The album artwork for Sondre Lerche’s new album, Please, is subtlety indicative of a new direction for the Norwegian born, Brooklyn based musician. The words “SONDRE LERCHE” are in stark white, laid on top of rich splashes of color and shape, strongly reminiscent of a centuries old fine art painting with a touch of the abstract. An industry veteran at just thirty-two years old, the record’s conceptual design is highly emblematic of Lerche’s sound: classical yet unconforming. It is this same contrast that has allowed him to stretch and grow without ever sacrificing artistry. Although to speak to him, it’s clear that any creative challenges he imposed on himself were rooted in the organic and not in the deliberate.
Beginning his recording career with 2001’s Faces Down, Sondre Lerche has spent the ensuing thirteen years chasing his muse. Two Way Monologue, Duper Sessions, Phantom Punch, Heartbeat Radio and Sondre Lerche were all records that were meant to be a different experience for the listener, as well as for the artist himself. Forever in pursuit of a new sound, his career has been defined by his reluctance to provide himself a safety net. Instead, he has written and recorded a rich catalogue of music, unparalleled and unchallenged in it’s charge and ambition.
A month before the September 23rd release of his seventh studio album, Lerche was eager to discuss his career, his influences and how Please’s intoxicating lead single, “Bad Law” was once in danger of being abandoned during recording sessions.
Most pop songs have a “Wheel of Fortune” element to them, in the sense that if the listener were given three words out a line, they could probably finish it and it would be the lyric. You never take the easy rhyme. During the writing process, are you conscious of avoiding cliché?
I guess like you say, pop music is very often a play on clichés in a sense, so sometimes they just ring true both musically and lyrically. The clichés really ring true because they have a sort of meaning, but of course clichés lose their meaning because they’re overused. When I sit and write songs, if I land on something that I feel is very, very cliché or something that just doesn’t have energy or something that feels like a bland phrase or melody that just lands exactly where you would expect it to land…I will be looking for something else, for a different solution.
I read an interview with Elliot Smith where he said he loved the point in the song where everything changes. And so I really subscribe to that. In pop music that’s an important element, and maybe sometimes people underestimate the value of the moment when the unexpected happens. Because everybody, when they try to write pop music they’re so concerned with it not being catchy enough or not being something you can hum immediately. But they forget that a lot of the really, really great progressive pop music that also is really infectious and accessible, also has that element of surprise and the moment where everything changes. And I really treasure that moment and I look for that moment in my own music.
Mick Jagger once said it’s much easier to write a song like “As Tears Go By” than a song like Chuck Berry’s “C’mon Lets Go.” Would you agree that the primitive energy of a rock song is harder to convincingly capture on a recording than feelings of introspection?
That’s a good question. It’s always dangerous to say one thing is harder or more commendable or a greater achievement- especially in music and in art. To Mick Jagger that may be true and to someone else it might not be. There is a lot of parable music of introspection out there and there is also a lot of parable, sort-of typical, more macho rock music. I suspect that the thing that we specialize in, is also maybe the thing that is hardest in a way. Then your standards are so definite and your standards are very specific, and so you aim higher because you’re specialized in it. “As Tears Go By,” is obviously one of his greatest songs that has more of an emotional vulnerability. But from what I can remember, it’s seemed he’s tried to rewrite that song a couple of times with no such luck. So it’s generally hard to write good songs, and in the studio it can be really hard to capture a really explosive sort-of dynamic, almost violent sound. That can be harder than you think. That shit is easier to do maybe in concert, but to capture it in the studio can be really, really tricky. Of course, you mentioned Chuck Berry.
Of course, when Chuck Berry came up with that stuff it was a very progressive sound. If I tried to write something like that now, it wouldn’t be nearly as progressive.
That’s true, it would sound limited.
My mother and father, who are fifty-five years old, might feel differently (laughs). So in a way, now it would be just an exercise in a genre. In general, writing good songs and as you say, writing songs that convey a true spirit in their own genre or in their own world, is generally just really, really hard.
You’ve stated previously that your song demos are just you and an acoustic guitar. Do your compositions go through a lot of incarnations or are they usually pretty close to the original demos?
In the past, I’ve definitely had an ideal and also maybe sort of a comfort zone. I’d sit for years and years and years and write songs on my guitar, and I’ve taken pride in writing very detailed, specific songs that I could play on the guitar and they would have the same affect that they would have almost in the recorded version. Even though in the recorded version, maybe there are lots of other instruments. You recognize the structure and you recognize the movements and you recognize rhythmic patterns. And that is something I am good at, and so I like doing it. I rarely write a song with less than, I don’t know, a million chords (laughs). I like to try to be as specific as possible. The big change for me has been with this record, where I’ve approached a lot of the songs differently. I’ve tried to write songs that still motivate me and still feel compelling with only four chords. Also, removing myself from the guitar and instead recording a track. Then writing to the track so that you’re not so tied up with the rhythmic patterns of the guitar. I wanted to leave the songs more open so that my musicians and the people that contribute in the studio could also color the songs more.
When you write those really, really tidy, tight, specific, old-school songs that I’ve done, and that I’m sure I’ll still do, when you get into the studio there are limits to what you can do with them because they’re already so fully written. With this record, I approached differently- to leave songs open so that I could be more surprised in the studio. And then that happened, and it was really exciting to me to change that up, and to see that I could still claim a song and see what connected with it.
You’ve said that during the songwriting process, it can take a long time for that moment of inspiration to arrive. Do you regard songwriting as a sort of spiritual experience?
Yeah, spiritual in the sense that it’s almost like meditation. You’re trying to see this moment when you go beyond your consciousness and awareness- that’s when all the really exciting stuff happens. All the rest of the stuff you use your brain and you use your taste…you use all those things. But you’re really, really striving for those moments when you forget yourself and you forget your head…you come out of your head and into your body. Maybe you connect more with the spiritual element and it can take a long time to get there.
Your first album, Faces Down, came out in 2001. Since then, social media has become a huge part of selling music. In your experience, has it been a positive way of introducing people to your own music?
Yeah, I think so. As an independent artist, I run my own label. I have my own little career in a pretty specific niche audience. To me, social media is a wonderful thing because you can communicate quite directly and specifically with people who choose you and who care specifically for the kind of music or expression that you deal with. Of course, I’m sure as social media also gets more corporate…and eventually these things happen to anything that becomes popular, so things may change. For now I think it’s a great platform for me to communicate more intimately and directly with followers and fans and people who are serious about music. It’s a great way to share music, and music that I discover and music that affects me. So I think it’s a wonderful thing.
Several years ago, you recorded a song called, “Hell No” with Regina Spektor. What led to that collaboration and did you write the song with her in mind?
That’s a good question. It was one of the songs that I wrote for this film, Dan In Real Life, that I scored. I guess I just had this duet. When I wrote it, I didn’t know what was attainable in terms of singing partners, you know? And we weren’t sure if this song was even going to be in the film. So when it was clear, we put it in the film and then we didn’t cut it and I saw it was happening, the studio asked me, “Well who do you want to sing with?” There wasn’t that many singers I was interested in. I guess maybe the first one I thought of was Regina. And this was in New York. I had just moved to New York and I knew she was based here, and so it seemed attainable. She saw the film and she heard the song, and she was into it. And it’s sort of a corny little song-
I think it’s good!
Yeah! Absolutely (laughs). But its got this conversational, banter quality…at least the lyrics try to convey that. So I knew I needed a singer who had humor and who had a bit of a character, who didn’t just sing in a cool way, you know? I needed someone who could convey that banter. If not, it would fall flat. Regina was perfect, perfect for that. And she was such a joy. We sang it together on one mic in the studio and just fed off each other…it was wonderful.
I also wanted to ask you about Elvis Costello, because you’ve said in the past that he was a major influence on the recording of Phantom Punch. What was it specifically that inspired you to make that album?
Well I guess it was because I was touring with him. I was opening for him for five weeks and he was already one of my favorite artists. I was also quite young at the time. I was, I don’t know, maybe twenty-three years old or something. So for me to see the discipline with which he curated his show every night, the way he interacted with his band, the way he made use of his band and their individual quality, and just the vigor with which he performed and changed up the set every night. And mid-way through the set he would always almost lose his voice everynight (laughs). And then at the end of his show, the voice would be back and sounding better than ever.
And of course, that stuff comes at a price, so it’s not so smart (laughs). But man, what a journey that is that comes with a really excellent performance. So it was just inspiring, that spirit.
I think it’s so crazy that you recorded that album almost immediately after the Duper Sessions, which is such a contrast in sound. How did it feel to go into the studio and sort of strip that polish away?
All those songs, the Duper songs and the Phantom songs, I wrote those at the same time.
So the songs felt strangely connected, even though I saw early on that they were moving in two very different stylistic directions. There are some songs that I think overlap and could be on each of them. “Airport Taxi Reception” from Phantom Punch, I think might as well be on Duper Sessions, if we recorded it differently. Even a song like “(I Wanna) Call It Love,” if you recorded it in a different way, different arrangement, that might fit into Phantom Punch. “Happy Birthday Girl” on Phantom Punch, really could also be a really beautiful bosso nova song, because it’s got that sort of chord structure. Some of them overlap and then some of them have decidedly different energies. More primitive sources were at play on Phantom Punch, but both records shared the desire to just play live and not have too much arrangement or too much studio wizardry. They are just about getting the band together and playing and singing in the studio, and so they share that. They were written at the same time and it was more matter of logistics, which one get recorded first. So to me it didn’t feel like such a big shift.
I do feel that an album like Phantom Punch came out of a desire to have more physical energy and more tempo in the live set. Because an album like Two Way Monologue, as wonderful as it is at times, or as much as people like it, it’s a very low record. And I noticed that when I went out to play that record live, that it lacks a bit of physicality in the production and in the songs and in the tempos and stuff. I was still singing very softly and I was a little tired of singing softly. And Phantom Punch was sort of an exercise to try to find a new range in my voice. I had all the songs slightly out of my range so that I would have to learn how to sing (laughs). Test my lungs! So it was sort of a journey to, I don’t know…sing loud! (laughs).
When you perform solo, your playing and volume sometimes imitates the power of a full band. And you spoke about “Two Way Monologue.” On that song, by the end of it, you’d think there was a full band onstage. Is that style something that you enacted out of necessity, maybe when you didn’t have a band to tour with?
Absolutely. You’re trying to make up for what isn’t there, you know? The greatest tool I have when I’m alone onstage is my flexibility. Because I’m alone and I can do whatever. So you have to embrace what makes a solo performance unique and that is the flexibility. You can be totally spontaneous, and then you have to create the same dynamic range that you would have with a band. Of course, you don’t have the instruments and you don’t have the volume even. But dynamic, range…it’s all relative, it’s all contextual. So it’s just a matter of making the lows really low (laughs) and the highs really powerful, just to create that sort of measure. It’s something I work hard at. I’ve played solo shows since I was so young, so it feels like something I’ve just developed through the years, and I thrive on it, you know? I take pride also in being able to do a solo performance that doesn’t feel like a compromise or a let down to the record.
You’ve recorded albums in California, Norway and New York. Where was Please recorded?
Please is pretty evenly split between my hometown, Bergen, and Brooklyn, where I now live. It represents both where I come from and where I am.
How does the studio location enhance or distract the recording process?
It’s not so much about the location to me- it’s about the world you create within the studio, you know? You’re designing this state of mind with the people you work with. Even on this record I’ve worked with some of the same people both in Bergen and New York. So I’ve had musicians come from Norway to play with me here, and I’ve had musicians that I’ve played with in the US come to Norway. So in a way I’ve found that it’s quite similar. It’s all about the resources…the human resources. And the studio space- does it have a good vibe or are you into it? I guess now I’ve established both a world around me, both in Brooklyn and in Bergen, with people that I’m inspired by. So it felt like something I wanted to take advantage of on this record.
It’s usually months from the time an album is finished until an album is released. What does it feel like to finally give it away to the world and do you ever find yourself protective of the material?
Well you’re always excited and maybe, maybe a little anxious. I wouldn’t release anything that I wasn’t super excited to share. I need pure motivation to go out and chase whoever is listening and potentially have the record do really well or really bad. You have to create something that you’re ready to fail with, in the sense of the reception of the record. You have to be ready for any kind of reaction and still stand by it. So it takes a lot to get there and to feel that motivation, and feel that need to share it. So once you get there, once the record is done…then you’re really feeling it. And when I’ve released all these records, I’ve been proud of them in different ways and felt motivated. But this one is something special. It comes out of a very special time in my life, and for it to turn into something really exciting and positive…this record feels like a victory already.
You’ve admitted to being surprised at which of your songs have gained the most popularity. Would you say that the idea of writing a hit song is somewhat elusive?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve probably failed more times than not, than I’ve written a hit song or something that maybe has a bigger audience. Then only to find that that wasn’t necessarily true (laughs). So my radar may be completely off. That in itself is never the goal, it’s not my specialty. But it’s always fun when you write something that you see resonate in a broader way, and still maintain your signature, or your integrity. I really welcome that…I think it’s wonderful. I think “Two Way Monologue,” was a song like that and “Modern Nature.” And I think “Bad Law,” could be a song like that, which pleases me.
“Bad Law” is such an excellent song too. When you wrote it, did you kind of know right away, did it feel like the album single?
The funny thing is, it didn’t (laughs).
It took me so long to get that song to feel good because that was one of the songs I just approached very differently. I had this riff and we were in the studio…this is two or three years ago. I was in the studio for the first time without having written songs, just to challenge myself. So we made this track with just guitars and drums. Really, with no structure, just this riff and some other parts. And it took me a year and a half at least to settle for a melody and a lyric. I would start so many different things, and none of it felt good. It felt so weird to me to sit and try to compose a song to a track, instead of having my guitar. So it was sort of my first foray into going out of my comfort zone as a songwriter. I didn’t really know until the very end if it was going to work.
We finished recording that song right before Christmas last year. It was so difficult to get the vocals right just because it seemed like a different temperature and a different character, in a way. So I really didn’t know until I came home for Christmas with the recording and listened to it, that I thought, “Fuck, this is awesome!” (laughs). I almost gave up on that song many times during the recording. It was so new to me, I didn’t know, “Is this even a song?” You know? So I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
Each album you release is always very different from the last, but it always feels like a natural progression instead of a forced departure. Are you ever surprised by what direction your music takes?
Yeah, I guess at some point. Of course, I’m ahead of the audience in the sense that I adjust to whatever direction things take, but it is surprising sometimes. And it’s surprising what different eras of your life it leads to.
It’s always surprising what comes out, it’s not necessarily always what you think is going to come out when you write. It’s not something that’s subconscious but more comes out of this need for change or something different or different energies. I guess it’s the difference between keeping things interesting for myself so that I can be motivated to go out and share it with people.
Don’t miss Sondre Lerche when he plays New York’s Bowery Ballroom on 9/23 and Philadelphia’s Underground Arts on 9/25
Check back with Pancakes and Whiskey for the Please album review + concert coverage of the Philadelphia show
Article by: Caitlin Phillips