For years, Swedish singer Jens Lekman has leveraged the considerable romantic charms of his underground pop for a global commodity he seems to value more than wealth and fame, and almost as much as love itself — friendship.
In his native land of dark winters and bright pop acts, Lekman has regularly hit the top of the charts. But the 31-year-old singer has chosen to spend much of his adult life outside the country that loves him best. “I’ve been able to live as a touring musician for almost 10 years now,” he said recently in a phone interview. “And I realized at some point that I could do it from anywhere in the world.”
Lekman was speaking from Bloomington, Ind., the home of his record label, where he was staying with a friend before embarking on a tour that brings him to Royale in Boston on Saturday. In the past, the singer has spent time in New York, and more recently in Melbourne — a “dream city” whose music he’d loved since he was 18 or 19: “I got to go there in 2005 for the first time, on tour, and just met a lot of people who became my friends, and decided that I wanted to move there.”
Those friendships in turn inspired his music, as they always have. His second album, “Night Falls Over Kortedala,” is dedicated to “Lisa, my best friend,” but the words and names of other friends dot the three albums and numerous EPs he’s released over the past decade. There’s Immanuel, a Chilean laborer struggling through Sweden’s deteriorating healthcare system; the attractive Jennifer, who jokes that someone should make a pamphlet titled “So You Think You’re in Love With Jennifer;” Shirin, an Iranian refugee who runs a hair salon off the books in her apartment; and Nina, a lesbian who asks the singer to play the part of her boyfriend for her Catholic dad, who might just be playing along with the ruse for his own amusement.
Most recently, in Melbourne, there was a friend he calls Danae, whom he almost married so he could stay in Australia. That story became the title track to Lekman’s third and latest album, “I Know What Love Isn’t.”
As he explains in the disc’s press release, “The idea was so appealing, that we would build this constructed relationship around a purpose rather than some vague feeling that could change at anytime. But in the end, the sham marriage is much too great a story to be kept secret. At least when you make a living from telling stories.”
In the past, Lekman used these stories to run a musical gamut that reached its apex on “Night Falls Over Kortedala.” The disc sweeps from light disco to full-blown orchestral pop to doo-wop, much of it built up through samples of obscure songs both old and new. It was a mastery he’d been building since the start of his career in the early 2000s, when it won over the prestigious underground rock label Secretly Canadian.
‘I think on previous records I’ve used a lot of humor as well to balance the harsher subjects I’m dealing with. But on this record I felt that humor is also a way of distancing yourself from a subject, and I wanted to be more, a little bit more direct.’
“Jens is the only artist we’ve signed to Secretly Canadian who’s sent us demos in the mail,” writes founding partner Ben Swanson in an e-mail exchange. “It felt like every month or so we’d get a new CD crammed full of pop hooks and brilliant insights. We’d jam them in the warehouse all day while packing boxes until one day we finally figured out that we should probably put the tape guns down and write him back.”
But after “Night Falls,” Lekman felt he had nowhere left to go but backward. “My idea of evolving was just to subtract a little bit. Make things a little bit more simple, more put together.” Over three years of writing and recording, an album emerged that was unified not only musically but thematically, exploring the emotional aftermath of a breakup. For the first time, Lekman used mostly live musicians to perform a warm, jazzy pop that falls in a tradition from ’70s California rock to ’80s Brit-pop to adult contemporary artists like David Gray.
The music derives its force, however, from the words, which range from the moment when one lover tells the other “it’s nothing,” to the realization that “she just don’t want you anymore,” to the dawning feeling that life can indeed go on.
“I think on previous records I’ve used a lot of humor as well to balance the harsher subjects I’m dealing with,” Lekman says. “But on this record I felt that humor is also a way of distancing yourself from a subject, and I wanted to be more, a little bit more direct.”
In fact, no matter his directness, distance seems built into both Lekman’s life and art. It’s in the way he can look at a subject from two angles simultaneously. It’s in his global wanderings, in his friendships poised between admiration and adoration, and in his ability to climax a breakup album with a song called “The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love.” Lekman now realizes it’s his central answer to the 1963 Skeeter Davis hit, “The End of the World,” a song that turns on the distance that comes from devastation (“Mad Men” used it to close the JFK assassination episode).
“I think that was the song that I was trying to write over and over,” he says. “And I think it’s about the feeling when you sort of don’t understand why the stars aren’t falling from the sky, and the strange sensation that the world doesn’t really give a [expletive] about your problems. And I think sometimes that can be a horrible feeling, but it can also be a very beautiful feeling, something that can comfort you.”
Lekman, for one, is happy to have left Australia and returned to his wanderings through an indifferent world. “These days I just live in my suitcase, which is fine,” he says. “It’s a nice suitcase.”Franklin Soults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.