“I think it’s my most intuitive record,” says Sondre Lerche. “It was fast. Super fast.”
There’s a boyish charm about this Norwegian-born songwriter that’s hard to miss. In person, Lerche is immediately engaging. Sandy-haired, with a quirky kind of handsomeness and perpetually lopsided smile, he bounces subtly in place as he speaks, giving him an air of mischief and sprite-like energy.
But there’s a good chance that this energy is more than just an air: Since his 2002 debut on Astralwerks at the age of 19, Lerche has consistently put out albums full of sophisticated and accessible pop compositions every other year.
With sensibilities that owe as much heritage to French chanson, tin-pan alley, pioneering bubblegum, and 80s pop as they do to indie rock, his ears have stayed focused on melody and song structure even when that has made genre seem like a moving target. But with his latest release, genre has finally become irrelevant and Lerche just sings.
Many artists save their self-titled album for a re-approach of their sound, and this one is no exception. 2009’s elaborately glossy Heartbeat Radio turned out to be one of Lerche’s best-received albums since he got his start. But instinctively, he knew that taking an identical approach on Sondre Lerche would be the wrong call.
“I wanted to have some limitations,” he says. “The last record I did was huge, and it took forever. I love that one, but this is its opposite. [Heartbreak Radio] was this really big, immaculate construction. This time, I wanted something a bit rawer — a bit more intimate and stripped down.”
It’s an effect he definitely achieves, and one that might not have been possible without the help of a new producer. He found it in Nicolas Vernhes, an engineer best known for his work with Spoon, Dirty Projectors, Fiery Furnaces, and Deerhunter.
Verhnes has made his name helping avant-garde bands capture gritty and organic sounds, and may seem an unlikely choice for Lerche at first glance. But ultimately, Vernhes sees himself as something of a “musical centerist,” as eager to highlight the Dirty Projectors’ most accessible and viscerally satisfying moments as he is to encourage Lerche in pushing the envelope in his own way.
In the three weeks they had together, Vernhes managed to help the singer/songwriter uncover a level of humanity and range of emotion only hinted at on previous records. In that time, they also developed a real rapport, with Vernhes acting as a cool and casually collected foil to Lerche’s eager and upright energy.
Whatever the resulting performances lack in polish or bombast, they make up for in quiet consideration or resolute freshness.
One of the standout tracks is “Red Flags,” an ambitious album cut that begins with a nakedly off-kilter vocal and develops into an indefinite narrative, featuring a resounding anti-chorus whose melody hinges on an unexpected note.
It’s an awkward interval to sing, but Lerche hits it each time, shakily, un-self-consciously, and with a spirit that conveys vulnerability appropriate to the song.
“That note is really outside my comfort zone,” says Lerche, “but it just feels really true to the song. [“Red Flags”] is a song where it’s so tempting to go big on the arrangement. And on another record, I might have. “
But they showed restraint. “Some of these songs sneak up on you,” says Vernhes. ”They take their time to open up. It’s like visiting with a friend. You don’t come into the room [full throttle].”
Like many songs on this record, “Red Flags” blossoms as it unfolds. “Sometimes,” remarks Vernhes, “a few notes and just the right emotion in a voice can do more to you than layers after layers.”
“We tracked mostly to tape,” Vernhes tells us from the Rare Book Room Studio in Greenpoint, where they recorded the album. “Sondre sang into tube pre and tube mic, so we could dial in just he right amount of grit and keep it from being too pretty.”
It’s a balance they managed to strike well, cut after cut.
“Riccochet” is a near lullaby that picks up colorfully chaotic flourishes as it rolls along. The delicate feel of the song is offset in stretches by an enormously bombastic snare drum that sports a unique tone, balancing a conventional big 80s digital reverb sound by blending in a helping of organic grit and hair.
“Yeah,” says Vernhes “It’s exactly that. That’s a [Lexicon] PCM 80 on the ugliest, most basic reverb preset, but we added in a mic I set up outside the studio.”
“It was up the staircase in front of my room. It’s about 50 feet away from the snare if you were to measure it. We had two APIs cranked and compressed. There’s no preset for that,” he smiles.
“I feel like you can borrow as much as you want from past productions, but you’ve always got to add something of your own. So we wound up with this tubby, recognizable reverb sound with something extra grit and depth going on.”
“I think that’s something to go for. These tones are compelling, but also slightly foreign. It can help keep you in the song in a very real way.”
To this end, Lerche says he was “conscious of trying to simplify things” this time, “leaving room in the arrangements for atmosphere, for a vibe,” which is something he says he’s never done in the past.
Unconventional sounds continue to pop up now and again; not to take center stage, but to ride shotgun with the ever-central vocal.
Bass guitar, deftly laid down by Lerche’s regular collaborator and co-producer Kato Adland, is often a satisfying standout.
Whether it appears as an unusually muted fuzz tone, the striking heartbeat outro of “Domino” or the solid and nimble driving force of “Private Caller,” the bottom end of this record often marries a retro sense for body and girth with the well-defined space and articulation of a modern production.
“With every song there was a careful calibration of the tones we were drawing on,” says Vernhes. “So for some songs, we might drive the bass amp a lot harder, but still keep it really, really quiet with a lot of super low-end. Sometimes we doubled it with this old upright piano that was run through an amplifier.”
With only three weeks to track and mix, many of these choices were made quickly and instinctively.
“We had to make judgment calls about tonality on the spot. In some ways it really helped us,” says Vernhes.
“Committing,” Lerche interjects. “Every step along the way.”
“We immediately got into the spirit of ‘let’s not dwell too much.’ If something didn’t work, we’d just scrap it and move on.”
“Some songs you can transform into something else if you really work at them,” Vernhes adds, “And some songs really have their own personality, and almost dictate the arrangement to you. These songs, they kind of knew who they were. So it was more about playing to their strengths than trying to rework them.”
To help speed along the process, Vernhes’ assistant, Tom Goady, would take the reins the first few hours of the day, while Kato and Sondre worked out new arrangement ideas. Vernhes would roll in around 3pm to bring a fresh set of ears, and new perspective that he could add as they tracked into the night.