The past couple of months have been a whirlwind for Lykke Li. Even though her debut album, Youth Novels, won’t hit North American record stores until later this summer, the Swedish indie It Girl has been mega-busy. With her bouncy mélange of electro-pop, girl-group gleefulness, and hipster dance music making her an underground sensation, she’s spent much of this year globetrotting with hardly a moment’s rest. You can’t blame Li, then, for lazing about on a rare day off.
“I’m just lying in the hotel with my band members,” she says, on the line from London, England, before adding, “I’m over-tired.” A television blares in the background as a lethargic Li admits that it’s hard to feel creative during these precious moments of downtime. “When you only have one day off, you don’t want to sit and write songs.”
Following a string of jam-packed, heavily buzzed-about shows during this year’s South by Southwest festival, covered throughout the blogosphere, the vocalist can expect her current North American jaunt to be full of curious Pitchfork devotees. Though thrilled to have a growing fan base, Li is taking the newfound attention in stride, playing to sold-out rooms as if she were still performing in half-empty clubs. “My goal is to just kick everybody’s ass,” she says with a laugh.
Praise was first thrust on the Stockholm-based singer late last year through hype blogs on Gorilla vs Bear and Stereogum, among others, thanks to her undeniably infectious pop tune “Little Bit”. Since then, tons of live MP3s and videos—from glossy promotional clips to performances from toilet stalls and the backs of cabs—have been uploaded, further fuelling on-line interest in the 22-year-old’s music.
In + out
Lykke Li sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On eventually taking a break from touring: “I’m dying to go to South America. Not now, though. I’ll probably need a break after this album. I’ll probably go to South America for two months and find some new words for the new album. And I’ll find a Latin lover.”
On the impact of her father, who was a musician: “The thing that inspired me was not his music—I never listened to his music—but his lifestyle. I didn’t have to go down a certain path and do the 9-to-5 job. He always let me do whatever I wanted to.”
On developing her style and suffering for her art: “I’m so much better than I was last September when I laid down the vocals. That was my first time in a real studio. I’m a live artist—it’s hard for me to be in a studio. I’m finding new soundscapes. This is how I want to sound on the next record; the only thing I need to find now are the lyrics. I need to live a little bit. I need to get my heart broken again. I need to go through some stuff.”
As eagerly anticipated as Youth Novels is on these shores, for now North Americans will have to make do with the just-released four-song Little Bit EP. A spritely mandolin hook drives the title track, while thudding bass and salsa-infused clave rhythms back Li’s softly cooed vocals. Despite her innocent delivery, the song showcases some seriously sexed-up lines, including, “And for you I keep my legs apart/And forget about my tainted heart.”
“Rawness—that’s what’s really important,” the musician offers when asked about her lyrics. “I have to be really honest. I have to write from the heart.”
While Li is excited about the attention she’s received from the Web, she’s a little leery of believing this on-line praise.
“It’s pleasant to have all this hype on blogs, but it’s going to be gone tomorrow,” she suggests. “What happens if the Internet crashes—is my career over? I’d much rather be like Edith Piaf, just singing on the streets for years and then reaching out to people.”
Youth Novels, produced by fellow Swedish pop star Bjí¶rn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, has no shortage of head-swirling moments, flooding speakers with cascading strings, icy synth lines, and dance-floor-ready beats. As much as the album’s mashup of musical styles—ranging from ’60s soul to ’80s electro—is aurally engaging, trying to re-create the songs note-for-note live has been a challenge.
Early club dates found Li relying on an iPod full of backing tracks—“I’d stand there like I was doing karaoke,” she admits—but lately, the vocalist has been performing with a pared-down backing band. That’s meant ditching the album’s drum machines and heavily layered melodies. Luckily, tunes like “I’m Good, I’m Gone”, a randy club banger mixing sultry pianos with Mr. Roboto vocals, are just as stunning when stripped to basics. Maybe even more so.
“The songs can be done with just acoustic guitars,” the songwriter explains. “They’re the same songs with the same bone structure, but you can take away the saxophones and the flutes and the strings. I think the live experience is even better. It’s much more punk, or hip-hop, or whatever.”
No matter how the songs are delivered, Li’s performances are always energetic, with the songstress often busting out crazy dance moves.
“I go into this seizure and let it out,” she says of her style. “If I go out to a club, I’m the wildest one on the dance floor; I’ve always been like that. When I was 14, I went to Barcelona and went to all the B-boy competitions. I was battling all the boys.”
Despite her commanding stage persona, the vocalist insists she’s actually an introvert. Indeed, “Everybody But Me”, off the Little Bit EP, is a down-tempo number dealing with her shyness. A pulsating drum-machine beat and muted trumpets slink behind her tale of nightclub alienation, where she admits, “I get the creeps from all the people in here.”
“Sometimes I just want to go home,” Li says of her clubbing experiences. “But then when I’m home with my cup of green tea, I just want to be wild and take LSD and be out.”
But with a hectic touring schedule that sees her booked until New Year’s, the question of “to party or not party?” is hardly relevant to the musician. “I really wish I could go out, but sometimes I have to go to sleep or else my voice will be gone,” she laments before wryly adding, “Sometimes I’m a good girl, but sometimes I’m a bad girl.”
Lykke Li plays the Red Room on Wednesday (May 14).