main pictureDirected by Théo Lindquist
A lovers’ quarrel; two naked dancers intertwined; LA’s nocturnal sprawl; a bleeding woman pulled from the wreckage of a car. Here are some of the images etched into your brain by Eyethe palindromic and black-inspired audiovisual project of the Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li. Shot on 16mm film by A single man cinematographer Edu Grau, directed by Theo Lindquist, and starring Li opposite Unorthodoxby Jeff Wilbusch, it’s a heady fever dream with no obvious end or beginning, carved out of blurry, looping vignettes, and beautifully accented by bruised, Eno-inspired synthscapes taken from the accompanying LP.
If this all sounds like a shift from the slick R&B and trap-inspired swagger of Li’s latest album – 2018 so sad so sexy – you would be right. Speaking from her Los Angeles home today, the 36-year-old presents her creative development as something of an exorcism. “I had to get rid of the red patent leather character from So sad so sexy – let my blonde hair grow out and live in two white t-shirts and two white painter’s pants – just so I can be a blank canvas again. In her place is a character she describes as a “mute actress/gangster from a movie from Ingmar Bergman to Michael Mann. Heat.”
An avowed film buff, Li happily reels off an array of influences for Lars von Trier’s doomed love story, Today. Break the waves and Nicolas Winding Refn Pusher trilogy to Last Tango in Paris and Requiem for a Dream. These intensely dark and emotional touchpoints serve as fair warning for the eight-track album the shorts are about to arrive with, which features some of Li’s most raw and rewarding elements to date. .
Recorded in his living room in Los Angeles with longtime collaborator Björn Yttling, Li took the songwriting process back to basics, eschewing digital instrumentation and incorporating first-take vocals wherever possible to preserve the emotional integrity of the piece. For an artist who has made heartbreak her calling card, it’s perhaps the ultimate word on the subject, and is billed as a “break with the breakup album.”
Here, Li discusses how Pina Bausch, a romantic fantasy craze, and ayahuasca travel helped shape the world of Eye.
Gemma Samways: The minimalism of Eye feels like a reaction against so sad so sexy. Is it right?
Lykke Li: Yes. I remember Joan Didion saying something like, as soon as you try to put an idea on paper, it gets destroyed. And it’s the same with music: you have this intimacy with the source material, then you start producing and things go through so many different hands that in the end the end result is often quite far from the intimacy of the actual idea. This time, I really wanted to stay really direct and urgent, and not play with the crudeness of the initial idea.
GS: Tell me about the creative chemistry between you and producer Björn Yttling?
LL: We hadn’t worked in years, so it was actually nerve-wracking to get back together, like, shit, do we still have it? It was like when a couple divorces, then they meet years and years later and realize the love is still there. So it was really beautiful.
But I don’t know anyone else who pays as much attention to chords and structure as Björn. We’re both obsessed with the process of creating a song, and we have similar tastes. So this time around we knew we wanted the world to be quite dark and dirty, cinematic and beautiful.
“I became obsessed with art that has this repetitive quality, like Marina Abramović or Pina Bausch: the same movement over and over again. For me, this repetition really reflects an emotional truth” – Lykke Li
GS: Have you always considered Eye inasmuch as audiovisual project?
LL: No, I was so immersed in the process of writing and living the story. And then at the same time [I was] going for walks with my friend Theo [Lindquist], and I was telling him what was going on in real life, and he was like, “Oh my god Lykke, your life is like a fucking movie.” So I’m like, should I really make a movie out of it?
Then it was like, how can we actually do this? Because no one cares about music videos as a form anymore, and it’s impossible to make a movie. So we had an idea: what if we make a movie, but you only see seven key scenes, and that movie is cyclical, reflecting the world we live in, where we just watch a loop on Instagram?
Also at the time I was stuck in my own repetition of being heartbroken, making albums, making videos, going on tour, being heartbroken, so I got it that the concept [for the project] was the loop and [I] became obsessed with it. You see it everywhere in nature, from moon cycles to menstrual cycles. And I became obsessed with art that has this repetitive quality, like Marina Abramović or Pina Bausch: the same movement over and over again. For me, this repetition really reflects an emotional truth, since that’s also how the brain works. As humans, we are stuck in our own patterns.
GS: How does this idea of repetition fit into the narrative of these films?
LL: Actually, I think the problem I also have in my private life is that I turn things into a film: I idealize and I glamorize. Like, as soon as I fall in love, the movie starts in my head and I live in an alternate reality to the other person. So we wanted to create a movie within a movie, where part of it is real and part of it isn’t.
The plot is that there’s these two actors making a movie, and then all the other scenes are between takes, where me – the real person – actually falls in love with the actor who’s playing opposite me. For him, it’s just a movie, but for me, it’s real. It’s about blurring the line between fantasy and reality, which I think women are particularly good at. And I think that’s also why there’s usually so much disappointment and heartbreak and spiraling out of control: you’re living in two different realities.
GS: You are setting yourself up for failure.
LL: Exactly. But on top of that, I make art out of those experiences, so for me, it gets extremely meta. Filming all of this felt like I was getting lost in my own maze. I was crying for real.
GS: Almost methodical?
LL: Exactly. My whole life is just a game of method. (Laughs)
GS: The loops give the piece a hallucinating side. Was that the intention?
LL: Absolutely. If I look back in my life, the highest highs and the lowest lows have been around love: love has been my drug of choice and where all my baggage comes from. So I was really trying to describe what a heightened experience it was, especially when the pain hits. And at the same time, I was dealing with my own pain in a hallucinatory state, trying to overcome my love addiction by doing lots of psychedelics. I have done ayahuasca several times.
GS: How was this experience?
LL: It was the most intense and overwhelming experience I’ve had in my life. I mean, even the image of the carousel and spinning – parts of my journey were that. It’s almost impossible to describe, but it’s almost like downloading ten years of therapy in a flash, covering all the pain, suffering and trauma you’ve been through.
And then sometimes you go into pure hallucinations and visions, so music is a big part of the ayahuasca experience. When you listen to music in this state, you realize that music is the portal to heaven and to healing. So while I deal with this very painful thing [on Eyeye], I also wanted the music to reflect the sky. And I’m planning an immersive, audio-visual, spatial audio experience to accompany the release of the album, where you literally ride the carousel of love, where you enter the red room. It will basically be like an ayahuasca trip.
GS: Eye was billed as a breakup with the breakup album…
LL: Yeah, I mean, I’m sure I’ll swallow my words. But I’m kinda tired and somehow I feel like I’m in control of my own form [with Eyeye]. I feel like if my 19 year old self saw me now, she’d be like “Yeah bitch!”
“I remember Joan Didion saying something like, as soon as you try to put an idea on paper, it gets destroyed. And it’s the same with music” – Lykke Li
GS: Can you imagine writing from a place of contentment?
LL: I mean, I don’t know if the artist’s life is a life of contentment. Even if you’re in a happy relationship, you still rub shoulders with her. And there are so many things to be unhappy about, whether it’s aging, femininity, or injustices in the world. You can pick and choose. (Laughs)
I’m definitely much more interested in becoming a visual artist, or creating worlds that embody images and music. I think I’m going to move further and further away from pop structures. Because when I think of the women I look up to, I don’t think of anyone in music. I’m thinking of Cindy Sherman, Tracey Emin, Jenny Saville: women who are artists and not just a face.
GS: And yet, with this album, you seem more authentically yourself than ever?
LL: Yeah. I’m just trying to remember that I made this album for me: to give myself the gift of doing the job that I’ve always wanted to do.
Eye by Lykke Li is released on May 20.