Norwegian singer, songwriter and guitarist Sondre Lerche has dabbled in multiple genres in his 10-year career, from swinging jazz to straightforward indie rock to orchestral pop. "I'm constantly driven toward stuff that contrasts what I did the last time," he told me in a recent phone interview.
The grandiose scale of 2009's Heartbeat Radio inspired the direction for his 2011 self-titled sixth album. "Ultimately, when I've made this really colorful maximalist creation, it immediately feels more interesting to see what would happen if I did the opposite in a way."
For Sondre Lerche, he took a more streamlined, stripped-down approach. "I was more interested trying to make do with as little as possible in production and arrangement, even in terms of recording and how much time we had to record," he explained. "I didn't want to give us time to over-think things. I wanted us to tap into intuition and rely more on instinct."
He also wanted to avoid traveling to Norway to record. Lerche settled in Brooklyn six years ago, enticed as much by the ability to retain a sense of anonymity that he'd lost in his home country as he was drawn to the sense of adventure and boundless creative opportunities NYC offered. On this record, he decided to take full advantage and not only work with some musician friends he'd made in Brooklyn (like Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith and Vetiver's Bob Parins), but bring a fresh producer into play — Nicolas Vernhes, who was referred by Spoon drummer Jim Eno and ran his Rare Book Room Recordings studio right up the way from Lerche's Williamsburg 'hood.
Lerche didn't plan on abandoning his creative partnership with longtime Norwegian producer Kato Adland, however, and persuaded Adland to come to him. "He's probably my absolute closest collaborator in music, he's been with me 12 years now and he still surprises me. He's just an amazing guy and musician."
Putting together two producers who'd never met and had entirely different relationships with Lerche could have proved a disaster. "I think there's a lot of energy in taking that chance," Lerche commented. "We just went for it, and we really bet everything and really won. Nicolas and Kato were a great team."
And he's not just singing his own praises; the album is a meticulously arranged, well-textured and overall tasteful foray dictated by Lerche's usual refined sense of melody. "Ricochet" kicks things off warm and spare, a swirl of slide guitar, swirling strings and echoing multi-layered vocals building to a dramatic, wall-of-sound climax. This Beatles-evocative psychedelia flares up elsewhere, as in "Tied Up to the Tide," its leisurely rock groove hitting an ominous fever pitch of roiling guitar and off-kilter accordion. It's an aesthetic well-suited to the rest of the album's hooky, shimmering pop bounce, poignant balladry and '70s-swaggering singer-songwriter fare, all of it marked by Lerche's clever wordplay. His buttery smooth tenor shifts to a high breathy croon that never hits a falsetto note, but does reach elegant heights in a way that feels effortless.
"I wouldn't say that it's more honest or even more personal than the other albums, because to me they are all very personal, but the narrative is more up front, and more deliberately confrontational and direct in a way, and so that makes it feel more candid and maybe more personal," he said. Sondre Lerche was recorded live with few overdubs over an intense few weeks and ended up eponymous because Lerche never came up with a title, though you could read into it if you wanted to. "It is the first record I put out on my own label [Mona Records]. In that sense, it's definitely more mine than some of the albums I've done before, simply because I own it, and I literally made this myself, and that feels great."
Even though being a musician was never a doubt — Lerche picked up guitar at 8 and wrote his first song at 14 — "I remember thinking that if I ever really made any music, it would potentially be something that only I was into, because I couldn't think of anyone else who'd be interested. But thankfully I was proven wrong." He released his well-regarded first LP, 2002's Faces Down, at 19 and his fame in Europe grew with each release that followed. He didn't really break into the U.S. until 2007, when he put together the soundtrack for the Steve Carell comedy, Dan in Real Life, drawing on his back catalogue, composing several new songs and even making a cameo appearance in the film.
He was recently invited to produce a track for Muppets: The Green Album, a compilation released in August featuring covers of The Muppet Show songs as re-imagined by indie-rock artists. He chose "Mr. Bassman"; his album mates included the likes of My Morning Jacket, Ok Go, Andrew Bird and Weezer.
Even though he grew up in Norway, the single channel that offered American programming aired The Muppet Show once a week, and he remembers its music fondly. "Those songs are really, really good, and they are made with such a sort of classic, old school songwriting approach I really appreciate, and that you probably don't hear so much in kids songs anymore, where the songs have an actual value outside of the context."
He described his current setup as "an intimate evening with myself and some friends," referring to the musicians of indie rock/psyche soul outfit Peter Wolf Crier, who met Lerche at SXSW a few years ago. The band plays a warm-up set, then backs Lerche for several songs during his solo concert, his first Bay area appearance and one of four "Daytrotter Barnstormer Tour" stops in Florida.
"Hopefully that will be good enough, for now at least."