Lykke Li is a Swedish singer-songwriter and, without a doubt, one of the more unique sounds of this century. Born Lykke Li Timotej Zachriisson, she comes from an already established musical background. Her father, Johan Zachrisson, is a member of a Swedish punk-reggae band, so naturally, Li grew up in the world of music and performative arts. Albeit a pop artist, Li’s approach towards pop is different from her peers. She does not merely produce pop music, she embraces it.
But how does she embrace it, one might ask. For starters, she does not limit herself within the boundaries of mainstream pop. Her style is more experimental, including electro-pop, dream-pop, art-pop and so on. She also does not shy away from incorporating indie and rock elements in her music, making her a rather versatile musician.
Li started her professional musical journey in 2007 with the release of her EP, Little Bit. Subsequently, she released three albums, Youth Novels in 2008, Wounded Rhymes in 2011 and I Never Learn in 2014, all of which followed her original style of exploring the various sub-genres of pop music. Following the release of her first three albums, her music underwent a change wherein she embodied the more mainstream, popular sounds.
Thematically, she works with the subjects of love, angst, relationships and separations and every other emotion related to it. In a way, it is a testament to her flexibility of being able to work with such a varied range of sounds and lyrical motifs. A lot of her own work owes its inspiration to the wide range of music she grew up listening to.
When it comes to the songs she adheres to, that remain perpetually relevant to her through thick and thin, there are ten such tracks that Li once mentioned in an interview as her favourites. These songs show the diversity in which Li grew up and how it changed her own interpretation of music.
Lykke Li’s favourite songs
‘I’ll Never Learn’ – The Shangri-Las
This iconic American girl group of the 60s was one that Li could relate to, on a personal level as well as a professional one. The Shangri-Las’ music dealt with teen tragedies and melodramas, although it feels a little harsh to put it that way. Li’s own music represents thoughts along the lines of these, although not entirely.
Li very rightly comments about the song, “The title says it all, you never learn and I’ll never learn”. But to her, that is where the excitement lies, as does for every other person out there. She foregrounds one of those perpetual crises of feeling like the more you see of the world, the less you know. As she says, “The older I get, the less I seem to know.” And for all the things that are yet to know, she brightly expresses, “I am excited to find out!”
‘That’s Someone You’ll Never Forget’ – Elvis Presley
Now here’s another icon who is practically inevitable and unavoidable in the music industry. Lykke Li’s story with Elvis, and particularly this song of his, ‘That’s Someone You’ll Never Forget’, is quite similarly inevitable. “I stumbled across this track and now I can’t live without it”, Li says. One who has always had a flair for the dramatics, Li continues, “It makes life better and more cinematic in every way possible.”
What really got to Li was the majestic harmonies. “The harmonies, oh the harmonies! This is what sex and ghosts sound like I suppose”, Li says. Come to think of it, Li’s analogy does make a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ – Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston is one of Li’s idols, as Li herself admitted. Outsider artist Johnston’s use of words to express the profoundness of life and his presentation of those very words through his sonorous music, really enraptured Li to her core.
As Li relates, “Daniel is one of my heroes, somehow he always seems to pin down the complexities of life in just one phrase. In addition, Li herself sang the refrain of “some things last a long time” to substantiate her point more.
‘I’m On Fire’ – Bruce Springsteen
‘I’m on Fire’ from Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the U.S.A is one of those songs that is full of different interpretations. It does express an almost alluring sexual tension between the protagonist and his addressee, but also could be read as a proclamation of statutory rape.
Li’s take on the song was quite similar, wherein she was thoroughly confused with what the song actually meant: “Is it really about being infatuated with a minor?” She further says, “This particular song puzzles me ‘cause I somehow seem to mistake the lyrics for something terribly inappropriate yet exciting.”
‘Sake of The Song’ – Townes Van Zandt
Lykke Li relates to this song by Townes Van Zandt on a whole different level. With lyrics like “why does she sing her sad songs for me” to “she says that she knows that moments are rare” and “if she could see how I feel then I know that she’d understand”, this song in its entirety, is a lyrical masterpiece.
The words are especially heart-piercing for Li. “Oh Townes, how can you write exactly how I feel right now? So much truth, it’s scary, it’s like being in a room with a mirror and a therapist”, she emotes. She says how the kind of attention she feels like Van Zandt is giving to his audience is detrimental for a self-proclaimed narcissist like her – “Are you talking to me about me?”
‘Lost and Lookin’’ – Sam Cooke
The King of Soul, Sam Cooke is one of the most influential soul singers of the 20th century. His voice was smooth yet powerful – most of it owing to his natural talent of singing but also his incredible ability to understand vocal modulations and deliver them accordingly.
His song ‘Lost and Lookin’’ especially affected Li for Cooke’s innate capacity to make his audience feel deeply, or in Li’s case, make her seem rather insignificant in his shadow. Regarding the song, Li commented, “How can one sing like this? I’m so ashamed of my own vocal ability I might not ever sing again”.
‘Tell Me’ – The Termites
‘Tell Me’ by The Termites was a one-hit-wonder, included in the collaborative album Girls in the Garage, Vol. 1. This is one of those songs that resonated with Li for its potential to be a track fit for a live performance.
Her band members, unfortunately, seem to disagree: “My band disagrees it’s a good idea to do it live”. This number is also one of those she just happened to chance upon. As she said, “I somehow stumbled across [the song] and now I seem to belt it out every time I’m at an airport.”
‘Spanish Harlem’ – Phil Spector
Phil Spector was the songwriter for ‘Spanish Harlem’ which was originally recorded by Ben E. King. King’s version is an almost orchestral performance that carries with it a somewhat tender grandeur. Spector’s version on the other hand championed his voice with the accompaniment of only an acoustic guitar.
The song was covered by multiple artists including Aretha Franklin, Cliff Richard and Laura Nyro. But to Li, Spector stood out. As she said, “There is no production like Phil’s and there never will be. If I ever needed a time machine, this is why.”
‘Mi Amor, Perdonamé’ – Los Zafiros
Li’s diverse background, and her fascination with different varieties of music, did not stop at a wide range of genres only. It crossed the linguistic borders as well. ‘Mi Amor, Perdonamé’ is a song by Los Zafiros, a popular Cuban close-harmony vocal group.
‘Mi Amor, Perdonamé’ was a song from the group’s eponymous album and was one of their top hits. Lykke Li, on why the song is one of her favourites, said, “This song just suits my mood right now and makes me wonder why I’m Swedish and why I don’t slow dance more.”
‘Deep Shadows’ – Little Ann
It is safe to say Little Ann’s ‘Deep Shadows’ affected Li in more ways than one. To begin with, Ann’s voice took a whole different personality of its own in the track, which was further elevated by the marvelous use of the guitar, bass, piano and of course, the show-stopping bells.
Li’s stance on the song was simply that, “I’m gonna stop talking and listen instead, that’s what I do best.” Ann was such an admirable artist that everyone aspired to be like her, including Li: “Listen and pretend I’m the one singing.” And to her audience, Lykke Li said, “You should do the same – we all have a little diva in us”.