Agnes Obel Opens Up About Her Musical History, Hints at New Album
Agnes Obel has quickly captured our hearts here at Diffuser. From her striking music to her divinely ethereal voice, she has created a sonic atmosphere unlike anything we’ve heard in a long time. In 2013, she released her second studio album, ‘Aventine,’ and this year followed it up by unveiling the record’s deluxe edition, which features new songs, live tracks and remixes.
After a recent gig at New York City’s le poisson rouge, we had the chance to chat with Obel at the Spotify offices in the Flatiron District. She opened up about her childhood, what it was like getting a remix from the iconic David Lynch and how she’s approaching her third full-length LP. Check out our exclusive interview below — and then listen to the deluxe edition of her sophomore effort, ‘Aventine,’ courtesy of Spotify.
Did you enjoy playing le poisson rouge?
Yes, and it was a very good piano. It’s the best piano I’ve played on for this tour. I really enjoyed it, and it was fun to play the club show. You had the feeling of the audience being so close — they really responded and were reactive and engaged in the music. I really liked it — I could have played longer.
The last show you had in New York City was at Bowery Ballroom, which was cool.
You were there too?
Oh, so you can compare. I like the show [at le poisson rouge] way more. We had technical problems at the Bowery. And it was a Friday night or something, so people were …
Yeah, it’s a special venue, but it’s different than LPR. You’re further away from the crowd.
Yeah, it felt a bit distant, even though it’s a small venue. It didn’t have the intensity of [le poisson rouge]. This is really why I love playing club shows — you get the energy. It’s like old jazz club shows … that’s how I imagine them at least.
The crowd is just on top of you.
You can tune into that when you’re playing.
And for the crowd, it’s much more powerful to stand there and hear the music. I’m curious to learn a little bit about your history. Were you classically trained since you were in diapers? Have you been playing piano your whole life?
I’ve been playing since I was five, six years old. I don’t really remember why or how I started but I think it was my mom who sent me to lessons. There has been a strong piano tradition in my family — my grandpa, grandma, aunts, cousins and my mom. Even my great grandmother was a pianist in the silent movies. That was — the family went broke at one point, a bank went down or something and then she supported, I don’t know, seven to eight kids by playing the piano. So it’s sort of been the tradition to learn the piano. But it’s not like you have to. Like my brother, he never cared for it so he never got into it. [Laughs] He was into drums. I was, and then I just kept on playing. A lot of people stop playing but I kept on going and got into — I played some classical piano, had classical lessons but I also played a lot of other stuff. I went to a music school a little bit outside Copenhagen. There, we played jazz and Beatles songs and Simon and Garfunkel, so I’ve been playing all kinds of music.
And have you always been interested in singing?
I think I liked to make sounds with my voice. I don’t know if I’d call it singing but I did that a lot. I definitely did that. I don’t know if I thought about myself as a singer, but I know other people who very early just started singing and went for it. I haven’t done it like that but I’ve been interested in making sounds with my voice and I remembered experimenting with it and as soon as I got recording equipment in my life, I’d record my voice as one of the first things. I developed a lot of my singing from recording and I find it interesting to record voices in general — I like voices. It’s a sound produced by our bodies and that’s why I think it affects us so strongly and that’s, even though I like instrumental music and also making instrumental music, I’m not going to stop using voice in my music.
So with ‘Aventine,’ how did you approach the album differently than ‘Philharmonics’?
It’s difficult for me to compare the two because ‘Philharmonics’ was more of a collection of songs that were written over many years. Some of them were really way back, some from when I was in high school. It was an album I had to do because if I didn’t do it, I’d sort of lose some self-respect in a way. I’ve had all these band projects but on my own I’d made all these piano songs and I didn’t really know what they were and I needed to record them so I wouldn’t forget them. It was not about getting it out or anything, it was more about, not setting the songs in stone but fixing them in a recording, and also starting to understand what I was making on my own.
Then one thing led to another and I suddenly got a record deal and it was released in 2010. Then, I was touring way more than I’d ever expected and things took off in a completely different way than I thought, but it was great. ‘Aventine’ is then sort of a reaction to that in many ways. My private life changed a lot and I had some very intense years with traveling and also learning about myself musically and as a human being. It’s sort of intertwined with me so I had to reflect and know I had to just go and look into that music in my own way — and my way is through music and not working with memories. Just be as subjective as I could and not think about how it would translate. That’s ‘Aventine’ — for me, it’s a certain period of time.
You have your whole life to write your first album, and then not long to knock out the next one. What was the hardest part about adapting to your new lifestyle of touring and promoting your music?
I think it was difficult to understand what was happening in general. That I could play these songs that I had never really seen as songs. That I should do that and people wanted to hear it and then also, it felt very private. It was a different feeling than playing in a band with songs we’ve written together and were more based on conceptual things. These were songs — I didn’t really know what style they were, what they were about. I wasn’t prepared for it. But I still did it and I’m happy that I did. I learned a lot about performance and about myself and that you have to do things that are difficult because it’s good for you. If you feel some sort of fear or something, it’s often because it means something to you — and that’s a good sign. That means it’s important and that you have to do it. So, I learned a lot about facing that, just using it as an energy into what I’m doing.
‘Philharmonics’ came out in 2010; four years ago, that seems like kind of the explosion of things like Facebook and Twitter, Spotify, Pandora. Coming from such a musical background and family, do things like that — digital entities — did that impact how you approached your music at all?
I think Myspace was actually an influence on me because a lot of my friends who made music were on Myspace. We were really communicating across borders and I was putting new material up just so they could hear it and it was the first time I had a platform to put up music and have a made up deadline before I had a label or anything. That was very important to me, just to finish things and to communicate to the world outside what I was doing on my own. So, Myspace was the most important. I’m quite sad it’s not there anymore, or not the same as it was. But that was in 2008 or something, 2007. When my album came out, it was sort of already over and it was Facebook and all that. I don’t know how it is now, I was — someone has to teach me Spotify because I haven’t been using it at all. [Laughs]
Do you like it so far?
I have to get to know it. I like to buy an album, like vinyl. I have a collection but I also love to have mixtapes. My boyfriend, before we were dating he would send me mixtapes all the time. It was his big thing, he’d send it to everybody and he would also put spoken words over them — it’s a special creative thing you can put down, your own mix. If Spotify is something like that, then I think it’s great.
I’m a big fan of vinyl. At Diffuser, we talk a lot about it. I’d love to hear about why you love vinyl, why you press your music.
Well, because as a music consumer myself I buy vinyl. When I hear music I like, the first thing I think is, OK — is this an album I want on vinyl? Because it’s a good album, I want to go home to Berlin and put it on and it’s just a part of my life. It has been that way very from the beginning, It was also something when I was a teenager, if you were really cool you had a record player. [Laughs] So maybe that’s how it started, to be a little cooler.
But now? Because I really love it and my boyfriend also has a big vinyl collection. We are eclectic, we have all kinds of things. He’s very much into hip-hop and older hip-hop. He’s also gotten into all kinds of Motown, soul, James Brown. From there, he goes into old film music — so he has some amazing albums. It’s just so nice that it’s like this when you take it out, it’s really a piece of the band and the artwork. I think I just like the format. The CD, I’ve never felt anything strongly about it. Vinyl has always been great. I know it’s old-school but I think it’s cool when you get a present and it’s vinyl. It’s like a proper thing you can keep with you forever.
It’s like a piece of art. Did you have time to do any record shopping in New York?
No, but I’m hoping to do it after hanging at Spotify. I think we have an hour or two. My boyfriend, he wants to go to this giant electronic store unfortunately. [Laughs]
So on the deluxe edition of ‘Aventine,’ you worked with David Lynch.
What was that like?
That was more like a surprise because I didn’t know anything about him doing the remix [of ‘Fuel to the Fire’] before we received it in an email. That was very cool to get the remix. It was like, “Oh! There’s an email from David Lynch, he has made a remix of your song.” Really? Pretty surreal.
What did you think of the remix?
I really liked it. He had done something that I’d never thought of myself, but it’s like, he’s taking the vocal and taking it away from the music so it’s almost like spoken words on top of everything. I’m always trying to do the opposite and trying to integrate. Then, he found this weird pulse in the song that I was never aware of. The version I’m playing, the original is like, the piano is playing this arpeggio thing. The whole song is built around that. His takes that away and finds this completely different beat in it that is slightly, I don’t know, eerie?
That’s one way to put it.
I really liked it. It was very surprising to me.
Do you get nervous when you hear someone is remixing your music?
Yeah. I do. I’m unfortunately not so relaxed about these kinds of things. Very often, when I’ve heard remixes, I’ve been disappointed. But also, I understand it’s not easy. A lot of my music is in 6/8 time and it’s difficult to work with that, if you want to put a beat under it. This time I was really surprised and I thought it was a very original take on the song.
Do you notice any difference in the crowds or your fans when you tour the U.S. compared to Europe?
I don’t know. It’s like more personal in many ways when I play over here because it’s smaller. I will go out and talk to people and then they tell me how they discovered the music and then they have very sweet stories like, “Oh, I went to this record shop and they were playing ‘Aventine'” — stuff like that. That doesn’t happen much anymore at home. So, there’s this wonderful feeling that people have their own stories connected to the music and it’s not widely known over here, so it’s a very, it becomes very personal very quickly and I like that.
What’s next for you? Have you already started thinking about your third album?
Yeah I have. The deluxe edition of ‘Aventine’ has these three songs and I felt they were very connected to ‘Aventine’ and the mood and the arrangements. So I knew I could not put them on a new album. I’m so happy about these new tracks I’m working on, so I don’t know. Maybe I’ll make it an EP or something. I’m trying to work enough with the piano, going new ways and trying to approach the songwriting a little differently and I have certain ways of writing that I like, but it’s also good to stir the pot as they say in Danish. [Laughs] To try new things and also, I feel like I like this energy of working with an instrument I’m not 100% familiar with, in that maybe it’ll trigger my imagination in new ways.
I just bought a celesta, I think that’s what they call it in English. It’s a keyboard instrument but it’s hammered. It’s almost like a marimba with a vibraphone inside, small hammers are hitting it. So it sounds very different. Tchaikovsky, on the famous ‘The Nutcracker,’ that’s a celesta. That sound, it’s very dreamy and beautiful. I also work with a harpsichord and a spinet. I feel it even when I play the song on a piano now, it has a very different energy from the other songs.
When do you think the new record will be released?
Good question. [Laughs] Hopefully not in five years, I don’t know. I hope I won’t be too slow. I don’t know, I’m not the kind of person that makes an album in a week. It takes me time.
Listen to Agnes Obel’s ‘Aventine’ via Spotify