Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity
"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."
5 June 2020
My mid-May interview with Sondre Lerche begins with a now-familiar problem: Zoom won't work. As I dig into the Settings menu of my Zoom app, already annoyed at the prospect of a major technical issue that could postpone the interview further, a little red image at the upper right-hand corner of my screen grabs my attention. I've seen it many times now: a small digital rendering of the album art to Lerche's ninth studio record, Patience. In preparation for our discussion I'd seen the image more times than I can count, but in this moment of malfunction the title struck me as a bit of a joke. Releasing an album called Patience amidst a global pandemic may be just a bit too on-the-nose. But, of course, Lerche's plans for the album predated COVID-19. The album's title, along with the music it contains, has been a long time coming.
Patience now completes what can be read as a loose, unofficial trilogy, one that began with 2014's Please. That album – one of the pop masterpieces of the 2010s – finds Lerche exploring sonic terrain unlike anything in his career up to that point. On records like Faces Down, Two Way Monologue, and Heartbeat Radio, Lerche plays a kind of buoyant, quirky pop defined by bossa nova rhythms, unusual chord progressions, and off-kilter lyrical turns of phrase. Please exhibits these characteristics, but pushes them further than Lerche had ever pushed his music before. From the harsh dissonance on "Bad Law" to the chaotic, distorted rhythms of "After the Exorcism", Please captures Lerche at his most compositionally ambitious. The emotional and musical volleys of the album chronicle the dissolution of a relationship; Lerche recorded the LP after his divorce. Whatever was going on in his life at the time of Please's creation, one thing was for certain: Lerche sounded like an artist revivified.
This energy carried over to Pleasure, his 2017 studio outing. Where Please employs a collage-like approach to its material, Pleasure explores deeply one specific aesthetic: '80s-inspired synth-pop. The album's production is the lushest in all of Lerche's discography; dense, multi-layered instrumentals form the bedrock for Lerche's poignant lyrical ruminations about, to use his words from "I'm Always Watching You", being "over trying to feel alone" and "brushing up on feeling free". If Please tries to put the pieces together of a life shattered by the end of a relationship, Pleasure documents the winding paths one takes in pursuit of a new life. In touring Pleasure Lerche put on his most performative and grandiose tour to date, threading the needle between his singer-songwriter-meets-crooner style from Two Way Monologue and a newfound sense of pop exuberance.
Now with Patience – apropos of the title – Lerche slows things down. In many ways, the music on this recording anchors itself on his favorite songwriting techniques even more than discs like Two Way Monologue and Heartbeat Radio. "Why Would I Write the Book of Love" wholeheartedly indulges Brazilian music, particularly the Tropicália style. "My Love is Hard to Explain" could have been an outtake from Lerche's 2006 jazz LP Duper Sessions; it's the kind of song, to borrow Christopher Bonanos' phrasing, "Cole Porter would have nodded and smiled at". When it comes to production and arrangement, however, Lerche's far from his usual self on Patience. The oddball, reverb-y lounge jazz of "Are We Alone Now" and the kitschy, aerobics video background music quality to the chorus of "That's All There Is" represent some of his boldest choices as a songwriter. In wrapping up the unofficial "P-titled" trilogy, Patience ties together Please's emotional volatility and Pleasure's sensuous freedom, and offers a more introspective reflection on the journey Lerche has taken for the past half decade.
On album centerpiece "Why Would I Let You Go", a showstopper of a tune, he sings, "And in my dreams I have the strength / To not keep love at an arm's length". Patience testifies to Lerche's skill in not keeping love, or any emotion for that matter, at such a critical distance. These songs take their time with the emotions they probe, rather than attempting to in musical form encapsulate them into a single digestible idea. Lerche, in other words, has never sounded more confident than he does on Patience, even as he's written some of the most emotionally up-front music of his career. It's some small version of that kind of patience I try to channel as I work through the technology foible that interrupts the start of our interview, which fortunately does not last long.
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Where are you socially distancing now?
I'm in Norway. I left LA on March 14th.
I think that may have been the last day possible to leave before all of the travel restrictions.
It was! I had to make a quick decision. Basically… what healthcare system do you have more faith in? What sort of society would you like to be quarantined/stuck in if this goes on as it has?
As far as quick decisions go, I have to think that's among the easiest ones.
[Laughs] I haven't regretted it. Still, I miss my apartment; I just moved there about a year and a half ago, and I've tremendously enjoyed living there. It feels very strange to not know when I will return. I just packed a suitcase and left, not knowing when I'd be able to come back, and I still don't know. I'm privileged, of course, in that I can go home to Norway.
What's the mood of things there?
There's definitely a sense that we're over the worst of it, and things have started slowly opening up. A couple weeks ago, kids started attending kindergarten again. Two weeks ago, some schools started opening up. Last week we were able to go to a bar. It almost feels crazy when I tell people, because it seems reckless, but the government let us know that as long as we keep socially distancing, avoiding big groups, and meeting mostly outside, we can make it work. It feels bold to make that move, but the Norwegian government acted much more quickly in its response compared to what we've seen in America. To be fair, Norway is only five million people, unlike America or other larger countries where people are living in much tighter quarters in bigger cities. The biggest center for spreading the virus in Norway has been Oslo, but there aren't that many big cities outside of there, and even Oslo's pretty small.
The quarantine was pretty intense through all of March and the first part of April. Winter is pretty harsh in Norway, but now that spring is showing itself, it's hard for people to limit themselves going out and enjoying the weather. But even the people I'm seeing in parks are staying as far apart as they can. Hopefully it's the right move.
In Norway, faith in the government is generally pretty high. The trust you place in government and also the demands you're willing to let them make of you are much bigger. I notice in America that there's more doubt in government – with good reason, probably – and therefore individuals are less willing to take orders from officials.
I'm calling you from Texas, and they just started the phase-ins a week ago, which anyone with a brain would tell you is a bad idea. When I went into a coffee shop this morning to pick up coffee for my wife and I, there were people sitting in the café as if things were normal. If only we all could flee to a beautiful Scandinavian country…
I felt bad leaving behind a lot of my friends in Los Angeles who don't have that exit strategy. When I moved to New York, where I lived for many years, it was a harsh transition from living in Norway. I realized just how inhumane it was, living in America; there's nothing catching you if you fall through the cracks. Coming from Norway, I find that idea completely crazy. I remember always thinking, "If everything goes to shit, I can at least go home to Norway". But for a lot of people – my friends, people I'd see walking down the street – that's not a privilege that they have. That always made a huge impression on me. I don't come from a wealthy family, but whenever I leave Norway, I feel like Norway is my wealthy uncle or something. [Laughs] There is always some hope, or somebody catching me. The American resistance to creating any sort of safety net for its inhabitants is pretty strange to observe from my perspective.
Well, and most places in the world, too. This is reminding me of a piece I read a couple years ago written by a Scandinavian musician. It made the argument that while Scandinavian countries provide better funding for the arts, there's a particular creativity to American music because the artists have to hustle harder, they're more desperate. The article didn't go so far as to justify the American system wholesale, but the author did make a certain distinction when it comes to creativity. Having lived in both Norway and America, how does an argument like that track for you?
It's hard to talk about it without glorifying one or the other. It's easy to glorify the starving artist, that whole myth where if you have too much, you're not going to have any motivation to want to make art. The dire example I see is the widespread belief that everyone can "make it", even though it's obviously not true.
I just talked to someone about this, actually. In America, you're sold the idea of independence, that we're all independent and can achieve whatever we set our minds to. But in Norway, because you have such a strong government, your government provides a lot of security for people. So in Norway, you have actual freedom; it's been argued that the most important thing to Norwegians is a sense of independence. In America you're much more reliant on your parents; you owe your parents for the rest of your life because they've provided all these essential things for you, and if they have it's because they've been able to afford it. Contrast that with Norway, where all the things your family would have to provide in America are provided by the government, more or less: school, education, all these things. For me, that creates a much realer sense of actual independence, because it gives you independence from your family at an earlier stage.
Photo: Jen Steele / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
I don't think we Norwegians think that consciously about how we value that kind of independence. I've become aware of it when I see the extent to which Americans rely on their families, which determines so much of what they're able to do: what kind of education they get, whether or not they can have a big American wedding, whether they can have kids, and so on. All that stuff matters less in Norway because you're quicker able to separate yourself from your family and be independent. But it's also probably true sometimes that it can be too cushy. There is something to be said for really having to deliver, in a sense, which I saw when I moved to America for the first time. The people I met who were musicians, whether they were playing with someone else or trying to create their own career, really had to go for it. They were sacrificing so much more than friends of mine in Norway were, friends who were at the same level as those American musicians. Norwegians have the ability to say something like, "Well, I'll try this for awhile, see if it works", whereas in America the people feel that whatever they're doing has to work. It's a much more distant ambition. They put much more on the line, and usually they were defying their families' wishes. But in Norway, parents are much more likely to be supportive of their children's decision to be a musician because it's not as much their responsibility if things don't work out. There is a security blanket there the government provides.
But I'm always hesitant to provide that the brutal nature of American life makes for better art. Maybe I just don't want to believe that.
Putting aside these broader economic issues, I'm curious as to what you've learned from the LA music scene now that you've lived there for awhile. I saw that you've made music with some LA mainstays like Sara and Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek, Watkins Family Hour). What's it been like living there for your art?
It's been wonderful. The thing with me and LA, it's been a slow love affair. My first record [Faces Down] was received very well in Los Angeles. I played venues that I later realized were legendary, like the Troubadour, which became my home base in the city at the beginning of my career. At the same time, I didn't really enjoy being in the city; I didn't understand its layout. Coming from a relatively small town in Norway – and Bergen is the center for a lot of music in Norway – I didn't really understand what the scene was in LA. I didn't realize how big Largo was, and how close it was to where I was regularly playing. But I was also very young. It took a few years for me to enjoy being there.
In 2006, I recorded an album called Phantom Punch in Hollywood. I lived in a rented apartment for two months with my guitar player, an apartment that is only a few blocks from where I now live in Hollywood – just up the street from Amoeba. Even living there for two months just to make that record with Tony Hoffer, I remember thinking, "Man, I could never live here!" So it's been a gradual love that's developed.
Of course, so many things have changed in the LA scene, and in people's perceptions of the city. For me, a lot of how my perceptions of LA have changed has to do with my age, where I'm at in my life. New York was a fun place for me to live in my early to late 20s. But every time I came home from touring – especially after the Please and Pleasure tours – half of my friends had moved away, and half of them had probably moved to LA. Having lived in Williamsburg since 2005, I'd seen the changes, and I knew the day would come that my neighborhood would start to become desirable to even more people and I'd have to move out. The usual cycles.
I felt a sudden need to get out of town, and I'd started running. I ran and trained for marathons. Running gave my life a lot of quality, and It was really bringing me down to live in a city where I couldn't run the way I wanted to. The winters in New York are worse than the winters in Norway, and the summers are pretty harsh too. There's really only one month in the spring and one in the fall where it's actually nice to run. When I would visit friends in LA, or play shows there, I started to see the city in a new light. My friends live in all different neighborhoods. I came to see the richness and variety of the place; I thought to myself, "You can actually run here!" You can access nature in LA in a way that I'd never seriously considered.
Between 2015 and 2016, I'd live in LA for about a month every year to write, to run. When I came home from the Pleasure tour in early 2018, none of my friends were there in New York anymore, and I remember walking into my apartment and thinking, "This is not my home anymore". New York was no longer where I was coming to rest. It was a place I no longer recognized.
That moment of recognition sounds a lot like the lyrical conceit behind Patience's lead single, "You are Not Who I Thought I Was". Is there an autobiographical element to what's going on in that song, and perhaps on the rest of the record?
Well when you sit down to write a record, you don't create a rulebook. You're just leaning in certain directions. One thing that was happening to me as I worked on Patience, something I didn't decide on, was that all the songs had long, descriptive titles. The title "You are Not Who I Thought I Was" relates to this idea – I'm not sure if I invented it or if I stole it from someone else – called "radical sincerity". The idea sums up a lot of the lyrics on this record.
Radical sincerity aims for an explicitness lyrically that I haven't been much a fan of before. I've been reaching to find my own vocabulary within this much more straightforward way of writing. What ends up happening when I take this approach is that the lyrics end up explicitly saying what they're about. For me to have a song called "I Love You Because It's True" feels radical.
"You are Not Who I Thought I Was" is also very much about the details in the lyrics. It ended up on many of the songs that I describe a scene, almost journalistically. I tried to see if I could put people in a room, describe the action between them, and then move into a chorus where I could sum up what happened. I asked myself: could each verse be one painting, one visual? On a song like "Why Would I Let You Go", each verse is a clear visual, almost like a film script where you give just enough information to help paint a picture that you will later shoot.
That philosophy feels like a natural way to conclude this "unofficial" trilogy of Please, Pleasure, and Patience that you've now completed. Looking back to the time leading up to Please, did you envision that the music on that album would eventually lead to this trilogy?
I wasn't thinking of a trilogy per se, but even then I had songs that now appear on this album. Please opened so many doors that were incredibly exciting for me to explore: doors into other musical avenues, doors into myself. It felt like a restart. I was confident that the ten songs on Please belonged together, but I also knew I wasn't nearly done. A new, big process began with that record. I'd recorded many songs for Please that pointed in the direction of Pleasure, and then Pleasure led to other songs which revealed an overlapping project. A song like "Despite the Night", which came on an EP between those two albums, could have easily been on Please, but it felt thematically premature. Instead, it became a bridge between Please and Pleasure.
Similarly, for Patience, there are songs that I felt overlapped [between it and Pleasure] to where I wasn't sure which record they'd end up on. At the same time, there were songs from the Please recordings that did not fit into the Pleasure stuff. I say this all primarily at the thematic level, though musically there were differences as well. I have to feel a strong thematic connection between a set of songs in order to justify their existence as an album.
I wrote "Why Would I Let You Go" four years ago, when I was working on Pleasure. At that time I was finishing "Soft Feelings" and "I'm Always Watching You", the two last songs that I recorded for that album. "Why Would I Let You Go" feels like a very important artistic moment in my life, but as urgent as that feeling was when I wrote it, I knew that it would be wrong to force it on to Pleasure, simply because it wouldn't be right – and I say that on the level of intuition. So then I realized, "Ok, this is the next thing". I had other songs to work with at that time; from recording Please, I had "Put the Camera Down". I was mixed, but I didn't like where it was. But when "Why Would I Let You Go" came together four years ago, I'd finally found something around which the new record could revolve.
So yes, there is an overlapping thing with these records. You can hear it when you move from the last track on Please to the first track on Pleasure. The connection is pretty similar to the one between "Baby Come to Me", the final song on Pleasure, and the title song of Patience. Now that these three records are complete, I'd like to think people could listen to all three in a row and have a new kind of experience with them. Maybe I'm humoring myself, but when I get some distance from the music I do like the idea of them working together consecutively.
Photo: Jen Steele / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
On the subject of bridges between these three records, Patience feels like the logical followup to Pleasure, but arguably even more so to Solo Pleasure. The stripped-down solo versions of the Pleasure tunes are naturally conversant with the more sparse arrangements of Patience. Was there an intentional decision for the music to be so stripped-down, at least compared to the previous two albums?
I think I have developed a certain appreciation for what my own musical "center" is. Part of that is performing solo; that's how I started out. When I first learned to play guitar, I used the guitar just so I could have a tool to write songs with. Similarly, performing was just a tool for me to hear my songs. But as you get better at playing an instrument, and better at performing, you learn new chops that can be independent of your songwriting. To me, though, everything always revolved around my wanting to become a songwriter.
Stylistically, Pleasure was a big statement for me in terms of how it was produced and arranged. I felt that people were game in receiving it, and the live show built connections with a lot of audiences. But when that touring and album cycle was over, and I recorded Solo Pleasure, I wanted to show people that those songs could be played in an entirely different way than they'd heard them on the record. Some are more natural studio creations than others, which makes it harder to give them legs, or a kind of pulse in a solo performance. But I wanted to draw attention to the fact that much of Pleasure consists of real classic songs.
I was excited after the Pleasure touring to return to solo shows, where I could play old songs, and importantly I could play quietly. For Pleasure I'd done a loud, boisterous, flamboyant kind of performance, which was so fun, but so exhausting. After all that I didn't want to travel much at all. I have to tour some to make a living, of course, but I decided instead to do just a couple of Solo Pleasure shows, which allowed me to wind down. It was at that point that I moved to LA, where thankfully I had friends at Largo, where I'd done some shows before. Sean and Sara [Watkins] had been really sweet to me before, and invited me to come play with them for the Watkins Family Hour. When I moved to LA, the Largo became such a gift to me because while I'd tired of touring, I still loved performing. I did my own night there where I had guests performing, and I could try out new songs, largely to audiences who didn't know much about who I am.
So a big part of the final stages of writing and recording Patience had to do with my move to a new city. When you move to a new city, you always wonder if it's the right or wrong move, and one of the things that made me feel it was the right move was the whole crew at Largo. They made me realize that I am supposed to be in LA.
Another core feature of Patience's arrangements that stands out to me is the jazz and "Great American Songbook" elements of your compositional style. To me, it's a natural continuation of Duper Sessions, but a version of Duper Sessions that's informed by the music you've made beginning with Please. For instance, although the arrangement and production choices on "My Love is Hard to Explain" vibe more with Please and Pleasure, at its core that song could be played as a solo piano piece at a traditional jazz bar. The sounds of jazz and bossa nova have long run through your music, but I wonder if you've discovered anything new about them as you wrote Patience.
Absolutely. I think it has something to do with the theme I was leaning into on this record, which has to do with slowing down, slowing down time. I started feeling that I was rushing; I realized how little time there was to do all the things I want to do. When that happens you want to find ways to make yourself move slower. It felt natural for me to embrace all the usual stuff I've gravitated towards in my music, to be okay with further exploring my musical comfort zones. I felt so relieved to return to the American songbook and the Brazilian masters, both holy grails of songwriting ideals that I always strive to learn from.
At the same time, I know I returned to those familiar places as a much better lyricist. I don't have a lot of trouble with a lot of my past work, but one thing that's consistent is that I grow as a lyricist with each new album. I've become more in command of what I want to say lyrically; now I'm able to be much more precise and specific. It's a precision that I actually feel now when I perform.
Prior to Patience, I was mainly listening to ambient and abstract music, which goes beyond the realm of songwriting. By no means did I think I was going to make an ambient album, but I wanted to create a certain sense of space, of minimalism. To me it's really space of safety; I was literally thinking, "I want to create music that's a safe space", songs where you can address stuff that's intense, unresolved, or difficult: a space where the artist and the listener can feel a sense of safety that makes even the darkest stuff okay or bearable. I wanted the music to be big without being overblown.
In order to do that, I needed to have the music be grounded in what to me are classic songwriting styles. Something like the opening track ["Patience"] is a much more fragmented piece; it's edited down from a 15-minute jam session I had with my band. That's in keeping with some of the songs on Please and Pleasure. But a track like "My Love is Hard to Explain" is like me trying to write a Harry Mancini song.
A song that similarly balances a vintage musical sensibility with the verve of your past two records is "Why Did I Write the Book of Love", which is also one of your most unique lyrical creations. What's the story behind that song?
I wrote it in LA before I moved there, when I was in Koreatown for six weeks in 2018. A majority of my songs, when you get down to it, derive from Brazilian pop songs. But I rarely play them as bossa nova songs, and I don't produce them as such. This, though, is a pure bossa nova song. I also drew from the Tropicália tradition of mixing romantic, domestic issues with political issues of the day, with one becoming the symbol or metaphor for the other. That song wrote itself quickly.
When I write a song, I always try to ask myself once I've gotten it off the ground: "Ok, is there a way I can open this up? Can I zoom out and get a wider perspective?" Maybe it's a self-consciousness thing; as a straight male songwriter, is there anything I can do to shake up my own perspective? Can this song be an experience that's relevant to more people than myself? A lot of typical singer-songwriter tropes to be uninspiring, but it's easy to fall into those things whether you like it or not.
I haven't written a lot of political songs, and maybe this isn't one still. But "Why Would I Write the Book of Love" identifies something in about the "well-meaning liberal" way of thinking, which I'm very much a part of. There's a kind of character who is equally frustrating in a relationship and in political life in that they want what's best for people, and they display all the traits that you want out of a "good" person. But when it comes down to it, are they willing to sacrifice anything for love, or the greater good? Are they actually willing to make any adjustment to the way they live in society, or in a relationship, in order to make things more equal between people? With "Why Did I Write the Book of Love", my thinking was that there's a song to be written about that character. As I went along, I realized that the topic allowed me to laugh about myself.
Speaking of self-reflection: what's going on in the spoken word, seemingly internal monologue of yours at the end of the title track?
This is a fair question. [Laughs] That was a big step for me, as I'd never had any spoken word parts in my songs before.
We recorded "Patience" for Pleasure. It was based on this bass groove and chord progression, that I then edited and cut down so that I could write a song on top of it. I wrote a lot of lyrics for it, and it was terrible. I didn't think the song was going to make it, but then it did! I ended up writing the lyrics in the studio – which I rarely do – and then later in bed that night, after working on the track in the studio. So it all happened very fast, after three years of trying to crack it.
We recorded the verses and the chorus, and then I always had this beautiful section where you now hear the spoken word. What happens between the synth, drums, and bass there is just incredibly beautiful music to me. That section just happened in the room, a case of my band being brilliant. I wanted to protect and keep that portion, and I didn't want there to be too many vocal lines over it.
Around this time I got really into Laurie Anderson. I find her speaking voice incredibly inspiring. I'd become more and more obsessed with speaking voices. I was fascinated by the actor James Mason; I would watch movies just to hear his voice. So in a period where I'd become interested in speaking voices, I thought it'd be fun to say something that doesn't draw too much attention to itself, but would help me stay in that moment of the song. That also ties to the theme of the record: not rushing things.
On "Patience", the verses are about the process of getting up every morning and trying to write something good. The lyrics also observe what that process is like from the perspective of the person who's closest to the person trying to create something. There's something absurd about how an artist uses elements from their shared life with others, and that's just okay. It's a very strange profession, of course.
So the first verse is about writing the song; the second is about the audacity of taking it out on stage, to insist on performing those songs as the character you become while performing, which is different from who you are as a human being. The spoken word part is then the next step of that process, from the perspective of those who come out to hear these "performance pieces of work", as I call them in the song. That perspective made me think about all the strange and wonderful fan encounters I've had after shows, while loading the van or meeting people at the merch table. I enjoy talking to fans, even though it's often exhausting after shows.
Photo: Jen Steele / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
The things that stick with your mind the most from these conversations are strange things like one I mention in the spoken word section. A woman was paying me a compliment after a show and said, "You should be on The Voice! Adam Levine would love you!" At that time, I would go back to Norway to shoot The Voice, where I was a mentor… I had Adam Levine's job in Norway! To me, that was such a beautiful and bizarre moment that I didn't have the heart to tell her that there is a whole twilight zone, or separate universe, where I'm Adam Levine. Norway is a strange place in the first instance, but this made it even more strange. That encounter also perfectly illustrated the roles I go in and out of when I work in America. I write and perform in America, but I'm at the same time a musician in a small country in the north of Europe where I'm a mainstream artist.
I changed some details about the conversation, of course, so as not to expose my fans. But that monologue is a collection of moments that all happened. Some are exaggerated. That section was much longer originally, but I had to rein it in. There was a whole part about Bruce Springsteen at one point [laughs], and a bunch of internal jokes, too. I wanted that part of "Patience" to be a beautiful absurdity that you can either tap into or just let happen while you wait for the chorus to come back.
In addition to your bandmates, you also brought aboard an incredible cast of collaborators, including Tim Fain and Van Dyke Parks. How did those folks come on board?
"Put the Camera Down" was the first song recorded for Patience. The version on the album came out of a show Van Dyke and I did together in LA about 12 years ago, at the Walt Disney Music Hall. It was a bunch of people: Daniel Rossen [of Grizzly Bear] did a thing, I did a thing, and then I got to meet Van Dyke. Inara George, who he was performing with, introduced us; she knew I was a huge fan. Meeting him was a joy!
We kept on corresponding after that. After this, actually, I've got a talk to do with him for the Talkhouse. We've met up every now and then; he came to Norway to do a lecture, and I was able to show him around. He's also played with me at some of my shows at the Largo. At some point, I plucked up the courage to ask him if he'd be willing to arrange "Put the Camera Down". That song is inspired by Fiona Apple, actually, and so with Jon Brion being the modern day Van Dyke Parks, there was a connection there for me.
Speaking of speaking voices, he has one of the great speaking voices, incredible tones. When you listen to his live record [Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove], I mean, I could just listen to him talking in between songs for an hour. I listened to that record for two straight weeks while on vacation after Two Way Monologue; I was alone on the island, and listening to that record for that time was like he was my companion in a Cast Away-type setting. [Laughs] It made me feel less alone.
He heard the song – a demo at that time – and he said, "Don't change a thing! I'm going to arrange to the demo. Don't change it!" So we then recorded everything to the demo, and he allowed me to do it in New York, which meant he couldn't be there. Eventually, I did change the demo. [Laughs] When I asked if he was mad at me, he didn't say anything. We have spoken since, so I think he approves.
I met Tim Fain because he performs regularly with Philip Glass, and I did a show with Glass and a bunch of people from The National. It was a really wonderful group, and Tim and I just hit it off. He also did the arrangement for "Lucky Guy" on Please. So he felt like such a natural fit for "Why Would I Let You Go". It's great to work with an arranger who's also one of the great violin players of our time. He can play so many things, too, he's not limited to the classical repertoire.
I have to ask about a subject that I know is a mutual fascination of ours: chord progressions. While there's far too many interesting chord progressions in your music to talk about concisely, speaking to Patience specifically, are there any you believe best represent your musical goals?
This definitely has some of my proudest work in the art of the chord progression. "Why Would I Let You Go" is one. I don't know much about classical music; my link to Bach is Judee Sill. For me that song taps into a sense of harmony that goes way, way beyond popular music, into a sphere of the classical masters. That may mean that if some more classically-tuned people hear that, I suppose what I'm doing may sound like cliché upon cliché [laughs], but to me ignorance was bliss. The third chord in the chorus, which I think is a B flat with a D in the bass… there's nothing special about it on its own, it's completely ordinary, but when the right moment for it comes it hits.
That's why chord progression to me is more important than anything. Some people say that melody is king, but melody is nothing without a chord progression, because a melody can be anything without a chordal context. When you're singing a song in your head and you think you're just singing the melody, you are hearing the chords in your body, they're in your system. And the reason you respond to the melody is because of the chords you hear around it. Chords really are everything to me, they set the tone for everything that's to come. After that, the melody has to justify what it's doing and make good on the promise of the chords, and then the lyrics have to motivate, and so forth.
"I Love You Because It's True" is also an essential chord progression for me. That was the first song I wrote in LA; I had the melody and chords for awhile until the lyrics manifested, but even before the lyrics I knew I'd tapped into something good with the chords on their own. You can get fancy with chords, but what I think I achieve on this record, the chord progressions I'm most proud of, are progressions that move in such a natural way. It's not like, "Look at this! Now look at this!" The chords have this almost holy quality to them, in that they feel like they have to be the way they are, and you couldn't change a note, otherwise it'd sound like a record scratch. "I Love You Because It's True" and "Why Would I Let You Go" could even be instrumental pieces, to me.
You're releasing Patience in the middle of a pandemic. Do you still have the same feeling now that you'd normally have when putting out a new collection of music?
There was a brief moment mid-March where I was thought, "Fuck". I'd just gotten a whole new setup: I got a new manager, I felt things were looking good for this record… and then this happens. The pandemic comes along, and suddenly we have to look inward at our petty lives. [Laughs]
Very, very quickly, though, I realized that this album is genuinely relevant, more so now than it otherwise would have been. I decided that we weren't moving it a day later than June 5th. People need something to rely on now; everything's moving, everything's shifting. It's just a little record, of course, but to whoever is anticipating it – and those are the people I want to communicate with – I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on. It feels strange to say it, but this is the perfect time for Patience.
Photo: Jen Steele / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
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