Interview // Agnes Obel
At a slight delay, here’s my interview with Danish singer Agnes Obel from last Friday’s Irish Sun. Her music’s not the kind of thing I’d usually go for, but there’s something about the jazzy classical piano and her smooth, dynamic vocals that really gets to me.
Agnes plays Galway’s Roisin Dubh on Friday night, December 9, and the following evening in Vicar St. in Dublin.
“I learned English through music,” says Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel as she prepares to wind up a year of non-stop touring with concerts in Galway and Dublin.
“I went to an international school for immigrants. When we had to learn English, the policy of the school was that you should learn the language through music, playing and singing songs in English before we learned the meaning of the words.”
“It’s the language I’ve been singing in since I was a kid, so it was very natural for me,” she says of her decision to write lyrics in English rather than her native language.
“It’s different, I think, for people for whom it’s their first language because English is not my first language at all, but it is the music language. It is very natural to me.”
It’s much more than her use of English that could be described as natural. There’s a very fluid and organic feel to her debut album, Philharmonic, which was released in 2010 to critical acclaim and surprising commercial success.
The sparse, minimalistic arrangements and classical piano make for a very direct and personal record, though that’s not without its challenges when she plays larger venues such as Dublin’s Vicar Street, where she sets up next weekend.
“I don’t have a lot of elements, or a lot of instrumentation. It’s basically live: piano and cello and harp and voice. I don’t feel like it’s that difficult to recreate but what can be difficult, maybe, is to get a connection with the audience.”
“I think when you work with quiet music – something that’s minimal and some parts are quieter than each other – it’s important that you have good contact with your audience, otherwise they won’t get all of those different things. That is important for me – not just to recreate the atmosphere but to have that special single concert.”
While Obel had played in a number of bands in Copenhagen, she credits her decision to leave her hometown for the fertile creative atmosphere of Berlin (a favoured destination for Irish musicians such as Nina Hynes and Waterford’s You’re Only Massive) with giving her the impetus to finally record her own album.
“It was very important in that way that it facilitated an atmosphere of creativity and that it was OK to not do anything else but sit and work on your album, or on some other project you have.
“I didn’t have a record deal or anything when I was making the album. I didn’t have any clear idea of what I wanted to come out of it at all. Berlin is a very free-spirited and creative place. A lot of people are sitting down to get ideas of records or other projects, and that is very inspiring.”
“It’s not like I really thought about it – I was suddenly working on my album. But a lot of the songs were already written when I moved to Berlin, so I don’t feel like it’s a Berlin album.”
Certainly there is little on the album to indicate that the dour, industrial landscape of post-communist Berlin had much of a bearing on the album’s imagery, which is strongly influenced by the sights and sounds of nature. “‘Riverside’ came about because I thought it was a water song – the reflection of the sounds. For me, the piano sounded like water.”
She disputes the popular perception that Philharmonic is a “sad” album: “I was very surprised when people said it was a sad album. Sometimes I have a feeling that just having a piano makes people say that it’s ‘sad’ but I don’t think it’s sad at all.
“For me, the album plays around – it’s bittersweet. I tried to make an album that had melodies, some love songs, and to see what I could do with them, how I could let the melodies move and control the whole thing. That was my inspiration for this album.”
Obel’s attitude towards songwriting is unconventional, a by-product of her unusual musical background. She says: “I have played classical piano since I was a kid but I didn’t go to classes for it. After High School I started playing rock music but I always played classical piano. That’s how I learned to play piano as a child, but I didn’t study it.”
She doesn’t feel she writes in a classical style as much as her own improvised method: “I don’t really think about the style I am playing. I just have my own kind of ‘made up’ way. I guess it’s influenced by the classical way of playing the piano because that is how I have been playing before, but it’s my own weird way of playing piano.”
Her influences are similarly hard to define. She covered John Cale’s ‘I Keep a Close Watch’ on Philharmonic, and she has a couple more possibilities in mind for the future: “An Ivor Cutler song called ‘Women of the World Take Over’ – I think it’s called that.
“Then there’s a guy called Jan Johansson, a Swedish jazz pianist, who plays a lot of folk songs. I thought about playing one of his songs and making it into a song with vocals. I really love his stuff.”
The performance in Vicar Street will be Obel’s last for 2011, and she’ll begin the new year in writing mode. She says: “I’ve been on tour now for a very long time. It’s difficult to record when you’re on tour, and also to write. I had a little time to record but that recording was for a movie project, not for my own album. Every time I’ve had time to record, it’s not been for my album but for other people’s projects.
“After the Irish tour I am going to go home and relax a little bit and then I will start in January on the new material that I have.”