‘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/)
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.
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