Benny Andersson, one of the "B’s" in ABBA, has spent the whole summer out in Sweden’s Baltic archipelago and, on his first day back in the studio, is not in the mood for work.
"I am supposed to write new music, but I admit I am not feeling inspired at the moment. I have not written all summer," a tanned Andersson said with a relaxed smile.
That may change soon as autumn promises to be busy for the man behind most of ABBA’s music and songwriter Bjorn Ulvaeus – the other "B" and Andersson’s oldest friend and collaborator.
Coming up first is a tribute concert to ABBA, "Thank You For the Music," in Hyde Park, London, on Sept. 13, including singers Kylie Minogue, Chaka Khan, Lulu, Elaine Page, and the West End cast of Mamma Mia!
Benny will also be on stage with the Swedish six-man band Orsa Spelmän, or Orsa Fiddlers’ Ensemble, which plays Swedish folk music.
But it’s two concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Sept. 23 and 24 that seem to stir most excitement in the seasoned musician, who has performed since childhood. Titled "Kristina," the concerts will contain a selection from his and Ulvaeus’ musical "Kristina från Duvemåla."
"I know I will be nervous," Andersson said. "I will be curious to see the reaction from the audience."
Andersson described the musical more like "a modern opera" and said it was the hardest and most daunting piece he had ever composed. Not only because it took five years to write or that it encompasses three hours of music, but also because it is based on the Swedish national epic "The Emigrants" by Swedish author and historian Vilhelm Moberg.
Andersson read the four-volume oeuvre for the first time at the age of 19 and was gripped by its protagonists, the farmer Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina, and their dramatic destinies.
The books follow the hardships of the starving couple in the mid-1800s as they uproot their family from a famine-stricken Sweden to move to America – a decision taken by a million Swedes at the time.
"It feels very special to play this music in New York. This is where most of the immigrants first arrived. Millions of Americans share the history of these characters," Andersson said, hinting that the musical might get a Broadway production, just like Mamma Mia! and Chess – his and Ulvaeus’ first musical.
While Andersson and Ulvaeus had several projects in the pipeline, Andersson was adamant an ABBA reunion was not among of them.
"No! That’s not happening. One should never say never, but No!" he said, shaking his head in response to the question that has followed the former ABBA members despite their consistent denials.
"The simple reason is that none of us wants to do it," he said, adding he was keen to protect the ABBA legacy by "leaving it alone."
Instead, the next big thing for Ulvaeus and Andersson following the "Kristina" concerts would be to write new material for a follow up to Mamma Mia!, he said, stressing it would not be a classical sequel, but a "looser kind of follow up."
While they had not yet decided on the format or the theme, Andersson said he had been positively surprised by the screen adaptation of Mamma Mia!, and had not ruled out another film or a continuation of the same theme.
Asked about sources of inspiration, Andersson just shook his head.
"Inspiration is overrated. It’s all down to discipline. I have to keep working at it, and if I am lucky it will come. Then I have about one or two days of flow. Then it’s uphill again," he smiled.
Luckily, the handsome black Yamaha grand piano standing in his studio can electronically remember what he has played and play it back to him.
Andersson said he listened to all kinds of music, mostly classical, and especially Johann Sebastian Bach, whose range and depth were "inexhaustible."
While Bach’s cello suites were among Andersson’s favorite pieces of music, he declined to mention any contemporary music he liked because he said he was not up to date with the current pop scene.
Instead, the music closest to his heart was Swedish folk music, he said, his face lighting up. Andersson received his first accordion when he was six years old – a classical instrument central to Swedish folk music that both his grandfather and father had played and taught each other.
For Andersson, Swedish folk music expressed and represented the Nordic climate of long, harsh, dark winters and short, light summers and the physical and emotional conditions people lived under as a consequence.
"I think there is an understanding in the music for our conditions up here. You can hear what kind of a life people have had up here in the deep dark forests – a hard life," he said pensively.
In fact, he speculated, perhaps it was the influences of Swedish folk music and its wide range of happy yet melancholic undertones that had made ABBA’s music resonate in so many parts of the world.
"It’s funny. I am always asked why I think ABBA has such broad appeal – from Galapagos to China and Egypt. Why does it work in all these different places? I don’t know, but perhaps a part of it has to do with that melancholy below the gaiety."
Andersson’s desire to feel part of a greater context might explain why he claims to feel friendlier towards the taxman than most multi-millionaires. He enjoys such rich men’s hobbies as breeding racing horses and runs the trendy Hotel Rival in Stockholm, but insists he does not mind paying Sweden’s high taxes.
"Yes I pay a lot of tax, but I like the idea of giving back to society," he said, adding there was quite enough money left after he had paid the hefty sums.
Another example of his social engagement was the elections to the European parliament in June when Andersson donated one million SEK to Swedish political party "Feministiskt initiativ" – the world’s first feminist political party.
The party’s ballots had been disappearing mysteriously from polling places, which prompted Andersson to fund a campaign to inform people how they could vote for the party anyway. At first he had preferred to remain anonymous not to overshadow the cause, but when it was later revealed he was the donor he did not mind.
In sharp contrast, he did mind being "used" in last year’s U.S. presidential election. In an attempt to appeal to voters, candidates John McCain and Barack Obama released their top ten favorite songs. McCain’s list included ABBA hits "Dancing Queen" and "Take a Chance on Me."
"We did not appreciate that at all," Andersson said with a grimace of aversion, adding he and Ulvaeus complained to the McCain campaign.
Pressed to pick his three favorite ABBA songs, he chose "Dancing Queen", "The Winner Takes It All" and "The Day Before You Came" that describes the story of a woman’s mundane life before she met her lover. Andersson said he liked it for its strong story, its special "atypical" music and the fact it was the group’s last song.
Reflecting over the power of music in a social-political context, Andersson considered the possibilities of subtly marrying music with a discussion about equality between men and women – a cause he held close to heart.
For example, Mamma Mia!, did in fact have a strong feminist message, but dressed up in the Trojan horse of ABBA’s music it became widely popular.
"Maybe we should continue on that theme. I think I am beginning to feel inspired."
Buy Kristina tickets
Tickets for KRISTINA are available at the Carnegie Hall Box Office (57th Street – Seventh Avenue), via phone at 212-247-7800 or online at www.carnegiehall.org.