It’s not just that he has become older, and that life will one day end. The corona pandemic has brought a greater awareness, and maybe the constant reminder of death makes it more important to give his own version. Now Björn Ulvaeus will talk openly about the things he has never talked about. But let’s start from the beginning.
Björn Ulvaeus' private island Vågaskär lies just a short distance from Djursholm’s main square. A picturesque bridge with its northern bankseat on Strandvägen heads over to the water enclosed site. There is just enough room for a yellow luxury villa with a well-maintained garden around it.
The world famous ABBA Swede lives here with his wife Lena, the poodle Ares, the miniature schnauzer Laban and the cat Issa, who came to the family after advice from the pest control services.
– We were struggling, it was amazing. The rats and mice jumped under the cars and bit the cables. Anticimex put out traps but nothing worked. They gave up and said: ”There is nothing to do now – except a cat.”
Björn Ulvaeus’ red Tesla and his wife’s Lexus are parked on either side of the entrance, their cables are intact nowadays. But Issa would have stayed even if she had no hunting instinct.
– It has a function, it is supposed to catch rats for us, and then it comes into our lives. And we fall in love, desperately in love with that little cat, Björn Ulvaeus says.
Our host makes small talk as he leads the way through the designed villa from the 1890’s. Past the kitchen where the clear blue lake shines in through the large windows.
A door on the long side leads out to a porch with a staircase to the lawn. It is left open during our visit in spite of the cold, a precaution against the infectious corona virus. The Ulvaeus couple live in quarantine. Both are born in the 40’s and are therefore part of the risk group that the Swedish public health authority recommends to limit their close contacts and stay at home as far as they can.
– My wife wears rubber gloves and a face mask when she goes to the shop closeby, and she keeps her distance to others. That’s all we do. Sometimes our children and grandchildren come to visit, but then we stay on the porch.
Lena Ulvaeus has a resting leukemia, it’s course is so slow that they will probably get old together and she will die of something else, according to her husband.
– When we got the news it was like something was going to happen tomorrow. We didn’t know it would be so slow. She has no symptoms yet. It’s wonderful.
The horizon, which for a while came threateningly close, moved further away. Until the new virus from China started to spread across borders and continents, take lives and shut down country after country.
– I don’t think what has happened has sunk in yet, to anyone. Life will never be the same. Post-corona. A shift. But good things will come of this. What they are? That’s exciting.
Björn Ulvaeus wants to be optimistic, but the contrast is big. Before the pandemic he flung between his home and his many international projects.
– I was in London, then I went to Germany and then to the U.S. I had a suitcase with everything packed. The trips were always short, I would stay in New York a day and then back. It was crazy.
Do you still have your private jet at the airport?
– No no, I got rid of it ten years ago. I felt guilty, it was too much like the sheikhs in Saudi Arabia.
You’ve said the private jet was a luxury you treated yourself to after 9/11. What other luxuries can you enjoy?
– That’s pretty interesting, because I try to stay fit and not gain weight. That means celebrating for me isn’t buying something nice that will make me fat. I don’t buy pastries and other things that I love. And I don’t drink alcohol so I can’t celebrate with that. And I don’t smoke.
Ares, the poodle, who has been outside to greet the household’s two gardeners and taken the opportunity for a swim, dances in, happy and muddy, through the door to the porch. He puts his dirty paws on the light carpet. Björn Ulvaeus pushes him away from the handknitted carpet. He continues talking:
– I don’t know. I don’t need anything .There is nothing that I desire, like: ”imagine having that”, which I could celebrate by getting.
Ares looks at his owner, tilting his head.
– It sounds crazy, but that’s how it is. When Benny and I used to celebrate our victories with whiskey and other things, then you could celebrate. Then it was like: ”Yeah, number one! There!” But nowadays, what should I celebrate with?
After a short pause Björn Ulvaeus concludes:
– I can’t think of any way. That’s the consequence of being so priviliged, having everything. And that’s not something to complain about.
Do you never drink alcohol?
– No. It’s probably twelve, thirteen years since I quit. I had drunk enough. It affected my life too much. Yes, I was an alcoholic, or: you are, you are a sober alcoholic.
The man who gave us one of the world’s most iconic pop groups leans forward where he is sitting with no shoes on; just a pair of stockings with blue stripes.
– It wasn't working. It was a choice. I thought, and I have never told anyone this before, but when I made the choice, I thought that I would be living a grey existence, boredom every day, but at least that would be better than continuing like I was.
Outside the gardeners are gathering the easter decorations from the pots filled with daffodils. The colorful feathers blow in the wind.
– So I made a decision, I got rid of that, and it was the best decision I have made in my life. It took nine months or something, then all my senses opened up and my creativity rose and became so much better.
Björn Ulvaeus leans back in the couch.
– I wish I would have done it earlier, but in this business everything is allowed; that’s why so many artists and musicians end up having problems with it. But you can stop, and many have, many. Wherever you turn someone has stopped.
Did you get help or did you make it on your own?
– I did get some kind of therapy, from a friend. But I think mainly I had come to the conclusion myself, that there is nothing to talk about.
This conversation takes place a week before Björn Ulvaeus 75th birthday, April 25 2020. He can’t see how he will be able to have a big party with the social distancing measures being taken to reduce infections.
He probably won’t have cake, so he doesn’t have to exercise too much the next day. It sounds a bit depressing. To the perky comment that you have to find the fun in life he answers:
– But I do, I find it all the time. But at the moment we have to shut everything down. And it is really tedious.
When the newspaper Veckans Affärer listed Sweden’s richest people in 2019 Björn Ulvaeus and his fortune of 1.5 billion SEK was in place 163. Despite ABBA being Swedish biggest music export in history with 400 million sold records he has earned more from music after the group broke up.
”The pop group with the same name as a herring factory” - to quote Björn Ulvaues - split up in the autumn 1982. At that time the group, despite its great successes, was not as big as it would become ten years later.
The revival in the 90’s was amplified by the ”Mamma Mia!”-spin off with a kind of musical, two movies and a pub party concept, which in turn have generated hundreds of millions.
Björn Ulvaeus, who turned out to be the born entrepreneur in the ABBA-quartet, has invested in hotels, entertainment establishments, shows, real estate and companies. Now the corona virus has put a damper on everything.
– ”Pippi at Cirkus” should have opened on June 27, but I don’t dare to. We decided: Let’s put all of this away and take it out again next year. We don’t know what will happen to ”Mamma Mia! The party” in Gothenburg this autumn, the one in London is shut down at the moment.
Before the world went into lockdown Björn Ulvaeus had a trip to the U.S booked to look at ”two fantastic venues for the party, one of them on Broadway”. Obviously it wasn’t possible to make the trip.
– New York is on hold. Cologne, which we were going to, is on hold. And Las Vegas is on hold. The Avatar project (a tour with digital ABBA-replicas) continues but not as planned. It has been delayed by half a year we think.
And the misfortune doesn’t end there:
– Then we have the ABBA museum, Cirkus and Hasselbacken. They are on a low level too. Nothing at the theatres. In Västervik, where I built Slottsholmen which my youngest daughter is managing, a floating hotel which was going to be opened - that didn’t work.
How much is the pandemic affecting your economy?
– Money is pouring out everywhere, when you have fixed costs, salaries and everything. It’s pouring out every month, but it’s the same for everybody. You just have to accept it.
The words come from a man who has worked on himself. Since five years a psychotherapist comes to Vågaskär every week for a two hour long conversation with the owner of the island. He often returns to the topic of his self-esteem.
– We talk about it, that you have to love yourself - preferably. I never learned that. To be more forgiving, more empathetic with myself. I’ve learned that through the years, but being able to say that you love yourself for who you are - that I have never been able to.
Do you end up in self-contempt?
– Yes, sure, absolutely. Self-contempt and a lack of confidence in my own capacity. Those are things that I have encountered in the wolf hour.
When Björn Ulvaeus participated in Swedish Radio P1’s summer talks he touched on his childhood. He said he was probably not seen in the way he would have needed, he didn’t get the loving acknowledgement that he sees his own children give his grandchildren.
Do you want to talk about your father?
– We were never really close.
During Björn Ulvaeus first year his father Gunnar managed a boatyard in Bovallstrand on the west coast.
– Then the boatyard went south. I don’t know why but I can imagine that he wasn’t the greatest entrepreneur. I think that was a huge blow for him. Then he started drifting and never got control of his existence.
– For a while he was a chef at a boat on Göta Kanal. My sister, me and my mother lived with his mother in a tiny apartment and his mother didn’t like my mother. It wasn’t a good situation, I can feel how unhappy that time was.
A succesful uncle to Björn Ulvaeus intervened. He owned the paper mill in Västervik and gave his little brother a job at the mill as a foreman, which gave the family enough money to move into their own rental.
– But it wasn’t a happy marriage. My father, like his brothers and everyone on that side of the family, drank too much. There were a lot of fights and misery between my mother and father, which I heard.
How was your mother?
– She was very kind and good in every way. I really loved her, but intellectually she was helpless against my father.
The child Björn’s unsatisfied need to be seen turned him into the perfect person for a boy band. He had inherited his musicality from his father. He got a guitar for Christmas in his teens and his breakthrough was with the group Hootenanny Singers. They toured the public parks during the summer of 1964.
– It was the first time I had to run from girls. It was really cool. I was in the music as much for the music as for the glamour and being a star. Everything surrounding it was so big them, the first summer on a long tour.
Benny Andersson played with the rivaling Hep Stars. Björn Ulvaeus and him met outside a venue in Falköping in 1966. The next time they met was to compose.
– We had nowhere to go, so we dragged Benny’s amplifier and his little organ to the cellar of the tenement house where I lived with my parents. And we sat there and played.
The neighbors had no idea that music history was being written.
– Dad came down and said: ”You can’t do this because they are calling to complain about the noise.
Then Gunnar Ulvaeus surprised everyone. He let his son and his friend use his office at the paper mill.
– There was a long staircase up to that office, and you could see the whole mill. We sat there and wrote our first song, ”Isn’t it easy to say”.
Was there chemistry from the beginning?
– We could feel that we clicked, but we had no idea that it would become the cooperation it became. It’s actually pretty huge. That it’s become what it is. And it still is, more than 50 years later.
Is Benny Andersson also in quarantine?
The B’s in ABBA had found each other. The A’s came soon after.
– We were in the car on our way to or from a gig, and they were playing Agnetha’s first song. ”I was so in love”. And somehow I felt: ”Wow, what is it with this voice”. You can’t say I fell in love, but I became romantically moved, by her voice.
How did you and Agnetha Fältskog meet in person?
– I was participating in a tv-show, and so was she. It was probably in Smögen and Benny drove me there from Stockholm. I didn’t have a driver’s license.
”Björn and Benny” as they would soon be known by the Swedish population, found the hotel where the program was being filmed and walked into the restaurant.
– And she was sitting there. She hadn’t… she had a small space between her front teeth. She was so young. Girlish. She became a lot more sophisticated after a while.
Did you fall in love straight away?
– I don’t know if she did, but I did. No doubt about it.
Eventually Björn Ulvaeus got to come to Jönköping to meet Agnetha Fältskog’s parents.
– I remember the kitchen well, and the little room where she had her piano. She was really good at writing songs. We had a lot of that in common.
The engagement was imminent.
– We went to Cyprus on holiday. On the plane we exchanged rings, and mine was too big. So then we got there and the first thing I did was jump in the sea. When I came up the ring was gone. It was awful.
ABBA still didn’t exist, but Benny Andersson and his fiancée Anni-Frid Lyngstad were there. The two couples got cheap tickets from the travel company for entertaining the other guests.
– We had guitars and sang, without even thinking about starting a group together. It never even came up. We just sang our parts. We met and socialized like that for at least two or three years before we came up with the idea of recording a pop record together.
The album was called ”Ring ring” and came in 1973. The next year ABBA got their big international breakthrough when they won Eurovision Song contest with ”Waterloo” after a thrilling tally.
The strange thing is that even though Björn Ulvaeus remembers all the facts about when, where and how, he has no memories of the actual experiences. It’s like he has never stood on the stage in Brighton with his high platforms and the starry guitar in his hands.
– I have more memories from the houses where we lived and the things that happened in them than I have of ABBA. After winning Eurovision song contest we came home: I lived with Agnetha on Lidingö - there has been so many houses through the years - and I remember one morning in particular.
He can still see it:
– Agnetha was sleeping. I got up and stood in my underwear, looking at myself in a big mirror we had, and I thought: ”You can’t look like this if you are a pop idol”. I had gained a lot of weight. Agnetha cooked cabbage pudding and I ate too much. I was chubby, you could say. You can see that in the pictures from Eurovision song contest. I look like a sausage in my trousers.
For the young Ulvaeus-Fältskog couple the ABBA decade and starting a family happened at simultaneously. Their first child, the daughter Linda was born in 1973, the same year as their debut album.
When the group split up in 1982 Linda was nine years old and her little brother, Christian, was turning five. During Linda’s first nine years ABBA had produced eight studio albums and toured Europe, Australia, North America and Japan.
How did you do that?
– Well, it wasn’t that hard. Now in hindsight I can understand Agnetha so much better. She really didn’t want to leave and do promotion and all that. She didn’t want to leave the children. I was a lot more into it: ”But we will only be gone for one or two days.”
The world tour ”ABBA - The Tour” with concerts in North America and Japan didn’t happen until the autumn of 1979 and the spring of 1980, and they would be their last.
– We were coerced. I think Frida thought it was fun, and maybe Benny did too. But I was lukewarm and Agnetha didn’t really want to. It was some kind of compromise.
Before the big world tour, ABBA only did TV in Europe, according to Björn Ulvaeus.
– We left the U.S. They said ”you have to tour. You have to go to every town and every radio station there.” We said: ”Then we will skip the U.S”. It was a conscious choice. We had a lot of top 20 songs there anyway. We could have been a lot bigger in the U.S if we would have gone there, but we didn’t, because we had children.
The attitude was not popular with the record label director Stikkan Anderson and others.
– They went crazy with us because we didn’t tour more, but I can tell you the reason we are sitting here today: the fact that we concentrated on writing music and recording instead. It’s so much more important. Who will remember who was touring in the 70’s? Does it matter today? Not at all.
Despite the efforts to prioritize family life, their love didn’t survive. Before the end of the 1970’s Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog’s marriage ended. The decision was mutual, according to Ulvaeus.
– It’s not like one of us was really sad. It was a failure, sure, and you are sad about that, but we both realized that the best thing we could do was to part. We grew apart, which you often do when you marry young.
The plan for Linda and Christian was their own rooms in both homes and a free alternate living.
– We thought about shared custody, that they could be with whoever they chose. You shouldn’t do that. But it seemed so great, as if children could decide: ”I’ll go to dad tonight.” It’s not like that.
The family celebrated Christmas together and on Christmas Day 1978, Agnetha Fältskog moved to her new house, next to their shared one.
– Then on New Year’s Eve, Benny and Frida who also lived on Lidingö were having a party. I went as a bachelor. And Lena was there. I came with another girl, but she saw herself defeated.
Two days later ABBA went to the U.S to participate in a star-studded gala with the likes of Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Rod Stewart. As usual, Björn Ulvaeus remembers what happened off-stage vividly.
– Thomas Johnasson, our tour promotor, payed the bills for our rooms, our suites. He couldn’t believe it when he saw the phone bill. It was astronomical, because I had been lying there all the time talking to Lena in my room. It was so romantic.
The smell of food spreads from the kitchen in the villa on Vågaskär, where Lena Ulvaeus is preparing lunch. She and Björn Ulvaeus have the adult daughters Emma and Anna together, and grandchildren.
– We fell in love immediately. It’s so strange that you are a bachelor one week, and then you just fall again. But it must have been right since we are still happily married, so many years later.
It must also have been tricky, since you continued with ABBA for three and a half more years?
– Yes, and Benny and Frida got divorced not long after. But this was before ”The winner takes it all” and before ”Super trouper”, before a lot of things. And we felt that we had something which was great from an artistic and professional viewpoint.
Björn Ulvaeus describes it as a rational decision:
– We asked ourselves: ”Can we cooperate in the studio?” And we decided that: ”Of course we can, we are civilized people”. So we continued, and some of our best things were made after that.
Did you keep it civilized?
– As civilized as we ever were. Or as uncivilized. It can get heated in the studio.
ABBA's recording studio, which they built themselves, was situated at St Eriksgatan in Stockholm. One of many moments has stuck in Björn Ulvaeus’ mind.
– It was just after our divorce. We were standing together at the mixing table. The night before I had written the lyrics to ”The winner takes it all” and Agnetha sung it through for the first time. It was so emotional. Our eyes were blank and we felt: ”Shit, this is something.” And it was. I can remember that, and I feel those goose bumps.
But all the arena concerts get intertwined.
– There were lots of people, and pretty much the same everywhere in all the cities we came to. It’s very difficult to separate them from each other.
The first gig in Sydney is an exception. It had been raining for three days. Rod Stewart, who was performing in New Zeeland, called Björn Ulvaeus and sang ”muddy, muddy, muddy” to the melody of ”Money, money, money”.
Ulvaeus doesn’t remember if they both knew each other, but for someone from the global artist elite, like rock star Rod Stewart, to call him was not a big thing.
– We knew that we were one of them. We weren’t the farmers from Sweden, as we felt like to begin with. We knew: ”We are on the same level, we are also on the lists around the world.”
Thousands of fans had been waiting at the airport when ABBA landed in Australia. They surrounded the road to Sydney, holding up signs and chanting ”We want ABBA!” The mayor received the group and greeted them.
– Nothing like that had happened since the Beatles. It was such an amazing thing down there. We were living in a kind of enclave, and it was impossible to leave because there were riots.
But then the rain came, and it didn’t stop. The concert in Sydney was an outdoor concert. The audience was standing under the bare sky and Björn Ulvaeus was worried that there wouldn’t be enough people there.
– I left my trailer, and they had put out planks so you could walk in the mud, to the stage. I was nervous, but then I ran in and saw all these people.
In pictures from the concert venue ”The show ground” there are 30.000 people in the audience, standing under a sea of umbrellas. Rain wasn’t the only thing falling from the sky. The damp weather had made a huge amount of beetle larvae hatch and they were drawn in, magnetically, to the white lit-up stage.
– It was raining beetles, they were coming down on us and people had to sweep them off the stage during the concert.
The sadness was huge in Australia when ABBA split up five years later. In the year 2000 they were offered a billion dollars to do one more tour. They turned the offer down. It wasn’t just about the project taking more time than they wanted to put in it.
– It would be so hard to come back and show people: ”This isn’t as good as you think it is.” When you have had a really long break and then come back again as an older copy of something that was a lot more full of life and energy - I was scared of that.
It wasn’t about any disagreement between the former group members, which there have been many speculations about, Björn Ulvaeus says. They have the Avatar project together and they see each other a lot.
– We have very special bonds between us. You can feel them. Like we said when we left each other not so long ago, maybe a month ago: ”We have something very special in that we are four people who can trust each other 100 percent.” It’s nice to have that.
Someone who remembers how it really was?
– Yes, just like that. And what it does to you: to go through this and still be here, still being relevant.
What is the secret?
– The songs are famous around the world. You can go anywhere, there is not a place where they don’t know about the songs, and that is pretty strange. Because I don’t understand how that happened. I really don’t. The songs are just like that, they just became that. It’s pretty wonderful. I think that’s what I meant when I wrote: ”Thank you for the music”.