On a sunny day in the almost oppressively laid-back Los Feliz enclave of Los Angeles, Swedish emo-pop practitioner Lykke Li is quietly fuming. Not only was she nearly run over, having walked out in front of a car assuming it would stop, but now her favourite shop (“They sell the best bowls”) is closed. At one point, after some frantic buzzer-pressing (it’s that kind of place), the owner peers round the door only to tell us to come back in five days, while a FaceTime chat with a friend who might be able to help comes to nothing. It turns out that supermodel Giselle Bündchen paid a visit recently, and this brush with celebrity has made the owner a bit shy. “But I’m nobody,” Li says to the face in her phone. “I’m not famous.”
She may not be Giselle famous, but over the course of four albums of emotionally swollen doom-pop, Li has single-mindedly carved out her own lane. While 2008’s debut Youth Novels, featuring whimsical single Little Bit, contained a semblance of untarnished naivety, 2011’s Wounded Rhymes (key song title: Sadness Is a Blessing) and 2014’s claustrophobically downbeat I Never Learn confirmed Li as modern pop’s bruised, goth-leaning moody sister. On the surface, that seems to have changed with this month’s new album, So Sad So Sexy, which sees her work with Malay (Frank Ocean), Skrillex and super-producer and partner Jeff Bhasker, with whom she has a two-year-old son. The result is an album that takes the sounds of hip-hop, R&B and trap and scuffs them up via Li’s brand of overblown heartache.
After years of rejecting the “pop star” tag – in part, a reaction to being lumped in with every female musician coming out of Sweden – she is now, reluctantly, softening to it. “Being indie is very much being against things,” she says as we try and find a place to chat. “But I’m more open-minded now.” Her first step to pop enlightenment was to strip away the reverb she’d always used on her vocals. Like everything when it comes to Li’s creativity – she’ll later compare music-making to Fitzcarraldo director Werner Herzog’s attempts to pull a 320-tonne steamboat over a mountain in documentary Burden of Dreams – it was a challenge, a state of being she seems to relish.
“Jeff really pushed me hard,” she says. “He was like: ‘Take away that reverb, you need to fucking sing.’ It was crazy; I was running out of the studio crying every day.” In fact, their relationship, which was being tested at work and at home, became a sort of studio soap opera. “It was a big show for everyone else; they’re going to have tons of stories to tell. My new manager said we were the craziest – and he manages Courtney Love.”
Eventually we settle in a Thai restaurant. I read her a comment left on YouTube under the new album’s bright first single, Deep End. It reads: “How am I supposed to have a new depression with this upbeated [sic] music?” She’s quick to dismiss fears of a full-blown shiny pop sell-out. “There’s a whole album, and it’s pretty depressing,” she says. “I’ve been through some shit.” Dressed, somewhat against type, all in white, with her bleached blonde hair showing its roots, she’s an odd mix of LA teenager and – thanks to a vast assortment of gold jewellery – rootsy, new-age yoga mum.
The “shit” she alludes to started during a break in touring I Never Learn. A sickly person, she ended up cancelling the Australian leg of the jaunt, even turning down a proposed support slot with Rihanna, whose Anti album has influenced So Sad So Sexy. “I’d been on a seven-year cycle of albums, tours, heartbreaks, trying to grow up,” she sighs. “All I wanted was to be in my fucking bed.”
She recalls a meeting with Rihanna at a party. “She complimented me on my tits,” she laughs, before adding quickly “but this was before I had the baby. I had a very low-cut top on and she said, ‘Oh, look at you with your titties out.’ I feel like we had some kind of connection.”
In a lot of ways, I Never Learn underlined the end of the first chapter of Li’s life; she’d always seen those first albums as a trilogy, marking out her 20s, and taking her from the “cocky” Lykke Li of Youth Novels to the “just completely broken and exhausted and, like, fuck my life” shell of I Never Learn. Solace briefly came when she was “pregnant and chilling” in the shape of Liv, a 70s MOR-influenced supergroup of sorts featuring Bhasker, Björn Yttling and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt and Pontus Winnberg, a project that was quickly curtailed by “divorces and cats dying and ‘Oh, now I have to go and work with Miley Cyrus’.”
After her son Dion was born, the rush of emotions created a frustrating mix of creativity and self-doubt. Having entered her 30s (she’s now 32), and without a label or manager, she thought about giving up on music. “I was just burnt out,” she says. “But I really wanted to be a better writer. It’s fucking hard being a woman, basically, and a mum. I know writers who didn’t write again for two years [after having a baby].”
She says early motherhood was “psychedelic”, and that it left her feeling “raw, needy, crazy”. Adjacent to the LA musical elite via Bhasker, whose production credits include Uptown Funk, Beyoncé’s 4 and most of Harry Styles’s solo album, she found herself fading into the background. “We’d show up somewhere,” she says, “and I was totally only a baby momma to them. Especially in this town. It becomes a big stigma, like: ‘Oh, you have a baby – OK, bye.’ I was nothing and nobody here, which in some way was really good – to have my ego completely broken, you know? To listen to Frank Ocean and be like: ‘Wow, I’m never going to make an album this good.’ Or, two months after giving birth, watching Lemonade and thinking: ‘I could never … I’m done.”’
Did she find it frustrating that Bhasker, who won a Grammy for producer of the year in 2016, was able to continue working immediately? “Yeah, that was like: ‘Wow – the difference between being a man and a woman.’ I was a feminist before, but now it’s next level.” She also initially had problems finding a new manager and record deal (she’s now signed to Sony). “People were like: ‘She’s difficult,’ meaning: ‘She has an opinion, she demands a lot of attention to detail, but she makes no money.’”
In July 2017, as the album was taking shape, her mother – who gave her a nomadic upbringing, moving the family from suburban Sweden to a village in Portugal and then back to Stockholm again, via holidays in India – died. Li says So Sad So Sexy carries the weight of the tragedy. “It was like: ‘Woah, wake up, you’re an adult.’”
I remind Li of a previous interview, in which she said it was always her mother’s aim that Li be as “un-Swedish as possible”. Does Li think she succeeded? “Yeah, it’s sad, too, because when she got sick she actually did return to Sweden,” she says. “On her death bed she said: ‘Lykke, this is what’s important,’ because when she was there all her friends would come and visit her. I realised that that’s ultimately what you have. I love and miss Sweden so much now.”
For the time being, though, she’s happy in LA, drawn, as ever, to its darker side, which even extends to living under President Trump. “It’s a historic moment, so it’s kind of pretty interesting, to be honest,” she says. “You’re in the heat of the fire. It’s completely fucked up, but I have a pretty dystopian view of the world anyway.”
As our lunch comes to an end, Li has to rush off to finish editing two music videos. The deadline’s approaching and she’s itching to get them done.
“I went to a hypnotist because I have some kind of control thing, and he was like: ‘You’re way worse than I thought – you’re an uber control freak.’” She laughs. “But I’m also a free spirit. I decide what I want to do, and that’s the way it’s going to be. Sometimes people are going to like it and sometimes they won’t.”
So Sad So Sexy is out on 8 June
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