Every song is a puzzle.
It isn’t often you get to meet your musical hero, much less one who taught you one of the essential tools of being a writer. Pål Waaktar-Savoy is the quiet, talented one in A-ha, who wrote or co-wrote the most of their hits. I was thrilled to meet him and his wife Lauren to talk about their new album ‘See the Beauty in Your Drab Hometown.’
As a die-hard A-ha fan, I proudly showed him my copy of the 1986 classic “A-ha: The Story So Far,” which on page 59 explained how he always had a notebook at his side, and how he enjoyed writing in English because he spotted nuances in the language that we native speakers don’t. “Oh yeah,” said Pål. “But not only that, if we wrote in Norwegian we would get rid of 99% of our potential audience in one swoop. So it was also practical. It’s much harder to write in Norwegian. You just have to work that much harder to make it roll off the tongue. You know… There’s a lot of consonants.”
I wish I had asked him to show me the famous notebook. Songs can live in there for decades before he lets them out. I asked how he knew when a song was ‘due.'”Every song is a puzzle,” Pål said. “Sometimes I’ve released them too quick and I’ve regretted it. Now I know how to do it, but I already did it. (So now I) let them stew… until I really know how to do the song.” Lauren joined in, “Like Fall’s Park,” [the third track on this album.] “Pål
comes across it in an old notebook and remembers this song he wrote when when he was 16. It gets forgotten and then he sees a lyric, and it sparks something again.” Pål looked rueful, “And then you realise you’re no better than when you were 16. A kind of peak…” He looked away, lost for a moment in his own thoughts. I cheerfully said this was nonsense, and that plainly the work has developed over time. He smiled, but I don’t know if he believed me.
But it is certainly true that far more people in the UK have heard of A-ha than Savoy. I had put myself on a Savoy crash course before the interview, listening to both their new album and their 2007 compilation album the Savoy Songbook. They are remarkably different from the A-ha canon, and I asked why. Pål said, “I like albums that can go different directions and still make sense. It was such a long time since our last [Savoy] album, we felt we could do whatever we wanted. And one of the things that Lauren really pushed was this wall sized synthesizer. It was a massive thing. It sounds so cool and it can do a lot of great rhythms and whatever. So that was a big thing. We tried to get more of a groove in. We tried not to fill up everything with the melodic content, because it tends to slow down the groove, because it takes so much space. So we left some of the songs more open than we normally do so we could have more of that playful sound.”
Playful or not, the album starts with quite a dark track called ‘Night Watch’ whose heavily processed vocal sounds like Ian Curtis. Pål said, “In all the other Savoy album reviews I get like ‘Oh I can hear Morten’s voice.’ But on this album, they’ve chilled out. They are like ‘Oh, you’re singing… It’s not going to be like Morten.’ And we’re looking for ways to combine the three voices into making a lead vocal. And sometimes that’s running a combination of the three, and sometimes it’s running it through an amp or whatever it takes. We’re just looking to hook the vibe of the song no matter what.”
Savoy albums are composed by both Pål and his wife Lauren. I couldn’t imagine how a married couple could write together. Lauren laughed. “It works pretty easily. If I write something and he likes it, it goes on the album. And if I like something he’s written, it goes on the album.” I was suspicious. Pål is known to be a massive perfectionist. “Yeah, but what happens when you both don’t think it’s great?”Pål said, “Weird as it sounds, we don’t have many of those arguments. We feel good about the songs that end up on the album.” Lauren agreed. “If I’ve written something that he goes… Erm… The second he says it, I see it, and I recognise it, and I agree. You don’t take it personally. You just want to make the best album you can, so you want the best material.”
Pål agreed, “And a lot of time you have like a pool of songs, so they don’t necessarily go on the album straightaway. You more think ‘well this one might fit with that one… That would be a cool combination. So you so you sort of digin to a pool of cool songs.”
I have listened to this pool of cool songs on ‘See the Beauty in Your Drab Hometown’ a lot. It takes a couple of listens to get into, but the songs have been cheerfully whirring around my head for the last two weeks. There’s broadly three styles on the album. There’s the songs rooted in the 1980s, with an Ian Curtis style vocal, a driving disco beat and a vague sense of a rainy day in Manchester (‘Nightwatch,’ ‘A Month of Sundays’ and ‘January Thaw’). Then there’s the childlike, happy, playful songs like ‘Falls Park,’ ‘Bump,’ and ‘Weathervane.’Weathervane’ will be most familiar to the A-ha enthusiast – flipping between ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Hunting High and Low.’ I particularly liked ‘Sunlit Byways,’ a quirky love song – urging us to grab (someone’s) hand when things go sideways, as they sometimes will. And then there’s the slow, thoughtful songs, with a 70s vibe. That wall-sized synthesizer gets deployed on ‘Shy Teens Suffering Silently,’ ‘We’re the Same Way,’ and ‘Manmade Lake’ a slow waltz of a track, which builds gently to a gentle love song to being alone.
Lauren and Pål describe this album as playful. To me it is almost Zen. The lines that stuck with me most are the ones about being comfortable with yourself and the people around you. In ‘Shy Teens Suffering Silently’ Pål sings about having decades on his son – not that it matters. ‘January Thaw’ says that when arctic snow melts, all the beauty you’d forgotten is still there, if you look for it.
Pål may still have flashes of self-doubt, but in the main he seems pretty comfortable with who he is, and the choices he’s made. A-ha music yearns, constantly looking for something that’s missing. Savoy’s albums are children of a far happier marriage. The Savoy Songbook is a more accessible introduction to Savoy’s music – it is a cheerful and more immediate set of songs. But in a way, ‘See the Beauty in your Drab Hometown’ is more like a marriage. If you give it a little work, it will live with you very happily for however long you want it to.
See the Beauty in Your Drab Hometown’ is available to stream or buy through all the usual channels, and will be available on vinyl from 2 March. If you like it, there’s another five of their albums to go at.
In part two of this interview, me and Pål talk A-ha, acoustic, and what is next for him.