"There's a tendency in our time, subscribing to the idea that anything 'authentic' or 'honest' is automatically good," says Sondre Lerche. "I find that depressing. You have to actually create something. There has to be a process. I try to avoid just singing my diary over a couple of chords."
Fighting words? Not quite. Lerche, an award-winning singer-songwriter, newly minted Hollywood go-to man and frequent sighting on critics' year-end "best albums" lists, simply believes there's a lot of work that goes into crafting a song. Heartbeat Radio, his fifth studio album and first for Rounder Records, is proof that good art needs time, thought and careful construction. It is a "generous" album (his words), and a summation of everything Lerche has learned over the last decade of making music.
"The records I do seem to be a reaction to the record I did before," says the Brooklyn musician, who was born and raised in Norway and returned there to record Heartbeat. "My last few records were recorded with my backing band, Faces Down, almost live off the floor. And those were a reaction to my first records, which were more studio affairs. On this album, I wanted both: I wanted the physical force and excitement from the live setting and the patience and the endless possibilities of the studio setting."
Heartbeat Radio is certainly Lerche's boldest and most challenging record. While it maintains the studio polish of his groundbreaking debut, Faces Down, there's also a sense of musical adventure that stems from his later work. The songs mix acoustic guitars with grand gestures of orchestral pop, with elements of anything from 50s Jazz, via 60s and 70s Brazillian psych-folk to state-of-the-art 80s pop masters such as Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti and Fleetwood Mac.
Lyrically, the album finds Lerche in a variety of moods -- identifying with failed James Bond man George Lazenby ("Like Lazenby"), pondering the failure of love and today's radio ("Heartbeat Radio") and revisiting some sad personal tales from his past ("I Guess It's Gonna Rain Today," featuring strings and horn arrangement by The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan and the lyrical lament "Oh, the fine between street smartness and a smartass").
Although Radio presents a variety of moods and sounds, the opening track "Good Luck" may best describe the story behind the record. "That was inspired by parts of my last year or two," admits the singer, who went through some drama (good and bad) to get to a finished album. "Sometimes it's really hard getting the songs to the level of excitement you have, and still defining your everyday life. But in the end, considering how unfair this world often appears, it's really about how goddamn lucky I am to make a living writing and performing my songs!"
Lerche's triumphs and travails of the last few years certainly left a mark; he moved to the U.S. and dealt with various practical matters (including some green card issues), forcing some delays. But he also recorded the soundtrack to the hit movie Dan in Real Life ("The director wanted a musician to work with and he convinced both me and the Disney Corporation that I was the only one who could do it.") And, most importantly, Lerche left his major label home and struck out on his own.
"I had done the major label thing, and I had experienced the pros and cons of that world," he says. "I thought this time I'd just make the album, and see who was interested when I was finished." He laughs. "And I didn't want to go to anyone before I was finished -- it seemed disingenuous to say, 'I don't have music, but I have these songs in my dreams.' They probably could care less a bout my dreams!"
Radio was admittedly a slower process than his previous work -- Lerche was now handling the production of the album (along with long time guitarist Kato Adland), and utilizing a large number of backing musicians in the recording, incorporating violinists, cello players and other assorted string players into the mix. Lerche and Adland were determined to both test out new ways of recording and embrace new influences—most prominently on "Easy to Persuade," which features the singer opening with the very Nelly-like proclamation "Is it hot in here?" and ending the song with dark "Blade Runner" synths, Disney-meets-Thin Lizzy arpeggios and a dramatic bebop solo, half Coltrane, half Miami Vice.
"That song was inspired by things I used to hate but now accept," Lerche says. "As a kid, in the late '80s, I remember moving into this building that had MTV -- I would just sit there and absorb it. And a couple of things would pop up that I couldn't stand -- one was Fleetwood Mac, songs from "Tango in the Night", and the other was The Cure, around "Friday I'm in Love". They both sounded weird to me, yet those songs had a weirdly slick sound. Now, for some reason, I have a real affinity for this kind of sound!"
Fortunately, '80s pop wasn't the only musical influence that shaped his musical upbringing. Born and raised in Bergen, Norway, Lerche was inspired by the music he heard emanating from his older sibling's bedrooms -- be it A-ha, Elvis Costello or classic rock. Inspired, he picked up the guitar at the age of 8, and as a teenager performed at open mics at the club where his sister worked. Before his 16th birthday, he was signed to Virgin/EMI. "I had to start singing to get all these songs out there," he says. "No one else was going to!"
Lerche released his first record, Faces Down, in 2001, and earned a Best New Artist award at the Norwegian Grammys. That record also made its mark here in the U.S.-- Rolling Stone named it one of the 50 best records of the year. Two Way Monologue (2004), Duper Sessions (2006) and Phantom Punch (2007) followed, along with a number of EPs and tours with everyone from Elvis Costello to (no joke) A-ha.
With Radio completed, Lerche plans to head back out on the road. But instead of simply recreating the expansive nature of his new songs, most of the sets will be performed solo (another tour with a regular back-up band will happen later in the year). "I like that contrast," he says. "You get to hear where the songs came from -- just one guitar, one voice, like how I do my demos. It's a fun challenge to try and make it as dynamic and exciting as possible No matter what I do to these songs in the studio, they'll get by on their own. Tickets for Sondre Lerch, Saturday, September 12th at the Iron HOrse here.