November 16th, a windowless dressing room in the catacombs of the Bremen concert hall ÖVB Arena, where everything seems to be coloured in beige, the faux leather couches and even the bizarre table-arrangement of a plastic agave. Next door Morten Harket is practising scales; A-ha will appear on stage in this sold out arena in one and a half hours. Keyboarder and co-songwriter Magne Furuholmen (57) is using the occasion to promote his current solo record ‘White X-Mas Lies’. It’s near the end of the first part of A-ha’s ongoing world tour and he seems a bit tired, but answers all questions with a friendly attentiveness.
Magne, honestly, have you ever felt the need to listen to Christmas pop?
Yes! All musicians I respect have done something like that, like David Bowie or John Lennon. It’s a pretty great tradition. What has changed over the years is that every shitty artist releases a Christmas album – to the point where you feel you want to throw up.
Consequently it’s becoming meaningless.
Why are you joining this tradition?
I like to work within a framework. When I work as a visual artist, I very often set rules or a dogma. Here I said, “Okay, I hate Mariah Carey’s Christmas music, so I’ll try to do something at the other end of that scale”.
How did you come up with the idea for the album?
It started with the title song, of which I only had the line ‘White X-Mas Lies’. That suggested a room I was interested in describing. I didn’t make an album for, but about Christmas. We pretend that a lot isn’t happening during the holidays and that everything is okay. But you have families together, and people say to their children “remember not to talk to Grandma about this or that”. Or you speak to your mother in the kitchen, “please make sure that dad doesn’t drink so much.”
You know this from your family?
Every family has issues. For me growing up, Christmas had many positive connotations. And I am lucky that our two grown-up sons still like to spend time with us. When they were little, we made Christmas as nice as we could for them. But we also had Christmases with tragedies in the greater family. Something happens that sets you apart from everyone else and suddenly you’re no longer part of the celebration, you fall out of the Christmas mood and look in from the outside. As an artist, you don’t forget that experience and it serves as a reminder that many people experience Christmas like this. As a lie or simply as very sad because they are alone. But it’s not that I hate Christmas!
I wondered if you don’t have to love Christmas very much to make such a sad record.
Yes, maybe there’s a bit of disappointment. This is the end of the year and the beginning of a new one, the perfect time to reflect on what is gone, where you are and what the future holds. This time could be extremely meaningful, it could be a time to think about shortcomings and goals, and of utopias. Instead, we behave like submissive consumers, and our utopia is to buy the latest version of this (shows his iPhone). And we live in turbulent times. The world is going to the dogs, every day there is some new horrible example of deterioration on all fronts, whether it is political or climate change and it scares the shit out of us. And we are the ones who caused it, so hiding from it isn’t going to make it go away.
Some of your new songs clearly name these turbulent times. You have been making music for over 40 years and have never written political songs. Why did you suddenly start? What happened?
Trump happened, that’s one thing.
But Guantanamo happened too, the US weren’t a democratic paradise before.
Absolutely. You know, such issues aren’t new for me. When I was 16, I refused military service. In 1992, at the peak of A-ha’s fame, I moved back to Norway from London before it was too late to be drafted. I wanted to do my year and a half of civil service as a duty to my 16-year-old self, and he came from a pacifistic, romantic anarchist place. The fact that A-ha has never been a protest band is because we three were politically very far apart from each other. My heart has always been on the left, Morten was the conservative. Without speaking so much about it, we all felt that A-Ha was not a stage for pushing politics.
But also on your two solo albums such songs are missing.
I can’t answer the question “Why now?”. Why not now? When I was writing “This Is Now America” it was an emotional response to obsessive thinking about America and watching news feeds. Maybe it comes from more clarity in my head how I want to spend my time outside of making music and art. I want to use my platform more to take position. But becoming clearer doesn’t mean I’m not as confused as anyone else.
That frustrated me a little. You don’t provide answers in your songs, just a bunch of questions.
I think questions are important. People are lucky if they find an answer they can hold on to for a lifetime. I never had that.
So there will be no protest songs from you in the future?
You just said I have written some.
No, this is not protest. You aren’t angry and accusatory, you reflect and worry.
Well, we all need to worry. And I got a lot of shit from American fans – some took ‘This Is Now America‘ quite badly, as if I have been criticizing them personally.
I don’t think it’s a song about the US. It is more about us, about our fears, when the great strong America that is supposed to be our protector, is ruled by a monkey.
If you say this is a picture of a world situation, I agree with you. There has been a huge shift everywhere. I think the refugee crisis was kind of a strong watershed mark. In my own country, Norway, which prides itself on being a very sophisticated democracy, there have been some very base reactions to new world problems.
But your right-wing populists, who co-govern, are harmless compared to those in other European countries. In general, Norway is such a nice little country.
Well, we had the killing of all those kids on Utøya, so you can’t say the right in Norway is toothless. And in August we had the failed attack on a mosque. But I appreciate your point. We have made ourselves a cotton candy at the outskirts of the world outside of the EU, and we have oil money to mitigate the pain of capitalism in collapse. But Norway as an oil-producing nation also contributes significantly to the spewing of CO₂ out in the atmosphere. So we are feeding the world with smoke from its biggest chimney, when what we should do, is use our wealth to stake out the future.
What is your contribution?
As an artist, I offer my thoughts formulated through music and visual art, in the hope that I may inspire people to make wiser decisions – just as scientists, activists, thinkers, and sometimes even politicians can inspire me. Art as I practice it does not pretend to be a “truthful” representation, but clearly a subjective take on the world. In this era of post-truth though, there is, ironically, perhaps more trust in subjective artistic statements than in a truth that looks less and less objective. This means that art is more important now and that artistic integrity is about trust in art, and, by extension, trust in the artist.
I would like to come back to your album. You often say you like to start from scratch. Is a Christmas album such an opportunity?
I think it’s an illusion that you can start from scratch. For me making music and art has given me the opportunity to convince myself that I start from scratch every day. I go into a room and create something that wasn’t there when I walked in. Starting from scratch feels like a necessity in my life. Like I had to withdraw from A-Ha in the ‘90s because I was just clinging to the horse with no control of the reigns. Maybe every time I start anew, I get a minimum of new insight that allows me, for example like now, to be more direct in my songwriting at 57 than I was at 27 or 37.
This need to start from scratch applies only to your professional life. Privately, it’s been very different.
Yes. So far.
But you do sing about broken hearts.
I’m not writing a diary of what’s going on in my life. There are imaginary leaps in the creative process where I’m not speaking from my own position. I observe what goes on in other people’s lives. You asked if my own family was happy at Christmas, I think that’s only half relevant. If I lose the ability to consider that there are other versions of life than my own, I would be a total narcissist. However, we pop stars are narcissists as we are, we’re allowed to be.
You may need to be.
Everyone has to be narcissistic, it is a vital survival skill up to a point. People in my line of business just tend to forget that it is what they’ve done and not who they are that has given them their position.
You lost your father as a child in a plane crash and often say you were raised by strong women. Now you’ve just released a list of favourite songs on Spotify. Of 30 songs, only one is from a woman.
Oh. Hm. It’s interesting that I didn’t choose more women… And a mistake. I’m a big fan of Patti Smith. And Aimee Mann blows me away, she has influenced me a lot. My primary source of inspiration are books, fiction, – and my favourite authors are more often than not women.
On ‘White X-Mas Lies’, there’s a song, which to me appears as its centre: ‘Caprice Des Dieux‘. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’. Were you listening to his early work when you wrote the songs for the album?
Leonard Cohen is always somewhere in my mind. I have this massive bible of Cohen’s poetry and I have often opened it when I needed some inspiration. But this time I didn’t. Maybe I’m done with it. Or have internalised it. He’s been a huge influence.
That might explain why your songs sound a bit like…
…Church music? This was pointed out to me by a music professor and church organist many years ago. He said “you are writing psalms”! I found this very confusing because I do not come from a family of churchgoers.
You aren’t religious?
I would not call myself an atheist but neither a devout believer. In my life, I have found, questioned, lost and rediscovered faith. I was always fascinated by Eastern beliefs such as Buddhism and The Tao philosophy. In the end, I came to the conclusion that our own religion contains much of what I have been looking for elsewhere, it only expresses it differently.
You are currently on a world tour with A-ha. Many concerts are sold out, you play your debut album from 1985. Do you think this has to do with a “longing for simpler times”, like you sing in ‘This Is Now America’?
Maybe it is part nostalgia. But to not lose connection to ones youth is something valuable, no? I would love to think I have access to a younger, more impatient version of myself who is less set in his ways.
But the younger version is just as set in its ways, it just doesn’t know.
I disagree. It‘s true that one is perhaps more ignorant of oneself, but I find value in the ability to commit to things without second thoughts that I had as a younger man. Less compromise.
But doesn’t your new album prove the opposite? I find it very uncompromising.
This is true. Maturity has its advantages too.
A slightly shorter version of this interview first appeared here in the German weekly newspaper Jungle World. We reproduce it here in English with permission of the author.
Eiken Bruhn is an editor for the German daily newspaper taz.dietageszeitung, covering social and gender politics. She also works freelance for different publications and teaches creative writing. She remembers some English from her time as a postgrad student in Bristol – where she lived in the street which later became semi-famous as “Crack Alley” in a BBC-documentary. When a colleague’s Twitter identity got nicked, Eiken secured some social media accounts but thinks it’s a waste of time to feed them. If you want to find out more about her, read her article on her late coming-out as an A-ha fan (in German). It’s all in there.
Photo credit Nina Djærff