“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.
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.