Special Interview With Per Gessle, Co-Founder & Songwriter for Hit Swedish Duo Roxette, And Solo Artist

Per Gessle
Per Gessle

Singer/songwriter Per Gessle is a Swedish music legend, who’s had longtime success as co-founder of the pop-rock duo, Roxette (with singer Marie Fredriksson), and as a solo artist. Impressively, he wrote or co-wrote Roxette’s biggest worldwide hits, including the #1 hits “The Look,” “Listen to Your Heart,” “It Must Have Been Love,” and “Joyride.”

Although Roxette had a long run of hits in Sweden and Europe that spanned 20 years (from 1986-2006), it was during the four-year period of 1989-1992 that the duo enjoyed their greatest success. Besides the hits listed above, Roxette had international hits with their songs “Dangerous,” “Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave),” “Dressed For Success,” “Spending My Time” and “Church of Your Heart.” They also had platinum success in the U.S. with their albums, Look Sharp! and Joyride.

Besides writing Roxette’s songs, Gessle also contributed lead vocals (singing duets with Fredrikkson) to several of their hits, including “The Look,” “Joyride” and Dangerous.” He also played guitar and harmonica. Notably, Roxette ranks second only to ABBA as the most commercially successful band from Sweden.

In addition to his work with Roxette, Gessle is known as a prominent solo singer/songwriter in Sweden, releasing albums in both English and Swedish. Before forming Roxette (with Fredrikkson), he fronted and wrote the songs for his band, Gyllene Tider, which released several albums that went to #1 in Sweden. Gessle has also released multiple albums under his own name, and five of his solo albums reached #1 in Sweden.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Per Gessle. He tells how he wrote Roxette’s big hits, and he discusses his solo projects.

DK: In the 1980s, you first had success in Sweden with your band, Gyllene Tider. How did you decide to form Roxette with Marie Fredriksson?

Per Gessle: Well, Marie and I lived in the same town (Halmstad, on the Swedish west coast) and played in various bands in the late ‘70s. We shared rehearsal studios, friends and socialized a lot. [In a] small town, everybody knows everyone.

My band (Gyllene Tider) took off early on—we had only done six very short Ramones-style gigs before we had our first #1 in the spring of 1980—while Marie’s career took another three-four years to happen.

Both of us worked in Swedish but we had this mutual dream and ambition to try things out internationally. Sweden is such a small place.

In 1986, I came up with a song and managed, together with our mutual record company EMI, to convince Marie that we should record it together as a duet for the summer season. It was called “Neverending Love” and became a smash in Sweden. So…we needed more songs for an album; I rapidly translated my upcoming/not yet recorded Swedish solo album into English. That became the first Roxette LP, Pearls Of Passion. {It was a] huge record at home but wasn’t even released internationally. But it was a start.

Here’s the video of Roxette’s #1 hit, “The Look.”

DK: Your first #1 worldwide hit was “The Look.” What inspired you to write this song?

Gessle: After the domestic success of the first Roxette album, I spent almost a year writing the follow-up, which was the Look Sharp! project. Meanwhile, Marie did another Swedish solo album and a tour on her own.

I tried out many musical directions and bought several synthesizers. I wanted Roxette to leave the live-band-in-the-studio situation from the first album and become more technical & electronic in combination with guitars.

One of the synths I bought was an Ensoniq ESQ-1, and learning how to program it I wrote “The Look,” based on a sequenced bass-groove. The words in the first verse were basically guide lyrics that were made to remember the rhythm & phrasing, but I eventually kept it, changing only a few lines here and there. They made sense to me in an “I Am The Walrus” kind of way… I always liked that style.

The first single off the Look Sharp! album was “Dressed For Success” which became a big hit for us at home, followed by an even bigger one: “Listen To Your Heart.” We did an arena tour in Sweden in the fall of 1988 to promote the album, which eventually sold almost half a million copies in Sweden alone.

DK: How did “The Look” become Roxette’s international breakthrough?

Gessle: Well, this is the Mighty Myth Of “The Look”—I don’t know if it’s 100% accurate but the story goes something like this: A radio station in Minneapolis (KDWB) had a show where listeners could request and play their odd and favorite records. The fundamental idea was that you basically went down to the station, left your record there and if the radio folks liked it they put it on the air.

An American exchange student named Dean Cushman, fresh out of Sweden, had become a hardcore Roxette fan during the fall of ´88, left the Look Sharp! album at the KDWB reception. He suggested they should play something off the album. They didn’t.

Two weeks later he came back to pick up his LP and by chance the program director, Brian Phillips, was standing at the reception and noticed the album sleeve (the sleeve to Look Sharp! looks like a newspaper) and wondered what it was. Dean Cushman explained it was a Swedish band singing in English etc.

Brian Phillips fancied the sleeve and got interested because of it, and listened to the first song off the album which is “The Look.” He loved it…it sounded really different, and put it on the air. The response was immediate. Phones started to ring, people wanted to hear the song again and again. Not knowing if this was only a local phenomenon in Minneapolis, Phillips sent the song to their “sister stations” across America where they got the same reaction. People seemed to adore “The Look”!

Here’s the video of Roxette’s #1 hit, “Listen to Your Heart.”

[At the time], Marie and I wasn’t aware of this at all. “The Look” wasn’t even released as a single yet—it was just an album track, and EMI and Capitol in the U.S. had turned the Look Sharp! album down just weeks before. Suddenly, they were all over the place, rush-releasing the single.

It took eight weeks for “The Look” to become our first #1 on the Hot 100 chart in Billboard. Then the ball was rolling all over the world.

DK: “Listen to Your Heart” was another big hit. Did you write this song on piano, and was it written as a big ballad for Marie to sing?

Gessle: The chord sequence in the verses of “Listen to Your Heart” was written by the guitar player in Gyllene Tider, Mats Persson. I composed the rest, the melody lines and the lyrics.

Yes, the song was written on piano. The lyrics came after a late night discussion with one of my best friends who went through a pretty awkward divorce. This marathon talk became the inspiration for the lyrics.

99% of the songs I’ve made for Roxette have been written for Marie in mind. The ones with me as lead vocalist have often been rejected by her for various reasons. There are exceptions, of course, like the duets.

The demo for “The Look” was called “He’s Got The Look.” It was intended for Marie to sing, but it didn’t fit her style. She preferred more “majestic” melodies where she could exploit her superb vocal abilities. She was truly amazing. She made all my songs so much better than they actually were.

DK: My favorite Roxette song is “It Must Have Been Love,” which remains a classic. How did you write this song, and was it written for the Pretty Woman movie soundtrack?

Gessle: In 1987, between the first Roxette album (that nobody wanted) and Look Sharp! we had a chat with EMI Germany, who couldn’t find interest from the media or get us on the radio there. They suggested that we should write a Christmas song to do the trick. So I did. I wrote it on piano with really beautiful melodies and a huge modulation only Marie could manage. It was called “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas For The Broken-Hearted).” We recorded it, presented it for the Germans, [but] they didn’t like it. So it never got released.

However, EMI Sweden put it out as a Christmas single in late November 1987, and it became a big hit for us in our home country. Then we basically forgot about it. I was busy preparing Look Sharp! and Marie was doing her own thing. We didn’t even bother to include it on the Look Sharp! record since it had the Christmas theme. [It was] classic Beatles-style, a single not included on the album. Very stylish. We liked that.

Here’s the video of Roxette’s #1 hit “It Must Have Been Love,”
which was featured in the movie, Pretty Woman.

Then, after our international breakthrough in 1989, we had lunch with EMI in Los Angeles, who told us they were going to release a soundtrack to a movie called 3000 dollars or something. Richard Gere was the star and a new girl, Julia Roberts, had the leading female part. David Bowie was involved in the soundtrack, as well as Robert Palmer and a few others. EMI wanted us to be part of it too, and asked if we could come up with a new song.

We told them there was no time, since we were traveling around the world all the time promoting Look Sharp!. But I remembered “It Must Have Been Love.” I mentioned we had this big ballad that was originally a Christmas song, but I could easily alter the lyrics (“Christmas Day” could become “Winter’s day” etc). So if they liked that one they could have it. They loved it.

We spent an afternoon in Stockholm recording some new vocals and a new intro, then it was done. (Producer/engineer) Humberto Gatica mixed it in L.A. to update the sound a bit.

I remember Garry Marshall (the film’s director) calling me up, saying how much he loved “It Must Have Been Love.” He told me he had re-edited the movie because he didn’t want any dialogue over the song in that particular scene where it was used.

Nobody expected the movie (now re-titled Pretty Woman) to become such a smash and for us it was, of course, a jackpot. After four big singles from Look Sharp!, “It Must Have Been Love” was the perfect bridge leading to our next album, Joyride.

DK: What’s your general songwriting process? Do you usually write the chords or melody first, or do you like to come up with a title and lyric concept first?

Gessle: Anything goes for me. I’m not the kind of writer who spends six hours a day by the piano or the guitar looking for ideas. I try to write as little as possible!

However, when I’m in the mood I can go on and on for weeks. When the creative bubble takes over, it’s the only thing that exists for me. It happens pretty regularly, I don’t know why. It’s in my system…my way of expressing myself.

It has to be fun to work; I hate it when it takes too long to sort things out. On the other hand, I can’t fool myself when I feel things aren’t good enough. It’s a struggle. Love and hate. I listen to my gut feeling a lot.

There are so many filters a song has to go through before it’s finished. For me, it’s crucial to leave a song alone for a while to get some perspective, even though I want to finish it quickly. In the best of moments, lyrics and music come together at the same time, communicating the same thing. But it’s rare.

Here’s a video of Per Gessle performing his solo hit, “Do You Wanna
Be My Baby.”

Also, it’s very different if I’m writing in Swedish or in English. Obviously, I can dig deeper when I’m working in Swedish since it’s my native tongue.

DK: Roxette’s greatest hits album is called Don’t Bore Us, Get to the Chorus! As a songwriter, do you focus on making sure the choruses are strong?

Gessle: Yes, I do. I come from the pop music tradition based in the ’60s and ‘70s, where melody is The King. That’s my strength and my weakness. If the melody doesn’t do it for me, it’s hard for me to be creative. I always want help with the production to make my songs sound up-to-date. I like that, I’m interested in sounds, effects and, of course, arrangements. But when it comes to producing I prefer to do that with partners. Feedback is crucial.

DK: You’ve recorded many albums as a solo artist and with your band, Gyllene Tider. For fans who want to explore more of your solo music, which albums would you recommend they check out?

Gessle: There are several branches on my solo tree. I’ve made some lyric-oriented singer/songwriter albums in Swedish that I like a lot. Last year, I released two of them, En vacker natt & En vacker dag (which means “A beautiful night” & “A beautiful day”) that were recorded in Nashville. [It’s] beautiful music—pedal steel guitars, violins, dobros. My biggest solo album came out in 2003 and was called Mazarin, also in Swedish. It contains some songs I still like.

Then I’ve done a couple of solo albums in English. My favorite one is called Son Of A Plumber from 2006. It’s got an indie-feel to it which I find attractive. It’s an homage to the music I grew up with, from the early ‘70s, which changed my life.

In May this year I will release an English version of my Nashville recordings. It’s a very special album for me, including duets with some wonderful Nashville singers as well as Nick Lowe. He’s one of my big heroes.

DK: What are your projects for 2018? Will you be releasing a new album, and go on tour?

Gessle: Yep, the Nashville album will pop up. And yes, there will most likely be an international tour to promote it. The road goes on forever.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima