Agnes Obel

One of the main reasons humans are attracted to music is because of the emotional connection they feel with the sound, along with the memories that are evoked when certain music comes on.

The most brilliant musicians are those who can alter your emotions simply by certain sounds they create. From hearing the truth come out through their lyrics, their stirring piano chords to the tonality of strings; it’s a gift to be able to master all of this and implement them into multiple tracks. One of these musicians is Agnes Obel, a gentle music fairy from the north of Denmark, whose sounds have stunned any and everyone who has listened. She impacted the world with “Riverside” off her first album Philharmonics, and stunned again with her sophomore album Aventine; a brilliant amalgamation of soundscapes, emotion and hauntingly honest lyrics.

We had the absolute honor of sitting down with Obel before her incredible live show at Le Poisson Rouge late one Sunday night in mid-November, picking her brain and getting into the mind that is behind such immensely emotive music. She was timid and quiet, with eyes so big and blue, they seem to either melt your soul or forgive all your sins the moment you locked eye contact. She was shy at first, but then became comfortable and gave answers that painted pictures in our heads and had us day dreaming for the duration of the night. Never have I ever wanted to visit the north of Denmark so badly in my entire life than when she described some of her favorite memories from childhood. 

What albums did you listen to growing up?

I listened a lot to an album by a guy called Jan Johannson, he’s a Swedish jazz pianist who died in the ’70s. He did interpretations of Swedish and Russian and Polish folk songs on piano, very beautiful music with double bass. My parents listened to him a lot; my mom was a pianist. I listened to a lot of Prince, and James Brown, and I had a full poster of Prince in my room. Everyone was a Michael Jackson fan and I was a Prince fan.

Who is your biggest personal influence in writing music?

I made music with a guy called Elton, I started making music with him when I was 17. I started interning in a studio and I formed a band with him and two other guys but they left and it was just him and me. He was a big influence for me because of his tradition – he made electronic music – but he was into the Beatles, and he was into how they wrote songs, and I learned about structure and string arrangements but also like, a lot of things I had to learn to forget about.

Also my boyfriend. He has a very sort of interesting instinctual relation to music, and I trust his instinct. He is always about personality in the music, the idiosyncrasies in the music, and from him I know that its not really these objective rules that make a good song, it’s actually more the human expression of the personality this weird thing that makes me who I am that will make the song interesting.

What were some differences you noticed in writing Philharmonics and then writing Aventine?

Philharmonics is something I did because I had written most of the songs over a couple of years, its more a collection of songs. And Aventine was made over a concentrated period of time. And the songs I wrote for Philharmonics, I was working with vague memories, and I was trying to conjure them again, and Aventine, I was trying to describe things that were happening in my life right now, in that very moment, without reflecting or the time to look back and understand things and see things clearly. But when you are sitting in them you can feel it really strongly, you have this emotion you can describe, but you cant really reflect and make sense of it yet. And I think some of the songs are more abstract in Aventine, because I couldn’t make sense or describe the the emotion. 

How do you balance different forces with inter-linearity, do you write the lyrics then create the sound scape around them, or the sound first, then lyrics?

I hope to sort of have music and lyrics at the same time. It’s difficult to have to create lyrics at a later time. My starting point is always sonically driven. That’s how I get inspired, that’s how my imagination works, and it will make me fall in love with something and I’ll think ‘wow that is so beautiful and interesting’, and then I will follow that. That’s pretty much always how it works; with sounds. And if I’m lucky I will have – like “Riverside” which I wrote in 2008 or 2009, I immediately knew it was about water, and what made me start writing the song was a theme and the chorus melody sounded like water, and then I had the story of the song right there. And in other cases I will just have to leave the song until I know what its about.

When you record your ambient sounds, do you hear an inherent tonality in the space you are recording? Does it influence the choice for the keys of the song?

Yeah, I do let the room color the song. I guess… well that’s a good question because sometimes I’m limited and spaces sound a certain way and then sometimes I have to record the strings in the grand way that I want them to sound like — yeah. So I try to use limitation, and very often when you do that, suddenly you get great ideas.

The whole song of “The Curse” is very based around this cello and [a configuration] where the microphone is just in front of the instrument, and I only did that because I had a little room that is basically the size of this stage, otherwise I would’ve taken the microphone further away and it would have been a completely different sound.

What is your personal favorite off Aventine?

I think it’s “The Curse” because I’m so happy with the [configuration of microphone on the instrument] and the strings.

Can you talk about the experience about recording in a studio versus performing live?

Hmm. I like the focus, I think it’s really good to focus and work on one thing at a time, and the intention of working on my own and recording, when it’s working it’s sort of a flow in the moment and you forget about time and this, this I like. It’s not happening all the time but when it does I like it – when you make something new, it’s exciting.

It’s a different thing with touring; we’re way more fragmented, we’re traveling all the time and meeting new people all of the time – so many new impulses, you’re not really digesting them, they’re just coming and you’re not really sure what they’re doing with you – but it’s also fun. It’s an explosion of inputs. The performance side, well it’s never the same.

It’s such a strange thing, I’m still not really understanding what’s going on. It’s overwhelming. It’s really strange to play songs you feel really connected to and then sort of doing your very best to make them come across and make the stories in the song make sense to people you’ve never met who are just sitting there looking at you listening, but then you still feel connected with them because they’re still there and their attention is still there and they’re changing the way you play music and their response and sound of the room…so many things. So many things affecting what you’re doing. I don’t know, I’m trying to understand it, I’m still learning about it.

I’m from more of a rock music background but I play classical piano – so I’m used to playing with bands but not my own music. I have never been so scared; it’s like reading your diary out loud. You feel an immense responsibility to the songs that you spent so much energy making, that you perform them well, also to the people who come out to see it. It’s a strange, terrifying, but wonderful thing.

In the beginning I really thought I couldn’t do it, but I’ve grown to like it in an ambiguous way.

What’s your favorite city to perform in?

I don’t know. All my favorite cities are where my friends are… but then you get nervous about them being there – and then some cities sometimes things go wrong. It’s too difficult to answer that question. A lot of wonderful places to play around the world. I love audiences that are open, and it gives you a lot, and it gives the music a lot.

In Europe, the people are different, the culture around going to concerts is different, and I didn’t know about it before touring. In France and Italy they are expressive about what they are seeing and they are hearing – and I like that. I think it’s a mistake to think, because we are playing classical instruments, or playing classical venues you have to be really quiet and serious. It’s not about that. It’s music and it should be an interaction.

What is your favorite or most prominent childhood memory?

The vacations we had, when we would go away. My parents worked a lot, and it was the time when I would have them, and I also didn’t have to go to school. These really vague memories of the grass that had just been cut in our summer house. My family had friends in the north in Denmark, where two oceans meet, a very powerful place with all the wind and sand and we would stay at an old fisherman’s house, it was really beautiful. I have really great memories from it. The elements were so strong; the wind and the sand and the light – the light was very special.