Sondre Lerche In Conversation with Van Dyke Parks

The Norwegian singer-songwriter and the legendary composer/arranger meet from across the world.

Sondre Lerche: I’m in Bergen today. I’ve been in Oslo for the last two months. I have escaped LA, and my neighbors just sent me clips of the gardens outside my little bungalow. It looks so beautiful, and I started thinking, “Can I come back soon, maybe?” What’s your professional take on it?

Van Dyke Parks: My professional take is, I was kind of startled at the phrase you used there about “escaped LA.” If that’s not an album title, or at least When I Escaped LA I feel very much quarantined. I went in to give some blood today.

Sondre: What did you find?

Van Dyke: I found a bunch of people in hazmat suits. There were a lot of deer in the headlights at the clinic. We are basically at sea about all of the anomalies of the virus. But I am in quarantine, generally. The public doesn’t have to feel threatened by anything I may say or do.

Sondre: Do you find that you are better prepared to quarantine in a way because musicians work from home? I feel the change hasn’t been that big for me, honestly.

Van Dyke: I think musicians have a tendency to be way ahead of the curve. It comes from a diet of crow, eating an inferior bird, maybe, it takes humility. You’re making yourself irrelevant. You do the deed and you leave. You made a better world but you’re out of a job, perpetually. Everything is so uncertain. When some people retire, they have golden parachutes, the executives. But they land with a crash. And I’ll tell you why: because they’ve never been out of work. They’ve always been at the top, skimming. My feeling is that musicians are basically vaccinated already by the rough and tumble of their experiences.

Sondre: I wanted to ask you about the song “Put The Camera Down.” Did you listen to the recording of your arrangement?

Van Dyke: Well, yes, of course I did. I think it’s great. I think it’s beautifully framed. And I think the whole thing sounded… I wouldn’t single out the arrangement, I think everything was proportional. That’s what I liked about it: Everything was put in the right perspective.

Sondre: That’s good to hear. I wanted the arrangement to be the centerpiece of the song because it’s just so rich and beautiful. I’ve had a lot of time to live with the arrangement, but it was very hard to mix it the way I wanted to. The mix and the production of it is very inspired by things that I feel I’ve learned from you. Is that strange when you hear it? Do you hear it and think, “Oh, here we go. Here’s someone who’s been listening to Song Cycle.”

Van Dyke: No, it’s not strange. I think we should all be giving examples to one another, and I think it’s essential to admit the power of imitation. It’s an art. It can be handled with great grace and beauty and compliment and in amity. Of course, there are some people that can only tell a joke that has a victim. But I think imitation should be considered flattery. I’d be very happy to think that you learned anything from my mistakes or an occasional victory. It’s funny to me because in arranging, I don’t obsess on the downbeat, because I don’t think I’ve been able to find it. I’m 77 years old.

Sondre: Wait, you don’t claim to know where the downbeat is?

Van Dyke: I’m making a joke, really. I think that the downbeat should be evident to everybody. I don’t think you need to drive a tack with a ball peen hammer. You don’t have to get nuclear to do a smoke bomb. You know what I mean. But it was a refreshment to me to work with you on the piece because it was so timely. It’s an equalizer, and I like that.

Sondre: The demo was called “By and By” and then you said to me that it had to be “Put The Camera Down.” And it hadn’t even occurred to me! 

Van Dyke: I wanted you to be more insistent because I know what a son of a bitch you really are. [Laughs.] I’m scared of you Norskis, I’m scared of you.

Sondre: I’ve been with you in a post office in Oslo. You know I’m not a danger to anyone.

Van Dyke: I had to get a couple of panels of the stamps of your face. [Lerche’s face was on a Norwegian stamp in 2012.] I did have to send letters to people who weren’t lucky enough to be in Oslo with me in January. It was magnificent. What a beautiful experience.

Sondre: Yeah, isn’t it? So the last two months I’ve been living in Oslo. And the last month I lived with my friend who lives very close to the Frogner Park, to the sculptures made by Gustav Vigeland. And this weekend, I just played. He had a brother who was also an artist, Emanuel. He made a mausoleum before he died, in which he and his wife could rest, and that mausoleum has an 18-second natural reverb. And in that room, I played seven concerts this weekend. Next time you come to Oslo, I’m going to take you to that place because we missed that when you were in Oslo. I didn’t know it existed, but it’s right there and it has the most gorgeous reverb.

Van Dyke: There were so many other tragic things going on that Norway was enduring, but the thing is that degree of fantasy…  I think that that’s very important to keep that in the work and to promote this message.

Sondre: I feel that people are sometimes so hung up on saying, “This happened.” Of course, truth is important, but people forget to actually create something or to make fantasy and instead they just put music to diaries. That sometimes discourages, to me, the great potential of music: fantasy.

Van Dyke: I think every song develops a person that did not exist. The song creates the personality. Sometimes it’s a double edged sword. They can make all of their songs from that same character or they can do what some artists have done to get you to the extreme, people like Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa. The thing is, artists evolve. And I think that their methods change involuntarily. Joni Mitchell evolved into an entirely different — it’s beyond the vulgarities of genre hopping. She lost a lot of people and gained a lot of people, too. That’s what happens, I think, when you risk putting out an album.

Sondre: Yeah, any album. I’ve certainly felt that you’re going to lose somebody with this record or that record, and you’re just hoping that you’re going to gain maybe as many. In some cases, you have to accept that that’s not going to happen, but if you don’t feel that is a risk, maybe you need to return to the drawing board. Now I get to ask you all the questions that I don’t want to bother you with when we have lunch. Can we talk about Orange Crate Art, because when you came to Largo we played, remember we played this song… I think I told you I listened to your live version of this 

I have to tell you before we get to the bottom of the song, this song that we did, remember like last year or the year before you played it and I had sang it and I think I told you then I listened to this, to your live version of this song Live At The Ash Grove. I listened to that album so much that I knew word for word the things you say in between songs. To me that was music, too. I remember the first time I listened I was alone in Hawaii, I was 20 years old. I had my first vacation by myself on the other side of the world. And I was driving around in Oahu, listening to your live record and feeling a little less alone because your conversation between the songs sort of kept me company. How do you trace your musical instincts? A song like that, both in terms of songwriting and arranging, your style, there’s so many — I feel I can trace it in so many completely crazy ways.

Van Dyke: I don’t know what I’m doing. I only know right from wrong, and I always try to have the prevailing logic. I am a fantasist, so I’m looking for the big dream. But everything has to have a logic, a rationale. I want to make sure I’ve done the right thing. So measure twice, cut once. Everything is logical with me. But there are prevailing things that strike me as the preferred recommendation for the survival of the fittest, in the arts or in life. And one of them is this: Write what you know and don’t hesitate at deception. Use the art of cliche. Always try to make it easy to be understood on some level, to some degree, on the first blush, for the casual listener. So I try to do that. Where does cliche spring from? In my case, from old Methodist hymnals and things like that. I always try to concretize what it is that you find beautiful. And in the process, it’s a hazard. I would rather see an ivory billed woodpecker than see a picture of one. That’s the way I am, and I do miss what I never had. I am as mad as I could be at Professor Philips for inventing the CD. It absolutely ranked my groove. All right. I didn’t dig it. So much of me is being erased not only by Spotify, but by President Trump. He’s wiping us out.

Sondre: Would you ever feel compelled, or are you just not interested, in doing “Van Dyke Parks Plays Song Cycle Live.”

Van Dyke: Oh, no no no. I wouldn’t do that. It’s too athletic. I’m 77. I’m doing a great job. I mean, I’ve just learned of another Chopin mazurka. This one in C minor just last week, it’s in my hands and I got it. She melted liked butter. It was easy enough to put in my claw.

Sondre: So when you learn to play a piece like that, does it immediately add something to your toolbox as a composer?

Van Dyke: Well, yes. Something that you can’t you will never finally fully recapture that thing in a way. It’s important to think about provenance… And the Orange Crate Art record, I had a very large orchestra. I heard that the Gershwin lullaby existed for string quartet. They just found that it hadn’t been used for a musical. It was in a warehouse at Warner Music in Brooklyn. I said, “Please, I want a copy of that right now.” I blew it up for orchestra. No, I asked Fred Myra to blow it up for orchestra. He orchestrated it. So anyway, the point is, it’s a very expensive introduction of about a minute. Less than a minute, 63-piece orchestra. And because I wanted it to be epic, I didn’t care if I made a dime. That’s what opens “Movies Is Magic.”

Sondre: [Singing] “Movies is magic. Real life is tragic.”… When I heard Song Cycle for the first time, I was shocked that you could use both a field recording of a folk song mean… Songs that travel from person to person could exist on a record together with all these orchestrations and all this sonically experimental music. Did you feel alone when you made that music in sort of combining these worlds? It seems so bold to combine the rural music with the sort of elevated stylistic music.

Van Dyke: Yeah, well, it’s hard to do. But I’d heard a lot of great music, that it continues to dwarf me. A lot of great music, the 19th century writers like Franz Schubert. And today is the birthday of William Grant Still, the great African-American orchestrator. Look at YouTube for “Deep River Blues” by Willard Robison and you’ll hear the orchestrations of William Grant Still. I like idioms. I like idiomatic music. I like folk dances. I like dances that exist. The real rhythms. I like them better than artificial stuff.

Sondre: What are you doing in isolation?

Van Dyke: I’m beginning to understand that isolation is imposed by a virus that cannot think. It cannot think. That has humanity in crisis. This would be our opportunity for some real spectacular cleansing activity. And it should be a time for all of us to consider. The arts are more than a decoration. Support our musicians by buying a product. I can’t wait to see your next show. When are you going to go out again?

Sondre: I was supposed to have a show June 4 at the Masonic Hollywood Forever Cemetery. But, you know, now it’s postponed. I was going to tour in the fall.

Van Dyke: I always wondered where they wanted to bury me.

Sondre: It would have been perfect.

(Photo Credit: left, Jen Steele)

Sondre Lerche is a Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and film score composer from Norway. His album Patience is out now. You can follow him on Twitter here.

(photo credit: Marius Hauge)