Music producer Cheryl Pawelski on seeing ABBA: The Tour in Milwaukee in 1979

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Music producer Cheryl Pawelski shares her ABBA revelation. Photo credit: Greg Allen

Grammy-award winning producer Cheryl Pawelski’s most recent project is the new seven-CD set Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos, for which she compiled never-before-heard recordings of iconic songs, mostly from the late 1960s, sung by the songwriters themselves. However, for Pawelski, it was music from the following decade that left an imprint and catapulted her towards a career producing. She says a 1979 ABBA concert in her hometown of Milwaukee was a revelatory experience that blew her mind.

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The show was part of the Swedish pop group’s tour to promote its sixth studio album, Voulez Vous. It took place in 40 cities across North America, Europe, and Asia from 1979 to 1980. 

While chasing the feeling of that concert, Pawelski recently went to London to see ABBA Voyage at the ABBA Arena. The performance uses the latest in motion capture technology to project avatars of the band’s original members Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. While it wasn’t quite the same as the real thing, Pawelski calls the experience “overwhelming.” 

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This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

In 1979, my friend Trish and I rolled over to South Ridge Mall. We didn't drive yet, so we took the bus. We had heard that ABBA was going to be playing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is where I'm from. We lined up for the tickets and procured front-row for ABBA 1979 at the Milwaukee [Auditorium].

Of course, because we didn't drive, we had to lie to our parents, and we took the bus downtown the night of the show. Didn't know that the buses would stop running; hadn't thought that far. So I called my dad and he picked us up.

It didn't matter that I got in trouble. I didn't get in that much trouble. The thing is, the show was a revelation. It inspired everything that came after it for me in my career.

I'm a record producer, and when those curtains opened, all of the instruments were white, the sound exploded off the stage, and there [was] beautiful, huge Swedish noise coming at me. My tiny little teenage mind was blown.

I spend a lot of my time trying to capture the ephemeral nature of music and put it on to things that we can hold, or at least send files to each other. And it was really apparent to me that night that it was there, and then it was gone, [that] I've chased those moments my entire career.

Last year in London, I got to go see the ABBA Voyage. These were avatars that were based on their 1979 selves. I cried like a baby the whole time. I just couldn't quite figure out what I was seeing. I knew it didn't capture exactly the same thing I saw in 1979, but it was a reasonable facsimile. And I think coming out of COVID and sharing that experience with people from all over the world that were ABBA freaks like me, it was really an overwhelming experience. 

The thing about when you're a kid and having music, or whatever you're into — it could be a book, a movie — but that sort of experience, I try to share with other people. So that was a moment that was an inspiration for what I've done throughout my entire career.

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Rebecca Mooney