INTERVIEW: Catching Up With Sondre Lerche

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 17, 2011 9:05PM

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Sondre Lerche (photo by Ruvan Wijesooriya)

Norwegian-born singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche has been making music nearly half his life. As he comes up on the tenth year since his debut album, Faces Down, and his two-night engagement in Chicago supporting his latest effort, Sondre Lerche, the talented--and talkative--Lerche took some time to chat with Chicagoist about Norway versus the Midwest, being a lonely writer, and why he waited ten years to release a self-titled album.

Chicagoist: You’ve been living on and off in New York for the past six or so years since moving from Norway. Other than on tour have you traveled much outside the East Coast or have the tours been mostly how you’ve been able to experience the states?

Sondre Lerche: [Touring] is the main way for me to see the country, but of course there are places where I’ve gone to revisit on my own because I’ve had a taste of it while touring and you never seem to have enough time to see a city when you’re playing. I’ve gone some places because of course there are spots you don’t end up seeing when you’re there to play. I’ve come to really love traveling around the states and I find also that I’ve been around the country a lot. A lot more than most Americans I meet, so it’s sort of funny that you’re touring a place and you get to see a lot of sights and a lot of places and go to all the states. You know? A lot of people don’t get to see more than the states they live in and a couple of states around that. I feel pretty blessed to have that.

C: Since you spent quite a bit of time touring around this area and in Minnesota for your earlier Daytrotter "Barnstormer" sessions, I was curious to know if you have any distinct impressions of the Midwest?

SL: The Midwest has a lot of Norwegian people, or half-Norwegian or a quarter-Norwegian so that definitely gives the Midwest a…I don’t know, when I’m in the Midwest I always get a bunch of people coming up to me saying “Hi, I’m Norwegian!” “My grandfather is Norwegian!” and that stuff [laughs]. I always have good shows around here, but otherwise I don’t notice anything too different. But of course, the scenery changes a bit and it reminds me sometimes of home in a way.

C: It’s interesting that you say that because I feel like for a lot of Americans, there’s this idea about the Scandinavian countries—like Norway—as being a kind of whimsical place; clean, happy, beautiful, maybe even a little quirky by our estimation. Having grown up in Norway and now living in Brooklyn, has much has your “place” informed your music--especially given that your earlier music when you were still living in Norway seems to reflect a lot of those elements?

SL: It’s so hard to say! If you grow up in a place it’s hard to really isolate these things. I can’t compare it to anything else because for the first 20 years of my life I lived in that one place. I can’t exactly say what might have affected me. And, I’ve been traveling the past ten years, so anywhere you go it has the potential to really influence your work. When I moved to America I thought it would be fun to move somewhere else and be adventurous. I did it because I could, and because I had an audience, which helped. But being Norwegian you’re sort of an outsider, too. That part—that does something to you. You’re never really at the center of things, and you’re more sort of observing and taking in what you’re interested in. It gives you a different starting point. You’re not so concerned maybe with what’s hip and what’s happening. I definitely just grew up consuming music that came over.

C: Speaking in a way of influences, for some of your previous records you’ve mentioned having influences in Brazilian music or in artist like Elvis Costello. For this album, where do you see that fitting in with your body of work and the influences behind it?

SL: The big distinction with this album for me is that it wasn’t so closely connected with any specific influence or any specific genre or direction. It was much more the maturation of all the songs and the narrative and whatever I was trying to articulate or work through lyrically. In that sense, the songs are a bit more candid by nature. And I quickly learned that this wasn’t the kind of record where it wouldn’t feel natural to kind of dress up the songs and do all these kinds of stylistic detours and extravaganzas. It was much more about letting the songs work their way in and serving the songs with as few elements as possible while, you know, creating a full sound. I wanted more room for atmosphere. In that sense it’s maybe the first record where I’m not quite sure what the influences are. I can’t point to a specific record or genre. But that feels sort of freeing in a way.

C: Since this is your sixth studio record [Ed. Note: Lerche had the non-studio release for the 2007 Dan In Real Life soundtrack], how did you approach it? Did you go in knowing an idea you wanted to explore or did the songs come together as you arranged the album?

SL: The songs kind of dictated where we were going, but I definitely felt the need to strip things down. I had just made a record that was pretty big and elaborate and everything production-wise, and there was a choice I had to make, and I was very pleased with the record…but I think we were interested in doing something different or completely opposite [for Sondre Lerche]. I just felt the need to strip it down and see how that would work out for the songs. And the songs that I like had an intensity about them that could serve this idea for the record. They took shape, and it feels natural, and you go for it.

C: You’ve played with bands before and you’ve done solo work, but I read that you prefer to do your songwriting alone. Have you ever had a change of heart when it comes to collaborating with other artists or learned something about your own process now that you’ve worked in these different scenarios?

SL: Absolutely. I’ve learned so much about that and this album definitely reflects it. I still really treasure the loneliness of songwriting and the need to be alone with your thoughts and the process—not just emotionally but musically. In terms of collaborating when songwriting, I’m still not sure I want to do that or even feel the need to do it. I do know that I’m most happy when I’m recording and I’m together with other musicians and when I give them room to influence how things turn out. I don’t like recording alone. I don’t like being alone because to me, recording a record is also a social thing. We work really hard but it’s important for me that I share it with people whose company I also enjoy. In this record I brought in a bunch of new peers, friends that I made in New York. I was a really great experience to make new acquaintances and also to get to work with new friends. It was a real treat. I definitely now more about what I want in that part of the process, and this album is sort of a testament to that.

C: Is some of that loneliness y you mentioned when writing songs—do you think that’s sort of a necessary part of the process? In the beginning, is that isolation kind of necessary for you?

SL: Yeah, I feel I really accomplish things when I don’t involve anyone else in that part of the process. I still haven’t really cracked the code for involving anyone else in the actual writing. If I’ve done writing with anyone else it’s been sort of long-distance so you sit and write and email words or music to someone else and you get something in return. I’ve enjoyed it when I’ve done it with people whose ideas I get energy from. It feels like something I need to do on my own in a way.

C: You’ve had a lot of albums in the past ten years, and they’re all pretty distinct in sound. It’s a little tricky to say exactly what a Sondre Lerche album would sound like since it seems to change. What’s prompted you to go from style to style, like say from lounge-y or Brazilian Bossa Nova influences to more aggressive, punch-y music?

SL: I think it’s more the trip you are on individually. If I responded to the general climate [of music] I feel I’ve probably responded pretty poorly [laughs]. I never really fit in to any scene that was really happening at a given time. I feel there’s a tendency in what I do to where if I’ve done one thing, I want to go in some opposite direction the next time. It’s not a conscious thing; I think it’s just how I’m put together [laughs]. For a while I think I was trying to see how far I could push my songs into not sounding like myself in any way. And now I think I’m more comfortable with the fact that no matter what I do, I’m going to sound like myself, but that gives me freedom to do sort of anything. That’s something that’s just come over time, but it’s not something I think about. It’s like, you’ve had a lot of one thing—you’ve been eating pasta nonstop and that pasta is very good, but all of a sudden you want something very different. I’m interested in a lot of different music because a lot of different music speaks to me and moves me, so if I move in one direction with certain emotions or values, chances are the next thing I’m going to have an appetite for is entirely different.

C: Where do you think you’re headed next, musically?

SL: One part of me wants to see if I can strip things down even more, you know? But then there’s another part of me that really wants to go to Brazil and make a record there. And one part of me wants to just make a record entirely by myself in the basement because I enjoy so much having company in the studio, I’m almost sort of drawn to the idea of being completely alone and seeing what happens if I stay alone in my basement and just record. It could go a lot of different ways.

C: Andrew Bird, an artist who is formerly of Chicago, did that, just going into a barn and recording without listening to anything, without filling your ear with any influences just to see what came out, to see what he sounded like.

SL: Yeah, no helpers, you can just rely on yourself and your own abilities—or lack thereof. There can be beauty in that as well. Because I enjoy recording with people, the danger is—there’s some tension in trying to make do without that. Who knows, it might not be a good record [laughs], but we’ll see.

C: You’ve been at this for more than a decade. At 28 you’ve had quite a lot of songwriting experience and performing and touring behind you. What have been some big changes you’ve noticed making music as a teenager versus doing it more than ten years older?

SL: I think one of my favorite changes or thing that has changed is that now—much more so than before—I’m actually able to make records with people who are my own age. I used to always be the youngest person in any setting or any room, and I would make records with people who were 10, 15, 20 years older than me. I feel really blessed for all that I’ve learned form those people and I worked with great people from the get-go, so my first record is still one I’m very proud of, and that wouldn’t have been the case if I had worked with the wrong people. But at the same time, it feels very thrilling to have finally caught up with my contemporaries and find people my own age who are interested in the same things as I and who can turn me on to stuff. When I was younger, when I was 18-19 or 16-17, there was no one my age interested in the kind of stuff I did. There were no musicians or producers or anyone who were near my age who I could sort of relate to. So, I just ended up working with all these grown ups.

C: Do you feel that made you push back a little more? Did you have to perhaps work a little harder to defend your own ideas or were your collaborators pretty receptive to letting you make the record you wanted to make?

SL: I can only say I was really fortunate to have worked with really sensitive people. When you work with a young guy like I was who really didn’t have a lot of experience in the studio, you have to spend a lot of time on it. You need to really be sensitive to the creative stuff and the ideas and stuff, but also to how young I was. I was still developing my tastes and the way I expressed myself, so I needed to feel safe in sharing that with everyone else. The people you work with have to be so much more than just a producer or something. They have to really help you grow as yourself. I was very, very fortunate to meet those people who are still in my life. A lot of them I can still rely on and that’s I guess that’s a testament to what they’ve given me. I feel pretty lucky to have them.

C: I know it’s not the most riveting topic, but I was curious as to why you made this, your sixth studio album, an eponymous one. Usually if artist do that it’s on their first album.

SL: I just had trouble finding a title, to be honest. For the others I had a title, but I didn’t have a title for this one. I got more and more desperate, and the more desperate I got the less interested I became in finding a title, just settling for something—that didn’t feel right. I became more comfortable with the idea of leaving it open and not having a title, but it was more just the idea that—well, it feels like the start of a new cycle. It’s been ten years since my first record. It almost feels like a re-introduction or a re-evaluation of what I’m doing now. I figured “All right. We’ll let this be the pompous, self-titled album!”

Sondre Lerche plays two shows in Chicago, Saturday, June 18 at Schubas, 3159 N Southport, 10 p.m., $20 and Sunday, June 19 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N Lincoln, 8 p.m., $20