The Legends We Were Meant to Be: An Interview with Sondre Lerche

Sondre Lerche dealt with a difficult divorce going into the sessions for his latest album, Please, but it's the greatest thing he's ever done, and tells us about the saxophone solo that may have changed his life (yes, it's on the record).
Sondre Lerche
Yep Roc

Over the course of 13 years and seven studio albums, Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche has crafted some of the most interesting pop songs of our time. He’s explored Tin Pan Alley jazz-inflected pop on The Duper Sessions, new wave and punk on Phantom Punch, ornate chamber-pop on Two Way Monologue, and a myriad of other styles while always sounding like no one other than Sondre Lerche. But on his latest album, Please, Lerche finds a new energy and has crafted an album unlike anything he’s done before.

“It’s not such a reference-heavy record and I think that sort of comes from just freeing yourself from these towering references that you’ve dedicated so much of your time to,” Lerche says. “I was more interested in making bold musical statements and making things really have an impact. The mantra was ‘bold is gold.'”

A driving force in the decision to do something different with this record, was his own personal life. In the midst of writing and recording songs for his follow-up to 2011’s Sondre Lerche, he got divorced. While the lyrics on Please center on this and his reaction to it, the album is maybe not what you’d expect from a divorce record. “Thematically and conceptually it definitely comes out of that specific experience for me, but it’s not, ‘How could you do this to me?!’ It’s not that kind of record.” Instead, he hopes that his songs can be universal and open to interpretation. “It’s not a record, I hope, that indulges so much in stuff that only relates to this specific situation.”

More than just lyrically, however, the album feels different than his others musically. The songs are more rhythmic, more energetic. They’re a little rougher around the edges and often more sparsely arranged. Lerche credits this to how he approached writing the songs: “I had this desire to work with simpler song structures. [I wanted to] try to write songs with four chords and try to find ways to make songs with different rhythm patterns than the ones you often end up with when work with a guitar, so I was composing to tracks a lot so that rhythmically things are different.”

A song like “Crickets”, the punchy second song on the album, is dominated by an acoustic guitar pounding out four chords with an unusual rhythm. Opening track and lead single, “Bad Law”, began as an instrumental backing track waiting for melody and lyrics. “I spent a year trying to make a song out of it, so that was one I really didn’t know if it was a song until the very very final day in the studio. Then I realized, shit, it is a song. That happens when you switch the order. Instead of starting with heavy song composition, you start with a rhythm that is exciting.”

What it feels like, actually, is a live Sondre Lerche concert. This heavier, messier approach might be unexpected if you’ve only listened to Lerche’s records, but in concert, he imbues his songs with a frenetic energy. He kicks on the distortion more often and really rocks out, replacing the refined production of the studio recordings with a raw energy that breathes new life into the songs. That’s what many of the songs on Please sound like. They have Lerche’s clever compositional style, but played with an off-the-rails live energy.

He reins it in for “Lucky Guy”, the true emotional centerpiece of the record. “For me I guess it feels very sincere, almost a desperately sincere love song to the couple, to the union.” The song feels the most like his earlier work, with a lush string arrangement by Tim Fain. He sings about how lucky he and his ex-wife were to experience love while they had it. “It’s a diplomatic love song from a guy who’s trying to live up to his ideals to the bitter end. I guess it does, though, have a sort of passive aggressive jab at the current state and the contrast between what is now and what it could be. It came from a pretty real place.”

For Lerche, the song is a real moment of clarity amongst the oft-irrational reactions he had to his divorce elsewhere on the record. “I guess ‘Lucky Guy’ represents the ideal of honoring what was and then trying to move on without animosity. That song is pretty heartbreaking, even to me. It’s almost like I’m reminding myself of how I want to think about it, you know?” Some of these same ideas are echoed on “Legends”, but with a more bitter tone. Over an infectious drum rhythm, he sings a chorus of “Now we’ll never know what legends we were meant to be” followed by a mocking “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohh.” This subtle sarcasm runs throughout much of the lyrics on Please and gives the album a lot of its charm.

“It’s always hard to define what is personal and what is most personal and what’s not personal,” Lerche says of the different lyrical approach on the album. “It’s always intensely personal while I’m feeling it, and I guess because this album comes out of a situation that completely deconstructs your life emotionally and practically in so many ways, it does come out a desperate necessity to find order and reason, and to understand yourself and understand your partner and why this is happening. So it becomes sort of an investigation of how you work and how you operate.”

The final track on the album, “Logging Off”, seems to sum all this up, despite being written before the divorce happened. “It describes the different ways you look for each other, especially in our day and time with social media and all these different ways we connect with each other but still fail to a lot of the time. So it was this sort of abstract song about that, but all of a sudden it didn’t seem so abstract anymore. When I was singing it, I was like ‘Shit, I knew more than I dared to even take in about what was going on.'” Three minutes into the track, the song ends and fades away into silence. But then it comes back, with an expressive and insane saxophone solo.

“You think the song is over and then it’s this radical force that sort of chews up the song and spits it out one final time. It’s an amazing performance by the saxophonist Kjetil Møster from Norway. He just happened to be around and I asked him if he could come by. He really didn’t know the song that well and just played that solo in intuition. My jaw was on the floor. It was like 10 minutes and that’s it, he had it. When I heard that solo it was sort of like a concluding remark. That solo, in a way, says more about anything than almost any of the lyrics on the record.”

Despite being recorded over two-and-a-half years, in two countries, at six studios, with three producers, four mixing engineers, and an eclectic mix of collaborators, Please feels like Lerche’s most cohesive artistic statement yet. It manages to capture his nuanced and very human emotional reaction to his personal crisis and bring it to life with colorful, energetic music. It’s thoroughly not self-indulgent and comes across as honest, insightful, but also fun and exciting. It proves that even more than a decade into your career, you can still break new ground as an artist — as a person — and have it work extremely well.