NEW YORK — Benny Andersson isn’t surprised that listeners mistake the title track of his new 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 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, ’40s 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 multi-layered 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, interviewed at a hotel in Manhattan’s Soho neighbourhood. “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. The band, known as Benny Anderssons Orkester in Sweden, has gradually evolved since he first recorded two albums with Swedish fiddlers in the late 1980s.
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 to emulate the tradition of Swedish folk parks from the ’40s and ’50s, where people would dance for hours under the midnight sun. Just for fun, Andersson occasionally throws in an ABBA tune such as “Why Did It Have to be Me?”
“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,” ”Trolska“ with its traditional Swedish fiddle music, and the Debussy-influenced ”Song from the Second Floor“ with Andersson’s meditative acoustic piano. The vocal tracks with lyrics by Ulvaeus include Sjoholm singing ”You Are My Man,“ a ’50s-style rock ballad with a ”Blueberry Hill“-style tempo.
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 Sjohom reprising her title role from the Swedish production, had its premiere as a concert performance last September at Carnegie Hall, released last month as a 2-CD set.
Andersson says the epic-style “Kristina,” which is mostly sung with little dialogue, has more in common with “Les Miz” than with “Mamma Mia!,” the global hit musical-turned-film 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 centred 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, of the musical which premiered in London in 1999. “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 had no such expectations of longevity when ABBA broke up in 1982 so he and Ulvaeus could focus on writing their Cold War musical “Chess.”
“We’d say maybe some money would trickle in from the catalogue in 1983, maybe into ’84,” he said. “That will be it. We’ve done our thing and did as good as we could and let’s be happy.”
But ABBA’s music never faded away thanks to numerous tribute bands and films like “Muriel’s Wedding,” before “Mamma Mia!” brought its songs to a whole new audience, particularly the film version which became the highest-grossing movie musical of all time. To date, ABBA has sold some 380 million albums, surpassed only by the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
Andersson, who made a cameo appearance as a piano-playing fisherman in the film’s “Dancing Queen” number, thought it was “cool” to see Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep and ex-James Bond Pierce Brosnan donning ABBA-style sequined costumes during “Mamma Mia’s” closing credits.
“I think that was wonderful. It’s not for real, it’s fun. ...,” he said. “People thought ABBA was just sort of made up for some reason. That we were too commercial, we wore too funny clothes. ... But now it’s different. Now we’re treated like we did this for real.”
The band’s stage costumes went on display this year in the travelling interactive ABBAWORLD exhibition, which opened in London and this month hits Melbourne, Australia. Fans have a chance to re-create the band’s sound in a mock-up of their Stockholm studio and sing and dance with their idols through a 3D holographic illusion.
But Andersson says the ultimate validation has come from fellow musicians 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.
The usual motives for a reunion tour — money or recapturing past glory — don’t apply, he says. Andersson wasn’t interested a few years back when he said ABBA’s tour promoter Thomas Johansson informed him a producer was offering $1 billion for an extensive world reunion tour. Nor did he consider offers for ABBA to fill some of the dates left open at London’s O2 Arena when Michael Jackson died last year.
Besides Andersson says that even in its heyday from 1972-82, ABBA toured infrequently, its members preferring to focus on crafting their music in their Stockholm studio and spending time with their families. ABBA was one of the first bands to rely on music videos — directed by future Oscar-nominee Lasse Hallstrom — for global promotion.
“If people like what we did in the ’70s and see these videos and they hear the music, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Andersson. “We’ve already done it and it’s been 30 years.”
“I think pop music should be done by young people,” said Andersson, whose shoulder-length hair and beard is flecked with grey. “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.”