Lykke Li had to buy a bed when she was writing her devastating new album, “I Never Learn,” in Los Angeles, and the purchase gave her crippling anxiety. She knew that she had to buy one, and she also knew that she’d have to sell it soon after, so what was the point, really?
“I had to give it away,” Li tells Billboard regretfully while sitting in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan’s East Village on a late March afternoon. The Swedish singer-songwriter spent two-and-a-half years in Los Angeles writing “I Never Learn,” due out May 6 on LL Recordings/Atlantic Records, and needed a place to lie down. But the 28-year-old won’t be hanging around the West Coast much over the next year thanks to her upcoming tour dates, and she didn’t want to ship the mattress to her native Sweden.
Li says that, after she’s done supporting “I Never Learn,” she might not return to Los Angeles at all. Where will she go, then? “I have no idea. Maybe Mexico?” she replies. “I feel like I’m at the end of an era, even in myself. I’m in my return of Saturn. I know that change is about to come, but I don’t fully know how or when or where.”
“I Never Learn” is the last installment in a trilogy of albums, and when digested together, the three LPs present a career arc that are thematically just that: an arc. Six years removed from the hushed, hypnotizing playfulness of debut album “Youth Novels,” Li finds herself tumbling downhill on “I Never Learn,” stripped of flirtation and trying to wobble away from a traumatizing breakup. The nine songs are triumphant in their emotional nakedness, and Li has, for better or worse, embraced the suck of her subject matter.
“Where the first album is about wanting love, and then the second album [2011’s ‘Wounded Rhymes’] is about not getting the love that you desire, I think this third album is about walking away and fucking up,” says Li. “That’s something that had to happen to me as an artist. I think you have to have that experience, because I only thought I knew what heartbreak was until this record. I think, some things, you just have to go through.”
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The 28-year-old grew up not knowing where she was going to live in a year’s time: as a child, Li and her two siblings bounced between Sweden, Portugal, Morocco, Nepal and India with their musician parents, before the singer stopped in Brooklyn for three months when she was 19. That nomadic lifestyle prepared her for touring behind her 2008 debut, “Youth Novels,” which earned widespread critical acclaim upon its release, and helped engineer a deal with Atlantic Records; and its follow-up, “Wounded Rhymes,” which was led by the aggressively catchy pop single “Get Some” and was supposed to be her moment of mainstream recognition.
By the time Li’s “Wounded Rhymes” came out, Drake had remixed her, Bon Iver had performed with her, and Spin had put her on the cover of its Next Big Things 2011 issue. Meanwhile, Li was trying to keep things as normal as possible, during what she says was an “exhausting” touring slate. “You’re in a whirlwind,” she says of the “Wounded Rhymes” promotional run, “so you’re just trying to survive.”
That mainstream moment never congealed: “Get Some” did not crack the Billboard Hot 100, and “Wounded Rhymes” has sold only 97,000 copies to date according to Nielsen SoundScan, compared to 106,000 for “Youth Novels.” As the album cycle winded down, Li went through the biggest breakup of her life, and “basically had a bit of a breakdown,” which drove her from Sweden to Los Angeles.
“I moved to L.A. and decided, ‘Okay, I just need to survive,'” she says. “I made no such plans to make an album. My first instinct was just to try to heal myself and to come back to some sort of life. And then I was so emotionally broken that I just started to write… I love writing, and it was so amazing to get lost in the process. I didn’t think that someone would ever hear it.”
Eventually, Li decided that she needed closure from the breakup and fashioned her songs into “I Never Learn,” the title of which reflects how she felt “so lost as an artist, as a woman” when it was written. As much as the album revels in its creator’s broken state, “I Never Learn” also includes some big, bruising hooks, such as on the haunting “Just Like a Dream” and the massive second single “No Rest For The Wicked” (which just received a remix with A$AP Rocky). Greg Kurstin (P!nk, Kelly Clarkson) produced two tracks on the album, including the marvelously intense “Gunshot,” while Björn Yttling and Li herself helmed the rest of the album.
Li is too introverted to enjoy the self-promotional aspect of album cycles, but admits that she’s “looking forward to doing the shows,” which will start in the U.S. with select shows beginning in mid-May. Fans of the wide-eyed songwriter of “Youth Novels” may hear early singles like “Little Bit” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” at the upcoming performances, but little else from the artist’s first album, which she says is completely removed from the current version of herself.
“I could get upset with [‘Youth Novels’] — where I thought I sang like shit, or that I was too constrained, or too naive, or this or that — but I have to look at it with compassion, because I did the best I could then,” says Li. “I’m just thankful that I’ve made three albums. It’s fucking hard to finish albums. That’s something to celebrate.”