– Boxx’s Artists of the Year 2014: Agnes Obel
There’s something about Agnes Obel. She is like a secret that rests just on the press of your lips or the tip of your fingers, mimicking her soft vocals and heavy piano serenades. She leaves a feeling that is at once incommunicable but felt so heavily right there in your bones like a buried fossil that is slowly being dusted off and discovered, a diamond in a rough landscape. Yes, this is Obel’s year to shine. Finally.
Although the accomplished Danish singer/songwriter and musician has been lauded in Europe for her ethereal, cinematic soundscapes similar to Goldfrapp, Cocteau Twins, Azure Ray and Bat for Lashes since her 2010 debut Philharmonics won quintuple platinum status, five Danish Music Awards and the European Border Breakers prize, her newest album Aventine (and its deluxe edition featuring a remix by super fan David Lynch) is finally crossing borders into the American market anchored by a late fall tour.
“We’ve caught new places this time around, which is very exciting. These are cities I’ve never been to before,” says the weary traveler just after playing Chicago on All Saints Day which brought with it a epoch storm that made the city fall to its knees. “The lake looked like it was the ocean with all the crazy waves.”
Competing forces of nature have followed Obel frankly since the beginning. She grew up in Copenhagen, the daughter of classical musicians and instrument collectors that had a brood of kids, including Obel’s younger brother and step-siblings, all ripe for improvised jam sessions. “Our living room was our music room, and we’d play together there. I’m not sure we sounded so good,” she jokes. But that wasn’t really the point. “Music was important, sure, but it was not like in other families where everyone is career-minded and parents are involved with their children’s lessons and future. Music was what we did for fun; we never talked about it as something you’d do later on. It’s just been a way of being together and communicating together. It was more about togetherness and enjoying the sound.”
The sound soon started to carry new echoes. In elementary school, Obel was in a Beatles cover band. “All the other parents were also very into music and they’d set up recording time for us and tours,” she recalls of her unconventional start in the business. By high school she was in an all-girl rock band writing original material and playing guitar. She soon dropped out of school but still spent her time voraciously learning about music, visiting studios and discovering artists like PJ Harvey, Jan Johansson, Joni Mitchell and Portishead’s seminal Dummy album. “It’s always been one of my favorites,” she affirms. So has Roy Orbison, strangely. “There’s this emotion or state of mind in his songs—about longing and wanting something that is impossible to reach. It has to do with love, but there’s this dark and surreal streak in a way, and [I wanted] to work with that in my own songs.”
It was something she knew she had to do alone. “I’ve worked with a lot of people, but I always had this need to work on my own and figure out what my music was about because it wasn’t clear to me. I always wrote these songs for myself on the piano. I never thought about them stylistically and didn’t see them working in any of the other bands I was in, so I was planning at some point to record them and to find out what they were about.”
It wasn’t long before everyone else found her. Obel is one of the MySpace success stories from a time when it was still an option. “I remember when MySpace became big and everyone was like, ‘Yes! This is a great way to discover new music. I really loved it and got to know a lot of people that way. For a little while it was a community,” she says, noting how rare the occasion was. “Now it’s way more common [to get noticed online] and social media has become so much more about identity and talking about yourself. Yet I do still think it’s the main way to get your music out no doubt. Sadly it’s starting to mean less and less to have your music on CD or vinyl.”
You can tell that Obel is a traditionalist and memorialist through and through. That family music room is still a centerpiece in her adult home, a rustic flat in Berlin with no working heat in the kitchen but a living room that is a vast studio space with a piano, organ, keyboards, recording equipment and room for her boyfriend, the photographer and animation artist Alex Brüel Flagstad who concepts and creates all of Obel’s music videos. The most recent was for ballad “Dorian,” that juxtaposes filmmaker Maya Deren’s film, “In The Very Eye of Night” with Metropolitan Ballet students.
“It’s a private home and our working space, I like that one big mix,” she says. Her bedroom even keeps a piano, just in case she gets inspiration in the middle of the night.
Obel moved to Berlin in 2006, like David Bowie once did, seeing the city’s opportunity to encourage musicians.
“It’s the strangest city I know,” she says, “but when I moved there it felt very free and like there was a lot of space for people to be part of the city, like the city is not done yet. … Copenhagen is very well organized and difficult to find space, but Berlin is the opposite of that. It’s mixed and there are different neighborhoods that have nothing to do with each other and even some that are empty. There are so many people from other places and lots of space that gives you a feeling of being part of building something. I like the discovery, like peeling back an onion with different layers.”
The culmination of that introspective, self-fulfilling prophecy came to a head on Aventine, which Obel says is different from Philharmonics in that it encompasses the now, not the forever. “I wanted something that was more my experiences right now and I worked with that state of mind, whereas my first album was a collection of older songs I wrote over the years or revisiting vague memories of my childhood. Aventine is 2012 and 2013 condensed into music.”
Songs like the harp and bass and piano interplay on “Fuel To the Fire” are nothing if not fresh and novel and twisted, like new instruments and scales were created just for it. It’s an attitude that even auteur David Lynch heard when he first listened to the album, which was mysteriously sent to him by someone at their shared European label. He quickly fell for it and requested to do a remix of the single. “It’s slightly unreal but also amazing, I could not believe it,” Obel says, noting the two have never met. “I once saw him my art school in Copenhagen about 10 years ago giving a seminar on transcendental meditation. There were so many people. That’s the only time, and I barely saw him.”
Lynch’s remix of “Fuel to the Fire” struck a new chord in Obel. “It’s the first time someone took a song of mine and changed the whole vibe like that. I find it very inspiring because I always try to make my voice talk with the music or blend into the music, and here he’s taking the voice as separate and it becomes like spoken word. I hadn’t thought about that before.”
The work has brought to mind future collaborations – whether with Lynch or another artist. “I sometimes miss this spontaneous nature of working with a group and also the responsibility of being in a band. I have done that most my life,” she says before conceding, “but I still want to have the freedom to work on my own and do what I want.”
After all, she’s doing just fine pulling away at that onion and making us get tears in our eyes.
Cover photo by Alex Brüel Flagstad; inset photo by Frank Eidel