This interview was originally released in Issue 94 (Spring 2021).
Interview by Mick Burgess
With four Number One US singles and 75 million albums sold, Roxette are second only to ABBA as Sweden’s best-selling musical export. With the sad passing of singer Marie Fredriksson in 2019 it looked like there would be no more from Roxette. Main songwriter, guitarist and singer, Per Gessle had other ideas, returning with a knock-out collection of goodies from the vaults. Fireworks called Per up to talk about Roxette’s latest release, ‘Bag of Trix’, his musical life with Marie and how he intends to celebrate Roxette’s legacy.
You have just released ‘Bag of Trix’. How do you feel now that it’s out?
It feels great. A lot of work has gone into bringing these songs together, which includes demos, outtakes from albums, acoustic sessions, live songs, Spanish versions and special mixes. There’s a great spread of Roxette music from the very early days right up until our final recordings.
Why did you decide to release a collection of songs from the Roxette archives now?
In 2014 I released the Per Gessle archives, which was a collection of demos from Roxette, my Swedish band and demos from my solo stuff and songs I wrote for other people. What I didn’t include in that archive release was anything that had Marie singing on it as I didn’t want it to be a Roxette release. This time I checked all the demos on which Marie was singing and there were lots of those. I wanted to release a collection songs with Marie singing and most of them haven't been released before or are now difficult to find.
You have included demos going back to 1986, before you released the first Roxette album. Are you pretty meticulous at keeping your archives in good order or did you stumble across a bunch of boxes in your garage while you were having a clear-out?
It was amazing to go through the drawers as I didn’t expect to find so much. I have a pretty decent archive and all my demos from the eighties are in one place but I didn’t expect to find so many. I also didn’t realise that we’d done so many bonus tracks for Japan, or Spanish tracks. I have most of the stuff on my computer but in the room next to my office I have drawers with cassettes, DAT tapes, CDRs and even reel-to-reel tapes from the seventies and I came across many of those while I was looking for the Abbey Road tapes.
You have mainly included studio songs on the album rather than live performances. Was that a deliberate step?
Yes, we have lots of live stuff but I wanted to avoid using those so the only live songs I’ve used are from a promotional tour in The States in 2000 which was recorded in Seattle. There’s a version of ‘Cry’ from 1988 that was a B-side of a single that isn’t available anymore, so I didn’t really go into the live thing at all.
Has it been quite some time since you last heard some of these songs?
It really has been quite some time as once you do the proper recording you forget about the demo. Sometimes when you go back to the demo you think, wow, this demo is so much better than the final recording because you return to why you wrote the song in the first place.
Did it take you back to those times when your first wrote and recorded them?
It’s like looking at an old photograph. Music travels with you and takes you back to those times and places where you first wrote and recorded them. It was great fun to do but it’s also very sad that Marie is not here anymore and it reminded me of some great times, especially in the eighties and early nineties when it all started happening. Those days were very special for us. We were so taken by surprise by the success we had back then.
For those early Montezuma demos from 1986 were the songs pretty much complete or did you have to finish some of them before you included them on the album?
I’ll have to start a little earlier. I had done solo albums for EMI Records and I was supposed to do a third solo album in Swedish which I’d written but didn’t record as they didn’t want me anymore. So, I had all these songs made for my third Swedish solo album then we did the first Roxette single, ‘Never Ending Love’, which was a big hit in the summer of ‘86 here in Sweden. As that was such a big hit, EMI said that we’d have to do an album with Roxette. I thought “Oh no, I can’t write a whole album for Roxette with no time.” So, what I did was take all of my songs from my third Swedish solo album and translated them into English. So ‘Goodbye To You’, ‘Soul Deep’, ‘Surrender’ and ‘So Far Away’ became part of the ‘Pearls of Passion’ album. The Montezuma sessions were basically recorded just after I’d translated those songs and I went into the studio with Marie to get the keys right and just to get the feel of the songs and also to see how she felt about the songs. We didn’t have a producer with us at Montezuma so we did two days in the studio and these demos are what we came out with. Those were the first songs that Marie and I did together.
There are later demos that you’ve recorded on the album too from various times through the nineties to 2000. As you became more successful did you find the way you made your demos became more sophisticated or did you do them the same way as you did back in the days of the Montezuma demos in the eighties?
As soon as we got successful, I started doing pretty sophisticated demos and started programming and using a lead guitar player. When I was living on the west coast and Marie was living in Stockholm, I sometimes had to use other female singers to do Marie’s parts for the demos. When we came to do the ‘Joyride’ album, Clarence Ofwerman, our producer, had to ask me not to do such sophisticated demos as he felt that I was becoming trapped in my demo, so when he suggested something else I’d always refer him back to the demo and would say he should learn from the demo, which was stupid of me. Why have a producer whose opinions I didn’t listen to? Why hire him in the first place? I also had to take on board Marie’s input too, so I scrapped doing such sophisticated demos. As a writer you’re always in love with your songs but you need to be able to listen to the views of other people too, to get the best possible song.
You’ve had almost four decades as a songwriter since then, sold millions of records and have toured the world. When you listen to the songs again how do you critique your songwriting with the benefit of 40 years of experience?
It goes both ways. Sometimes I listen to stuff that I did in my twenties and think that was really cool, as I was really curious about songwriting and tried everything that I could when I started learning about modulations. ‘Joyride’ changes key five times and the trick was to fool the listener so you couldn’t really hear it. It just goes with the flow. I don’t think I could write the up-tempo songs like ‘The Look’ or ‘Dressed For Success’ today because they were done by a young person. The negative when I look back at my songwriting is that my English isn’t as good back then as it is now. I was raised on English Pop music and Pop magazines so I learned English from the Beatles, Loving Spoonful and The Monkees. That’s how I got interested in writing and went on to Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell from there.
What about the source tapes? Did you have any technical problems to overcome bearing in mind the age of the tapes, before you could work on the masters?
I didn’t have any problems with the tapes. Over the years, if I made the original demos on DAT tapes, I transferred them over onto CD so I already had them in good order. There were a couple of songs that I only had on MP3 as I couldn’t find the originals so that wasn’t ideal but I don’t think people care anyway as they still sound pretty good.
You are the main songwriter in Roxette and you occasionally wrote with Marie and also with others, including Mats Persson. How do you start the actual songwriting process and how do you build up to the finished song?
I started writing lyrics before I wrote music back in my teenage years. I was really interested in Joni Mitchel and Leonard Cohen and stuff like that. When the New Wave thing happened, I was really into Patti Smith and my first band was really influenced by the New Wave era in 1977 and 1978. I liked the idea that you could start a band without being very good. We weren’t very good at the start but were ambitious and became big in the end. One of the things I did was translate songs into Swedish so one of the songs I did was ‘Helen of Troy’ by John Cale and also ‘Ain’t It Strange’ by Patti Smith. I did lots of songs like that so I could learn about songwriting. I started writing songs from there with Mats in my first band and then eventually I felt that I wanted to do it on my own so I did. I didn’t think I was the best singer or musician in the world, I just wanted to be a writer.
How did you first meet Marie?
Marie and I met sharing rehearsal studios in the late seventies. She was with her band and I was with mine. We both liked each other and I said that we had to do something together. Her voice was exactly what I was looking for. She was a great, great singer but wasn’t a great artist at that time and didn’t really know how to behave on stage but she had an amazing voice. I have recordings with her going back to 1980 where she sang backing vocals on some of my band’s recordings. Eventually, when the opportunity arose to do something with Marie in Roxette, for me it was a marriage made in Heaven. I was a songwriter and Marie was a singer, so I thought we’d start from there to see where it would lead.
Do you have similar musical influences?
Marie and I had very different tastes in music. Marie loved the Blues and R&B and she even sang Jazz in a band doing old forties Jazz stuff. She did like Pop music but not the way I did. I lived for Pop music from The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, the Goffin/King songs. Marie was never able to write a Pop song as she wasn’t into it that much, so my biggest task on every album was to convince Marie that it was going to be a great Pop song. When I presented ‘Dangerous’ to her for the first time she hated it, she said “Don’t play this song to me again.” Then I did another demo of it and we recorded it and it became a smash hit. Once when we were touring, Marie was being interviewed and was asked what was her favourite Roxette song and she said that it was ‘Dangerous’ and that she loved that song. When I heard that I felt like I’d won.
Was it those different influences that gave Roxette their unique sound?
That was due to the combination of all of us. Clarence, our producer, is a great keyboard player and he comes from a Progressive Rock background and loves Yes, the old Genesis with Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant. Marie liked Led Zeppelin and the Blues stuff and Aretha Franklin and I’m more ‘Day Dream Believer’ by The Monkees, ABBA and Glam Rock like T-Rex. To combine all of these elements in my song writing was amazing for me. When I’m doing it just by myself, I felt narrowed down by my own abilities but Clarence opened them up and he also made them danceable. I could tell from the very first song we recorded properly, ‘I Call Your Name’. That was a very slow ballad when I wrote it and then Clarence brought in the groove. People told me that they couldn’t dance to my songs as they had no groove but Clarence changed that and that’s why I always work with him, as he can find the element that’s missing and change that. You have to be careful who you collaborate with and when you find the right people it becomes a case of one plus one becomes three. With ‘The Look’ I asked Jonas, our lead guitarist, to come up with something in the style of ‘Taxman’ by George Harrison with the Indian scales and he came up with four or five varieties, so we used one of those and when we were mixing it, I thought it sounded like a hook so I decided it should go to the front of the song. You need to be with people who you enjoy working with. I couldn’t do it alone, none of us could have done it on our own. It worked through a combination of us working together.
How did Marie’s writing style differ to yours?
She didn’t write that much for Roxette and was quite a slow writer. She also did so many Swedish albums in-between the Roxette albums that she focussed on that kind of writing. Maybe she felt that she couldn’t write in the style of Roxette. On the other hand, she created songs like ‘Queen Of Rain’, ‘It Must Have Been Love’ and ‘Fading Like A Flower’, it’s her way of singing that created the whole feeling of the song. Maybe she didn’t know how to write it but she definitely knew how to sing it.
You co-wrote ‘You Don’t Understand Me’ with Desmond Child who’s written huge hits for KISS, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith amongst many others. Whose idea was it to work with him?
I think it was somebody at EMI in Los Angeles. He came over to my house in Sweden and stayed for a week. We had a good time but weren’t setting out to write for Roxette, we just wanted to see what would happen when we wrote together. It was interesting and good fun but complicated. Now when you write with people you send things over the internet and never meet but in those days, he sat behind the piano and I sat next to him with my guitar and we wrote ‘You Don’t Understand Me’
What did you learn about songwriting from him?
I think when you work with people you notice their style and he preferred certain chords and the way he played those chords on the piano was very different from me so I don’t know if I learned anything in particular but I tried to connect our styles. I wrote the part linking the verse to the chorus and Desmond wrote most of the rest of the song and you can hear the two styles there. I suppose what I learned was that you can write songs in that way.
You have a couple of songs recorded at Abbey Road studios too. How did it feel to record in the studio where the Beatles recorded so many classic songs?
It was amazing. We came off the ‘Crash Boom Bang’ tour that summer and were going to take a break before releasing the first compilation album, ‘Don’t Bore Us Get To The Chorus’ and to do that we went to London for a promotional show at Shepherd’s Bush for the press. The day before that we’d been invited to Abbey Road to do an acoustic session. We just fooled around and did ‘Listen To Your Heart’. Clarence and Marie did ‘You Don’t Understand Me’ and then Marie said we had to a Beatles song. She suggested ‘Help’ but I thought that was too complicated as I’d never played it before but Jonas, our lead guitarist, knew it by heart so he played it. It turned out amazing.
‘The Look’ was also recorded at that session in acoustic form. Do you feel that a great song should be able to be stripped right back to the basics and still sound like a great song?
Most of the time I can do that with my songs because my style of music and my songs always start off with melodies but generally speaking, I don’t think it’s a necessity. A song like ‘Crush On You’ is basically one chord and a chorus and wouldn’t make sense acoustically. It’s the same with ‘The Look’, it’s not the most amazing song played on the acoustic guitar. It’s got a good vibe so I think that’s why it worked.
There are a few Spanish versions of songs such as ‘You Don’t Understand Me’, ‘Salvation’ and ‘Anyone’ that you did in the nineties. Why did you record Spanish versions of those songs?
We did a whole album in Spanish of our greatest hits and they were mostly ballads. Spain and the South American markets were very big for us and there was a demand from the record label to do one. Marie had a knack for learning languages. She basically wrote down how it should sound. She didn’t know what she was singing about but it sounded great. When we went back to those countries Marie would sing the first verse of ‘It Must Have Been Love’ in Spanish and people in Santiago and Buenos Aires went crazy for it.
‘It Must Have Been Love’ was a massive hit single for you. How did that end up on the Pretty Woman soundtrack?
Both me and Marie had a Swedish career but we wanted to do something internationally. After our first album, ‘Pearls Of Passion’ didn’t happen internationally, we were pretty disappointed so we talked to EMI in Germany and they suggested that I wrote a Christmas song to get onto the radio in Christmas 1987. We did ‘It Must Have Been Love (Christmas For The Broken Hearted)’ and it was a big song for us but Germany didn’t want it. Marie went on with her life and did another solo album. I was writing the next album for Roxette, ‘Look Sharp’, which was very successful for us. After that album we were on top of the world. EMI in Los Angeles told us that they’d bought the rights to a movie called Three Thousand. David Bowie, Robert Palmer and Natalie Cole were going to be on the soundtrack and they wanted us to be on there. They asked if we could write an original song for the album but we were promoting our current album so didn’t have the time to write a new song. I said that I had a song where I could re-write the lyrics and update the production. We changed “Christmas day” into “winter’s day” and did a new intro and sent it off to Humberto Gatica who was one of the hottest mixers at the time and he did an Americanised mix of it. While this was happening, the film changed its name to Pretty Woman. It was a great movie but we didn’t expect it to be that big. I remember when I was in the studio getting a phone call from America and it was Garry Marshall, the director. He said he loved the song and was going to edit the movie so the song had space so when our song was played there was no dialogue over it, it just speaks for itself and it was perfect for the movie.
The most recent songs on the album, ‘Let Your Heart Dance With Me’ and ‘Piece Of Cake’, are outtakes from your last album ‘Good Karma’. Most bands would be pleased to have such songs on their album. Why did you leave them off that album?
When we recorded the last album with Marie, they were very complicated recording sessions as sometimes she wasn’t well enough to sing, so once we felt that we had enough for a proper album we basically gave up the recording and we left what we had. That’s how I had those two songs, which were almost finished but hadn’t been mixed.
It must have been a difficult process working on your final album, ‘Good Karma’, knowing how ill Marie was?
The problem that I had with most songs on that album was that it was really hard for Marie to do and I have a hard time to listen to Marie because I knew how hard it was for her, each word she sang was a struggle. That is one of the reasons why those songs weren’t included. At the time I didn’t feel that Marie’s singing on ‘Let Your Heart Dance With Me’ was her best singing. Last spring, I sent them to another guy, Ronny Lahti, who mixed it and he actually did something to the recording that gave Marie’s voice more tone and clarity and it sounded much better than I remembered. So I was really happy to finally have that out but for me the memories of recording those songs was really tough because of Marie’s health. We had to do most of her vocals in her home studio. I’d written several really strong songs but unfortunately, she couldn’t sing them. We tried them in different keys but she lost her tone. Sometimes, weeks later her tone would return and she had some clarity in her voice for ten minutes and then it’d go again. It was so hard for Marie as she could hear it and feel it and she didn’t know what to do about it. It was terrible what she went through but she was the best.
What did Marie mean to you musically and as a person?
Marie was one of my oldest friends. The journey that we went on with Roxette was crazy. I miss everything about her. I miss the touring and the friendship that we had, just to be able to give her a call and see what was going on. When she did stuff on her own, I was always there for her and she’d ask me what I thought. We were always supporting each other. It’s really hard now that she’s not here.
How long did the whole project take for you to finish ‘Bag Of Trix’?
I started getting serious about pulling it together around Christmas 2019, just after Marie died, I looked through the drawers to see what was there. I talked to Marie’s husband to see if he maybe had some old demos and he found a couple of DAT tapes that I listened to and ‘Pocketful Of Rain’ came from those great-sounding demos.
There are 47 songs on the album. Is that it as far as the archives go or do you have enough left for a second volume?
There is more stuff, more demos for ‘Joyride’ and more demos for ‘Have A Nice Day’ and ‘Crash! Boom! Bang!’ We’re talking about doing a 30th-anniversary edition of ‘Joyride’ this year so maybe we’ll include seven or eight demos with that. I don’t think you should overdo it though. If it’s to be available commercially it has to have a purpose and a certain quality to it. It shouldn’t just be rough sketches of songs. It’s fun that different versions of those songs exist.
What's next for you now? What do you plan to do musically going forward?
Nobody really knows what is going to happen for the next few months but eventually, I want to continue playing Roxette stuff with the Roxette band. We have a great band and a couple of great backing vocalists. There’s only two ways we can go; we can either forget about Roxette or we can continue. I love to play these songs and some of the songs mean a lot to many people all over the world so that is the way I want to go. We are part of a Pop legacy and we are an organic band. It’s great to play, it’s fun. It’s been my whole life since I was a teenager, so this is what I want to continue doing.