Swedish-born singer/songwriter Lykke Li is well traveled (she's lived in Portugal, Morocco, Nepal, India and Bushwick, Brooklyn), a fact that seems to have left her not just worldly but wary. "Growing up, I was really shy and I never found my place," she tells Xpress. "I was always quite strange." It was on stage that Li felt at home. "Every time I would perform things would be easier and I would be seen. Performing has always been really easy for me, it's all the other things …" she trails off.
Her live shows are powerful indeed. She was featured on Last Call With Carson Daly: Women Who Rock, and last year she told Pitchfork, "I want to be fighting with the men. I want to be amongst the men, topless, throwing things onstage." While Li isn't necessarily throwing things, she is pummeling some percussion. The earthy punch and biorhythm that runs like a pulse throughout this Li's sophomore release, Wounded Rhymes, is duplicated on stage with an array of drums.
"I think percussion is just something that I hear when I'm making music and then I try to play as much as possible live," says Li. "I'm not like a trained musician or anything. When I'm writing, I use whatever I have. I'll just tap the table or something."
There's more to it than that. Li's performance caught the attention of fellow Swede Björn Yttling (of indie-pop band Peter Björn and John) who mentored her and produced both her '08 Swedish Grammy-nominated debut, Youth Novels, and this year's Wounded. She penned a song for The Twilight Saga: New Moon, performed with Kanye West, took the stage at Lollapalooza and appeared in a Levi's Curve ID campaign ad — though she bristles a bit at the mention of the latter. "That doesn't have anything to do with my music," she says. And, "I don't ever wear jeans on stage."
What she likes to wear is black — black suits, black vintage clothing and black designs handmade by a friend. But she doesn't want to discuss fashion, possibly because "somehow my looks seem to be important in a way that it's not for men, which I find discouraging."
In other interviews Li has waxed philosophical about the role of a woman in the male-dominated music industry, to Xpress she says, "I don't really know the difference between being a woman in life and in the music industry because this is my life. I haven't reflected upon it while I'm working because I'm always being the boss. I run my own label and with my band I'm the one calling all the shots."
She adds, "I just want to do whatever I want to and I encourage every woman to do that and allow themselves to be complex and to fight against your own insecurities." Li says she tries not to let her own insecurities stop her, though, "it's nerve wracking, putting yourself out there, to be judged and all those things."
It's that see-saw of perspective and emotion that makes Li's music so bewitching. She's an off-kilter mix of soft and hard, forceful and shrinking, girlish and wise-beyond her 25 years. But for all the in-you-face girl power of her single "Get Some," Li surprises with this next statement: "I've actually noticed now that it's getting harder for me to perform, the more I get stable in my own life. … I'm feeling more reclusive like I don't have the need anymore. I'm not in it to be seen or to be as big as possible. I just do it because it gives me some release in life, a way to cope. I think that the older I get the less I will do it."
She says that being on tour comes with a sense of alienation and that because "life is so short and so vulnerable and so precious" she longs to be "closer to the core of life and what is important about life and things that are not shallow and superficial." Li says that being in the spotlight is addictive "because regular life can't measure up to the things that you feel on stage."
What Li longs for is "something sustainable. … You can see art as the icing on the cake. Then it's going to become really magical. Because if you have an all-right life and you get to do art as well, then you're in heaven."
But she does seem to find solace in creating videos for her songs. She's involved with all aspects of the lush, dramatic visuals, claiming that "this is the place where I can do everything." And Li seems to be a woman who needs to cast a wide net, creatively. Even in her writing, she's chosen to craft song lyrics in English rather than her native Swedish because "it's a more poetic language."
"I write in English because it has a certain sound to it," Li says. "In Swedish we only have one word for love. In English you've got a hundred words for love and all kinds of emotions in between."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Lykke Li (First Aid Kit opens)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Nov. 19 (9 p.m., $28 advance or $30 at the door. http://theorangepeel.net)