ability to work on the storytelling a little bit longer. I came to think of Annika because we have a kinship of some kind when it comes to storytelling, and I felt like it would be a perfect format for us, where you have a little more time to work on the stories, together with someone else. Postcards was a very lonely project.
Your music deals with a topic that gets overlooked in pop music, which is friendship, not just romantic love. I'm thinking of songs like "A Promise," "Evening Prayer," and "How Can I Tell Him?" What draws you to write about it?
I think a lot of my best songs are about friendship, like "A Postcard to Nina." In today's society, when we think about our romantic partners, it's so overwhelming. We want our partners to be everything to us. I think we have a problem with romantic love right now. We have a more casual relationship to our friends and, in some sense, I feel that those relationships can go deeper because they're more relaxed. We don't project as much onto those people. I sort of feel like that with fans who write to me, too. I don't think of them as friends, but there's something very valuable in the relationship. Sometimes I get an email and I reply and that's all, and I have no idea who these people are. But there can be something profound in that conversation because there's no expectations of it.
I feel like "To Know Your Mission" is kind of the key to the essential point of all your music. It's about music as a kind of service, an antenna for listening and vessel for empathy. Does that reflect your feelings at all?
I think that's actually spot-on. It's sort of a statement for Jens Lekman, maybe. I think ... what was it you said about it again?
It's about why you make these elaborate songs, right? As a way to listen to people and their stories and then channel that into empathy.
I think it's like that, and I think that's also some of why I play weddings. The whole idea of receiving something and giving it back is the beauty of it all. At weddings, I feel like I can connect directly with someone and get what they have been getting from my music and give it back to them. I feel that way every time I reply to an email from a listener as well.