From the Mundane to the Sublime

Swedish singer/songwriter Jens Lekman’s Ghostwriting project comes to the Contemporary Arts Center

click to enlarge Jens Leckman is coming to Cincinnati to collect strangers’ stories and turn them into songs.
Jens Leckman is coming to Cincinnati to collect strangers’ stories and turn them into songs.

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wedish singer/songwriter Jens Lekman has consistently won praise — and a devoted, growing international fan base — for the idiosyncratically observational details of his lyrics in songs like “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” “A Postcard to Nina” and “An Argument With Myself.”

Few other songwriters can do what Lekman does in “Your Arms Around Me,” for instance. On the track from his 2007 sophomore album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, a tender love song emerges as the narrator accidentally cuts his finger while slicing an avocado because his lover, wearing new and quiet sneakers, comes from behind to embrace him. It ends with them together, feeling love and acceptance, in a hospital waiting room.


Critics have compared Lekman to unique songwriting talents like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Morrissey, Jonathan Richman, Stephin Merritt and Belle & Sebastian, especially because he combines those offbeat, often-romantic and introspective lyrics with an effortlessly appealing melodic grandeur.

Drew Klein, the performance curator at the Contemporary Arts Center, has liked Lekman’s music for a long time. He even saw him perform at the old Southgate House in 2006, Lekman’s sole Cincinnati-area show to date. Klein sensed something special.

“He has always felt like an artist who has a bigger story to tell than just being a guy who makes records, tours and then repeats,” Klein says. “The way he pulls people into his songs always felt so endearing and personal. So I reached out to him and his manager to see if there might be a project worth doing with us.”

The project they came up with, Ghostwriting, begins Monday and runs through Nov. 19 at the CAC. It has attracted national attention in the music press for its innovation.

From 126 emailed submissions to the CAC, Lekman selected 12 people whose own personal stories, he believed, would make good fodder for songs. Each day, he will meet privately with three of the submitters in the CAC’s Black Box performance space to discuss details. Then he will write and immediately record a song based on their submissions. Each night, those songs will be posted on the “smalltalk” section of Lekman’s website (jenslekman.com). The participants get their own copy of the song on a UBS stick in a gift box.

On Nov. 20, once the project is over, Lekman will celebrate his Cincinnati residency with a public concert at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater. He will perform songs from throughout his career accompanied by MYCincinnati Ambassador Ensemble, a string section of Price Hill youth under the direction of local musician/composer Eddy Kwon, who also adapted the arrangements.

Speaking from his home in Gothenburg via Skype, Lekman explains the genesis for Ghostwriting.

“From the beginning, I’ve been responding to people who listen to my music,” he says.  “I noticed the communication we had was very deep and meaningful. A lot of people would write to me long stories from their lives and I felt they were thinking of me as some sort of treasure chest to keep their secrets. I felt like sometimes they would tell me stories they wouldn’t tell anybody else in the whole world. And I loved these stories. They’d be the reason I got up in the morning sometimes — to check my email and read some.”

Though different, Ghostwriting jives nicely with Lekman’s “postcards” project, for which he writes, records and posts a new song to his website every week. (He also previously adapted a version of Ghostwriting for the Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art in Sweden.)

These projects are a break from Lekman’s past work. As he describes it, he usually “keeps polishing songs to be released years ahead,” which accounts for the impeccable craftsmanship of his work, as well as the long delays between finished albums. His latest, I Know What Love Isn’t, came out in 2012, five years after Night Falls Over Kortedala.


“I felt like I needed an outlet to get other kinds of songs out there, more spontaneous songs, and to do things that were a bit risky and that excited and challenged me,” he says. “This whole year has been put aside to try new projects I haven’t been able to try before.”

In choosing his Cincinnati Ghostwriting participants, Lekman says he found himself drawn to submissions that shared qualities with his own work.

“I’ve been really interested in ones that paint a picture of (a) very small event, a short moment, a memory of something seemingly insignificant but actually bears a bigger significance,” he says. “Most of the (writers) seem aware of that, which is important. I would like to be their ghostwriter; I’m not here to analyze their work. It’s important they know the story they would like to tell.”

Lekman, 34, learned to make music while growing up in a suburb of Gothenburg primarily known for its potato-chip factory. His father was a music buff who kept simple home-recording equipment in the house. At any early age, Lekman learned simple ways of recording and overdubbing, and that inspired him. He also started writing.

When he was 14, Lekman played bass in a friend’s cover band, which did lots of Nirvana songs. Kurt Cobain is a major influence on Lekman, but not in the expected way. He learned about the musicians that Cobain admired and was influenced by — ones whose songs Cobain covered or listed as favorites in his published diaries. Lekman was mostly drawn to the artists that didn’t sound especially “Grunge,” including Marine Girls, an early-’80s British group that included the young Tracey Thorn (who went on to Everything but the Girl and a solo career), and Scottish Indie band The Vaselines.

“I started listening to that — especially the Marine Girls, Tracey Thorn, Everything but the Girl,” he says. “Nirvana was a band that led you somewhere, as opposed to all the Grunge bands that began and ended with themselves.”

Lekman, whose American record company is based in Bloomington, Ind., is coming to the U.S. solely for his Cincinnati project and concert. As of this story’s deadline, he has no plans for an American tour.

“I think it will just be this,” he says. “I sort of need to go back and focus on the next album — the polished songs.”

Here is a track Lensman calls a "test run" for

Ghostwriting

. On his site, he writes, "

I interviewed a friend. I gave her three topics: love, fear and secrets. She chose fear and told me a story about her fear of her and her boyfriend slowly turning into her parents. This song is the result, I wrote it and recorded it in under 30 mins."


UPDATE: The first songs from the "Ghostwriting" project have surfaced. Read more here.

For more on Jens Lekman’s GHOSTWRITING project and tickets for the Nov. 20 Woodward Theater concert, visit contemporaryartscenter.org.


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