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For Swedish musician Jens Lekman, recrafting old albums was a lesson in self-love

Jens Lekman in 2022.
Ellika Henrikson
Courtesy of Chromatic PR
Jens Lekman in 2022.

In the early 2000s, Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman had just started to find his voice. He was making thoughtful, funny, romantic indie pop, weaving personal, sharply observed stories into a technicolor patchwork of samples that burst at the seams.

"The way I learned to make music was by making collages with samples from records that I found at flea markets and other places," says Lekman. "Hundreds and thousands of tiny little snippets of audio from this place and that place."

Fans and critics around the world couldn't get enough, and Lekman soon released two of his most acclaimed and successful albums: In 2005, "Oh You're So Silent Jens," and in 2007, "Night Falls Over Kortedala."

But then, as in every Jens Lekman story, there came a twist.

In that era of file-sharing and free love, some artists – including Lekman – were less than careful about getting permission to use samples, which can be a difficult, expensive process. But over the next 15 years, the bill came due.

As the legal pressure mounted, Lekman was unable to clear all of the samples on "Oh You're So Silent" and "Night Falls." And as a result, Lekman's label Secretly Canadian had to stop pressing the records and pull them from streaming services.

First, "Oh You're So Silent" disappeared in 2011.

"It was like the record never had existed in the first place," says Lekman. "There was not even a gap at Spotify. It was just gone."

Then, "Night Falls" followed in March of 2022 (with a funeral service on YouTube to boot).

But unbeknownst to grieving fans, Lekman had a surprise up his sleeve: During the COVID-19 pandemic, he had secretly started re-recording some of his old songs to get around the uncleared samples.

"This was something that I had entertained in my mind many times," says Lekman. "And every time I even thought about it, I just thought, 'No, I can't do that. It would just be sacrilege. It would just be offensive.'"

And yet, Lekman eventually admitted to himself that "there's always something in the forbidden that [is] kind of intriguing."

In the spring of 2022, Lekman delivered the fruits of his forbidden labor: A new version of "Oh You're So Silent" called "The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom" and a new version "Night Falls" called "The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom."

They're more than just reissues, but they aren't full remakes.

"I wanted these records to be like portals or tombstones for the original records," says Lekman.

In the new releases, a number of the original recordings are untouched, and all of the lyrics are still the same.

But some familiar things are missing, or tweaked, or reimagined – like the outro to "Kanske Är Jag Kär I Dig."

"I originally had a sample in there that broke the whole song off," says Lekman. "And in this case, I found this live recording of me playing the song at a New Year's show, and ... instead of playing the melody, we had this saxophone player who was just improvising at that part."

Lekman replaced the sample at the end of "Kanske Är Jag Kär I Dig" ... with a bootleg recording of himself playing the song live.

"I'm actually quite a big fan of bootlegs of my own shows," Lekman tells his fans. "Keep sending them."

Other changes on "Cherry Trees" and "Linden Trees" are more wholesale, like with two of Lekman's biggest early hits.

"'Maple Leaves' and 'Black Cab' are completely new, mostly because those songs consisted of basically all samples," says Lekman.

In the course of remaking these albums, Lekman faced more than just tricky songwriting problems. There was also something deeper he had to contend with – some baggage around his old persona.

My music is so tied to who I am, so when I don't like myself very much, I don't like my music very much.

"I remember doing an interview with a Belgian journalist when 'Night Falls Over Kortedala' came out," says Lekman. "He was just like, 'So this is just another collection of, you know, clumsy, lovestruck man-child songs. ... I hate it.'"

"And I realized I wanted to move on from that," adds Lekman.

In the years following the release of "Night Falls," Lekman had gotten tired of his younger self. As sweet and smart as his early writing could be, even he would admit that it could come off as sappy – or even cringe.

"I'm a very self-critical person. From time to time, I don't like myself very much," says Lekman. "And my music is so tied to who I am, so when I don't like myself very much, I don't like my music very much."

But for this project, Lekman had to dive deep into the songs he'd written back then — like one of his first big hits, "Maple Leaves."

"Maple Leaves" has all of the hallmarks of an early Jens Lekman hit: Doomed romance, big emotions, and a bit of wordplay at its core.

"It's all about the misunderstandings of love," says Lekman. "'She said it was all make-believe, but I thought she said maple leaves.'"

But back then, when it came to love, 21-year-old Lekman didn't really know what he was talking about.

"I actually kind of used my songs, in a way, to push myself to go talk to girls," admits Lekman. "So a lot of those songs were like trying out different costumes."

In the 20 years since, Lekman has actually experienced real romance, real heartbreak. And the more he learns about love, the more you'd think he'd cringe at an old song like "Maple Leaves."

But when he picked it up again for this project:

"Looking back on Maple Leaves, I think I nailed it in that song," says Lekman.

This time, he saw something new in it.

"It's like I've been going around in circles, and then I came back to that, and I was like, 'Oh wait, hang on. This is such a perfect portrait of love or heartbreak,'" says Lekman. "These things that we think that we're going to understand as we get older, but as we get older, we realize that there's nothing to understand."

Lekman at Coachella in 2008.
Michael Buckner / Getty Images
Getty Images
Lekman at Coachella in 2008.

For self-critical Lekman, remaking these two albums became something unexpected: A labor of self-love.

"Working on these songs became like a dialogue between my 41-year-old self and my 21-year-old self," says Lekman. "A very compassionate dialogue."

"Now when I look back on it, I just see a 21-year-old, you know, dealing with these emotions for the first time ... and then it feels sweeter," adds Lekman.

"It was just a moment to see myself from the outside and like what I saw and be proud of what I saw."

As Lekman starts work on two brand-new albums, he's energized by what he's re-discovered in his early work.

"After a while, you have to struggle more to find new directions and something that's interesting," says Lekman. "But back then, I was just, you know, an unwritten sheet of paper, and I could do whatever I wanted."

"I lost my job around that time, and I was on the dole, and I just remember thinking, 'I'm going to really make the most of this,'" adds Lekman. "And I just got up at six in the morning every day, and I just sat by my computer and just recorded songs all day."

Working on these songs became like a dialogue between my 41-year-old self and my 21-year-old self.

Lekman says that he's been inspired "remembering how I wrote songs back then, how simple it was – that you don't have to complicate things so much and you can just write songs from the joy of it."

In two new music videos promoting the remakes, present-day Lekman watches footage of himself from the past – from the early 2000s.

So after this whole experience, what does Lekman see now, literally, when he looks back at that younger Lekman from forever ago?

"I'm thinking you should get rid of those sideburns," Lekman chuckles.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Cheng
Alex Cheng is a producer for How I Built This with Guy Raz. Previously, he worked in the newsroom at Minnesota Public Radio and interned at NPR for Invisibilia. He was a house improv performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, and he writes and produces comedy here, there and everywhere. He spends a lot of his free time writing, shooting videos and stir-frying vegetables.