Sondre Lerche
Photo: Tonje Thilesen / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

The ‘Limitless’ Sondre Lerche

Norwegian songwriter Sondre Lerche calls Avatars of Love “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.”

Avatars of Love
Sondre Lerche
PLZ / InGrooves
1 April 2022

Channeling Joni the Lyricist

Much of Avatars of Love’s expansiveness stems from Lerche’s newfound lyrical confidence. As a younger songwriter, he had a knack for puzzling listeners and reviewers with phrases that seem without provenance. Two Way Monologue’s title cut opens with the head-scratching, “Ma, all the other options that you had in mind starve me / Cause I’m optionless and turkey-free and blind.” (One of Lerche’s biggest influences is Paddy McAloon of the English pop band Prefab Sprout, similarly known for unusual lines and couplets.) On Avatars of Love Lerche focuses less on singable pop hooks – though there are plenty of those here too, like the choruses of “Will We Ever Comprehend” and “Special Needs” – and allows himself to ramble and digress. Like so many things about the album, he traces this evolution in his lyric-writing to “Dead in the Night”.

“It was definitely ‘Dead of the Night’ that opened that door,” he says. “I’d been wanting to explore in the studio songs that utilize a lot of space. It’s a desire that comes from listening to a lot of ambient, minimalist, and abstract music. I touched on that style in Patience, but even there the songs were still very much songs. That kind of writing prevents you from, you know, seeing what it’s like if you linger on a chord for a minute or so.”

I liken “Dead of the Night” and “Avatars of Love” to the music Scott Walker made beginning with Tilt – though Lerche’s music, even at its most serious, is never so mordant as Walker’s. (Nor does it ever broach the black humor of a tune like “Clara”, a song in which Walker dramatizes the execution of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci through the percussive use of meat slabs.) Lerche nods at the comparison and acknowledges that Walker did have an influence on the moments of ambience and abstraction on Avatars of Love. “I remember when we recorded ‘Now She Sleeps Beside Me,’” he says of a gentle, string-led lullaby late on the record, “the instruction I gave to Alexander [von Mehren], my co-producer and keyboard player on the track, was that I wanted to sound like Scott Walker produced by Enya.”

If that was the intended effect, von Mehren understood the request. Save for its moments of straightforward pop indulgence, Avatars of Love presents Lerche as a storyteller right from its opening moments. On the gorgeous career highlight “Guarantee that I’d Be Loved” – a song whose throughline Lerche calls “those times where you fall short in key moments of your life” – he narrates a series of relationships, one of which culminates in stirring contemplation: “He would have been four by now / Our son, if he was around / How far would I be willing to go / To not be weighed down by love / To never have to say no.” In a dreamlike sequence at the midpoint of “Avatars of Love,” he rattles off a series of albums and movies like a chaotic pandemic playlist and watchlist: “Play all of folklore and all of Blue / Play half of evermore and all of Down to You / Play Sunset Village / Play Multitudes.” As Lerche moves away from the confines of traditional pop phrasing and more into spoken word, the music transforms into something more textural and atmospheric.

Sondre Lerche
Photo: Tonje Thilesen / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

The balance between music and words Lerche aimed to strike with Avatars of Love drew from one of the artists he name-checks in that “Avatars of Love” monologue: Joni Mitchell. “With Joni,” he explains, “Her melodic brilliance is on par with her lyrical brilliance. With her, it never feels like she really sacrifices anything. My beef with [Bob] Dylan – which I say as a younger, more immature songwriter – is that his attention to lyric is often at the sacrifice of something melodic. And that’s a sacrifice I have not been willing to make.”

He goes on. “The inspiration that I found through absorbing a lot of Joni’s music is some sort of confidence that you can have your cake and eat it too; you don’t have to sacrifice music for lyrics, or lyrics for music. How suddenly that happened, I don’t know, but I found myself loosening the reins of the melody; the melody doesn’t always have to be written in stone. It can have a little bit of room for negotiation if the lyrics demand it, and you come up with something that charges the song. That was an eye-opening thing with these Avatars songs: the lyrics can command as much space as the music without it being a battle between the two.”

He is careful, though, to distance himself from some of those that took inspiration from the likes of Mitchell and Dylan, especially when it comes to certain clichés of the “singer-songwriter” genre. When I ask him, given the direct emotional content of Avatars of Love, if this could be considered his most confessional album, he makes a qualification. “I feel that I’m being much more precise. And, sure, ‘confessional,’ ‘sincere,’ all those singer-songwriter tropes that I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with, maybe because I’ve been afraid of being too understood. But now it feels good, and a little dangerous.”

I bring up a quotation I have long admired of Warren Zevon’s: “In the songwriting business, there isn’t a section for fiction, and a section for nonfiction. It’s all mixed together.” Lerche claps his hands and smiles in affirmation. “Exactly! I’m trying with this record to not muddy the waters lyrically. I want to be as concise as I can, but I also want to be a musical poet. A reason why I have been skeptical of singer-songwriters that were so desperately sincere is that at times it seemed like they didn’t even write music for their thoughts. They’d just spew out their diary. And I want fantasy to play an important part in my music and lyrics.” The logorrhea in the middle of “Avatars of Love”, the almost musical theatre cadence to “Now She Sleeps Beside Me”, the metaphorical image of a film director on “Cut” represent a few of Avatars of Love’s flights of fantasy that accompany Lerche’s most plainspoken lyrical revelations.

“I feel incredibly exposed on this record,” he says, “but I’m also a craftsman at work. I’m looking for different angles and symbols that may better express myself, rather than just listing of a series of things that happened to me. The intensity of that sincerity, or ‘confessionalism,’ charges them with something strong on this record that hasn’t been there in the past.”

The Collaborators

It helps, too, that the spotlight isn’t always on Lerche throughout Avatars of Love’s 14 songs. Looking at the back cover of one can see something that has heretofore never been included on any of his records: a tracklisting that has several songs with [Feat.] labels next to them. In addition to being his longest and most experimental work to date, Avatars of Love also finds Lerche at his most collaborative.

“I thought it’d be nice to open the windows of the studio and let the air of the rest of the world come in,” he says. “It was something I hadn’t done before much, even though it’s very much a part of the mainstream landscape now. I wanted to lower my shoulders a little bit and send out some tracks without being precious or guarded about the music. It felt meaningful, especially with a record of this size. It’s 86 minutes of music, so I thought it’d be good to hear some other voices, perspectives, and influences. It’s a lot to sit down and hear me express all of my thoughts in one sitting.”

The resulting collaborative network quickly became global. He sent the syncopation-heavy pop number “Summer in Reverse” to the Japanese band CHAI, a decision informed both by their music specifically (their contributions “had a better color to it” than what he’d originally written, he confesses) and the influence of Japan generally on his music. “Japan was meaningful to me because I’d listened to so much ambient and new age music from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and a lot of city pop stuff.”

Sondre Lerche
Photo: Synne S.B. Bønes / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

Thinking of the Japanese music that he admires brought him to a country that is already deeply embedded in the Lerche songbook: Brazil. Bossa nova makes up a considerable part of Lerche’s musical vernacular. On “My Love Still Waits” he incorporates the Japanese influences on “Summer in Reverse” with Brazilian music and, after a happenstance Instagram discovery, some Brazilian singers: Rodgrigo Alarcon, Ana Müller, and Niela Moura. He calls “My Love Still Waits” “a fusion of Brazil and Japan stylistically; it’s almost like a ‘plastic bossa nova’”.

The Dirty Projectors’ Marry Lattimore contributes a lovely duet on the catchy “Special Needs” and his fellow Norwegian AURORA (also a Bergen resident) closes out the record with her vocals on “Alone in the Night”. Just before Lerche and I started chatting, he and AURORA had just finished a photo shoot, an indication that the album’s collaborative ethos remains ongoing for him.

But perhaps the most direct and consistent collaborator of Lerche’s on Avatars of Love is not a person, but an instrument, one he took care to name directly in the credits: a nylon string guitar. I remembered in 2020 seeing an online performance of Lerche’s in promotion for Patience, recorded with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, of the ballad “Why Would I Let You Go” and being struck by his unique acoustic guitar, whose soundhole featured a rosette that extended into the actual sound hole itself. I ask him if this is the very same guitar named in the liner notes for Avatars of Love.

It’s the very one. He admits to having formed a bond he can’t quite explain with that guitar, an early 1980s nylon string manufactured by the now-defunct Swedish company Bjärton that he purchased from a friend. The majority of Avatars of Love was written on it, save for “Dead of Night” and “Cut”. “I don’t know what it is about it, but it definitely is worth trying to figure out,” he says. Unfortunately, after he toted the guitar around Norway during 2020 and 2021 for solo shows, the soundhole ornament cracked and broke off, but the connection he formed with the instrument hasn’t yet waned. “I’ve never been that attached to instruments; I don’t remember the names or brands when it comes to gear. I’m pretty unsentimental when it comes to guitars. But I’ve never had a relationship like the one I have with this guitar.”

What Makes Him Tick

On “Alone in the Night”, his duet with AURORA, Lerche leaves the listener with these lines as Avatars of Love reaches its final seconds: “Alone in the night / How will you remember us? / If memory turns to dust / Will you know me by heart?” This question, it turns out, is not purely rhetorical. For Lerche, this album – and, indeed, his whole output as a professional musician – can be understood as the pursuit of self-revelation, in the many forms it takes.

One can see this self-interrogation in the title of one of Avatars of Love’s briefest songs, “Turns Out I’m Sentimental After All”. The centerpiece of Lerche’s masterpiece Please, a record that explores his emotional turmoil following his divorce from his wife Mona Fastvold, is an angsty ballad called “Sentimentalist”, which kicks off with Lerche singing, “For a self-professed lover, a romanticist at heart / I wasted less to no time at all / Tying the knot, dying to not rot / But I’m no sentimentalist.” I make the connection between the two songs and ask Lerche if in the process of writing new music he actively puts himself in conversation with his previous music.

He notes that “Turns Out I’m Sentimental After All” name-checks not just “Sentimentalist”, but also the Phantom Punch (2007) acoustic ditty “After All” – an indication, maybe, that his past music is never far from his mind. But he sees that kind of conversation between albums occurring more on his past records than with Avatars of Love. “I felt during the first ten years from my career that the next record is a reaction to the previous one, every record a rebellion against the one that came before it. Now, though, it’s really just where the writing takes me.”

He elaborates by saying that, to the extent that he does call back to a song he’s written before, he does so because it speaks to some part of his identity. Unlike the aforementioned Scott Walker, who seemed to move on from a record the instant he completed it, Lerche says, “I feel at ease with the work I’ve done before. I always carry that music with me with a certain amount of pride. Because I identify much with certain songs – certain songs are summations of essential things about me, and how I see myself – I’ve become much more aware that my identity as a human being is tied to what I create. This can be intense. It can be a problem. But I’ve tried to write songs since I was eight years old, and that will to pursue music was also about me pursuing my identity.”

Put succinctly, he says, “When I write songs, I’m trying to understand myself.” Put in the parlance of one jazzy Avatars track, his songcraft concerns “What Makes [Him] Tick.” Returning to “Turns Out I’m Sentimental After All,” he acknowledges the “self-consciousness” in its title, but for him “it really stems from the fact that I’ve put so much of my identity into my songs. As time passes, you have to re-evaluate your identity, and statements you’ve made in song. It’s natural to address the song, because the song is the document of how you felt at a specific time, how you saw yourself, and what you thought you could become.”

Released seven years ago, “Sentimentalist” represents a distinctly past-tense version of Lerche’s personality. In his telling, “‘Sentimentalist’ is maybe untypical of me because of its insensitivity. It’s raw. When I think of that song – it’s very dear to me, and it’s an intense song to sing – it’s trying to do some damage, in a way that is untypical of me. This new song is a way of saying, ‘I’m not that tough, I’m not that hard.’ That happens a lot on this record: even as it explores grief, desire, all these other things, at its core it’s trying to understand my core, my nature. That feels essential.”

Even with its extended running time and lyrical frankness, however, Avatars of Love doesn’t promise a definitive document of the man. What it offers instead is the best an artist could hope for: new paths for further self-discovery. And to his credit, Lerche, for all his effusiveness about this new music, hasn’t become too sure of himself. He remains, much like he is as an interviewee, modestly spoken. “I hope I don’t jinx it by getting so excited about the joy recording Avatars of Love gave me,” he says, grinning, “because maybe it’ll never happen again. But if it doesn’t happen again, you know, it’s fine, I wrote these songs, and they’re totally cool.”

Sondre Lerche
Photo: Tonje Thilesen / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
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