Agnes Obel emerged seemingly out of thin air (or Denmark?) in 2010, with a gorgeous, delicate, neo-classical record Philharmonics. It was the kind of music you want to take, wrap around yourself like a cashmere blanket and hope it soothes all your aches and soon-to-be-aches. Now, finally, she is back on tour with her second album, the equally gorgeous yet clearly more mature and spare Aventine, and we should all rejoice.
On the occasion of her playing 930 club on Wednesday, August 13th (seated show!) and Bowery Ballroom on August 14th we sat down keyboard to keyboard and did a little chat about creating music vs touring, songs to cry and make-out to and “basic things” she enjoyss in her spare time. Read it and then and GO TO THE SHOWS. (well, mainly just go to the shows)
BYT: If you were to meet a stranger and you tried to explain Agnes Obel music to them – how would you do that ?
Agnes Obel: I generally try to avoid that question, because i am not entirely sure how to answer it. If it can’t be avoided, I’ll say “piano music”.
BYT: I get that. Lets try a different introductory tack – If there are 3 songs you wrote that you feel are ESSENTIAL Agnes Obel – what are they and why?
AO: I mostly start out by making instrumental tracks, so tracks like “Chord Left, “Tokka” or “Fivefold” are the most essential I can think of.
BYT: Perfect. Each of your songs sounds like a song you HAD TO make. Do you remember the moment you KNEW you were going to make THIS kind of music vs any other kind? What was it?
AO: I do not remember this moment. to me it feels more like a continuing and changing process.
BYT: Speaking of processes. You took a few years between records – how did you spend them?
AO: We toured almost 2 years after the release of Philharmonics, and after that I worked exclusively on a new album, which turned out to be Aventine. Didn’t do much else in that period to be honest. Time goes fast sometimes.
BYT: Recording vs touring – do you have a preference for either stage of the music process and if so-why? (and if not-why not?)
AO: I find the two things difficult to compare. Touring has more people involved (the people you are travelling and playing with, the audience, the people at the venue), every night you are making a record with them in a way, and it is never the same. There seem to be so much psychology involved and many things are left to random things happening in that very moment of performing. That said I guess I am more used to the writing and recording side. I like the concentration and the focus, seeing things coming together and slowly becoming something on its own.
BYT: Your songs employ loops and seemingly endless layers of delicate memory – what is the live set-up? How does this get achieved in person for you?
AO: We mainly play as a trio, cello, violin/viola and piano. Sometimes as a four-piece band, adding one extra cello. The strings use loop-stations to make orchestral build ups and clusters. the idea behind this set up is to keep it simple and transparent, even when it’s more complex and layered, so when we are reaching for something bigger sound wise the listener will know how we got there.
BYT: The songs are very personal, almost private in a way – how does it feel to play them in front of audiences of 100s, 1000s of people? Is it easy or painfully hard to establish a connection?
AO: It is psychology, and then something else that I am not quite sure what is. I am still getting my head around the whole performing side of the music we are playing. i do know that it is different to perform music you feel personally and emotionally connected to, because with my previous music projects playing shows didn’t feel like it does now.
BYT: Your music has a certain cinematic quality – tell us what kind of movie would you like to make a soundtrack to?
AO: I’d like to try to music for a film told from a perspective of a child. i think this perspective would open for some cool things musically. Also, some sort of futuristic science fiction project could be fun.
BYT: What is the one song you wish you’d written?
AO: The Electrician by The Walker Brothers.
BYT: And… a record that changed your life?
AO: There are so many, Nina Simone “Pastel Blues”, Cocteau Twins “Treasure”, Elliott Smith “Xo”, Steve Reich “Reich: Music for 18 Musician”. many more. but to begin with i was more listening to single tracks that i discovered from mix tapes that would circulate around among my friends when i was teenager. as far as i remember they were a mixture of spoken word (taken from film and radio, or people would make a voice over them self), classic music and film music, hip hop and psychedelic rock and old folk tunes. amazing stuff. I seldomly really listened to a whole album at that time.
BYT: Spare time wise… What are some of your favorite things to do when you’re not playing music?
AO: Listening to music, seeing friends, basic stuff.
BYT: You live in Berlin – what are some of your favorite parts about the city? Any must check out spots for visitors?
AO: The area I live in is pretty nice. It’s called Neukölln and is located right next to Kreuzberg which is also nice. Every time i come home something new has opened, a small shop or a playground. It all seem to be growing from beneath.The cobblestone streets, going from the channel (Landwehrkanal) down into Neukölln, are great in the summer, specially in the late afternoon and in the evenings where everyone’s outside.
BYT: Lets play a mood-ring song lighting round – let us know what your favorite song to:
….cry to – Blind Wille McTell (Cold Was the Ground) or Ernst Bloch (Schelomo, played by Leonard Rose)
….get you straight to the dancefloor – Mort Garson (The Zodiac – Cosmic Sounds)
….sing along to – The Turtles (You Showed Me)
…wake up to – Cesaria Evora (Petit Pays)
…fall asleep to – Francoise Hardy (Où va la chance)
…make out to – Eden Ahbez (Eden’s Island)
BYT: Thank you. Looking forward to the shows this week.