Her crystalline, precisely enunciated tones, that heartbreaking vulnerability, the sense that Agnetha is singing directly to each and every one of us. Plenty of singers have found that growing older can be unkind to their voices. Not Agnetha. Listen, back-to-back, to her early hits as a solo artist, to a song from the Abba years, to a track from her new album, and try playing spot – okay, hear – the difference. Exactly – it’s impossible, isn’t it?
Ask Agnetha if, when she first stepped into the vocal booth last year at sessions overseen by A’s producers, Jorgen Elofsson and Peter Nordahl, she felt the same about her voice, and her answer is a surprising one.
“I wasn’t scared about the project,” she says, talking in a suite in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel, “but I was scared about my voice. I hadn’t used it in such a long time, so I suppose I was thinking, ‘What if it’s not there anymore?’”
It was, of course. But that didn’t stop Agnetha from entertaining doubts about her singing – and doubts, too, about re-entering a world she had pretty much left behind following the release of her 1988 album, I Stand Alone. “I hadn’t closed any doors,” she continues, “but I didn’t think that I was going to record again. It is nearly 10 years since my last album, and almost 25 years ago since I recorded new original material. I thought at the time that maybe that would be my last one. And after that, I really didn’t think that much about it. My life contains so many other things, I have my children, my grandchildren, my two dogs, and a big place in the country. I have my own life.”
Home – on an island to the west of Stockholm – is where the heart is for Agnetha, a place she cherishes and spends as much of her time at as she can. You and I might find the desire for privacy, after years in the public eye, an understandable wish. But others have been determined to see it another way. Almost from the moment Abba split up in 1982, the world press has engaged in an endless game of conjecture – and no little cruelty – about the life of a woman catapulted to international stardom when Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo in 1974, and subjected to relentless media scrutiny over the course of the next eight years, and thereafter. “She’s a recluse,” they wrote. “She’s shut herself away.”
“I have been described as very mysterious,” Agnetha says, “but I’m not – I think I’m just very grounded. I took the decision to buy my house in the countryside in order to be away from all of this, and just be a person. I like going into town and having fun for a night, but then I love to get back, to wake up in the country. All artists are different, of course. Some of them love the glamour of it all, and that’s fun for me, too, for one night. But there’s too much noise nowadays, and it’s incredibly silent where I live. When people come and stay they go, ‘Wow, it’s quiet here – too quiet!’. But I love it.”
Into this idyll, 18 months ago, stepped Jorgen and Peter, who first made contact with Agnetha through a third party. Agnetha doesn’t quite say it but you sense that the producer – Jörgen famed for his work with other chart-topping artists such as Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson and Westlife – displayed a fair amount of doggedness in persuading her to return to the recording studio. Agnetha had made a conscious decision to step away from the limelight. Why return? “The project came about through a good friend of mine,” she explains. “She called me up and told me that Jörgen Elofsson and Peter Nordahl wanted to play me some music. They came to my house and played me three songs and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to do this’. It felt like a challenge.” Did she consult her family and friends? “I did say to my daughter, ‘Do you think I should do this?’, and she said, ‘Well, you have to think about this a lot before agreeing. You know it could all start again.’ The really nice part of it was the recording sessions, but you have to remember that other things happen as a result of that.” Those “other things” brought Agnetha fame and fortune, but there can be a price to pay. Abba’s records still sell in their millions every year, and the Mamma Mia! phenomenon rolls on. “You never get away from it,” Agnetha says. “And it starts up, over and over again. There’s a new generation, and then another, there’s a musical, a movie – and it goes on forever. It never stops. But I’m very, very proud of what we achieved. We took it incredibly seriously, throughout that period, and the quality of what we made endures.”
The recording sessions that Agnetha so enjoyed last year yielded 10 remarkable songs, including a duet – I Should’ve Followed You Home – with Gary Barlow, and the beautiful, confessional I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed, which Agnetha co-wrote , in the country. Her verdict on working with Gary – “I think our voices work so well together” – is spot-on: it as if they were born to sing together. And writing by herself rekindled old fires (it is worth remembering that, long before Abba, Agnetha’s own compositions had topped the Swedish charts). “Jorgen kept saying, ‘You have to write a song for this record’,” Agnetha recalls. “I hadn’t written any music for a long, long time. But I sat at the piano, and suddenly it was there.” Old habits die hard? “Exactly. A friend of mine said a lovely thing: ‘It’s in your spine. Even if you feel tired, when it’s time, it will be there’.”
Other highlights on A include the contemplative Bubble, a song that encapsulates Agnetha’s attitude to fame, the rollercoaster disco ride of Dance Your Pain Away, the sugar-rush pop of Back On Your Radio, the emotional first single When you really loved someone and the tender, piano-led Past Forever, whose central refrain – “What can’t be broken: the kind of love that lasts” – sums up Agnetha’s beliefs, and the things she holds dear. Celebrity is fickle, she says; only love endures. “You never get away from fame, but it’s not real life. In my private life, I very seldom think of myself as a very good singer, or as this world-famous artist – it’s not in my head. But I also know that, when it’s time to sing, I focus on it, and it’s there.”
We have Jorgen and Peter to thank for reminding us that “it” is most definitely there. Agnetha’s new album is compelling evidence that one of the greatest voices in pop is still capable of stopping you in your tracks, of causing your heart to miss a beat. For the woman who started writing songs at the age of five, who played the harpsichord in her local church, and sang in its choir, who first had a No 1 single when she was 18, and then went on to conquer the world with Abba, the journey continues – at her own pace, and on her own terms. Life offers you lessons, Agnetha says: the key is to heed them. She’s been away, but now she’s returned – with an album of songs that are somehow timeless, and sung in a voice whose beauty time has not dimmed. Welcome back – you’ve been missed.