Defensive Pessimism comes into our world as a concept courtesy of one of Sweden’s greatest ever singer-songwriters who almost became a social worker.
And maybe I'll put this in my inner pocket.
[00:00:03.18] Cool, yeah. Actually, I'll need to have this in front of me _ So Jens, thank you very much for doing this and for giving your time. I've been a fan, God, nearly 15 years now at this stage.
[00:00:26.08] Yeah, well, since the early stuff coming out and stuff coming down and new album came out and as you do now you listen to an album before you buy it, but I did buy it, so stick it on and first song is "To Know Your Mission" and you've always been such an incredible storyteller and I hope you don't find it annoying, I'm going to try and pick a part of two of your songs before getting into general stuff and I hope you don't find that irritating, but "To Know Your Mission" – is the story in that song true and can you relay it or explain the bits you want to speak, this is, like, 20 years ago, teenage Jens in Gothenburg, set the scene.
I think I started writing that story as a - I just thought of all these Mormon missionaries that used to walk around Gothenburg at the time and I thought they would be the people who would be walking around just seeing things that other people wouldn't be seeing, and so I was in this mode when I was trying to write about anything but Jens Lekman, I was sick of Jens Lekman, I didn't want him in my songs anymore. So I just started writing about these Mormon missionary walking around Gothenburg and at some point I put that song away and I picked it up again when I wasn't as sick of Jens Lekman anymore and I thought wait a minute, I've met one of those Mormon missionaries once and I had an interesting conversation where he came up to me and he started talking about the Book of Mormon, but I had been approached by a bunch of them already so I already knew what it was about and that I wasn't interested in the Book or their religion, but I was fascinated by two things – I was fascinated by the fact that he was from America or from the United States, which was a place that I've always wanted to go to because of music that I liked, so I started questioning him about that, I was like 'Oh, what's that like, where are you from, what state?' and then I was fascinated by the fact that he was not much older than me, I think he was like 19, 20 or something, and he knew exactly what his mission was in life, he knew exactly that this is what I meant to do, I'm meant to go out there and just spread the gospel, and I found that fascinating because we had a conversation about what to do with your life, he asked me what I was interested in, I said I'm, kind of, interested in writing songs, I've been doing that now for about two years, but I don't know if it's any good and I don't know, we were standing outside my high school, I went to this, like, art design high school where I picked that as my subject and so that was about a third of everything I was doing -
[00:03:42.21] Song writing?
[00:03:44.24] Oh, arts.
Yeah, like a visual art, so I was doing painting and drawing and design and that was something that I was very interested in, but as soon as I got there, started this education I found myself being very bored with it because all of a sudden there were all these rules and I had to think about it in terms that didn't feel very playful or inspiring to me, and at the time music took on that role for me instead.
[00:04:24.26] And this Mormon missionary, is it you saying that it's important to know your mission or is it him saying it in...?
I think in the song it's me, I don't think he ever mentioned that that was something that was important, that was something - It was more, I mean, in my mind back then I think I was just thinking I wish I knew what I'm here for, I'd wish I knew that, you know, what direction I should be taking, you know?
[00:04:57.17] And in the song you mention that your dad was a social worker, is that true?
[00:05:01.24] So in the song you say one of your options is be a social worker like your dad and there's a lovely line in the song, now I'm going to paraphrase it really badly, but 'There is enough mouths in the world, I want to be an ear', and I've probably done a really bad job of paraphrasing your lyric; what has the (intervene) in 20 years taught you, 20 years back you're considering being a social worker, you wanted to be a listener rather than a mouth, what have you learned since?
I think I'll just learn that that's what I'm fascinated by, I mean, this is something that I didn't think that much about it back then, this was just a memory that came up when I was writing this song because of things that I was thinking about it now, and I think I was thinking about the fact that I've been encouraging people, the people who listen to my music to write to me and just send me their stories, their, you know, their personal stories to me. And something happened there, something happened where people probably felt like because I'm a stranger to them they felt like they could open up and tell me extremely personal stories, and this has just become this fascination for me every day to open my mailbox and see what people have been writing to me because people treat me sort of like a treasure chest or something where they just store their most intimate secrets, not only secrets, of course, but a lot of really great stories and just experiences and their lives, basically.
[00:06:54.00] That's amazing.
Yeah, and I think, I just realised that this is what I'm fascinated by from a lot of different perspectives, I mean, I'm fascinated in experiencing life through other people's eyes and through seeing what things are like for them. I'm also, you know, interested in stories, I'm interested in the structures of stories as you, probably, are too, I mean, what is a story? Why is something fascinating to us? Why is it that I keep retelling this one story over and over even though it just seems like a silly story to me, why does it touch me?
[00:07:32.05] What's that one story?
A story like that?
[00:07:40.01] It's not a heartache?
I mean, for me, I think, a lot of my songs start like that – something happens to me, let's say, you know that song I have called "Waiting for Kirsten"?
So that story happened to me and I kept going around telling my friends about it, you have no idea what happened the other night, me and my friend found out that Kirsten Dunst was coming to Gothenburg so we spent the entire night stalking her, we didn't find her because she was going to get into this one club that we were in, but, of course, typical Gothenburg, they won’t let someone famous go before the other ones in the line. Such a bummer, we didn't get to meet Kirsten Dunst and then I kept telling that story and people reacted to that one point and it was like 'That's great, here in Gothenburg they don't do that, oh, so annoying!' and then, you know, I started thinking about what does that say about Gothenburg and why does it feel like it's just one little thing that's left of what Gothenburg used to be like and then came a story of, you know, how Gothenburg has been going through these changes and the political climate in Gothenburg at the time. So I think there's always this one little thing that you don't see immediately that fascinates you, that's what makes a good story, something even though that was just a really silly story for me, that was just me retelling this crazy night where, actually, nothing really happened, it was just me and my friend trying to meet Kirsten Dunst and we didn't get to meet her in the end, it opened a door to something else -
[00:09:26.12] I really think we couldn't have picked a louder part of the building to be in so perhaps we should - We will keep rolling, but I think we should move. Dear listeners, we're overlooking College Green with probably the busiest bus corridor in Dublin so we'll just move into the back here and it's not quite so salubrious, but, luckily, people can't see it, that's the one good thing about radio. So in this room here, this is my old office, Jens, so in this room is many, many records and cardboard boxes and old DVDs, now, let me fetch a stool, if you stand in here I'll get two stools, now these stools I'm about to get are really special because these stools were used in a concert by Westlife.
[00:10:16.20] Yeah, so just brace yourself, I'm going to get you, you're going to - Your bum is going to rest on the same place as Westlife's bums.
My bum is already honoured.
[00:10:35.13] So I'm going to give you Nicky, your bum can sit where Nicky's bum sat and I'll take Kian.
[00:11:04.17] Much quieter, but not salubrious, so -
Oh, this is perfect.
[00:11:10.05] Now I'll just move the recording, so now we're plant on the same stools as Westlife once sat, I have photo evidence to prove this which I can show you at some point. So in the intervening years, I mean, so -
Wait, was this the chairs where they did, like, an acoustic number then?
[00:11:28.06] Yes, and in the biz of filming concerts which I used to do you call this, like, it's when you get the boy bands stools out, the boys on stools, but they're now called the Westlife stools so if you're ever making a TV show and you need stools _ four Westlife stools there now, and the really important thing with these stools in boy band terms, when you're buying the stools you have to have the bit here for resting your foot because that's really important, that's a really important bit of the boy band oeuvre and these are Ikea stools, so designed in your homeland.
[00:12:06.21] So as we rest here on stools, I must ask you about Ikea later, I might even ask you about them now because you were talking about Kirsten Dunst and this idea of her not being let into a club in Gothenburg and you said that was typical of Gothenburg, but for me that's, actually, at the core of the entire Swedish ethos which is not getting ahead of yourself, what's that expression you have, what's that word? Begins with a _ or _
Oh, wait, is it 'Jantelagen', 'Jantela' which is sort of like the equivalent of the tall poppy syndrome, if that's what you're getting at?
[00:12:41.10] So could you explain that for non-Swedes like myself?
Well, it's, basically, that you shouldn't think that you're better than anyone else and I think it's been getting a lot of - I think it comes from an old book that I haven't read myself, but it's been getting a lot of bad rep because it's being blamed for how we're, sort of, a bit - What's the word? Like, if someone becomes successful or has a good self esteem or something like that, we would push them down again.
[00:13:31.26] I saw a positive side, it was described to me using a different word, began with L-langa something or - And it wasn't about pulling people down, it was about the idea of you not allowing yourself to get too far ahead of them, that you would all move together, the idea of the rising tide lifting all boats so it was explained to me in a positive sense rather than in a negative sense.
Well, I think that it's - I felt like when I was growing up it was being used only when someone was very successful in sport or in business or in music or whatever, and they found out that they had to pay taxes even though they had, you know, moved to the Cayman Islands or something and then they got upset and they blamed the tall poppy syndrome or the Jantela where they said 'Oh, so typical Sweden, you know, that you don't allow me the success that I've had, why can't you just allow me the couple of billions dollars that I've made from the tax money that you paid for the, you know, for my musical education' or whatever.
[00:14:43.29] So when I was growing up, I mean, apart from the fact the first ever album I got my dad to buy for me was 'Arrival' by ABBA, apart from that, even as a teenager or in my twenties, Sweden had this position as this place that, like, had it figured out, you know, they could be leftist and prosperous, they could be inclusive, but still succeed, and in the last decade, decade and a half, it feels to me like the cracks have more than shown in Sweden and there's been a swing to the right and sometimes it upsets me because I'm like 'If the Swedes can't figure it out, what hope do the rest of us have?' and I'm just wondering, from the Swedish perspective, what's your view on that, do you feel Sweden is losing the plot or do you feel you still manage to hang on to what's important?
I think there's a - It's been rough the last, you know, 10, 15 years for sure, and it just feels like it's getting worse, I mean, now that Trump got elected it doesn't feel as impossible anymore, it feels quite obvious now that the far right will actually maybe form a government in the next election, you know, just like we're scared that Le Pen will get the power in France, it doesn't feel farfetched anymore and it was so farfetched about ten years ago, people would have laughed if you said that.
[00:16:22.18] And how does that affect your daily reality?
My daily reality? I don't think it affects me personally that much, I wouldn't say, I think it affects people that I care about for sure, it affects friends of mine who are struggling with papers, who are - Like, I have a friend who is from Syria, for example, it definitely affects him. I mean, it's scary for sure, I mean, I live in a major city and in an area where most people are leaning to the left, but it's still scary to see the polls and to see the opinions expressed on the internet and to realise that there's people out there who are, actually, hateful towards people I care because of things that they haven't (show some or, you know?)
[00:17:29.27] And what can be done, I mean, one of the main reasons for me of doing this show is trying to help myself and by proxy others figure out how to make the best of modern life, I mean, we're born when we're born, you make the most of right now and that's it, but we all, by definition, come from a bubble of privilege, so how do you combine - I'm speaking for myself really - how do you combine living your life of privilege and not allowing the jerks to get you down whilst at the same time making sure you're not forgetting about others who are less fortunate than yourself?
Tricky question, but I think it's just don't get stuck I think it's my advice, I definitely felt like what can I - I can't do anything, it is just hopeless, I've felt like that a long time, but just, I mean, for example, I got to know - I mentioned that I have a friend from Syria, for example - I got to know him just through this one program that I found which connected people in Gothenburg to people who have just arrived from other countries because we have a serious problem with segregation, I think Gothenburg is one of the most segregated cities in the world and for me, I come from a suburb which was extremely segregated, that's where I grew up so I had a lot of friends there who never really made it into the city, they never really made it into society and I saw a lot of things that were affected by this segregation, how they always felt like there's no point in trying because I'm stuck out here. And so that's always been something that I've felt very deeply about and it's also that this one thing, like, how do you go across that gap? And I found this one project that just - Where you can send in an e-mail, you said 'This is my name, my age, this is what I'm interested in', and then they would just connect you with one other person who had just arrived, who needed to work under Swedish and they needed to get to know the city and get into the society. And I got connected to this one guy from Syria who was interested in music, we were the same age and we just started hanging out on very - Like on a very relaxed premise that we were just going to go for a coffee and talk, you know, and we just did that and we became friends and it's such a small thing, it's just two people out of thousands, but, you know, it's a solution, it's what I can do at least with that time and with no money involved, the only thing I need to do is go for a coffee with this one guy and we're doing something, you know. If everyone was doing that it would definitely help, so I think small things like that, that made me feel hopeful for sure.
[00:20:56.01] I'm assuming that, you know, because you create things and put them out into the world that almost by definition you're an optimist.
I would say I'm more of a defensive pessimist in a way, I'm a big fan of - Do you know David Rakoff, the writer?
He's written a couple of books on this called 'Half Empty' and 'Don't Get Too Comfortable' which are - I've personally felt like maybe - I felt like I could relate to a lot of this, you know, like, I think things are going to go really bad and then I try to do things to not have that happen.
[00:21:36.23] You have to tell me more, I've start from scratcher, defensive pessimism?
Well, it's just, you know, you can be a pessimist, you can think everything will go bad so there is no point, and then you don't make anything happen; or you can be an optimist and you can be like everything is going to work out, and then maybe half of that works out because you haven't really - You're just kind of naive in that, but if you're a defensive pessimist you think everything is going to go bad, I have an apocalyptic mind, like, I think things are going to go really bad all the time, but because I also have this part of me that feels like well, maybe you can do something about these things and try to make the best out of that or, you know, like, I just always feel like I can prepare a little bit more just to make sure that things aren't going to go that bad.
[00:22:40.12] I'd love some specific examples so, like, number one, how bad do you think things are going to get and in what timeline?
I think - I mean, I do sometimes think about this in more global perspectives and then I get really scared and I can't think about it anymore, when I think about climate change, for example, I can't think of climate change because my brain goes haywire when I do that because it makes me feel really hopeless even though I do my recycling and all that, you know, it just - That - I don't know what to do about that, that part makes me feel really hopeless sometimes, but when it comes to things in my life, if we're just talking about applying defensive pessimism, I - With the record, for example, I think it's going to be - I always think 'This record isn't going to be very good', so I work super hard trying to make things as good as possible. With this tour that I'm doing I think things are - I always see a disaster around the corner so I work insanely hard to make it not happen and so far it's been a pretty enjoyable tour. It's a problem because I also always see that disaster around the corner, of course, so I have a hard time relaxing and just feel like things are going to work out, but it does mean that, in the end, I might make it through this tour even though there's barely any budget for it and it's - Yeah, there is a lot of things to be pessimistic about.
[00:24:39.17] But on that, on the climate change piece, you know, for me it's the overreaching, uber narrative of our time -
[00:24:50.18] And the thing that I find most frustrating about what's going on with the Brexit and the US president is - For me, that's time wasted, that's all energy that's being devoted away from an issue that I think is far more important and I literally think all politics in the world should really be about resource allocation, how do we responsibly allocate the resources we have to ensure an equal and safe life for as many people, I mean all people, for as long as possible and everything else for me is a frustrating waste of time. But within that context, you know, you can sometimes feel you're pissing against the wind as we say in Ireland, I don't know if you have that expression in Sweden.
Yeah, I've heard it.
[00:25:37.29] It's pretty explanatory anyway, you know, whether you're recycling your bottles, but then it comes down to stuff like flights, you know, when is a flight worth taking, when is a flight not worth taking or items of clothing or electricity to charge your laptop or whatever it is, but here is where the optimist comes into play and some people - Some pessimistic, ecological friends of mine, I'm thinking of a chap called Gavin Hart at the moment, Gavin would see people like me as a techno-fix obsessive as in I believe that something will happen just in time, but the reason I believe that is there is no other option because there is no such thing as too early and there is no such thing as too late, it happens when it happens, and the worst thing that can happen, as far as I'm concerned, is unborn people won't be born and living people will die.
How do you mean?
[00:26:33.08] Well, if something cataclysmic happens to our planet lots of people will never be born that would have been born otherwise, who won't know the difference. The thing that scares me the most is lots of people who are alive forced into a long and painful life of starvation because of what's happened and that would be quite finite as in it ends and then it ends. I don't know if that sounds optimistic or not, but for me that's kind of like worst case scenario. But I feel like I can't give up or I'm trying to find ways not to give up so that's why I'm really curious, like, the more detail you go into the better in terms of how you cope issue by issue, because I think your defensive pessimism and my naive optimism are different sides of the same coin.
Yeah, I think so too, I think so too. I have to mention one thing that I thought about now which is that I think we forget sometimes that things do change and change for the better and it's just hard to acknowledge that sometimes, especially in these days when it just feels like things are going, you know, straight down. One thing I was really happy about was that I just did a tour in the US with an all-female crew and I did that almost exactly 10 years ago where I had this band which consisted of only women and I've never encountered so much sexism that I encountered on that tour.
[00:28:19.16] The one 10 years ago.
Yeah, exactly. It was - A lot of it was, sort of, that sort of well-meant sexism where it was like guys getting mad at me for letting the women in my band carry their equipment and they were like 'How can you do that?', you know, but some of it was just horrible, creepy, offensive sexism as well, and I just did this one tour now - I think we've received maybe - I think I received one comment on the whole tour and I think there was just one guy who mentioned as a joke the idea of Robert Palmer's 'Addicted to Love' video, about recreating that which is a something that I've heard - I heard it so much on that tour 10 years ago as well, but it's been such a big difference, it really felt like something had happened there, like, people would come up to me before the shows from the venue and they would be like 'Do you have your own sound guy?' and I would say 'Yeah, it's Anna, over here', and they would be like 'Oh, I'm so sorry', you know, you could see that it's still there, the structures are still there, but something had happened, something had really happened there.
[00:29:52.14] What was your thinking behind when you did that the first time 10 years ago, why did you do it, what were you hoping to achieve and what made you do it again now?
Well, back then it was just - I didn't have many thoughts about it, I just had a band that consisted of about 50-50 men and women and at some point the drummer quit and someone else quit and I put together this new band, I asked some of the women in my band to help me out finding new musicians and they brought in female friends of theirs who were really good at playing, so I just got this band that was really, really good, they were, actually, brilliant and they happen to be women and of course, I understood that it would be a thing, that people will react to this. I didn't have much of a political agenda behind it back then, I was just thinking 'This is cool, I love this and they're such a great band', now they used to have more of maybe an agenda behind it, I do think that women are still underrepresented in music and, especially in sound engineers for example, I was really concerned with finding a female sound engineer because there is something there that needs to be fixed, but yeah, I think back then I didn't have much of an agenda at all. I think that tour actually gave me an agenda because of the reaction that I got, it really opened my eyes to things when we did that tour and it made it feel very obvious that I should be thinking about these things.
[00:31:44.27] Like, to do the opposite would be like a climb down or a betrayal or a funking - Do you know the expression 'to funk something'? When you chicken out?
Yeah, I mean, I can definitely understand the reasons why, you know, the mechanisms behind (right) bands become this all-male thing. I don't think it's because you would bring in, you know, the best guitarist or the best drummer, I think there is definitely a thinking there like, you would think ‘Well, I'm going to bring in Steve because I think that he's going to be able to do this better, I don't know why I feel like that’, but it becomes this boys club, you know? And people tend to think in a way that – ‘This is so important for me, I can't let it go wrong so I can't have a woman there because I don't know why I feel like this, but it's probably not going to work, she's probably not going to be as good as this guy’, you know? So I can definitely understand the mechanisms behind it, and I constantly have to work against that myself.
[00:33:02.05] You know the kids story, I don't know if you have this in Sweden, 'The hare and the tortoise' and, you know, in many respects the hare is almost the male, kind of pushy and arrogant and speeding off, the tortoise has the different approach and, of course, the tortoise takes the longer vision, plays the longer ball as we would say and wins the race.
Oh, yeah, yeah, of course, yeah, that's true.
[00:33:32.14] And, for me, when you relate this to environmental issues, you know, I can't help thinking that there's certain - I can't help thinking that male decision-making is fundamentally flawed. Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, I saw this amazing interview he did a few years ago when he spoke about how in My Bloody Valentine all sounds are equal and he's reacting against what he saw as male hierarchical, (climactical) society of ups and downs and peaks and troughs and the vocal really, really high in the mix and it just really blew my mind _ of all being equal.
Right, of course, so he had a musical solution to that. Wow, I've never thought of that before, that's amazing.
[00:34:32.02] I thought it was really cool and I can't help thinking - it's kind of weird, like, so being a white European male right now and, you know, feeling that our - I never identified myself as that type, but I see myself as a type from a helicopter view - we've had our go if you look at the long reaches of history, you know, and I can't help thinking that it's time for other people to have their go, but then, you know, you come down to the turkeys vote for Christmas kind of thing and when it comes down to people pulling the trigger on themselves that's when it gets tricky and that's when people start backing off, you know, I'm in favour of this, I'm in favour of that, I'm in favour of the other, but I'm not in favour of anything that's going to make my life worse and I think that's a huge problem in western society in general, we're not willing to recognise that we have been overreaching in terms of our consumption and in terms of what we define as our share. How do we go from that situation to one where that's not the case without a whole lot of strife?
Yeah, I don't know. Big question.
[00:35:45.06] I had to let that one out. Here's a different - If you have an answer I'll let you go.
No, no, I was just going to say that the defensive pessimist in my mind is now starting to - Yeah, go ahead.
[00:36:00.22] So this book on defensive pessimism, when did this come into your life, I'm just wondering, was this like a thunderbolt, was it like a discovery moment or was it like a slow dawning on you?
That I was a defensive pessimist?
No, I think I just read David Rakoff's books and I felt like I could relate to that, but as you were saying I think it's part of the same coin that I think we're alike in that sense and I think a lot of people would just call it 'optimism' because they think that things can be done. I don't think things can be done, I just think that they can be done if I work insanely hard to make them - Or I think that they can be okay, you know?
[00:36:58.00] Well, it's the opposite of a sense of entitlement, you don't feel that you are automatically entitled to a positive outcome and that you have to put your best into it and that's really positive because that's how society progresses. Society progresses by people taking something they're really interested or are really passionate about and focusing on that, and that's what I love about humanity, first is all of the other species on this planet, that's what we do, we leave things behind us that benefit others, I think that's wonderful. And if you look at all the advancements we've made, medicine, education, communication, and if you look even a 1000 years back, 500 years back, 200 years back - This is the - Referring to that 'Utopia for Realists' book that's just came out, I can't remember the chap's name, the Dutch guy, but he starts the book talking about, you know, comparing life now to life just 200 years ago and our life expectancy, but I love the fact that every single thing we do, these Westlife stools that we sit on, all of the innovations that came to pass for Ikea to be able to deliver these at an affordable price in their definition of a sustainable way, for us to be able to consume that in Dublin, all these countless innovations by people that I will never know the names of and even the Ikea people started on the shoulders of people that they will never know the names of and I think that is wonderful, I think that's a wonderful, wonderful process.
Yeah, yeah, for sure.
[00:38:34.22] So coming back to the first track of your album ''To Know Your Mission" and I love the title of your album "Life Will See You Now", but do you know your mission?
I think when I was writing that song and I was thinking a lot about these things I identified something that I was good at and something that I loved doing and something that I felt that I could work with, which was collecting and listening and making sense of stories and that's such a broad thing, but it's still - I still felt like there was something that I could do with this that it could be put to use and I felt like - I thought a lot about if I hadn't become a songwriter I probably would have become something that included this aspect of listening and collecting and making sense of stories and I don't know, I felt like I did this project called 'Ghostwriting', I'm not sure if you're familiar with that, but I was collecting stories and this was directly inspired by these thoughts, I collected stories from people and I've met these people, interviewed them for an hour and then I turned these stories into songs. And the idea behind that was that I think that everyone carries, like, one brilliant novel or pop song or just one brilliant story, probably thousands of stories, but everyone carries that one brilliant story and I don't think many people get to share those stories in the capacity that I get to do, you know, and I just liked the idea of being some sort of megaphone for these people to have their story shared with the rest of the world. I think sharing stories is extremely important, I think it's something that helps us understand each other and the world and brings us closer.
[00:41:05.08] So "Life Will See You Now' is the output of this project basically, are all of the songs on the record, apart from the first one which is you, are they all based on other people's stories, is that -
No, no, but it was -
No, I think I put that in that project, but the album is definitely inspired by the ideas I had back then, I think a lot of the songs on the album are inspired by stories that I've been told by friends or other people, it's a much more - It's a much less - It's not as much about Jens Lekman as the other records, it's much more me turning my little insect antennas, you know, towards the world and -
[00:41:56.28] Well, as you say in that song "To Know Your Mission" you want to be an ear, not a mouth, again, forgive me for the bad paraphrasing, but - And also in that same song you mention your dad was a social worker so are you harkening back to your dad's work in some respect, that you get to have best of both worlds to be a singer and songwriter who does social work?
No, I think I'm not sure what the motives were for my dad, really, when it came to that, I think he had maybe - Well, I don't know what the motive was for him and I don't think there's any social work really being done in my music in that sense, not what he was doing at least, but -
[00:42:50.23] But this whole thing - So you've really identified this thing of, you know, to be a good storyteller is really about listening and paying attention to others.
Yes, yeah, exactly, and doing research and, you know, trying out ideas and communicating. I think a lot of these songs on this record came from endless conversations that I was having about different topics with my girlfriend or with my friends or my family or people who were writing to me, like, these songs have just gone through so many processes and they've gone through this process where I've felt like I wrote them and then I just didn't feel like they were written, I had to re-write them because I had this conversation and it changed my mind on something and just to be talking about optimism - I do feel like I have a responsibility as a songwriter to not just dump a bunch of darkness on people and, you know, I have a lot of darkness and dread and horrible thoughts within me like everyone does and I just don't feel like I can take that out of me and just put it on the record and 'Here you go', like, I have to make sense of it. When I was writing my last record "I Know What Love Isn't" I kind of did that in a way where I felt like, you know, I just had a bunch of stuff within me and I didn't know how to make sense of it and I just put it on that record and I was like 'There you go'.
[00:44:37.09] Like taking a dump.
Yeah, exactly, and I think a lot of people got something out of that still they could relate to it, they could feel like they weren't alone when they listen to it and I think I made sense of a few things there, but on this record I felt much more of like a responsibility to think about it and to make sense of it and to - I think when I was making that record I was saying ‘you can't pour manure into an espresso machine and expect the cappuccino to come out’, and I felt like on this record I was actually trying to do that, I was actually trying to pour that manure into espresso machine making espresso after espresso and it tasted like shit, and I kept going and eventually I got something that actually tasted like an espresso or a cappuccino.
[00:45:28.09] I think it's remarkable that somebody who describes himself as a pessimist has that resilience and sometimes I think I got pessimism wrong conceptually, sometimes I think I'm afraid of it or afraid of embracing it.
Oh, yeah, right, but you don't come across as a pessimist to me or an optimist to me in the sense that I think of someone being naive as an optimist, I think what you're doing right now is you're doing research in this, you're trying to make sense of things. We come across this very alike, I think, you and me.
[00:46:05.12] Maybe I should change the name of the show, 'Defensive pessimism' can be the key to it all.
Yeah. I was thinking about one thing though and this is, kind of, changing the subject so feel free to edit this out if it doesn't make sense, but I had this project called 'Postcards' where I wrote a song every week for a whole year and I've (tried) a lot of thoughts in that project which I don't think would have worked if I was trying to make an album, but because I was making 52 songs I could write about anything I felt like and I had this one song that I wrote which was based on - I had this idea in my head for a sci-fi movie, just the premise, you know how, like, a lot of sci-fi movies start with the idea 'What if?', what if the future turns out like this, and I had this idea of a future where humanity has decided to erase itself, to not preserve itself, to do the opposite of what we're, in many ways, what we're talking about here about preserving all this beautiful knowledge that has led to these Westlife chairs, instead pack it all up, wipe out everything we've ever done, all the seed banks (on small barge) and all the internet, all the libraries, all the knowledge and then, you know, wipe ourselves out, return everything to the way it was; and I kept going around to people that I knew and I said 'Here's the premise for the sci-fi movie. What do you think is the motive behind this?' and it was so fascinating to see how people reacted to that. Some people were like 'But that's what we're doing right now', I was like 'No, that's not what we're doing right now, this is humanity deliberately, you know, committing suicide and erasing itself, why are we doing that?’ And some people had, you know, some people were almost offended by this idea and some people, especially one friend became devastated by it and he was like 'I feel like this is what I'm doing right now, I feel like I'm in the process of just eliminating myself and everything that I am'. And I'm not sure where this is going right now, but I just wanted to -
[00:48:57.16] Yeah, well, one thing, I think, if you erase all the knowledge one thing that will happen overnight will life expectancy will go through the floor and we have these burial tombs, Newgrange, they're very famous, you know, thousands of years old and one thing that really shocked me when I went to visit them was when they were built the average life expectancy was 28 and 35 was a very, very, very old person and I was there going 'Wow', you know? And it's all relative because the people who lived 28 would've had no concept of the average life expectancy being 81, and they wouldn't have died at 28 feeling that they had been robbed of 50, 60 years of life, they would have lived their, kind of, full life and now you look at people who are trying to extend life again and again and again and I often find myself wondering, like, how much life is enough, but I also know that no matter what your situation is or most people's situation they always want to live longer, no one is going to go - The vast majority of cases, most people are striving to live longer, they want every day they can get and I, kind of, wonder a lot, you know, I'm 44 now, my eldest is 8 and I, kind of, go, you know, I'd be really happy living to 80, you know, and I'd be even happier living to 80 if I was a grandparent, but, you know, really love to know 80, my son would be 44, the age I am now coincidentally enough and I'd love to see how he turns out and how my younger son turns out and I'd be happy with that image, you know, and a big part of me feels that's really ambitious, you know, because you never know what's going to happen and then another part of me, kind of, goes 'Am I aiming too low?' So how much life is enough life? Don't know the answer. The other song in your record that I really wanted to ask you about specifically was "Evening Prayer", so in the record there is a person going out drinking with a group of friends and has a 3D printed replica of a tumour that he's got removed so, for me, one of the amazing things about the song is the line about, again, really bad paraphrasing, I'm really sorry for wrecking your beautiful words, but align to the effective, you know, ‘I'm not sure if I know you well enough to include you in my evening prayers’, and that really hit me as a sentiment, it's like 'Wow', and that just opened up so many different things - how well do you need to know somebody to care about them. So that's something I'd like to ask you about, but also is that story true? I couldn't help wanting to know.
No, no, it's emotionally true in the sense that I had this period where a lot of friends of mine were going through chemotherapy and different treatments for cancer and having tumours removed and just various illnesses basically. And I thought a lot about those things, I thought especially a lot about, you know, hearing about someone getting ill and thinking 'What can I do here and how close should I be?', you know, 'Should I get involved in this?' Because I think when you're in your twenties you have a lot of people you know, but you don't have to really think about how close you are and when that happened it just put a lot of those friendships and how close we were - It just questioned that in a way. And I felt like, you know, should I be getting in touch right now, should I be bringing this up and talking about it or does this person not want to talk about it, does this person want me to care? Maybe I'm this person in the periphery that this person is like 'I don't want you here right now', you know, and it's such a sensitive moment as well. So I just thought a lot about those things and I found myself also at the same time realising I do care a lot about this person and I haven't even realised it, I haven't realised how much this person means to me and how extremely worried I am right now, but I don't really dare to show that because I don't know if this person wants me to be there and I can't make this of thing right now because it's not about me and my feelings, really, it's about this person going through this extremely difficult time. So those thoughts were in me and so I came across this one article in a paper about a surgeon who used a 3D printer to print out tumours before he was going to remove them surgically and I thought two things, I thought this is a good backdrop for a story, but also I thought what a brilliant way to deal with something so abstract as a tumour by printing it out as a plastic object that you can put in your breast pocket and, you know, treat like a little ping pong ball or a little, you know, just fiddle with it. What if he could do that with every fear you had? So that's where the story came from.
[00:54:58.22] Yeah, God, that serious illness thing is really tricky and I think you hit the nail right in the head, it's not fundamentally about you, it's about the person, kind of, going through it and one of the things - I mean, I love being a parent, but one of the things I find the hardest about it is how time becomes so precious and so compressed and there are all these people who were once in your life that you don't have the time for and it's not that you've made a decision not to have the time for them, it's that you, literally, don't have the time for them, but on the other side of that one of the things I really like about getting older is that you really - Time gives you great perspective on people and when you're really busy I think all you can do is know who people are and that doesn't change with seeing them or not seeing them, and then when you do get to see them as long as they've been consistent, which most people are, you know what it is you're dealing with and you take it in the moment and you enjoy it in the moment. But sometimes I think being really busy and time being really precious is a really good thing because it forces you to focus, I suppose. But again, if you look at this western European kind of privileged world and my adolescence didn't really start ending until I became a dad at 36 and took a few years after that to actually end which is a pretty good (innings) when you think about it, it's not a bad go, so I never looked at it and begrudged it, I never, kind of, go 'Oh, I wish I could still go out five nights a week till four in the mourning', I feel like I had a good go of things. There's no question attached to that or there is no point to it and we'll probably end up at the cutting room floor, but it did, it did kind of spring to mind.
I was thinking about when you said before that - Who was it you said that people were buried here that died when they were 28?
[00:57:04.07] The people that built Newgrange.
Right, so that must have been in the Middle Ages or something?
[00:57:09.09] About 10.000 years ago (esk?)
10.000? Okay, right, okay, yeah. Alright.
[00:57:18.13] 5-10 thousand, you know, they don't know exactly how it's build, but they know the age people died at based on what they left which is a very, kind of, sobering kind of thing. I think about death less than I used to, again, another by-product of being busy. I can't help - One of my favourite words which I don't know how to pronounce properly is 'hubris', how do you pronounce that properly?
Hubris, I think it's - You're right, right.
[00:57:46.11] Hubris, okay? So I think, for me, daily life is about avoiding falling into...
[00:00:01.00] – that ones, they're brilliant. So Jens, the word 'God' is used in your songs. When you say 'God' what do you mean?
I guess I'm, kind of, struggling with that, especially coming from the most secular country in the world I think looking for something greater than us and something that makes sense of everything and something to serve, I think the word 'God' is extremely foreign to me, but also something that I can sometimes long for in a way. And I think, I mean, there are - I'm not sure if there's more than two songs, but there's at least two songs that mention - There's "Dimension of God" and "To Know Your Mission' and then there's a song "Evening Prayer", and I think when it comes to "Evening Prayer" I was actually - I found myself a few times actually praying even though I don't necessarily believe in a God, and I found that comforting in a way and I asked myself where am I sending this prayer, and I don't know, I guess I'm just sending it out into the world, into the cosmos or something and just, you know, sort of like just taking this one emotion that I have, this longing that I have and just putting it out there and I guess there's some sort of human need for that or something.
[00:01:43.18] But what was even the shape of your prayer, I mean, in Ireland a lot of us were brought up Catholics so we know what a prayer sounds like and (it) shapes like, but, like, where did you even begin, like, how do you, you know -
It's not like I'm completely foreign to the concept of praying, I mean, I've been to church and I think when I was brought up Sweden was a little bit more Christian than it is now and, you know, I've seen it in movies how you do, you put your hands together and then you just say your prayer, and then you end with 'Amen'. I don't think I said 'Amen', but I think I just lay there in bed and I said "I really wish that my friend is going to get better soon'.
[00:02:35.14] And what did you feel after that, what was the result? The prayer went off to the cosmos and what happened next?
I felt relief, I felt like I had got that of my chest in a way and I think there's a lot of different ways you can do that, I mean, you can do that - I mean, I go to therapy six times a month and I say these things that scare me, that frustrate me, that I've thinking about and that's much more a constructive way of doing that, but it's still me just saying those things and then it feels better afterwards, and I think a prayer in some way works like that too.
[00:03:21.28] The thing - You know, obviously, I'm in a very intimate relationship with Catholicism, but the thing that really strikes me about Catholicism and any religion I, kind of, know anything about is how all the boxes of need are ticked, you know, like, religions align themselves with our needs for religion and they very much feel like the products of what people needed, you know, responding to people's needs and I think that's a really, really positive thing. I think for me, a part of the issues come into more intransigence and refusal to change and, you know, expecting these, you know, rules that were done a long time ago to hold and not adapt, but all these things, all our needs are there, but then I find myself wondering all the time, you know, if all of these needs that we have are obvious and it had been obvious many, many times, why isn't something else coming along and ticking all those boxes, you know? Is yoga the new religion or mindfulness or - I mean, why isn't someone really smart doing that?
Right, but that's a long process, that's going to take some time, but, I mean, I do think we still have that need, especially when it comes to things that are out of our hands, you know, we talked about optimism and defensive pessimism and about - There's a lot of things that terrify me, that I feel like 'Well, if I do all these things then I might be able to prevent that from happening or make that happen', and I do those things. I also used to suffer a lot from - What's it called, OCD, you know, trying to prevent things that I couldn't prevent, you know, like, I was terrified of loved ones being harmed in some way, you know, when I was a kid and coming up with these rituals that would prevent them, you know, locking and unlocking the door 200 times or stuff like that and, I mean, it's sort of the same thing where these things are out of our hands and they worry us and they make us so anxious and I think at that point when there were friends of mine who were ill I just - I knew there was nothing I could do really, but the one thing that I could do was just to lie down in my bed and send off a prayer. For some reason that felt good to me and helped me momentarily so -
[00:06:15.09] It's like outsourcing in a way, you're outsourcing the bits that are beyond what you can do and there's bits we still haven't replaced and there's things we still don't know, there is so much we still don't know. You know that 'Amen' means 'so be it'?
[00:06:31.20] 'Amen' means 'so be it'.
'So be it', oh, okay, right, I didn't know that.
[00:06:37.01] So when somebody says a prayer and you say 'Amen' you're saying 'Yes, I agree, it would be great if that was so'.
Yeah, exactly, but that doesn't sound like you're saying 'Then that's going to happen' – It means - It sort of sounds like you're saying 'I accept it' or that it's a -
[00:06:56.21] Or it could be so, well, religion is smart enough to not give absolute guarantees, you know. I was an altar boy when I was a kid so I knew the Mass intimately, you know, there's bits of Mass I really, really loved and bits of the whole ritual I really, really loved and I think I, kind of, wanted to be an altar boy for the same reasons why I'm doing this show, you know, I love knowing what's going on behind the curtain, you know, I was as interested in seeing backstage of a church, AKA the sacristy, as I am knowing people's thought processes, it's like lifting up the curtain and seeing, kind of, beyond it and in a very rock and roll sense I got kicked out of the altar boys for my trousers ripping on stage or the altar as they call it in church, that was the end of a glittering career as an altar boy. Jens, you've been so giving with your time and you're suffering from jet lag which you wouldn't know, only if you told me earlier, just arrived from the States yesterday, so thank you so much for your time and it's been great to grab you on one of your rare visits to Ireland and I hope you'll be back soon on this cycle, that this album will bring you back here again and one thing I love about the album which I haven't mentioned because I kind of hate talking about music so I'm trying to avoid talking about it because I find it hits a dead end pretty soon, but you and Pearson, you've got you and Pearson producing your record which - Amazing producer, like, so many incredible tracks. What was that singer from America, 'Don't let the -', oh, God, I can't remember her name, but thing about you and then you were talking about your work and hoping that it does well and in a way, you haven't said it, but if all these songs could obliterate your older songs bit by bit that would be no bad thing and it's almost by getting you and Pearson into producing the record and put this, kind of, beat, disco, house, pop sheen on it all?
[00:09:04.14] That was my thoughts on you working with Ewan Pearson, I don't know what you're thoughts were.
Oh, no, I don't think that was my point in bringing him in, I think he just seemed to know these few technical things that I wanted the producer to know, but also he was the one person I felt I trusted in a way because I have always had a big problem with letting go of control and letting someone into that process, you know, so he just - I met him when we were recording with Tracey Thorn and I immediately felt like we got along and like he was someone who I felt like I could trust, like someone who knew what he was doing, but also was extremely kind and understanding and when we were making this record I think there was one point when I was grumpy about something because I constantly had to bite my tongue to not, you know, start intervening when he was doing his thing and he just looked at me and he went '_' and I was like 'What was that?' and he just went '_' and I was like 'What's going on?' and then I found myself laughing and I realised, you know, he has I think it's a two-year old and he just had a kid when we were making this record, so he is a dad and he knows how to handle grumpy people so he just made a fart noise and my mind completely changed, you know, like that. I think I needed some sort of - I needed someone with dad experience.
[00:10:55.22] And Tracey Thorn, I mean, I grew up listening to Everything but the Girl and, I mean, in many way(s) your records feel like a continuation of the type of bands that me and people like me listened to as teenagers and, kind of, growing up and you, kind of, slot nicely there, but I don't know if you've read Tracey's books.
Yeah, well, I read 'Bedsit Disco Queen'
[00:11:23.10] 'Bedsit Disco Queen', like, yeah, incredible, incredible, and, I mean, part of the scary things about this whole show is that sometimes you want to draw the line, you know, in who you want to talk to and who you don't want to talk to and to be very careful in terms of it and - I don't have a point other than I love Tracey Thorn and you obviously do too. Jens, thank you, thank you so much and even though you're not an optimist I won't hold it against you, a defensive pessimist, we'll see how wide that coin is that we're on the flipside of, how many millimetres (thick it is) but you've given lots of calls to Google, a lots of calls for thought and I will be looking up my defensive pessimism and seeing where I stand out, but it doesn't seem like a bad thing, I have to say.
No, I think we're very alike as I said, yeah, but look up the books of David Rakoff for sure.
[00:12:27.04] And I hope others do too.
[00:12:29.08] Thanks a million, Jens.
Nice to meet you.
[00:12:29.16] Thank you, that was brilliant. Jens, thank you so much -