We had a pleasure of talking to A-ha co-founder and keyboard player Magne Furuholmen about his upcoming third solo album, White Xmas Lies. In this interview, Magne has revealed his inspiration for this beautiful and emotionally rich, yet at times dark and melancholic album about Christmas. Magne is most known for his work with A-ha. He co-wrote many of the band’s hit songs, including their most famous hit ‘Take On Me’. He is also a very successful and established visual artist whose work has been displayed in Norway and worldwide. With two singles from the album already released, we wanted to discover more about this wonderfully thought out themed work of art.
1. Your third album White Xmas Lies is about to be released on 25 October. Your previous album, A Dot of Black in the Blue of Your Bliss, was released 11 years ago. In the meantime, you worked with A-ha, Apparatjik and on many other projects. Apart from being busy with other projects, is there any other reason it took you a decade to release your next solo album?
Magne: I’ve had many opportunities to make music with friends and by myself in different ways and different times. Sometimes some songs come along that I feel I would like to sing myself and they end up being a solo material. But there’s no real distinction, to be honest. It just happens. If we’re making an A-ha album, then I will write for A-ha, if Apparatjik is doing something, I will make music for Apparatjik. If there’s nothing else going on, I will make a solo record if I feel the need to do it. It’s not like I’m trying to build the career. It’s just that sometimes I feel the urge to release material that I think it’s worthwhile, and then I find the format that I think suits it. (I’m just trying to make excuses for taking a long time.) It’s probably also because I work a lot with visual art, so I’m kind of jumping from one thing to another and working all the time, but really enjoying the feeling of not being stuck in one situation. So, whenever I have a chance to go somewhere that I haven’t been for a while, it just opens up something new for me. I don’t think the world is necessarily waiting for me to create another solo album, but when I feel I have the songs that I want to be heard, I release an album. Half way into recording this album, I just kept recording more and more songs and I thought I would take half of them out at the end. However, when I was done recording, I was like, you know, actually no. It doesn’t seem that people care so much about albums anymore, so why don’t I just do a double album? When everyone is making singles, I’d rather make a double album.
2. White Xmas Lies is a concept album with a different, darker take on Christmas. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?
Magne: I didn’t plan to make a double album when I started. It was more a winter album than a Christmas album. I liked the title White Xmas Lies, so I felt there was a concept in that; I really don’t like much of the new Christmas covers that keep coming out. I remember the days when Sufjan Stevens was sending out Christmas records to his friends and I thought it was such a nice thing to do. It was very interesting that I could write a kind of a Nordic take on Christmas that would somehow be meaningful, but as I was recording it became a solo album with Christmas, winter, dark theme at the centre and then it just evolved from there. I don’t know what to call it. It started as an idea to try to give a little bit more musical quality to Christmas celebrations.
3. I believe the album will have a strong impact on listeners as many of us can relate to its message. How do you feel about the album in that sense?
Magne: One of life’s ironies is that when we have these communal celebrations, like Christmas, it can be very hard for people who for some reason don’t share the sentiment. Anyone could fall outside the sentiment, for example, because of something tragic that happened in their lives or the fact that they are not part of this materialistic hyper-fest that Christmas has become, so I think most of us can recognise that times of celebrations can be the loneliest times. If you’re in such a place where you don’t feel connected to the world around you, it’s especially hard during times like Christmas. The society tells us that everyone should be happy, everyone should be together, everything should be sweet, fun and caring, but if you’re on the outside of that for whatever reason, the contrast becomes incredibly painful. People are at their loneliest when the world pretends to be merry. For me, it was important to try to make an album that no one would feel excluded from. Even within families, there’s trouble underneath that’s never spoken about, there’s resentment and paranoia and bad relations and good relations, all mixed up, and most of the time the music is there just to be this kitschy backdrop to a ritual that is becoming empty of meaning. I just felt really depressed one Christmas. I remember I was walking down the street in New York and I saw in a shop window this decorated Christmas tree with diamond watches instead of Christmas ornaments and I thought I was one of the lucky people who has a family, who has a lot of privilege in his life, but I just felt really out of step with that thing that the world was trying to push Christmas into being. Christmas is supposed to be about being together, about contemplating the year that has just passed, looking towards the future, trying to make amends, trying to make a better time. The best gift you can give someone is to try to make friends with people you’re not friends with. It just felt like I was a part of something that’s becoming increasingly superficial, increasingly materialistic, increasingly removed from the image of Christmas and I thought how it didn’t felt right to have to think about what to get people for Christmas because they already have too much to begin with. We live in that bubble but, I don’t like the thought that the world is the place where people get more and more separated.
4. Every year around Christmas time, we are bombarded with TV commercials showing happy families and all the things you can possibly buy, but that no one really needs. In the song “White Xmas Lies” you describe a family gathering on Christmas day with “family and friends, we lie and pretend, that nothing will come between us”. Do you think that Christmas is being exploited and commercialized nowadays, and that it’s lost its true family spirit and meaning?
Magne: It kind of sneaks up on you, because we’re all part of the world of entertainment, the world of consumerism, we sort of drift along in our lives. One Christmas I was running around trying to think of something meaningful to give to my kids and in the end I told the whole family I’m not gonna buy any presents this year but I will give money to someone who needs it more. What they would have gotten for Christmas will help someone feel a little bit more included on Christmas Eve. Everyone was super happy with that. So, in a way, it’s really possible to turn things around and that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to do this, I wanted to add some music into Christmas, it wasn’t some happy-go-lucky action, I wanted to make this record as a gift to people who otherwise wouldn’t feel included. I wanted to make sure that I tried to be as inclusive as possible and describe as many situations as possible that we can all relate to, but that we somehow sweep under the carpet at Christmas time.
5. The lyrics are a vital part of the album, and some of them are particularly melancholic and sad. Was it difficult to write about Christmas from that point of view?
Magne: When I work, I like to establish a framework for myself. When you set a defined border and say you’re only gonna work within this space, then things pop up that you didn’t think about and that you wouldn’t have written that way if you hadn’t made those limitations. For instance, one of the last things that I recorded for “A Wintry Silence” were vocals. That song didn’t really have a single Christmas word and I didn’t want to push anything into it. However, from the literary angle, this is one of the sentences that I’m the happiest with on the whole album: “For every Christmas rose we got, our hearts have grown a thorn”. We call it a different name in Norwegian, so I didn’t know it was called a Christmas rose, but because it’s called a Christmas rose, I could use the image of a thorn growing out of a heart. Actually, limiting myself might be my most important creative tool. It’s the same with “Deck the halls with bows of holly ’tis the season to be melancholy”. There’s humour in there somewhere.
6. Of course, I couldn’t escape the moments of dark humour, like “A Punch-Up On Boxing Day” or the brilliant “So Cold It’s Hard To Think”. Was it another way to address difficult subjects?
Magne: For me, getting emotions from taking complex issues seriously also means that if you can use humour as part of my self-assigned framework, it becomes richer. It’s a way of releasing the tension: first holding the tension back, letting it build up, and then releasing it. For me, it’s a natural part of the toolbox, if you like. And I have a dark sense of humour anyway. I enjoy a good belly laugh as much as the next person, but I cannot help myself with this dark humour, when I see it, it comes out.
I think it’s sometimes also a really healthy approach to things, wouldn’t you agree?
Magne: Yeah, I totally agree. At the darkest moments humour has really saved the day, certainly in my life, and it’s something I take very seriously. I am not trying to make jokes about Christmas, but if you make it very serious, it’s almost like you’re moralising and that’s not my point here at all. I just want to try to make sense of all the conflicting emotions that Christmas can provoke in us.
7. We already heard the first single “This Is Now America”. The song reflects your feelings and thoughts on the current situation in America and the world in general. How did it find its way to this release, since it diverts from the album concept?
Magne: Yeah, it’s tough to really call that song a Christmas song. But then, try to approach Christmas while knowing that all these world problems are happening anyway. I sort of reserve my right to say: OK, this is my Christmas, this is what I care about, what I worry about, what I think about. It’s not all about turkeys and woollen socks, it’s also about the state the world is in, the worries about the future and also, for me as a Norwegian, probably about average person obsessed with what’s going on in America at the moment. I’m worried for the world, really. There’s a lot of things to write about these days. If I was a protest singer, I think this would be a good time to be born in, because it’s a very confusing picture. You have really good liars who make a career out of saying that people who tell the truth are the liars and you have people who tell the truth, but who don’t dare speak up. You have countries that choose game show hosts for the leaders of their countries, anything but people who have been a part of the system. So, there’s healthy and unhealthy stuff happening side by side all the time. I think most people will find it, also because it’ll quickly to come to us since it travels around the world so fast these days, it’s just almost like a reality show, like a simulation.
8. The second single, “The Light We Lost”, was released on 4 October. It talks about broken friendships and relationships, and it’s utterly emotional and melancholic. It definitely reached me on a very deep and personal level. Could you foresee the album would touch people’s hearts in such profound and intense way?
Magne: In a way, when you write, you’re speaking to someone, you’re kind of opening up to someone you don’t know. You are saying: This is how I feel! And if someone feels connected to this in some way, then it was worth it for me to write this song. So, there’s this hope. I don’t think the song is complete until someone else has heard it, until someone tells you that they could connect, they could relate to the song. You’re not happy until that happens. When it happens it makes everything, all the work that’s gone into it, feel worth it. I write as my way of speaking with the world, that’s what I do. I paint, I write texts, I make music and it’s all part of my way of talking to the world and understanding things around me, that’s my language. So you hope that people will find some resonance in their own lives. When they do and if they do, then it completes the cycle and it makes it possible to just give the song away and say: It started with me and now it belongs to you.
9. There are two surprising covers on the album; AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” and The Kinks’ “Father Christmas”. Why did you choose those songs? “Father Christmas” talks about the darker side of Christmas, so it fits the concept perfectly, but why “Hells Bells”?
Mage: You’re right with The Kinks’ song. I feel that’s kind of right in the middle of what I was trying to do with his album. The original The Kinks recording is very upbeat and ironic British, almost punk like, but the lyrics are incredibly sad. I thought, if I was gonna do any covers, I was going to cover someone I really admire, and I’m a huge Kinks fan, but I had to make sure that I bring something new to this song. I don’t know if I have done it. My versions are a lot darker and that brings out the darkness in the lyrics. I had this idea of Stranger Things universe sonically, the sort of dark 80s synth landscape that I was part of also back in the 80s. The “Hells Bells” thing was more random. That was actually my manager’s idea. He asked me if I had any projects and I said I was writing a really dark and melancholic Christmas album and he said: Well, that sounds great, you should make a really sad version of “Hells Bells” by AC/DC. While he’s a huge fan, I’m not. It’s quite far from the music that I’ve been listening to growing up. I mean, I know the song, I’ve heard it before, but it wasn’t on my radar as a favourite song that I need to do. Quite the opposite. It was something that I heard and said: Wow, this is completely the other side of the spectrum of what I would normally expect to do or choose. So I wanted to see if I could turn this song on its head and make people cry when they listen to it.
Well yeah, exactly. I was listening to “Dark Days, Dark Nights”, and that song is a real killer, I was crying and I thought you couldn’t really go any darker than this, and then I heard “Hells Bells” and said: Oh, yes, you can!
Magne: Yeah, you know, the sentence that did it for me was “You’re only young, but you’re gonna die”. I mean, that’s an existential truth that everyone knows, but we don’t like to think about it. It was a song that I could not relate to on an emotional level. I could understand it, I can see myself jumping up and down at a festival to a rock anthem but it’s not something that moves me, it’s not something that makes my skin tingle or my soul soar. I’m not a vocalist, I’m not a singer, I’m a writer so why should I take another song and make my version of it. The only reason is if I can really turn it inside out and bring out something in the song that nobody saw before.
Was it difficult to change a hard rock metal song into this piece? When I compared the two versions, AC/DC’s metal rock and yours, suddenly I started paying more attention to the lyrics and the lyrics really spoke to me in your version.
Magne: Well, that’s what I was hoping for, that’s what I was trying to do. I’m sure there’s not an AC/DC fan in the world who is desperately hoping for another version of that song, because if you’re a fan, you love that version. You might find it amusing to hear what someone comes up with, but you’ll always compare it to what you love, right? But for me, who didn’t necessarily love the original, I looked at the lyrics, I looked at the song structure and I thought: if I could do it completely differently, if I could almost re-imagine it, it would be worth doing it.
I couldn’t recognise the song. I recognised the title and the lyrics, but I couldn’t musically recognise it, the music sounds like entirely your piece. I feel as if you just took the inspiration, the base, and built around it. That’s how it sounds to me.
Magne: Yeah, that was the idea. And I must say that I had some really great help. I worked with Morten Qvenild, a really fantastic keyboard player who we toured with on the MTV unplugged tour. He’s a really talented keyboard player and a producer and he wasn’t a part of the White Xmas Lies project to begin with. But I had this idea for the covers and we started looking at where I was with the record and I said I had this idea for Hells Bells and for Father Christmas and I also wanted to do a cover version of one of my songs that we did with A-ha. So, I gave him the directions and I interpreted what came back to me in a way that structured it and fixated it into where it is today. But he played a crucial part in unleashing the ambition I had for those three songs. And that was the only thing he did on this record. I told him I really wanted to have this mix between Blade Runner and Stranger Things, and that I was going to have a sad version of Hells Bells. I didn’t want any rock, I just wanted to see if I could give it a whole different vibe.
Magne: Yeah, but I have to give him some credit, he really came up with some beautiful textural landscapes.
Magne: I think it started when I was thinking about which songs I could do if I couldn’t write enough for this album. “Differences” was written as a kind of ode to hopelessness and a scream for help, a silent scream for help to be specific. I remember very well exactly when I wrote it because I had just seen a documentary about how the Taliban were treating women and this was before bin Laden. We performed it at Nobel peace prize concert in 2015. I wrote it as a response to this hopeless feeling that the world run by men is bound to just screw up around every turn and that as long as women are treated this way, as long as more women are not in power, we’re just gonna keep screwing ourselves over. I’m not a Christian or a particularly religious man, but I am someone who is affected by what goes on around me, and I wrote that song almost as a kind of prayer. And we did it for this peace prize concert in a version that was very sort of sparse. It wasn’t really written for A-ha. It was written as a kind of hymn. And then I thought I could actually do that as a song and I tried it and I liked the way my voice sounded as a kind of a choir. So I kept it. But you’re right, lyrically it fits.
11. You’ve already received some feedback on “This Is Now America”. A special support came from Coldplay. How pleased are you with the feedback so far?
Magne: I wish I had more feedback, that more people noticed it. I think you always do. You’re thankful for the people who, like yourself, connect with the album and then spend energy trying to write about it or show to people and maybe more people get to it. I kind of got used to that anything I do with A-ha becomes much, much bigger than anything I do on my own. That’s fine. I’ve been too lucky anyway with my life to complain about anything, but any song you write you always think that it really deserves to be heard. Maybe that’s just narcissism, but when you write a new song you always think that the world really needs to hear it. There’s a sort of delusion in there somewhere that you think that everything you do is so important, but it’s not necessarily narcissistic. It’s also about sharing, it doesn’t mean anything until people have heard it.
I agree. You certainly didn’t record it just for yourself, never to release it. You want it to be out. Of course you want some kind of feedback, it’s only natural.
Magne: I am not a citizen of America, so I was of course aware that some Americans might find it difficult or problematic that I would comment on their situation not having lived there. But then, there’s also a lot of American fans who are strongly aware that I gave them something by writing that song, that I somehow formulated how they feel. You never know. I write songs for everyone, I don’t write for one group of people. I don’t want to estrange anyone with my work, but at the same time I have my opinions and I’m not afraid to say what I mean. Sometimes, there are people who don’t like to disagree, there are people who get angry because they cannot tolerate different opinions, but I think it was important for me to release that song and important for me to release this album, so we’ll see. Hopefully it’s not over yet.
But the album hasn’t even been officially released, there’s still time for plenty of feedback.
Magne: Yeah, exactly.
Magne: I decided very early on that I wasn’t gonna make neither a promo tour nor a regular tour for this album. However, I’m doing one free concert for the homeless in Oslo in collaboration with Salvation Army. I could have given it for any number of organisations that spend time and effort to help people who are less fortunate. It just feels almost like it’s a Christmas present for me to be able to give that, that’s what I wanted for Christmas. I wanted to be able to give that to someone and I feel fortunate that I can.
13. You are, of course, playing with A-ha on the upcoming Hunting High And Low tour. It’s been 34 years since Hunting High And Low was released. How does it feel to revisit the old songs on stage?
Magne: You are well aware that the audience really likes to hear the songs that they connect with the band and those songs are the hits, so we always try to find a balance. Right now we’re doing the whole album, so there’s the material from that album that we rarely play, and then there are songs that we play almost on every show, like “Take On Me”. It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes you just really feel like you want to do something completely different and then, when you do, you always think that you’re robbing the audience of what they really want to hear, so you try to find a balance that would make everyone happy. It’s really hard when you had a big hit and you play it and people go apeshit. You have to be a really grouchy motherfucker to think: Ok this is really bad, I think I’m gonna stop doing this. I think it’s something that every band or every artist is a little bit ambivalent about, but you always know that these songs create the biggest reaction in the crowd and then you want to sneak in songs that meant a lot to you but maybe didn’t get attention that others did. But, at the end of the day, you are trying to find a balance and to be fair. If I went to a concert and my favourite band didn’t play my favourite songs, I’d feel a little bit cheated. So you try to keep that in mind, you try to think what it would be like to be someone in the audience, at least I do.
14. While we’re talking about the Hunting High And Low tour, could you tell us how the famous “Take on Me” was written? I read that you had created the synth-riff for the song.
Magne: The main riff, the hook, was written a very long time ago. I was 15 at the time and Paul and I were writing and trying things out. At the time we were listening to a lot of 60s music and we thought it sounded like pop, not like rock, so we just left it in the drawer for seven years, but it kept coming back and eventually it was the song that has somehow defined A-ha. If you ask anyone around the world if they know A-ha, that’s the song they’ll recognise, unless they’re fans and they’ve been following us. If you ask anyone if they know who A-ha is and they say no, if you play the song they will say: Oh yeah, of course. It’s something that you just really have to be grateful for, it’s strange to have one song written so long ago and recorded as the first single to be so defining. We struggled with it on occasion, but, at the end of the day, without that song we would have been in a very different space. Who knows if we’d be still performing to crowds around the world, so it’s still out there, it’s working for us, and it never gives up.
15. Last week Trump’s new campaign video raised dust online. It was discussed on social media whether the idea for his video came from A-ha’s “Take On Me” video, since both use pencil-sketch animation technique. You were not impressed, to say the least.
Magne: I was called up by Rolling Stone to comment on that and it’s hard to know exactly what to say, because, again, you don’t want to be a part of dividing people more than they already are. Our video was super popular, it’s been viewed like hundreds of millions of times and it’s a part of popular culture, so referencing it to something like that seems so opportunistic. I was asked what I thought about the possibility of someone being a fan and I said what I said. Again, anyone can think what they want to, believe what they want to, but I hate to think that we are being used by one side to divide people more than they already are. I just reacted to what I was told and I thought it was hysterically funny that two American presidents are involved in this Twitter storm about Take On Me. I thought it was such a theatrical absurdity that I have to comment on something like this. It wasn’t something that we started, I was just kind of put in the middle of it with the phone call. If the guy says he was inspired by something else, maybe he was, I have no idea, but at least what it shows is that when people see that, they immediately think of Take On Me. And that shows how big part of the global psyche that video represents almost 40 years later. This is so funny, you have an ex-president slamming a sitting president who’s been slamming him for the last few years, and then Take On Me is right in the middle of it, how strange the world turns.
But then again, we go back to your This Is Now America and how this is happening almost simultaneously.
Magne: I wish I had the marketing genius to make all this stuff up, but it just happened at the same time and, for me, This Is Now America is the best response I can give to anything. Writing a song about things is way more preferable to me than to just make comments that affect things in a political realm.
Magne: It came out when I did my last solo album. I decided to make every album cover unique, so I made hand painted series of 300 album covers and I made it into one big piece and then formed them individually. And I thought that’s the last time this is gonna be seen together, and I took a picture of it as a poster and then what happened after was a surprise to me. A lot of people who bought one piece found someone else online that had the piece next to them and they would meet up and they would put parts of the puzzle together and I thought it was serious dedication.
That’s another way of bringing people together, not just through music.
Magne: Yeah, exactly! When we ask some of our fans why they come see 20 shows on a tour, they say it’s because they made friends, they meet, watch the shows, discuss and have a good time together, so it’s a social network in a way. I’ve been trying different ways of inviting my fans into my artistic world and to contribute in various ways, whether with Apparatjik or different art project over the years, and one of the things I like to do is to just try to make something that’s unique and interesting. This time it was just a natural extension of A Dot of Black. Since I was thinking that I might not have quite as many fans as I used to, I made it a more limited edition. We’ll see.
You are including a special piece of art that’s one part of the whole picture, and they have a poster where they can see which piece they got, if I understood it right.
Magne: Yeah, I hope so, I hope they can find it, it should be possible.
Thank you very much, it was such a pleasure to talk to you and I wish you the best of luck with the album.
Magne: That’s so very kind of you, thank you so much.
Pics by Nina Djaerff