If you ask Benny Andersson to sum up his phenomenal success with Abba, he’s typically modest. “I’m just an ordinary guy who got lucky,” he says. “My luck was to have a talent for writing songs.”
But Abba’s songs have not only endured, but have long been regarded as pop classics. They now form the basis of a worldwide smash hit musical which has successfully been recreated on the big screen as Mamma Mia! The Movie, out now on DVD.
Benny has been involved with the movie right from the start, and who could forget his cameo appearance in the film, playing the piano dressed as Greek fisherman? We sure couldn’t! Here, Benny reveals all about this musical, feel good love story and where it all began.
How does it feel to know that you have created music that the whole world enjoys?
I don’t know. It’s not like that. The only satisfaction comes out of the fact that, when you write the songs at the piano or the guitar, there is a moment of connection and a big moment of joy when you realise, ‘Okay, I’m still good at this.’
But once that happens, it goes out of the window. Then you work with the song, you record the song and you do as best as you can. You create the arrangements and work out how everybody is going to sing it. In that process, I would listen all the time, all day. But once it’s in the can, it’s gone – it’s like it’s not there any more. Then maybe someone calls from Holland or Germany and says, "You are number 1 in the charts." And that’s fun.
How involved were you in the film Mamma Mia!?
Totally involved – from the beginning until the end. I was there all the time; keeping an eye on the music, the shoot and everything else. This is our baby and it was important that the film looked like we wanted it.
And the cast?
That, too. We had a say in everything, not least the cast. People say, "Why did you chose Stellan Skarsgard, he can’t sing?" But he can sing, at least a bit. We would never have chosen anyone who could not sing at all.
On the soundtrack, you used some of the musicians you worked with a long time ago, the guys who played at the original Abba recordings at the same studio you used to record at in Stockholm. How did it feel to work with them again?
Absolutely fine. We are all older, but it did not take long for the music to be there again and for us to almost feel like we did back then.
"When you write the songs at the piano or the guitar, there is a moment of connection and a big moment of joy when you realise, ‘Okay, I’m still good at this.’"
Were you trying to recreate the Abba sound?
No. We started by playing like the old records, but then I made some new arrangements. When people watch the movie they should feel that we’ve made an effort. [laughs]
It sounds like you had a lot of fun with the new arrangements? ‘Money, Money, Money’ is very different.
Yes, I did have a great time doing it. I wanted to do it all myself. The movie is going to be around for a while, so I wanted to have control over how the songs sounded. That meant being involved all the way through. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned a lot about making movies.
Did it take you and Bjorn a long time to write songs for Abba, or did they come to you quite quickly?
What takes time is deciding on what is good. That’s what takes time, to get rid of all the rubbish and try and recognise the good things. You go by your gut instinct, really. Then you go into the studio and start working on all the harmonies and stuff and you see what happens. Once it’s done that’s it, if it’s not good enough, bad luck. You have to move on to the next song. I have to feel that it’s good from the start. I mean, once it’s in there and it’s on the record, that’s it. You might regret that and sometimes I do.
After the success of Mamma Mia! would you do another film?
Yes. In one way or another I would love to work on another film. I feel like the appetite has been whetted and maybe we could do something original, something we could write from scratch. That could be very interesting.
Do you think the time is ripe now for your musical, Kristina fran Duvemala, to make it on Broadway?
I don’t know. There is an English translation, but we have to wait and see if we can put it on Broadway. It is translated into English – we did a workshop with it in New York a year ago and we’re going to make a concert version of it in NY too, next autumn, so we’ll see.
The thing is, one gets eager to do something new. It was ten years ago we did Kristina and, with Mamma Mia!, we’ve been involved with it for nearly ten years, too, because we are involved in what happens – we have the company with Judy Craymer – so everything that happens, we keep track.
Did Meryl Streep live up to your expectations in the role of Donna?
Absolutely. Meryl Streep can sing all the Abba songs – everything in the original keys, songs that Agnetha sang when she was 25. Meryl has no problems with that. I don’t know if you were surprised at how good she is, but she is an amazing singer.
You spent a lot of time crafting the songs you wrote when you were in Abba. And yet some people, at the time, dismissed them as throwaway pop. Now they are regarded as classics and that must be very pleasing.
We were always very sincere about Abba and serious in our approach to what we were doing and what we were working on. People never understood that at the time, they thought there was some sort of recipe – you do this and then follow wherever the wind blows.
It was never like that. It was sitting down, doing the 9 to 5 thing every day and we did not tour because of that, because we wanted time to write and record and because we understood that if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have anything. If we were out there touring, who was going to write the songs? It takes concentration to do that. For us, maybe not for everybody, but it did for us.
You had so many hits. Was it stressful living up to those expectations?
No, not stressful. If you are an ordinary guy, like I am – and I certainly was back in ’75, ’76 – you do your job. There were millions of people who were interested in knowing what we were going to do next as a group – and that’s not stressful, that’s an honour. They were going to buy the record even if they didn’t know what was on it, so it was our job to make sure that we did the best we possibly could.
We knew we had an audience and that gave us a lot of energy, it was really satisfying. It wasn’t like we were doing it and hoping that someone would listen to it. That was the case in the beginning, but we were working, we wrote good songs and we thought we were as good songwriters as anybody else.
And that changed when you won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974?
Yes, very much so. Before we won Eurovision in 1974, nobody cared. We had some small success in Holland and Germany, but nothing like it went on to be.
How do you decide when a song is finished and that it’s a great song?
I think any songwriter has standards they want to maintain. Once you realise you’re capable of writing good music, you need to keep coming up with the good stuff. That means getting rid of the rubbish you might occasionally produce. It all comes down to the feeling you have in your guts. You have to learn to trust that feeling. Also, you have to make sure that the song has something good about it early on. No amount of great production will save a bad song.
How did it feel to see a story constructed from your songs?
It’s amazing that it’s possible. It’s really clever and intelligent and witty to create that story from the songs. I’m really grateful to Catherine and to Judy Craymer who pursued this from the beginning and to Phyllida Lloyd, the director. Without these three girls, I wouldn’t be here now, neither would you, talking about this. [laughs] So I’m really grateful. It’s been wonderful to be involved in the production from day one. I’ve learned so much and it’s been a joy to work with them.
You are still totally immersed in music of a different kind these days. But do you ever miss writing pop songs?
I’m not just about pop music. I’m always eager to do something new. Mamma Mia! – the musical and the film – seemed like something new to Bjorn and myself and it turned out we were right. I still have my 16-piece band and I keep busy with that. Abba’s a huge part of my life but it’s not the only part. Maybe people most associate me with Abba, but I’m 61 now and it would be a little peculiar if my life was only about writing pop songs. I wouldn’t even try. I’ll leave that to the young kids!