Lorraine Wilson

IT’S A rare day that Benny Andersson doesn’t play piano. He takes a seat and simply waits to see what happens. On some days there is new music for projects such as Benny Andersson's orkester; on others when he thinks “I don’t want to write music today” he plays anyway.

Those days spent revisiting previous compositions were the genesis of Piano, a 21-track solo piano album, released yesterday on classical label Deutsche Grammophon.

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“Invariably I would play Mountain Duet or You and I from Chess, because both are so good for piano. There were so many songs that worked well that the idea began to form,” he says.

“Those were the first two on a list of 50 songs. I removed everything that needs guitar, drums, and bass – so that meant leaving out Dancing Queen, Take A Chance on Me, Waterloo – I couldn’t do any of those justice – but there were still more than 40 songs to choose from.”

The tracks are taken from across ABBA’s catalogue, from musicals such as Chess and Kristina fran Duvemala, and from his solo work, including BAO.

Following similar promotional jaunts in Berlin and Stockholm, he’s now in a rather lovely London hotel for several days of talking, and without false modesty seems equally bewildered and delighted that so many people are interested in his work.

The 70-year-old is keen to have a discussion about why I feel ABBA’s music has endured. The last recorded output was released when he was just 35, but there is building excitement about a live tour in 2019 that involves all four members – even if they will only be virtual participants.

The planning of this live tour and recording music for the next Mamma Mia! film has taken up his summer alongside Piano, but the interest in the album seems to be giving him the greatest satisfaction for the moment. Despite the fact that the compositions range from 1973 to 2016, the album feels like a whole. Anyone new to Andersson’s work might believe all were composed for this album.

“I thought that the first time I listened, once we put the songs in order. I thought OK, we’ll try to release this, at least in Sweden so that my grandkid can listen to their grandpa play piano when I’m gone!’

“It was also surprising to hear just me. No lyrics, no women singing… just the music. I recognised myself in it. Although I’m not a melancholic guy, I’m really not. I enjoy life. It’s been good to me.”

The 35 years since ABBA last released a record has been a period of rightful reappraisal for the songwriting of Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, as well their skill as producers. Musicians have always known that their work was superlative, and adding those two female voices that managed to excel individually but also blend as one was a gift from the musical gods.

As producers they were keen to use the latest technology and even on Piano, he was tempted to bring out the Synclavier for string embellishments. “But no, I managed to stop myself,” he laughs. “I had to stay true to the original idea.”

The album’s opening track, I Let The Music Speak from The Visitors, ABBA’s final and arguably finest album, is “The song that told me – or us really – that ‘we’re on our way to the theatre here’. You can stage that song with choirs but it sounds equally valid just with piano.”

Most of his interviews in recent years have been attached to the Mamma Mia! musical, but he has no problem in chatting without Ulvaeus, his friend and collaborator of 51 years alongside him.

“Nooooo, that’s good,” he laughs. “When it was four of us it was impossible, but even with just Bjorn and I, if we were doing anything, we had to do one at a time. With both of us, I would wait for him to answer, he would wait for me to answer…it became so awkward. And then they just mix up who is saying what!”

There will be no solo performances of Piano, however. His live work in Scotland has been confined to Glasgow with ABBA and a performance with BAO almost 20 years ago. He also visited the city around seven years ago for a concert version of Chess. “I’m not that educated a pianist,” he shakes his head. “In the studio we can correct my mistakes but I wouldn’t want to charge people money to hear those mistakes.”

He does play with the 16-piece Benny Anderssons orkester, which takes its own dancefloor to outdoor events and plays to 5000 people, who dance or sit back on the grass and listen. It’s a four-hour show where he switches between piano and the instrument that started it all for him – the accordion.

“I love my accordion. It’s a wonderful instrument to play. It’s physical. You have it on you and you have to work hard to get something out of it. For me it connects all the northern European countries in their folk music too. Scotland is much more like Sweden than England. We all have our own style in Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Ireland – but it’s all connected.”

There might well be another Piano album. “We could only do 21 songs but there are others that I would like to put out – The Winner Takes It All and Like An Angel Passing Through My Room. So even if no-one wants this one, I’ll probably do another! I did try

I tried Knowing Me Knowing You for this album. I bought a metronome and sat it on the piano but it didn’t work. I like that verse – it’s almost nothing – and that’s clever,” he smiles. “It’s a good sounding recording so I will leave it there.”

Before returning home to Stockholm there was a meeting with the set designer working on the virtual tour. “The band will be completely live – it will be everything you would expect from a live concert. The only thing that isn’t there will be the four of us – in person anyway. We’ll be there in digital shape, maybe holograms, maybe augmented reality and definitely on screens. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun because it hasn’t been done to this level.”

Of course the four will never perform live in person again. To ask the question is ridiculous. According to Andersson, the break-up was more a fade-out rather than any firm decision to put ABBA behind them. “After The Visitors, we took a break to do Chess. We thought this would take two, maybe three years, but it took five years before it made it to the West End. By that point going back didn’t feel like the right thing to do.

“In 1982 we thought OK, maybe some more ABBA royalties will trickle in for a couple of years and that will be it. That sort of happened for a few years and then Muriel’s Wedding arrived. And then Erasure. Then the ABBA Gold Greatest Hits took off because for once we were on one record label for the whole world. And then of course Mamma Mia! around 17 years ago. But I would like to think it all happened because there is some quality to the music.

“The fact that someone is still interested in what I’m doing. I enjoy that you like me!” he laughs. “People are so kind, they say ‘thank you for brightening up my life and thank you for this song’ It’s not the fame that’s been so important. It’s that communication.”

It’s more than tempting to say, “thank you for the music” as the allotted time comes to a close and the record company representatives arrive, but thankfully he stops that potential cringefest in its tracks by looking at the far wall with a puzzled expression, and asks them if a bed has been taken away. When they say it has, he looks over the top of his glasses with a twinkle: “Did they think people would get ideas?”.

Piano was released yesterday on Deutsche Grammophon.