Björn has given a fantastic new interview about the creative process to the Chef (Head) publication, the one through which he intends to recruit a new manager for his SEK 150-million project in Västervik. The original Swedish interview was conducted by Dan Mårgård. Here is an English interpretation:
When Björn Ulvaeus is filled by a feeling of extreme happiness he knows that he has succeeded. Emotions and perfectionism, control the creative potential of the ABBA legend:
400 million ABBA records sold and a global sensation with Mamma Mia!. How did it happen?
“It is fascinating. Benny Andersson and I created something we wanted to and many others also like it. It is great that this has happened and that it has happened to me. I don’t mean that to sound pretentious, actually I feel deeply humbled and grateful.”
Give examples of how it happened when you wrote the songs.
“In the beginning, Benny’s and my days were spent in a small cubbyhole at Polar Music’s offices on Östermalm, a very small room with a piano, a chair and a guitar. We played and sang there with dummy English lyrics and then a small verse idea would appear, melody loops, and we played with different rhythms and styles. Sometimes, we took a known song and said we wanted ‘this’ style, and so we played it. And now it seems strange: it’s right as it is, something, something new out of nothing, out of thin air. It is very difficult to explain.”
It was a hit?
“No, it was rare that there came a finished song all at once. Instead perhaps we found something and thought ‘Yep’ there’s something in there that isn’t stupid, now what the hell is it?”
And so we tried to develop the idea. Sometimes we got nowhere. But if the idea was sufficiently good we stored it in our heads. Thus we collected things that were not written down but only popped up because they were good and worth remembering. They could be used for something else later. We could find a bridge, a chorus elsewhere and after two years the verse.” Haha.
There must have surely been some garbage?
“Junk?! At least 95% that came out was rubbish! It is the most important part of the creative process, to clear out that which wasn’t agreeable. Other groups maybe worked to a 50% margin. Not us. We – and Benny was almost worse than me – were determined to never lower the bar. We were after that huge high, the feeling of extreme happiness that we have something really damn good. So we would mercilessly cast aside the crap!
Wow, you had a strong perfectionist streak?
“We were perfectionists. We gave all of ourselves until we were completely satisfied. All our albums except possibly the first album, which was created in the rush after the breakthrough at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, I can stand up for today. ”
So you knew every time when you were about to have a successful single?
“Not even a hint! We could never know. Dancing Queen, for example – we felt proud of it, but that it would become such a hit, how the hell would we know that? In retrospect, it is easy to say, but it is bullshit that we think we can say something like that in advance; but we had people around the world that we were confident in, people with feeling who said as they found, among others, Stig Anderson, and we sent albums to them to put together a list of the best songs.
You wrote the song texts. What you wanted?
“For a lyric to work, the symbiotic relationship between the text and the melody has to be total. And lyric writing itself is a wonderful creative process. I would be sitting at home with a backing track with drums, bass, some guitars and keyboards – perhaps some overdubs with strings – and there I would play the song to myself again and again, and after a while a story would emerge from the music that said this is who I am: this is me. It sounds odd, but that’s how it was, in approximately half of the songs, for example, Knowing Me, Knowing You. I saw a lonely man go around in an empty space save for packing boxes. Evey step he takes, the loneliness and the acknowledgment that this is how things are and now it is final pervades. The image provided a story which I ran with.”
Where did the image come from?
“I don’t know exactly. You must have imagination. And reference frames. We have things that inspire. Things you have heard and seen. Benny and I had ten years’ experience each in the Hep Stars and Hootenanny Singers, baggage which was to be to the great advantage of ABBA. Mozart – absolutely no comparison in fact! – created three symphonies in three months and said that his music was out there, that he himself was only an interface, a medium, which brought the music to life. It was not that simple for us! We worked hard, not only Benny and I, but everyone who was in the studio with us, not least Agnetha and Anni-Frid, Michael B. Tretow, all the talented musicians – sometimes it was simply a matter of pure brainstorming!”
Can you recognize a creative person?
“One who is not afraid to take risks, to have a repeated hunger for creating new things. To be a contractor, to see opportunities and operate projects is also a way to be creative. Judy Cramer, co-producer of Mamma Mia!, chewed my ear off over a number of years about an idea to make a TV series from ABBA songs. We thought it sounded like a real strange bugger of a project, but after a while, I was interested. It became the world’s most successful musical ever.”
What would you do as a Head of Creativity?
“Encourage new ideas and give room for failures. The staff of an enterprise can have tremendously important input but it remains untapped because the manager does not lift the lid on them. So, I think more along the lines of the Swedish, horizontal organisation, rather than the vertical, as I have seen so many examples of in the United States. Where managers are terrified to take initiatives for fear that senior managers wouldn’t like it – and they in turn send the same message downwards in an organisation. Useless – and a brainstorming error!”
Audience acclaim – is that the creative person’s reward?
“Joy can be spectacular, but neither I nor Benny is narcissistic and neither are we exhibitionists. We do not see it as something natural. But last Autumn, we appeared at a tribute concert in Hyde Park in London where ABBA songs were performed by different artists. At the end we went up on stage and VROOOM … Yes it is incredible: 30,000 people cheering and crying, a kind of gigantic love that flows towards you, it was an absolutely overwhelming feeling! I received it and thought: ‘it is not something out of this world we did, how the hell did it happen, how did it ever get to be like this?’. I can say that experience really boosted my self-confidence, for at least the following week!”