Interview: ABBA’s Andersson goes back to folk roots on new CD
Benny Andersson – new interview
Benny Andersson isn’t surprised that listeners mistake the title track of his recent U.S. release, “Story of a Heart,” for a vintage ABBA song.
But the rest of the album, with its roots in Swedish and other European folk music, showcases a side of the pop legend unfamiliar to audiences outside his native Sweden.
“I wanted to go back to where I came from, to my folk music roots. I was raised on accordion,” said Andersson. “That’s one of the great things with having been a member of ABBA, you can do anything you like.”
The 14-track CD, released in March, is mostly comprised of highlights from three albums released in Sweden since 2001 by the 16-piece Benny Andersson Band, including top Swedish vocalists Helen Sjoholm and Tommy Korberg. Andersson’s compositions draw from an eclectic mix of musical styles: traditional Swedish music, 1940s big band swing, classical, early jazz, polkas, waltzes, and ’50s rock ballads.
But Andersson wanted one new tune that would get radio play, so he teamed with ABBA song-writing partner, lyricist Bjorn Ulvaeus, to write “Story of a Heart” with its multilayered harmonies and soaring female vocals by Sjoholm. It’s the first ABBA-like pop song the pair have written together since they collaborated on a 1993 album with Swedish singer Josefin Nilsson.
“I’m the same person, he’s the same person,” said Andersson in an interview at a hotel. “In London, they went out in the street and played it for people — and everybody who heard it said, `Is this ABBA?’ So there’s a sort of fingerprint … which has to do with the way of working and how it was made, what kind of harmonies and vocals are in there.”
But Andersson makes it clear his current band, which includes top Swedish folk and classical musicians, isn’t a pop one. Its members wear street clothes, not outlandish costumes. Its recordings are closer to live performances without all the studio effects used by ABBA. Andersson not only plays keyboards, but also his first instrument, accordion, which he rarely touched with ABBA.
“They are very versatile musicians and can play anything … so whatever I come up with would fit into the band,” said Andersson. “I don’t care what style it is and they don’t care.”
The band has performed only a handful of concerts outside Sweden, where in the summers they perform at outdoor venues, bringing along their own dance floor.
“People are dancing, enjoying themselves,” said Andersson. “It’s like a good exchange of energy. We on the stage deliver energy with our music and they give it back by dancing. That’s what music originally was for.”
Most of Andersson’s tunes on “Story of a Heart” are instrumentals, such as the supercharged polka “Jehu” and “Trolska” with its traditional Swedish fiddle music.
Andersson’s links to the Swedish folk tradition are also reflected in the musical “Kristina,” based on Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg’s four-novel series, “The Emigrants,” about the struggles of a poor Swedish family trying to build a new life in Minnesota in the mid-19th century.
The musical, which ran in Sweden from 1995-99, has recently been translated into English with Andersson and Ulvaeus teaming with lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, who co-wrote “Les Miserables.” The English-language version, with Sjoholm reprising her title role from the Swedish production, had its premiere as a concert performance last September at Carnegie Hall, and was released last month as a 2-CD set.
Andersson says the epic-style “Kristina” has more in common with “Les Miz” than with “Mamma Mia!” the Broadway-turned-film smash based on ABBA’s music.
“It’s a serious, symphonical piece,” he said. “It’s not a song-and-dance show.”
Andersson was initially reluctant to greenlight “Mamma Mia!” but warmed to its female empowerment theme centered on a mother-daughter relationship.
“I was a bit afraid that it would sort of diminish the work that we actually accomplished with ABBA,” said Andersson. “But I’m so glad I was wrong because it has really meant a lot to the music with ABBA in keeping those songs alive.”
Andersson says the ultimate validation has come from acts such as Madonna, who sampled ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” on her 2005 recording “Hung Up.” In March, ABBA was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“A lot of people in the music business have come up front and said, `You know, I really like the ABBA songs.’ Iggy Pop, Bono, Alanis Morissette said that,” Andersson said. “I think that means something. They listen to `Knowing Me, Knowing You’ or `Dancing Queen’ and they will hear what’s in there, how it’s done and appreciate that because they know it’s not that easy.”
Andersson is always asked if the band is going to reunite. But a reunion is extremely unlikely: “I don’t see anything good coming out of it,” he said.
Andersson, 63, is the only ABBA member still publicly performing. Ulvaeus is semiretired but still writing lyrics. Andersson’s ex-wife Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad and Ulvaeus’ former spouse Agnetha Fältskog haven’t made any new solo recordings since 2004.
“I think pop music should be done by young people,” said Andersson, whose shoulder-length hair and beard is flecked with gray. “When you’re younger, you’re really with what’s happening in the world … I don’t know what’s going on in the contemporary scene at all.”