a-ha Follow Their Compass to ‘True North’

In nautical navigation, the term true north corresponds to the fixed point along the surface of the earth, the meridian, in the direction of the North Pole. Used for centuries by seafarers after thousands of years, steering their way to the Northern Hemisphere by direction of the sun and stars (or Polaris, the North Star), the compass pointed in a fixed direction led navigators forward to their final destination, a metaphoric setting for finding one’s inner calling, or true direction in life. 

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“In this case, it’s pointing to your compass,” says a-ha vocalist Morten Harket. “Your compass is true, in a sense. It’s a compass in life.”

This analog sailing guide served as the nucleus of True North, the 11th studio album from a-ha, a collection of songs spanning the plights facing the environment. Initially set around six songs written by keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, the concept of “true north” took on a greater narrative, centering around the often neglected symbiosis between nature and humanity, and finding a central synergy, a True North, with oneself and the natural world.

“It was his [Furuholmen’s] response to the environmental state of the planet, and how we’ve messed it up and how hard it is to communicate the state of things to the public,” says Harket, who more than 30 years earlier began bringing attention to climate and environmental issues by shipping a Fiat Panda that he purchased with Furuholmen in Switzerland to Norway. The vehicle had been converted to run on a battery, and the pair drove it through tolls and parked for free to convey the advantages of using rechargeable cars. It was one of the first electric vehicles in Norway. At the time, the vehicles weren’t classified for registration in the country, but Harket and Furuholmen’s then-exotic import prompted the Norwegian government to implement tax and other incentives (including free parking) for driving electric cars a year later. (As of 2021, 65 percent of new cars sold in Norway were electric.) 

In 1991, Harket also participated in the film The Sunshine Revolution, based on architect and professor Harald N. Røstvik’s book of the same name, which highlighted the potential benefits of solar energy.

“Our concern back then is identical to today,” adds Harket, who has continued to help bring awareness to multiple environmental issues throughout the years. “Nothing has changed except it’s just moved much further towards the drop-off, you could say.”

a-ha (Photo by Stian Andersen)

In essence, True North was born at sea for Furuholmen, who drafted the first six songswith the remaining six penned by guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy—near the ocean by his home in northern Norway. Initially working solely off the title of “True North” alone, the bigger picture of the album—partially inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 live performance film set around his 19th album Western Stars, backed by a full orchestra—began to unfold.

By November 2021, a-ha navigated north, 55 miles above the Arctic Circle, to the town of Bodø, Norway, to record the new album with the intention of filming their live performance. The arrangements of the 12 True North tracks then expanded with the addition of The Arctic Philharmonic and through an extended film, shot and directed by the band’s longtime photographer Stian Andersen.

“I thought, if there’s one thing we could do during the lockdown, it’s get some friends together in a barn somewhere in Norway and record a concert,” said Furuholmen, who was also considering some sort of continuation of a-ha’s 2017 MTV Unplugged live performance, an orchestral reimagining of songs spanning the band’s 37-year catalog. 

Starting with his reverence for the ocean with “Bluest of Blue,” Furuholmen’s songs unravel into human connectedness on the sweeping ballad “I’m In” and the empowered “Between the Halo and the Horn,” along with the uplifting title track and “You Have What it Takes,” closing the film. On the album, Furuholmen also offers up the pensive “Summer Rain”—There is nothing left to hide / We can get together if we can see beyond our pride / And come out through the doors on the other side.

Along with living by the water, many of the maritime themes through Furuholmen’s songs were partly pandemic-driven reflections, he says. “There’s an awful lot of maritime metaphors in these songs, so they grew out of that concept to a certain degree, but they’re not protest songs,” says Furuholmen. “They’re more about relationships, about people. I’m just trying to understand the world from where I’m sitting, but what art and music can do is bring people together in a time when it seems as if it’s more disparaged and more polarized than ever.”

Cohesively, True North also converges elements of loss and grief and human-and-natural struggles with a lyrical palette bare for peripheral interpretations. Though Waaktaar-Savoy’s nostalgic “Bumblebee,” the subtle bossa nova pulses of “Hunter In The Hills,” along with “Forest For The Trees,” “As If,” “Make Me Understand,” and “Oh My Word” tie into some of the nature-driven elements of True North, the songs originated from an entirely separate mindset for the guitarist. 

“It’s been a strange period the last two or three years—the isolation of COVID, wonky politics 24/7, and some personal upheavals,” shares Waaktaar-Savoy, who admits that he initially archived songs that would suit Harket’s voice but were not linked to the ocean or northern Norway and separate from the True North album concept. “I really just wanted to make some straight-up pop songs—we are a pop band after all,” shares Waaktaar-Savoy, “but the songs always veer off in one direction or another.”

For Furuholmen, True North was never about making another record for the sake of it, but more about touching on some of the bigger issues. Everyone’s concerned with climate change and the future and we need to step up,” he says. “I thought if we can make a postcard from our home landscape, and the nature that has shaped us both as people and as artists, and feature the drama of the landscape, it fit well within the general sound of a-ha and touched on the issues at hand.”

Through the True North film, Furuholmen also wanted to bring the attention back to the band’s music—a diverse catalog stretching from their 1985 mega-pop debut Hunting High and Low to their most recent release, Cast in Steel, in 2015—following the 2021 documentary a-ha: The Movie, which he says was concentrated more around the relations within the band than their music. “We wanted to make a film where music was at the center,” he says.

The grander landscape of a-ha’s sound, and all their light and darker edges, is punctuated throughout True North. “Even our happiest song like ‘Take On Me’ is a minor key song—we have problems with major chords sometimes,” laughs Furuholmen. “And you can have a lot of energy and motivation in these songs, but that’s why I really wanted to do ‘Take On Me’ as a sad song for MTV Unplugged. I wanted to show it belonged in the general a-ha. It wasn’t an anomaly. It was just us infusing maximum energy into a song that could have otherwise been a sad ballad.”

Just the tip of showcasing the range of a-ha’s catalog from slighter pop departures like Scoundrel Days and East of the Sun, West of the Moon through the 2000 release Minor Earth Major Sky and onward to True North, the band has always had a penchant for more sweeping soundscapes.

“Every step along the way, this sort of orchestral sound has been in the background of what we did, this sort of epic sweeping vastness,” adds Furulohmen, “which can be related to landscape or emotional life, and that was clear on this project from the start with an orchestra, and I think it works.”

Though set around more solemn overtones, hope is also roused within the tracks. “There is an irony when we are termed a dark, melancholic band,” says Furuholmen. “Well, we come from a dark, melancholy country, but it’s not a state of depression. It’s a state of yearning. It’s a state of longing. It’s the belief in facing up to things rather than pushing it under the rug.”

He continues: “When you listen to the music of Edvard Grieg, there’s something fundamentally Scandinavian in that music. It comes from folk music, but folk music is much more jolly and poppy in a way, and he took these elements of folk music and turned it into sort of epic, grand emotions. I think that’s where our hearts and souls are nesting.” 

In the film, Andersen weaves in scenic stills spotlighting the immense landscape of northern Norway with vignettes featuring actors in smaller narrative scenes, along with all three band members and their individual commentaries on music, nature, and songwriting. 

“It was particularly poignant to show the wonderful sceneries at a time when it’s all under such threat, so there’s that double-edged sword of, ‘All this has been given to us, so what are we doing to ensure it’s there for the next generation?’” says Furuholmen.

Juxtaposed with stark imagery of untouched waters, the irony of the environmental concept of True Northis the “self-inflicted stains” Furuholmen mentions in the film and the reality that Norway has derived much of its national wealth from producing oil, one of the largest pollutants on Earth. “You sort of feel that your hands are in that,” says Furuholmen, “so I think there’s a special responsibility for countries like Norway to point the way forward.”

Change also comes from a shift within the human mindset as many don’t recognize their dependency on nature. “We are of nature,” says Harket. “We are part of nature, and we are completely dependent on nature. We always have been, but we’ve created this virtual reality where we don’t seem to need it. You can go to the shop and get what you need, but it has to come from somewhere, and it’s always produced by nature in some way or form.” 

Harket adds that the reality of the state of the climate and environment is alarming but one that has been warned for decades. “Nature is the provider as long as it stays healthy enough to be able to provide,” says Harket. “When that starts to break down, then basically we have nothing. The way we see ourselves is that we stand apart from all other nature. We’ve disassociated or distanced ourselves from nature and that’s now hitting us back in a big, big way.”

At this point, the solution for change, says Furuholemn, is a global mandate. “There are too many power struggles between nations, historically, to really embrace the global aspect,” he says. “If you’re looking long into the future, we cannot solve this sort of existential threat without having the same rules applied on some levels.”

This is also where art and music play a role, adds Furuholmen, who has also been a visual artist since 1989 and has distributed environmental themes through many of his mixed media works over the past three decades. “It brings people together,” he says. “When people come to an a-ha concert, they can have their differing political views. They can have different backgrounds and different experiences. That’s what music offers, a commonality and a sense of coming together, and it’s more important now than ever. 

“I’m not saying it’s the solution, but I think [music] plays a role in mitigating this entrenched polarized world that we see everywhere. We shouldn’t forget how powerful a tool it is to bring people together.”

Photos by Stian Andersen

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