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Sondre Lerche - The IndieLondon interview

Sondre Lerche

Interview by Sue Wilkinson

SONDRE Lerche has been called “the thinking man’s pop star” and “a pop prodigy”. The Bergen-born songwriter was snapped up to a record deal by Virgin/EMI at the tender age of 15. Since then, Sondre has toured with Beth Orton, Elvis Costello and The Fray – as well as collaborating with Regina Spektor.

Still only 26, his new CD Heartbeat Radio – with its perfect pop tunes and eclectic sounds – could be his breakthrough album. Sondre is one of a group of Norwegian singer songwriters, including Thomas Dybdahl, who are creating a new wave of interest in the Scandinavian music scene. We caught up with Sondre Lerche, the latest king of Scandinavian cool, in London on his current tour.

Q. Heartbeat Radio is your first CD since you wrote the soundtrack for the film Dan In Real Life. What was it like recording your own album after working in Hollywood?
Sondre Lerche: It was very cool to get back to what I really like to do – writing songs which are semi-related to my own life. Dan in Real Life was a really exciting project and I got to work with lots of terrific professionals. I was one of those people trying to put this whole big musical puzzle together for a Hollywood film. It was a refreshing experience to be asked to make music for another format. When you’re a singer songwriter you can get very narcissistic and self-obsessed. For me, it was really refreshing to step out of that and make music that expressed someone else’s emotions.

Q. The new album is your most ambitious to date. How was it conceived?
Sondre Lerche: I guess that I felt the need to do an album that didn’t limit itself to only one or two directions or things to investigate. I’d produced a couple of albums where there were very specific paths I’d travelled in the studio and in the song writing. I wanted to do a record where everything was allowed. So, we experimented a lot in the studio with different sounds and worked really hard on making the songs as concise and flexible as possible. I wanted to create songs that you could do anything with and would still have their own identity.

Q. You’ve said that one of the songs – Good Luck – describes the story behind the record – its highs and lows. Tell us about that…
Sondre Lerche: It’s always difficult putting together music. I find the writing process most challenging. It can be a really tough struggle to come up with something that matches your ambitions. You have to be very patient and disciplined. You can’t just write whenever you feel inspired because then you may never actually write. Sometimes it happens but you can’t expect it all the time. So, you have to work at it… When you’ve written the songs, you start recording and that’s a struggle too because you need money to make records.

I was out of a record contract and I didn’t want to start the whole process of making the record without knowing the direction. Luckily, I have a lot of talented friends who were willing to help me out in the studio. We started recording the record and almost completed it before I was lucky enough to get the attention of some labels. Eventually, Rounder Records were the most persistent – they signed me and the record eventually came out.

Q. What were your musical influences growing up in Bergen?
Sondre Lerche: I grew up listening to a lot of the stuff my older siblings were listening to. When I was nine we moved into an apartment that had MTV. We went from the one channel you had in Norway to getting MTV and all sorts of cable channels from Europe and America. I became an addict. I watched MTV for hours and hours after school. I listened to anything even if I didn’t like the song – I would still enjoy watching it somehow! At the time there was a lot of music on MTV that I found very compelling. They were playing anything from The Cure to Elton John. I found I had a big appetite for music. Over time you find what music you really like and love. For me, it was of a lot of really deeply harmonic songwriting whether it was Cole Porter or Prefab Sprout. I was drawn to that stuff.

Q. And you became a huge fan of A-ha as a teenager? Is it true you have 22 of their CDs?
Sondre Lerche: Twenty two? No… I have 200 of their LPs, cassettes and CDs! A-ha became my favourite group. They were, of course, from Norway so it was a big deal not only in Scandinavia but in the UK and a lot of other places. I listened to them a lot!

Q. What’s your perfect pop song?
Sondre Lerche: Oh, wow – that’s really difficult! I like songs where you think you know what’s going to happen and then you don’t. I like the point in a song where everything changes and takes a turn that you didn’t expect. Sometimes it may take a couple of listens before it sits with you. That’s when I think pop music is at its peak. When I was a kid I heard a song called The Other Side of Summer by Elvis Costello – and I remember thinking that was pretty grand. That song at the time was the perfect pop song and I think it holds up pretty well.

Q. How has your Norwegian background influenced your music?
Sondre Lerche: I was lucky because when I was growing up my older sister was working at the rock clubs in Bergen. So I got to hang out and see a lot of the local groups and other bands that came through on that circuit. I was exposed to the idea of playing in a band and how that worked. The scene in Bergen was and continues to be really energised. There’s a lot of variety. People are up to a lot of different things and help each other. I met a lot of kindred sprits growing up and that helps ‘cos you don’t feel so alone with your weird record collection. That’s always inspiring.

Q. Why did you decide to move to New York?
Sondre Lerche: The motive was love in the beginning as my girlfriend was moving there! I was also spending a great deal of time in America because I was touring quite a bit. So I moved and started really liking the isolation. I’d been very close to the music community back home, which is really great, but I found it refreshing to be independent and go on some sort of quest for myself. I found it was energising to adjust from cosy Bergen to hard-edged New York.

Q. How do you adapt the songs from the CD – which has lots of complex arrangements – to playing them solo on tour?
Sondre Lerche: I find that the songs change all the time. I like the idea that you can play any song in any way, in any format, in any place, in any room with any type of musician. If it’s a good song it’ll come through. The challenge is to make each song exciting and dynamic without losing any of the colours that you have in the studio. I like the contrast of having just one guitar, one voice. I like the fact that as the song changes, it can reveal a new depth. That’s what keeps it exciting for me and hopefully the audience.

Sondre Lerche’s Heartbeat Radio is out now on Rounder Records.