Lykke Li: ‘I struggled a lot with self-hate and my looks and my body’
Lykke Li is sick of being lovesick. She is sick of singing about being lovesick. She is also sick, period. As in physically sick. Unwell. “I’m in bed with a fever,” the Swedish singer-songwriter mews down the phone from her hotel room. She is in London promoting her latest album EYEYE, a record that is all about breaking patterns. Lovesickness be damned.
People may wonder why someone in Li’s position – a singer who has weathered the storm of Noughties celebrity and come out the other side, the kind of elusive, enduring artist that many indie musicians aspire to be – would want to break such a successful cycle. Anyone who has ever listened to a Lykke Li song will know why: she writes about heartbreak. Her own. Over and over. Across four – now five – records, Li has reached into the crevices of her bleeding heart and found catchy tunes. Albums move subtly between heartbreak and heartache, longing and yearning. The pain is most palpable in her torch ballads – but listen close, and you’ll hear it pulsating like a migraine even in her most radio-ready pop moments. Fifteen years after finding success at 21, Li is ready to break the cycle.
“I didn’t want to get stuck in the repetition of being hurt and making songs about it,” she says. Admittedly, EYEYE does chronicle the dissolution of another relationship, but it also examines Li’s impulse to create art out of pain. “I wasn’t aware of it before. This was the first time that I took a step back and analysed my whole relationship to love from even before I was born,” she says. Li dissected the many fantasies she had internalised as a young girl devouring films, poems, and art. “I’m ready to break my own repetition and perfect the circle to create some harmony and balance. It’s an album to myself and what I started many years ago.” Think of EYEYE as a last hurrah then, or rather a final sob.
The tracks on her previous record, 2018’s exquisitely named So Sad So Sexy, drew on hip-hop with trap beats and rap features. An eclectic assortment of super producers – including Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and Frank Ocean producer Malay – were brought in to assist. Li can see now that this outside intervention served a personal purpose at a difficult time. “I was in a very hard place in my life,” she says. She had just given birth but she had also separated from her partner, the Grammy-winning producer Jeff Bhaskar. Her mum had died of brain cancer. “It was like all the worst things that can happen, happened.” The album became a way of surviving. It was something for Li to cling to while the world around her atomised. Looking back, Li is both astonished and proud that she managed to pull it off. “I don’t understand how I got it done when I was in so much grief and pain, plus the exhaustion of having a baby.” She finds it interesting that So Sad So Sexy is the album “that sounds the least like me”.
If So Sad So Sexy was a digression, EYEYE is a homecoming. Li can remember lying in bed, exhausted from touring and nursing another broken heart. She listened to the voice memos on her phone, where she records snippets of inspiration and melodic ideas. “I really thought, I don’t want to destroy the rawness of those this time. I want to make the most intimate and raw and alive piece I’ve ever made,” she says. To those ends, EYEYE was recorded without headphones or click-tracks. There is the sound of a dishwasher running in the background. Everything was one-take.
The writing process was low-key: at home alone in her bedroom. “Well, my home is very much one big bedroom,” Li says, explaining there is “wall-to-wall carpet” everywhere. “I like to be horizontal and just dream.” She also returned to the safe hands of her longtime collaborator Björn Yttling, who has worked on all her records except So Sad So Sexy. It was during that period that Li began psychedelic-aided therapy. She took psilocybin, ayahuasca and 5-MeO-DMT together with her therapist. “Actually, not the ayahuasca,” she clarifies. That was with a shaman.
Like many of her best songs, EYEYE revels in abject feeling. On the album opener “No Hotel”, she sings to near nothingness. Her voice is long-breathed and solitary: “I know I hold on/ To someone not here / But you won’t go away.” Her music is not so much a cooling balm for your wounds as it is a hot iron to cauterise them. Languish with me fellow sad-sacks, her songs seem to say, and I will make our pain into something beautiful.
If even half the anguish Li sings about is real – she later tells me that “sadly” it all is – you would not blame her for hardening to love. Instead, Li remains painfully open to it. “I think it’s quite heroic,” she laughs at her enduring belief. At 16 she was a “complete romantic”. At 36, she remains one. Li suggests that maybe it is because she is an artist. “I’m potentially more open in general. Like, I’m trying to be open.”
A side effect of that, though, is that she is often unwell. “I’m okay with being vulnerable in my work because it’s somehow protected but when I have to be out there in the world, I always get sick.” Li hosted a listening event last night, hence this morning’s fever. As if on cue, a doorbell rings and she politely excuses herself to answer room service who have brought her a cup of tea. A metal spoon dings against porcelain. She continues, “I’m quite sensitive when I have to be out there in the world, so I get sick a lot on tour.” I ask if she thinks of herself as an empath, someone who feels the moods of others as though they are her own. “I think so. I need to learn how to shield myself.”
That energy of celebrity and Hollywood is something I really detest
Speaking to Li, it’s easy to believe. She is not the husky-voiced chanteuse of her sad, sexy songs. Instead, she has a spacey air about her and a girlish lilt. She is the sort to giggle, rather than laugh. I feel myself lowering my voice, to match her whisper. Although Li’s camera is not on, if it were, I might see her spectral face with big eyes and a small mouth framed by a dirty blonde pixie cut.
Li had a nomadic childhood, moving around several times with her family: Stockholm, Portugal, Lisbon, Morocco, Nepal, back to Stockholm. Winters were spent in India. Growing up, she spent her time reading and listening to music on her Walkman. Michael Jackson was her first CD. “A bit politically incorrect now,” she says. Li began dancing at five. At 15, she decided she wanted to do something more creative. She applied to music school in Stockholm but didn’t get in. “That was devastating but it somehow awoke the underdog in me and made me certain that I wanted to do music.”
Li has been sure of herself ever since. “Strangely, I’ve always had a clear idea of what I don’t like so I’ve been able to say ‘no’ quite easily. ‘No, it’s not right. No, it’s not there yet.’ It was easy when I was younger because I was quite cocky.” Her Swedish accent sticks on the double consonants like toffee. Li says her greatest regrets are the times she “allowed things to slip through” that she knew weren’t quite right. This idea of creative purity preoccupies Li endlessly. Naturally, she has dreamt of clearing out her catalogue. She would wipe it all other than “I Follow Rivers” and “I Never Learn”. Li is a perfectionist to the extreme. “Even when I look at this room, I wish this or that was a bit to the right or to the left. When I’m ordering food, I want this very specific thing. I carry a vision inside of me and then when it doesn’t translate, it’s very painful.” At last night’s listening event, Li wished the lights had been less bright; that a hotel sign was not in view; that the audience were facing the other way. “I’m always imagining a better situation.”
Li counts herself “fortunate” that her career has been mostly smooth sailing. Having entered the industry at 21, she knows how easily the opposite could’ve been true. “I wonder why I never had those #MeToo situations happen to me,” Li says. Later, she posits a theory. “Maybe it’s because I never leaned into my sexuality. I wasn’t even aware of my sexuality. I never had that energy and I think maybe that’s why it was completely shut off from me – because it was always about the art.”
But if being a young woman in music did not throw up challenges, becoming a mother certainly did. Overnight – or rather nine months – the industry grew increasingly dismissive of her. “I feel like it’s improved a little bit now,” she says. “I’m happy to see Rihanna out there with a belly. It’s like the hottest thing ever and so pregnancy is becoming less destigmatised. You see power in it now.” She pauses and circles back. “But I guess that’s not really true because she has infinite resources so it’s a false example.”
Becoming a parent wasn’t what she expected. For one thing, Li thought motherhood would temper her ambition. In reality, she has never been more driven. But practically, she asks, how are mothers expected to do this? “I want to work; I want to be completely lost in my creation, but I also have to take care of this child. It’s quite brutal, to be honest. And that’s when you really see… What is it called? I’m not so good in English with these types of words.” She searches her brain for a moment before finding it. “Inequality. You see the inequality. It’s very hard to be a woman. It really is.”
The effect motherhood had on her body image was similarly surprising. “I have had a really complicated relationship with being a woman; I never felt like one, to be honest. I struggled a lot with self-hate and my looks and my body. I felt that I didn’t have the power that women had,” she says. In pregnancy, that changed. “I found both the strength and softness, ‘I was like, ‘Wow, I am a woman.’” Li adds that on EYEYE, she leaned into her “masculine side” and realised she is quite androgynous. “It’s been interesting to play with gender identifications. It’s yin and yang. Opposites. Duality. Everything is both.”
On the subject of bodies, we speak about the time Rihanna once complimented Li on her “tits”. She giggles at the memory. “Sadly, that’s when they were fresh and quite large at the time, and now they aren’t anymore,” she says. “I really struggle with that, but I think it’s interesting to have body parts you struggle with, especially in this world where all these young girls get plastic surgery and fillers.” Li is curious to see if soon it’ll be viewed as “antiquated” not to have had any plastic surgery. She isn’t judging. Just curious.
The singer mostly keeps to herself. She lives in LA but never ventures west. “That energy of celebrity and Hollywood is something I really detest.” The only thing she cares about is the music, she says. “I just want to write a good song.” Li would also like to try her hand at writing for others, adding that she is “completely happy being an anonymous songwriter”. Perhaps she can smuggle any future heartbreak into songs sung by other people.
Li’s most devoted fans view her as a patron saint of modern-day sadness. And they make countless memes to that effect, the best of which Li has compiled together on her Instagram. But Li wants a new challenge, and hopefully to find a lasting love. “It’s almost more difficult to describe the fragility of something good and beautiful. Complete love is something I’m curious to try describing.”
EYEYE is out on 20 May