Our podcasting friends in Liverpool discuss songwriting with a Norwegian pop star who, funnily enough, is a big A-Ha fan…
is music may not have troubled the UK charts much so far, but in his native Norway, Sondre Lerche (pronounced ‘lur-kay’) is a big star… there’s even a stamp with his face on it. He’s much beloved of UK and US critics, too, his seven albums to date having routinely picked up four- and five-star reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
Born in 1982 and raised in a suburb of Bergen, Sondre’s earliest interest in music came through hearing one of his native land’s most famous musical exports, A-Ha, via his older sister. He remains a fan to this day, but suffice to say his musical palette has expanded somewhat. His albums range from the rocky Phantom Punch (2007) to the all-out jazz of Duper Sessions, not to mention 2007 Hollywood movie soundtrack Dan In Real Life, albeit quirky, leftfield pop remains his stock-in-trade.
Having relocated to New York in the mid-00s, Sondre continues to plough an eclectic and idiosyncratic musical furrow all of his own, with his most recent release being the Please album, which came out in September 2014.
You started learning the guitar and writing songs quite early, didn’t you?
“Yeah, I started taking classical guitar lessons when I was eight, and I was just terrible at it. I didn’t even realise the guitar was a classical thing… at that point I was watching MTV for five hours a day and I was just obsessed with pop music. So I started taking guitar lessons but it turned out to be a classical course, and I was terrible at it, so I quit. I still to this day can’t read or write music in the classical sense, I don’t understand it at all. I would be nice at some point though to learn musical notation as a language, just to be able to communicate with others.”
What songwriters influenced you the most, growing up?
“Well, my A-Ha obsession was the start of it all. I heard Take On Me when I was four years old and I was just intoxicated. I heard it down the hall from where my Mum was playing it in the living room, it’s my first musical memory! And so I was obsessed with A-Ha for many, many years, even when they were deeply unfashionable. And then I had an INXS phase, a Pearl Jam and Nirvana phase… and then I got more interested in more experimental stuff.
“But as a songwriter, I had two big moments that will always inform what came next for me. The first was I heard Cole Porter’s Night And Day, in a very strange dance version by U2 in about 1990. It’s not the best representation of that beautiful song, but it was my first meeting with it, and I can still hear the chord changes… as much as they tried to camouflage those beautiful chord changes in that version, I just know this song was something special. I had no idea at the time it was a song from the 30s or whatever! And later on I would find I had an affinity for that kind of songwriting.
“And the other moment was when I heard The Other Side Of Summer by Elvis Costello. I heard that on the radio probably about the same time, maybe 1991, and I had no idea… I was eight or nine years old but again that was like, wow, what an incredible melody. Now it sounds like almost a parody of the Beach Boys, but I had no idea who the Beach Boys were at that time! I just knew there was so much going on, and Elvis Costello became a really important songwriter to me during my teens. I still love nearly all of his stuff… and even the stuff I don’t live, I find interesting.
“And then later on I discovered Elliott Smith, and XTC, and particularly Paddy McAloon, who’s been a huge influence. And I’ve always loved Brazilian music, too, because I started learning to play bossa nova stuff once my guitar teacher realised I had no knack for classical music.”
You always come up with very memorable choruses. Do you work quite hard to find those chord progressions that you can hang interesting melodies on?
“Yes. When I first started out writing songs, or trying to write songs, I noticed pretty quickly that I was always looking for interesting chords to anchor everything on. And that’s usually, for me, where a song will start – with a chord pattern. And then I’m looking for a melody that deserves that chord pattern, and then I’m looking for a lyric that deserve that melody, and that can justify all of it, and that can motivate the singer, which is usually me. So it all comes out of chords.
“I hate when I hear good verses and then the chorus doesn’t deliver”
“And especially when you’re thinking of choruses, I believe that if you have a really good verse, you need a chorus that deserves and exceeds the promise of the verse. I hate when I hear good verses and then the chorus doesn’t deliver… I feel like I don’t even want to hear the rest of the verses, I just want to switch it off, because it’s so disappointing. It’s such a breach of contract with the listener. Of course, people will have different opinions of what makes a good chorus, and there are songs with bad verses and great choruses. But a song with a good verse and a bad chorus is unforgiveable, to me.”
“That’s why songwriting takes time. Sometimes I think audiences might actually appreciate some of the things that I end up not using more, but we’ll never know, and I guess I’m here to put it together the way I think is ideal. But there are times when I’ve let myself down… the moment you go and play the songs live, is the moment when you realise, ‘That one wasn’t ready’.”
Do you have a particular writing routine? Do you need to set aside time to find your best ideas or do ideas just pop up while you’re doing the shopping or whatever?
“I think ideas can pop up in the weirdest places, but you have to make time for the work. I find songwriting is a lot how I imagine meditation is: you’re working constantly to get to the point where you forget yourself and it just happens. Those are the inspired moments. And it takes a lot of time to get there, and a lot of factors come into play, some of which you can’t really control. So you just have to put in the work, and then the inspired moments will happen when you least expect them.
“So I’ll make notes of lyrical ideas or little melodic patterns that come into my head while I’m going about my business, and later on I’ll come back to them… and sometimes they make no sense to me when I hear them again, but other times they do, and then you can go to work on it. So it takes time, but that’s the basis of what I do – I wouldn’t be singing if I wasn’t writing songs. I always wanted to be a songwriter much more than a performer. Since I was 10 years old, I’ve spent the majority of my time trying to write songs that I thought were worthy of being shared.
“The songs that you hear on my records are a tiny fraction of the songs I’ve tried to write. I write a lot more than I record, and I record a lot more than I release. It’s a long process. But the reward for me is that you sit alone and write all these songs, and then when you’re ready to share them with other musicians and producers, that’s when you get to be social and have fun. I only want to record with people who are fun, because I’ve spent too long alone writing these songs, to then go into the studio and be miserable. I want to have some fun!”
Is it typically melody that comes first, when you write?
“Usually… there’s always exceptions but typically I’ll start singing along with some chords I’ve written. And often the words come along with the melody, or certain keywords or patterns.There have been many times, like with Bad Law, where I came up with the melody and sang it to the producer, but I was like, ‘It sounds good but I can’t make it make sense lyrically’. So I tried to write, like, an intellectual version where you make it make sense, but nothing sang as well as ‘It’s a bad bad law Geronimo’. So do you want a version that sounds good and that people want to sing, or do you want a lyric that people can pull apart? In the end I decided, it’s a pop song, so if it sounds good, it is good! Sometimes you just have to give in to the laws of nature.
“Take On Me is a good example of that… it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but man does it sound good. I’ve had to learn to balance that, because when I listen back to my earlier records I can hear places where I’ve let my head control too much of it, where I would rewrite a line because I couldn’t make sense of it. But I’ve learned that sometimes you have to let a lyric just be.”
Do you ever write on the piano rather than the guitar?
“I keep trying to! I have a piano that I bought because I found it was sometimes frustrating writing on guitar, because in terms of chord structrure, a lot of the descending chords that I tend to like come more naturally on the piano. People used to say it sounded like my songs were written on the piano, but that was never the case. So I’ve tried, but I’m a very bad piano player – my fingers on the piano are very clumsy. I don’t think I’ve actually finished a song on the piano yet, but I keep trying.”
Tell us about the song Two-Way Monologue… how did you come up with that one?
“At the time I wrote that, I was still living with my Mom and I was just sat on the bed strumming my guitar, and I thought okay, let’s try writing something that’s big and accessible. It was very inspired by Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen album, the sort of adolescent, sexually frustrated, angry yet romantic lyrics that you find on that album – particularly the song Moving The River, which the lyrics of Two-Way Monologue allude to several times.
“One thing that I got from Prefab Sprout was I loved how the songs never had an ordinary structure. My first record, Faces Down, was a very tidy record, it was verse-chorus, verse-chorus… a typical pop record. And then I heard Prefab Sprout, and what I took away from that was that there were so many parts… it still felt like pop songs but it never felt like it repeated too much, it had one central hook or chorus that you could come back to but the songs were so interesting.
“And so with Two-Way Monologue, I wanted it to be that kind of epic structure. Plus I felt the chorus was strong enough that I could go anywhere, I could add all these new elements and melodies but always come back to that chorus. I was really trying to push the limits of how many different detours you could take within a pop song and still not lose the momentum. I think it worked pretty well.”
Crickets is another terrific song that opens with a very distinctive rhythm on the guitar. Was that where you started, with that strumming pattern?
“Yeah, that was always the most important thing with Crickets. And that was also a new thing for me, to base a whole song on a rhythm pattern. I’d never done that before. But I just had this idea, I played it on the guitar and found the chords. That was a new thing for me as well, to write a song based on just four chords. I usually have trouble limiting myself to 50 chords!
“So that was a first for me, to make something that I still felt had an arc and a dramatic structure and that I got a lot of melody out of, using just four chords and this stubborn rhythm pattern, and having all these melodies coming together over each other, so that by the end you have this big cacophony of melodies that you’ve met at different stages in the build-up of the song. To me that felt like a breakthough, that I was able to make a song out of fairly limited resources and it still feels like a full structure.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 60 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full hour-long interview with Sondre – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.