Danish singer/songwriter and pianist Agnes Obel (b. 1980) debuted with her album Philharmonics in 2010. It was certified gold the following year (June 2011). Her follow-up took three years to make in a Berlin home studio. Luckely, it was a beauty. Read more about the incredible sound of iconic Danish singer/songwriter.
Her second album, Aventine, was made the same way as her first one: in her home studio in Berlin. “I did it first time round because I had no money and no label,” said Obel. “But I realized it worked for me. I can write words and immediately record them, which brings a freshness to it. It gives me freedom.”
Agnes Obel was born in Copenhagen and she and her younger brother, Holger, grew up in an unconventional environment, with a father who had three children from another marriage. He loved to collect strange objects and instruments. Her mother, Katja Obel, was a solicitor and musician and she used to play Bartók and Chopin on the piano at home. Obel took up piano playing at the age of six.
Despite plenty of creative freedom at school, Agnes dropped out before finishing and joined a program for younger, troubled kids who wanted to become record producers. She 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 festivals. About her learning, she said: “I had a classical piano teacher who told me that I shouldn’t play what I didn’t like. So, I just played what I liked. I was never forced to play anything else. The music chose me.”
Obel studied music production and her DIY production is exquisite, with her arrangements of strings, piano and a single cello creating a beautiful, melancholic sound under her delicate vocal. The British newspaper The Guardian called Aventine a “wonderful autumn album…exceedingly good at conveying weariness and disorientation through sound.”
Agnes sees music as an incredibly honest and transparent human experience. “Sometimes, I feel like musical experiences are more real than what we define as the real world.”
Studying sound techniques
Obel is used to doing things differently, and on her own terms. In 1994, she had a small part in the short film The Boy Who Walked Backwards (Drengen der gik baglæns) by Thomas Vinterberg. Her brother, Holger Thaarup, played the main character in the movie. Credited as Agnes Obel, she appeared in two scenes.
At 17, she met a man who was running a studio. She gave up her musical studies to learn sound techniques. It was then that Obel fell in love with the idea of sculpting her own sounds.
She moved to Berlin in 2006, but although she lives in Berlin, her Scandinavian roots shine through in many of her songs and mannerisms. “On my first visit to Berlin I realized I had found a special place with a weird vibe,” she says. “I visited all sorts of strange places, like restaurants where you could play 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 as “being on my 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.”
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Poetic way with words
She lives with photographer and animation artist Alex Brüel Flagstad, who filmed and directed the music videos for “Riverside” from Obel’s debut album Philharmonics (2010), and “Dorian”, “The Curse”, and “Aventine” from Aventine (2013).
Aside from her incredible music, Obel is also well-known for her poetic way with words. Over the years, Agnes discovered her inner musician, citing influences like Claude Debussy and PJ Harvey as inspiration sources. She was obsessed with artists capable of creating dramatic landscapes with music.
In February 2018, Obel was signed to Deutsche Grammophon. The contract involved Deutsche Grammophon joining forces with Blue Note for North American releases. Mr Trautmann, president of Deutsche Grammophon, said: “We are fascinated by Agnes’s compositional autonomy and the precision with which she creates and produces her vocal and instrumental soundscapes. With every song and instrumental piece, she opens up small universes, thus reaching a broad audience with sophisticated works. With Agnes we share confidence in the long-term success of artistic excellence and credibility, as well as the intention to inspire many more fans around the world”.
New album – Myopia
In January 2020, DJ APREL released a dubstep remix of the famous song “Riverside” with Agnes Obel, and later, she released her fourth full-length album, entirely self-recorded: Myopia. “The entire album inhabits that desolate place of twilight solitude, and forces its listener into a mode of introspection. It’s a record to experience alone. (…) There’s a comfort to being pulled into Myopia’s contemplative, isolating territory,” wrote Elisa Bray in The Independent
“For me Myopia is an album about trust and doubt. Can you trust yourself or not? Can you trust your own judgments? Can you trust that you will do the right thing? Can you trust your instincts and what you are feeling? Or are your feelings skewed?” asks Obel.
Luckily for us, Agnes Obel doesn’t have to answer to anyone.
The Incredible Sound of Iconic Danish Singer/Songwriter, written by Tor Kjolberg
All images © Agnes Obel