Long before Covid-19 changed the world forever, Swedish artist Lykke Li was already holed up in her LA home in a self-enforced isolation. “I was already very much in my own lockdown,” she says pensively. “It was something that I was intuitively feeling I needed.” Li isn’t feeling great when we meet in a café in London: she’s opened-up frequently in the past about how sickly she can get in the day-to-day, but especially so on tour, needing to pace herself to avoid burnout. At the start of 2020, at the end of another long series of tour dates, she says she crashed.
“I’d been on the road for so many years and I have so many health issues,” she explains of “destructive” touring cycles. “I found [touring] very difficult and I still don’t know how to balance that with art,” she admits. “Just travelling itself is [hard], I’m very introverted and sensitive and I always get sick. It’s just not very helpful for the body in general: I struggle with it a lot.”
On a second meeting, feeling better, she is more open and says that another factor that led to her being “exhausted and heartbroken” at the start of 2020, was trying to manage touring pressures with being a full-time single parent to her six-year-old-son.
“It’s hard to balance art and motherhood,” she continues. “Art is very consuming, and motherhood is very consuming – it’s a constant battle.” Soon after having her son, Li lost her own mother. On her deathbed, her mother told Li about “what matters most”, which for her was spending time with loved ones. Li says being at home with her son made her focus more on life away from music. “It was actually quite nice for me to get to land, to have my own audience in my own home and be very present as a mother,” she says. “I quite enjoyed having that extended time off. I’m really interested in exploring a more artful existence now.”
Li has certainly had a breathless 15 years since arriving on the music scene in 2008, aged just 21. Her breakthrough albums, 2008’s Youth Novels and 2011’s Wounded Rhymes were masterclasses in angsty doom-pop, while 2014’s I Never Learn was more grown-up goth in the vein of Nick Cave, all introverted and downbeat. Her last album, So Sad So Sexy, was a bold about turn, taking R&B, trap and hip-hop and putting it through a distinctly melancholic Lykke Li filter. It also included a string of collaborations with the likes of Frank Ocean’s producer, Malay, and her super-producer ex-husband, Jeff Bhasker, famed for his work with Kanye West.
Her latest, fifth album EYEYE, is a dramatic return to her DIY roots but this time, she’s combined her music with an ambitious video cycle to create a more “immersive audio-visual album” that’s designed to be watched and listened to simultaneously. “I really tried to write it more like a sonic movie where each chapter is like a scene,” she says. Li is no stranger to film, having appeared in two movies previously. She watched Michael Mann’s Heat for inspiration for her latest, but also viewed the work of artists like Tracey Emin, Marina Abramovic, Cindy Sherman and Louise Bourgeois. She says she can see a future for herself in both art and film when her musical career ends – something she thinks about often.
“I always see the end of my career,” she says. “I feel like when you finish something, there’s always a fear that, like, this is maybe the last time [or] I think was that my best work and how will I ever be able to be in a place like this again? ... I can definitely see a world where I move more into the visual arts in the future, maybe making my own little installations.”
Even in 2019, Li thought her music career would come to an abrupt end. In an industry where pressures on women to be young still dominate, had that played a part in her thinking? “I feel that for sure,” she agrees. “That’s why I’m trying to step into another part of my artistry, where I make immersive worlds so it’s not so much about pop and all of that.” Li says as a new artist, there was little help for young women, whose careers were given a short shelf life. “I don’t remember having much support,” Li says. “It was quite a lonely existence and experience.”
Li has tried to support women by curating her own festival with a group of “strong women” in 2019 alongside the likes of Courtney Love, Charli XCX and Cat Power. “I’m always trying to uplift, empower and showcase female talent, and anyone that identifies as female,” she says of the event. She’s not sure if the music industry is a better place for women now, but she certainly feels more optimistic about it. “I don’t know if I’m older, or the world has changed, but I hope it’s better,” she says. “I try to surround myself with women that are very supportive now.”
I would love for the world to focus on basic human rights for women
In terms of how the rest of the world is for women, Li is far less certain. We meet the week after the controversy over the potential overturning of the landmark abortion rights case Roe v Wade in the US and Li, a passionate advocate of women’s rights, says she is appalled by the news. “The situation for women in the US is completely enraging... I’m still in shock,” she says. “It’s mind boggling. I really do not understand how something like this can be happening now. [Being from] Sweden, it’s completely foreign and insane to me.
“I would love for the world to focus on basic human rights for women,” she continues. “There’s abortion rights, maternity leave, equal pay, women in Afghanistan – girls cannot go to school.” She thinks music can offer some sort of safe space. “Music, in my opinion, is a place of freedom and creativity for women... music is one of the places where, despite everything in the world being quite male-dominated, there’s still great female artists coming through.”
Li copes by escaping the real world often, creating her own artistic “bubble” of sorts. “I’m very much a hermit,” she laughs. “I love making an all-encompassing world... a metaverse to exist in,” she says. This headspace lends itself well to her new album – a work that reflects both the time alone that Li craved while out on the road and also the introspection that came after having that period of solitude. Like her previous albums, it mines her own personal heartbreak in a diary-like way, but unlike its predecessors, it re-writes the traditional break-up record by focusing on what our psychological relationship is with love in a bid to understand it more.
“I was quite interested in the neuro-chemistry of love,” she says, explaining that she consulted expert scientists and therapists on the topic. “Love like a drug is very powerful, it gives [our brains] the same kind of neuro-chemical response as being addicted to something else, to the climax to coming down.” She expands: “I know personally – and this is the case for a lot of my girlfriends too, as soon as you meet someone the movie in your head starts to play and it’s very much about the ideas and the fantasy, and that doesn’t really correlate with reality. This album deals with our addiction to love and its cycles, and how you can kind of get stuck in a vicious cycle with it.”
Li recorded it on basic equipment in her bedroom, so that it would have “the intimacy of listening to voice memo,” meaning you almost get to experience her heartbreak in real time. “It’s basically a break-up with the break-up album” she says of that process, in the hope of creating something more “raw, intimate and real”. The album is “really about your perception of love, your relationship with love and how you fantasise, glorify and romanticise love” she says. “A [cycle] of addiction, relapse and obsession.”
Li keeps her private life fiercely guarded and is reticent to reveal much about it, but even a cursory listen to her songs reveals a fierce heart-on-sleeve lyricism. The first song from EYEYE, No Hotel, for example, sees Li sing “There’s no hotel / No cigarettes / And you’re still in love / With someone else”, vulnerably over a solitary acoustic guitar. Similarly, on You Don’t Go Away, her Kate Bush-like falsetto wonders “it doesn’t go away / Every night I wait...you don’t go away” as she pines over a lost love she can’t forget.
“It’s really dissecting why I’ve been so obsessed with romantic love my whole life,” she explains. Did she worry about being so open, writing so personally with partners past and present (she was rumoured to be seeing Brad Pitt earlier this year) able to listen? “I’m always writing from personal experiences on my album. I’m a writer and I think anyone that gets involved with me is aware of the risks,” she says. “I just try to stay as true to my feelings as I possibly can. I don’t know what the other option is for me,” she adds, saying even when “in character” on tour or in a video, “that character is still myself”.
“As I’m getting older, I’m getting to know myself more. I’m constantly peeling back [layers], trying to get to the core of myself. This album was about getting to the core of myself.”
Another way Li managed to get back to that core – something she felt she lost on her last album (“I don’t know if the last one was received that well,” she says) – was by returning to work with her first producer Björn Yttling and getting back to basics when it came to recording. There’s the ambient sounds of the bedroom Li made the album in, but no click-tracks, no headphones and no digital instruments: she recorded entirely on a cheap handheld drum mic. “We live in a world where it’s a lot of trap, autotune and over-production and I just craved some intimacy with [sound],” she explains. “I was in bed listening to the voice memos that I’d recorded and I really didn’t want to destroy that [closeness] with the [audience],” she says, so it sounds like “the still-beating sound of fresh heartbreak being whispered into your ear”.
She’s certainly achieved that on what is her most vulnerable and accomplished album to date: Li also says it’s her most cathartic. Out of pain, she says, came her best music. “I think it’s very important to always stay true to your creative vision and not waver, only really listen to yourself. It has to be true to you and meaningful to you,” she reflects, breathing in all of her experiences to date. “But sometimes, destructive emotions lead to the best art,” she reflects. “I hope this is mine.”
EYEYE is out now on Play It Again Sam/Crush Music