Lykke Li: 'I think pop culture underestimates people'

The Swedish phenomenon on her new album, the music industry's sexual double standards – and her ideal festival experience

The Observer's A-Z of festivals 2014 – in pictures

Ed Vulliamy: my life in festivals

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It suits Lykke Li to be interviewed in a photographic studio. White walls and bright lights contrast with the 28-year-old singer's uniformly dark clothing, exaggerating the thick slope of her black eyeliner. The Swede is only in London for a few more hours before jetting off to Berlin to continue the promotional warm-up to the release of her third album, I Never Learn. She calls it the final part of a trilogy – or "thrillogy", as she pronounces it in dainty, accented English, her voice layered with the rolling Rs of the Swedish language – and describes an album that is as sparse and spacious as the empty studio she sits in.

"The ultimate aim was to do something stripped back. I wanted to do something as pure and naked and bare and honest as possible. The most powerful thing would be to do something like Odetta, just strumming the guitar and 'Argh!'" She imitates the sound of the late US folk singer, famed for a roaring acoustic style that underpinned the civil rights era. "It's the ultimate task to do something stripped back, so you're not hiding behind anything."

I Never Learn does indeed manage the trick of both pulling back and letting rip at the same time. Nine songs long, the album begins with the pared-down acoustic guitar and multitracked vocals of the title track and never really deviates from this restraint. It evokes the best of late-80s new wave pop – the Cocteau Twins meet the Motels. It's astral and romantic, but with a tough-girl snarl. Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone rides on Li's voice against a backdrop of faint guitar and projects the melancholy sweetness typical of the singer. Even the song titles – Heart of Steel, Never Gonna Love Again – feel like lost fragments from a more innocent time, before irony swamped pop culture.

While it sounds completely different to her first two albums, Youth Novels (2008) and Wounded Rhymes (2011), broken love is still the theme. The title "just came to me. I want to be lost. And then those words were there – 'I don't know and I never fucking learn.'" The album is co-produced with her long-time collaborator Björn Yttling, of Peter Bjorn and John, best known for the song Young Folks, aka that "whistling" song from every advert ever.

Their relationship is really strange, says Li. "We don't get along. He pulls one way and I pull the other. We fight a lot and we meet in the middle and that's what creates a great song. We challenge each other."

There has always been a detachedness to Lykke Li, in pictures, in performance and in song. The effect is one of artistic aloofness, but there's more to it than that. Born in Skåne, south Sweden, in 1986, Li was one of three children to a musician father and a photographer mother.

Her childhood was peripatetic, with the family regularly relocating, to Nepal, India, Morocco and Portugal. At 19, she upped sticks from the small Algarvian village where they lived – "beautiful, but we had no electricity" – and moved to Brooklyn. Her childhood was artistic, divorced from any dominant pop culture, and her parents encouraged her not to think of herself a Swedish. A rootless life was great for artistic experiment, less great for understanding how life works.

At 21, Li released her first album, Youth Novels, announcing herself with the hypnotic, playful and wistful song Little Bit. A few years after that, having relocated to Los Angeles, she released her follow-up, Wounded Rhymes, leading with the song I Follow Rivers, a propulsive single about obsessive love. For two years, the Magician house remix of the track bounced around summer raves and house parties, appearing on both the soundtrack to Rust and Bone and Blue is the Warmest Colour.

If you see her at Latitude, Roskilde or Sonar this summer, I Follow Rivers will be the moment it goes "off", so to speak. Li, who has developed an "unintentional habit of pulling old hip-hop joints, everything from Rick Ross to A Tribe Called Quest" into her performances, says audiences are at their most receptive at festivals.

"Anything with a loud snare has an impact. My favourite festival experience is a show at midnight with the moon blazing and a crowd full of open hearts ready to dance. Anything and everything can go right or wrong – a light bulb can hit your head, the rain can fall hard, a strung-out German crowd can scream and shout for the remix version of your song. So it can be a glorious time of misunderstandings and obstacles that you just have fight through that in the end will make you a better performer. I'm full of wonder for the festival beast."

Because of her girlish looks and equally childlike vocal style, Li's sensuality can have a disconcerting effect. In Get Some, a three-and-a-half-minute frenzy of kick drum and feedback at the centre of her second album, she sings: "Like a shotgun needs an outcome, I'm your prostitute, you gonna get some." Response to the lyric was not wholly positive, which elicits gentle disappointment from the singer. "I got a lot of shit for that," she says. "People just didn't get it. That comment was meta. They thought I'd fallen for 'it' – that someone else was telling me what to do. In fact, I was speaking from the point of view of a female pop star. I was saying to the public, 'If this is what you want then OK I'm going to give it to you, so don't look away now.'"

IIn an era of high-concept acts such as Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus, the distance Li keeps from her audience almost seems like a droll statement. As she explains, it's not that simple. "I used to get really sick. I would go to the doctor with all these ailments and they would tell me I needed to be at home. I didn't even really understand what that meant, because since I was a baby I've always been moving, moving, and then touring. And then the advice was, 'Get an apartment, get some plants, cook some meals in it', and then I realised: my soul needed to be nurtured. I needed to have a home. Of course!"

Is she an introvert? "Yes! But I didn't even know that. I found out two years ago. I did a test and I was like, 'Oh, there's been a misunderstanding, what I have I done my whole life? I've done everything the wrong way round.'" Like what? "Like becoming a pop star!" She describes the pain of touring, being pulled out of her element, and even goes so far as to say doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress. "It's very hard to be on tour and get so freaked out about everything and everyone just thinks you're a pain in the ass, so you feel even worse. I got sick, then I'd cancel, then I'd feel bad about cancelling."

It doesn't help that the rules for women in music are tacitly different, she says. "If I'm on stage and it's warm and I don't want to wear trousers all of a sudden I'm a victim, but if Iggy Pop takes his shirt off? Oh, that's fine. I think pop culture underestimates people. The message is, 'Being yourself is the worst thing you could possibly be.' But people are still attracted to it." How is she feeling about playing the new album live? "Well, the one thing I love is the performing. The reason for my making music is that art is about escapism. You know, Sweden is really dark and cold and it gets rough in winter. But music is a connection, it's warmth." She cups her hands around her stomach, denoting the symbolic fire in the belly. "For me, what I do is about giving birth to an idea. I become obsessive about my ideas. I dream them; they live inside of me. But to be able to stay true to your vision until the bitter end? That's success – there's nothing higher than that." Her eyes light up. "Everything else is just bullshit."

Lykke Li plays Latitude on 20 July


Rosie Swash

The GuardianTramp

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