There’s a story from the early days of Lykke Li’s time in New York that says something about this lithe 22-year-old singer’s waggish charm. She was living with three fellow Swedes in a windowless hole in Bushwick. “I got almost robbed like three times,” she explains. Almost? “I talked my way out of it each time. One time it was a gang of Puerto Rican girls, and I can understand Spanish a bit. So they were talking about ‘Oh, should we take her or not? She looks so tiny. Oh, look at her shoes. Yes, let’s rob her.’ And I’m like, ‘No, please don’t.’ And they didn’t.”
It takes a certain punky finesse to talk one’s way out of a mugging—finesse and large, soft eyes. “If you look into my eyes, I look like Bambi, you know? Pure innocence,” she says. “They saw the good in me and I saw the good in them.” But Li, partial to hefty eyeliner à la Thora Birch in American Beauty, is not all moony wisdom. On the phone from Oxford, she has just celebrated the U.K. release of her debut album, Youth Novels, out here this month. (“I’m a little hungover. I mean, not like hungover, but we did have a good time.”) These are boom times for female, Swedish, indie-pop singers—Li is one in a handful of such artists to release an album this year—but Youth Novels has attracted particular attention, and rave reviews from sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork.
“I realize I have the voice and the look of a really young woman, even a girl sometimes,” admits Li. “But I feel like I’m 100 years old.” This may be smart positioning from an artist hoping to avoid simplistic branding. It also rings true: While her lyrics carry a whiff of adolescence (confessional, repetitive, a touch sentimental) and her voice is feathery and girlie, Li delivers her songs with the casual bohemian confidence of singers like Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush. Her range is wide and her tone almost electronic. She can sing extremely high and extremely quietly without losing the melody, and it often sounds as if she’s singing from far away, or just to herself.
All this was whipped into dreamy effect in the studio, and the early success of Youth Novels has as much to do with its dynamic production values as with Li’s peculiar voice. “We wanted to make an album that was danceable and dirty, too,” explains Björn Yttling, who produced Youth Novels and whose band, Peter Bjorn and John, was the indie breakout success of 2006. (The chipper whistling of their hit single “Young Folks” helped usher in the premiere of Gossip Girl.) Yttling likes to inject peppy, somewhat preppy music with eclectic acoustics—hefty bass, woody percussion, woodwinds. “We experimented with distorted pianos that didn’t sound like pianos and marimbas that didn’t sound like marimbas,” he explains.
Though Youth Novels could easily play as the soundtrack to Guillermo del Toro’s next dark fairy tale, it’s still catchy—Li is Swedish, after all. So it’s a bit surprising that of her many idols, none is a compatriot. “I never listened to a note of Abba in my life,” Li scoffs. She’d rather be Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, Edith Piaf, or Madonna. Vintage Madonna “was as much a man as she was a woman. She was rebellious. I liked her Blonde Ambition phase.”
Li would have been 4 at the time of the 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, a perfect age to start absorbing attitude and choreography. She was the daughter of hippies, a rocker dad and a punk singer–turned–photographer mom. They would travel the world together, and Li’s earliest memories are of staying in an Algerian prostitute’s house in Morocco because her parents had failed to book a hotel in time. “The bathroom was a hole in the ground, and you had to sleep on the ground,” she recalls. She was taken to a hammam. “It was not at all glamorous, but rather frightening, full of naked women in a dark room splashing water on you and rubbing your back painfully hard.” Home base for Li and her siblings was a combination of Stockholm and a small mountain village in Portugal. “At some periods in my life,” she remembers, “I was angry at my parents for being so loose and carefree. Both me and my sister became focused on our careers, which is quite rebellious, I guess.”
Having footloose parents was not all torment. “They taught me not to be afraid of people, different cultures. I could never see myself just staying in Sweden.” And so, surprise, Li hotfooted it to New York, “the city of dreams, as they said in all the movies and books. I don’t know if that is true anymore, but I like the feeling.”
Three years ago, when not charming Bushwick gangs, Li was hitting the open-mike circuit at smoky venues like the C-Note, Caffe Vivaldi, and the Village Underground. “I sat there for hours listening to one bad act after another,” she says, “and then you played your two songs and the day was over.” One night, she disguised herself as a famous Swedish pop star, complete with fur and “tons of mascara,” to get a gig in the downstairs of Pianos, where the bigger acts play. “It all went terribly because my band tried to outplay each other, and I’m more into the minimalistic thing. At the same time, it was the start of something.” Now Li spends most of her time jetting between London and New York as a bona fide famous singer, playing both the grand venues—the ICA in London, Bowery Ballroom here—and lots of “shitty” pubs and downtown dives that she played years ago.
“Sweden is too clean,” she says. “I feel very dirty when I’m there. That’s why I love New York. I dress like a bum when I have time off. A glamorous bum.” Li’s moved on from Bushwick, but she still crashes with friends in Brooklyn when in town, and she’s not so cocky as to imagine her days of windowless slumming are over. In ten years, she imagines, “I could be dead. I could be pregnant or homeless or a volunteer in Africa.”
Lykke Li is part of a new influx (onslaught?) of Swedish female singer-songwriters hitting the States—Sarah Assbring of El Perro del Mar, Anna Ternheim, and even Robyn, who is resurfacing here after a couple of hits a decade ago. They are all benefiting from the reputation of a long line of infectious Swedish acts, from the early days of the Abba pop factory to the Cardigans to recent indie hits like the Hives and the Knife. But among her mellow contemporaries, Li stands out as snazzier, happy to glam it up onstage with flared silk pantsuits and outsize, angular moves.