‘White Xmas Lies’ is the third solo album by A-ha co-founder and keyboard player Magne Furuholmen. As the title suggests, it is an album with a different take on Christmas. A melancholic winter album, it consists of fourteen original new songs and two surprising cover versions. As a member of the iconic 80’s band A-ha, Magne Furuholmen has had an illustrious career in music spanning over 35 years, sold more than 70 million records, toured the world over multiple times, and co-written many of the band’s hit songs, including the decade-defining monster hit ‘Take On Me’. Mark Millar caught up with Magne to talk about the album and 35 years with A-ha.
You will soon release your third solo album ‘White Xmas Lies’ - it is an album with a different take on Christmas, a melancholic winter album. So why did you decide to write a Christmas record?
I think it was general frustration with what seems to me to be an endless stream of meaningless cover versions of the same old Christmas songs, over and over, and the forced celebratory kitschy idea of Christmas. I had the title ‘White Xmas Lies’ and this one song that was lying around, and it felt like it was telling me to write a new dark winter record with Christmas at the centre of it.
What was the songwriting process for the record?
I had the title track which I had written many years ago, and I had never finished the lyrics for it – I just had the title and a few odd lines. I started last year thinking I would record and release it for last Christmas, so I spoke to my manager about it, and he said, “Well you aren’t leaving a lot of time for preparation for anyone to release it.” I said, “I'm not sure it's going to be a major label album anyway with today's market so why don't we just release it and put it out there and not expect too much?” and he said, “I really like the concept - I think you should wait until next Christmas.”
And that started me working mentally on the project from the beginning of 2018, and all of the songs were pretty much written in the summer of last year. Come autumn I started recording what I thought would be demos on my own, and finally, when November/December came I had too many songs written. So I thought, “Should I release one Christmas record and one solo record?” then I thought, “Screw it, everyone is releasing single tracks and EPs these days, I should just do a double album and put everything on it.” Ironically I finished the drums and strings and bass in the first week of January, right after a period of working right up until Christmas, then taking a break and beginning recording in January. It was kind of coloured by the whole Norwegian pitch black December vibes. (Laughs)
The first single released from the new album, ‘This Is Now America’ is a protest song about Donald Trump. Why did you decide to write a song about him?
It took me a long time to get there to write a protest song at fifty-six. (Laughs) It was the most absurd situation to be in to be called up by Rolling Stone magazine about Donald Trump who frankly has been kind of an obsession of mine. Well, not him personally, but the whole Schism of a divided America and people pitching hope in figures, and because they don’t belong to the political system, it all seems to evoke a sense of hope in a lot of people. I was flabbergasted by this seemingly unsavoury character managing to rally up support for his particular brand of opportunism - It was a weird thing to witness. I wrote that song as a lament for a lost America, that a lot of us around the world had hoped would live on.
I enjoy the second single ‘The Light We Lost.’ Can you tell me about what inspired that song?
I think that song is a lot more conceptionally tied to the Christmas album than the first single. I put ‘This is not America’ on the album because I can, not because it necessarily belongs there. I do tend to think that if Christmas is only thinking about fatty foods and relatives that you don't really like, and Christmas presents you don't really need, then it becomes a very poor Christmas indeed. So, for me, I thought the world is in a weird place, and I'm not going to stop thinking about that over Christmas - that is going to be part of what this Christmas is about, so it’s kind of like insisting on the right to define a Christmas album however I want.
‘The Light We Lost’ is a very autumnal or winter oriented record. It plays into the theme of looking back and trying not to lose hope for the future - looking at things that have got lost along the way, and trying to be okay with it and not end up in a place where you start blaming other people for things that have happened, but try to work through it.
There are two great covers on the album AC/DCs ‘Hells Bells’ and Father Christmas by Ray Davies. The first one is an unusual choice. Why did you choose to cover those songs?
I know (Laughs) 'Father Christmas' is a very dark Christmas song. The original record by the Kinks is almost punky upbeat and bitingly ironic in expression, but the lyrics are heart-stopping, sad and dark, and I just wanted to try my hand at that. I'm a huge Kinks fan, to begin with, so it's always risky to try something like that, but I thought if I go with the lyric and try to make it the opposite of what the Kinks did, and make it heartfelt and sad, then maybe it could work.
It was the same kind of sentiment around ‘Hells Bells’ except it starts at a point which is probably as far away from my stuff as you can get. It’s an iconic rock anthem with a foot-stomping hands in the air full-on balls to the wall vocal. I thought if I can do the song justice by reverting it instead of making it an anthem and try to make it a touching song. It's not meant to pull at your heartstrings, it’s meant to punch you in the gut in its original form. It's not a song that I had a particularly strong relationship with - I felt that it was so far away from where I am. I'm not a vocalist, so for me to cover songs, to begin with, is like an oxymoron exercise. My strength, I believe, is in the writing and language and lyrics and melodies and hooks and sentiment, so I was coming from the point of why do it? I relished the opportunity to turn it on its head and try to see if I could bring something to the song that wasn’t there before. I would be very interested to hear what the AC/DC guys would think of it. For me, covers that sound anywhere near the original are pointless. We have had covers of our songs, and the only ones that get me going are the ones that have been done completely differently.
You are also a visual artist with solo exhibitions held in Norway, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe. Do you getting the same satisfaction from doing that as you do for writing and performing music?
I think my life would be a lot poorer if I had to choose between the two. I am pretty much doing the same thing I did when I was fourteen, and that's draw, paint, play music, make music and write poetry. Those were ways of navigating through youth and they continued to be what I found most meaningful in life. I have been very fortunate that I’ve been able to support a family doing what I love.
A-ha head out on the road with the Hunting High and Low Live in Concert tour. What can fans expect from the format of the shows?
Strangely we have tried to kill off A-ha a few times but without success - it just keeps bouncing back at us. This time around we figured it would be nice to do the whole first album as a kind of celebration of thirty-five years in the band, and let's do something we haven’t done before.
'Hunting High And Low' was such a pivotal album in A-ha’s career. The album peaked at number 15 in the US on the Billboard 200 albums chart and peaked at number 2 on the UK Albums Chart, and it spent 38 weeks in the top 10 in Norway, including eight weeks at number 1. What do you remember about recording that album?
It was a chaotic, exciting and pretty electric time – we came out of nowhere, we spent days and nights in demo studios trying to write and convince people that we had something. Finally getting management, getting a publishing deal, getting a record deal and getting into a studio with producers, and all of a sudden we are recording our first album. We were on a roll and a high. I don't think we expected that album to be quite as life-defining as it has been.
It’s an odd thing you know, ‘Take on Me’ is by far the biggest hit that we have had - It was our first song, and it was a smash hit. Depending on wherever in the world we go, people have followed us through thick and thin, or people have jumped off after the first record. It's kind of odd to think that something we wrote essentially was written in our youth. I don't think we expected to be still talking about it at fifty-six.
The video for ‘Take on Me’ still looks amazing 35 years later. How did you feel when you saw the finished version for the first time?
We knew where we were going to be because we had seen the films that Mike Patterson had made and his technique, so we kind of knew what to expect. We knew the storyline would be bouncing back and forth between cartoon and the real world - it was a really well-executed original short film. The moment we saw it we all thought, “Wow, this is something that we haven’t seen before.” The video obviously did it’s work and helped a song that has an impossibly difficult chorus to sing in the shower. For everyone involved, that’s the video that everyone remembers as a high point in their careers. You don’t know that when you're doing it - you expect to go from high point to high point (Laughs) and there is always going to be one that stands out, and ‘Take on Me’ seems to go on forever inspiring new people.
Young people are drawn to it today, three generations down the line. It’s a stubborn old thing, (Laughs) the song is still out there working on our behalf - it just never quits. It was a very pure moment - it was a moment where we let go of our pretensions. We had come from bands where we looked down on pop music - we were into psychedelic music like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. We saw ourselves as very serious individuals, and when we came to London and immersed ourselves into the middle of what was going on in the eighties, it was transformative, and we thought, “guys we have to have a hit, let’s put our best foot forward and put as much energy we can into this one.”
And we did - it was something magical that happened. The first time we tried it, we failed the song, and luckily we got a second chance after convincing our record company, who thought we were just a bunch of fools, who had already spent all the money on the record. They allowed us to go back into the studio and try again with a different producer. It took us a couple of days to record that single – it felt like it happened very naturally, and we all thought, “Wow, this is exactly how this should sound.” We hoped the world would get it and it did.
As you said over the years, A-ha has split up and got back together various times. You are back together now. Will the band keep going after the tour?
Yeah, I think we are done with farewell tours. (Laughs) I think we will keep going for as long as anyone of us feels like doing it. Right now we enjoy touring together, so that’s what we will do, and if that stops being enjoyable, then I don’t think there is any reason to do it. We have a faithful bond – there’s shared history that follows us around no matter how far we run in any direction. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great privilege to do things in other settings on our own and explore avenues that may not be on the same commercial level, but creatively it's equally satisfying.
White Xmas Lies
1 There Goes Another Year
2 The Light We Lost
3 A Punch-Up On Boxing Day
4 Caprice Des Dieux
5 This Is Now America
6 White Xmas Lies
8 Revelation Song
9 The Season To Be Melancholy
10 Snow Is Falling
11 Dark Days, Dark Nights
12 Hells Bells
13 So Cold It’s Hard To Think
14 A Wintry Silence
15 The Ghost Of Xmas Past
16 Come Back Home
17 Father Christmas
UK & RoI TOUR 2019
06.11.19 BRIGHTON Brighton Centre