Sondre Lerche Is A Punk-Rock Crooner

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s_embed1Photo: Marius Hauge.
As we careen into the fall, September is shaping up to be an exciting time for new music. This week on Refinery29, we’re talking to four artists who have some of the most hotly anticipated records of the month. While all could be, and have been, loosely tagged with that increasingly meaningless description "indie," they come at their work from different places, with wildly contrasting personalities and inspirations. These artists are not new to the scene. But, all four have found new voices with their latest work — unanticipated turns, exploratory moves, and re-invigoration. They are all well worth your time.

Sondre Lerche was thrown one of life’s curve balls last summer. On the verge of recording his seventh album, he and his wife of eight years, filmmaker Mona Fastvold, divorced. Far from sending Lerche off the rails though, the split fuelled his creativity, offering a theme to the new record, Please. The Scandinavian opened himself up to a looser approach both creatively and sonically — and he gets truly relaxed as a dancing drunk in the first video from the album, for “Bad Law,” one of the strongest singles of his career.

There’s no reason that a post-breakup record has to be as glum as, say, Beck’s Sea Change, and Sondre is not heartbroken on Please, nor is he bitter. In fact, he’s energized, playing with a new urgency and vitality on tracks like “Legends,” “Lucifer,” and “Lucky Guy,” from time to time even throwing in some noisy, raucous bits just to keep things interesting. Sondre is a guy who likes to joke that he’s seen as being somewhere between Michael Bublé and Dirty Projectors, and over lunch in Brooklyn, he talked to me about immigration paranoia, reality-show singing competitions, and the importance of having a little “hair in the soup.”
s_embed2Photo: Marius Hauge.
I’ve got to say Sondre, not only is this a fine record, but it is hardly what we might think of as a “divorce album.” You’re not mad, and you’re not down.
“It’s definitely not your sort of typical divorce record. It surprised me a lot during the process. Like, before all those things started happening in my private life, I had a bunch of songs, and I thought I knew what the record was gonna be. And, then just, life interferes.”

So, you already had the songs?
“Yeah, I started recording for this record maybe like two and a half years ago? And, I already had decided I wanted to do a record without thinking there was gonna be a record, if you know what I mean. I wanted to work with different collaborators and not commit to one studio or one producer, with no expectations. So, I had already started this really open process, and I had a bunch of songs for that, some of them already recorded. But, then last summer, my marriage very briefly disintegrated.”

In a short span of time?
“Yeah, yeah. Very quickly. Of course, at the time, you feel like it’s out of the blue, but there’s always more to it than that. But, part of the shock was seeing how even some of the lyrics that I had written way before things were going wrong with the marriage, when I looked at them in retrospect, they had this foreshadowing effect in a sense. ‘Cause I didn’t realize when I wrote them what they were really about, but I do now. It was like they anticipated events that I wasn’t ready to acknowledge yet.”

So, when this all happened between you and Mona, you just plunged into working?
“It sounds almost like a cliché, but that became socially and musically such an important part of my dealing with everything. I’ve always loved being in the studio, but all of a sudden, I had this craving to be there, where you’re always moving and looking at things from different angles, and always laughing and always having fun. And, it’s easier to think that when something like this happens that you go into some self-indulgent place of despair, but I found that once I had sort of taken things in, I found that I got all this energy and creativity. I dunno, I’m a pretty rational guy. So, if I just get a moment to take in reality, then I look for new opportunities, new takes on life. And, I think that’s why the album, while it’s definitely the darkest album I’ve done, it’s also sort of the most energetically light.”

The darkest lyrically?
“Yeah. And, I found that in a sense, this record spans a lot of ideas. Some songs are love songs to ideals — to a couple and their ideals. I still find that idea beautiful even though it failed ultimately, which is something I regret.”

It definitely does not come off as a record by someone who is just gutted by what happened.
“I feel I’ve learned a lot from this relationship. I learned from it failing. And, in understanding why it failed, I feel I’m in better shape than ever to take on whatever comes next.”

Which is sort of what the song “Lucky Guy” speaks to.
“Yeah, exactly! Exactly. Which is probably the best love song I’ve ever written. But, it’s a love song to something that ended.”

“Bad Law” is less of a love song, you’d have to say. How did it come about?
“That song is interesting because, in a way, it’s more of a symbolic song in relation to the breakup and divorce. But, it’s not a song I sat and wrote with that as a starting point. The verses describe, to me at least, the feeling of paranoia that I feel every time I enter the United States, and I stand in line at the passport control. And, as a foreigner, now I have a green card, but even so, that feeling when you know you have nothing to hide but you’re still made to feel as if you do. And, so I tried to describe that paranoia where you know you haven’t done anything wrong, but you start to doubt it. And, you start to think, ‘Fuck, maybe I did something!’”

Even though, I mean, you’re from Norway, which I would guess does not place too high on the list of countries that are of concern to Homeland Security.
“Exactly, but still you think, ‘Well maybe I have done something wrong,’ and by the end of the song it’s almost like this guy accepts the blame, and he accepts the charges.”
One of my favorite things that you have a tendency to do — and there’s a few really great examples of it on this record, on “Bad Law” and on “Sentimentalist” — is you take this beautiful but maybe somewhat conventional song in this really crazy, unexpected direction and I just love that. I don’t think you are given enough credit over the years for having that streak in you that wants to sort of mess shit up, you know?
“I appreciate that. Because I think that sometimes that energy that wants to sort of make something really pretty and then fuck it up a little, people don’t always detect it, people who listen and write about my music. Sometimes I feel that gets overlooked in a sense, and I guess maybe on this record it’s more apparent than ever. Everything here is more charged and looser. I love the whole tension that comes from taking something really beautiful and specific, and then inserting a little hair in the soup. [laughs]”

That’s part of what makes you interesting. Do you think people still tend to see you in this box of likeable indie jazzy pop guy?
“I don’t know, my music has always been too poppy for the indie purists and too indie for the pop purists. There’s not much you can do about it. One year at SXSW, I played a Brooklyn Vegan show, and after it, I remember in the space of one minute, one guy comes up and says to me, ‘Oh my God you’re like this punky Michael Bublé!’ and then another guy comes up right after and says ‘Wow, you’re like a more accessible Dirty Projectors!’ So, that’s my span, you know?”

You mentioned you were a mentor on the Norway version of The Voice. What do you think of this proliferation of shows that promote and perpetuate this idea that singers — not songwriters — can find fame and fortune via TV?
“I think shows like that, whether you’re a contestant or a viewer or a mentor or a judge on those shows, you have to realize that first and foremost it’s television. It’s not first and foremost music. We’re making entertainment. And, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but I just think that when people then are surprised that things don’t take off once the television show is over, or that they aren’t automatically taken seriously as a musical artist, it’s like, well, that’s because you’ve been on a television show. You’ve made television.”

You’re going on tour soon. You said while you were making this record that you didn’t want to give too much thought about to whether these new songs could be done live. So, as you’re putting together a set, are there ones that are proving to be challenging to do live?
“Oh yeah. Well, for instance with ‘Bad Law.’ I can’t play and sing that song at the same time. That’s because, usually when I sit and write songs, I play guitar and back myself up — I play and sing at the same time. But, with ‘Bad Law,’ I came up with the riff first, and then we put drums and bass on it, and recorded the track — at least all the main elements. And, then I took it home and just sang on top of it, and came up with parts and lyrics, but I wouldn’t play it. And, so the melody just moves in a way that it would never move if I was playing and singing at the same time. And, so we just did that song live now in Norway, and it’s such a challenge. But it’s fun, man. It’s fun.”

Sondre Lerche’s Please is out September 23.