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Sondre Lerche (scenes from Dan in Real Life

A Conversation with Sondre Lerche (continued)

PM: So there are a couple of covers that we'll go into, too, and all this great cue music. Were there three or four new songs written for the film?

SL: There are four original new songs that I wrote, yeah.

PM: Were they written at the time of the film, or specifically for the film?

SL: I had the great privilege of being involved in the film at a very early stage. When Peter was still re-writing the script, he had already hired me as the songwriter/composer or whatnot.

PM: Oh, that's great.

SL: We didn't know exactly what my part would turn out to be, but he wanted me to be involved, basically.

PM: It's an amazing blueprint.

SL: I had access to the film in ways that were really inspiring. He would invite me to some of the auditions for some of the actors, and I would go on the set and work a lot with the actors in preparing--both myself, but also preparing them for their characters. Peter really believes in using music in tune with the characters and the work that they do, so we had a great time on the set just playing songs and getting to know each other. That really helped me, 'cause I've never done this before. It was really inspiring to have a lot of time on my hands and to really let things sink in and to enjoy the experience. Through that, I came up with a lot of songs, and four of these songs ended up in the film, and they're the original songs.

PM: Wow. I think in particular "To Be Surprised" is a fantastic song.

SL: Thank you. That one I had been working on for a long time, and I'd been thinking that it could be a good one for the film, but I was in trouble with the lyrics. I couldn't finish the lyrics. I couldn't even come up with something that I didn't hate.

PM: [laughs]

SL: Once when I was on the set, I was helping out in the scene where Steve Carell and Dane Cook are performing "Let My Love Open the Door." Steve Carell doesn't really play guitar, so I sort of helped him out by playing off camera.

PM: A guitar player could tell, sure.

SL: Yeah, exactly. I was helping out with that and just hanging around. Of course, on a film set, there's a lot of waiting, so I found myself just sitting with my guitar waiting for cameras and everything to be ready. That night, in the house where they shot the film, I wrote the lyrics for "To Be Surprised." That really helped me identify the song even stronger with the film, with the characters and what we were doing. I feel that song couldn't come out of anything else.

PM: The more we talk about it, the more amazed I am, how early in the process Peter Hedges got you involved, and how unique the process was between the composer and the actors. I've never heard of anything like that in a film before.

SL: Everybody tells me, "If you're gonna do more film work in the future, don't get used to this thing, 'cause this is not how it's usually done."

PM: [laughs]

SL: For that, I really credit Peter Hedges. He wants things in a certain way to try to get the best out of everything, and I'm very thankful for that.

PM: I think I have to go back out and rent that DVD again, not just to see the movie again, but to see the bonus features again--to see you and Hedges talk about how the music was conceived, because it's really amazing.

SL: It was really a terrific process.

PM: Let's talk about the beautiful cover of the Pete Townsend song "Let My Love Open the Door." That's such a remarkable scene in the movie, of course, when they play that, but it's just a great cover to begin with. I never realized what a really good bridge that is--"I have the only key to your heart"--and how it leads into the breakdown, especially in your version. But then, to me, what's really brilliant about your version in the movie is that string-intensive interpretation of the third verse--"...when tragedy befalls you..."

SL: Yeah.

PM: How did that come together? Did you write that?

SL: I wanted to have that verse, 'cause I think in the film when Steve and Dane perform the song, that's where it gets really emotional, you know?

PM: Yeah.

SL: I was asked if I wanted to do a version myself of the song, so it could be represented on the soundtrack, since it's a significant part of the film. I also worked on the song with the actors in that scene, trying to structure the song and arrange the song so it would go from being sort of awkward and funny to awkward and really emotional.

PM: Right.

SL: I wanted to keep the acoustic vibe, to have it be based around just a guy playing guitar, like Steve and Dane in the song, but I wanted of course to elaborate on the song musically. It's a pretty simple song. It's sort of a three, four chord song, almost. But that verse--I wanted to take out a new sense of harmony in that particular verse to underline the lyrics, and also to make the song more exciting, 'cause by that time, it's been repeating a lot of the same chords and same parts. I thought it would be a strong statement to go into a completely different, harmonically-charged landscape, just for a couple of bars.

PM: Yeah.

SL: I worked with a terrific string arranger, Sonny Kompanek, and I gave him some records that I liked. A lot of Brazilian records. They always have the best string arrangements. For this song, I wanted an arrangement that never repeated itself, that always did new things, 'cause I think the song is strong enough to take that sort of activity. And then that part--I wanted to really change the chords and just explore, and make it really romantic and a bit heartbreaking, and then a big crescendo in the end.

PM: That was a super string chart he wrote there.

SL: Yeah. He did a terrific job. He also helped arrange some of the string parts in the score.

PM: Have you had occasion to run into Peter Townsend in the wake of the movie, or do you know if he got to hear your really great version or see the version in the film?

SL: I have no idea. Before we were shooting, we were talking about finding the right song. Peter Hedges had two songs that he wanted to try out, one of them being "Let My Love Open the Door." He was worried, 'cause he only had Pete Townsend's original version and that was too upbeat. He wanted it to start upbeat and goofy, and then go very emotional and mellow. I said to Peter--this is something I truly believe--that any song can be almost anything. It depends on what you do with it, what kind of emotion you put into it, and also what you set out to do. A recorded song is just a version of a song. It's not the final version of that song. The song is alive in itself, and can do a lot of things. I sent him another version of "Let My Love Open the Door" that I heard by M. Ward, which was very different. Peter was shocked that this song could be two such different expressions.

PM: [laughs]

SL: I said, well, that's the beauty of music. This is what I work with. This is why I have the best job in the world, and I feel very lucky. You can go in so many different directions. Then I started structuring and arranging "Let My Love Open the Door" for that scene, 'cause it needed to not be too long. There were a lot of considerations, but it was a lot of fun to be a part of that. I would like to think, of course, that Pete Townsend will appreciate it, but you never know.

PM: Oh, yeah. I'm sure if he hasn't seen it yet, that he will, and I'm sure he will dig it. I hope he hears the soundtrack version, too, so he gets to hear Sonny Kompanek's great contribution and where the song went on the soundtrack. And what you're saying about the malleability of a song is also well demonstrated on your take of Elvis Costello's "Human Hands."

SL: Oh, yeah. That song--one of my 200 favorite Costello songs. [laughs] I did it with my band for the Duper Sessions album, and Peter set his sights on it really early on. I think he wanted to try it out in a couple of scenes. He put that song in the football scene and it just worked. It's an honor for me to be represented with a song written by my favorite songwriter. Elvis told me that he liked my version on it. I was really relieved, 'cause I was really worried that he might think it was a terrible take on his song [laughs], but he was very generous.

PM: You guys did some touring together, did you not?

SL: Yeah. But that was actually before I did the cover.

PM: I see.

SL: But I did tour with him on two occasions: once in 2003, and then I did a month with him and the Imposters in 2005. Later that year, I recorded "Human Hands," also. But I met him briefly after a show, and he gave me his blessing after hearing the version.

PM: What kind of a guy is he? Is he a nice cat?

SL: He's a great guy. He's so generous and enthusiastic, and the aura of love for music that he just carries around him at all times is just incredible. He's really a force of nature, I'd say.

PM: Beautiful to hear that.

Since I bought the soundtrack on iTunes, I don't have the credits. Can you say something about where and how the soundtrack all got recorded? Was your band involved, or studio guys as well?

SL: I'll tell you, 'cause it's sort of a weird mixture of different studios. A lot of the acoustic score elements, those are mostly recorded in my bedroom in New York.

PM: Amazing.

SL: I would tweak them and work on them in this big studio that we had for finishing off the whole soundtrack. We had a studio called Avatar.

PM: Oh, Avatar. Right.

SL: Yeah, near Times Square, where we also recorded "Let My Love Open the Door." I did vocals and strings and basically just finishing, and also mixes with the great Laurens Manchester. He was a terrific guy to work with.

The basic tracks for the original songs are mostly recorded in Bergen, in my hometown in Norway, with my band, the Faces Down Quartet. They play on "To Be Surprised" and on "Hell No" and "I'll Be Okay." We did a session in January of 2007, I guess, when they'd just finished shooting them and were just starting to edit. I went there and did a week of just recording a bunch of stuff. Among that was these three songs. Also I did a solo recording of "My Hands Are Shaking," which was intended to just be a demo, but Peter liked it so much and it was perfect for the scene, so we just kept it that way.

PM: That's always cool when something that was just intended as a demo goes right onto the record, or in this case, right onto the soundtrack. [laughs]

SL: Exactly. You just have to stick with it.

PM: Yeah. Did any studio guys get used in some of the recording as well?

SL: Well, I had my first experience as a producer of another artist, 'cause I was asked by the film producers and the director if I wanted to sort of produce and oversee a recording of Peggy Lee's version of "Fever." Peter had used her original version in one of the scenes. It worked really well and the scene was sort of shot around that song for quite a while, so we wanted to try to find a contemporary artist who could do a version of the song, but it would have to match the scene in tempo and expression and just rhythmically. There's some comedy happening--there's a lot of dances that relate to drum rolls and stuff like that.

PM: Wild.

SL: I was asked to oversee this recording of the song, and they brought in A Fine Frenzy, a recording artist with Virgin Records. So I studied the Peggy Lee version, and I had to match--it goes up and down in tempo, and we had to really, really make sure that it was in synch. It was a really fun experience, 'cause I got to choose the musicians. I thought, well, this is my big chance, so I asked if I could have whoever currently plays drums with Steely Dan. [laughs]

PM: Wow.

SL: That was, of course, Keith Carlock. I got him in the studio to play drums on that song, and also some other great musicians on piano and bass--really, really top musicians. It was a joy to work with them.

PM: Were you looking at any video when you recorded that--if it fluctuates in tempo--because obviously the Peggy Lee version wasn't cut to a click track.

SL: No, absolutely not. Yeah, we had the scene in the studio, so I would need to keep track of that all the time and make sure that we didn't fall out of cue, and also that it had the same exact and ideally an even stronger effect thematically with the new version, and I think we did that.

PM: Wow. Even with so much that you've done at an early age in your own career--

SL: It was beyond what anyone could expect or imagine. It was really challenging and a lot of new things for me, but I'm very grateful to have a chance.

PM: It's amazing how much new experience that film brought you. It's really one of a kind.

SL: Yeah.  continue

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