The Velvet Viking

They say opposites attract, and that's definitely true in the case of Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche. Lerche comes from Bergen, Norway, a city on the North Sea where it rains about 300 days a year and is dark about 20 hours a day through the long winter. Bergen is a full 62 degrees of latitude north of one of Lerche's primary musical inspirations: the sweltering equatorial country of Brazil, perhaps the exact opposite of Norway as countries go.

Don't peg him as some kind of Brazilian revivalist, however. His songs "Dead Passengers" and "Virtue and Wine" are certainly samba-like, but elsewhere on his excellent year-old debut, Faces Down, the 20-year-old pop prodigy shows affinities for such creative fonts as Burt Bacharach, Jeff Buckley and Summer of Love-era Beatles on "You Know So Well." (He's also eerily reminiscent of Houston's Arthur Yoria, especially on "Sleep on Needles.")

Though at times the album can feel quite melancholy, it's really a sunny-day classic, an album to take to the park in your picnic basket. Lerche's voice sounds a lot like Donovan's -- the Sunshine Superman himself -- and the highly melodic mélange of tinny guitars, warm piano and classical stringed instruments gives the album a predominantly mellow-yellow feel.

But back to Brazil for a moment. "Os Mutantes and Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil have all done some fantastic music," Lerche says over the phone from a basement rehearsal studio in Bergen. His accent is more English than Norse, though at times he reverses his v's and w's. "That's a huge inspiration -- a lot of the psychedelic pop folk music from Brazil in the '60s and '70s is really, really awesome. It's far more creative than the more daft pop from Western countries."

Most of us stateside would consider another of his primary guiding lights -- this one a northern light -- pretty daft too, but not Lerche. To him, a-ha, the Norwegian act of "Take On Me" fame, was one of the great misunderstood bands of the 1980s. Lerche owns more than 200 a-ha records.

"It's kinda sad," he says with a sigh. "They became too big too fast. With that video and the image they were communicating with 'Take On Me' -- that did not at all represent what they were up to. I think the premises of their success didn't do their music justice, so when people heard their other stuff, that crowd would be disappointed by it, but maybe another crowd would enjoy it, but by then it would probably be too late. They would have already been judged as kind of a teen/boy/pop band."

Lerche has duly noted the phenomenon and applied the knowledge to his own career. "It happens a lot," he says. "Becoming popular and successful for something that isn't really you…It's probably really hard to follow that. You really don't know where to go. How can you make your next move if your first move wasn't natural?"

Hence there's no artifice, no irony, no cynicism in his game. As a matter of fact, you could look up cynicism in the dictionary and find a picture of Sondre Lerche under "antonyms." Lerche is all nice, all the time. When he writes in his online diary that he's madly in love with Scooby-Doo and muppet movies, he means just that. And then there's the family fruit parties.

Family fruit parties? Lerche explains that he was a little lost after completing the songs for his upcoming, still-untitled second CD. For the first time since the Faces Down sessions three years ago (remarkably, Lerche wrote most of the tunes when he was all of 17), Lerche had an abundance of time on his hands. Ergo, the family fruit party, a tale a little on the sickly side of sweet. "Yeah! I was so sick and tired of all these gatherings where you have to eat cakes -- I like cakes, it's not that, but you always have to make the same things. So I thought why not decide on the scheme yourself? So I invited my family over and I made fruit salads and all kinds of things with fruit. And it was quite a successful party. People were quite happy."

As can be seen by his choice of words -- he probably meant to say theme when he said scheme -- Lerche has that ABBA-esque Scandinavian knack for choosing almost but not quite the right word. ("See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the Dancing Queen.")

"Or like a-ha," adds Lerche, ever the advocate. "'Take On Me'."

Lerche is well aware of his imperfect English. In fact, he sometimes messes up on purpose. "I know I have a totally different approach than people who speak it fluently and who live in that language. I think sometimes that can lead to putting things in a slightly different way. I try to take advantage of that when I write: Sometimes I make deliberate mistakes, grammatical mistakes. I know they're slightly wrong, but I think it's nice anyway." (Honestly, sometimes they seem just plain silly, but then so do the works of most 17-year-olds writing in their first language.)

Lerche has never written a song in his native language and doesn't like to sing in it. He finds Norwegian a little lacking in natural hooks. (And as anyone who has heard traditional Norse folk songs can tell you, it's definitely an acquired taste.) "I don't enjoy writing in Norwegian at all," he says. "It's strange to say, but it doesn't come naturally. Then when I started writing in English, it just came naturally. I was always interested in the language, and most of the music I was interested in had English lyrics. I don't enjoy singing in Norwegian, either. I think it sounds very clumsy, and um, itchy. It's not very nice to listen to."

He heard a lot of it during his recent spate of appearances at South By Southwest -- up to now, his only Texas gigs. His showcase had a Danish and Norwegian scheme. "There was a lot of Norwegian press there," Lerche says. "The Norwegian media is really supportive of any artists that do stuff outside of Norway, so at times at the show it felt like there was more Norwegians there than Americans."

And so far, that imbalance is pretty descriptive of his fan base. But one more album as good as the last one and it won't be long before that's no longer the case.