Peter Moore chats to Sweden's travelling minstrel Jens Lekman about the influence of places on his music
Here's the thing: I really like Jens Lekman's music. I've liked it ever since I stumbled upon the MP3 of "Black Cab" on Download.com.
His music has a kind of Morrissey meets Jonathan Richman vibe that will make you laugh and break your heart before you reach the chorus. And his songs have such a sense of place that they'll make you wish you'd stolen a kiss with a Russian girl on a roof top on Prague or experienced a cold Swedish winter with a girl who gasps when your icy fingers touch her. OK, you might not want to put a plastic bag over your head like he does in his song "Higher Power", but you get my drift.
Now, here's the other thing: It is a cold Swedish winter and I find myself flying into Stockholm on a £0.01 flight from London with Ryanair. I've emailed Jens to say I'd like to interview him. I'm honest enough to tell him that I'm not exactly sure how travel and his music are linked. I just have a hunch that they are and I'd like to chat to him about it. To my astonishment Jens Lekman agrees to meet me.
We meet in a funky little café just to the side of Stockholm's Central Station. It has brown and cream striped walls and orange vinyl benches and as we take our seats Dream Weaver by Gary Wright is playing on the sound system. An Australian girl from Darwin serves us coffee and apropos to nothing tells us that she has come to Sweden to break into the music industry. Jens says that he always checks the temperature in Darwin on the weather channel because it always seems to be the same. I'm not sure what all this means, but I'm convinced it means something.
Jens tells me that he is on his way to the airport to catch a plane to San Francisco. The ticket cost him a thousand bucks and he scraped the money together by selling a few of his old musical instruments through his web site. He confides to me that he is going to see a girl on a whim. I tell him that it is a very traveller sort of thing to do—to traipse half way across the world to pursue a smile once glimpsed—and he tells me it is something that he should have done before. Not with this girl but another one that moved to Barcelona.
"I was really poor at the time," he explains. "And I wasn't sure if she was worth the 900 kroner for the ticket." 900 kroner is about $120 and he has since discovered that that the girl in question is "worth millions." I don't know whether he means literally or metaphorically, but I guess the latter. There's no doubt he regrets not going though. He's written a song about the experience. It's called, tellingly, "I Don't Know If She's Worth 900 Kroner."
I spot a ukulele poking out of Jen's tote bag and tell him about the guy who greets every flight arriving in Rarotonga wearing a hibiscus shirt and playing island tunes on a ukulele. When all the passengers have disembarked he goes over to the departure lounge and farewells everyone waiting to leave on the same plane. Jens laughs and tells me about a Ukulele Festival in Gothenburg where all the men had comb-overs. Jens hasn't got a comb-over, just a mess of jet black hair that perfectly matches his red and black striped t-shirt and black naval jacket. He uses his ukulele to write songs while he's on the road. It's easy to take along he says.
Jens doesn't tour with a band. He tried it once and it didn't work. His band mates went out on the razz while he was back in the hotel room doing interviews and burning tour EP CDs on his laptop to sell at the gigs. It wasn't that he resented them going out and having a good time—although the way they insisted on telling him every detail about what they did clearly rankled—he just wanted to see the places he was visiting too.
Now he uses the internet to connect with musicians he admires in the countries he is planning to tour. Not only do they help him out on stage, they let him sleep on their couches and show him around their towns. In Melbourne he hangs out with Guy Blackman or Sally Seltmann from New Buffalo and her husband's band The Avalanches. In San Francisco it's Nedelle and the guys from Call and Response. In Glasgow, Bill Wells. And anywhere, it seems, with the guys from The Hidden Cameras. If I were a musician it's exactly how I'd like to do things.
I tell Jens about the entry on his online diary that got me thinking about the link between his music and travelling. He's in San Francisco, crashing at a warehouse where he's serenaded to sleep by Nedelle. He wakes up to a Mamas and Papas kind of Californian morning, all flowing-robed hippies with suckling babies serving fresh pancakes and strawberries. Erlend Oye, from Kings of Convenience, sits in the corner singing softly.
It reminds me of a memorable night I spent in Maputu in Mozambique. A guy I'd met on the minibus from South Africa was returning home and invited me to stay with his family. His mother returned home from Lisbon on the same night and the family threw an impromptu fiesta—a feast of seafood and wine and old Portuguese pop songs played on a beat-up portable record player. It was the kind of unexpected and joyous experience that stays with a traveller for the rest of their life.
By now I'd forgotten that I was supposed to be interviewing Jens and like travellers meeting on a dusty bus we simply swap stories. He tells me about the time he woke up in San Francisco to the sound of a coffee machine going b-b-b-b-blup! b-b-b-b-blup! and thought it was a guy with a stutter. And about the Frat party he played in Bennington that was "just like the movies" and where a guy called Stoney (real name Tony) came up an asked, in his best stoner voice, if there was a Swedish word for the pain of living.
I can't tell you how pleased I am that Jens Lekman tells good travel stories. I suspected that he might—his songs are so concretely set in a time and place and feathered with such tiny details that you are automatically transported to the world where they are from. When he tells me about The Thing, a wizened body kept at the back of a gas station in Arizona, at the end of a long hall lined with Nazi memorabilia, I know that if I ever found myself on the road between El Paso and Tucson I'll have to visit it. And that is before he tells me that the reflection of the fluorescent light above makes The Thing look like it's holding a laser sword from Star Wars.
Soon it was time for Jens to go. He has a plane to catch, a heart to win or lose, and a song or two to write. I'm not sure what he has made of our interview. It has been unstructured and chaotic and I probably talked more than I should have. But to his credit Jens laughs at my jokes and scribbles his name across CD inserts I'd brought along for him to sign.
I feel excited for Jens as I watch him step out of the café. He has begun his journey and whether he likes it or not, something is about to happen. He'll get the girl or he won't. He'll eat pancakes again for breakfast or he'll eat bagels. He'll be inspired to write an album's worth of material or decide, reluctantly, that his muse had finally left him.
But here's the thing: Whatever it is, it wouldn't have happened if he'd stayed at home.
Anyone who has seen Jens Lekman live knows he is partial to playing the Mbira (African Thumb Piano). The articles below are a great introduction to the kind of music that has influenced him.