SAVOY – See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown

Pål Waaktaar’s most adventurous album to date

Savoy were originally conceived as a vehicle for Pål Waaktaar’s songs whilst a-ha were on hiatus in the mid-to-late 1990s. Featuring Waaktaar’s wife Lauren Savoy (on guitar and vocals) and drummer Frode Unneland (an established musician on the Norwegian music scene who’d been in bands such as Pompel & The Pilts and Chocolate Overdose), the band have released six albums to date. See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown, which takes its title from the lyrics of latest single ‘January Thaw’, is their first release in over a decade. In the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Q&A section of Drabant Music’s press release, Unneland asks Waaktaar to choose between a-ha and Savoy: “I really just look upon it as different paths to release music that I’m passionate about,” Waaktaar replies. “I feel the same about the album I made with Zoe Gnecco. “It’s funny; once you start thinking about making an album, no matter what the band is, that’s when the songs start to appear.”

With the release last year of the career-invigorating MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice, a-ha’s stock hasn’t been as high since their mid-80s heyday. Guitarist – and main songwriter – Waaktaar was particularly busy in 2017. Aside from contributing a new song – the country-tinged ‘A Break In The Clouds’ – to Summer Solstice, the 56-year old musician also released the impressive album World Of Trouble, a collaboration with New York singer Zoe Gnecco that slipped by virtually unnoticed as attentions switched to a-ha’s acoustic project. He was also the subject of the Norwegian-language book Tårer Fra En Stein (‘Tears From A Stone’) by journalist Ørjan Nilsson that has attracted some very favourable notices. It was also announced that Waaktaar had mixed Poem, the second (unreleased) album by pre-a-ha band Bridges, while a brand new album by Savoy was also pencilled in for September release, but delayed due to the October release of Summer Solstice. With a limited window available before a-ha commence their acoustic tour, Savoy can finally release their long-awaited new opus.

The recent flurry of activity in the Waaktaar household has, in part, been precipitated by the departure of the couple’s son True August (who has recently enrolled at college), but Pål Waaktaar is certainly no stranger to hard work and song prolificacy. In fact, there was one particularly crazy 6-year period in Waaktaar’s music career, with the prolific songwriter releasing six albums between 1999 and 2005 as he alternated between a-ha and Savoy. Whilst Waaktaar would later concede that running the two bands concurrently was “madness”, some brilliant music was recording during this period; including the critically acclaimed albums Lackluster Me and Mountains Of Time, which represented his best set of songs since 1986’s Scoundrel Days. Latest album See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown is Savoy’s first all-new collection of songs since 2004’s self-titled set, although there was something of a futile attempt to bring their music to a wider audience in 2007 with the release of the Savoy Songbook (a collection of re-recordings and new songs).

Commitments to a-ha and other projects delayed the release of new Savoy material and, bizarrely, such was the length of their hiatus, another Brooklyn-based electronic rock band named Savoy sprang up in their place. “I couldn’t believe it,” Waaktaar told Dagbladet. “We take a little break, and these guys show up!” Though the couple were clearly disappointed, wife Lauren was able to make light of the situation: “We should have arranged a ‘Battle of the Bands’ at a local bar and settled the case there!”

Since the release of Savoy Songbook, Vol. 1, drummer Frode Unneland has busied himself with the Bergen-based ‘supergroup’ Evig Din For Alltid, releasing a number of albums on Apollon Records (the same label that has reissued Savoy’s Lackluster Me and Mountains Of Time albums in recent years). Meanwhile, Lauren Savoy – who has directed several a-ha videos – has resumed her career as a filmmaker, releasing the award-winning 12-minute short Scent Of A Woman in 2013. But it hasn’t been all plain sailing, as she explained to online business strategist, Gry Sinding: “I had my heart kind of broken. With a friend of mine, Halley [Wegryn Gross], we had written a TV pilot for a television series and had applied to Sundance [Film Festival] – they have a very prestigious writer’s lab – and we were a finalist, down from, like, thousands to twenty, and from twenty they picked ten… and we got cut. This took the wind out of my sails, because it would have meant so much in America. And we had gone so far, and we were one of the last to be rejected.” But, despite this setback for the London Film School graduate, who married Pål in December 1991, she has continued to develop ideas for both film and television, including a series centred around controversial radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

A first glance at the tracklisting for See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown revealed a brace of tracks that stemmed from the period of uncertainty following a-ha’s retirement-that-never-was in 2010. There were certainly a few false starts as Waaktaar pondered his future when a-ha bowed out ‘on a high note’. ‘Manmade Lake’ had originally been considered for both a-ha’s Foot Of The Mountan album and, later, a solo album. The solo project was abandoned as Waaktaar focused his attentions on a-ha’s comeback album Cast In Steel, but a version of ‘Manmade Lake’, under the Waaktaar moniker, did see the light of day, courtesy of a surprise free download in February 2014. “It’s been a favourite of mine for a while,” he told a-ha.com. “It was written around the overdriven guitar riff in the outro and I’ve been looking for a way to present it. The voice is run through a guitar amp which I thought strengthened the mood and related to the words, particularly in the second verse. Sort of like a ground-to-air type voice.” The original track is certainly charming, with a lo-fi production that recalled acts such as Grandaddy and R.E.M. (circa Monster). But the new Savoy version, described by Waaktaar as more “grown-up”, features drum parts performed by Joe Mardin (who had also played on Waaktaar & Zoe’s World Of Trouble), and it certainly benefits from a more natural – and less distorted – approach.

Another track recorded during this period was ‘Weathervane’, which Waaktaar had been commissioned to write for Morten Tyldum’s 2011 movie Hodejegerne (‘Headhunters’), a huge box office hit in Norway. The track featured Jimmy Gnecco – the father of Zoe Gnecco – who had previously guested on ‘The Breakers’ on Savoy’s self-titled fifth album. Featuring a synth-pop backing that almost seemed purpose-built for a-ha, the melancholic track relayed a scenario in which Waaktaar had been left at home for a week while Lauren Savoy holidayed in London (“So you’re going for a week to sort out your head/ So you left me here to keep things going”). The new Savoy version employs a slower tempo and strips away the piano that characterized the original track, while the new lead vocal by Waaktaar is imbued with distortion. “We’re using an old microphone that used to be a telephone on the song, so it sounds like it’s recorded a hundred years ago,” explained Waaktaar during a recent video interview. “Frode is doing his best sort of band harmonies on the pre-chorus, where he’s being [The Band’s] Richard Manuel and Rick Danko at the same time!”

The ephemeral ‘Bump’ was originally written by Lauren Savoy for inclusion in the film Scent Of A Woman, which was shortlisted for several awards, winning ‘Best Short’ at the Broad Humor Film Festival in 2013. Described as ‘a short film about love, sex and lactose intolerance’, it featured Ryan Eggold (a current regular in crime thriller series The Blacklist) amongst its small cast. The album’s lightest – and most throwaway – number, it features some catchy Beach Boys-esque harmonies.

Stretching back even further is the gorgeous ‘Falls Park’. On both Cast In Steel and World Of Trouble, Waaktaar unearthed some real gems from a-ha’s earliest days (notably ‘She’s Humming A Tune’ and ‘They To Me And I To Them’), and Savoy’s latest album features a song that actually predates both a-ha and Bridges, written when Waaktaar was just 16 years old. “It’s still fresh,” Waaktaar said recently. “I hear it on the album with new songs right next to it [and] it doesn’t feel any different.” With some lovely vignettes (“I watch from afar/ Lunch bag and tea in a jar/ Whistling leaves and distant cars/ Falls Park/ I watch from afar”) set against a simple bossa nova backing to accentuate its vintage, it’s certainly one of the highlights of the new album.

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Whilst the surprise inclusion of whimsical songs such as ‘Falls Park’ are a welcome addition to Savoy’s impressive back catalogue of songs, perhaps the biggest surprise on this album – given the somewhat piecemeal recording process – is just how fresh and contemporary it sounds. The strong use of modular synths mark this out as a Savoy album unlike any other, and certainly one that’s more in tune with the synth-pop stylings of a-ha. Sure, Waaktaar has experimented with synths before on previous Savoy albums (see ‘Foreign Film’ and ‘Fearlist’), whilst tracks such as ‘Laundromat’ and ‘Open Face’ (from last year’s World Of Trouble) provided portents of a more electronic direction… but not to this extent. Album opener – and first single – ‘Night Watch’ (featuring a-ha’s regular drummer Karl Oluf Wennerberg), certainly sets the tone. The lyrics, which feature a simple “just let it go” refrain, are conventional enough, and there’s a euphonious blend of U2-like guitar work and keyboards… but listeners are taken on a somewhat bonkers detour with its playful mid-section of squelchy synths.

Tracks such as ‘A Month Of Sundays’ see the band exhibiting a more goth-tronic sound (described by Lauren Savoy as “dark dance”), not dissimilar to Birmingham band Editors (see their third album In This Light And On This Evening). Elsewhere, the wonderfully titled ‘Shy Teens Suffering Silently’ combines cold synth sounds – à la Gary Numan – with mid-period Beatles pop sensibilities.

In his book The 10 Rules Of Rock And Roll, former Go-Betweens frontman Robert Forster claims in rule 2 that “the second-last song on every album is the weakest”. This doesn’t apply to Savoy’s ‘Sunlit Byways’, which is arguably the catchiest track on the album (“It puts me in a good mood when I listen to that song,” Lauren Savoy said recently). Whilst Waaktaar recently stated that “you can never get enough distortion”, the vocals do let the track down slightly, but it’s a lovely pop song that resonates with both warmth and optimism (“When we walk/ Through sunlit byways/ Grab my hand/ When things go sideways/ As they sometimes will”).

Overall this is a confident – and surprisingly seamless – collection; playful, adventurous, and boasting a production that benefits from retaining its rough edges. In fact, it’s the perfect companion piece to last year’s World Of Trouble. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next one…


See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown is released by Drabant Music on 12th January.

Savoy, featuring Linn Frøkedal (from Misty Coast) on keyboards and Chris Holm on bass, will be performing at Parkteatret in Oslo on 11th January, with special guest Zoe Gnecco.

Many thanks to Matea Grøvik at Drabant Music.

Photographs by Jason Brandenberg.

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A-HA – MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice

Acoustic love from Norway’s finest…

“Suddenly we’re a band again, suddenly we understand why we’re together, and we’re in agreement like never before.” – Morten Harket

“This current process has given us an incredible team spirit and a creative exchange that we haven’t had in many years.” – Magne Furuholmen

“I can’t remember the last time we had such a natural and easy way of working together.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy

It was in mid-December 2016 that a-ha officially announced that they would be releasing a new live acoustic album, with a mixture of songs old and new being selected from a series of intimate shows. Throughout their career, the band had performed many of their songs in more pared-down versions in concert (for example, ‘Stay On These Roads’), but until this point had resisted offers to perform an entire set of stripped-down songs. Singer Morten Harket, who has actually appeared on an MTV Unplugged album (performing ‘Wind Of Change with The Scorpions on Live In Athens), was enthused enough to declare: “There is palpable growing excitement about this in the group… I really look forward to it all!”

Whilst such a project had been discussed many times, the announcement was something of a surprise as the band had, ostensibly, moved on to other projects following the conclusion of the Cast In Steel tour. Paul Waaktaar-Savoy had signed a new recording deal with Drabant Music, debuting ‘Beautiful Burnout’ (the first single from World Of Trouble, his upcoming album with Zoe Gnecco) in September 2016. Plans were also in place to release another Savoy album (the long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Songbook collection). However, the band had already come out of retirement once (following the Ending On A High Note tour in 2010) and, despite the fact that a-ha’s return was a temporary one (Cast In Steel was originally touted as two-year project), fans were well used to expecting the unexpected.

Of course, many of a-ha’s contemporaries – particularly from the 1980s – have dabbled with the acoustic format. Spandau Ballet used their Once More album as a springboard for their 2009 comeback; Erasure re-interpreted many of their well-known songs in acoustic versions on their 2006 album Union Street, while Nik Kershaw utilised the format to great effect on his 2010 album No Frills. In a concert setting, the likes of Midge Ure, China Crisis (see the Acoustically Yours album) and Howard Jones (see Live Acoustic America) have all enjoyed some success by employing a more stripped-back approach. And then there are the rock veterans Status Quo, whose recent Aquostic albums and shows have reinvigorated – and extended – the band’s career.

The subsequent MTV re-branding this year – from a historical viewpoint at least – makes sense. Whilst they never performed an MTV Unplugged set during the programme’s heyday, a-ha’s initial flurry of success in the USA was largely down to the exposure the MTV network gave their iconic video for ‘Take On Me’, eventually propelling it to the top of the Billboard charts (the band also won several awards at the MTV Video Music Awards in September 1986).

The MTV Unplugged shows that came to prominence in the early 1990s featured an array of both established and contemporary acts. Rock and pop luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart certainly benefitted from the wider exposure of their back catalogues, racking up some best-selling – and sometimes award-winning – albums along the way. At the height of their popularity in 1993, Nirvana recorded an acoustic set in New York that, arguably, rates as one of their finest albums.

Since 2000, the show’s popularity has tailed off and the number of performances has been somewhat more sporadic, but recent performances by Shawn Mendes – and now a-ha – have given the show a new lease of life.

Whilst the electronic technology of the 1980s characterized much of the band’s early recordings, key tracks such as ‘Hunting High And Low’ hinted at a more acoustic foundation to their songwriting. “We don’t use much technology at all when we write the songs,” confirmed Waaktaar-Savoy recently. “[So] the idea of an entirely acoustic show makes total sense. Playing all these songs now in their acoustic versions is like returning to their origins.” Indeed, the project has represented something of a return to the band’s musical roots, particularly messrs Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen who, as one half of the band Bridges, had released an album (Fakkeltog) in 1980 that owed more to the music of The Doors and the progressive rock scene of the 1970s than the more fashionable punk and new wave music of the day. “We started as a band back before a-ha, writing and recording on acoustic instruments,” Furuholmen told Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø at last month’s Berlin press conference. “And then, when we moved to England and formed a-ha, we discovered a whole music scene that had moved on to Electronica, and we were a part of that first wave. And we started incorporating that, [and] that kind of defined our sound. But all along, we’ve added acoustic instruments on almost all the songs. So it’s not really something new in that regard.”

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Tapping into the band’s progressive rock past was 37-year old producer and multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth, who had already worked with the band on string arrangements for 2015’s Cast In Steel album. A former Spellemannprisen award-winner, Horntveth had gained a good reputation as a producer, helming albums for artists such as Susanne Sundfør (including 2010’s The Brothel). In addition to his work with the Norwegian rock band, The National Bank, Horntveth has recorded several albums with experimental jazz outfit, Jaga Jazzist; with one of them (A Livingroom Hush) receiving some favourable attentions from the BBC in 2002 (“It’s the mix of 21st century texture, intelligent jazz writing and improvisational concision that makes this one of the most enjoyable records of this (or any other) year”).

For the Summer Solstice project, Horntveth assembled a band that included bass player – and fellow Jaga Jazzist member – Even Ormestad, plus Morten Qvenild from The National Bank, musicians that were familiar to a-ha via the recording of Cast In Steel and its subsequent tour (more recently, Ormestad has played on Anneli Drecker’s highly rated new album, Revelation For Personal Use). Elsewhere, drummer Karl Oluf Wennerberg has been involved with a-ha since Foot Of The Mountain, and has also played on Morten Harket’s Out Of My Hands album. Completing the line-up was a string section comprising Madeleine Ossum, Emilie Heldahl Lidsheim and Tove Margrethe Erikstad.

In the end, the choice of producer Horntveth proved to be pivotal, as Harket explained: “Lars is a stubborn guy, he’s a strong character himself. And we really need somebody who has greater balls than brains, who is strong and one-track-minded enough to stand up for what he thinks is right. And he was commissioned by us to attack the songs freely – no directions given by us – because we needed to strip every song. We needed to reset everything, so that we could kind of rediscover the songs… Lars attacked it so that we had something to respond to… and respond we did. We hated what he did, and that was great, because we needed to react; we needed to have something to respond to.” Horntveth’s recollection of the experience mirrored that of Harket’s: “Working with the three of them has been enjoyable and fun, but very frustrating,” he told Aftenposten. “I have been utterly pissed off at times, and so have they. After all, they’re not used to a stubborn bastard like me interfering like this – but it’s been very healthy. Deep down I think they like it, even if they have hated me at times!”

Horntveth spent several months working on prospective arrangements for the show’s concerts but, due to his touring commitments with Jaga Jazzist, the number of shows was whittled down from four to two. Whilst the scheduling problem was rectified reasonably easily, choosing a venue for the brace of shows wasn’t so straightforward. “I wanted to build up a whole TV studio near London, but the band didn’t want that,” the band’s manager Harald Wiik told Aftenposten. “They wanted to go to the Amazon or the Brazilian city of Belém, but that proved to be too difficult. Then Magne figured we could do something ‘Norwegian’, inside a stave church, but that would be too small – although Morten suggested we solved the problem by simply using the mannequins from the ‘Sun Always Shines On TV’ video as our audience!” Eventually the band settled with Giske, a remote island in the Sunnmøre district of Møre og Romsdal in Western Norway. Following some preliminary sessions, the band resumed rehearsals at the island’s state-of-the-art studio, Ocean Sound Recordings (a facility that Scottish band Travis used to record their 2013 album, Where You Stand), while the nearby Øygardshallen venue would provide the setting for the actual shows on the 22nd and 23rd June.

What is initially impressive, following a first run-through of the set, is not only the high level of musicianship, but also some of the adventurous – and often sonically challenging – new arrangements.

Of the two new songs, set opener ‘This Is Our Home’ stands out the most. Penned by Furuholmen, the beautiful piano-driven piece utilizes a simple chord progression, and its “This is our home/ This is where we belong refrain perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the show. Waaktaar-Savoy’s country-tinged ‘Break In The Clouds’ is less immediate, but nevertheless impresses with its blend of harpsichord, pedal steel guitar and strings.

True to the spirit of the original MTV Unplugged shows, the band introduce a number of musical guests; a mixture of influential artists and younger, more contemporary performers. Introduced by Furuholmen as “An American with Swedish genes”, Lissie is a Rock Island-born singer who, in addition to working with the likes of Robbie Williams and Snow Patrol, has released three solo albums to date. No stranger to performing cover versions (check out her version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’), Lissie certainly impresses on a duet of ‘I’ve Been Losing You’. Ingrid Helene Håvik, who trades vocals with Harket on an epic version of ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’, is a more local talent, based in the nearby town of Ålesund. A regular user of the recording facilities of Ocean Sound Recordings, Håvik has released one album as solo artist, but is better known as a member of the Spellemannprisen award-winning indie rock band Highasakite (their Silent Treatment album reached number one in Norway, and spent an impressive 120 weeks in the charts).

During Ian McCulloch’s introduction, Furuholmen mentions the impact that Echo and the Bunnymen had on the development of a-ha’s sound in the early 1980s (“we modernised our sound because of these guys”), citing the Heaven Up Here album as a key influence. The charismatic singer performs two songs with the band, beginning with ‘Scoundrel Days’; its sombre tones a perfect fit for McCulloch’s mournful voice. Whilst the Bunnymen’s third album Ocean Rain didn’t quite live up to its billing in press advertisements as ‘The Greatest Album Ever Made’, there’s certainly a case for ‘The Killing Moon’ being one of the greatest songs of that decade. The band duly perform the classic track, one of the highlights of the set.

Another influential band during a-ha’s formative years was Yazoo, whose combination of melodic synth-pop and soulful vocals appealed greatly to the fledgling band. Singer Alison Moyet is the final guest of the show and performs a fine version of ‘Summer Moved On’ (in a slightly lower key). The only disappointment is the glaring continuity error, as the song was clearly performed earlier in the day.

Another standout performance is ‘Sox Of The Fox’. Previously known as ‘The Vacant’, the song originally appeared on the rare Bridges album Fakkeltog, and was sung by Waaktaar-Savoy in a style that evoked both Jim Morrison and Scott Walker. Harket tells the 300-strong audience that he’d been ‘pestering’ his bandmates to do the song for over 30 years, and the new version – which faithfully mirrors the original arrangement – provides one of the set’s thrilling moments. Also stemming from the Bridges period is ‘This Alone Is Love’, with part of its lyric being recycled from two Fakkeltog songs. Ingeniously arranged with a jazz-like 11/8 time signature, the rarely-played track features some infectious harpsichord and an effective oboe solo from Horntveth.

Other highlights include the Furuholmen classic ‘Lifelines’, which is rearranged so that the spine-tingling “one chance to get back to the point where everything starts” lyric is pleasingly introduced into the song earlier than its studio counterpart; ‘Over The Treetops’, another rarely played song, includes some lovely harmony vocals and 12-string guitar playing, and then there’s ‘Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale’, which includes a stunning vocal from Harket. It is evident, however, that there are some tracks that work better than others (the versions of ‘Analogue’ and ‘Foot Of The Mountain’ feel a little leaden and plodding), but it’s largely a crowd-pleasing set.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the set is the closing ‘Take On Me’, presented in a fresh, ballad-like style. Furuholmen, who has in the past referred to ‘Take On Me’ as the band’s ‘party song’, discusses his fondness for the new arrangement in the sleeve notes of the excellent ‘Fan Box’ edition of the album: “It went from being an uptempo synthesizer-driven pop song to a much more melancholic, yearning ballad in this slowed down arrangement. It shows with much more clarity how the song, at its core, is not some standalone upbeat track, but belongs squarely inside our catalogue alongside more thoughtful, darker songs like ‘Scoundrel Days’,etc.”

The problem of how the intimacy of the Giske shows will translate to the upcoming arena tour is something that Furuholmen addressed at last month’s Berlin conference: “It’s not really about the number of people – it’s what you make happen in that room, making that moment glow…It will be strange to go from a 300-audience to a 10,000-audience or whatever, but we are used to that format, too. The challenge for us is that we have to make sure we don’t slip into trying to change the musical content out of panic, thinking there’s 10,000 [who] are gonna get bored shitless if we continue this way. We have to stick with the plan.”

As for the possibility of another a-ha studio album, as ever it’s Waaktaar-Savoy who is the most optimistic about the possibility: “When we recorded our last few albums, we were sometimes working pretty isolated from each other. We should do this again – sitting and recording in the same room together for a couple of weeks or months and see what comes out as a result.”


MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice is out now

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Main photo by Just Loomis.


Tears From A Stone – Exploring Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s New Biography

‘Silence’ is golden

‘If you’ve got more to say, why wouldn’t you say it?’

Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, Berlin, 26 March 2015 (Press Conference to formally announce a-ha’s comeback and the release of a new album, Cast In Steel)

Traditionally, when ‘the quiet one’ from a-ha has had something to say, it has invariably been through his song lyrics.

While the other two members of the Norwegian band have been far more loquacious over the years, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy has done most of his talking through the pages of numerous well-thumbed notebooks.

While some musicians get worn down by playing the media game over time, for Waaktaar-Savoy there was barely a honeymoon period at all during which he was comfortable in that environment.

Take, for example, an interview on UK ‘Breakfast’ show Good Morning Britain in 1986, when interrogator Nick Owen asked ‘Are you OK’ because he ‘Hadn’t heard enough from [Paul]!’

A pattern had been set whereby singer Morten Harket and keyboardist Magne (then going by ‘Mags’) Furuholmen would spar with one another – and the interviewer(s) – while Paul shuffled uncomfortably alongside them.

Then again, when you have a back catalogue of songwriting credits like Waaktaar-Savoy does, do you need to give the public more?

Little appeared to have changed from that interview 31 years ago when a-ha visited Berlin again in September 2017 to promote the release of their MTV Unplugged Acoustic album (Summer Solstice) and subsequent extensive touring schedule.

Author and compatriot Jo Nesbo hosted the press conference and began proceedings by asking Paul: ‘How do you feel about being in the room on a scale from 1 to 10?’.

Paul, unsurprisingly, responded ‘1’, while Morten added, ‘It’s off the scale (for Paul)’.

For anyone still in any doubt, Waaktaar-Savoy doesn’t like doing interviews.

Which makes the publication of a biography – that involved writer Ørjan Nilsson undertaking several lengthy discussions with the musician – even more unlikely.

Yet here, in all its glory, comes Tårer fra en stein (Tears from a stone), published on 6 October, charting Waaktaar-Savoy’s rise to fame and exalted success not just with a-ha but Savoy and other side-projects.

The Electricity Club spoke to Nilsson about his role in what some may consider more like getting ‘blood from a stone’ in persuading Waaktaar-Savoy to open up for this long-awaited tome.


Firstly, is the book ghost-written – in the first person – or more biographical in the third-person?

Nilsson: The book is more biographical. It is based upon long interviews in four different cities (New York, Berlin, Hamburg and Oslo) over two years.

Many people have tried to persuade Paul Waaktaar-Savoy to put his thoughts into print (beyond song lyrics) but few have succeeded. Certainly, nobody has managed to get him to open up at such length – what is your secret?!

We (my publisher and I) contacted him in the fall of 2014 and told him what kind of book I wanted to write. Then we didn’t hear anything for half a year. Then, suddenly, he sent me an e-mail and asked if I could send him my first book, about Kings of Convenience’s iconic debut album (Quiet is the New Loud), and he liked it. Then we met one hot summer’s day in Oslo two years’ ago and discussed how we could try to dig deeper into his mindset around songs and songwriting.

It always helps to be passionate about the subject one writes about: how far does your interest in Paul’s music go, historically?

a-ha’s and Paul’s music played a significant role in my life since I was four years old. When the book was finished my editor wrote to me: ‘Congratulations. This is one of the most important things you’ve done in your life’. And it actually feels like that too. Paul, and a-ha as a trio, are among the few Norwegians that have reached far, far out of this country. Everybody knows the story behind their breakthrough, but I wanted to go into where the songs came from. What literature did Paul read in 1979? What films blow him away? Could his parents’ background say anything about the way he writes songs? What about the Norwegian landscape? I wanted to find out about that, for myself, and write about it so that it hopefully will be read as a cultural-historical document about a man that never spoke much but wrote songs that touched so many people in so many parts of the world.

Is this book something you have wanted to do for a long time?

I’ve had the idea somewhere inside me for 5-6 years, but it became more realistic three years ago.

Many people warn against meeting one’s heroes. Are you glad you did on this occasion?

I thought a little bit about that, of course. But five minutes into our first talk I knew that this was the right thing to do. This IS one of the most important things I have ever done – and will ever do.

Did you go into the interviews with any preconceptions about what Paul would be like? Was he as you expected or were there some surprises?

One surprise; he’s a very funny guy.

It is probably true to say that Paul was hit the hardest when a-ha split in 2010 – the other two were keen to embark on new careers whereas Paul believed there was still more to come from a-ha. Does this come across in the book?

Yes, it does. Paul says in the book that he didn’t want to quit at all back in 2010, and that he wanted more a-ha.

Is it also fair to say that Paul is the most enthusiastic with what is going on now – the ‘MTV Unplugged’ concert and the many live concerts ahead, both acoustic and ‘plugged’?

We haven’t talked about that specifically, we ended our two years of interviews just in the start of the ‘Unplugged’ project.

You have also written about Kings of Convenience, so do you see the struggles that a-ha has had internally over the years as just something that happens in every/most bands?

I don’t want to have an opinion about a-ha’s struggles. Paul talks about it in the book but he also says that Morten and Magne are two of his closest friends.

Initially the book will only be available in Norwegian. Are there plans to translate it into other languages, including English?

There is some interest in other countries, and there will be news out on that in the not too distant future, but I’m afraid not English right now. But I really hope it will happen.

As a-ha lived in and enjoyed great success in England in the ‘80s/early ‘90s (and retain a strong fan-base there to this day), why do you think the English translation is not near the top of the list?

Hmm, do you mean from my perspective or from English publishers? I guess many potential publishers haven’t heard about the book yet but hopefully they will and the book will have a long life.

Is Paul excited about the book?

Yes, that’s my impression. But probably also a little bit worried. This book goes into details about big parts of his life, and goes into the core of what he does – writing songs. I know I would have been kind of nervous (in his position).

And you have recorded a Savoy song (‘Whalebone’) especially for the release of the book with your own band (Willow) – how exciting was that to do and what does Paul think of it?

I have confidence in my writing and wasn’t too afraid about what Paul would think when I sent him the first chapters [of the book] last summer, since he liked the Kings of Convenience book. But the singing – and the Willow cover-version: I was super nervous. But then we got really nice feedback from him; he told me that he loved it and the version almost gave him a Placebo-vibe. Willow is, by the way, a band that broke up 12 years ago, but we thought this was a great opportunity to get back together and do something, because I like the concept of a book-single (a limited edition 7″ vinyl featuring ‘Whalebone’ by Willow and ‘Manhattan Skyline’ by Kings of Convenience was included for those who pre-ordered through bidra.no).


And what more from Waaktaar-Savoy?

When a celebrity has a book out it is common to tour the media circuit hammering home the point.

Will this be the case on this occasion?

Let publisher Christer Falck clear that matter up: ‘Pål will not promote the book,” Falck clarified.

‘As he said: “I have said what is to be said. From now on, I will keep silent.”’

One suspects Paul’s notebooks will continue to vocalise his thoughts for many years to come.


Tårer fra en stein is available now, published by Falck Forlag (http://www.falckforlag.no/)

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Greg Lansdowne is a freelance writer, who wrote a book on a-ha in 2016 called ‘Living A Fan’s Adventure Tale – a-ha in the eyes of the beholders’.

The Electricity Club extends its thanks to Ørjan Nilsson. Photo by Ivar Kvaal.


SAVOY – Mountains Of Time

Savoy reissue their successful third album, introducing its classic songs to a new audience…

Following last year’s re-release of Lackluster Me, Bergen-based Apollon Records have now reissued Savoy’s classic third album Mountains Of Time. Originally released in 1999, the band’s biggest selling album has been remastered on CD, vinyl and digital formats, and now boasts a striking new sleeve design that incorporates both the band’s logo, and a virtual depiction of the album title. At the time of its release, the album represented Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s best set of songs since 1986’s Scoundrel Days.

Savoy were officially formed when it became evident to chief songwriter Waaktaar that Morten Harket had prioritised a solo career over plans to record a sixth a-ha album; an album that he had already started demoing, largely independently, in 1994. Joining the prolific songwriter was Frode Unneland (from the band Chocolate Overdose) and Waaktaar’s wife, Lauren Savoy. The London Film School graduate had already played a huge part in the a-ha story; not only as a source of support for her creative husband, but also as a director of some of the band’s promotional videos (she had also contributed the line “Night I left the city, I dreamt of a wolf” to ‘Cry Wolf’). As a musician in Waaktaar’s latest three-piece, Lauren Savoy was credited with co-writing all the songs, as well as contributing vocal and guitar parts.

By the time a-ha had reformed for the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo in 1998, Savoy had already released two albums; attaining a respectable level of success – both critically and commercially – in Norway. Despite a-ha’s reformation and intentions to release new material, plans were already in place to release a third Savoy album. Indeed, by the time a-ha had signed with WEA Germany in July 1999, both acts were working concurrently. “To run the two bands alongside each other was of course madness,” Waaktaar later told Jan Omdahl. “To juggle records, recording dates, release plans, tour plans, and promotional plans from two different record companies makes everything spin for me. The place of freedom that Savoy had been, became, in the end, pretty stressful.”

However, it was a confident band that entered the recording studio to cut their third record; undoubtedly buoyed by the enthusiastic response to their previous album, 1997’s Lackluster Me. “The songs kept coming – recording it was easy,” recalled Waaktaar. “Lauren was pregnant. We were giddy and excited!” Like its predecessor, the album was self-produced, with Waaktaar resuming bass-playing duties following the departure of Greg Calvert. Many of the songs were also enriched with string parts, featuring session players who have played on recordings by the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Susanne Sundfør and Morten Harket.

Such was Waaktaar-Savoy’s prolificacy during this period, the band were able to set aside songs for a fourth album. And, inevitably, there were some Savoy songs that would eventually make it on to a-ha’s comeback album, such as ‘Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count’ and ‘Barely Hanging On’. For the Nobel Peace Prize concert, Waaktaar was presented with the dilemma of which song to play at the show, entrusting the decision to drummer Frode Unneland: “I gave Frode the choice between ‘Summer Moved On’ and ‘Man In The Park’“, he said. “He chose ‘Man In The Park’ and with that, ‘Summer Moved On’ became an a-ha song. Both songs are equally good, and I guarantee you that if a-ha had recorded ‘Man In The Park’, that would have been a hit instead.”

With both a-ha and Savoy running in tandem, both acts’ new albums inevitably ended up featuring some of the same musicians. Drummer Per Lindvall, who became a regular member of a-ha’s recording and performing setup in the noughties, guested on ‘Man In The Park’, while Savoy’s Frode Unneland featured on a-ha’s ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’ and ‘The Company Man’. When quizzed by NRK in August 1999 about the next a-ha album, Lauren Savoy replied: “The thing is, I’m an a-ha fan. I think it’s great – I’m looking forward to the next album… the more music the better!” In the end, she made two major contributions to Minor Earth Major Sky, co-writing ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ and adding a distinctive backing vocal to ‘You’ll Never Get Over Me’.

One other notable guest on Mountains Of Time was Magne Furuholmen, who added a gorgeous clavichord part to ‘Bottomless Pit’. Waaktaar was certainly impressed with Furuholmen’s musicianship, telling Jan Omdahl: “Magne can pick up any instrument at all and play it as if he’s been doing it all his life. I’ll never forget when he walked in and laid down a fantastic part on ‘Bottomless Pit’ in the space of two hours… I used to challenge him, and the only time I’ve been surprised was when I asked him to play the saxophone part on ‘The Living Daylights’ live at a concert. Magne bought a sax, went out in front of a packed arena, and totally screwed it up! The shock was that he couldn’t pull it off. It was the only time.”

“Life should be a song/ One of those sixties songs/ With lots of catchy phrases/ That everybody knows/ So you can sing along.” It’s this verse, taken from Lackluster Me’s ‘Foreign Film’, that seems to perfectly encapsulate the spirit of Mountains Of Time. ‘Star (I’m Not Stupid Baby)’, released as the album’s first single in July 1999, certainly provided a portent of what was to come: well-produced songs with a ’60s flavour and catchier pop sheen; an antidote to the previous album’s more sombre inflections. Featuring Lauren on lead vocals, the single was a minor hit and earned the band another Spellemannprisen nomination (the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy award).

‘Grind You Down’, featuring another Lauren Savoy vocal, was released as a promotional single in October 1999. An extremely catchy four-chord pop track, it featured some lovely arpeggiated guitar, and became a firm favourite amongst Savoy fans (it was later re-recorded for 2007’s Songbook compilation). Elsewhere, the more sombre ‘Bottomless Pit’, found itself in similar Beatles-influenced territory, subtly evoking the melodic craft of Rubber Soul. Other highlights included ‘End Of The Line’ (which has shades of Burt Bacharach) and ‘Any Other Way’, which included some effective keyboard work from session player Preben Grieg-Halvorsen, as well as a stunning middle-eight.


Whether by coincidence or by design, the album seemingly takes the listener on something of a seasonal journey. The opening ‘Man In The Park’ evokes images of springtime walks in Washington Square Park, with its tale of the ‘flower shop girl’ and the ‘man that knows’; summer is clearly represented by ‘Grind You Down’ (“You wait all year/ Then the summer comes”), and there’s some lovely wintery imagery in ‘See What Becomes’ (“I’m walking through a snowfall/ I’m just a little kid”). Lauren Savoy’s original 1960s-style sleeve design, featuring individual shots of the band, also seem to embody the album’s many moods, via its array of Warhol-inspired colour filters. As an illustration of Waaktaar’s gift for fusing melody with melancholia, it’s a largely unparalleled collection.

The album was released by EMI in July 1999, with initial copies including a bonus 5-track EP (titled The Bovarnick Twins). Reviews were unanimous in their praise. “John Lennon would have been hailed as a god if this were his solo album” claimed Dagbladet, while VG declared: “If the legendary Phil Spector had heard Savoy’s Mountains Of Time, we would probably have seen tears behind that eccentric’s sunglasses.”

And there were celebrations-a-plenty in the Waaktaar-Savoy household throughout August and September 1999, with the couple announcing the birth of their child True August, and the album hitting number one in the Norwegian charts. The celebrations continued in February 2000 when Savoy were awarded a Spellemannprisen award for ‘Best Pop Group’. “This album was so much fun to make, and we enjoyed it so much,” Lauren Savoy said during her brief award acceptance speech. “It’s so nice when you guys like it as well!”

a-ha’s comeback album Minor Earth Major Sky would attract similar plaudits, and it was no surprise when Waaktaar later described this period as one of the highlights of his career. “We got two-page reviews in all the Norwegian newspapers,” he later reflected. “That’s never happened with a-ha. The summer we had Augie and released Mountains Of Time almost at the same time was totally special. It was magical. It’s never been better.”


Mountains Of Time is available to order via www.savoyaha.bandcamp.com/album/mountains-of-time.

Thanks to a-ha.com, a-ha-live.com, Jan Omdahl and Sara Page.

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LIFELINES: The Side Projects Of a-ha

“There hasn’t been trench warfare between the two roles – which hat I’m wearing hasn’t been so important. I don’t write Savoy songs or a-ha songs – I write songs.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy

In an impressive recording career that has spawned ten studio albums since 1985, a-ha’s principal three members have also built up a considerable back catalogue of quality songs via an array of side projects. Whilst the reformed band continue to work on a new album of acoustic versions of some of their best songs, we take an in-depth look at the solo careers of a-ha’s triumvirate of talent, beginning with Paul Waaktaar.

a-ha’s hiatus in the 1990s was described on their Homecoming DVD as the ‘seven-year itch’. In truth, a-ha were still a working band up right until the summer of 1994; completing the recording of ‘Shapes That Go Together’ (a minor UK hit single) earlier in the year for the Winter Paralympics in Lillehammer, before concluding the Memorial Beach tour in June. a-ha reformed just over four years later, following an invitation to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo in 1998.

If a-ha’s frontman Morten Harket had decided that a-ha had run its course by 1994, Waaktaar certainly didn’t know about it as he worked on demos for the follow up to 1993’s Memorial Beach. But it soon become obvious to him that Harket’s primary concern was a solo career, which had already been kick-started with the late 1993 release of Poetenes Evangelium, a collection of Norwegian-language collection of poems by various writers set to music. Harket had aligned himself with a-ha’s manager Terry Slater, signed a major recording deal with Warners, and started working with Håvard Rem on the songs that would eventually form the Wild Seed album. An unimpressed Waaktaar would vent his frustration in the song ‘Daylight Wasting’: “Singer was fair but got it wrong/ He never did justice to my songs/ He did more for me and that’s a fact/ When he went and stabbed me in the back”.

Now based in New York, Waaktaar formed a new band with his wife Lauren Savoy; both contributing guitars and vocals. They were joined by Frode Unneland, whose drumming with Norwegian band Chocolate Overdose had impressed. Norwegian tabloid newspaper Dagbladet reported in January 1995 that the new band was called Savoy and that they’d commenced work on their debut album, provisionally titled Fade.

Lauren Savoy had met Pål Waaktaar (as he was then known) prior to a-ha’s meteoric rise in the mid-1980s and the pair eventually married in December 1991 (Waaktaar presented the song ‘Angel In The Snow’ as a wedding present to Lauren and performed it at the ceremony in place of a speech). Lauren was something of a peripheral figure in phase one of a-ha’s career, not only co-writing the song ‘Cold River’ and directing the promo video for ‘I Call Your Name’ (both from East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon), but also producing and directing the tour video Live In South America, a document of the hugely successful East of the Sun, West of the Moon tour. Waaktaar already had some experience as a lead singer via the progressive rock band Bridges that he’d formed with Magne Furuholmen (they’d cut one self-financed album, Fakkeltog, in 1980). Whilst the syrupy vocals of Lauren Savoy would divide fan opinion, Waaktaar’s rougher vocal tones would prove the perfect fit for the new band’s blend of 1960s-influenced indie rock.


Savoy – Mary Is Coming (1996 album)

“Mary Is Coming was the total opposite of the a-ha records. It was just flesh and blood, very basic. Good songs, good lyrics.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy

Savoy’s debut album, featuring songs co-written and produced by the husband-and-wife team, was completed in 1995; but it wouldn’t be released until February 1996 (the Norwegian media speculated that the record company didn’t want the album to clash with Morten Harket’s Wild Seed).

The band’s debut single, ‘Velvet’, got the band off to a good start and it promptly hit the Norwegian top five. One of the slower numbers on the album, the track featured Simone Larsen from Oslo-based pop band D’Sound – her backing vocals, which ghosted in and out to great effect, provided the song’s memorable hook. ‘Velvet’ did not chart in the UK but it would prove to be a perfect fit for a-ha, and the song enjoyed a new lease of life as the third single to be lifted from 2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky.

Elsewhere on the album, the title track provided another tender moment, segueing beautifully into the unlisted twelfth track, ‘Fade’ (a lovely instrumental). Evidence that Waaktaar had lost none of his pop sensibilities was displayed on catchy tracks such as ‘Underground’ and ‘We Will Never Forget’, while the likes of ‘Daylight Wasting’, ‘Get Up Now’ and ‘Foolish’ demonstrated a new found sense of lyrical and musical bite, the latter being described by Waaktaar as his most aggressive song to date. Meanwhile, ‘Half An Hour’s Worth’ featured some pleasing McCartney-esque melodic touches.

Without the recognisable voice of a-ha amidst their ranks, Savoy were unlikely to match the success enjoyed by Morten Harket, and their odds of global success were slashed considerably when Danny Goldberg, the man who had originally signed them to Warners, left the label. MTV had reported that he had been a “vocal supporter of artists’ right to express themselves as they see fit on their recordings”. Without Goldberg’s support, Savoy’s album soon disappeared from public attention, despite some promising sales in Norway. However, Savoy were nominated for two Spellemannprisen awards (the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy) in the spring of 1997, though lost out in both the ‘Best Band’ and ‘Best Newcomer’ categories. During this period, the band also signed a new recording deal with EMI.


Savoy – Lackluster Me (1997 album)

“An astonishing masterpiece: dangerously catchy and unpredictably intellectual in its gloomy, monumental beauty.” – Aftenbladet

Sessions for Savoy’s second album included bassist Greg Calvert, who had already bedded himself in on a new, almost unrecognisable, version of a-ha’s ‘October’ on the b-side of ‘Velvet’. The band played some festival dates in the summer of 1996, incorporating the likes of ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ and ‘Sycamore Leaves’ into the set lists. A more rock-based version of the latter track (from East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon) would later find its way on to the new self-produced album.

Featuring a creepy sleeve depicting the cracked face of a doll, Lackluster Me hit Norwegian record stores in October 1997. Whilst it lacked some of the pop hooks prevalent in its predecessor, it was sonically a much more satisfying album, and can be viewed as an ideal companion piece to Radiohead’s highly rated OK Computer (which had been released just months earlier).

The serviceable ballad, ‘Rain’, was released as the album’s first single, and became a minor hit in the band’s homeland. It was somewhat indicative of the largely downbeat feel of the band’s second album; the title track being a case in point (“Lackluster me/ Stands before you”). The bleakness continued apace with ‘Unsound’, with a grungey bass line complementing the biting lyrics (“No point asking me to stay/ I’d rather walk away”). Meanwhile, ‘This That And The Other’ featured some more indie rock grit, recalling Eels’ hit ‘Novocaine For The Soul’.

The recruitment of Calvert effectively freed up Waaktaar to utilise a broader sonic palette. Lauren Savoy was also afforded the opportunity to add a touch of art house pop to the mix with a daring double header: ‘Foreign Film’ saw the band experimenting with electronics and Mellotron sounds, while the more abstract ambient piece ‘Flowers For Sylvia’ served as an interesting tribute to the prolific Boston-born poet and novelist Sylvia Plath who’d committed suicide in 1963, aged just 30. Against a backdrop of unsettling sound effects, Lauren Savoy recited a selective list of Plath’s poems in a spoken word homage (later she would reference Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, in 2004’s ‘Girl One’).

The album included several gems: the beautifully wistful ‘You Should Have Told Me’ rates as one of Waaktaar’s best ballads, while the faster-paced rock workout ‘I Still Cry’ was another standout. Another track worthy of note was ‘Hey Luchie’, a sequel of sorts to ‘Angel In The Snow’.

A promo CD featuring the non-album ‘Xmas Time (Blows My Mind)’ was given away with copies of Lackluster Me during the Christmas period. Whilst the album only enjoyed modest sales, critics were certainly impressed and Lackluster Me earned Savoy another Spellemannprisen nomination (for ‘Best Rock Album’).

As part of a Savoy reissue programme, the album was re-released by Apollo Records in December 2016, including a vinyl edition limited to 1000 copies.


Savoy – Mountains Of Time (1999 album)

“John Lennon would have been hailed as a god if this were his solo album.” – Dagbladet

“If the legendary Phil Spector had heard Savoy’s Mountains of Time, we would probably have seen tears behind that eccentric’s sunglasses.” – VG

The first half of 1998 saw the band performing some of their songs at showcase gigs in the UK and the USA. Waaktaar also busied himself with other ventures; firstly exhibiting a collection (titled Rammer) of his oil paintings at a gallery in Lillehammer and, secondly, producing a single by Norwegian band deLillos titled ‘Tyve Null Tre’. His only previous experience of working with other bands had been the Y Me single ‘Dance With The World’ that he’d remixed in 1985 (now a highly sought-after collector’s item).

Following an approach by the organisers of the Nobel Peace Prize concert to perform, the members of a-ha met during the summer to discuss their future. This would eventually lead to a full scale reunion, including a new album and world tour. Plans were also afoot for Savoy to release a third record, which meant that both acts would be working concurrently over the next few years; a move Waaktaar would later describe as “madness”.

Deciding which songs would work for which act wasn’t a problem for the prolific songwriter, as he later recalled: “It is easier to write songs for Savoy than a-ha, so there are Savoy songs that do end up with a-ha, for example ‘Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count’ and ‘Barely Hanging On’ – I think they worked there, too”. And there was seemingly no dilemma when it came to choosing which new song to play at the Nobel Peace Prize concert either: “On Mountains of Time I gave Frode the choice between ‘Summer Moved On’ and ‘Man In The Park'”, he said. “He chose ‘Man In The Park’ and with that, ‘Summer Moved On’ became an a-ha song. Both songs are equally good, and I guarantee you that if a-ha had recorded ‘Man In The Park’, that would have been a hit instead.”

Following the departure of Greg Calvert, Waaktaar resumed bass-playing duties on the new album. Buoyed by the enthusiastic response to Lackluster Me, it was a confident band that entered the recording studio to cut their third opus: “The songs kept coming – recording it was easy,” recalled Waaktaar. “Lauren was pregnant. We were giddy and excited!”

The first fruits of these self-produced recording sessions arrived in July 1999 with the release of the single ‘Star (I’m Not Stupid Baby)’, which would earn the band another Spellemannprisen nomination. Featuring Lauren on lead vocal, it provided a portent of what was to come: well-produced songs with a catchier pop sheen; an antidote to the previous album’s more sombre inflections. Of the pacier tracks, ‘Any Other Way’ and the Revolver pop of ‘Grind You Down’ provided two bona fide Savoy classics, the latter featuring a memorable guitar motif. Other highlights included ‘Man In The Park’, which was inspired by the couple’s visits to Washington Square Park; ‘End Of The Line’, which is sumptuously imbued with the spirit of Burt Bacharach, and ‘Bottomless Pit’ which subtly evokes the melodic craft of Rubber Soul.

With both a-ha and Savoy running in tandem, both acts’ new albums inevitably ended up featuring some of the same musicians. Drummer Per Lindvall, a mainstay of a-ha’s recording and performing team in the noughties, guested on ‘Man In The Park’, while Savoy’s Frode Unneland featured on a-ha’s ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’ and ‘The Company Man’. Lauren Savoy co-wrote ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ and added a distinctive backing vocal to ‘You’ll Never Get Over Me’, while Magne Furuholmen added a gorgeous clavichord part to ‘Bottomless Pit’. Many of the tracks on Mountains Of Time were also enriched with strings, resulting in a euphonious listening experience.

The album, with a Lauren Savoy-designed sleeve that harked back to the 1960s, was released in July 1999, with initial copies including a bonus EP of exclusive tracks. Reviews were unanimous in their praise, and there were celebrations-a-plenty in the Waaktaar household throughout August and September 1999, with the couple announcing the birth of their child True August, and the album hitting number one in the Norwegian charts. The celebrations continued in February 2000 when Savoy were awarded a Spellemannprisen award for ‘Best Pop Group’. Later in the year, fans and critics alike would hail a-ha’s comeback album Minor Earth Major Sky, and it was no surprise when Waaktaar later described this period as one of the highlights of his career.


Savoy – Reasons To Stay Indoors (2001 album)

“Reasons To Stay Indoors is undoubtedly a quality product, and opens with two staggering pieces of classical pop… but then the excitement levels out” – Dagbladet

“Paul Waaktaar-Savoy has a phenomenal instinct and basic understanding of good pop music. When he plays on his own without the friction of a-ha, the result is easy going and charming pop music which sounds contemporary” – Adresseavisen

Keen to sustain the momentum after the success of Mountains Of Time, the band wasted no time in commencing work on the follow-up. Paul told a-ha’s official website: “We started out doing seven songs that were left over from Mountains Of Time, finished those up, and that gave us a big boost! They sounded good… but then, as time went by, it was like: ‘Oh, we’ll have to have this new song there, and this one as well’, and in the end it [was] all new songs” Lauren added that “Paul was writing like a maniac!”

Still fully committed to a-ha in both a recording and performing capacity, the fact that Waaktaar was still able to churn out songs for both acts with such regularity was an impressive feat. However, the pool of songs that he presented to his a-ha colleagues for the Lifelines album wasn’t exactly met with an enthusiastic response. “They’re completely unrealised – they don’t have a chorus that goes anywhere,” claimed Morten Harket. “They can’t be taken any further. It was the way with all of them, except ‘Time And Again’ and ‘Did Anyone Approach You?'” There were certainly some speculation in the media that Waaktaar was squirreling his best songs for Savoy. When reviewing their fourth album, Dagsavisen quipped: “Reasons To Stay Indoors is an album that defines the personality of Savoy more than ever before, even when the title song is so anchored in a-ha tradition than one can’t help but wonder if Paul Waaktaar saves a few possible a-ha hits for his own band.”

What’s definite for sure about Reasons To Stay Indoors is that its roots are firmly planted in New York. The couples’ new found domestic bliss certainly crept into some of the songs; ‘Once Upon A Year’ being one obvious example: “Once upon a year we had a boy/ Our boy/ Once upon a road we took a drive/ To the seaside”. ‘Five Million Years’, meanwhile, found Waaktaar in a philosophical mood: “Hundred million years ago/ The dinosaurs that walked the earth were so slow/ Hundred million years ahead/ Luchie puts her sleepy son to bed”.

Inevitably, the album would end up drawing some comparisons with Double Fantasy, the final album by fellow Manhattan residents John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which had featured songs such as ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’. And it probably wouldn’t have gone unnoticed that a certain Grammy Award-winning George Marino had mastered both Double Fantasy and Reasons To Stay Indoors.

The new album didn’t stray too far from previous long player’s template, though it did employ a greater use of strings this time round; particularly on the title track. There was, however, a change of bass-playing personnel with the arrival of Jørun Bøgeberg (who’d previously played on the Memorial Beach and East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon albums). There was another a-ha connection in the form of Anneli Drecker, who would later duet with Morten Harket on ‘Turn The Lights Down’ and perform with the band on the subsequent Lifelines tour. On Savoy’s album, Drecker guested on the quirky synthpop number, ‘Fear List’, which included off-the-wall lyrical couplets such as “It’s so itchy you have to itch/ It doesn’t matter if it bleeds.” Not one of Savoy’s greatest moments, but its inclusion proved that the band were still prepared to experiment. Far better was the more conventional ‘Paramount’, that recalled the mid-1990s indie pop of acts such as Lush and Garbage.

The album was preceded by the single (and minor hit) ‘If You Won’t Come To The Party’ in September 2001, and featured some lovely vocal interplay between the band. The album arrived in October and, once again, early copies included an EP of exclusive songs. Reviews were generally favourable, though the general consensus amongst critics was that the band had played it too safe. Certainly, tracks such as ‘I Wouldn’t Change A Thing’ occupied familiar Rubber Soul-like territory, but there were plenty of standouts. These included the epic title track, the brooding ‘Face’ and ‘Half Of The Time’, which saw Waaktaar ruminating on his well-documented shyness (“Half of the time/ I see no reason/ To say much”). “I like to keep in the background,” the sensitive songwriter once confessed in the Tor Marcussen book The Story So Far. “There are only certain kinds of people I can talk to [and] feel secure with… I’m definitely not the pop-star type.”

While the album didn’t quite meet expectations, it was certainly a worthy addition to Savoy’s increasingly impressive body of work. And the bands’ hard work paid off with yet another Spellemannprisen award for ‘Best Pop Group’.


Savoy – Savoy (2004 album)


There would be a wait of almost three years for the next Savoy album as Paul Waaktaar was fully committed to a-ha and the promotion of Lifelines throughout 2002.

Tensions had been fraught during the recording of Lifelines, which involved the three principal members of a-ha battling to get their new songs on the album. Magne Furuholmen had his own view of the sessions: “For me, Lifelines was about not giving a shit about the others in the band and only working with those who were interested in working with my material.”

Waaktaar’s own contribution to Lifelines was still fairly substantial, but the experience was not a happy one for the prolific writer, and he would later vent his creative frustrations on ‘Is My Confidence Reeling?’. Amongst a musical backdrop that evoked John Lennon circa 1970, Waaktaar asked: “What’s the point of writing songs that no-one hears?/ Little waves of sound falling on deaf ears”. Waaktaar was certainly grateful to return to the more receptive and amiable Savoy set-up. “Things were extremely uncomfortable at that time,” he confirmed. “So it was probably a matter of wanting to be in a band in which everything was free and friendly, where everybody wished the best for one another. It was a natural reaction, a yin/yang thing.”

Savoy’s fifth album would employ a more organic, back-to-basics approach and something of a return to the melancholic intonations of Lackluster Me; not just in terms of its musical content but also its presentation. The album was simply titled Savoy and released on their own Eleventeen label, while the sleeve featured (barely legible) handwritten lyrics and credits. Further emphasizing the band’s solidarity, Lauren Savoy was given a greater share of the lead vocals. Frode Jacobsen (from the successful Norwegian rock band Madrugada) was drafted in to help produce the album.

Such was the wealth of material available during this period the band briefly considered releasing a double album, before opting for a standard 12-track set. Some songs that had been earmarked for Lifelines, but later rejected, were considered for inclusion on Savoy. These included ‘The Breakers’, which featured a vocal from Waaktaar’s friend Jimmy Gnecco (frontman for the rock band Ours). Also included on the new opus was the stunning ‘Whalebone’, a song which had been written for the Norwegian film Hotel, Oslo – it also served a dual purpose as the album’s first single release in August 2004. ‘Whalebone’ was also notable in that it recycled, to great effect, the “O weeping night/ O grieving sky…” lyric from a-ha’s ‘Locust’.

Like the previous album, Savoy was not short of New York references: There’s the wonderful laid-back vibe of ‘Girl One’ with its South Street Seaport setting and Byrds-like guitar, while the gorgeous snow-covered ‘Watertowers’ harked back to the White Album stylings of Lackluster Me.

By the time of the album’s recording, New York City was still coming to terms with the events of 9/11 and there’s a pervading sense of despair on the album; evident on tracks such as ‘Shooting Spree’, a Lennon-inspired narrative about a gunman who “Kills everyone that gets in the line of him and his gun/ Then shoots himself when he’s done”. And then there’s the brooding, funereal closer ‘Isotope’ which saw the band ruminating over environmental affairs against a soundscape of guitars, electronics and backwards effects; permeated throughout with some chilling death bells. Tensions were eased with the McCartney-like playfulness of ‘Bovine’ (“You have to be gifted/ To get me out of bed”) but Savoy’s ‘brown’ album was a largely sombre affair. There was no doubting the quality of the product, though, and the band deservedly received another Spellemannprisen nomination.

The album was dedicated to Lauren’s sister Deborah who had sadly passed away, and was released in Norway at the end of August 2004. The band toured there throughout September with new bassist Maya Vik, but Waaktaar’s attention was about to swing back to a-ha once more, with the recording of Analogue commencing in the spring of 2005.


Savoy – Savoy Songbook Vol.1 (2007 album)

“Savoy’s music lacks drama and ambition, the creative tension that characterizes a-ha at their best seems to disappear when the Waaktaar-Savoys are working in their home studio.” – Dagsavisen

“The new songs fit well together with newly arranged, but well-known, Savoy songs like, and make this ten-track album into a complete, but at times boring album.” – Dagbladet

“Pop with correction fluid – Savoy are more concerned about correcting old mistakes than risking potential new ones.” – Aftenposten

With Paul Waaktaar committed to a-ha for the next years, Savoy effectively went into hibernation, before re-emerging with the Savoy Songbook in 2007. Lauren Savoy’s only recording during this period had been a contribution to Anneli Drecker’s second solo album, Frolic in 2005 (a vocal part on the Blancmange-sampling, ‘The Monkey Trap’). Waaktaar also found time to add a vocal to ‘Goodbye Sweet Sorrow’, a track that features on the 2006 album Piece Of Paradise by Maya Vik’s band Furia.

Savoy’s next release represented something of a misstep for the band, a somewhat confused retrospective featuring an album of seven re-recordings and three new tracks, plus a second disc of previously released band favourites. Guest musicians included Rob Schwimmer, who would later contribute a theremin part to a-ha’s ‘Under The Make-up’.

Co-produced by Michael Ilbert, the album was recording in a highly productive two-week period at Loho Studios in New York. According to Waaktaar: “We recorded about 18 songs… we took the songs that we thought worked the best.” Lauren Savoy, however, had to be convinced about the inclusion of ‘Lackluster Me’ and pushed for more uptempo material to be included: “That’s how it’s always been with Paul,” she told NRK Radio. “He writes ballads, and then others have to convince him to increase the tempo. That’s what happened with a lot of the a-ha songs as well. ‘The Sun Always Shines On T.V.’, for example, started as a ballad.”

Arguably, a single CD compilation may have served as a better introduction to the band, who were using the opportunity to present their blend of melancholic indie pop to a wider audience. Of the new tracks presented, ‘Karma Boomerang’ impressed the most. Another New York-inspired track (the Grey Bar coffee house in Carmine Street), the catchy pop song was redolent of their Mountains Of Time period and duly released as a single in April 2007. Sadly, the somewhat leaden re-recordings rarely improved on the original tracks and the album attracted some mixed reviews when it was released (on the Universal label) in August 2007.

In May 2008 the three members of a-ha came together to showcase their side projects at some unique shows in both Oslo and the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. Both Morten Harket and Magne Furuholmen had released new albums that month (Letters From Egypt and A Dot Of Black In The Blue Of Your Bliss, respectively), while the Genepool label had picked up the Savoy album for release that month. A dream ticket for a-ha fans, the three members each performed individual sets before coming together for songs old and new. Sadly, the Savoy Songbook wasn’t a big seller in the UK, and it remains to be seen whether there’ll be a second volume.

The next few years would see the release of a-ha’s ninth studio album Foot Of The Mountain and a new compilation album, appropriately titled 25. The band also embarked on the Ending On A High Note tour, a title which would prove something of a misnomer several years later!


Weathervane – Weathervane (2011 single)

“The beat is fierily electronic, the piano plays along resignedly, the tone is grandiosely sad… everything is as it should be in Waaktaar’s anxious universe.” – VG

In June 2011, Waaktaar released the Weathervane single, another collaboration with Jimmy Gnecco. Following a-ha’s farewell shows in December 2010, Waaktaar had been approached by filmmaker Morten Tyldum, who had been looking for a song for his new movie Hodejegerne (Headhunters). “At that point I had actually just written this song,” Waaktaar told VG. “This chance to front a new project again was just too good to let go. I like the way this has evolved. Weathervane hasn’t been put together on a whim – we have known each other for a long time and Jimmy has just the right vocal range that my songs need to reach their full potential.”

Musically, the single was an extension of the synthpop direction that had informed a-ha’s Foot Of The Mountain album and swansong ‘Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)’. Beginning with some lovely Elton John-esque piano and featuring a typically soaring chorus, the song would have been perfect for a-ha. The songs’ lyrics were steeped in melancholia, and detailed a scenario in which Waaktaar had been left at home for a week while Lauren Savoy holidayed in London: “So you’re going for a week to sort out your head/ So you left me here to keep things going”.

During interviews to promote the single, Waaktaar had hinted that the project with Gnecco would stretch to an album, but this never materialised. The next few years would see Waaktaar stockpiling songs for Savoy and other artists. In 2012, Waaktaar and Lauren Savoy helped out their studio engineer Eliot Leigh (who was using the pseudonym Infuze) on a dubstep recording titled ‘Far Away’, supplying lyrics and a guide vocal melody. Waaktaar also produced a song for Scent Of A Woman, a short film that Lauren Savoy had directed in 2013.

Waaktaar wrote and produced three songs for Linnea Dale’s 2014 album Good Goodbyes, namely ‘Better Without You’, ‘Sweet Life’ and ‘With Eyes Closed’. Waaktaar was certainly impressed with this particular project: “I loved her voice from the first moment,” he told VG. “This is the first time I’ve done something like this, and I liked it. It felt good; a different perspective.” Dale was a former Norwegian Idol finalist who had been mentored by Morten Harket. She also guested on synthpop act Donkeyboy’s album Caught In A Life, later performing with them as a support act for a-ha on the Foot Of The Mountain tour.

Waaktaar also appeared on Hågen Rørmark’s album Alt Eller Ingenting, performing drums on ‘Ensom Leter’. Rørmark had previously played harmonica on Savoy’s ‘Is My Confidence Reeling?’ and co-wrote ‘Undecided’, a bonus track on Morten Harket’s Out Of My Hands album.


Waaktaar – Manmade Lake (2014 single)


Another song that would have been perfect for a-ha was ‘Manmade Lake’. It had originally been pencilled in for release on Foot Of The Mountain, and Waaktaar surprised fans with a free download of this distorted oddity in February 2014. Waaktaar was certainly impressed with his lo-fi production: “It’s been a favourite of mine for a while,” he told a-ha.com. “It was written around the overdriven guitar riff in the outro and I’ve been looking for a way to present it. The voice is run through a guitar amp which I thought strengthened the mood and related to the words, particularly in the second verse. Sort of like a ground-to-air type voice.”

Plans to release an album under the Waaktaar name were aborted when a-ha announced a new album and tour in the spring of 2015. Following a-ha’s 2010 break-up, Paul and Morten had kept in touch and worked on new material… they just needed a reluctant Magne to green-light a reunion. The band eventually released their tenth studio album Cast In Steel in September 2015 and the project would keep Waaktaar busy until 2016.


Waaktaar and Zoe – World Of Trouble (2017 album)


With his a-ha commitments completed (for the time being at least), Waaktaar was able to turn his attention to the completion of both a new Savoy album (due later this year) and an album with singer Zoe Gnecco, released in February. Waaktaar discussed the origins of the recording of World Of Trouble during a Facebook Q&A: “The collaboration started when a-ha did its big goodbye tour in 2010,” he said. “I thought I would make a batch of songs that I could present for other artists to sing. I wrote about 13, 14 songs and asked Jimmy Gnecco if his daughter Zoe would be interested in singing a guide vocal on the demos. During the previous tour he had played me a snippet of her singing from his phone and I thought she had an absolute killer voice. The second I heard her voice on the tracks I felt she owned them.”

From the pool of songs that the New York-based duo recorded, some would eventually be reworked on a-ha’s Cast In Steel album, as confirmed to Superdeluxeedition recently: “The two albums were overlapping a little bit, so there are a few songs from that last a-ha album – ‘Under The Make-up’, ‘Cast In Steel’ and ‘Open Face’ – that Zoe sang first.”

Whilst Waaktaar had played most of the instruments on the album, a few musicians were drafted in to play on some of the tracks, including ‘Open Face’. Kurt Uenala, who has collaborated with Dave Gahan on recent Depeche Mode releases, including Spirit, played a synthesizer part on the track, giving it a pleasing commercial glaze. The album’s most electronic track, third single ‘Open Face’ certainly sounds like an a-ha song and it’s puzzling that it was overlooked in favour of inferior cuts such as ‘Door Ajar’.

The origins of ‘They To Me And I To Them’ could be traced back even further, to the early days of a-ha when titles like ‘She’s Humming A Tune’, ‘We’re Looking For The Whales’ and ‘Touchy!” formed part of a provisional list of debut album contenders. Some of the lyrics to ‘Beautiful Burnout’ stemmed from a demo version of ‘Foot Of The Mountain’, while ‘Winter Wants Me Empty’ was actually a cover of Savoy’s ‘Unsound’, with some lyrical tweaks. Meanwhile, the more politically-charged album closer, ‘The Sequoia Has Fallen’, had originally been inspired by a trip to the Redwood National Park in California in the early 1990s.

Whilst on paper World Of Trouble sounds like a collection of outtakes, it’s a actually an impressively cohesive album; with a production that often calls to mind Phil Spector. Certainly there’s a lovely 1960s feel to first single ‘Beautiful Burnout’, with its gorgeous strings and easygoing West Coast vocals. Gnecco certainly has a beautifully pure voice, boasting a maturity that belies her young years. And it’s a voice that’s perfectly suited to Waaktaar’s melancholic style of writing. “From the very first session I really just loved her voice and that super rich mid-range,” he told the BBC. “She was also very good at just zoning into the mood of the song, which I’m super sensitive to. I could see for every take we did, she would get closer and closer to where she needed to be. For me that was such a kick as a songwriter, because a lot of the times you have to make that up in the arrangement.”

“Here we are/ Hamsters in a wheel” sings Gnecco on the equally-impressive second single ‘Tearful Girl’. Her versatile voice is this time deployed in a more ethereal style, and there’s an effective use of toy piano and funky guitars. ‘Mammoth’ is as epic as its title suggests and features another of Waaktaar’s trademark soaring choruses, replete with some lovely harmonies. ‘They To Me And I To Them’, meanwhile, showcases Waaktaar’s considerable guitar-playing skills, and there’s some captivating imagery in the lyrics (“Monochrome-like pictures/ Adorn the entrance hall/ Floor-to-ceiling walnut shelves/ Embrace the wall”). Many fans will of course view this as a stop-gap release while they wait for new a-ha and Savoy releases; which is a shame, because World Of Trouble is an album that deserves to stand on its own merits and reach a wider audience.


http://waaktaar.com/
https://www.facebook.com/waaktaarpal
https://soundcloud.com/waaktaarpal
https://twitter.com/WaaktaarZoe

a-ha.com
https://www.facebook.com/officialaha/

Thanks to a-ha.com and Jan Omdahl, whose book The Swing Of Things was an invaluable resource during the writing of this article. Thanks also to a-ha-live.com for correcting some errors.

Special thanks to Sara Page.