Abba's Benny Andersson interview: 'Have I been living a lie all these years?' (2024)

With a new solo album out, jovial superstar Benny Andersson talks to John Preston about the sadness at the heart of Abba’s music

On June 5 1966, Benny Andersson was driving to a gig with his band The Hep Stars when a car came towards him down a narrow country road. Inside was someone he’d never met, but had heard a good deal about. His name was Björn Ulvaeus and he had a band called The Hootenanny Singers.

“We wound down our windows and said ‘Hi, nice to meet you’,” Andersson recalls. “Then we arranged to meet that evening. As we sat round playing our guitars, one of us said, ‘Maybe the two of us should try writing something’.”

Last year Benny and Björn, together with their ex-wives Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog, appeared together at a private party in Stockholm to mark the 50th anniversary of that meeting. It was the first time in more than 30 years that all four members of Abba had appeared on stage and – as they must have known it would – it immediately prompted fevered speculation round the world about a full-blown reunion.

Abba's Benny Andersson interview: 'Have I been living a lie all these years?' (1)

“The newspapers reported that all four of us sang. Actually, only the girls did – a song Björn and I had written in 1979 called The Way Old Friends Do. Whatever people may have said, it wasn’t a proper reunion. None of us have ever wanted to do that – never.”

Benny Andersson is 70 now, an impeccably polite man with owl-like glasses and a vice-like handshake. We’re sitting in his Stockholm recording studio across the water from the Abba museum where, every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors gaze awestruck at Abba artefacts and sing along with their holograms.

Andersson, it rapidly becomes clear, is quite possibly the most self-effacing star in the history of pop. “Would you like to talk about Brexit?” he asks. “I can go on about that all day” (he thinks it’s a disaster). “Or the Premier League?” he adds hopefully (he’s a huge football fan).

Abba's Benny Andersson interview: 'Have I been living a lie all these years?' (2)

Reminded that I’m here to talk about his new album, Piano, he looks momentarily crestfallen, but soon rallies. Piano – recorded on the grand piano that sits in one corner of the studio – is a kind of musical autobiography in which an unaccompanied Andersson plays various songs and pieces he has written throughout his career – including Thank You for the Music. In stripping his music down to its most basic elements, he realised something about himself that he’d never thought about before. “It struck me that a lot of these songs I’ve written – even with Abba – are not very happy songs. They may sound like they are, but there’s a lot of melancholy in them, you know.”

This is understating it. Beneath their jaunty surfaces, Abba songs are steeped in sadness, confessional anguish and pleas for help. Has there ever been such a stark description of a performer’s isolation than the lyrics for Supertrouper – “Facing twenty thousand of your friends/ How can anyone be so lonely?’ Or “In these old familiar rooms children would play/Now there’s only emptiness, nothing to say” from Knowing Me Knowing You. Given the marital problems the band were going through at the peak of their fame, this is hardly surprising.

But what seems odd is that it’s taken so long for Andersson to come to terms with the darker elements in his own work. “I’m not a melancholy man,” he says plaintively – in fact he radiates bonhomie. “And neither is Björn. But I guess some part of me must be more melancholy than I thought. It’s strange and I don’t understand where it comes from. Have I been living a lie all these years?” He gives a shrug. “Maybe I have.” Andersson was 10 when his mother bought him a piano. “I would play it for hours – and she never once complained. Maybe she had a premonition I was going to be OK.” At 15, he left school thinking he might become a building engineer like his father. Then a friend asked if he’d like to join a band – The Hep Stars. “After three months we had three records in the Swedish Top 10 and by the time I was 18, I was a rock star.”

He was also a parent, having fathered his first child when he was just 17 with his then girlfriend Christina Grönvall – and a second two years later. “It did give me a bad conscience – being out on the road rather than at home,” he says.

By the time Abba began at the start of the Seventies all four members were used to being famous in their own right – Agnetha and Anni-Frid already had flourishing solo careers. Nothing, though, prepared them for the mayhem that greeted their breakthrough victory with Waterloo at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest.

“We were sitting in a limousine going to the Grosvenor House in London where they were throwing a huge party for us. We said, ‘We know there is an audience out there. Now all we need to be is good’.” From 1976 to 1982 they turned out hits at such a rate that journalists would ask them if they had stumbled upon a magic formula. Andersson spreads his hands in exasperation. “Come on – how can there be a formula? If there is a secret, it’s trying to be as sincere as possible. Writing something like Mamma Mia or Fernando is not guesswork. I never felt we ran out of steam – although we recorded a lot of stuff that maybe we shouldn’t. Trite stuff like Dum Dum Diddle. But you can’t be at peak level all the time.”

Fame, however, extracted a heavy price. At the height of Abba’s success, Benny’s marriage to Anni-Frid fell apart – shortly after he met Möna Norklit, a Swedish TV presenter, to whom he has been married since 1981. Björn and Agnetha’s marriage also hit the skids – she went on to shut herself away on a Swedish island for the next 20 years.

“Agnetha didn’t like being in Abba much at the time, although I think she’s fine with it now. But the girls were more the focus than Björn and me. They were actually delivering this stuff while we were in the background.”

Abba's Benny Andersson interview: 'Have I been living a lie all these years?' (3)

Benny had his own problems with alcohol and drugs, although he hasn’t touched alcohol since the day in 2001 when he admitted he was finding it hard to cope without a drink.

But he never became disenchanted with Abba, he says; both he and Björn just wanted to do other things. “We put Abba on hold because we wanted to work with Tim Rice on Chess. After that all of us just felt it was too late to go back.”

For years he did his best not to be seen as “an Abba man”. “I’d rather just be me. And besides, I was busy with other projects” – as well as recording several albums with his band, the Benny Anderssons Orkester, he and Björn wrote another successful musical, Kristina (which has yet, oddly, to receive a fully staged production in London), in 1995.

As for a reunion – they were once rumoured to have been offered a billion dollars to re-form – none of them were ever remotely tempted, Andersson insists. “Why?’ he says. “We didn’t need the money. I realised long ago that I didn’t ever have to think about paying the rent.”

These days, he seldom listens to pop music. “People now write songs in committee,” he says in tones of appalled disbelief. “I don’t understand how it works. Someone does the rhythm track, someone else does the bass line, and so on. And the last thing is the melody, which to me is the first thing that needs to happen. I don’t get that at all.”

Andersson is still busy with various Abba-related projects, including a Mamma Mia sequel – out next year – and a hologram concert tour scheduled for 2019. But fame hasn’t circ*mscribed his life. He still lives in Stockholm and happily wanders about on his own.

“People often come up to me and say hello. But it’s not like I’m Donald Trump, you know. They always say how much the music means to them. And that’s an amazing thing …”

Piano is released on Sept 29

Abba's Benny Andersson interview: 'Have I been living a lie all these years?' (2024)
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