Interview: Sondre Lerche

Sondre Lerche
Sondre Lerche photos by David Greenwald

Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche has been one of my favorite musicians since his debut album, Faces Down made its way to America in 2002. The album, influenced by everyone from Beck to Bacharach, presented Lerche as a sensitive, striking new voice — a status only furthered to me by albums such as sophomore set Two Way Monologue and the undersung jazz-based Duper Sessions as well as his headlining performance at our own 2011 SXSW party. He’s now revisiting his first four albums with a slate of new vinyl reissues and Bootlegs, an edgy live set that finally captures the electricity of his performances. I was asked to write the press bio for the new releases and had the chance to talk to the musician for an hour, a discussion which seemed too good not to share in full. Below, a lightly edited transcript of our deep dive into Lerche’s career and catalog. (Full disclosure: I was paid for the bio because I write for a living, but not for this.)

David Greenwald: Congrats on the live album. It sounds great.
Sondre Lerche: Thanks! (Laughs)

DG: I know you’ve had trouble getting the kind of sound you wanted from live recordings. Why has it been so difficult to get something more raw?
SL: Recording live shows has gotten so sophisticated in a way that there’s very little now to separate a studio recording from a state-of-the-art live recording. Through the years, we’ve recorded quite a few of my shows. I guess you’re hoping that it’s going to sound great and you’re going to get really excited and release it as a double CD and a DVD and all that. [It] just, to me, always sounds like a letdown compared to having been there. And I’m at the center of anything that goes on at the show, so I was there in every moment with these people and then you hear the recording and it doesn’t resemble that experience at all.

So I’d sort of given up and then I heard, sort of by chance, my sound engineer in Norway had made this recording of a show we did in February in my hometown. I was going back to the club where I played the first [show], the release party basically of Faces Down when that came out in Norway, so it was the first time I was back, after 11 or 12 years or whatever it was. And it was really special. But when I heard the recording, which was just two tracks, just one mic in the room and then the board, in a way it was better than the actual experience had been on stage. It was really chaotic, really raw, there’s a lot of stuff that happens that was not planned, a lot of improvisation, a lot of mistakes, a lot of miscues. I always toss in a lot of impulsive, intuitive things that the band just has to roll with. I thought even though it sounds pretty raw, it’s not a hi-fi recording, I felt the need to share it.

DG: I’ve seen you a few times and your shows are always so intense – is that something that’s surprised your fans over the years, who may have expected more of a quieter, singer-songwriter-type show?
SL: I’m sure. And then people get used to it and you have to keep evolving. [I’ve] definitely, probably always, been more energetic and more physical live than on some of the recordings. But it’s also something that’s changed as I get better – as you become a better player and you become a better singer, and all these albums that we’re reissuing now on vinyl, they’ve all been challenges where I’ve, very often, tried to write songs outside of my range vocally or just emotionally. So that hopefully by the time the album comes out and I go on tour, usually at least by the end of the tour, I’ll have reached or learned something new and I’m able to sing something different. It’s a trial-and-error process but it does allow me to change a little bit with every tour and every record and I think that’s what may be the biggest difference.

Now I can really stand up for myself when I perform with a band. In the beginning, 10 years ago, the band had to sort of make room for me. I didn’t have that muscle yet, vocally or just the presence or whatever it is, so I’ve sort of just been working toward claiming my space on stage whether it’s alone or with a band. Especially if you perform solo, it’s really a challenge to try to get as much dynamic out of that limited format as possible. I’ve really worked on that, in the sense that every time you perform in front of an audience, you work on it. That’s the only way to rehearse it, I can’t sit at home and play by myself and imagine the audience. It feels good to feel that I can definitely do things now that I couldn’t 10 or five years ago.

DG: This is something that was written about you in 2002 by Slant magazine. “He was formally trained on guitar before he was nine years old, composed original material by age 14 and recorded and gigged in nightclubs while still a minor. By 17, he had already achieved Top 3 chart status in his homeland.” Accurate?
SL: Yeah, yeah (laughs). Formally trained, somebody attempted to train me formally. I still to this day cannot read music and I can’t write music. I first signed up for classical guitar lessons and I was terrible at it, I didn’t learn anything that stuck with me. But then I started learning more, not pop music but bossa nova and some local folk singers. I could relate more to the music I listened to. And that’s what sparked an interest in a lot of the stuff that’s informed the songwriting but I was never a good, like, formally trained musician. I wish I was because I’d love to be able to write stuff on paper and give it to musicians – hey, play with me, play this, you know? But I don’t have that capacity, sadly, yet.

DG: I’m curious about where you found some of your influences. Did you have much of a Norwegian pop tradition to draw from or did you go right to people like Elvis Costello or A-ha or other such groups?
SL: It started with whatever was playing in my home. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I started becoming aware of music and bands and pictures of bands. I have three older siblings and it was whatever they were playing. That was A-Ha, the Cure. My mom would play Eurythmics and Wham! and the Grease soundtrack. When my parents got divorced, we moved from this big mansion we lived in into this tiny, tiny, very depressing apartment where I lived with my mother and one of my sisters. It was quite an abrupt change from this idyllic mansion with gardens and lots of fruit trees and lots of space to run wild. The only good thing about that move was the fact that this apartment building, it came with cable TV. So it came with MTV. Up until that point, I had lived all my 9 years without, with only 1 channel. There was only 1 national channel in Norway. And all of a sudden I lived in this dour apartment building but they had MTV and I would watch it religiously every day. This was at the end of 1989, so it was a dramatic time in the political world. It affected the popular culture and the music — even the dumbest Rick Astley song felt urgent somehow. And I would watch MTV for years, hours and hours every day. I would start to form opinions on what things were and why something spoke to me and why I was excited when I heard Nirvana or if I heard a Prince song. In those days, they would play Nirvana and then they go straight to the new Donald Fagen single. This was the same music channel, it was a completely different time. It feels like longer ago than it is. They would play like “Heart Shaped Box” and then play “Tomorrow’s Girls” – I loved both equally.

DG: You won the Norwegian Best New Artist Grammy, the Spelleman award, in 2002. I imagine that set your expectations for the future at a pretty high level.
SL: I don’t know, in those days, things were happening really rapidly. I was signed to Virgin Norway, and they at the time had a lot of successes out in Europe, which was really rare for a Norwegian major label company. They had a lot of resources and a lot of willpower and a lot of good vibes. They released the record in Europe and eventually also in America. I spent from the ages for 14 to 17 writing and recording this album, Faces Down, so that had been a really protected process, where I just worked with my crew who I was very close to. And who really deserve a lot of credit, the creative people that I got to work with. If I had met different people, I might have be a completely different, less respectable, and I don’t know, maybe more successful artist, but meeting people older than myself who really took what I tried to do seriously really inspired me. It gave me a really protected creative process, up until the point where the album actually started coming out and the media response in Norway was very intense, very excited, because there hadn’t really been a lot of unmanufactured young singer-songwriters, or maybe not even young singer-songwriters at all, at least my age. So all of a sudden, I got used to things happening really fast and getting a lot of attention in a mainstream sense. I wasn’t Elliott Smith, I was like, John Mayer or something in Norway. Even though the music was what it was. It led me to sort of not take it all too seriously. I just kept talking about Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach records and trying to be really clear on what it was I was doing and where I came from. Getting a Grammy, I guess I got a little spoiled, also. Because after a while, when all your wildest dreams have come true, you’re going straight from school to making a living with these songs that you wrote when you’re 16 and there’s people even in America who know the words to your songs. It’s a really strange situation for someone like me to be in. So you get used to things just happening. So it was nice to get the Norwegian Grammy, but in a way it was, “Of course, I’m going to get a Grammy!” Which sounds terrible, but it was like that.

DG: Each of these four albums that are being reissued came out on Astralwerks. How would you describe your experience with the label?
SL: It was wonderful. They put out a lot of records that I really cherished. And they were putting out Kings of Convenience and Royksopp, who were all from the same town I was. So when they said they wanted to put Faces Down, I was just really thrilled. That was the one thing I really hadn’t thought could happen, and that was having a record released in America and also through such a great label. So that’s relatively rare and especially rare at the time for a Norweigan artist to have a considerable release in America. And I’d never been to America before so the first time I came, people were singing along to my songs, it was really, really wild.

DG: So the first time you came over here, people knew the music, the record was out, you got a good response —
SL: The album had come out and it was CMJ. I was playing Tonic, I didn’t really know what to expect but I had heard that Tonic was the place where Jim O’Rourke would hang out and play and that just made my day. (Laughs) And then of course it got shut down quite quickly after my show. I don’t think I had anything to do with it, though.

DG: It’s been over 10 years already since you did a lot of these songs. Looking back as the person you are today, does it still feel like your work, or do you feel removed from those experiences?
SL: Some of them. Most of them I really enjoy still. Some of them I need breaks from because for a while they’ve been in the live set and they’ve been very exposed in different ways. And then some, I think I’m older, I think the lyrics are a bit embarrassing or something but… I get it, I understand the guy, I have to respect what I did. I know what I was trying for and what I was inspired by and I have to own up to that, I think. It’s important.

DG: Are there certain songs fans have gravitated toward that surprised you?
SL: Yeah, and vice versa. I’ve come to terms with the fact that maybe I’m not the best judge — I thought maybe in the beginning I was a good judge of “what’s the song,” what’s the one they’ll remember me for, really stupid stuff like that. I think through the years, I’ve come to realize I have no idea. There are certain songs obviously that you just have to accept and embrace, the fact that they really have a special appeal and I’m really proud of it, you know? Then there’s songs that surprise me, songs I notice people really gravitate towards when we play live — songs actually that I haven’t played for years, that I’m going to play on this upcoming tour – there’s a song called “Counter-Spark,” on Two Way Monologues, that people always want to hear in the States –

DG: That’s one of my favorites.
SL: Oh, you like it? Alright, so I’m going to play that now because people have been asking for it for years, I always forget when we go into pre-production. I’ve tried to play it from memory on stage when people request it but that always turns out for the worst. So I’m going to play that one and then people want to hear some of the songs from Duper Sessions which obviously was an album that people would probably either hate or love. For the people who really really like that record, they’re really, really committed to that record. People want to hear “You Sure Look Swell” and “(I Wanna) Call It Love,” and those are songs I haven’t really played that much live. It’s a nice opportunity to assess what is it people request that you haven’t been able to provide and now that I’m actually sharing these albums in a new way, it feels meaningful to honor those requests.

DG: I remember when Duper Sessions came out, that definitely was an album I was walking around with and listened to for a long time. Why do you think there was a polarized response? It surprises me that that album surprised people, because you could always hear the jazz influence in what you were doing.
SL: Absolutely. I really honestly didn’t feel it was such a bold move or statement at the time and it was definitely not meant to be, it was just a collection of songs that were recorded pretty much live in the studio with a simpler instrumentation. But I still argue that most of the songs on Duper Sessions could’ve gone on any of the albums I’ve put out, if they were treated according to whatever the mindframe was of the respective albums. I was indulging a bit more in my affection for jazz, jazz-related songwriting at least, and I felt that – the thing that made Duper Sessions unique to me was that, it was this young guy trying to write these old-school pop songs who couldn’t really – I didn’t really have the voice for it, to be honest. I didn’t at the time – I can maybe sing them better now, we’ll see. But I really didn’t have the chops to do it. My band, except for the piano player, were not jazz musicians. So I thought there was this almost indie-rock, punk-rock vibe to us trying to tackle this material that was completely out of our league in a way. I think there’s always some sort of beauty to that ambition. Of course, some people fell for that and some people didn’t get it, but I’m still proud of the record.

DG: It seems like with that album and Phantom Punch, you split your loves for jazz and noisier rock – before making them, did you have the idea that you were going to do these two tighter genre exercises and have those two sides of the coin?
SL: It wasn’t a very thought-through thing. And if it was, maybe they would’ve been more successful or less successful, I don’t know, but the original idea was only that I wanted the next record to be a smaller ensemble. I wanted it to be a band playing together. At that point, I’d gotten a really tight band who I’d developed a really close relationship with and who really inspired me. We’d played a lot of shows and I felt, I want the next record to reflect our chemistry. And I want to see what we can do with guitar, bass, drums, maybe some piano, you know?

I was doing sessions — I did a recording session with Raphael Saadiq. Because my label said, “We want you to record something in America.” And I thought, “Cool.” They said, “What do you want,” I said, “[I] want to work with Raphael Saadiq,” I loved some of his productions and his album Instant Vintage, I thought it was the best. So we worked together and that was a lot of fun but I didn’t feel that I could do a whole album that way and it was also really expensive. So even though it wasn’t coming out of my pocket, I knew if I made a record that costs $2 million, the expectation is naturally that it’s going to sell 5 million copies. I didn’t want to go into that territory because I felt it wouldn’t motivate me creatively in a way that I needed to be.

I did a tour with Elvis Costello at the same time. It was such a cool experience to see this guy on stage every night, with his band, interacting and playing these amazing, amazing shows that were half-improvised, they had a big repertoire of songs and he would just play whatever he wanted. So after that tour I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to make a more sort of physical, energetic, primitive album with my band in the studio and that eventually became Phantom Punch. But the album recording got postponed because of the producer and a lot of things and meanwhile, I had all these other songs that would become Duper Sessions. We recorded that in a little over a week in Bergen. It wasn’t really intended to be an album because we were focusing on Phantom Punch. It had just this unforced charm and the label wanted to release it and I couldn’t really say no, so that album came out first. When it came out, we went straight into the studio and recorded Phantom Punch.

DG: I remember seeing you at the Troubadour in L.A. around that time and I think you and the band had been performing a bunch of shows there to gear up for that album.
SL: You were there! That’s crazy. We did these shows in New York and L.A. before we went into the studio with Phantom Punch. We had to play Duper Sessions because the label said, “You have to play songs from this album because it just came out,” and we didn’t even have a piano player and he’s very instrumental on that record. So we had to play these Duper Sessions songs without the piano player. We’d play 10 songs that came out last week and then we’d play 15 songs that are going to come out next year and that we barely know how to play and that I barely can sing and then I guess as a payoff, we’d play some encores with some songs that people had actually heard before. It was a bold move, it was my brief Springsteen phase. But the idea was that, we need to play these songs live in order to know what’s up and I guess I learned a lot from it — I learned that I didn’t have the vocal range to sing half of the songs that I’d written and that caused me to lose my voice. I had to work with a voice coach to actually find a way to sing these songs every night. Now I’m really happy but at the time I got really worried because I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

DG: Why push yourself out to the edge like that? Why write the songs in a way that was going to make them difficult?
SL: I felt that was the only way to learn. It was just more exciting. You get a little comfortable in whatever you’re doing and you just want to do something else. I kept seeing around me, the field was getting really crowded with a lot of male, white, polite singer-songwriters. And I always felt, it’s really nice, but it would be nice if just one of you would just scream or do something. Something that shook it up every now and then. It can’t all be the same emotion. And I felt, well if I feel that way, that’s my responsibility, because I’m one of those guys! And I wanted a certain kind of physical force and energy in the shows and I couldn’t get that if I was going to sing in a mild speaking voice.

DG: When Faces Down came out, it seemed like there was this nice moment of smart singer-songwriter types – I’m thinking of people like Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy, Aimee Mann. Did it feel like there was a niche you could be part of?
SL: I remember feeling very flattered stuff like that would come up. Because I felt like I wasn’t really a part of anything, when I grew up, I was listening to records nobody else my age really knew about or cared about. And so you get the sense that whatever you make is probably only going to be understood by yourself. So every time someone gets it or tries to understand, it actually means a lot. When people put it in the context of, yeah, Elliott Smith or Aimee Mann, that whole Jon Brion triangle of singer-songwriters, it felt very – like somebody was getting something. It was flattering. A record that meant a lot of to me in shaping or articulating the sound and culmination of influences that I wanted for Faces Down was Mutations by Beck. That was a really, really important record, because he managed to make this singer-songwriter album that had all these really exotic, sometimes psychedelic and really poppy and tropical influences. I felt, even though Faces Down doesn’t really sound like that, it helped me identify the kind of combination of sounds that really really triggered my instinct.

DG: I was listening to it the other day and I was surprised to hear so many moments of psychedelic rock or noisier sections attached to these beautiful folk songs, so that it’s interesting marriage on that record. Because the melodies stick in your head and you forget about the wild guitar part at the end of the song.
SL: Yeah, exactly. A lot of those songs go into relatively long outros where shit explodes and falls apart again.

DG: In the last decade, do you think the audience who might understand what you do and people who do a similar thing has grown or gone the opposite way?
SL: I don’t know, I still feel that I’m sort of in my own little boat. Doing whatever I do. I think it’s always encouraging to see other artists who you feel some sort of kinship with. I always embrace that because there aren’t that many and of course people may see a relation between artists where the artists themselves don’t actually feel it. I’ve had people come up to me and say, you and so-and-so are my favorite artists, [like,] “What?” In one day at South by Southwest, I did a showcase for Brooklyn Vegan and two minutes after the show, two different people came up to me and said – “Oh my God, you’re like a poppy Dirty Projectors,” and I was like, “Hey, oh, that’s cool, I like Dirty Projectors,” and then a minute later, a guy comes up and says, “Hey, you’re like an indie rock Michael Buble.” (Laughs) And this was the same performance and the same crowd. You get used to people having lots of different ways in appreciating your music, which is ultimately great. To me specifically, when I hear something that resonates with me, it excites me and it means a great deal. It’s also uplifting to see other artists do well and open up people’s ears to stuff.

DG: I want to talk to you about moving to New York. Brooklyn has been such an amazing space for music in the last few years – from Sufjan Stevens to the National to, of course, Dirty Projectors. Have you been inspired by that community?
SL: Yeah, I think it’s really inspirational. When there’s a concentration of talent and bands coming from one place, there is going to be certain sounds that you hear on several records and people get on the bandwagon of course. There’s been a lot of reverb going around. That doesn’t sound as fresh anymore. But I think all in all, there’s a lot of different ideas that are welcome. A lot of different niches are included and embraced. There’s a couple of bands who are just these towering forces, like Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, who really reach this new level of shit in a way. I can’t really explain it. I don’t know in what ways it will inspire someone like me, who’s definitely more classic in the way I approach songwriting. But I think it’s really inspiring to be around. I really love living here.

When I moved here, I needed to be in a bigger place where I was smaller, I wanted to feel smaller, I wanted to disappear. First I didn’t want to be a part of a community but after a couple years of course, it’s nice to meet other people and be a part of something. I wanted to get away from a sense of community because I felt I needed to stand my own ground and figure out things on my own. And I’d been so caught up in music and all these nerdy things, that I also just needed to live a little, to get drunk and make a couple of mistakes and it was easier to sort of feel a sense of privacy and just disappearing into a big mass here than at home in Norway. So for me it was both a refuge and eventually really inspirational to discover all the beautiful music that was being made very close to where I live.

DG: When did you move there?
SL: I moved here first in 2005 and I was back and forth for a year and then in 2006 I’ve pretty much lived here since. Of course I would go back to Norway and to Europe and play shows but for a couple years, I hardly went home at all. Then Dan In Real Life happened and I had a lot of work with that, and I’d put out a lot of records for a while, so I had all that. When Dan in Real Life, Phantom Punch, Duper Sessions, all that was over, it was really nice to just live here. And not push yourself too hard.

DG: I was going back and reading some of your old reviews last night — in the early part of your career, there was a lot of discussion of your age. Is it nice to have that kind of stuff over with?
SL: (Laughs) You get used to it. At the time, you want to be taken seriously just for who you are and all that stuff. In the end it doesn’t matter so much, you’re only young once. I’m sure that got me a lot of extra attention, it heightened the effect of what I did, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t know, maybe we put that to good use to get my word out there. That’s fine. What I do enjoy is actually playing and working with people who are either my own age or younger than myself. Because I started working with people who were almost categorically 10 years older than myself because I couldn’t find anyone at home in Norway who was into the same music as I was, and if I did, (laughs) they weren’t good enough to play on my record. So I got used to being this kid brother. And I am the kid brother in the family because I’m the youngest in the family. And I feel that after a while, you really need to, for your own sake, get out of that role.

I think that was also part of — I didn’t think about this consciously at the time, but wanting to move and live somewhere else, was wanting to help myself grow out of that role. And that takes a lot of years. I’m still very close to a lot of the people I worked with back in the day. Kato Ådland who produced my last two albums, co-produced, he started out as the guitar player in my band and has worked with me on all these records in some capacity. He has been the most important person musically in my life. I just needed to figure out a way to become, to try to become some sort of man, I guess. The band you hear on the record, they’re mostly younger than me and they’re fucking amazing, they blow my mind. My drummer Dave is my age, he’s from New Jersey, he used to play with Regina Spektor. He’s this amazing artist on drums. So that to me is really inspiring, finally playing with people my own age who can relate to the same world I do.

DG: You’re still a very young man but you’ve accomplished so much. What do you see yourself doing next?
SL: I’m always dreaming about the next song. Ultimately it’s always just about the songwriting. I’ve made that [the] most important ingredient to my music. Over the years I’ve also become really interested in a lot of music where the song isn’t as important in a way, and maybe that’s the wrong way of phrasing it – the approach to writing the song is completely different and that fascinates me. I don’t know if that’s a way for me to approach it, but I can’t not try (laughs), so I’m doing a studio session this summer in a studio on an island outside of Norway. We’re playing this festival and I’m staying there for a week and just experimenting. I’m for the first time going to go into the studio without fully shaped songs. I always start a recording with these really, really tightly composed and structured songs and that determines the way we work in the studio and I really really have to explore what would happen if I came in with just random melodies and random chords and lyrics and let it run wild. I have a bunch of songs I’ve been writing lately that are more structured and written that still feel pretty fresh and represent something new. And I’ve been working on a songbook of all my music and lyrics for these four first albums that I’ve been working on for four years — it takes a lot of time simply because I can’t actually write the sheet music myself. I’m hoping to get that out also in the fall.