How the seminal 80s band went above the Arctic Circle to cut their new album
Starting with a-ha’s massively successful debut album, Hunting High and Low (1985), guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy has written or co-written most of their international hits, including “Take On Me,” “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.,” and “The Living Daylights.”
Though he demonstrably understands how to create an irresistible pop song, he resists talking too much about the specific meanings behind his creations.
“Every song has its own ambition,” he says, adding with a laugh. “It’s tricky to talk about it because you don’t want to cheapen it by giving it some sort of one-liner about what it’s about!”
When pressed, though, he will elaborate a bit more about the songs he wrote for the band’s latest album, True North, which was just released in late October: “For this album, I was really trying to find things that I thought Morten [Harket, lead vocalist] would shine on and that sounded like an a-ha track to me, that had the elements I like about the band,” he says. This time, Waaktaar-Savoy wrote six of the album’s songs, while keyboardist Magne Furuholmen wrote the other six.
The band worked intensively on True North, recording it in less than a month. This was, Waaktaar-Savoy says, in reaction to a-ha’s previous approach, which had become increasingly cumbersome. “In the first half of our career, it was all [about] having a producer and renting a studio, and it would be a lot of effort and energy to finish the album in the allotted time on the allotted budget and really make sure you didn’t lose the song in the process. They’d be pretty intense affairs,” he says. “As we went on, [albums] became much more spread out and set in different studios and it would be a little bit hard to get it to sound like one album.”
This time, however, they made sure they were in a place where there could be no distractions: they recorded the album in Bodø, a town well above the Arctic Circle in Norway, a-ha’s native country. A film crew was brought along to capture the sessions (interspersed with vignettes in which actors portray life in that isolated area). That film (also titled True North) is “a really beautiful thing,” says Waaktaar-Savoy. “Of course, that part of Norway is really stunning.”
VIDEO: a-ha True North film trailer
While they are proud to show off their country’s beauty, Waaktaar-Savoy admits that being from Norway seemed more like a liability when they were beginning their career. “It was very few bands, or basically none, coming from Norway back when we started, so it was very hard to find people who wanted to [be bandmates],” he says. “Since we were fifteen, we were planning, ‘Okay, we’re going to go to England and try to become pop stars.’”
Waaktaar-Savoy ended up forming a band with Furuholmen, who was his neighbor. They named the group Bridges and recruited two other members – who quit just before the band’s planned move to London. “So we were searching for someone to flesh it out, and was really just an accident that Magne moved to the opposite part of town and ended up almost neighbors with Morten. So it was a weird coincidence, almost.”
Harket had been a fan of Bridges, so he jumped at the chance to play with Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen. And Waaktaar-Savoy knew that they would work well together after hearing Harket’s “gorgeous choir boy voice.” Taking the name a-ha, the trio moved to London and immediately made an impression with their immensely catchy, atmospheric pop sound.
They became internationally famous with their debut single, the effervescent, soaring “Take On Me.” The accompanying video, with its arresting use of black and white animation mixed with live action sequences, became a massive hit on MTV, which was just then becoming a dominant force in the music industry. The ensuing worldwide success resulted in a steep learning curve for Waaktaar-Savoy and his bandmates.
“Every band before us could spend a couple of years molding their career and the way it was presented, but we started right on the peak, in a way,” he says. “The very first time we played live was at the Grammys. The very first tour we did was a nine-month world tour. Basically, we were like, ‘How do we do this?’”
They figured it out, and went on to release eleven studio albums and numerous singles that have charted around the world.
“We’ve had a funny career,” Waaktaar-Savoy says. “We started being very successful in America, and then we were big in England, and then Europe. When that went down a little bit, we were sort of huge in South America. It’s gone up and down, but as we go down in one place, we’ve always gone up in other places. So we’ve been lucky to always find something that is new and exciting for us, and that we can ride the next wave on.
“We like to shoot from the hip,” he continues. “We’ve always done that with most things. Maybe it’s part of being Norwegian. We’re not the biggest salespeople. We always have a lot of gallows humor. We take it as it comes. But we are, at the same time, really super ambitious. So it’s that thing of trying to be super popular, but also be like some awkward, obscure, inward-looking band. It’s a lot of introverted music that we try to present in a way that we can have hits.”
Now, with True North, Waaktaar-Savoy is happy to add another chapter to a-ha’s story.
“I mean, you never know with us because we had a big goodbye tour and then two years later we’re back. Then [we said], ‘We’ll never record again,’ and here we are again. So I’m the last one who really listens to what we say!” he says with a laugh. “When there is an opportunity to bring out more music, I’m always up for that to strengthen the pool of songs that we have as a band. Whatever legacy we have, I think it’s great to be able to fill it up as much as we can.”