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.
“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.”
In essence, True North was born at sea for Furuholmen, who drafted the first six songs—with 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.”