Saturday, April 15, 2017

All Around Sound-Off: Sondre Lerche

Since his auspicious debut as a teenager in the early aughts, few artists have been able to mix casual reinvention with the clarity of purpose and narrative voice like Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche. Going from lounge rock wunderkid to art-pop troubadour, Sondre Lerche has marked his over a decade long career by constant instances of pushing his sound ever forward. And yet it wasn't until Please -  Lerche's seventh studio album where he completely upended listeners expectations. It was a record forged in the crucible of personal tumult that revealed deeper emotional layers to the already winningly sincere man that pushed Lerche to newfound creative peaks. Pleasure, its follow up, finds Lerche once again at the height of creative potency, delivering another masterful and incredibly unexpected leap forward in sound. I had the honor of chatting with Lerche the day after is initial date of his US tour mere days after completing an incredibly ambitious 40 something date Norwegian tour. It's a show that almost didn't happen due to Lerche's fellow Norwegian bandmates' last minute visa denial but Lerche is noting if not resilient and also skilled at improvising. After getting up to speed on the fate of the US Pleasure tour more or less saved by Lerche's drummer Dave Heilman,

Dante (All Around Sound): You've mentioned there being a bit of an overlap between Please and Pleasure - songs that didn't quite fit on Please ending up on the new record. What was the timeline between them? I know you've been playing "Violent Game" as early as 2013 which is before you ever put out Please. 

Sondre Lerche: That's the thing. In a sense they share a timeline because the first recordings I did for both Please and Pleasure were "Reminisce" and "Lucifer". I think we started recording those on the same day. They share a timeline in the sense that they start in the same place but then some songs weren't ready and didn't find a natural place in the narrative context of Please. And I kept working on them. And then, you know, "Violent Game" was going to be a Please song and I couldn't really get the recording I wanted and in the end I didn't need it because I had a lot of other songs that formed a theme - a narrative that I recognized myself in. I started realizing that these songs were just for the future. Even a song like "Despite The Night" which involved sort of the gap - its a song that sort of ties Please to Pleasure. There's also the song called "Bleeding Out Into The Blue" was written at the time of Please that I never got around to recording. I didn't feel like it was ready. There's a lot of overlap.

You mentioned "Reminisce" and "Lucifer". I think for the first time you reuse melodies. How did you decide that that was what you wanted to do; to use those same melodies again? Was it a way of linking the narrative or did you just feel like it wasn't done?

There's some songs that feel like they have a kinship. There are maybe two angles of the same idea whether it's lyrically or a musical idea like "Crickets" and "Serenading in the Trenches" mainly share musical fixations. Same with "Lucifer" and "Reminisce" their whole chordal and rhythmic vibe. I guess I've grown more and more interested in the secret relationships between the songs and that the songs can have individual relationships with each other and reference each other or mimic each other. I do like that. It's not something that I'm completely unfamiliar with. There is that overlap between Faces Down and Two Way Monologue where the last chord sequence on Faces Down is the first chord sequence on Two Way Monologue. I have always enjoyed creating little bridges and little secret languages between the songs that sometimes only I can appreciate. It's fun of course when others can partake in the wild goose chase.


Your normal method of songwriting is you write 20 songs between records and take which ones you think are the best and fit within a narrative idea...

The ones that fit the mood of the hour. The ones that feel the most important to me in a given period or a given context. As you know there are songs that were written last year that could've been on this record but they just feel like they don't belong. At least to me.

Did you feel like your songwriting process changed between records? 

Yes. I've enjoyed tremendously just recording - writing and recording freely and loosely instead of just writing and writing until I have plenty that I think are good enough and then recording and recording and editing which I did up until the self-titled record. Everything sort of changed with Please where I just threw myself into as many different collaborations and different songwriting processes and I decided just to collect recordings of songs and then see if anything belonged together. If there was an album here; maybe they were somewhere else. And that was tremendously freeing and I think that's a process that Pleasure continues and that will also bleed into whatever the next thing is. It just makes for this surplus of energy and music because you're always in something. If you're at the end of one process you're always at the beginning of the next instead of these long album cycles where you just start from scratch and then have to come up with so many songs which just becomes tiring. I'd rather be in the music all the time and have something cooking. Things at different levels of completion that excite me. Because now I feel like I have all these secrets still that I'm excited to share at some point.

You did take a break though, right? Last year when you were doing the more intimate, smaller shows you had said you wanted to take a break and kind of experience life. On the other hand you did feel like you needed some sort of a break to recharge: to live your life and have other things inspire you? 

When I say take a break I usually just mean a break from traveling and performing and usually when I take breaks from doing those things I'll write and get to compose and sort out my head and formulate music - formulate ideas and shape them into songs. So I didn't take a break from making the record. I think I just needed to be in one place in order to achieve a certain kind of focus that I need to complete a record; to know do I have everything? Last spring while I was doing those solo shows is also when I was writing the final two songs for Pleasure. Because I knew that I needed the entrance in a sense - I needed a way into the record. Which literally means I needed track 1 and 2. I didn't have the opening. I wrote "I'm Always Watching" and "Soft Feelings" and recorded them in the Spring in Bergen with Kato [Ã…dland]. And so I needed just a little bit of clarity and quiet to see the big picture.

So you wrote the songs for Pleasure on the guitar but there's not a lot of obvious guitar on the record. What was the reasoning there? 

I guess it's not something I think too much about. The guitar is my instrument so it's where I work on chords, it's where I work on the structure. Some of the Pleasure songs are very sort of natural songs for me. Songs that I composed fully and completely on the guitar. Of course there are some that are installations - production installations like "Hello Stranger" and "Soft Feelings" to a certain degree. They're songs where I just worked on different parts and I didn't actually sit and sing it like some singer/songwriter in the room. I just looped chords with different melodies and different layers on top. The other day I did this Paste session where I played "Soft Feelings" solo. It is a song -  and I think I could potentially play "Hello Stranger" at some point solo on the acoustic guitar. There are parts that I don't think would be so good but there is a song there and I think that when I'm working on something like that that's not like a traditional, classic song structure what I'm trying to find out is: is this just an installation or could this potentially also be a song? That's the thing that drives me to sort of find out.

The thing that leads there to be less guitar on this record is just that - and it's not a conscious decision - we would put guitar on some of these songs and I would just ask "well what if we mute the guitar and hear the rhythm section, hear the bass". I didn't want a lot of subtlety on this record so I didn't want layers and layers of things that are barely functional. I didn't want there to just be guitar because I play guitar. I wanted this very essential thing to be there. And sometimes I would get a kick out of getting rid of the chords. Which 10 years ago I would be so enslaved to the chords. I wanted the chords there all the time because they were the map of the terrain in a sense. For me it was liberating now just to get rid of the chords. Not even establish the chord sequence until maybe later in the song or never, you know? I hear the chords inside me and I didn't always need to share it with the listener. Maybe they make up their own chords. It's sort of liberating to mute stuff and to see how much we can do without. We put all these thing in here but how much can we do without?

A lot of the time I found it liberating also to just sing songs without being the sort of rhythm guitar player that I am for myself for a lot of the songs. In a way I feel like this is my first crooner album - legit crooner album. This guy is not a slave to the acoustic guitar. Just entering the studio with the tracks all ready and he's shining a light on them. I feel like this is the real crooner. Duper Sessions that guy could barely sing but this guy he's got some promise.


Was there a particular song that went through a huge transformation between your demos and actually making it onto the record? 

I think the biggest surprise, well there were two where we had done recordings that I thought were really good but I had some issues with the songs for different reasons. One was "Reminisce". That was the first one that we started recording but the last one that secured a place on the record because I didn't enjoy listening to the lyrics at all. The song - Matias [Tellez] did a good job just I didn't feel connected with the lyrics so I gave it a try and wrote entirely new lyrics to the song while we were mastering the record. I wrote the lyrics and recorded them the same day with Kato, actually. Who had nothing to do with the rest of that track. He just happened to be in my way and he helped me record it and then sent the mastering engineer the vocal track and he very creatively put them in replacing the old ones. And I still didn't know if it was worth it. We mastered two versions of the album: one with "Reminisce" and one without it and of course that pushed another song out that maybe you'll hear some other time. But that one needed to justify its place on the record just lyrically and thematically and emotionally and I felt that was missing. I was very proud when I managed to make ["Reminisce"] relevant again.

And then for a long time "I Know Something That's Gonna Break Your Heart" - that one was out for the longest time. Originally it was very long - six minutes long. I had this feeling. There was something that bothered me about it. The recording was good, the mix was good that Matias did. The performers were extraordinary: the bass and drums and vibraphone. But I thought something about it was off. While we were mastering the record I had a very creative mastering engineer and he helped me edit the song. We took the song down from six minutes to what 3:47? And once we had done that I thought it was perfect. Then it was back on the record and of course pushing out another song. There's always a push and pull. But those two were not supposed to be on this record when I made the final tracklist in August. But by September they had come back in. And Matias of course was very happy about that.


He produced both of them and at some point he asked me - and of course I'm working with different producers. He asked me at some point "so how many of my songs are going to be on this record?" and I said two. And he was like "What the fuck?! We recorded like six or seven songs and you only have two?!"


You never know. With all the producers I worked with, we feel like we're doing so much work and then everybody's hoping their songs make it on the record. That their songs should be at the forefront. I curate the whole thing so they never know. The most fun I have really is when the album is done and I invite Kato and Matias and the musicians, if they're around, and they get to hear the whole record because at that point they still have no idea if all their songs or productions or just one made it and they get to hear the sequence and pat each other on the back. It's a very fun session. Kato and Matias are two very particular characters. They know each other but they work in complete isolation. I'm the only one who knows and decides. It's a really cool dynamic.

There's a lot of film references - Hitchcock in particular in the music videos and there's even the snippet of "Strangers on a Train" in "Siamese Twin". Was there a big influence of film on this record? 

I guess it's something I think more about when I start thinking about videos and the visualization of the music. It's something I had rarely any thoughts about years ago. I'd be open to anything and that's why I've had terrible music videos through the years.


I had some good ones but I wouldn't visualize my music. I'd just be happy to show up and do my thing and plug in. I didn't think about lights or backdrops; videos or cover art really. It was just a necessity. It's only over the last five years that I've gotten a kick out of visualizing my music both on stage and in videos and such. And also because both Please and Pleasure are so much more directly connected to my own life, the things I go through that it's easier for me to think of these ideas for the video inspiration. Cause they're all my original ideas and then I develop them with the video directors. It's much easier for me now to think of the philosophy and symbols. And when it comes to the human condition Hitchcock is always fun to go to. His films are full of symbolism and visual clues and colors that mean things. So I always thought of "I'm Always Watching" that video as sort of modern "Rear Window" type scenario with voyeurism and the new tools we have for voyeurism.

And "Soft Feelings" I imagined that - originally I wanted a reverse "Vertigo" where the woman is asking the man to change. In "Vertigo" he needs the woman to change. It's a pretty bizzaro thing but I thought it'd be interesting to do that and just reverse the sexes. Have a man trying to live the woman's fantasy both sexually and visually and sentimentally. But it ended up just being a portrait of this guy on the verge of a breakdown in LA. It still has a couple "Vertigo" vibes.

Even though it's probably your least subtle record you play a lot with the idea of what is actually happening- what is real, imagined, and fantasy. Was the surrealism on Pleasure planned? Or was it kind of a natural process for you? 

It's so strange that I'm often the last to see the patterns and the big picture in a sense. I'm often reminded when I read what somebody's writing or thinking about and I'll have friends that'll be like "you mention this lyric a lot of times. Why?" Very often I haven't thought about it, you know? I think an album like Pleasure which is so concerned with the body and physicality and the here and now, the moment. I think it's only natural that fantasy plays into it and in this haze of confusion most of the album exists in it may be hard to see what is real and what is fantasy. It's not all entirely real. This guy is not really committing to anything but the moment he is in. That means it isn't really maybe real. It could just be another moment of fantasy. I know there's all these absurd objects and really concrete physical things - shoes and jackets. I was drawn to a lot of physical metaphors that are not poetic at all. I remember feeling a need to go into stuff that wasn't so poetic. That was so blunt and objects that were not poetic but still had poetic meaning in a sense. Drawn to things that maybe don't look so pretty on paper but have a certain blunt effect that I liked for a lot of these songs.

One of the things that kind of got me to look at the record differently was - I think it's an ab lib, on "Hello Stranger" at the end you sing "atone for the pleasure" and it made me think the pleasure that's being sought on this record is sort of a double-edge sword. That there was some kind of fallout from trying to achieve pleasure.

Oh yeah. To me I think that's very important. It's easy to just think of carefree pleasure. As fun as it was making this record and hopeful it is to listen to - it's not a very carefree record. To me at least. It's very aware of the limitations of this phase. Of where it is. And also the fact that there are consequences to some of these things. I didn't want to be too moralistic about it but there are certain moments where I try to atone for the pleasure.


Some people know the Prefab Sprout reference there. They're alert to Prefab Sprout references because there are so few. But to me there a lyrical reference to the song "Alfie" by Burt Bacharach and that's also a song that I always comes back to. It's just a beautiful song but it's very concrete and really hard on the guy Alfie. It's asking him all the questions he doesn't want to hear or be confronted with. And I thought that character was interesting. So when I say "what's it all about, baby" It's my little reminder of "Alfie". "Is it just for the moment we live". I think that song is just one of the greatest song. It's a little reminder that probably means more to me than anyone else. I thought it'd be fun to bring "Alfie" to the mission statement of "Hello Stranger".

So with Please you started soliciting remixes. Did you feel like it was the kind of record that needed to me examined by other people in that way? 

Most remixes you don't really need. Sometimes a good remix can surpass the original but most remixes are not needed. I think it's more of a bonus. I get kick out of - you know you send x amount of tracks to someone and give them a freedom just to see what pops up. I get a kick out of that. I just felt like a lot of the material on Please was the first time I actually had some ammunition and tools to someone who was good at remixing. I enjoy the playfulness and also I enjoy that it doesn't involve me. I've done my thing and send it off.

We did the Despite the Night EP. One of the remixes there barely uses any of the original tracks. It's completely something else. I'd like to see more remixes of the Pleasure songs. But because I've been sort of rolling this out over time I wanted people to get to know the songs first. But there's actually a remix coming out tomorrow.

What compelled you to revisit and rework "I'm Always Watching You" to "I'm Always Watching You Too"? You kind if remixed yourself. 

That one was just - we were at a crossroads when we were making that song. It was very clear where it could go and obviously it's inspired by - the sounds you hear in it are obviously inspired by that New Edition song "Cool It Now" so I knew where to go and the song is a pretty natural song. It didn't have to be reinvented but I had this dream the night of the recording and, you know, I take my dreams seriously.


I recorded this whole thing I dreamed at night and I took that into the studio and showed it to Kato. We talked about it and how it'd be fun to do this but we decided to follow the first one and let the song be. When we had done the original version we decided to keep on trying to fulfill my dream and then I came up with this; that because the song is mainly from this guy's perspective but there is a shift in the third chorus where he says "I know you're watching" and it's clear, hopefully, to people that it's a game. It's not just him being creepy. It's a game that two people play. In the video it's illustrated that she knows that she's being watched by this guy when she's intimate with this other guy. She actually is enjoying being watched. He's probably enjoying being watched by her. If anything it's not as creepy - some people find that song creepy but to me it's a very romantic song. People who are watching each other.

I thought it'd be interesting to have this second version which then can be seen as a response from her "I'm Always Watching You Too". I just enjoy that idea of a dialogue between songs and maybe that helps bring these two characters closer to each other in the narrative of these two songs. Because they're sort of saying the same things to each other. And he is involved with other people but bored by other people and hopefully he's imagining that she is with other people and she is bored too but he'll settle for the fantasy of watching her watch him while she's with someone else. Wow. That's very complicated. Very freaky.


But I felt a little evolved having two songs with parallel narratives. And Kato did a phenomenal job making that happen.

Much thanks to Sondre Lerche for discussing his stellar new record Pleasure. The record is out now on his own imprint PLZ and make sure to catch him on his upcoming world tour - the US dates have already started.

Also here's the aforementioned "Violent Game" remix by Ice Choir:

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Pitstop: Cassandra Jenkins

My introduction to New York singer/songwriter Cassandra Jenkins essentially happened due to her constant association with other bands/acts I love: Landlady, Sam Evian/Celestial Shore, Cantina, Will Stratton all have had nothing but good things to say about her and played numerous shows with her that after seeing her name for the umpteenth time I decided to finally check her out. That was several years ago and with her debut full length album Play Till You Win out this Friday, it seemed like the right time (albeit a little late on my part) to share her music with the uninitiated.

Cassandra Jenkins makes the kind of music that seems simple enough to have an easy label for and yet, manages to elude definition. Her lyrics are winningly intimate, effortlessly clever and poetic and especially on the several singles she's let loose from her upcoming album are arranged with an immersive vastness. Jenkins takes the simplicity of folk and country music and pairs them with the ornate stature of chamber pop; the subdued, understated grace of bedroom crafted dream pop. It's a style wholly her own made through a process almost like paint mixing.

Where her EP lay firmly in country territory with its lap steel, on tracks like Play Till You Win's opening number "Candy Crane", Jenkins amasses a larger assortment of textures and sounds. From pedal steel to omnichord, the arrangements belie the fact that there's really a hell of a lot going on in it. Strings, organ, electric and acoustic guitar, Jenkins somehow wrangles the multitude of instruments into a hushed but fluid flow.

Then you have a song like her most recent single "Hotel Lullaby" which is a lovely aquatic reverie. The arrangements are still pristine and underplayed and yet, in its dreamy lilt, Jenkins lets each individual instrument as well as her vocals and their harmonic echo emerge from the gently lapping waves of sound and bubble into focus. Soothing and beaming with effervescent calm, it's a masterclass in ease. In fact all of her songs give off a sense of effortlessness. Flowing and free, they can seemingly go on forever even as they all rarely clock in longer at than 4 minutes. It's a sort of cohesive forward momentum that bodes incredibly well for Jenkins' full length album effort.

Cassandra Jenkins' debut full length Play Till You Win is out April 7th.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Listen: Big Thief - "Mythological Beauty"

photo by Shervin Lainez
Though they certainly didn't, it certainly felt like Brooklyn foursome Big Thief came out of nowhere with their excellent debut album Masterpiece. Their songs were raw, visceral, and just plain good and it seems Big Thief have tons more where that came from. Later this year, we'll see the release of their follow up Capacity. "Mythological Beauty" more or less continues the pitch perfect alchemy the quartet achieved on Masterpiece and runs with it. There's more tales to tell and Adrianne Lenker makes quick work of it - stringing a series of stories and reflections connected through time by a sort of emotional impression.

"Mythological Beauty" sees Lenker examining her life and comparing it to that of her mother's when they were similar ages. Though they're essentially at incredibly different places, they're connected by a love that essentially transcends the very notion of time rippling from before Lenker was even born through her childhood to Lenker as the young adult she is now. Though inspired by series of stories experienced both first and second-hand, there's a sense of Lenker gaining a sort of life lesson from revisiting them. It's a song featuring some absolute awing turns of phrase all trying to put into words an ineffable feeling of unconditional empathy Lenker has and feels. "There's a child inside you that is trying to raise the child in me" Lenker sings and it perfectly encapsulates this feeling Lenker has of childlike tenderness and understanding echoing into adulthood through the person that raised you. "Mythological Beauty" is a love song to Adrianne Lenker's mother and a beautiful one at that as the band come together (with new drummer James Krivchenka) to construct an ornate nest for Lenker's devotion.

Big Thief's sophomore record Capacity will be out June 9th on Saddle Creek Records and "Mythological Beauty" will be seeing a vinyl single release out this Record Store Day on April 22nd. You can pre-order the album now.