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Lounge Wizard

Facing the music: Sondre Lerche.

If European television ever produces a show called Scandinavian Idol, Sondre Lerche could fill the Clay Aiken slot perfectly. The twenty-year-old singer-songwriter from Bergen, Norway, exudes the sort of fresh-faced allure that invites declarations like, "What a nice young man!" and he frequently pays tribute to influences such as Burt Bacharach, who was graying long before Lerche was in his mother's womb. Given these attributes, it's a wonder his face doesn't bear permanent bruises from cheek-pinching grandmothers.

Not that Lerche is satisfied with being labeled as an unwrinkled, cuddly throwback to another era. "I don't go into the studio and say things like, 'Oh, that guitar sound is so Brian Wilson,'" he insists. "I'm not obsessed with those kinds of nerdy things. Those are the things I think make a record or a song sound very retro, because they don't look forward, and I'm not interested in that. It's very important that everything sounds fresh and not like some by-the-book recording of old pop songs."

This last fate is regularly avoided by Faces Down, Lerche's clever, charming debut for the Astralwerks imprint. "Dead Passengers," the first tune, is typical of what follows. The cut kicks off with swoony strings, a drum pattern perfected in a thousand Ramada Inns and background singing that could have been whipped up by Sergio Mendes. However, Lerche croons the straight-outta-São Paulo melody line in a slightly cracked nasal tenor that's simultaneously witty and earnest, and a synthesized instrumental break suggests a theremin player who's just discovered ecstasy -- in more ways than one. In addition, the lyrics are askew enough to prevent sentimentality from rearing its soppy head. As Lerche puts it, "When there is fear, you won't have to cry/Napkins are here..."

That sounds sanitary.

Most composers for whom English is a second tongue feel self-conscious when their words in the language come out cockeyed, but Lerche knows better. "I think it's a huge advantage, and people respond to it and like it," he points out. "Because of my background and the language I'm singing in, it comes out slightly different. I think of things that people who speak English as a first language would probably never think of. So in that way, I'm a lot more free. I hope to keep making genius mistakes."

For Lerche, a notably less brilliant gaffe may have been his confession that when he was eight years old or so, he fell in love with music via a Norwegian trio called a-ha. Initially, he thought nothing of mentioning this factoid to U.S. journalists, not realizing that Americans associate a-ha solely with the soupy 1985 hit "Take On Me," whose half-live action/half-animated video perfectly encapsulates everything that's embarrassing about an entire decade. In the wake of multiple articles that made him seem like an a-ha groupie, Lerche has learned better, and he is more cautious when approaching the subject. According to him, the relentless focus on a-ha "doesn't bother me much. It's just that I don't think they're the best reference to my record."

Thus far, no one from Astralwerks has pulled him aside and advised him to banish "a-ha" from his vocabulary, but he relishes the thought of a day when the fascination with his guilty secret runs its course. "It'll be over soon," he says, hopefully.

If so, it's only because the rest of Lerche's story is more interesting than his pre-teen listening habits. He began writing his own songs at an age when the average lad has his hands full downloading pornography, and first delivered them in front of audiences at fourteen. After becoming a semi-regular at a club where his older sister worked, he came to the attention of the man who would become his own personal svengali: H.P. Gundersen, who co-produced Faces Down with Jørgen Træen. Gundersen schooled Lerche in many of the styles that turn up on his debut disc, including Brazilian music and proto-lounge fare. Today, Lerche's description of his musical likes and dislikes demonstrates how well these lessons stuck.

"I like some new artists, like this American band called the Shins, which sound different from the kinds of indie-pop bands I usually hear," he says. "I like some other ones, too, but the ones I like usually have a long list of references to music that goes way back, and they combine them with a new sensibility that makes them even more interesting to me. I don't like music that is -- can you say history-less? Unaware of its history? I don't really go for music that has no awareness of the references."

By the time he turned sixteen, Lerche had a greater understanding for the work of past masters as varied as Cole Porter and Van Dyke Parks, and he was pouring this knowledge into the batch of songs that became Faces Down. On the CD, he receives sole writing credit for these compositions under his full name, Sondre Lerche Vaular -- and that's as it should be. Unlike domestic teen popsters like Avril Lavigne, who are portrayed as tunesmiths in their own right even though their scribblings were heavily worked over by hired guns, Lerche reportedly toiled without direct assistance from Gundersen or other pros. Likewise, he had definite ideas about the album's sonics and did his best to consolidate them into the finished product.

 

As Lerche notes, "Production-wise and with the arrangements, I was inspired by contemporary stuff like Beck and the High Llamas," whose Sean O'Hagen structured the strings on three Faces Down tracks. "And I was also inspired by Cornelius, even though you can't really hear that so much. At the time, I was really into old easy-listening stuff from the '60s and '70s, and I think that's something he used in a very good way on his Fantasma record. I really wanted to incorporate some of the easy-listening elements you might have heard from people like Esquivel and put them into more pop arrangements."

These components could have been played solely for chuckles, but Faces Down generally steers clear of kitsch in favor of an engagingly off-kilter sincerity. "Sleep on Needles" is an energetically percussive offering boosted by a Velvety rhythm guitar and a lyrical hook featuring an apparently unintentional double entendre ("Sleep on needles/You'll believe you are hard"); "Virtue and Wine" swings, sways and rocks in groovy succession, and "All Luck Ran Out," replete with irresistible la-la-las and distorted riffing, is the most genial tale of crime failing to pay ever committed to plastic.

Such sunniness has led numerous reviewers to suggest that Faces Down is the aural equivalent of a glee club, yet the moments of melancholy that crop up on occasion argue otherwise. Lerche believes "No One's Gonna Come," a tale of romantic confusion wrapped in musical pep, captures the contradictions. "That song gets a lot of different responses. Some people say, 'That's such an upbeat, happy song,' but for me, I can't really hear the happiness so much, especially when I think about the lyrics. That song came from a different place, but a lot of people think the music is very cheerful, so they don't notice."

Either way, "No One's Gonna Come" holds up very well, especially considering Lerche's vintage when it was created. The majority of people -- be they performers or regular folks -- look back on stuff they wrote at sixteen with a toxic combination of humiliation and disgust. Yet Lerche has had to continue sharing his teenage musings for a good three years because of the disc's odd release schedule; Faces Down was recorded in 1999 and 2000, but it didn't come out in Norway until September 2001 and took another year to be issued in America.

Fortunately for him, he still likes the stuff -- or most of it, anyway. "I've been very lucky, because I feel good and confident with the songs," he says. "I can relate to 'No One's Gonna Come' and also 'Modern Nature,'" a sonic lark that pairs him with guest vocalist Lillian Samdal. "People seem to take that song as a kind of romantic joke," he acknowledges, "but there's more to it than that."

In contrast, "Something I'm not happy about are the lyrics for 'On and Off Again'" -- a pleasant but disposable trifle. "If I could go back and change them, I would. We'd been recording the song for quite a few months and had to finish. But I was trying to slow down the process, because I needed new lyrics, so I was rewriting them just moments before I was to record the vocal. I'm just happy it has a good title. I had all these stupid titles for the song and I thought, I'll probably never be totally happy with the lyrics. So the least I could do is give it a good title."

Lerche is trying to do considerably more with the new material he's penning for his sophomore outing. He characterizes it as "taking things in a slightly new direction for me. The songs on Faces Down have a very well-organized structure, and they all sort of follow the same pattern, which is a very classic pop pattern. With these songs, I've tried to mix that up and loosen the structure. Some of the songs have a little less of a Western pop feeling." As for the lyrics, they represent him at twenty -- no longer a boy, nearly a man.

Performing for crowds that may be unfamiliar with even his better-known stuff might seem daunting, but as a six-year veteran of the stage, Lerche's uncowed. Even so, he looks at each gig as an opportunity to polish his skills.

 

"You kind of learn to use dynamics, especially in solo shows," he says. "You have to make the most you can of your voice and your guitar, because that's all you have. That's it. You don't have many tricks you can do, but you can do other things. You can stop a song, or speed it up, or slow it down, or play at a waltz tempo. Do whatever you want. And if it all goes well, and you manage to come across, it's a great day."

Spoken like a true Scandinavian idol.


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