Sondre Lerche is a romantic but he’s not hopeless. The Norwegian born – now Brooklyn based – songwriter has made a career out of exploring his relationship with love. From his teenage debut Faces Down, with its relentless doe eyed musings on the joys of affection, to the mature realism of his sober self-titled sixth album, it is safe to say that Sondre Lerche is in love with love. He’s known to get a bit saccharine but never unrealistic – never shies away from the heartbreak but has avoided becoming dour. It’s balancing act that all troubadours must walk and Sondre does it with charming ease. Levity even. So what’s a love struck Romeo to do when love comes crashing down around him? Why, find pleasure, that’s what. I sat down with Sondre at his recent show in Austin, Texas to talk about pleasure – and what exactly he hopes to get out of it.
For his eighth album release, Pleasure – and on the subsequent touring show – Sondre has been embracing its theme through and through. “There’s so much fun to be had with pleasure” he tells me with twinkle in his striking blue eyes. That may sound dramatic but it’s not far from the truth. There’s an excitable enthusiasm to Sondre, an effervescence that radiates from each response. Sondre is out here having a blast, exploring whatever pleasures the road might hold. “I like the meaning that it takes on when we play concerts, sharing that communal pleasure in a concert.”
This communal pleasure reveals itself on Sondre’s social media reflections – videos of impassioned sing alongs, fevered dance offs, and a general sense of unbridled fun bursting at the seams of every show. “I don’t see myself as a religious person but I think if you’re creating something as an artist, you’re in touch with a spiritual side of the world,” Sondre shares. “You don’t know if [your art] will have a function, if people will find any use of it, so it has to have meaning to yourself beyond functionality.” He might might never be sure if people will find any use for his music at first but, by the time he hits the road, he surely knows. “It gives a new dimension to it – this communal energy and rush that I feel at these shows,” Sondre exclaims with a sharp smile. “It’s a trip I want to take people on” – and it’s a trip well worth the ride, even if it is a bit somber just beneath the surface.
Pleasure isn’t all its name might lead you to believe. “It’s definitely not a care free record” Sondre explains with a far off gaze, “pleasure is also confusion to a certain degree.” It’s easy to understand where he is coming from. An album that came together at the heels of a divorce, there are elements to Pleasure that certainly aren’t pretty. Written contemporaneously with its predecessor Please, an unflinching reflection on the dissolution of a once thriving union, Pleasure is “about letting yourself off the hook for moments before you snap back into it.” Sondre describes this exercise as “claustrophobic,” a phrase I would not have considered when listening to the record but to hear Sondre describe it paints it in a whole new light.
He sees the claustrophobia as being in limbo between what was and what is. “That’s why this album overlaps with Please – it tries to understand what has happen [whereas] Pleasure just tries to exist in the new world.” Sondre laments that “we live in this time where it’s easy after a break up to think that everything that happens to you is just a rebound. We’re trained to think everything is a rebound.” But Sondre wasn’t satisfied to define his life by the past. “That’s what Pleasure is about – it almost becomes about denying yourself pleasure because everything is written off as rebound. You have a glass of whiskey and it’s ‘ I’m just helping myself cope.’ It casts such a shadow. It becomes claustrophobic – when will you transition into a world without this context? Indulging these things that are potentially ephemeral but what if they are not?”
Sondre realized that if he saw everything in this light, then he’d really just be missing out on life. “The theme is so important because I couldn’t have made this record 10 years ago – it took me this long to indulge in the concept of pleasure.” And indulge he did. The record is filled the brim with celebratory explorations and tantalizing trysts, moments of unfettered feeling and fantasy. Sure, there’s still lingering reflections on the love now lost but they’re almost all in service to considering what love means to him now. Sondre himself is rather taken by the experience of this discovery, admitting that “sometimes my music knows more about my life than I do. You don’t realize what’s going on, what the songs are trying to tell you until after the fact.” And these songs were telling him that it’s ok to enjoy yourself, that it’s ok to embrace pleasure – even if it’s fleeting.
This is quite a shift for an artist whose previous work, at times, stands as a testament to the eternal truth of capital-L LOVE. Sondre recognizes that romanticism has always defined his work but that it’s far more important to be honest than to be naïve. “It can never be what it was because life goes on and you change with it. The guy who wrote “I Want to Call It Love” is sitting in front of you but I can’t conjure up that sort of wide-eyed romanticism,” Sondre admits, “ it doesn’t mean that don’t believe in love or have that sort of innate romanticism in me, it’s just that it takes a different shape.” Sondre didn’t want to be dishonest about the fluid nature of love, no matter how painful the experience may be at times. But Sondre’s not one to get knocked down and certainly not one to count LOVE out: “It’s hard for me to be completely cynical – I just don’t see the world that way. You could throw a lot of tragedy at me and I still wouldn’t, it wouldn’t quite stick. I’ll find a way to work through it.”
Addressing album opener “Soft Feelings,” Sondre freely admits “that it may seem cynical and cold but the choruses are harmonically and lyrically romantic,” he asserts. Reflecting on the line “Did you see him again?” Sondre tells me “I just thought that line is so heartbreaking – but it certainly isn’t cynical.” This is an important distinction for Sondre. “There are more conflicting emotions in Pleasure but it wants to feel great passion and love, romanticism and eroticism, all these things but it can’t really commit to anything fully.” Please might have found Sondre holding on but Pleasure is the moment Sondre began to learn to let go, come what may.
This desire to let it all go for a moment, to breath into life come what may, reveals itself in Pleasure’s danceable New Wave aesthetic. “It’s more bombastic and shameless than anything I’ve done before – it’s very liberating,” Sondre exclaims, “I was trying to do new things vocally, musically, doing things on stage that 5-6 years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of.” Although Please conveyed its sense of disillusionment with its disjointed and hectic musicality, Pleasure embraces its theme with infectious abandon. “The album sets an 80’s tone because of the opening tracks – a clear infatuation with specific songs and is unapologetic in a sense,” Sondre admits. But the early 90’s play a part as well. “A lot of stuff I watched on MTV in the early 90’s when I was a kid that all of a sudden I had a taste for like “Hello Stranger” that was at the intersection of the 80’s and 90’s. Somewhere between “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” – but with Brazilian chords,” Sondre knowingly smiles.
While some might be satisfied to simply recreate the sonic eras of their youth, Sondre has never been one to stick to simplistic song construction, choosing what he delightfully calls “harmonic ammunition.” A studied musician with a feverish passion for songs with staggering detail, Sondre states “I have an appetite for a juicy chord scheme – I don’t see myself making songs with 3 chords. I need that to feel engaged.” And, if anything, Pleasure is fully engaged – raucous, rambunctious, and relentless. It might have the day-glo sheen of the Reagan years but it has all the modern markings of Lerche’s robust career. “Aesthetically I wanted to be able to dance – to be able to move and sing and really vocalize and be off the cuff vocally,” Sondre shares, wanting his live show to be a spectacle rather than just introspective. The songs might have a personal sting but, in invoking pleasure, Sondre hopes to give the songs new life both with his audience both live as well as in that great forgotten art form the music video.
“I’ve gotten into painting more cinematic scenarios on this recording that I’m enjoying,” Sondre declares. With Pleasure, he’s found a “liberating platform to indulge a bunch of different characters within myself. Some that I’ve been friends with a long time and some that are brand new. To have a stage to be able to bring them to life every night.” But it’s not just the stage that interests Sondre these days, he is also excited by the possibility of exploring these characters cinematically in his music videos. Acknowledging that it takes an actor’s mindset to recreate the man who once wrote many of his old love songs, Sondre has recently embraced the excitement of expanding his canvas into new mediums, taking a shot behind the camera.
Openly influenced by his love for the masterful work of Alfred Hitchcock, Sondre has helped craft several music videos that have tantalized and intrigued his audience. Like Hitchcock, he wanted his videos to convey a sense of foreboding tension, leaving the audience questioning the truth behind their narratives. For “Soft Feelings,” Sondre was inspired by Vertigo. “This man is on the brink, there’s not a lot of pleasure in the things he’s pursuing,” Sondre laughs. Like Vertigo, Sondre wanted to be the tale of a man with misplaced priorities, where we eventually see this man with everything lost, and in Sondre’s own unique twist, lying naked and alone on the concrete. Sondre tells me that he “woke up with this image of a naked version of the Vertigo poster” and realized that it was the perfect image for to convey the openness of the record’s emotional landscape. “It’s completely humiliating and the most vulnerable,” Sondre slyly states. He explains that he’s been taking this opportunity to enjoy the use of his own body as a way to tell his stories, exploring his born ability not only on record but as a performer.
For lead single “I’m Always Watching,” Sondre turned what was otherwise a heartbreaking modern lament about the inescapability of past loves in our digital landscape into a rather unnerving anthem for stalking your ex, a sort of “modern-day Rear Window.” Although Sondre understands how the video plays out, he doesn’t want to be mistaken in his intent. “It is a love song, really – the scenario is well known to people, it’s creepy sure but there’s a turning point where it’s revealed that he is watching but is being watched too. It’s a game for heartbroken lovers. I have a lot of empathy for both of these characters – it’s very close to home. I was that guy, and I know that girl.” Sondre chooses to play it solo on this tour for this very reason, so people can hear the real heartbreak behind it. He might highlight the creepiness of our modern behavior in the video but doesn’t want us to forget that it’s a game we all play on ourselves. He tells me that he’s released multiple versions for this very reason, to play with the perspective of each character, to show the multi-faceted longing of lovers lost. For an artist who excels at straight forward balladry, this might be his most ambitious and unique love song yet.
Then, of course, there’s the video that’s gotten the most attention – the disarmingly intimate “Serenading In the Trenches.” A rather simple set up on the surface, the video finds Sondre joined by drummer – and close friend – Dave Heilman as they play their instruments and, well, play with each other. The idea came naturally enough from the encouragement of others who thought their contagious camaraderie would make for an entertaining video. “From the first moment we played together we had this intuitive chemistry,” Sondre cheerfully explains, “I’m a pretty rabid guitar player and he made it seem easy to play with me.” So, why not try it on on screen? The result is, again, rather simple – but undeniably engaging. Wanting to once again convey a sense of utter vulnerability, Sondre realized that “In contrast to the album [this song] can seem like one big party” but that it also contains “this almost violent imagery and mixed emotions – make love and make war. So, I thought, how often do you see two men be vulnerable together? To be almost play acting any possible relationship? I thought we could just do what we do and do a couple scenarios and that would be enough. We’re no strangers to playing with sexual innuendo I just thought you don’t really see any sort of intimacy between heterosexual men. It’s very sincere because we didn’t have to do much – the shaving is a violent and erotic metaphor, it’s a game of trust will he kiss him or will he kill him? I think Hitchcock would loved this, this is great, let’s do it. And it really took off.”
And for good reason. This video encapsulates perfectly everything Sondre is wanting to get out of pleasure. It’s a “new phase entirely” for him, one that allows him to drop a bit of his pretense, allow life past his defense, and to really just be. The fact that this video has connected with so many – both for its occasional homoerotic imagery as well as its hyper masculine security – reveals a true need in our lives to simply be comfortable in our skin. Although the record finds Sondre working through aspects of his own personal love life, its ethos has found a way into his day to day approach as he seeks to enjoy what is pleasurable in life, without so much comment.
With all of the album’s (and life’s) complications in mind, I am happy to report that Sondre was able to accomplish exactly what he had set out to do on this tour. The show that night was a remarkable display of joyous abandon, all playfulness and pleasure. “When I finished the album I wrote myself into a new phase entirely so it feels nice that I have some distance from the material so I can revisit it on stage every night but I don’t have to relive it,” he told me before the show and, although I was hearing some of the songs through the lens of his wounded sincerity during our conversation, I could also sense the remarkable ease with which he was now able to share them.
When I asked him whether he found some of his older songs more difficult to play than others he admitted that “there are some older songs that become a little bittersweet because they change a little bit of context.” He pointed especially to the track “Major/Minor Detail” from his delightful jazz record Duper Sessions. As he explained “in the context of Pleasure it feels natural as a sort of moment of standing my ground” in defiance – and yet, in honor – of its original muse. That night, he played a smokey, somber minimalist slow jam interpretation and, knowing what the song meant to him now, I was genuinely moved by the weight it carried.
But the night was not devoid of levity – far from it. Sondre was spry and spastic as he fired off his “harmonic ammunition” and bounced all around the stage, unable to stay still even for the slower songs. At one point, he came down into the audience to serenade us directly, placing himself intimately among his audience and shared a moment of direct connection and invitation. As he introduced songs, he shared with sincerity and vulnerability, without hesitation or embarrassment. We were all especially tickled to discover that one of his earlier tracks, the delightful jaunt “Single Hand Affairs,” was actually the musings of a love struck virgin singing his devotion to masturbation. For a night of pleasure, it was a particularly poignant confession.
Listening to Sondre embrace such honesty with the audience, I recalled what he told me when I confessed how long I had been a fan and how much his music had meant to me over the years – “I’m happy when people sit with my work, I’m glad it means something to them – I always worry that I put too much of myself into it or that I ruin it by talking about it that its almost blocking the experience for someone else.” But he wasn’t blocking anything, in fact he was offering us to join in on his own journey towards pleasure, a rare and all together frightening proposition for many of us. “I find I have a lot of really patient and curious listeners who willing to meet me in the best possible sense,” Sondre rejoiced. That night we met him with pleasure and danced right along side him, happy to listen to what Sondre needed to say.
I asked him at the end of the interview if he’d like to give pleasure a definition. He laughed, surely thinking he’d said enough on the subject. But he obliged and though for a moment. “Pleasure means the thing you don’t have. When I’m on tour, it’s a day off with my girlfriend wherever we want to be and when I’m home for a longer period it’s performing. It’s a tug of war between these passions.” It was an honest definition, one that simultaneously embraced his mission to live in the moment and yet recognize the difficulty inherent in the goal. Like all of us, Sondre is figuring out how to live his life as fully as possible, to never feel like what gives him joy is just a reaction to what caused him pain. Although he’s over seas now, I recommend doing yourself the pleasure of seeing him live – his sincerity and excitement truly make him one of the best musicians out there.