By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Against a plain backdrop, in stark black and white, the Swedish singer squares off to the camera, concentrating all the heartbreak of her 22 years into her furrowed brow. As the piano and synths congeal into a kind of minimalist power ballad, she coos the plaintive chorus over and over again: "Don't you lemme go, lemme go, tonight."
It's not a new song—"Tonight" comes from Li's debut album, Youth Novels, released early last year—but the clip shows a different side of the artist. Earlier videos for Li's simple beat-laden and synth squiggle-filled singles "Breaking It Up" and "I'm Good, I'm Gone" offered a darker, artier vibe, emphasizing her pop power and freaky, pugilistic dance moves.
But, as Li points out about her album, "there's only a few songs that I think are danceable—a lot are mellow songs as well." And now that she's got her dance hooks in us, it seems she's bent on bringing these mellower songs to the fore.
"I think people got it that I have this dance side," she says, speaking at an insistent, rapid clip via phone from her tour bus. "But I still have this darkness, a deeper side. I'm very happy to have found an audience; I feel very blessed. [But] I feel I'm not as commercial as people think I may be."
Indeed, the default preconception of Swedish pop singers as dispensers of cute bubblegum may be what Li is trying to escape by putting out a video like "Tonight."
"I don't really identify myself with anybody in Sweden," she insists. "It's not like, 'Oh, I'm part of this movement or this scene.' I don't know at all where I belong. I can't see my scene anywhere."
She sounds a tad distressed, but perhaps she's merely impatient with questions about her homeland. So who does she identify with now? Well, Bon Iver, for one, whose mournful For Emma, Forever Ago was Li's favorite album of the year, but also oldies from Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. "I really like that the lyrics are really dark love songs, but they sing it in such a happy way."
So she likes a good ruse, then? Pulling the cover over her audience's eyes?
Not really: "When I go back to Sweden, I hang out with my old friends, and I go get coffee and take a walk in the park. It's not like we have these meetings about how to take over the pop scene," she jokes.
And yet Li's come about as close to that as possible, teaming up with Swedish star producer Björn Yttling, of Peter, Björn and John, who lent his signature quirky style to her debut EP and to Youth Novels. "He's a very fast man in the studio—it 's very ba-ba-ba-boom and you're done," Li says.
Fine by Li, who, having spent the past 18 months on the road in support of Youth Novels, is clearly living for the now.
"I could definitely have worked [on the album] for two years and made it, like, the masterpiece," she says. "[But] you can hear that I'm really young and inexperienced, and I can't sing. I can't do anything. But I want to grow with the audience."
So far, so good.