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Sondre Lerche: Norwegian Good!

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“It’s very nice that they realize the difference between me and…whoever else is popular at that age,” he said. “I feel very strongly about what I do. My music is based on my references and my discovery, on what I really love and cherish. The average artist is making music that is a tool for someone else to profit by.”

 

Bergen, Norway is unquestionably one of the most exciting musical cities on earth right now. While the American press continue to use gallons of ink waxing enthusiastic about various Swedish garage rockers, Norway is quietly exporting one delightful, dazzling artist after another, each distinct from the rest. First was Bergen’s Kings of Convenience, followed by Royksopp, the electronic duo who have pretty much conquered the world right now. It’s time to add another name to the short list of Nordic musicians making waves outside their own country. Meet Sondre Lerche, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter whose debut, Faces Down, has been hailed as a remarkably rich, sophisticated song cycle for one in such an early stage of his career. The praise is justified; the album is a peerless example of assured musical (and literate!) craftsmanship, with a blend of warmth and wisdom (and plain old-fashioned tunefulness) impossible to imagine coming from any American popster in Lerche’s age bracket. Reached by phone between tour dates, Lerche, who speaks in perfect, fluid English, expressed his gratitude for the acclaim his work has earned so far.

“It’s very nice that they realize the difference between me and…whoever else is popular at that age,” he said. “I feel very strongly about what I do. My music is based on my references and my discovery, on what I really love and cherish. The average artist is making music that is a tool for someone else to profit by.”

Lerche actually began work on Faces Down several years ago; he’s already close to finishing his second effort. Where most American teen artists embarking on a music career would likely have taken their musical cues from dance music and hip-hop, the boyishly handsome Norwegian drew inspiration from the multi-layered craftsmanship of veterans like Elvis Costello.

“I didn’t want to be just a troubadour who’s always whining about things,” said Lerche. “At the time I was planning this recording, the songs were very influenced by Elvis Costello—I was fascinated by all of his different projects, from the Bacharach record to his early stuff to the Brodsky Quartet. The focus for him is always on the delivery of his songs—his telling of the story, and the performance. But the arrangement surrounding it could be anything from his guitar to a whole orchestra.”

Lerche has been opening for Elvis on some tour dates in Canada, and the experience has been revelatory. The youngster and the veteran have gotten along smashingly, and they share a love of wordplay and melody that makes for an intriguing comparison, despite their different nationalities.

“It’s been such a thrill meeting him, watching him play songs from all corners of his varied career,” said Lerche. “His career path is an ideal one to follow. He’s as relevant today as he was 20 years ago. And he’s still eager to keep doing it—people like that are nice models to guide you.”

Lerche’s own career path began with guitar lessons at the age of eight at a Bergen children’s music school. The youngest of four siblings, Lerche was inspired by the music of ’80s bands such as Norway’s own a-ha, and wrote his first song, “Locust Girl,” at the tender age of 14. His sister worked at a local club, and she helped Sondre get a few gigs on the weekly acoustic nights there. Local producer H.P. Gundersen frequented the club on these nights, and was impressed with the youngster’s talents. Their connection, and vital support from Oslo-based manager Tatiana Penzo, led to Lerche being signed to Virgin Records in early 2000. An EP and an album soon followed, the latter actually being completed well before it was released. It was recorded at Bergen’s Duper Studios with Gundersen and another stellar producer named Joergen Traeen. Sister Sonny and the peerless girl group Ephemera also made some blissful recordings at Duper, and we were keen to ask Lerche what accounts for the luminous sound on all these discs.

“There just seems to be a lot of fantastic songwriting and performances coming out of that studio,” Lerche remarked. “And there’s a lot more coming; I have good, good friends completing their first records there. The Real Ones are a fantastic world pop band who are releasing their record soon. And singer-songwriter Julian Berntcen, a very good friend of mine, will have his out in September.”

Duper Studios is just one of the focal points for the thriving Bergen music scene, which Lerche acknowledged did indeed seem to be possessed of some magical, inexplicable ingredient. “There is a very open and supportive atmosphere, and a musical friendship that goes beyond the different styles,” he explained. “People are very individual and pursue their own interests. They lock up in their own studio and don’t come out until they’ve done what they want to do. And it ends up being very special.”

When Lerche “locked himself up” for his debut, he wanted to take his musical cues from “the more refined arrangements of the ’70s, people like Bacharach, even some of the Broadway things like Cole Porter.” He also mentioned groups such as Steely Dan and XTC as stylistic touchstones. Clearly, this was no typical teen star in the making; Lerche was cultivating a thoughtful, attentive approach to the craft of songwriting from the start. And his endearing vocals, capable of expressing wisdom, whimsy and melancholy in equal measures, are a big part of his quietly assertive style.

“My music is very lyrical,” he told me. “The music is surrounding the vocals, so we work very thoroughly on that. I deliver the goods much more when I work with my two producers [Gundersen and Traeen]. They have a way of getting it out of me.” Lerche refers to his producers, as well as his musical compatriots in Bergen, as “friendly people who know how to help you get a step ahead…”

Lerche apparently made plenty of friends during the making of Faces Down. One of them was High Llamas wunderkind songwriter/arranger Sean O’Hagan, who seems to be turning up on every other interesting album these days. “I had been a huge fan of the High Llamas; they were one of the few contemporary artists that I just loved,” he said. “It peaked for me with Hawaii, which I discovered a year or so after it came out. A friend’s wife had worked with Sean…and my producer knew of my fascination with the Llamas. I was desperate to get some good string arrangements. The producer played the music for Sean, and…he took to it. So I phoned him up and we made an agreement to do a few songs in London.” Tunes that O’Hagan worked on include the jaunty “Dead Passengers,” “You Know So Well,” and “No One’s Gonna Come.” The collaboration was fruitful, as O’Hagan has again worked with Lerche on his forthcoming sophomore release. “This time he worked on five songs, and it’s even more fabulous.”

While finishing up the new record, Lerche has been refining his craft and observing people like Costello on tour, learning how the veterans do it. His experiences on the road have been very positive, and he said the crowds have been very receptive to his music, especially in larger cities where the audience tends to be more concentrated. When asked about his own prospects for career longevity, Lerche says it depends on his ability to “stay sane and reasonable” in a crazy, unpredictable business. He speaks highly of his label, Astralwerks, which he shares with fellow Nords Royksopp. It can’t be a coincidence that these are two of the most publicized artists from Norway at present.

When asked to compare the massive amount of press given to Swedish bands versus the more erratic attention accorded Norway’s artists, Lerche had this to say. “I think Sweden has a more advanced music industry. The bands there, they’ve been able to get their name out there. They’re one step ahead. But the best music, or what is most appealing, is not always what the media…or the audience sees. The best music isn’t always noticed. The people who scream the loudest are not always the brightest.”

It’s a fitting sentiment for a remarkable young songwriter who has no need to shout—his music has the kind of sparkle that is sure to illuminate the ears…and hearts of fans far and wide.

More info: www.sondrelerche.com or www.astralwerks.com.
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