Text by Sakhr Al-Makhadhi
Danish singer-pianist Agnes Obel isn’t one to be rushed. It’s been three years since she didn’t so much burst onto the scene as quietly glide into it. Her haunting 2010 debut album, Philharmonics, went platinum in France and Belgium, and five-times platinum in Denmark, where she dominated the 2011 Danish Music Awards, winning five awards including Best Album, Best Female Artist and Best Songwriter. Her songs were played on Deutsche Telekom ads in Germany and on US TV series Grey’s Anatomy, while critics rushed to compare her to Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
Now the 33 year old has released her second album, Aventine, which was made the same way the first was: in her home studio in Berlin. “I did it first time round because I had no money and no label,” says Obel, who speaks so softly over the phone from Berlin it’s hard to hear her at times. “But I realised it worked for me. I can write words and immediately record them, which brings a freshness to it. It gives me freedom.”
Obel studied music production after high school, and her DIY production is exquisite, with her arrangements of strings, piano and a single cello creating a beautiful, melancholic sound under her delicate vocals. The critics have been impressed, with The Guardian (UK) calling it a “wonderful autumn album… exceedingly good at conveying weariness and disorientation through sound.”
Obel is used to doing things differently, and on her own terms. She grew up in Copenhagen and was surrounded by music from an early age – her mother was a pianist and her father collected guitars. Obel took up piano playing at the age of six and was soon studying classical piano, though she went off-piste when she became obsessed with Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson. She joined a band at 11, and part of her teens was spent playing bass and singing in a band that played The Beatles and Prince covers at children’s festivals. “I saw music as something playful; there was no goal,” she says. “It was just about pursuing your project. The music chose me.”
For a creative type, who even had a small part in a film by Dogme director Thomas Vinterberg, it’s not such a huge surprise that she moved to Berlin seven years ago, a move many Scandinavian musicians have made.
“For a while I’d been dreaming of living somewhere else,” she says. “I visited Berlin for the first time and I felt like I’d found this special place with a weird vibe. We went to all sorts of strange places like restaurants where you could pay what you liked for the food, or nothing if you didn’t like it. I was really intrigued – I went home and told everybody I’m going to move to Berlin.”
She bought a place in hip Kreuzberg and turned part of it into a studio. “I feel less tied down here; it’s easier to pursue what I want.” That means a process of recording she admits is “obsessive”. She calls recording like “being on my own little island; I like to just forget time”. The implication is that she’s more comfortable there than on stage. “I still get stage fright playing on my own – it’s very personal; I have to work to let go.”
While she feels a responsibility, however, it’s only to herself. “I’m no good at following any directions, because I won’t make anything. I can only do what I want to do, otherwise there won’t be any music.” Luckily for us, Agnes Obel doesn’t have to answer to anyone.
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