Björn Ulvaeus on the latest plans for a new Abba tour
‘We thought our songs would last a couple of years at most’, the songwriter tells The Week Portfolio
Björn Ulvaeus, one quarter of the pop phenomenon, Abba, is sitting smartly dressed in a light grey suit, ready for breakfast at his hotel in Västervik. It’s a small city in southern Sweden, about a three-hour drive from the capital, Stockholm. A beautiful early morning light streams through the window onto the traditional Swedish spread – smoked fish, cold cuts of meat, fruit, coffee. For one half of the songwriting duo responsible for some of the biggest, best known polished pop hits in history, Ulvaeus is quiet, contemplative and unassuming, but with darting, sparkly eyes behind his glasses.
Sleepy Västervik is where Ulvaeus grew up. “Even though I’ve gone global, I still have roots here,” he says, and it’s a place which hasn’t changed much since his childhood. What’s new however is his chic hotel which sits on the island of Slottsholmen, with water on all sides and vast, endless Swedish skies to gaze at. His daughter Anna from his second marriage, to journalist Lena Källersjö, is the boss. It’s a family-run business, says Ulvaeus, and somewhere he hoped would be, in his words, “a meeting place” for locals and visitors alike. Each suite comes with a record player and a choice of vinyl to play, including of course, Abba, and the restaurant menu features dishes inspired by his travels around the world – bangers and mash, a dish he once ate at The Ivy in London; squid, from his time co-producing the hit musical Mamma Mia! on the Greek island of Skopelos; and a throwback to his Swedish childhood – rosehip ice-cream.
Photographer: Ellen Simone
Ulvaeus is relaxed and warm, happy to talk about his childhood spent foraging for mushrooms and berries (he stopped cooking after meeting his present wife because he was too “intimidated” by her cooking) and his favourite place on the planet (“an archipelago just off Stockholm, paddling on a kayak. Nothing beats that. It’s so amazing, and I get that here, too.”) And yet despite this tranquil retreat he has created, Abba is still making headlines, keeping Ulvaeus firmly in the global spotlight.
Earlier this year it was announced that after 35 years, the quartet had recorded new music together. They also announced a tour, for which they would appear as digital avatars, or “Abbatars”, looking the way they did in 1979.
Ulvaeus explains that in order to create these “digital twins”, the band was told to make all sorts of facial expressions; to grimace, to smile, in order to capture every single face muscle.
The project’s been delayed and will now be released at the beginning of next summer, but he explains part of the appeal of a digital, touring band: “No one will have to deal with divas demanding their own private jets,” he jokes. It’s hard to imagine the bandmates as divas – Ulvaeus doesn’t drink, and they all live private lives for the most part. The band members remain on good terms, and Ulvaeus says that he hopes to get the others to visit Västerviksomeday.
It’s difficult to get him to pin down a favourite song from a career which produced catchy, chart-topping hits around the world – including nine UK number ones between 1974 and 1980. “We tried to emulate the Beatles. So to begin with our music was younger, more teenager-orientated, then gradually it became more mature.” As a result, he likes different songs from different periods of the band’s career: S.O.S and Mamma Mia in the early days, then Knowing Me, Knowing You, and finally the poignant The Winner Takes It All – the ultimate breakup song, released shortly after Ulvaeus and fellow bandmate, Agnetha Fältskog, divorced. Every single song was a painstaking labour of love: “There wasn’t anything that we hadn’t worked on for months”, he says.
And yet for all Abba’s success, Ulvaeus remains genuinely surprised. “It’s amazing and I don’t know how it happened. I get asked that a lot, and I really don’t know why it is. We thought our songs would last a couple of years at most. I see these artists come and go, and wonder why people are still listening to Abba. I’m very grateful and humble”, he says. Today he listens to a lot of chart music, and is also a big fan of Beethoven’s symphonies.
Finally, the million dollar question: Who really was the dancing queen? Ulvaeus is thoughtful for a moment. “No one in particular, but I could see this young, blonde woman in my mind, who works very hard during the week, and she really becomes the dancing queen at the end of the week. It’s a celebration of all those young women.”
Top photo by Ellen Simone.