If you looked at the output of the Norwegian songwriter Sondre Lerche over the past three years, you would be forgiven for thinking he lived in a world where the COVID-19 pandemic never happened. His 2020 LP Patience, which completed a trilogy that began with 2014’s Please and Pleasure was dropped right in the pandemic’s early throes when patience became a virtue we all suddenly needed more than ever before. Of course, Lerche couldn’t have known things would go so far by the wayside when he planned Patience’s 5 June 2020 debut. But that career highlight for Lerche, it turned out, was a sign of more things to come.
Despite lockdown conditions in Norway, Lerche continued to find ways to make his musical creativity public. Along with Patience, which received a deluxe edition later in 2020, he broadcast several concerts while everyone found themselves bound to their homes. These included intimate solo livestreams and, most of all, the elaborate concert film And in My Dreams: Patience Extravaganza, a single-take, single-shot production in which Lerche, backed by a bevy of musicians, performers, and dancers, moves through numerous rooms and buildings as he plays through songs from Patience and his back catalogue. Under non-pandemic conditions, Patience Extravaganza would rank as a considerable achievement. That Lerche and his collaborators turned out so audacious a work testifies to the endearing power of human creativity, even during the bad times.
Yet I wondered if living in a country with a proper social safety net helped. When I last spoke to Lerche for this publication, in tandem with the release of Patience, he had returned, rather wisely, to his native Norway after catching a last-minute flight out of his United States residence in Los Angeles. I envied him when he told me that story back in 2019, as I watched the ostensible “greatest country in the world” fall into shambles. When we connect via Zoom in March 2022, just weeks before the release of his most ambitious studio record to date, Avatars of Love, he paints a more measured picture of the Scandinavian response to COVID.
“It feels like an ebb and flow,” he says. “There was obviously a time early in the pandemic where it felt like Norway dealing [with the pandemic] better in a more hands-on, constructive, proactive way. But once we got into vaccination stuff, Norway was very slow with that. At that point, I remember thinking, ‘Well, shit, maybe I should be in America,’ because you guys were vaccinating all over the place. I could have been vaccinated four to five months earlier had I been in America.
“Then, suddenly, Norway shut down again, and it seemed like things were looking more positive in America. Suddenly we didn’t feel so smart anymore. But I think that’s been happening everywhere. All in all, Norway’s a smaller country, so we can move more quickly and smoothly, but there’s been tons of disappointment and anger here. The unified patience we all started out with when I was releasing my album called Patience has been wearing thin, especially with the last shutdown that happened in December, January, and February. We only recently opened up again. We’re looking at brighter times, but there’s been plenty of frustration.”
Lerche’s career began in Norway, where as a boyish and wry songwriter with a penchant for jazzy chord progressions he released records like Faces Down (2002) and Two Way Monologue (2004). As he developed his musical ambitions over the years, however, his musical path brought him to the United States, where he lived for a time in Brooklyn and then, later, Los Angeles, up until the tide of the pandemic started to bear down on North America. Having returned to Norway for the past two years, Lerche, still quite boyish in the face, sounds enervated, even more so than when we spoke in 2020 about Patience. The change in scenery hit a switch inside of him.
He agrees, and then speculates, “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’d have been impossible for me to keep active in America, but I have been incredibly busy since I came home to Norway. I’ve been feeling very hyperactive, hyperproductive, hyper-everything! I’ve been able to set a lot of different productions in motion, which has helped me keep sane throughout this whole process, trying to find things I could successfully do despite what was happening in the world around me.”
Avatars of Love continues in the more maximalist vein of Lerche’s recent work like Patience Extravaganza. Clocking in at 86 minutes over 14 songs, the album also features some of Lerche’s most intricate and, at times, formless compositions. The professional and social restraints that stem from COVID seem to be minor impediments for Lerche. I tell him that when COVID first hit, I guessed that we might see a resurgence of the “bedroom” album given how many musicians had to turn to in-home studios to make music. Conditions were ripe, I’d thought, for new iterations of a record like David Gray’s White Ladder. Lerche did at one point consider a “miniature” album, primarily due to Patience being “such a big work” to make. But he ended up taking the opposite direction.
“I didn’t think, ‘I want to go big!’ But I did think, ‘I want to go limitless!’ With life in general, I decided to not hold back on anything. I wanted to try everything, and see how far I can go with it,” he explains. Early upon his return to Norway his approach was more intimate; he streamed performances in which he sat on his couch, accompanied only by a guitar, and promoted the music of Patience. “But then I felt that if I was going to return to the streaming format while the pandemic was still going on, it had to be a new thing.”
By adopting that way of thinking Lerche created a series of online performances that required a good deal more than a sofa. “I did a show where my drummer [Dave Heilman] was in a cabin in New York, and me and the rest of the performers were in Norway. Then I did a solo thing from up north in Lofoten,” an archipelago in the north of Norway. “Then, fortunately, I had the privilege to work with a crew who could do something really cinematic and ambitious, even though we were still in a sort-of shutdown. That became Patience Extravaganza.”
This new period of musical creativity for Lerche didn’t come about as a result of a specific plan, or any one isolated decision to attempt large-scale productions. In fact, after Patience’s release, he felt he’d achieved a distinct career milestone. He says that Patience “took enough time” to record, and “it was enough of a statement that I didn’t feel a rush to make the next one.” But the flushes of inspiration that washed over him in Norway led him to ask increasingly pointed questions of himself. “I was very driven to pursue any opportunity I had, to see how far I could take it before it snapped, until I had to say to myself things like, ‘You don’t have the money for this,’ or ‘you don’t have the audience for this,’ or [laughs] ‘You don’t have the talent for this.’” And then over the course of 2021, the pieces that would start to form Avatars of Love emerged.
These songs, he says, “came out of me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before – a really fluid manifestation of song that I’ve hoped for my entire life, and maybe not even dared to dream that I could have. When that happened, and suddenly there’s time to record… I’m at home in Bergen with all my friends who have beautiful studios and are very talented, there was nothing holding me back. So I jumped on the opportunity to move forward without any sort of limitation, and the songs themselves just exploded my usual format.”
Inspiration Hits in the Dead of the Night
This “format” of Lerche’s songwriting wasn’t the only thing that exploded. The length of the album did as well. Up until Avatars of Love, Lerche’s longest disc was the US release of Faces Down, which runs just shy of an hour. Most of his output trends in the traditional LP-length format, between 41-47 minutes. Up until Pleasure in 2017 and Patience in 2020, his songs had pop-friendly running times of three or four minutes. By contrast the two centerpieces of Avatars of Love, the title track and “Dead of the Night,” unfold over ten-minute spans. I ask Lerche if a record of this length was always on his mind as a possibility.
He says he knew “about halfway” through writing the songs, around January of 2021, that he had a double album on his hands. “You know the length of a record, so I felt when I had about eight songs, ‘This is really strong.’ It was something new and exciting. I had more than enough songs for a record, and I also had this idea that this new record would be eight songs. A lot of them were longer than usual, much more lyric- and storytelling-driven, but there were a couple of short ones.” Then, when the calendar flipped over from January to February, the biggest shift in the composition of Avatars of Love – and, as Lerche tells it, perhaps his career as a songwriter – transpired.
“On February 1st,” he recalls, “I started the song that would become ‘Dead of the Night’.” One of the first songs to be released from Avatars of Love, “Dead of the Night” is one of Lerche’s longest lyrical compositions, though it is backed by a muted musical arrangement. He, for the bulk of the song, quietly strums a guitar, shifting back and forth between just two chords. This is no small choice on his part, given his long-standing reputation as a songwriter who indulges intricate chord sequences. (For this critic’s money, “Bleeding Out into the Blue” is the model example of that style.) But the at times simple musical choices in the track pointed him in a new direction for the record that he would eventually complete over the summer. In his words, the record “took a turn” with “Dead of the Night.”
“It’s a song unlike anything I’ve ever written before,” he says. It’s the one song he returns to again and again over the course of our hour-long conversation. “I felt completely consumed and overwhelmed by the song, like I was living inside of it. The verses kept multiplying.”
The music, it turns out, also had a strong environmental component. When he was writing the song, winter in full effect, he remembered about Norway’s place on the globe. “It was so dark. It was the first full winter I’d spent in Norway in years, and I’d forgotten how dark it gets there – Norway’s so fucking dark, man! [Laughs] And wet, and snowy, and icy… it was a whole cycle of darkness, and then the country went into its second shutdown. So I relished staying inside, and feeling that if there was ever a time in my life where I needed to feel inspired to survive, this was it.”
The irony for Lerche, however, was that on the matter of a new record, he didn’t need “Dead of the Night” to round out the music he’d already assembled. “I was lucky because, by then, I already had a record. So I decided to follow this new burst of creativity and see where it would go.” Over the next several months the remaining tunes fell into place. Avatars of Love single “Cut”, which features some of the album’s most intricate production, followed “Dead of the Night”. During a “very intense week” just one month later Lerche penned the title track, and upon seeing the two ten-minute pieces he’d written, the scope of his next LP became clear.
“When I had ‘Dead of the Night’ and ‘Avatars of Love’ emerge almost back-to-back, that’s when I realized, [laughs] ‘Shit, this is probably a double record.’ Then I started looking at ways those songs could be shaped, either as a double album or as two separate records that are closely aligned. But [the latter approach] felt too tidy, too manicured.” The final tally, for his songwriting over the span of 2020 and 2021: “I ended up with 16 songs, which I had to cut down to 14 otherwise it would have been a triple vinyl.”