(Lykke Li; photo by Josh Olins)

Earlier this week, artist Lykke Li announced that she had cancelled a string of upcoming festival tour dates. “I am utterly devastated. Sometimes we push and push but the body simply won’t follow,” said Li via Instagram. “I gave it all I had, my body, heart and soul. After seven years of touring, my health is screaming/begging for me to listen/heal/slow down.”

Since her debut album, 2008’s Youth Novels, Li has transformed from a quirky alt-pop chanteuse into a goddess of melancholy. Her most recent album, 2014’s I Never Learn, tells the tale of a woman who both struggles through and revels in her own despair. It’s an achingly beautiful record, one where Li holds herself accountable for all her mistakes and is able to see the hope shining through the darkness. 

Late last fall, we had the chance to chat with Li, days after her spellbinding show at Radio City Music Hall. Li spoke about the cathartic and healing power of art, the rigors of touring, and the spiritual power of her music.

The Culture Whore: I should get the really embarrassing gushing out of the way first. I’m a huge fan of yours, and your music is incredibly important to me, and this is a really gigantic thing, talking to you right now. So thank you for sharing such beauty with me and with the world.

Thank you, thanks so much. 

Your most recent record, I Never Learn—I saw you at the Apollo this spring, and you said that your most recent album was “a bit of a bummer,” and there definitely is the sense that, there’s so much melancholy, but in a lot of ways, you seem to be luxuriating in your own sadness. In a world where sadness is seen as something that we should just move past and get over, why do you think that sadness is beautiful and powerful?

The thing is, sadness is just what I put into my art, but it’s not the way I live my life. I’m a fighter, the reason why I make art is so I can try to heal myself, and then maybe in the process I can help someone else. So it’s not like I dwell in sadness in my life, that’s my process to get it out of where I am. Everyone wants to live, and darkness always wants to find light.

But I also think that there’s this crazy thing in life, especially in the west where people have this pressure to feel happy, or there’s this drive to get rich or famous and all of that, and its causing most of us to be so unhappy, and there’s no answer, what do we do with our unhappiness? Art is one place where your unhappiness can actually transform itself into something very beautiful.

Between seeing you at the Apollo earlier this spring and seeing you at Radio City, the show seemed much lighter and happier. Do you feel like having put this music out into the world and shared it with so many people, have you worked through a lot of what was going into it?

Yeah, definitely. The reason why I chose to put it out there, and the reason why I do shows, is so I can move on, so I don’t have to carry all of that alone. I feel way better now, but that’s also a natural process in life, you’re supposed to feel better. Life has been kind to me, I suffered and now I’m on the other side of the tunnel. It’s a beautiful thing and I’m very happy right now.

That feeling is so reflected in the show, it felt so intentional. All the black and then all the lights shining through and illuminating, that imagery of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. How much of that is intentional?

Very intentional, most of the stuff I do is intentional. The music, the way that we play, we try to have fun and be free and loose, but I think for creativity to blossom, you have to have a core, and a language, and I didn’t want to pull any tricks. I wanted the show to be like life is, a light in the dark.

What is that process like, of translating an album into a visual and emotional live experience?

I’m very lucky in the way that my and is fantastic, they’re the same people that have played with me from the start, and they’ve seen me through my ups and downs, and they’ve also played on the album, so it’s a very organic, natural process, just doing what we do.

What inspires you?

Dreams inspire me. The reason why touring is so hard for me is because I am quite a creative, forward-moving person, so it’s really hard for me to have to stay in one world. I’m the most excited when I sit with my loved ones over glasses of wine and we just talk, “Let’s do this, and what if we can create a compound in Wahaca, Mexico where all of our little babies will run around and we’ll make music.’ When you dream about the future, that’s the most inspiring thing, how to create something more than this world.

Is there a connecting narrative of your three records?

Yeah, of course. It’s a young woman searching for herself. At first probably searching in the outside world, searching for love, searching for approval, searching for adventure, searching for her home, searching for comfort, searching for all of those things. A woman searching for herself in a big world full of crazy men.

What is the story of Wounded Rhymes?

Wounded Rhymes is, they say that there’s different stages of grief, there’s acceptance, anger. Wounded Rhymes is an angry album, it’s me refusing to be a victim: I’m gonna win this motherfucker. At the same time, it’s not like “I’m gonna win this because I’m perfect,” it’s more open about how vulnerable you are: you did lose, you got fucked over, but owning it.

And that journey definitely carries over onto I Never Learn, because as sad as it is, it’s so assured, it really feels like you know yourself.

I do, and it’s kind of like the last thing. You can’t sink any deeper, you lost, and then you fucking lost again, and the only way is to completely surrender and give in, and I think what I really have to learn, which everyone tells me, which was hard for me to understand at first, is to love yourself, and truly appreciate that there really is no other way around it.

Have you already started thinking about what’s next?

The thing is, touring is so fucking hard, I don’t know if anyone understands how hard it is to tour. You become a meathead, the only thing you want to do is lay on your couch. So all I dream about is laying in my bed and not doing anything.

Home for you is LA now, has being there changed your creative process at all? 

LL: Yeah, but I’ve gone back and forth so many times. I moved to LA on my second record, and then I moved back to finish it in Stockholm, and then I fucking toured the world for two years, and then the same thing happened, I moved back to LA, I wrote the record, and then in order to finish it I had to moved back to Sweden, again. And then now I moved back to LA again, so I need to figure out a way to get all my carpets back. 

What’s the most rewarding part of touring? 

The opportunity to live in the now onstage. It’s one of the few times, except for having sex, when you can fully be in the now, engage with other people, and experience something transcendent together. That’s the coolest thing. And the music is very spiritual, and it’s a wonderful thing when you can see people who are feeling it.

But there is one thing that’s frightening, and compared to when I toured my last record three years ago, and that’s iPhones are fucking taking over the world. Instead of having an audience who’s looking at you and I feel a shared bond, it’s just iPhones in my face, and that is really bothering. And that’s crazy because it’s becoming this George Orwell sci-fi move all of the sudden, and then I go back to my bus and everyone take pictures of me, and it’s like, “why do you want to take pictures of me?” I told everyone I don’t want pictures, but they say ‘I want to remember this.” But the thing is, they won’t remember it through a picture, the only way to remember things is to live them. It’s a crazy thing, I really want to create a discussion about this, people get so offended to when I say I don’t want to take a picture.

It seems like the only way to exist nowadays is to be a celebrity or something, and I have no interest in that at all. I want to go into the spiritual aspect of music, where it’s a sacred, intimate thing that is not for Instagram. 

Your shows do feel very spiritual, and I’ve seen you in very small venues and huge ones, and I remember the last time I saw you, as soon as you came on stage, the person in front of me’s iPhone immediately went up, and I remember thinking, “She’s right there, why are you trying to see her through something else. She’s right there, have this experience.”

I don’t know what to do. It’s really hard to perform; it snaps me out of what I’m trying to do. 

But, in a huge seated venue like Radio City, by midway through the show, almost everyone was on their feet, and it was really indicative of how you forced everyone to become present, and that is what your music does. 

Thank you, thank you so much.

Mark Dommu

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