Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche is hard to classify. His melodic guitar strumming and chart-friendly hooks are catchy enough to seduce the more superficial music fan, and with his clean-cut boyish looks he could easily be a pop poster boy. Yet his indie record label status steers him away from music’s mainstream and even after decamping from his hometown of Bergen to hipster-filled Brooklyn six years ago, he’s remained firmly on the fringes of New York’s fashionable music scenes.
“I really don’t feel like I fit in anywhere,” he says. “I’m too poppy for the hardcore indie vibe but much too eclectic for the mainstream world. I also don’t really follow any rules and I’m not big on trends. Even though I’ve done different things on my records it’s not really corresponding with any current trend. I’m completely oblivious to all that, which is sort of a curse and a blessing, you know?”
Speaking to the 28-year-old ahead of his first London gig to promote his latest release, the eponymously titled Sondre Lerche, the singer ponders whether it would pay to pitch himself more astutely, but quickly concludes that that is an approach better left to those with a flare for following the flock. “People who do that have a special talent for it and it’s not something you should just disregard or look down on,” he says. “My talent is not blending in, but that’s cool, I’m just happy I get to do what I do. I suppose my talent is to be sort of oblivious. There’s a great song by Aztec Camera, do you know it…?”
The singer goes on to name check a succession of other early 80s post New Wave and post-punk artists he admires – Scritti Politti, Orange Juice – and reveals that he’s been working on a cover version of Prefab Sprout’s ‘Moving The River’ for his live shows. “They came out of New Wave but had much more ambitious and sophisticated aspirations and they really didn’t fit in anywhere,” he says, providing an insight into the source of some of his musical inspiration. “They wanted to do pop music and had all these grand ideas and had the occasional hit and moment of acceptance, but generally didn’t fit in. In my world they are giants.”
Sondre Lerche describes his own sound as “pop”, although he uses the term rather loosely. Jazz and Brazilian psychedelia are both thrown into the bag, along with modern RnB. “I like the idea that pop music is really open to anyone’s interpretation. There’s room for a lot of personality whereas in other genres it can be really strict. For better or worse pop music is really inclusive, which means there’s a lot of shitty pop as well as a lot of good songs,” he says. “I think people understand that better in England than in the States. People in the US are so afraid of pop music because it has been corrupted so they get really precious about it. There are people trying to make pop music who are afraid of saying the word ‘pop’. You can call my music what you want. I’m on an indie label and working with friends who are helping me distribute my record all over the world so I’m definitely in the indie world that way, so maybe it’s some sort of indie-pop. It’s indie by default but deeply melodic and heartfelt and personal to me.”
Since releasing his debut long player Faces Down in 2001, at the tender age of 18, Sondre Lerche has gone on to write and record no less than eight more. And while two of these were soundtracks for American comedy films – Dan In Real Life (2007) and Dinner For Schmucks (2010) – the rest serve as a storyboard, cataloguing the singer’s journey from teens to twenties, from Bergen to Brooklyn. His latest album, Sondre Lerche, is perhaps his most accessible work yet, a reaction to living stateside, perhaps? “Living in a city like New York, as opposed to Norway, you develop your confrontational side, which is a good thing for me,” he explains. “The new album is trying to deal with stuff that I’ve shied away from in the past. It’s about growing up and not sticking your head in the sand, but keeping your eyes open and trying to understand what is happening with your life. It sounds very intense and it is, but it’s also a relief, because it feels good to take control of certain parts of your life.”
Like many artists before him he describes his need to produce music as much as it being a need for an escape. “Some of it comes out of trying to grasp reality and what’s going on around you, but some songs and some albums have been more concerned with a mistake or an idea of how you would want something to be. This one [Sondre Lerche] is more concerned with reality and trying to get your head around just generally living, which sounds pompous but it’s hard to say what comes from what. In the last ten years I went from being 18 to being 28 and things are going to change whether you move from Bergen to New York or not.”
Among the influencing factors must surely be the raft of well-known names Sondre has credited with helping him create his latest work. He has performed with Regina Spektor, whose drummer plays on the new record, and recruited the services of Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith. There’s also a new co-producer who has previously worked with Dirty Projectors and Spoon. It seems Sondre Lerche’s taste is as eclectic, as his output is prolific. And while he may have been away from his native Norway for most of his 20s, there remains a strong link to his roots. The videos for ‘Go Right Ahead’ and ‘Domino’ were both made by Sondre’s wife, Norwegian actress Mona Fastvold, and he has worked with the same producer throughout his career. “He has been with me on all my records in some capacity – he plays guitar with Royksopp and works with Datarock, who are also from Bergen,” says the singer. “And the bass player for my live shows is one of the lead singers with Young Dreams, a Bergen band. Their keyboard player is an old friend from school, we were the only two people in school who knew of The High Llamas, in fact we were probably the only fans in our district…”
It is this tendency to sit outside the fashionable norm that has kept Sondre Lerche below the mainstream radar for the past ten years. Despite being peppered with potential hits, his early records Faces Down and Two Way Monologue remain firmly within the collections of indie fans, as do his critically-acclaimed later releases Phantom Punch and Heartbeat Radio. But with his more direct and radio-friendly new album, perhaps the time has come for him to reach a wider audience. If the throng of excitable fans waiting his London show is anything to go by, he won’t be short of support from the UK.
Sondre Lerche is available now through Mona/Telle.