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Lykke Li

This article was originally published in Apartamento magazine issue #24.

 

Los Angeles: Swedish pop star Lykke Li has finally settled down in Los Angeles. Since releasing her long-awaited fourth album, so sad so sexy, in 2018, the 33-year-old artist has digested the trauma and triumph of the past few years. While writing so sad so sexy, Li had just given birth to her son, Dion, split from her long-term partner, producer Jeff Bhasker, lost her mother to brain cancer, and ended a decade-long relationship with her record label. But all this is a distant memory now as she is sitting in the home she recently purchased. ‘I basically planted all my royalties’, she says as she leads me to the impressive garden behind a wall of glass windows that opens up the back of the house. Her home, hidden up the curvy hilltops above Hollywood, is open, minimalist, yet comforting. We walk through the house and Li points out her favourite pieces: a circular mid-century couch she had reupholstered, the vintage Steinway piano she hunted down, art by Moley Talhaoui and Robert Motherwell, wallpaper in the main bathroom imported from Sweden by designer Josef Frank to remind her of home. ‘I want to show you something’, she says as I follow her into her bedroom. The master suite is simple: a plush bed complete with a Gio Ponti headboard, a table by Gae Aulenti (which she purchased years ago during what she refers to as a ‘woman-under-the-influence’ crisis), and a big stack of books that line the wall by the entrance (Anaïs Nin and Jenny Holzer titles pop out in heavy rotation). ‘I’ve been so exhausted in my home life. I’ve been to a million hotels, so I have it dialled in and all I need is a bed, some books, and darkness, so’. Li reaches for a remote control, clicks the button and smiles as a green velvet curtain slowly moves across the entirety of her floor-to-ceiling glass walls, blocking out all traces of the Los Angeles sun and her garden. ‘Like, ciao’. She beams and waves. ‘When I do this, I think, “Mom, I made it so fucking big”’.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li

When you were growing up you moved all over the place with your family, then you spent your 20s on the road touring. At this point in your life, how important is home to you?

Spiritually, I’m on another level. This is the first home I have had in America. This is the first place I have ever said, ‘OK, I’m going to buy a fucking couch’, because I have always lived out of a suitcase. Especially after having a baby and separating with Jeff and tearing one home down to build a new one, as a grown woman, this has been so healing.

As far as the aesthetic of the house, was it perfect when you bought it, or have you put a lot of work into it?

Ever since I first came to LA when I was 20 or 21 years old, I’ve been enamoured with that style of mid-century, one-level home that is here. When we had to move out of the big family house I figured I would never find my own home, so I spent every night searching for a little house that would fit me and my son and one guest room, so people from Sweden could come visit, and I wanted a tiny garden. But I am also really into keeping the original décor. That’s really hard in America, especially in this area. Finding this house was totally synchronic, because it came on Redfin during Martin Luther King Jr Day weekend, so there was no open house. I called the realtor right away. The house was owned by a couple who had passed away, so everything was in its original form. The bones were good. I didn’t do that much. I saw the potential. Together with the interior designer Mark Haddawy, we painted, put new marble on the countertops, and I spent all the money I’ve ever made on my plants.

I was going to ask if you gardened.

I do a little.

I love plants. They are so soothing.

Oh, yeah. So soothing. I just lie in my bed and stare at the garden. And sometimes I’ve done tiny bits of mushrooms and thought, ‘Oh my god, I have found my home’. It’s really special.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li
Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li

You had your son a few years ago. Congratulations. Did you know you were having a boy?

Yes, but I also knew I was having a boy. I knew I was going to have him before I had him.

You just saw it happening?

I never thought I would have a baby. I had physical issues that led me to believe that. It was always such a heartbreak of mine. Also, because I am an artist, you are taught that you have to choose either a career or motherhood. I was always questioning if I would have a baby. Then, one day I just had this vision of a kid with long hair, zooming around, and a month later I was pregnant. And my son is totally that person zooming around with his long hair.

Going back to the idea of having to choose between career or motherhood, I recently had a baby in June, and being a musician I struggled with that same question. But now that he is here, it’s like he always was. Do you know what I mean?

Totally. Have you ever read Motherhood by Sheila Heti?

No, but it’s been recommended to me.

Oh, you have to read it. It’s crazy. It’s exactly how it is, all the doubts about having kids; she really just—wow. Just being a woman, that you have to have that inner debate.

When you found out you were pregnant, were there any questions or were you ready?

I felt very ready and super exhausted. I had just finished my third album, I had toured my ass off, and I had a mini breakdown, where I had to cancel a bunch of shows. I hit rock bottom. I felt so done. I was dreaming about doing laundry and, like, making dinner with a zucchini and using the other half the next day, you know what I mean? Shit I hadn’t done in years. I was so ready to try to have a life.

I play in a punk band and we toured forever. I remember being in the studio recording a few years ago and the question of having kids came up, and the producer was like, ‘Well, which women in rock ‘n’ roll have kept their careers in the same way after kids?’ I don’t know?

It’s true.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li

Is that because touring is a young person’s game. Is touring a man’s game?

I think the world is a man’s game. The way that the world is set up, it’s always been a man’s game, especially a white man’s game. I have this company that I started on the side before I was pregnant, called Yola. We just did a music festival, Yola Dia, in Los Angeles, with all women. So this is something I am always thinking about. You realise that the social structure is made for men. And touring, music, and all these things.

How does that dictate the way you plan to raise your son, as opposed to how you would raise a daughter?

I’m super psyched to have a son. He’s always surrounded by women. I bring him to the Yola house and he’s got 15 women slapping him around. All his friends are girls. I tried to have a neighbour’s son come over to play and he said, ‘No, I only play with girls’. I’m really excited for him to be in this time where you are allowed to be who you are. We are shifting the paradigm, so I am excited. I think I was also, somehow, destined to have a boy.

Do you want more kids?

It depends on the situation. Sometimes, yes, but I also know how difficult it was. My circumstances were not the most fun, my mom passed away, da, da, da. I realised that quitting, having a baby, I was kind of still—I wanted to write. I wanted to do more things. It depends on my ambition—and fertility.

Speaking of ambition, you said once that Swedish people don’t like ambition. What do you mean?

They don’t like ambition. It’s true. Part of this is because of the bad parts of socialism, but now that I am here in America I realise that there’s mostly good to socialism. I am a socialist. The problem in Sweden is that everything has to be so equal. It’s the tall-poppy syndrome. If one poppy grows bigger than the rest, it must be squashed. When I was younger and in school, I got a lot of shit for wanting to do things.

Most artists have that similar story like you are describing, of being teased or feeling like an outcast. How important to creativity and independence is it to be bullied and survive it? Was being picked on integral to who you are?

I had a challenging childhood. This forces you inward to find a channel for your pain, but then you are asking yourself, ‘How much therapy do I have to do?’ You know what I mean? I’m still so fucked up. It could take me another 35 years to be somewhat normal! I still haven’t figured it all out. I’m good at relationships, just not the romantic ones.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li

Why do you say that?

Why? Because that’s why I am still in deep therapy. I suffer from romanticism.

Being too idealistic in romance?

Exactly, and being a dreamer in general. I feel like I’ve been carrying around a nondescript heartache since I was a year old.

I want to go back and talk about motherhood, if that’s OK.

Of course. We have to talk about it and remove the stigma for the next generation. Look, I may be failing at both motherhood and my career, but at least I am trying to do it. You know what I mean?

Totally. I had my kid in June, so I’m obsessed with the birth story. How was yours?

It was kind of amazing.

Don’t tell me you did it at home.

No, no. My water broke and I had to sit in Saturday night traffic to get to the hospital. My whole plan was to do it natural, no drugs, ‘Don’t give me anything, no matter what I say’, and then one minute into labour I’m like, ‘Shoot me, kill me!’

Contractions are the craziest, most indescribable pain.

Yeah! So that was a shock I didn’t know how to handle. I pushed for two hours, then gave in and got the epidural. Once I got the epidural, I was in bed and it was night, there were lights in the sky, and I felt like I was in heaven. I was listening to Roberta Flack’s ‘First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’ and then, I don’t know, it was kind of fast. My water broke at 6pm and by midnight I knew I was ready to push. Everyone kept telling me I wasn’t there yet, because it was my first kid. My doctor wasn’t there because she was at her 50th birthday party, so another doctor from the party came to the hospital. I waited an hour, then it was three pushes and he was out.

Wow.

I think I had prepared for the birth to be so hard that I was in shock about how I felt afterwards. No one tells you that you will feel like someone ran you over with a bus for about three weeks. I was in so much pain. The breastfeeding was chaos. It was so physical. You feel like you want to check into a spa for a week and sleep, but you can’t, because you have this baby who needs you around the clock.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li

Do you feel like your relationship to music has changed now that you are a mom? You told a few publications recently that you were at the end of your career.

I get a little overextended sometimes. Usually when I do press, it’s on a tour cycle mixed with a lot of shows, so I’m a little frazzled. But I always kind of think that it is the end, which also puts me in a place where, when I manage to do something, I am shocked that I’m still here. After finishing the last album, so sad so sexy, the artwork, the videos, the touring—I wonder how I did that while I was going through what I did. I have no idea how I did that. I definitely suffered extreme fatigue afterwards. That’s something we women do, though. We go on. We can fucking do it. But then you think you might die, or at least check in to a sleep—

Deprivation tank?

Yeah, for about 20 years! So, I’m trying to find the balance.

What did you mean when you said, ‘Going through what you did’?

The separation, my mother having brain cancer and dying, and having a baby. Then I had to find a new manager, producer, record label. Write it, mix the record, master it, you know?

Do you feel triumphant?

Um—yeah, a little.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li
Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li

I think when you are an ambitious person, there’s an inclination to not focus on what you have just done, but to keep thinking about the next accomplishment and move forward.

Exactly. Here’s the thing, before I had the baby I was so exhausted with my life and career, but then I had months of a ‘normal life’. The baby is sleeping, you do the laundry, and so on, and after a few months of that you realise that being an artist isn’t just something you wanted to do, but something you need to do. I started going a bit crazy not expressing myself for so long. So when I came back, I was so hungry. Also, I was in America. Before I had been in Sweden, and here, power, money, and ambition are such a big part of the world. When I had to start taking meetings again, people were like, ‘Oh, you had a baby? Ciao. Your last album was nine songs of suicidal power ballads that nobody listened to’. You really get your market value thrown in your face, and that reminded me of when I was 19 years old, being booed out, so I felt like I was in that same place again. I was an underdog again, and the odds were against me, so it was kind of inspiring. But to start your career over at 30 as a new mother? OK, good luck.

What happened with your label?

I signed a three-album deal when I was 20, so that contract was done. I think when I got signed these people had some kind of hope that I would be commercially successful, and then with every piece of work I made they got more and more disappointed.

What? They wanted you to be Taylor Swift or something?

Something that would generate some kind of money!

Are you happy with your new professional team now?

I am super happy with my management, but the way the music industry is now all about streams—that, to me, is so scary. At some point in my career, I was somewhat excited to be on the cover of magazines, or I thought, ‘Wow. I really want to play Coachella’. Now, it’s so absurd, the music industry is just about streams. I feel so inspired to become a complete hermit and more indie than ever. I am going to work with Peter Bjorn again, who I did three albums with, and we are going to set up two mics and a drum machine in my living room. We are going to go back to me and him basically not giving a fuck. We will not log in to anything.

How do you feel about the noise of social media? It’s so necessary to develop and maintain a career as an entertainer now. Then you look at someone like Kurt Vile, who got in with his fan base just early enough and has never had to do any of that shit.

Because he’s on the road all the time. I could do well if I played all year round, but I just can’t. My psyche and my health just can’t take it. I did that when Dion was one and a half. It was fucking hard for me and for him. When I look at Beyoncé, sure, she has six nannies, but still, she has to rehearse. She has to do the show. She has to be the mommy, too, at some point. She has help, but still, she puts on the heels and stands there for 10 hours. She has to get into perfect shape after having twins. No one else can do that for her.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li

Did you struggle with any body-image stuff after being pregnant?

Weirdly, no. I did struggle with my body image being young, because I come from a family of the tall, annoying type of skinny people who eat burgers and pizza and still look anorexic. So that affected me when I was young. But after being pregnant, I just didn’t give a fuck. All my issues are kind of gone. Some, not all! Shit, my tits are like super, ‘Ciao’. Whatever. I had a baby. I’m struggling with the tit thing right now. It’s weird because you are a food source, yet you look more feminine and sexual than you ever have in your life, but you feel so maternal.

It can be a hard hurdle to overcome, but it’s also kind of rad. But wait for the period after the milk and everything drops. That is something else, but also I love the ‘70s, so like, rock on.

Flop on.

I also think it’s really beautiful to have something you struggle with. I just realised I’m talking so much about my personal shit—tits and whatever. Are you not going to ask me where my lamps came from?

This has been way more interesting.

I guess people need to hear this shit, especially women. I would love to hear this conversation; maybe not from myself!

How important is feminism to your work, your company, and your music?

With Yola, I try to view things from a feminist standpoint, but when it comes to music, I’m just trying to be as open and vulnerable as I can be with my emotions. I don’t know if that is feminist or not, but I try to expose myself.

Is the music industry sexist?

It is, but music is also a place where a lot of women are in power. These women have crafted their own careers, their own paths, and they are free and in control, because they are the artist. Music in comparison to film or TV is probably a tiny bit less sexist. It depends. Of course, the music industry, the executives and such—sure, super sexist. But when you look at the talent of today, you think of Cardi B. That’s a free woman.

For sure.

I’ve always been my own boss. I’ve had quite a few men I have bossed around, so I haven’t been exposed to sexism so much myself. I’ve never really been interested in sex in that way. Interestingly enough, on my last album, so sad so sexy, I was exploring my own sexuality for myself. When you are a woman, you come to a point in your life where you question what sexy is. This was the first time in my life I was actually curious about it. I felt it, but not for anyone else but myself. Maybe it was because of my age, or the fact that I had just had a kid, but before I always felt like a girl, and suddenly I felt like a woman. As a woman, when you see another woman in her element, it’s very sexy. I think I’ll look back at this time later in my life and think, ‘Damn. I was a rose at its prime’.

Apartamento Magazine - Lykke Li
interview, issue 24, music
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