Agnes Obel is one of those rarefied artists who successfully straddle the fine line between the worlds of popular and classical music.
There’s an almost a film-like quality to her music, reminiscent of soundtracks to movies like Requiem for a Dream or American Beauty. It’s the haunting sounds on piano, violin, viola and cello mixed with equally haunting lyrics that continually look inward.
A giant in her home country of Denmark, the 33-year-old musician hit the big time in Europe with her 2010 debut, Philharmonics, going five-time platinum in Denmark and earning almost universal praise among critics.
For her follow-up – late 2013’s Aventine – Obel had near isolation for more than a year at her home and studio, creating a powerful musical statement in songs like “Fuel to Fire,” “Tokka” and “Smoke and Mirrors.”
Obel was initially discovered on the social media website MySpace after building on her classical musical studies in school. She started playing piano when she was 6, and her home in Copenhagen was full of all types of musical instruments. Her musical tastes were fostered through varied musical explorations – everything from Roy Orbison’s voice to French composer Claude Debussy.
Obel makes a rare American appearance in Philadelphia with backing musicians Anne Müller on cello and Mika Posen – former string player for the Canadian folk rock band Timber Timbre – on violin and viola. We caught up with Obel in her hotel room in Lyon, France, as she prepared to play a concert.
Fly Magazine: Do you have a dream venue you’d like to play?
Agnes Obel: I don’t think so. I’ve been finding that I’ve never dreamed of all these great places I’ve played so far, so it’s already exceeding my expectations. It’s more like wanting to go to new places I’ve never been to before. At the end of this tour, we’re going to Australia – which I’ve never been to – so that’s exciting.
FM: How did you end up working with Mika Posen on Aventine?
AO: I met Mika at a festival in France in 2011. She was playing with her other band, and we just became good friends and stayed in touch. Then she was in Berlin for a show. I was working on a song, and I asked her to play. It was so great to record with her that later on I asked her to join me on tour. When she came to rehearse for the tour, I was finishing the album and got her to play some violin and viola on two tracks. It was not something I really planned; it just sort of happened. I’m really happy for it now.
FM: What’s it like to have those kinds of collaborators that come out of nowhere while working in the studio that add another element to an album?
AO: It’s really exciting, but I feel it more when we start rehearsing and playing the songs live together because it’s more in the moment and you can interpret the songs and develop them. That’s when I feel like it’s more of a group thing, because we change everything and build it up together again.
FM: So there’s a fair amount of improvisation going on in the live shows?
AO: Yea. It wasn’t like that originally, but it sort of developed because I was so lucky to be able to play with these classical musicians who have this improvisational background. Also, we’re used to playing in rock, pop and alternative projects, so they were very open minded and used to using effects and loops and looping their own instruments. It’s quite unusual to find string players who are open for that kind of thing. So from that, we started to improvise more and build the songs up. We have a very sparse set up by looping our own instruments, but we can create this orchestral feeling and a very powerful feeling. And you can always figure out were a sound comes from because there are only three of us on stage. It’s very transparent.
FM: Do you prefer playing with a trio rather that playing solo?
AO: Yea, I prefer to play this way. I feel like the sound can be more versatile and more interesting. And we can change the set more than if it’s just me on piano alone. It’s also ok to play alone sometimes. It’s something completely different.
FM: When you were working on Aventine, what were some of the ways you used to escape the mood of Berlin and isolate yourself during the recording process?
AO: I tried to work myself into sort of a feeling that I’m on my own island – my own bubble in my own little world. I started forgetting about everything else. Normally I can do that in my own studio – usually I record everything at home. Except for six months of the process, I rented this little studio in Kreuzberg in Berlin, which was a drum room with no windows in it. There I had two pianos and recorded most of the strings. When I went into that room, my plan was to just start recording. But I ended up also writing a lot of stuff in there, so it was sort of a mixed process of writing and recording. What happened was I totally forgot about time and even what season it was. In Kreuzberg, it’s mostly a party area where people from everywhere come to experience Berlin in the summer. So it was a stark contrast coming from my tiny little drum room with no windows and then going outside. No matter what time I would come out, there would be people everywhere and electronic music. There was this vibe I kept on being confronted with that fueled my need to be in this room because it was such a wonderful contrast. You had this club vibe outside, and then I was going upstairs to work on this acoustic music.
FM: Was there a specific image or a mindset you put yourself in while recording?
AO: On my last album, I was working with a lot of songs I had written when I was younger. Some songs were like 10 years old, and I had written them in high school. So I was working a lot with memories – sort of a vague notion of an atmosphere and trying to put that into the music. I really liked that way of working, but for Aventine, I wanted to try to work with the state of mind and atmospheres I was experiencing in that very moment and not working with memory. I wanted to see if I could do it and maybe make something relevant for my life and time right now without analyzing it or necessarily understanding it. On many of the songs, I was trying to describe my state of mind – what was on my mind at that very time and not looking back. It was also a difficult time because I had broken up with my boyfriend, so there were a lot of things going on that were weird. And I had been touring for two years non-stop, so it was a strange time. If you’re touring, you’re meeting people all the time and being very extroverted with your music. It was new for me to be like that. Then suddenly you have to be introverted and looking inwards when recording. And I work alone, so you’re spending most of your time alone and forcing isolation upon yourself. It’s a very strange, schizophrenic thing to do.
FM: What kind of coping tools do you have for life on the road?
AO: I try to have some sort of rituals because you’re in new places all the time, and it’s a little bit confusing. On the night of the show, I’ll try to do certain things just to get my mind set and to feel like you’re not in a new place. Also, I try to read a lot when I’m on tour.
FM: Are you reading anything right now?
AO: Yea, I’m reading a book called Within the Context of No Context by George Trow. It’s actually about America, but I think it’s relevant for anybody from within society. It’s about how over time media has replaced the social network and grid that holds us together, and now this grid is so far away from the individual that people become extremely lonely and they are only seeing themselves from this really far away reflection of social media and media in general. It’s also a really funny book that has a lot of anecdotes from his own life.
FM: As someone who was discovered on MySpace, how have you seen social media influence musicians and the music industry?
AO: The main thing is everybody has a platform now; that’s one of the really good things about social media – things like YouTube or SoundCloud. It has made it possible for a lot of artists and bands who would not otherwise be able to get released to get their music out and finding an audience. It also means that the major labels are not as powerful. I like these alternatives – these platforms for everybody. It’s not like you have to have the right contract. But there’s everything else around it, which has nothing to do with music. Everyone has this own version of themselves in a social media form. It’s important to have it, but I also think it’s important to forget about it. It can take up too much space. It should be about the music.
FM: Have you ever thought about scoring a movie soundtrack, or have you been asked to score a film?
AO: I’ve done some instrumentals for some short films in Denmark, but I haven’t really had any time for it because I’ve been working on my own stuff so much. It’s definitely something I would love to do – to be part of telling a story musically by coloring and forming a film with my music.
FM: Is there a film you’ve seen that later you wished you had the opportunity to create the score?
AO: I’m a big film fan, so I keep on thinking if I’m able to do it. But every time I see a very good movie by a favorite director, I secretly want to have been a part of it somehow – musically speaking. That happens all the time, but I also have to look and see what I’m good at and a project in which I could contribute. I think what I’d be good at is making a score for a story that’s told from the perspective of a child, because there’s this very open perception of the world. I love films told from that perspective. It doesn’t need to be a film for children, but just from that perspective. For example, Pans Labyrinth. There are also Italian films that are told in that way. I think I could do it, but I haven’t tried it yet.
FM: What’s the most valuable thing that you possess?
AO: I’m not the type that’s very good at taking care of my things. I’m not into gathering objects. I know a lot of people like that – a lot of people in my family are like that, but I’m not. I could really live without all that stuff. I guess the worst thing for me to lose is somebody I love. And if it’s not a person, the worst thing I could lose is my own memory. That’s what makes me who I am, and that’s what I work with all the time in everything I do. If I didn’t have my memories, I’d just be an empty shell.
Catch Agnes Obel at World Cafe Live (3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia) on Tuesday, August 12. 6pm doors. $25. Click here for tickets.