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Earlier this year, Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman held a funeral for his beloved 2007 indie-pop LP Night Falls Over Kortedala. He’d built the record on a foundation of hundreds of tiny samples, none of which he’d had the resources to clear.
Still, for 13 years, the record endured, until finally it joined its sibling, 2005’s equally sample-heavy Oh You’re So Silent Jens, in the ether. Lekman’s Swiftian solution? Re-record both albums, and pad these new versions with all kinds of goodies: audio diaries, covers, and previously unreleased tracks.
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On the heels of this month’s physical release of his new records – which he called, respectively, The Linden Trees Are Still In Blossom and The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom – Lekman chatted with Billboard via Zoom about the re-recording process, the problem with copyright and his plans for the future. [Ed. note: this interview has been condensed for clarity.]
What inspired you to re-record Oh You’re So Silent Jens and Night Falls Over Kortedala, and why now?
Legalities. [laughs] The records were made in such a different time. I was at a very different point in my career. I wasn’t expecting anyone to really hear the songs. I was expecting to maybe sell a thousand copies of each record or something, and then things just took off.
Oh You’re So Silent Jens was taken down almost 10 years ago, and Night Falls had to be buried earlier this year. When Silent was taken down, I just assumed that things would continue as normal, and people would keep trading mixtapes, and the songs would live on in that way. But then streaming took over and that just made the record seem like it had never existed in the first place. There was not even a gap. There was no void. There was just nothing.
Night Falls is one of those albums I’ve listened to literally hundreds of times, but then You’re So Silent hardly at all, just due to the difficulty of getting a hold of it legally. Is that a common experience, fans just not being familiar with this piece of your catalog?
Yeah. There was a show I did where this young guy came up afterward and said, “You know, I love that new song that you played. I think it was called ‘Black Cab.’” [laughs] And that made me realize two things: one, that the record really had ceased to exist, that people were just so unfamiliar with it, and two, that the songs worked. The songs still had quality. They still did their job.
Were there any samples you had to scrap in this re-recording process that broke your heart?
On Night Falls, that record contains hundreds of samples. Some of them are tiny. I spent so much time in that micro-verse, trying to put everything together. So that was a tricky one to replace. Of course, [for legal reasons], I can’t really name any particular samples, but I do miss them. The sampler was my instrument. It was like I learned to play the guitar and then all of a sudden they said you can’t play a guitar anymore.
How does it feel to let go of a melody you’ve been singing for so many years?
I think of these records as portals, or tombstones that lead to the original records. I want people to understand that these are not the original records, that these are reconstructions of them. And I want them to look up the original records and think about the time that they were made in, because I think that it was a very interesting time. There was another conversation about how we could mix music, how we could borrow, how we could use copyright in a different way that wasn’t all tied up with major labels and venture capitalists.
It’s depressing to me how everything just changed so quickly, with regard to the distribution of music and how we listened to it. When I was making these records, I thought a lot about these things. There’s this song by the German-Brazilian artist Dillon, who wrote her own song on top of my song “Pocketful of Money,” which in turn was based on a song by Beat Happening. It’s just this beautiful string of songs tied in which each other. I think we’re missing that today.
Were there any really joyful moments of recreation? Any songs that you think came out better or that you were happy to have the opportunity to re-work?
I think “Maple Leaves” was probably that song. It was a very difficult song from the beginning, because the original contains so many samples, and it has this very particular sound that comes from the samples. It just sounds like a train that’s derailing – in a good way.
So when I was thinking of how to do it, I came to think of Joni Mitchell’s re-recording of “Both Sides Now.” That seemed to sum up a lot of the things that I was feeling and thinking when I was making these re-issues. That song just hits you so hard when it’s re-recorded by the 57-year-old Johi Mitchell instead of the 23-year-old. It made me feel like I understood what I was doing. I wanted to give “Maple Leaves” more emphasis on the bittersweetness of, at one point, being 23, feeling very confused about having your heart broken, and feeling like one day I’m gonna figure it out, and then being 41 and realizing that it’s still a big mystery. “I never understood at all” is how my song ends, and Joni Mitchell’s song ends with, “It’s love’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know love at all.”
Do you think that we’ll see more artists revisiting old work in this manner? Is that a path forward that you want artists to take, or would you rather find some other way to deal with sample ownership?
I’m hoping that we can find a different way of talking about it. I feel like it’s in the air. There is more interest in talking about these things now. But I also feel that there’s something about re-recording old work that has seemed forbidden before. When I was doing it, I liked that it was a bit forbidden. I liked that it was a bit of a sacrilege. It piqued my interest, in a way.
We’ve been talking a lot about what made you recreate these albums and the broader forces shaping this music. But I really do want to talk about the music itself, especially the sequel you wrote to “A Postcard to Nina” in the form of “The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom.” It’s very tonally different from that older song, which ends jubilantly with this refrain of “Don’t let anyone stand in your way.” Whereas, in 2022, you’re talking about Orlando, Viktor Orbán, the anti-gay laws in Russia. You can track a regression. Can you speak to the difference in the tone of those two songs?
I think of it as a joyous song in many ways. I think of it as an appreciation of what that story has meant to me and to other people. When I released “A Postcard to Nina,” I got a lot of reactions in certain parts of the world, which were like, “Didn’t happen,” or, “She’s not for real.” I mean, who cares these days? And then I would go to other places in the world where it’s a whole different situation and have people come up to me saying they went through the exact same thing or something similar. I feel like when things change in one part of the world for the better, it changes for the worse in some other part of the world. Things are still pretty grim, I think.
I’m curious about how you selected “The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom” and all these other bonus tracks for each record. What was that process like?
I think all of them are old recordings. “A Little Lost” was released in 2007 on an EP. And there’s a few songs that I found when I was going through the old tapes and archives that were almost finished, like “Our Last Swim in the Ocean,” “When I’m Swimming,” “Eureka.” I found these instrumental recordings I had gone into a studio and recorded with various musicians. “Eureka” was found on an old four-track tape. With those songs, I remembered how the melody went and I just recorded the vocals for them. Other songs, like “Radio Energy,” for example, were B-sides. “Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death” was a very popular song at the shows I did in 2006. I used to start with that song. I remember playing it in a sports bar somewhere in Texas and just made all the regular patrons walk out of the bar.
The problem was that I have so much material from those days. The majority of it is, of course, made with samples, so I can’t release it. And the other songs are not very good. So don’t worry about it.
I loved the vocal diary entries that are peppered throughout, especially the one that opens “The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom.” You’re like, “If I’m dead, then my CDs are here, and I hope you like them.” It’s been almost 20 years since you recorded that message. Are you where you thought you’d be? What surprises have those 20 years held for you?
No, I never imagined that I would be here at this point. I had a job back then – I don’t know what it’s called in English – but it’s, it’s a service for people with disabilities or the elderly. It’s like a taxi service people who can’t go on public transport. I just envisioned myself staying at that job. I loved that job. It was great. And then writing songs for the fun of it.
So, yeah, a lot of stuff has happened since then, but I also feel like things have calmed down the last 10 years. When Night Falls Over Kortedala came out, it felt like things were blowing up. I used that tool, Google Trends, once, just to check my name. [laughs] This is not something that I usually do, but I was just fascinated by it. And there’s this curve when Night Falls comes out, and it gets really high. And then [2012 album] I Know What Love Isn’t comes out, and it just nosedives. And then it’s nothing after that. [laughs] But it’s a very pleasant place to be in, in my career. I do my wedding shows. I get to put out records. I get to go on touch with youth orchestras. So I’m very, very happy to be where I am.
What do you think the future holds? Can you guess at where you’ll be 20 years from now?
I think I’ll still be making music. Our time allows musicians to work in collaborations with other formats, other expressions. So I’ve been working the last five, 10 years with art galleries and writers and people in TV and movies and all kinds of things. I feel like that’s where my music belongs. I’m not just going to put out record after record. I make a record, and then, after that, I usually make some weird projects that people may not understand as well. [laughs] But it’s for myself. It’s how I keep going.