The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Agnes Obel

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Interview with Agnes Obel.

Danish composer Agnes Obel returns this year with the sublime ‘Aventine’, three years on since her award-winning debut ‘Philharmonics’ propelled her to international recognition. Obel also makes her much-anticipated return to Irish shores when she performs at Dublin’s Vicar Street on Wednesday 23 October. 

“For example, on piano you can have the left hand as sort of the body and then the right hand is sort of telling a story. And you have a feeling that it’s sequenced like a beginning and an end.”

—Agnes Obel

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Three years have passed since the arrival of the universally acclaimed debut album ‘Philharmonics’ by Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel. The enchanting piano melodies of Obel conjured up a stirring beauty – that as the seasons since come and passed – has never ceased to fade from the embers of our existence. The central narrative to ‘Philharmonics’ were concerned with themes such as life’s fragility, hope, fear, loneliness and the record in turn, became a source of infinite solace. Songs such as ‘Riverside’, ‘Brother Sparrow’, ‘Close Watch’ and album closer ‘On Powdered Ground’ are each steeped in magical wonder and unknown dimensions – a reliable constant for any composition crafted by Obel – that are at the same time, calm and powerful, much like the piano works of Erik Satie. Music for deep reflections. Music to truly find yourself (as the layers of interwoven strings and captivating melodies awaken your senses and heightens all that surrounds you). Is it any wonder that Obel’s debut album – a life’s work – sold almost half a million copies to date, having gone quintuple platinum in her native Denmark? Sometimes, music as resolutely special, vividly real and deeply touching as ‘Philharmonics’, gets its deserved recognition and attention. It is no surprise then that the follow-up, ‘Aventine’, sees the musician, piano composer and songwriter achieve altogether new levels of sonic radiance on the gorgeously vast expanses of art’s endless possibilities.

‘Aventine’ was written, recorded, produced and arranged by Obel from early 2012 until late Spring 2013, at home in Berlin and in a rented drum studio. Songs such as ‘Fuel To Fire’ and ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ were performed by Obel and her live band, during the ‘Philharmonics’ tour that proved some of the many utterly transcendent moments of the breathtaking live performance. What strikes me immediately about ‘Aventine’ is the space and added dimensions that are beautifully embedded deep into the song’s core. As ever, Obel’s beguiling vocals and piano serves the blood flow to ‘Aventine’s timeless journey. The layers of strings (viola, cello, violin) provide the perfect counterpoint. A deep musical telepathy exists between Obel and her entrusted ensemble of musicians, not least Anne Müller’s intricate harmonies and illuminating cello, whose bowed strings penetrates magnificently through the abyss of darkness.

Similar to ‘Philharmonics’, a wonderful use of instrumental tracks are placed in the album, offering silences between the deeply affecting fables of ‘Fuel To Fire’, ‘The Curse’ and ‘Words Are Dead’. From the opening fragile piano notes of instrumental ‘Chord Left’, one immediately feels the closeness and intimacy of the artistic creations, for this is the crowning jewel of Obel’s work. The title-track ‘Aventine’ contains majestic pizzicato strings, looped over Obel’s voice and piano as she sings on the opening verse: “There is a grove, there is a plot / Deep in the snow, breaking your heart.” The songs come from somewhere deep and vividly real, as Obel’s artistry ceaselessly marries “the wave and the tide”. The impact of which is profound. An everlasting imprint is forged from the depths of the underground to the vast blue skies above.

‘Words Are Dead’ is perhaps my current favourite. For me, it’s the sound of spring; a new beginning, where the dawning of a new day is laid out before your very eyes. The refrain of “Oh, don’t cry for me” is one of the defining moments of ‘Aventine’. The harmonies and strings coalesce effortlessly forming a wholly shape-shifting soundscape. The light of hope shines forth from the pain and sadness, resulting in something astonishingly cathartic. ‘Dorian’ is an achingly beautiful lament as Obel sings “Dorian, carry on / Will you come along to the end” on the song’s chorus. The hunger to live permeates from the embers of an inner flame. The towering hills of Aventine is a sight to behold. ‘Aventine’ is one of those rare treasures to truly relinquish in. ‘Aventine’s riches of songwriting prowess and sweeping landscapes of soul-stirring sound represents another wave of a miracle.


Interview with Agnes Obel.

It’s lovely to talk to you because I’m a huge fan of your music. I’ve been listening to the new album ‘Aventine’ a lot lately and it’s even better again than the debut album ‘Philharmonics’. It’s really a wonderful achievement for yourself as a songwriter and musician.

Thank you very much. I am very happy to hear that.


I love the title. I suppose ‘Aventine’ is a reference to the hill in Ancient Rome, one of the seven hills?

Yeah, it’s actually just a song on the album, which I tried to describe how it is to work, sort of, intuitively, where you are left in the dark. You don’t have it formulated conceptually before you have started – like something you feel is an idea – and you just have to trust your intuition and see what comes out of it. And this way of working, I like very much, the idea that it grows in itself just like a creature. I wanted to describe that and then Aventine was a nice place [to] be the sort of place you were going to when you’re working like that.


In terms of the music too, Agnes, I love again how there is a big progression, where for example there are many more interludes and more, you know, dimensions in the songs. For example ‘Words Are Dead’ – it’s my favourite at the moment – I love how there is a short piano interlude on the outro. There’s a lot of new layers to your songs.

Yeah, I’m really happy that you feel like that. That’s exactly what I was thinking too. I wanted to continue what I started with ‘Philharmonics’ and the songs there, and I could explore a bit more. Although I’ve been playing a lot with Philharmonics live, and I really realized that it would be interesting. Some of the songs have other interesting aspects to them when they are played instrumental, those that are without singing. So, I wanted to combine the two worlds in a way.


I’ve seen you in concert a few times before in Ireland – in Galway and also supporting Fleet Foxes in Cork – it’s amazing just to witness the performance that’s happening before you. Obviously there is this deep connection between yourself and cellist Anne Müller. I would love for you to talk a bit about her and how you met and stuff, you’re obviously good friends for a long time.

Yeah, that’s correct. I got to know Anne four years ago because I was looking for a cellist who could sing, and a friend of mine was involved in another project. I had already recorded all of ‘Philharmonics’ and that was recorded with three different cello players, and they were all great. But it was very obvious as soon as Anne and I started to play together that we both liked each other personally, and we had very good chemistry going on, musically and personally, and it’s sort of grown, you know, because we’re traveling so much together. The more we play together, the more we travel together, the more we build this sort of symbiosis thing where we don’t really have to talk about things. It’s just obvious [laughs]. It’s just how it is and she’s really lovely and she’s really really interesting to work with. She’s like me, she’s also very interested in recording her instrument and we’re always trying to experiment a bit. And she’s very open to experimenting things in the music, but also with her instrument and how to use it. It’s really inspiring to know her.


As you say as well Agnes, I can imagine that recording must be a lovely process to be able to do, when you’re in your own space. I wonder for this album where there new techniques or new things, you know that you were doing differently, this time around to try out new things?

Well, first of all, I could afford to buy some new equipment, so I was using this, and I was also using the same equipment as ‘Philharmonics’, using new pre-amps and stuff like that. And then also, I’ve been playing around with using the cello, and also the piano, and also the wooden floor as the beat in the musical rhythm because I don’t really want to introduce drums to the songs. But I felt like the sound of wood, either instrument or in the room where everything has been recorded, sort of, work as well. So, this is very new for me to do that. I’ve been using a lot of close-miking; miking the cello up like it was a voice so it is getting this intensity and closeness and intimacy that I’m always trying to get with my own voice. And doing the same thing with the cello, putting it up there in the mix in front of everything. So, stuff like that I’ve been trying out. But there is also like, with the cello – it sounds like a theremin – and then, Col Legno – it’s like the back-side of the bow where you hit the strings – and lots of pizzicato on violin and viola mixed together. Stuff like that.


Oh yes. I suppose is one example the title-track? I just love the looping of the strings, it’s this swirling ambient piece.

Yeah, yeah. That was also tricky to make because it doesn’t sound so layered maybe but it’s really several layers of pizzicato which basically is playing what I’m playing with the left and right hand on my piano and then I use like a sample viola to hear how it sounds like with the strings – pizzicato viola – and then I re-recorded with cello pizzicato and violin pizzicato [laughs], sort of a long way to get there. I had to build it, sort of artificially, and re-record it and find a good way to record on the same wood, the same lightness as the piano would have.


I would love to know about your piano playing and I imagine you must have started from a young age?

Yes, I did. I started young but I was not very disciplined. I’ve never been good at rehearsing for the sake of rehearsing, but I was lucky to learn the instrument early. It’s sort of always been there – the piano – at least for me. So in that way, I don’t really think about it, it’s sort of an extension of me. When I have an idea, it’s the easiest way to get it out. But I don’t feel as a classical, solo instrumentalist, like I’ve been doing nothing else. I’ve been doing a lot of other things, mainly working in the sort of rhythmical, rock-pop area of music.


That sounds lovely as there is that intuitive sense in your music. Like any other good albums that I love, like Nils Frahm for example – obviously there’s so much out there – you just know it’s kind of, an effortless process, there’s no forcing it.

Yeah. I really believe in that. I think it’s very good when you don’t think about doing it but you’re following. It’s a very good place to be when you have a flow feeling, playing around and suddenly you have a song. I like this way, when it’s like that, and I think it becomes better like that. I’m not sure, maybe it’s all inconsequential really. Press the lemon as we say in Danish [laughs], if that makes sense.


I wonder, Agnes, do you have any favourite albums that you may have been listening to a lot in the last few months?

Well, we’ve been listening to so much Ennio Morricone lately. It’s a vinyl from a friend of ours so it doesn’t even exist, but now we’ve just recorded the vinyl over to digital so we could have it, listening to it on tour. It’s a soundtrack from an Italian film he made in the sixties. And then we’ve been listening to Eden Ahbez. Do you know him?

Oh, yes, it’s funny my brother introduced me to him. It’s a reissue, I think he only ever had one album?

Yeah, yeah exactly. ‘Eden’s Island’, he made that one, and I think that’s the only one he made, unfortunately.

I know. It’s a lovely album isn’t it. A really interesting story too.

Yeah, totally. He was like a psychedelic idealist who didn’t want to be part of society. Romantic or something. Do you know the story?

Yeah, I read it in the liner notes, I think that’s with the album. I couldn’t believe, it was like a Hollywood script.


Well, thanks very much for the interview. It was lovely to talk to you.

Yeah, it was lovely to talk to you too. See you in Dublin.


Agnes Obel performs at Vicar Street, Dublin on Wednesday 23 October. Tickets here.
‘Aventine’ is available now on PIAS Recordings.



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October 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm

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  1. […] Poster for Agnes Obel’s 2013 album ‘Aventine’, for Fractured Air’s interview with Agnes Obel HERE. […]

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