It’s difficult to look upon yourself as an icon
Abba’s Agnetha Agnetha on fame, family and her secret songs By Alexis Petridis 13/10/2023
In between caring for her dogs, cats, chickens and horses, the reclusive superstar has overseen new versions of old solo tracks. She recalls the stress and sadness in Abba, their blockbuster Voyage project, and the music she never lets the world hear.
Agnetha Agnetha’s recent single, Where Do We Go From Here?, came with an animated video. It depicted the cartoonish version of the Abba singer that is permanently burned into the collective memory: blond hair, blue eyeshadow, clad in hot pants and platform boots. It was a look deemed so striking in the 1970s that it occasionally threatened to overshadow Abba’s music entirely. When the Swedish band attempted to launch in the US, the only label that would work with them was Playboy’s in-house musical operation, “who might have had other reasons for being interested in us”, band member Björn Ulvaeus later drily remarked. He was right: Playboy unilaterally changed their name to Björn, Benny and Svenska Flicka: Björn, Benny and Pretty Swedish Girls.
The cartoon is a neat way of getting around the fact that, at 73, Agnetha is not much interested in making videos, new single or not.
On a video call from Sweden, with the single’s co-writer/producer Jörgen Elofsson by her side, she says :
When you get older, you get a bit more limited as to what you want to do,
Jörgen is here to help Agnetha with the language barrier – one reason she seldom gives interviews is that she feels her English isn’t good enough (it sounds pretty impressive to me) – although his role in her solo career extends far beyond occasional interpreter. It was Elofsson who contacted her with a set of songs he had written that became Agnetha’s first album of original material in 26 years, 2013’s A, and Elofsson whom she turned to a decade later with the idea of reworking A in a 21st-century pop style, hence her new album, A+. Elofsson kept her 2013 vocals, and Where Do We Go From Here? is the one brand new song.
Agnetha is delighted with the results.
How can they do that, how come my song, my singing, can be the same and sound so different?
And with the video, particularly its attention to detail. The two cartoon dogs are based on dogs she actually owned – one pug and one pražský krysařík, a Czechoslovakian dog – and the car she drives in it is a Triumph Spitfire, the same car in which she used to commute between Stockholm and her home town of Jönköping in the late 60s.
Agnetha was already a star in Sweden then: “the 18-year-old Svensktoppen comet” as one newspaper dubbed her, in tribute to the fact that she had topped the country’s charts with her debut single, a yearning ballad called Jag Var Så Kär, the first in a string of solo Top 10 hits. She was subject to a lot of gossipy speculation about her personal life. Judging by the old cuttings lovingly preserved online by Abba obsessives, the press were initially less interested in their nascent band’s music than the fact that the Svensktoppen comet had hooked up romantically with another star, Björn Ulvaeus of the Hootenanny Singers. You read more about how the couple have furnished their first home – they apparently had “a very practical laundry room with a drying cabinet” – and their marriage plans than you do about Abba’s debut single, People Need Love, or their first Swedish No 1, Ring Ring.
So the Triumph Spitfire-driving Agnetha was young, successful and famous, but she says today :
If I could go back and give young Agnetha my advice, it would be “don’t be so worried all the time. Try to relax and have fun. You know, I was a little worried person about everything, so that’s the advice I would give her: try to have fun and enjoy yourself.
Is she different now? She laughs :
No, I’m the same. I think a lot. When I do things, I worry a lot for many days before. I’m just that sort of person. It can be good, because you want to do things right. I have a lot of humour, but I’m also a very serious person when it comes to different things and sometimes it’s not so funny. Things happen in the world and I think everything affects you.
This seems a very Agnetha answer. Behind the Svenska Flicka image, she was the member of Abba who seemed to most embody the deep strain of melancholy that ran through a lot of their music. Her favourite songs were always the sad songs, primarily The Winner Takes It All, which seems surprising, given that it is often depicted as less a song than an act of cruelty: Ulveaus impelling his ex-wife to sing a song he had written about their recent divorce from her point of view: “But tell me does she kiss, like I used to kiss you?” Then again, she says :
My favourite songs on A+ are the ones that feature a certain darkness lurking behind the dancefloor-focused rhythms and bursts of Auto-Tune. Maybe because I’m Swedish, we have something melancholic in us. I think it’s to do with our climate – we have long, dark winters, and that affects you in the long run.
Nevertheless, life as a member of the biggest Swedish pop band in history was a bumpy ride. She was well known for not being hugely enthusiastic about playing live
Perhaps it had to do with getting older, making more and more demands on yourself to get better and better, and I’m a very shy person to start with
Agnetha was genuinely disconcerted by the hysteria Abba engendered at the height of their fame.
It’s a thin line between celebration and menace,
she told her biographer decades later.
She didn’t like flying or spending time away from her children and understandably tired of the focus on her appearance.
I’m not only a sexy bottom, you know
Agnetha protested during a spectacularly awkward appearance on Noel Edmonds’ Late, Late Breakfast Show a few weeks before Abba broke up. Today, she is stunned at the band’s workload back then and seems impressed by contemporary young artists who cancel tours and clear their schedules to concentrate on their health and wellbeing.
Sometimes I look at pictures and clips and I don’t really know where we were or when it was, because we did so much. Artists don’t want to cancel anything, so you work. I worked a lot when I was ill as well, like you have a bad cold or a fever, and you had a concert and just had to do it.
After the band quietly split up, Agnetha pursued a successful solo career for a few years, working with big names including Blondie producer Mike Chapman and fabled songwriter Diane Warren, while turning others down – Elvis Costello submitted a song for her 1985 album Eyes of Woman, but she declined to record it. Then, after the release of 1987’s I Stand Alone, she suddenly stopped, retreating to her farm on the island of Ekerö, an hour outside Stockholm, and focused on her family and her animals.
We have dogs, cats, chickens and a rooster and maybe 20 or 30 horses, so it’s a big place.
Perhaps inevitably, rumours that she had become a troubled recluse proliferated, bolstered by a series of personal tragedies – an ex-boyfriend was served with a restraining order after stalking her, and her mother took her own life in 2004, both topics I’m minded to avoid today. Even after she returned to recording in the 00s, with A and a collection of 60s cover versions called My Colouring Book, she kept interviews and public appearances to a minimum, although she acquiesced to her first live performance in 25 years for BBC Children in Need in 2013 and turned up at Stockholm Pride the same year.
Of her status as a gay icon Agnetha says :
It’s difficult to point to when it started. When we won the Eurovision song contest in 1974, we knew we had something in us that we wanted to spread out and to show the world, but icon, I don’t know, that came later. It’s still hard to believe. It’s so difficult to look upon yourself as an icon, because you are with yourself all the time and we get tired of ourselves now and then. But it’s also amazing.
Meanwhile, all attempts to lure Abba into reforming, one of them involving an offer of $1bn to tour, were turned down.
Agnetha laughs :
The groundbreaking virtual Abba Voyage project is a dream come true for an artist not fond of live performance. I’m at home in my bed, and at the same time in London. It’s very cleverly done, isn’t it?
Even so, she wasn’t particularly taken with the idea at first. When I interviewed Benny Andersson and Ulvaeus shortly after the Voyage shows and accompanying album were announced, Björn told me :
Both Agnetha and Lyngstat only took part on condition that they didn’t have to do any promotion.They didn’t take much persuading, but we did have to tell both of them that they don’t need to speak to you, Alexis, not you personally – but the media.
Agnetha says :
I was a bit suspicious, I must say – you know, what is this? We were working the whole of February  to prepare – it doesn’t sound so much, but it was, performing the songs with all these technicians and all the things on your body. We were working really hard and I’ll be totally honest, I was not so comfortable with it. But after maybe four or five days you get into it: OK, I’ll go there again. Also, the music helps, because it gives us a very special feeling, and somewhere along the way I could just feel proud – they really want to see us again.
Agnetha pauses for an instant, then laughs at the incongruity of what she just said: even before the Abba Voyage show shifted a million tickets in short order, the fact that someone was willing to offer them $1bn to go on tour suggests that people really wanted to see Abba again.
Taking a bow on stage with the other members Agnetha said :
I enjoyed the opening night and would like to see it again, this time incognito.
She giggles :
Like a little mouse,sitting in the corner, just looking.
Agnetha laughs a lot, at odds with a latter-day image that more than one journalist has rather ham-fistedly characterised as “the Greta Garbo of pop”. Her predisposition to worry not withstanding, Agnetha says :
I am very happy with my life today. If I have a lot of makeup on or if I’m dressed very nicely, more people recognise me, but in everyday life, it’s not so bad. Swedish people are very reserved, but now and then one person comes up and says ‘thank you for the music’, and that’s very nice.
Still, a certain reputation clings to her, born equally out of the monumental scale of Abba’s success and the relatively low profile she has kept since. Elofsson is hardly a pop neophyte: he was part of the legendary group of producers and songwriters who operated out of Stockholm’s Cheiron Studios, alongside Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson, cranking out hits for Britney Spears, Céline Dion and umpteen TV talent show winners.
Jörgen says :
Even so, when the moment came to play the songs I had written for Agnetha with Peter Nordahl, I was paralysed with fear. We sat in the car outside her house for an hour, just to muster up the guts. We were really stressed. It’s almost like visiting a bit of holy ground for pop music.I would like to make another album with Agnetha, this time of her own songs.
Agnetha apparently writes all the time :
If I sit down by the piano, it comes out
But Agnetha rarely records her compositions.There’s one on A+, a suitably melancholy ballad about memories and regrets called I Keep Them All Beside My Bed.
It wasn’t always that way. At the start of her career, Agnetha was a singer-songwriter who wrote her own singles and wrote for other artists. There is a fabulous moment in an old Swedish interview around the time of Abba’s formation, where the journalist lauds Agnetha’s skill as a dependable hit-maker then adds, almost dismissively, that Ulvaeus writes songs too “with his friend Benny Andersson” and that one of them has done quite well in Japan. She co-wrote 10 of the 11 tracks on her 1975 solo album Elva Kvinnor I Ett Hus. But in Abba, her songwriting seemed to dry up entirely.
I think it’s because I didn’t have the time, really. When I started my solo career, I had it in me to write. But into the Abba years, I had two small children to take care of, and a lot of work with travelling, concerts and TV programmes. When we had some free time, I wanted to be with my children. I didn’t forget about music, I just did other things. But I have it in me.
It might still happen: her voice still sounds fantastic;
A result, I think, of not overusing it in recent years.
Then again, Agnetha has developed a tendency to claim that every solo album she makes is “probably” her last. She nods when I mention it, then there’s a pause. So is A+ the last album you’ll ever make?
Then she bursts out laughing again.