Music

Morten Harket: 'Fame is a massive onslaught on any human being'

An environmentalist with little interest in the trappings of fame, A-ha singer Morten Harket was almost the drummer, until fate stepped in

Morten Harket

Morten Harket. Image: Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Morten Harket has one of the most recognisable voices – and faces – in music, and is best known as singer with A-ha. Harket was born in Kongsberg, Norway in 1959, the son of a physician and an economics teacher. After singing with blues band Soldier Blue on the Oslo club scene, Harket’s mind was blown when he saw future bandmates Pål Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen in their band, Bridges.

The trio formed A-ha in 1982, leaving Norway to go to London – where singer Harket soon turned heads in the clubs. They achieved worldwide success with Take On Me in 1985 – aided by an iconic video – as A-ha’s classic debut album Hunting High and Low sold more than 10 million copies. The band’s success continued, including a Bond theme (1987’s The Living Daylights). Their 11th studio album True North was released in 2022. Morten Harket also appeared on The Masked Singer in 2021, dressed as a Viking.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, Harket talks about the impact of becoming such a familiar face, the need to focus on music rather than fame, and his lifelong love for the natural world.

At 16, I was completely taken by the natural world. I was deeply in love with tropical rainforests, coral reefs, orchids, insects, reptiles to an extent. I think I had a strong sense of belonging to, and was fascinated by, the natural world. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had that fascination. My first memory was the sensory elation that comes from discovery. I was only two or three years old, walking in a field on quite a steep hillside with tall grass that almost buried me. I stopped and realised I was looking at something incredibly beautiful at the centre of the daisy. Or was it a wild pansy? 

I was completely in love with music and at 16, I was in love with Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, then Jimi Hendrix. He completely blew me away. Totally. I stopped listening to music after the first time I heard Hey Joe. I didn’t play anything else – after one listen to Hey Joe, I didn’t play any music for months. It stunned me. Music can have such a strong effect – but the opposite can happen when it’s dead, when there’s nothing there. 

I stayed in my teenage state of mind for quite a long time, so I didn’t become an adult until I was about 30. And that’s not because of the music business – I was never impressed by the music industry. It was just my dreaming head. What would I tell my younger self? I would tell that young man to just stay on the tracks. I don’t know that I would have done things much differently. 

At 16, my self-confidence about music was not small. But I needed to be doing things in the service of something I believed in. The music had to matter. We need to serve in order to be fulfilled – we need to feel a sense that we are of service, otherwise we will be eaten up from within. The first time I saw [future A-ha bandmates Pål and Magne] playing was a pivotal point. That was what I’d been waiting for. I knew this was the vehicle for all of us to do what we – because suddenly it was we – needed to do. Because I was completely blown away by what I heard. I knew with such gusto that it was all there. They just needed me. It was like a vision. 

A-ha in 1986
1986: A-ha, riding the success of Hunting High and Low in London. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Magne and I had a long walk home in the middle of the night, had a great talk along the way, but then what happened completely blew him off of his tracks. [They realised that, as a child, Morten had witnessed the plane crash in which Magne’s father was killed.] After that, he felt he could never see me again. That was his immediate response. I sensed that, but believed something else. He turned up on my door some days later. I wasn’t sitting waiting for the phone to ring, I knew it would happen. And it did,
and it was Magne. He asked if I wanted to join them and go to England.  

When they asked me to join and become a band, they knew nothing about me musically. Isn’t that fascinating? Pål saw himself as lead singer and that was fine with me. He thought I could play drums to begin with – he didn’t know whether I could or not. And I would have played whatever makes sense. But I knew eventually I would end up doing the voice. It would be decided by the nature of things.

Moving to London was great – we had hardly any money but a lot of fun. We would walk long distances across London, back and forth like vagrants. We lived in Forest Hill and went to Camden Palace and different clubs. The Hippodrome was new but just a disco, just flashy, it didn’t have a soul or a spirit like the Camden Palace or the smaller clubs. I met Steve Strange in Camden, and my photograph was taken. Quite a lot. We were playing with style [he would use Dulux paint in his hair], and paparazzi guys would shoot lots of pictures of me. I thought that was very funny, because I knew they didn’t know who I was, because I was, in that sense, nobody.  

I knew all of this would come. It was more like knowledge than confidence. Not a dream. Not a hope. Much more matter of fact. And I knew I would have to deal with it in the best way I could. When we hit number one in America, everybody celebrated us. We’d made it. But for us, I remember very distinctly it felt like we had just come to the starting point. That is what it felt like: now it begins. Because I knew the potential in the three of us and the spirit of the band. 

Fame is a massive onslaught on any human being. It’s not very different to what animals feel like caged up in zoos. You become an outcast of society the instant you become known. So I’d describe my relationship to fame as troublesome. Society no longer belongs to you. But you belong to it. You become an object, instantly. Even when you talk directly to another person, you are essentially an object. And it’s not up to you to decide. It’s a thing of mass psychology. 

Morten Harket in 1987
1987: Surrounded by fans at the height of the band’s fame. Image: NTB / Alamy Stock Photo

There was no precedent for what happened to A-ha. It was completely unthinkable for something like this to happen to you if you came from Norway. But we knew we would change that. What we didn’t know was that it is a mindset. That it essentially doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters who you are. Or it should. You could be from anywhere in the world – if you touch people’s soul, touch people’s heart, that’s when you talk to them.  

What matters most is what you actually leave behind. The music. The songs. All the rest – success, acclaim, the critical response – are passing things. So it is all about what the band has done. It became more difficult over the years to go back into the place we reached in the early period of A-ha as a unit because we would live separate lives, naturally so. It’s different from when you live together in a shack and it’s the three of you against the world.  

I would tell my younger self to listen to yourself more. Listen to what is true in your heart a little more than you’ve been able to. I have a tendency to pick up on what other people want and need [in relationships] and that becomes a louder voice in me than my own heart. And that leaves tracks that cost time and energy. 

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, that would be my mother. Simply for the reason that she’s no longer with us. I think it’s normal for people to experience that. If you could talk to them again, you would make use of it more. She has been a much bigger influence than I can ever really know. But I’ve been very, very fortunate with both of my parents. It is only later in life that you realise how important that is. 

A-ha in 2023
2023: With his bandmates Pål (left)and Magne. Image: Stian Andersen

I am political but not interested in bickering. We spend too much energy on ourselves and don’t see our place very cleverly – we need to focus outside ourselves. We need to respect all expressions of life in our world, on the planet. It is not there for the taking. It’s a fantastic setup and we did not design it. Going back 35 years, I was campaigning for electric cars. It was a response to the stupidity of our ways. Because even then it was obvious for anyone who cared to look into matters of pollution and what we were doing to the environment. And to us as well, because the environment is us too. Because we are the same. We are all connected and part of one greater organism. And we are just destroying it.  

The focus of the younger version of me is pretty much the same focus I have now. I’m not in it for the fame and I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for what service it can be. All the other stuff comes with it, you have to handle it and enjoy it whenever you can. Because that’s a duty also, out of respect. Sometimes I have to allow myself to enjoy it.  

A-ha’s debut album Hunting High and Low has been released for the first time on 6LP boxset on BMG

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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