Lykke Li had a good South by Southwest. Mostly. The 22-year-old Swede (whose name is pronounced “Luke-ee Lee”) played 11 shows in three days before “literally falling offstage and going eurrrrgh,” she says, evoking the ailing larynx that made her cancel a 12th gig at the festival.
Luckily, there had already been a ton of Texas-size appreciation for the songs Li played from Youth Novels, her debut album. Novels mixes glacial, shivery vocals with atmospheric beats, a donkey-imitating saxophone, computerized calypso rhythms, a trumpet-and-flamenco tune, and a breathily sensual spoken-word intro.
“It’s not spoken-word! Stupid!” Li barks alarmingly in accented English, her voice rising above the hubbub in an East London pub. “It’s not even songs — Youth Novels is the book of my life, so sometimes it’s not music. I wanted to give the listeners time to get into the mood. Then, ‘This Turmpet in My Head’ is a break. Like a mantra.”
It’s a beautiful song, I say.
Another bark. “It’s not a song! I just call it space.”
Li isn’t really so fiercely confrontational. She’s just protective of the music she’s struggled to make. Months in New York City when she was 19, singing at open-mic nights, came to nothing. Back in Stockholm, she hooked up with producer Björn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John), then waited as he rode the success of the whistle-happy “Young Folks.” Many of her songs (sorry, spaces) were born of a “complex, on-off” relationship with a Swedish boy. “I would never give him the honor of knowing he was my muse,” she says coldly.
The genetically free-spirited Li — christened Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson by her musician dad and photographer mom — has already established her own label, LL. A childhood spent living on a Portuguese mountaintop, followed by winters in India raving with her hippie mother at full-moon parties, also inculcated an ear for global sounds.
“Today we can hear all sorts of music that you can download like this,” she says, snapping her fingers. “So how can you be one style? I’m the same when I go to the store. I can’t make up my mind. So I just take everything.”
- Her guitarist father’s prog rock band Dag Vag (which means Vague Day) was “iconic” in Sweden in the ’80s, says Li.Dad’s stage name: ZilverZurfarn (Silver Surfer).
- Li was almost a professional dancer — ballet classes led to appearances on Swedish television.