Sondre Lerche on “Avatars of Love” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, July 14th, 2024  

Sondre Lerche on “Avatars of Love”

A Strange Process of Opposites

May 02, 2022 Web Exclusive Photography by Tonje Thilesen Bookmark and Share

Over the past two decades, Norwegian songwriter Sondre Lerche has loved to play with the expectations of his listeners. What seems like an enticing, yet straightforward indie-pop song can take a turn either through a tempo change, mood shift, or tonal dissonance.

Arising a scene flush with solo acoustic troubadours, Lerche hedged his bets by sticking to that formula for live performances starting out and even employed a stripped-down approach for his contributions to the soundtrack of the 2007 film, Dan in Real Life. However, as his confidence in his songwriting grew, so did the grandeur of his vision in the studio and subsequent records, and he was soon showcasing an invigorating array of unpredictable orchestral pop songs.

Like the rest of the world though, the twists and turns of COVID-19 soon disrupted business as usual. After 15 years in the U.S., Lerche flew back to his native Norway to wait things out. As with many of his peers, he had an album ready for release and a tour to launch, but no concrete plans for making either happen. He was able to play some socially distanced shows in his home turf in the summer of 2020 and also put his album, Patience, out into the world, but it was obviously a quieter impact than expected.

Lerche was not one to sit still for long. Without even planning a record, he crafted songs that were more expansive and imaginative than anything he had done previously, and his small army of recruited collaborators elevated the entire album, eventually released last month as Avatars of Love.

Over Zoom, I spoke with Lerche about dealing with the issues of COVID as an artist, navigating the album’s unique creative process, working with a variety of collaborators, and pushing against the singer/songwriter tag.

Chris K Davidson (Under the Radar): I discovered your music like probably a lot of Americans did through the soundtrack to Dan in Real Life. How did you get involved with that?

Sondre Lerche: I have a lot of fond memories from that. It was a really great process. Obviously, I hadn’t done anything like it before, so it was a steep learning curve, but really gentle also because the filmmakers were amazing people. It was a good introduction to movies and to scoring and that side of the job.

There’s an idea of the singer/songwriter that a lot of people have that is just someone solo with an acoustic guitar, but your records are very sonically different from that idea. They’re much more involved and almost orchestral.

It’s always a push-and-pull type thing because since I was a kid, I have always performed or enjoyed performing in that traditional solo format. That’s how I started up when I was 12 or 13, just playing songs at clubs and coffee shops. But I wasn’t interested in that format itself; it was just a means to perform the songs.

So when I listen to music and the kind of songwriting that I gravitated towards, it was not singer/songwriters particularly. I enjoyed Elliott Smith, of course. He was meaningful. Fiona Apple, that kind of stuff. I just didn’t like that format when I explored music myself, so the second I had access to the studio and the chance to really color and produce my songs, I just wanted to try anything else than have it be a run-of-the-mill acoustic singer/songwriter thing.

In the first 10 years of my career, I was in a battle with the expectation that maybe people had that I would be that guy. But some of the songs in that film were the closest I ever got to a pure singer/songwriter approach. The director just wanted me to keep everything as simple as possible. But every record before and after that, I’ve kept trying to find ways to rebel against that style.

You mentioned Elliott Smith and he definitely got ambitious in the studio once he actually had the budget to do so.

For sure, and he’s definitely influenced by so much more than the idea of just plucking a guitar on a knee. It’s a beautiful thing because I enjoy playing that way myself, but I like ambitious songwriting, and I find that a lot of artists who just pass the guitar around and jam out are not very ambitious songwriters. I’ve always looked up to songwriters who are not limited to any format or any idea, whether it’s in the studio, the actual songwriting or the performing. When I heard Elliott Smith for the first time, he was someone who technically fit that format, but was really ambitious also.

So you got back to Norway right before COVID hit in March of 2020. Where were you before, in the States?

Yeah, I had lived in Los Angeles for two years, and before that, I was in New York for 13 years. I had settled down with the idea that I was living in America and my life was there. But when this thing hit, it just made sense to go back home to Norway for a while, and obviously, I completely underestimated the scope of it. One month, two months, three months. Suddenly, my tours were all canceled, and all the plans I had made were shifting and changing. I felt very happy to come home and run my operation from Norway, which was an interesting new experience.

I don’t think I would have returned home if it wasn’t for COVID, and now I guess I live here again. But it’s been a strange ride as it has been for everyone. I’m sure everyone has had those moments and those changes in their lives, but the pandemic has created this domino effect that makes you completely reconsider where you live or what you’re going to do or who you’re with.

I think these past two years have done something to the way we see time. But I’m just happy to be somewhere.

Were the songs for your 2020 album Patience already done and you were just getting ready to release them?

That album was finished in the fall of 2019, and we were gearing up to announce the tour and release the first single and video on March 23rd of 2020. Things were shifting pretty quickly by the day leading up to that first launch. We held back on announcing the tour, and of course it got canceled. I was right there ready to jump, and then all the stuff happened.

I was able to find a lot of things to do from Norway. Create a lot of shows. Livestream shows. Pre-recorded shows. Socially distanced shows. And then finally I was able to tour some, just driving around playing mini-shows in Norway that summer, socially distant ones. I was able to stay in motion, and that was a way for me to cope with everything. I would have become very depressed to just stay home and mourn the sort of personal loss of opportunity to share this music.

I told myself I was going to do everything I could to communicate this music. I had just spent two years without touring or sharing in public the music because I had been writing and finishing the record. I had been writing two books that I was going to publish. I felt I had been in hiding two years, just working quietly, and that side of me that likes to get up onstage to just share what I’ve created was pretty anxious to not be too limited by this unfortunate pandemic.

It’s almost little humorous that the 2020 record was called Patience right when we were having to learn that virtue in a very extreme way.

In the beginning, it was kind of funny. I had found that title long before the pandemic happened, but for a second, it [felt] like the album of the moment when I had released it in June of 2020. But at that time, it felt like people were already exhausted, so it felt almost like a provocation.

But it is indicative of leading up to the process of making this new record [Avatars of Love]. In a way, it wasn’t planned or anything; it just happened in this vacuum between the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2021. I felt that anything but patience because I had been in this flurry of inspiration and activity just trying to think of things to do. In that, I’ve written and recorded this album that is the fastest and most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done, and also the biggest and most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. It’s been a strange process of opposites, in a sense, and now that album is coming out so soon since the last time I put out a record and finished recording it. It feels really fresh in my mind. It feels like sharing the way you cope with things in real time.

What was the first song that pushed you into the direction of this new album?

The first song that I wrote for what become this record was written the night before I left L.A. Once I wrote it and got home, I sort of forgot about it and got into release mode. Then when I started touring in the summer, I found this old song demo on my phone. Because I had forgotten about it, I was able to appreciate it more, and that song was “Turns Out I’m Sentimental After All.”

I played that song a bunch for all of those solo shows, and I was in a very strange place. I’m someone who’s been in long-term relationships since I was 18 years old. At the beginning of 2020, I was not in one and I was alone. That was obviously a big change, and then the pandemic happened. It gave me a lot to process, and immediately on these solo tours of Norway, I was just driving around in a rental car from place to place. After the shows, socializing was so limited, and the few people you could play for, you couldn’t really hang out or meet anyone. After the shows, I would just back to my hotel or drive some more. I had all this valuable time to myself to sit with this new phase of my life and figure out how to process it and what it will do to me.

And as always is the case for me, I started writing songs just very effortlessly. I didn’t think I was going to make a record anytime soon, and I didn’t have any fresh new idea for what I wanted to do. I just started writing and the songs just exploded out of me. I felt like I was writing a whole new way for me, where the lyrics would determine everything. I just kept adding verses and expanding the songs. It just became this great rush and led to the start of real work on the record.

Suddenly, I realize I’m writing too many songs, and I couldn’t really leave any of them off because they all felt really essential. Then, it’s a double record and songs are 10 minutes long. It’s the record I never thought I would make or would be able to make. I wouldn’t dream of how to start it, but suddenly it was happening. It was an intense, but very gratifying and rewarding process.

It’s crazy to hear how the creative process can just suddenly hit you.

It was happening at a time when I really needed it. To stay sane, I was working really hard to constantly stay in motion and was almost afraid of stopping. But I know that for a lot of people, the pandemic wasn’t a time of inspiration or release of new ideas. I felt really grateful that it was happening at this particular time because it saved me in a sense. It really gave me a great purpose, and I just felt like this was the kind of creative explosion of inspiration that an artist dreams of their whole life.

You talked about how you were constantly adding verses to these songs. You really don’t get to a song with a chorus until track three or four on the album. The first two songs are six and 10 minutes long, and going back to film, the lyrics feel very cinematic and feel like they’re guiding you through a story.

The writing felt different in so many ways and one was to try and articulate things in a greater precision than I had accessed in the past. Some of the songs I outlined in my head or in my notebook first, and then I would write them. I outlined the lyrics like you would for a story or a movie, and I would just suddenly have much more vivid ideas of where is this room and where am I and what’s going on. I felt like the music has a lot of cinematic elements, but the lyrics also cinematic because I suddenly just had vivid descriptions of everything I saw and everything I wanted to sing about.

That’s also why the songs take on this sort of epic trajectory or arc. It’s not just one scene. A pop song is just one scene, and a lot of my songs are just one scene. You elaborate in the verses and sum it up in the chorus. But here, it was a lot of scenes, so each song had a more epic structure, save for a couple. I didn’t feel the need for a lot of choruses, but I feel that the choruses that do exist on the record really count and sit well.

To me, that was liberating because I’m always zigzagging around and looking for a new room or a new place to be. With this record, it was really liberating to stay in one spot for a long time and get to the bottom of what happens in that room lyrically.

Did you record in a home studio for this new album? I noticed there are several guests that you brought in.

That was part of the joy of being home in Norway. All my most talented music friends are there, and they have studios of their own. I’m not a big studio guy. That’s where I just sit with my guitar and record a voice memo on my phone to capture them. Sometimes, I’ll do sketches in Logic or something if I need to map out an arrangement. I don’t like to press record; I like someone else to do that and to help me sound the way I want it to.

I’ve developed all of these great friendships through the last 20 years in music. Coming home and being close to them was really meaningful, and it meant that I really could get in the studio on really short notice because they weren’t booked up, and there wasn’t a lot else going on. For the first time in my career, I spent two weeks writing a song and then go straight into the studio to record. I felt that were able to capture the intensity I felt when writing those songs.

I was able to curate the process myself and open the window to let some other voices in. I knew I wanted to reach out to Ana Muller and Rodrigo Alarcon, great young singer/songwriters from Brazil. Brazilian music has always been a huge influence on me, and I thought it would be great to have our voices blend. I’ve been listening to so much Japanese ambient music and New Age music and city pop music. My drummer sent me one of the CHAI songs when that came out around the time of recording of the album, and I thought they would sound so cool on the song “Summer in Reverse” that has a little bit of city pop collage-type vibe to it. I decided just to reach out to people and if they can’t do it, that’s fine. I’ve listened a bunch to Mary Lattimore, just a great harp player and musical visionary. And then Felicia [Douglass] from Dirty Projectors, who I just admire her voice. And then AURORA was a friend from Bergen, so she was always around, and we talked a lot about music and inspiration and it just felt perfect for the song I had. That was the first recording I did for the album, “Alone in the Night” with AURORA.

It’s been refreshing. I’ve often been very precious about the whole process. Whenever I thought about inviting someone in or featuring someone or collaborating, it felt like a risk to me because I like to control the process. But here it just felt liberating at the end of each song. I would send it off, and the worst-case scenario is that it doesn’t gel and we’ll do something else another time.

Where did the title Avatars of Love come from?

I wrote down the title in my notebook probably in July of 2020. I was thinking about the performative aspect of love and how we fall in love and certainly the performative nature of what I do onstage or on Instagram or in public. Anytime I’m in front of a camera or in front an audience, there’s a performative element. It just fascinated me. Everyone is a performer in a sense now. Anyone with an Instagram account is a performer. We sometimes even perform for our closest loved ones as well in some of the rituals we have. I think we all fall in love with an avatar. We fall in love with something that is our projection of something or someone.

Then eight months, I had been trying to write the song, but it didn’t gel. Towards the end of the process, I went up north to start work on a new book, but that wasn’t in the cards because I got hooked on the song. I took some of the elements from that last summer and started writing around Avatars of Love, and it just expanded into this 10-minute epic with all these musical references to music that was meaningful to me at the time or that has been meaningful to the state I was in. I didn’t see that coming, but I knew there was a good song in there and I was eventually able to lure it out.

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