LÉON Embraces Life's 'Circles'

LÉON Embraces Life's 'Circles'

“Who will save me from myself?” LÉON questions on “All My Heroes,” a stirring power-ballad off her third full-length album, Circles, which amplifies the existential panic of being left to face our demons alone. Ultimately, Swedish singer Lotta Lindgren finds clarity. “Everything will be alright,” she reassures, rounding out her whirlwind of emotions on “The Beach,” and closing the 11-song effort with a crashing climax. Much like the cyclical, never-ending path that its name suggests, Circles sees LÉON tumbling through the highs and lows of her past few years. “It goes on and on and on,” as she meanders on the title track.

Arriving on the heels of 2020’s Apart, released during global lockdowns, LÉON’s latest is in many ways an extension of those same ideas and sonics. Since she was unable to take the album on tour, LÉON kept writing and recording through isolation, instead. Where her last project wrestled with complications of love, like on the standout single, “Chasing a Feeling,”Circles puts LÉON in the ring against herself. “I don’t know where I’m going,” she sings on “Soaked,” looking in the mirror and forcing herself to better understand the reflection.

There are all the flavors of LÉON’s sweet spot on Circles, dancing between intimate, anxious admissions and production that grows into mountains of grooving synths and driving drums. These songs are instant classics, like they’ve been with us all along, somehow woven into the fabric of our lives without having ever been created until now. Perhaps it’s LÉON’s vulnerable songwriting, which digs deep for ugly truths that are universally shared, or maybe it’s the way her warm, nostalgic vocals run wild alongside vintage-sounding instrumentation (courtesy of longtime collaborator Martin Stilling).

This time around, LÉON will bring Circles on the road for her Fade Into a Dream tour, spanning 31 shows across North America and Europe. As her first headline tour since 2019, she'll perform songs off her last two albums, alongside opener Catie Turner. Ahead of those dates this spring and summer, PAPER called up LÉON to talk more about "dreaming away" on her sophomore effort, out now everywhere.

I'm such a fan of Apart, so hearing this new album is really special. I've been listening to it all morning.

Oh wow, thank you so much. I get terrified when I hear that people have been listening to it just because a part of me doesn't wanna know how people feel about it, cause I have had nerves. Now, I feel pretty excited to share it.

For a long time, the music you make is only between you and your collaborators. So when it becomes public, it can take on a different life. Is that process intimidating for you?

It is, I don't even share my music with my manager. I don't know why, it has always been that way. Some of these songs he gets to hear when they’re getting mixed. And I feel sometimes it's like a defense mechanism on my part, it is too late for him to come in and criticize or anything. They’ve definitely been my songs for such a long time now and people are gonna hear them. I am kinda over being anxious about it.

There is no reason for it. Music becomes powerful when people attach their own experiences to it. I want to start by talking about the end of your album, the very last minute, which is this huge climax on “The Beach.” There are always emotional swells in your songs; sometimes it happens with the melody and your voice, while other times it’s in the production. Where do these moments come from and who are you working with to bring them to life?

I work with one of my best friends, Martin [Stilling]. We've been working together for a long time and we tend to have a lot of different ideas on how songs should sound, which is fun cause there's a lot of back and forth. But with “The Beach,” for a long time it was just a verse and the chorus with, “Everything will be alright,” but then I put that song aside. And then we came back to it, months after. We were like, “Maybe we should give this a go, this song's got something." He wanted it to be crazy drum sounds and showed me what he was thinking. That started to feel like rock and roll, which didn't feel right and then we tried a bunch of things. Many of my friends came on and put drums and guitars, and everything. I think that’s what the song needed: a big ending, like a release.

When you write your music, do you hear it being as big as the final result or is that where the collaboration between you and Martin comes in?

A lot of the time we do agree on things, but it's always different. I do think that many of these songs were written before the production came into the picture. I feel a lot of these songs tend to end up bigger. Usually, I just sit with the guitar and you never know where it's gonna end up, which is very exciting. [Martin] is very great with that; sometimes he really wants to go off the original idea and sometimes we wanna take it in a different direction, but we always end up in a place where we're both very happy.

I am really happy you brought up “The Beach” cause it's very personal. It was one of those songs that I was very nervous to put on the album. It didn't feel depressing, but it's not a very happy song. It's very much a song that I try to tell myself, “Everything will be alright.” I'm like, "Nobody will want to hear this,” but then I thought it had to end up on the album cause there's so much about how I've been feeling, where I've been lately.

Among the bigger themes that you worked into this album, there’s a through-line of dreaming. If you look at “Wishful Thinking,” “Fade Into A Dream,” “Wildest Dreams,” there's escapism that you sing about from top to bottom. Is that a result of working on this through the pandemic?

I haven't really thought about it that way. I have definitely been in a bubble and I think that's been a place where I had to go because for so long we haven't been able to travel, or tour in my case. I feel like a lot of these songs came from spending time on my own, as everyone did, and kind of dreaming away a bit.

Sometimes you make things and don’t realize a common thread until it’s all done. On Circles, it doesn't only come through with the lyrics, but the sound itself doesn’t feel entirely rooted in reality — like a world that you've created only in your mind.

That’s a great compliment. I haven't listened to it; the second we mastered the album, I was like, "I never wanna hear this album, ever.” I'm terrified of mixing. To me, you produce a song, you record a song and then you mix it, and that's when I feel like I'm freezing. The first drafts of a mix, it feels to me that a song just changes and instantly turns bad, which is not the case. [Laughs] I feel like I have to go to therapy for this because it's a whole thing where my producer, my friend Martin, he laughs at me and gets exhausted because I drag out the process of listening to a mix. Now, I heard snippets of a few songs the other day and I was like, "Well, it wasn't that bad,” I remembered that there's some nice songs in this album, but I couldn't listen to it for so long. I have to listen, but I just hate finalizing. I think it is all about finalizing something. You know that you can't go back now, you can't change anything. The vocals are what they are and that's the end of that. I hate that.

I relate to that in directing photo shoots. The deeper you are in something, when you go through edits and edits, you start to be like, “Is this good or bad? I have no idea anymore.” You need someone to come in objectively and make some decisions.

But are you okay with that? Are you okay with inviting people? Some people get very protective.

I am definitely protective, but I have come to learn that, and maybe this is the case with you, what you got is what you got and that was meant to be captured in that moment. It could have been better or it could have been worse, but that was what that was. If you listen to a vocal take over and over, of course, you could have hit things differently. There’s something magical about capturing that one moment, and on to the next.

It's very on to the next. You do sit forever and analyze, and that's a thing too. It's terrifying when you realize afterwards that the magic was in the raw and you changed the whole thing, and now it sounds perfect, but the feeling is gone and now it's too late to go back. That's the thing for every creative outlet, a matter of stepping back. "This is it for now, it's not the last thing hopefully we are gonna do.”

Water also seems to be a larger theme on Circles. On “Dancer,” you repeat the line, "It's all washing over me,” and there’s another song, called “Soaked.” Does this all feel like one big cleansing experience for you?

I did think about that and was actually like, "What does this mean? What am I trying to say here?" Last year for many was rough. I'm very lucky, but there's so many people who had it much worse in this pandemic. I was in a very strange place; I started to go into therapy again, and really tried to change some patterns and habits of mine. I think that's what a lot of the album is about: telling myself that it's gonna be alright.

Water is a symbol of transformation and these past two years have been transformative for so many people. Did you get to do everything that you wanted to do with Apart or did it come to a halt because of the pandemic?

I actually never got to have a concert with Apart. In a way, it felt as if we never finished writing Apart and we went straight into writing this album. When I go on tour this time around, it's gonna be two new albums. I know so many friends of mine, you make something for such a long time, and then you put it out and then that's it. That's the best part about touring: you get to really give the songs new life until you're like, “Okay, I'm ready to go back into the studio, I have so much to say now with new experiences." Now, we just kept going, which I think was the right move, and it wasn't intentional at the beginning. But I'm excited to actually be able to play these songs from both of these albums.

So when you go back on tour, your fans haven't seen you since before Apart. That's a lot of growing for you as an artist.

I'm terrified [laughs]. I'm kidding, I really want the next shows. It's gonna be a big mash up of all the albums. I want it to be a mix because there's so much music and I want to do as much as I can within 75 minutes.

Do you think of Circles as an extension of Apart?

I think Circles very much so is an extension in ways, not intentionally. But then it takes off into its own and certain songs like “Soaked” and “Moonlight” and “The Beach,” they feel like their own. There’s a few songs that feel very connected to where Apart ended, for sure. But, again, it was not an intentional thing. I started writing for Circles maybe two months after Apart came out, so I was still in that same mindset of things. It felt like I probably had much more to say still that I didn't say on Apart. It's a mix of everything, so much that I felt and went through last year. It's weird because when you talk about this, you feel very self-obnoxious [laughs]. Do you know what I mean?

I don’t know, what do you mean?

I just thought of it now, when you talk about all these things. [Laughs] I know it’s my job, but I hadn’t really reflected on certain things until now.

Well, there's the music-making process to being an artist, but once you're done with that there’s all these other things: promotion, marketing, communication. Your music feels so personal and intimate, I wonder if that mindset is what makes it especially powerful?

It was just something that came on top of my head, and I said it out loud but didn’t mean to [laughs]. But I think it's fun, I haven't been able to talk that much about this album. It makes me feel very excited to release it and I didn't realize I would feel this excited. You’ve caught me at a weird time in the day, I have no filter. It's nice to talk about it because you can think back and reflect, and see things in a different way when you’ve had some time away from making the album.

“All My Heroes” is the only song you recorded, but didn’t write yourself. What was that experience like and how did you connect with it for this album?

I have never put a song that I didn't write on an album before. I was sitting in a bar with one of my best friends, who is a songwriter. At that time we had never worked together, which is weird cause we both work as songwriters but we never ended up doing something together. We were really drunk and sitting at a pub, and she asked me if she could play something for fun. She played me a demo with these crazy drums, it was a loop with her vocals on it. I knew I had to have it cause it resonated in so many ways with what I felt and what I had been feeling. I was like, “If someone else sings this on stage, I'm gonna be heartbroken." I basically stalked her about it for weeks and was relentless about it. I'm so happy that it made it on the album and her vocals are still in the song as backup vocals. It's very special because we know each other so well. We ended up writing more songs for the album because of that experience, so she became a part of Circles too. It was a happy accident.

Do you relate to the chorus, "All my heroes are dead and I don't believe in God"?

All my heroes aren't dead, definitely not. I don't believe in God, so I can stand by that. It depends on how you view God, I guess. It's a very dramatic lyric and we were thinking about changing it up, but I thought, “No, it's good the way it is.”

It’s powerful, especially considering we’ve lost so many heroes in the past two years.

So many.

How do you feel the title, Circles, represents this project in its entirety?

I was thinking of other titles. It's very hard to find a title that works, cause sometimes you pick something and think, "This could be cool, but what does it really mean?" And Circles felt it was the exact thing about last year, for me. Having periods of not feeling very well and being in a very bad place, and then you come out of it and you're back at it and you feel spark and you’re happy again. Circles just felt like the fitting word for it cause that's what I was telling myself a lot: “Nothing is permanent, no feelings are permanent, nothing is constant,'' and Circles felt right.

If there's anything we've learned it’s that everything we thought we understood or believed to be true, is not.

It's been intense and now there's so much shit happening around the world, it doesn't seem to come to an end. Sorry, that sounded so depressing [laughs].

Looking back on this album and now having listened to snippets of final tracks recently, is there something you’re particularly proud of?

I'd probably say “Soaked” cause I feel like that song changed the way I was writing. Usually I write so much about love and all that stuff. “Soaked” opened up a new way to write not just about being in a relationship with someone else, but more so the relationship to myself. “Moonlight” maybe is another song I'm kind of proud of, even if it's very simple. Yeah, I’d say those two... for now [laughs].

Photos courtesy of Sandra Thorsson