For Sondre Lerche, this question feels less goading and more like an opportunity for reflection on gender — both in himself and in society.
“It’s something I’ve tried to express in my music before but haven’t really found an outlet,” Lerche says of his new album, Pleasure, on the phone before a performance in Detroit. “In that sense, it is an important record to me … it’s about coming to terms with both your own masculinity and your own lack of masculinity.”
Though the Norwegian songwriter is best known for his work lacing jazz aesthetics into addictingly charming pop songs for the past decade-plus, his work on his 2017 release expresses a lot of change.
“It’s very hard for me to relate to ‘that Norwegian charm.’ I don’t know what that is,” he says. “I’m Norwegian and sometimes I can be charming … for me, it’s just my life.”
With a career beginning in his teens and spanning into his 30s, Lerche has grown more contemplative over the years. He says his lyrics have become more personal, a freeing haven to hash out his own thoughts, emotions, ambitions, and curiosities.
“This album sort of comes out of a restless urge to move and to use and inhabit your body,” he says. “I needed things to be groovy.”
“I could live with people not being into it and feel the same about it either way, but, of course, I want people to like it,” he says.
Now, making music means “looking for a feeling that validates the process and motivates [him] to share it with the world.” It means finding a reason to move forward with hectic and logistically arduous tour life. With Pleasure, he found inspiration in an “explosive, bombastic place” firmly rooted in the present.
“It was definitely about an existence in this limbo where it’s fun to be, but there’s also this sense that you don’t know how long you can — you can’t live there … there’s this sort of nervous excitement … but it has anxiety also, like ‘When will this end? How will it end?’”
In that sense, the way Lerche made the album was entirely thematically appropriate: between two worlds, with half of it a collaboration between longtime producer Kato Ådland and the other half a full band collaboration produced by occasional Tame Impala remixer Matias Tellez.
“I was really aching for a process that freed me more as a writer and performer,” he says. “Pleasure was a joy to make … it was difficult to live, but a joy to make, if that makes sense.”
The album directly and “shamelessly” pulls sonic inspiration from New Wave and New Order, while more covertly exploring Brazillian chord structures that eventually manifest into songs that sound almost like Tame Impala. (That’s perhaps, in part, due to Tellez’s contributions, though Lerche admits the band is one of his few contemporaries that he actually feels a “kinship” to.) Which is to say, this isn’t what you’d expect from the guy who wrote “Two Way Monologue” and the adorably saccharine Dan in Real Life soundtrack, although hints of his new direction could be seen on 2014’s Please.
For a musician whose music made you want to hold hands and be in love so many times before, songs like “I’m Always Watching” might feel jarringly sexual and voyeuristic. But Lerche insists that the watching is a mutual and heartbreaking endeavor.
“I guess maybe romance manifests in creepy ways sometimes,” he says.
However, it wasn’t until he wrote a single lyric on “Reminisce” — a song that was in the works since Please — that the album felt real and ready, like he had finally said what he intended to so many times before: “I wanna turn male privilege on its head/ Even though without it, I would probably be dead.”
“That lyric sort of sums up the absurdity of the modern male experience — feeling almost apologetic — well not almost, feeling apologetic,” Lerche says. “There’s so many privileges you take for granted every day and not really knowing where to start to sort of even the playing field without being patronizing.”
So how does a male musician try to level the playing field for female cohorts?
Lerche is cool, well-spoken, and witty. But he begins to stammer and pause a little more because, let’s be honest, there’s no simple answer. And the topic can grow even more complicated when you feel personally disconnected from the identity for which you’re trying to answer.
“That’s the thing: It’s so hard for me to speak on behalf of men because I’ve never identified with men,” Lerche says. “I know I am man and that’s my gender, but I’ve always sort of felt safer around women.”
And that’s for good reason.
“Because men, of course, are a huge disappointment to all of us,” he says, laughing, but continuing on with a more serious tone. “I think a start would be, it would take a lot of self-reflection and self-analysis. I think humans are not always ready for that, let alone men.”
Deprecating, albeit realistic, Lerche contemplates the idea of achieving equality.
“So much of gender inequality is institutional. It’s been passed down through invisible systems,” he says. “It would require a lot of men to be very humble, and for a lot of guys that doesn’t come so easy.”
Really, he says, it’s about empathy — actively seeking out the opportunity to relate to another person’s experience, adding that men don’t always have such an easy time with that character trait either. But he doesn’t despair.
“It’s coming. I think it’s coming. Something’s happening,” he says, cautiously adding, “I do expect a lot from men though … and I’m always let down. On behalf of all of us, I can only apologize.”
Well, that might not be necessary.
“I’ll apologize for myself. You know, now you have men complaining now that it’s gone too far and you know it really hasn’t gone far enough until we have …”
“Yeah, exactly,” he laughs. “No, until we have equality of opportunity and of pay because that’s really where the body’s buried, I think, at least in Western society.”
Sondre Lerche plays Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, May 6.