WORDS: LAURA FLYNN
Yung Lean, born Jonatan Leandoer Håstad, has always maintained a boyish charm: piercing water blue eyes, a short-cropped bowl cut, a mouth that forms into a smile that cuts his face in two, revealing a set of perfectly straight white teeth. He laughs easily and wakes up late—he’s always had trouble sleeping. He speaks in a stream of consciousness, pulling ideas and sewing them together before letting them tumble out. He has a love for excess, for lists, for Louis V.
It’s 9pm in Melbourne when I call Yung Lean. In Stockholm, it’s 1pm. Lean’s voice is thick with sleep—his friend and manager Emilio Fagone had just woken him up. Throughout the interview, I’ll hear Lean drink his morning coffee and shuffle dishes in the sink at his apartment in Stockholm. Since moving in last year, he tries to spend as much time at home as possible: painting, recording, doing the dishes. It’s where he keeps a small studio, an “ecosystem of plants” and his “collection of nice things”. He likes that it has got lots of “sneaky doors and old vibes”. He tells me that the best place to eat in Stockholm is Kvarnen: a restaurant that announces itself on its website as serving ‘carefully prepared traditional Swedish food, beer and great company’. He’s a regular there, often visiting after wrapping video shoots.
Lean is no longer the 17-year-old who released Lavender: the three track mixtape that slingshotted him into the US scene. Too much has happened: the slap of sudden fame, his unravelling in Miami prior to the release of 2016’s Warlord, the onset of his addiction to lean, Xanax, cocaine, marajuana. And now, at 23, Lean is readying himself to release his seventh studio album Starz. It’s a body of work that exists as a culmination of everything Lean has chased over his career. It’s everything he’s lost, everything he stands to lose; it’s his childhood nightmares and paranoia. He’s Beetlejuice. He’s Alex De Large. He’s a perverse Pikachu. But Starz also houses an immense sense of hope and clarity. In ‘Boylife In The EU’, Lean asks “You’re beside me but are you really with me?” It’s a sentiment that echoes throughout our conversation.
I saw that you received a medal for the Bram Stoker Award. I looked for so long but I couldn’t find any information about it.
Yeah! It’s called the Bram Stoker Excellence Award. [Laughs] It’s some crazy shit. When they sent the email we thought it was a joke because they were like, “Oh Al Pacino has been here. The Pixies have been here. Edward Norton.” It was all these big names. There was the girl who wrote Harry Potter. The guy who wrote Game of Thrones. So, I kind of thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t.
So they sent you to Dublin to accept it?
Yeah, I brought my sister along. I told her to book a hotel room as well. It was her first time in Ireland. It was nice, travelling just us. We went to this big ceremony. It’s very… um… old rich kind of prestigious school. I didn’t know about it before, but apparently everyone went to it. Oscar Wilde went there?
What a trip.
It’s stranger than fiction. Always.
Are you in Stockholm right now?
Yeah! I’m at home. My manager and friend Emilio just woke me up. I always have a lot of trouble sleeping, so I always sleep in late.
What time do you go to bed?
I try not to go too late… I’ve always had trouble sleeping since I was a kid. Maybe when it’s like around 5 or 6 I’ll fall asleep. But I’ll be in bed for a while. Sometimes I’ll stay up all night. I’m a morning person, so I like being up in the morning.
How many hours a night would you get?
I hope it’s more than five… Sometimes I just don’t count. My mother always counts before she goes to sleep like—one, two, three, four. And it always stressed me out, like, you’re not supposed to do that, just kinda leave it up to fate. But now I feel like… oh. I really have sleep issues.
What are your parents like?
They’re good people. Good, honest people. What are your parents like?
My parents are the same. They’re farmers.
That’s nice! That’s very nice. Everyone on my dad’s side, if you look up, his parents were teachers and his grandparents worked for the Salvation Army. Farming. So he comes from that church background kind of thing.
Yeah, me too.
Are your parents Salvation Army as well?
Nah, Irish Catholic.
Irish Catholic! Okay! That’s kind of what I was dealing with in Dublin. [Laughs] I like that culture a lot. Maybe it’s because I like films from there. I don’t know. It’s very dramatic, you know? Like, all the Boston films and Irish Catholic culture. It’s got a lot of heart to it.
Do you consider yourself religious?
Yeah. Definitely. I had a friend who once said, “Jonatan, you are religious without religion.” And that kinda fits me. I’m interested in all types of religions. My dad used to read Christian small things from the Children’s Bible and that. Then he kind of got into Buddhism and I was into Buddhism for a while as well. After a while, your mind just opens up to a lot of things. I’m interested in mysticism—in all types of religions. Anything really. I don’t believe that you have to believe in one thing. It’s our generation as well. It might sound like we’re really spoiled, but we’ve had all these options. We’ve seen what religion can do. We can just take the best parts of religion—there are a lot of good parts. You can kind of believe in what you wish.
For sure. I feel like our generation is super experimental and creatively switched on.
I think so too. Unless you’re brought up in a super religious home—I would not say that my home was super religious at all. If you come from that then maybe it’s more in your head to do that whole thing. But I don’t know. I’ve never been to a religious school, I’ve been to regular public schools in Sweden. I never had anything forced down my throat religious-wise. So I wanted to seek out things for myself. I just find stories from Hinduism and Islam and Judaism interesting. Everything is interesting in some way. Like, Nordic mythology, Greek mythology. These big, big stories that have so much moral. It’s still the same people that walked around on Earth. Just different bodies. You know?
Totally. What was the last thing that you read or watched that really shifted your understanding of the world in some way?
I saw this really good documentary called Diego Maradona. It was bigger than life, you know? When he played in Napoli, he was basically considered God. When they did blood samples of him, they took the blood samples and put them in church because he was holy. When Argentina beat Italy in the World Cup, he became the most hated man. His whole story is very interesting. Diego Maradona, you should check that out.
If you could write a score to a film, what would it be?
I really liked… maybe… Alice In Wonderland. Or The Departed. Or Wild At Heart. Or Lolita. A romantic movie. Something with Ben Stiller, maybe? I think it would be fun. Like, kind of karaoke songs. With the reverb type songs. I think I could do a good job at that. People just need to pitch me for films! I don’t know why they’re not doing that.
Do you ever listen to your old albums?
Mmm… not like albums. But, sometimes you go down a trip in your memory lane. Like, certain nights and it has to be the right vibe and you can listen to your own music. But I just listen to old songs on YouTube. I wouldn’t listen to all of Unknown Death or all of Unknown Memory. We had a night the other night, like me and Bladee and some of the guys and we were listening to the music we made when I was like 16–17, they were like 18–19, like early sad boys, early gravity boys and we were surprisingly happy that it still kind of works. Like, technically it’s bad, but that was the charm of it. I don’t know. We have a good discography and we were just listening to all the music. And we were all sitting there, like the same people that made the music seven–eight years ago. That made me more happy than anything, you know? It’s still us making music in a basement in my parent’s apartment and from Yung Gud’s room. It’s the same. We’ve just moved up in the world.
When you can look back and see the same muscle coming through in your art.
I think it’s important because, especially when it comes to rap, or any music genre, the second someone just switches between people, you don’t really grow together. It’s hard to collaborate if you’re already two established artists. But if you grow together, like a band almost, it can turn into some heavy stuff.
How do you know if you like someone?
You don’t know. That’s the funny thing. People are like flowers. They can look really good when you first meet them and they grow and they might get rotten and fucked up. I don’t know. [Laughs] You gotta be careful. I give a lot of chances. I’m loyal—it’s in my bloodline. I like to stay around people that I’ve known for twenty years, ten years. It’s hard for me to get new friends. Once I do, then… you know… are they friends with Yung Lean or are they friends with Jonatan? So, I stay quite reserved. You can basically tell, after a while, what a person wants from you. If it’s genuine, then go for it. There’s something about getting to know people when you’re younger, then they’ll stick by you and you’ll stick by them. It’s unconditional. It’s not really about status or who you are or whatever. It’s deeper.
Do you think you’re a good judge of character?
No. [Laughs] I’ve made too many bad decisions in my life. I’m not a good judge of character. Everything is from my perspective as well. I’m not objective, that’s the thing. I don’t try to judge people on their worst deeds. If someone has done something fucked up, a lot of people are quick to judge them, because they’re scared of what other people are going to say. But you can’t judge a person on the worst thing they’ve done in their life. That’s horrible. You can’t be like that. You gotta see past that. I don’t know. I have met a lot of people and I’ve lived a long, long life so I think I can see some things at least.
Are you excited for Starz release?
I definitely am. I listened to the album yesterday in my bed. At one point, I was like, “Damn. Is this still good?” And then I listened to it and I was like, “Yeah yeah yeah. Nice.” It really is amazing. It just is. I’m surprised these songs didn’t exist in the world before. Because they all sound like they existed before. In a weird way.
I was listening to it today and it reminded me of Lavender. But I don’t know if it’s because I loved that tape so much that I was reading that into it.
Yeah. Kind of like you’re reading it into your favourite category. That’s a good thing though! I’m really happy about it. At this point, I don’t really care what happens once it’s released. I really don’t. Anything can happen. People can hate it. People can love it. I’m just proud of me and Ludwig and White Armour and Sherm and everyone involved. We made these songs. I don’t even know if we made them anymore or if we just started them and some spirits came in and finished them. I’m surprised. It’s definitely my best body of work yet.
That must be a weird feeling to have.
Yeah, but it’s a good feeling to have. I know what it feels like to drop something and it’s not your best work and you’re waiting and you’re scratching your fingers to do better. At this point, I’m not. My fingers are scratching to get better, but with this project, I can say that for me, I’m happy about it.
Where did you record it?
We went to Portugal in February in 2019. Me, White Armour, Yung Sherman. Then we flew out Jack [Donoghue] from Salem. We sat in this studio called Bernados. It was like a smokey, old, wooden studio from the 70s. And we lived in Portugal for a while and started recording there. We did a lot of songs there. Maybe like, 30 or 40 songs? We started something but we didn’t finish it. Then me and Ludwig, me and White Armour went to this little town an hour outside Stockholm called Falun, which is a very small town. We had a studio in an old ballet, all girls school. It was abandoned or shut down. And there was a studio upstairs that we stayed in. You know, you go to work everyday and it becomes a big part of you. We went to another place in Sweden and then we went to LA and we finished it. I think all of these places had something to do with the sound and the atmosphere. There were definitely interesting spirits that contributed. And what you talk about in the studio and playing backgammon and just working. You know? You get into different things.
Are you good at backgammon?
Yeah! I’m the best! One of the guys on tour, his dad was in the world olympics of backgammon so he teaches me all my tricks. I’m good at backgammon, pool, and poker. It’s like old man sports. But I like to take it easy. [Laughs] It’s all very Sopranos sports.
Sopranos is sick. I just started watching it the other day.
It’s definitely one of the best series ever made. It’s like Sopranos, Sex And The City and maybe The Warrior are the best TV series. You can just watch Sopranos. You can put it on at any time and every episode can be in the background of your everyday life.
That’s the best part! I was just watching Sex And The City before getting on the phone to chat so…
Oh really? What season?
Season 6. When she’s in love with Alexander Petrovsky.
Oh yeah—the Russian dude. He’s scary. He reminds me of the guy from Silence Of The Lambs.
Exactly like that!
He has that vibe. If you watch it as a kid—my sister loves Sex And The City—I started watching it as an adult, maybe like two years ago or something. And the more you watch, the more you realise… she’s crazy.
Carrie? She’s unhinged right!
She’s nuts! Like she’s a total ego-maniac and everyone else is amazing. She doesn’t even listen to other people. Like if Samantha talks about some dude she fucked, she doesn’t even care. She just goes on with her story.
I totally agree. I wanted to be a Carrie when I was a kid.
No, no, no. You can’t be a Carrie.
That’s the rules. Is your sister older or younger?
She’s younger. She’s four years younger than me.
Are you protective of her?
I guess? Not in the old-fashioned way, just like, protective of her health. Just like, not going through stupid shit. But yeah, she’s a fighter. I’m proud of her, you know? You can’t be protective when you’re this age really. She can do whatever the fuck she wants. We’re on the same page, we’re very good friends. I’m just glad, when you get older, you can hang.
You’re stuck at home for a while now, right?
Yeah. I mean all the flights are cancelled. But I think it’s a healthy time. Obviously not a healthy time due to the virus, but healthy for people’s minds—to get rid of a lot of shit. A lot of people that don’t see their kids or their families have to reconcile. We have to get back to the core, the basics of what a human being is and what we need. Just basic things. Because you just scratch everything off. The trips, the work, all the extra layers. It’s a very real time.
Do you make music every day?
I try to. I try to make something everyday. I try to do something creative every day. Maybe if I just go out on a walk and then I come home, then I write some lyrics or I record something. Sometimes I record five or six songs a day, sometimes I record ten, sometimes I record nothing. Then maybe I do a little drawing or work on a treatment of a video. It’s a job like any other job. I think people expect artists to have this genius and this inspiration and they sit down for a month and then it just comes out. But it’s not like that. You know? Genius, talent… those are not real words. It’s timing and hard work. The way I see it, if you’re depressed or you’re not feeling good then nothing is going to come to you. You have to do it through action. Through action you get inspiration. Maybe I’m not inspired at all, but then when I sit down by the computer and the microphone, then ideas start flowing to me. They’re not going to flow to me if I just sit on my ass and do nothing.
There’s an Australian writer, Helen Garner, who calls it a muscle. She’s like, ‘if I don’t sit down and write every day, I get lazy.’
It’s true! At one point, someone will say, “Oh you’re such a good blah blah blah” and you start to believe it. You’re like, “Oh I can just rely on the raw talent.” But if the raw talent isn’t exercised then, it doesn’t really exist and other people are going to out-shine you. Then you let your demons and your paranoia take over. If you live with any type of mental illness, like if you’re prone to anxiety, then action and working is a way to get rid of that.
It shifts your mind into another gear.
That’s what I think is interesting. A lot of people believe that you just sit and this lightning bomb hits you and you get all this inspiration and you start drawing and you start singing or dancing or whatever and you create your biggest piece. It’s not like that, you have to sit down every day and just work. And then it will come to you eventually. It’s hours, days, months. A lot of people are scared of making a bad song. But I’m not scared to make a bad song, I’m happy to make a bad song. I want to know what a bad song is and what a good song is and what frequencies turn my mind on and what frequencies don’t and what I’m looking for in a song. I’ve always looked for something special in a song. I still haven’t really achieved that. I’ve achieved parts of it, but there’s still so much work I want to do. That’s what’s keeping me alive.