Lykke Li’s childhood was unconventional, nomadic and even sort of romantic. The Swedish singer — full name Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson — was born to a photographer mother and musician father who raised Li and her siblings in Sweden, Portugal and India. With that kind of artistic upbringing, it seems only natural that she could someday become a performer.
“I would say I was a quite charming child, but I was very quiet,” Lykke Li says on the phone from her New York apartment. “I was performing a lot in front of everybody but I was still quiet. I’m shy, but at the same time I’m really not shy.”
A similar range of personalities and emotions erupt on Li’s debut LP, “Youth Novels” (Atlantic), which bowed at No. 18 on the Top Heatseekers chart. The singer’s child-like voice turns out soft and gentle melodies like “Tonight,” “Time Flies,” in-your-face anthems like “Breaking It Up,” “Complaint Department” and sultry spoken verses like on “Melodies & Desires” and “This Trumpet in My Head.”
Li enlisted Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John as her producer, and together the pair created what ultimately is a danceable pop record that makes full use of electronic beats, horns, guitar, a megaphone, keyboards and more. “Breaking It Up” features a choir over a crunching drum pattern, while her single “I’m Good I’m Gone” is rooted in a piano beat and a chorus of robotic voices.
But even with a successful album, a packed tour schedule and several music videos under her belt, Li is “not like a musician,” Lykke Li, 22, says. “I’ll play whatever I do, but I can’t play Beethoven.”
“Youth Novels” is an intensely personal collection that Lykke Li has refered to as “the book of my life.” So when it came to letting other people in on the secret, she says there was no other option aside from creating her own label, LL Recordings, for the album’s initial release in Scandinavia in January this year.
“My music is my life and it’s all I have, so it would be weird selling your soul to corporate, you know? I just wanted to protect myself and protect my music and be in control,” she says. “It’s not really about selling other artists’ music or whatever — it’s mainly about protecting myself.”
Before Atlantic released “Youth Novels” in the ‘States, she played an exhausting 11 sets at South by Southwest in March, released the “Little Bit” EP in May and hopped on a U.S. tour with fellow Swedes El Perro Del Mar and Anna Ternhiem. Since her album release plus shows in New York and Los Angeles last month, Li is taking a short break before she hits several cities in the U.S. and Canada in October and November.
Even performing as an opener, as opposed to the headliner, hasn’t kept Lykke Li from holding her own on stage. She’s earned a reputation for spastic dance moves, and her performances sometimes end in a cover of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?,” during which the crowd always responds with fervent shouts of “Yes you can!” It’s impossible to incorporate all the intricacies of “Youth Novels” into a live performance, but Lykke Li says performing has been more of a relief than a challenge. “I mean, it’s back to basics, it’s back to old school,” she says. “It’s just guitar and bass and drums and let’s fucking do it.”
Lykke Li says the hardest part about her newfound popularity is constantly being asked to explain her songs, which are mostly based on an on-and-off relationship. “The reason for some of the songs is that I have a quite hard time talking about stuff, and I find it easier to write,” she says. “So it’s been weird that I have to talk about the things that I wrote that I couldn’t talk about, you know?”
When asked if she feels like talking has gotten easier in the past few months, she answers with a flat “No.”