Although Lukas Graham had been stars in their home country of Denmark since they formed in 2011, it was their 2015 single 7 Years which brought the band to worldwide attention.
The soulful, emotional ballad became a huge international hit, racking up over 900 million streams on Spotify to date and gaining three nominations at the 2017 Grammy Awards. Now the band has released their follow-up album, 3 (The Purple Album), which focuses on themes of growing up and family as well as social issues. Next year they’ll hit the road to support the record, including three dates in the UK and Ireland.
I recently caught up with the group’s frontman Lukas Forchhammer to talk about the latest album, his approach to songwriting and what he’s learned from the success of 7 Years.
You’ve just released your third album – what can you tell us about it?
Yes, so it’s the most complete work I’ve ever done. It was written in a very short period of time. Only a few of the songs are older than September last year, so most of the album was written from September 2017 to May 2018. I’ve been writing autobiographical songs for a long time now, and we’re in the next chapter of my life. I turned 30 this year, I’m a father, I have a lot of these normal things to do in my life like be a dad and be a husband, but also more unique things like my career. Like a song like Not A Damn Thing Changed addresses in the terms that everything has changed although nothing has changed, and I’m trying to find the balance in all this quirky mess. A song like Promise, I’m coming home, like, ‘promise me you’ll be there when I get back’.
The journalist that wrote the biography for this album called it a coming of age album. Which sounds all fancy, but I don’t think we’re supposed to grow up, if you understand what I mean. I think grown ups are just boring kids. I think we’re supposed to mature in the sense that we’re supposed to get better. We have the chance to better ourselves, and I try to illustrate that through the record. Because I am more contemplative now. My daughter’s past two years old now, and I realise it’s my responsibility to teach her about the world. It’s my responsibility to be so good a dad that my children want to have me around when I’m old and boring.
You’ve mentioned there’s been a lot of change in your life since your last album. What impact did that have on this record and the songs you wrote for it?
I mean, if you’re not impacted by having a kid, wow, you must be a special kind of person [laughs]. And I think it’s really all overshadowing. It really does add to my life’s quality, but also the way I contemplate my future, my decisions, my prioritisation of things that I do. It’s very much all from the ‘I have a kid’ standpoint. I love working. I will say it to everyone, ‘if you’re not happy with your job get a new job’. I’d rather be poor than be rich and have a boring job. I’d rather be happy and poor than rich and not happy. And that being said, it just makes me more happy to be with my family. Of course I need my job, I need to have something to do. If I was home all day I wouldn’t be a good father. I’d be a bad dad. I’d be bitter that I wasn’t living my dream or whatever. But at the same time if it was like, gun to the head, family or work, I will choose my family any day in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t have done that before. I would have thought that my personal dreams and ambitions were bigger than anything, and I really hope that I can show my children before they become parents themselves that’s not the case.
I grew up in a house without a bathroom, without a toilet, and we wore secondhand clothes and ate leftovers for a lot of our childhood. That was it. Like we’d have chicken on Sunday but then we’d have chicken sandwiches for dinner on Monday, chicken soup on Tuesday and whatever was left of the chicken soup with more vegetables in it on Wednesday [laughs]. And you know, if meatloaf was served at the beginning of the month there might be a couple of strips of bacon there, and if it was served at the end of the month there would be no bacon and a hell of a lot of cereal in the meatloaf [laughs]. And I understood when I was a kid that money wasn’t what made us happy. I asked my mum, “Were we poor growing up?” and she said, “If you are counting material wealth yes, if you’re counting what counts then no”. And she was right. I had a bed, I had food, I got to see my family. I got to choose whether or not I had a part-time job as a teenager, I just didn’t have extra money to spend on myself. I had free time instead which was great.
Did you feel a lot of pressure with this record to follow the huge success of 7 Years? What did you learn from the success of that song which fed into the making of this album?
I think the main thing I learned from 7 Years was don’t listen to people when they tell you what you have isn’t good enough. Because all honour and respect to the record label, but not a lot of people believed 7 Years was a hit. The people who did believe it from the beginning are the people who didn’t change their minds. And I don’t mind that, that’s fine, it’s OK. No-one is correct 100% of the time. So if you have a record label executive who says ‘that’s not a hit’, the person is referring to their previous work and we must respect that. They’re not necessarily telling you your work is bad because they don’t like you. They just don’t agree with your vision of creativity which is fine. So I knew when we made this second record that if I’m in a situation where a bunch of executives tell me that the record isn’t good enough, that’s just their opinion. It doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the record.
You wrote this album over a relatively brief period of time – is that typical of how you write songs?
My favourite type of writing is going in and not leaving the studio until you’re done. I really enjoy this intense creative process. I think what’s inhibited that before was the amount of collaborating partners we had. We didn’t have a lot of people to work with. And also the fact that we’d never released an international album before. Before writing The Purple Album, we’d done this before. We’d had a big smash. We’d toured the world. So in a sense we were ready, in a way. I’m not sure if it’s the right word [laughs] but we had the confidence at least to say ‘we’re ready’. And if we were or not we’ll let history judge us. So basically we were confident, we were ready, we had a lot of really great collaborating partners, and we had a great time. We remembered to be boys about it. We remembered to just go with the flow, laugh, have a few drinks, smoke a few blunts out the back door, just have fun. Let’s not be so square about it. If we write 100 bad songs, f**k it, then we’ll keep going for another six months and write 100 more. We ended up writing around about 40, 44 songs and that’s what we rolled with.
Were there any songs on this record that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?
Two of the songs came out more or less instantaneously. The songs we wrote actually with a London boy, George Taylor – that was Everything That Isn’t Me and Hold My Hand. Those two songs are written around about a year apart. At the end of writing sessions we suddenly came up with something and went with it. There’s also a song like Not A Damn Thing Changed which was written between the summer of 2015 and February 2018. That’s a long process. But I think a song can mature in your head as well, and you need to write the wrong things to write the right things. Which is a really annoying thing to hear for a journalist! But you can write a piece twice, and the second one might be the good one, you know? [laughs]
You’ve just released the video for Not A Damn Thing Changed. Can you tell us more about the song and the video?
Not A Damn Thing Changed is a tribute to my friend William who hung himself in January. We were a bunch of boys who grew up together. We still hang out, we still see each other, and possibly one of my best friends now is William’s younger brother Rasmus. William was three months older than me. I turned 30 this summer and it was very weird for me turning 30 in September without William being alive. Because he didn’t turn 30, and that is very very weird.
But it’s also about my life, how everything has changed and nothing has changed. I’m a dad now, but I’m still just me. I write songs for a living. I perform music for a living. I try to have an impact on people. And it’s difficult balancing life and work. But you make the best of it. I don’t get to see my daughter every day and I would love to, but that’s the name of the game. It’s a weird song to talk about.
You’re touring over here in the UK in April. What can people coming to those shows expect?
They can expect a smashing live show – drums, bass, keys, vocal. We’re bringing our guitarist on tour for the first time and our brass section will be joining us again, which they usually do. Two gigs, one in Manchester and one in London. And I hope we can get people to laugh, dance and cry within the duration of the show. That’s what I like to achieve with a live show or an album – to have an impact on people. They don’t have to like the music. As long as they have an opinion, then you know you touched them. So if someone says they hated it that’s a bigger compliment than someone who says they were indifferent.
How did you get into music, and what made you decide to pursue it as a career?
Well I’ve always been singing – my mum tells me I’ve always been singing and I had great pitch. So I joined Copenhagen’s Boys’ Choir when I was eight, and you have to go to a specific school for that. I wasn’t necessarily doing very well in the school I came from, so I was put in the choir school where I was still one of the bad kids but I was also one of the best singers, so they didn’t toss me out right away. I started writing lyrics when I was 12, I started writing rap music when I was 15, 16 and songs when I was 20. I studied law until I got my record deal. But when I was 12 I said to my parents ‘I want to be a rock star or a lawyer’. I don’t know where that came from. I guess it’s the idea of performing, that’s what lawyers do as well – try to make the best of their arguments. But I like singing. It makes me happy when I write songs or when I perform, so if I wasn’t famous I’d probably be still doing it [laughs].
What’s the one song you wish you’d written?
There’s two of Diane Warren’s songs: [sings] ‘I don’t wanna close my eyes, I don’t wanna fall asleep cause I’d miss you babe and I don’t wanna miss a thing’. [Speaking] Or [sings] ‘unbreak my heart’. [Speaking] But there are a thousand other songs. Freddie Mercury’s stuff, I’d like to have written that. [sings] ‘Don’t stop me now’. [laughs]
Lukas Graham’s latest album, 3 (The Purple Album), is out now.
See Lukas Graham on tour in the UK and Ireland in April 2019:
1 April – Albert Hall, Manchester
2 April – Olympia Theatre, Dublin
4 April – O2 Forum Kentish Town, London