Back home in Berlin after a week long tour of the US, Agnes Obel sat on her bed with her boyfriend and video producer Alex Brüel Flagstad with her and their dog Woody beside them. Jetlagged but comfortable, she shared with Keiren Bond her thoughts on song writing, intimacy and childhood influences.
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Before her US tour, the soft-spoken Dane joined Boyz Noize and The Growlers as part of Les Nuits Secretes, The Secret Nights Festival in Paris. If it sounds like the most romantic combination of words ever put together, the three-day festival itself is an artistic celebration of music, lights, theatre and workshops.
Tell me about Les Nuits Secretes.
The Secret Nights Festival is very much local event, and people do it because they love it not for anything else. It was very sweet. The whole backstage was in an old school, closed down in summer.The director of the festival used to go there and the backstage was his old classroom. It made it very special. Everyone working there knew each other.
I feel like I’m discovering a secret when I listen to your music. It’s very intimate.
I started out playing my own music from a very introspective position; even still sometimes I’m worried about being too introspective. When I was working with bands and we were pouring our collective energy into it, it was a more conceptual songwriting and driven from another place – We had to formulate common things to write about. So when I started working on my own piano songs, I don’t even know where they came from. It was something I did for myself, it was private. From there it felt right to keep a private perspective in my writing.
Your familiarity with the piano was established at a very young age. How influential was your parents musical background on you becoming a musician yourself?
It was important, they made sure I had access to instruments and took lessons. My father had been a musician when he was young but when I was born he stopped playing professionally and he mostly sold instruments. So I didn’t see it like something you did for work; I was introduced to music as something you did for pleasure, either alone or together with everybody. It is a way of expressing yourself and having fun. The whole career thing – I am still learning about that. I’m all the time learning about this part.
Is it overwhelming?
I guess some of it is overwhelming. The first project I had [debut album Philharmonics released in 2010] I really wanted to be released. I hadn’t expected all this to come when I made the record. The travelling got me, and it hit me how hard it was to be on tour for a long time, away from my loved ones. But I have learnt to deal with it. As soon as something feels difficult to do, I feel you should not give in.
Your partner Alex is very involved with the production of your film clips. I imagine it would have a stark contrast to working with an unfamiliar professional. How does this influence your video production?
It definitely creates a more personal vision in everything. Now I do have to be careful about what I say because he is actually right here and can hear everything I say! *giggles* I am very lucky to have his perspective on my music.
At this point, the nightmare of a phone interviewer materialized – a sound disruption. Mine was a dog barking right outside my room, for a rather extended period of time. But Agnes gasped with delight and revealed she too had a puppy. He is a rescue dog, a little beagle.
First of all I love his photography, but also he knows my music and he knows me very well. He’s been there right from the very beginning, when my music was just an idea, or a brief melody.
Already at that point he started getting ideas and would write them down, as I would play. Sometimes he will even make ideas before the songs are done. It’s so beautiful, and encourages me to be open and to emphasise the intimacy of my music.
Your music is very unique in its composition – very mystical, and almost somber with a romantic revelation about it. Where do you draw inspiration?
Sometimes I feel here in Germany there isn’t a lot of music like mine. I live in Berlin so there is a lot of electronic music around – most of my friends make electronic music and if I go see their show I have to go to a club, where as for them to come see my show it’s very different! The late Swedish pianist Jan Johansson who worked with old folk music from Europe and Scandinavia inspires me. His music is very simplistic – mostly it’s just the piano and double bass.
I also draw inspiration from my parents.. When I listen to their music I hear a story. It feels like an animal walking through the forest. I was moved by this.
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Agnes is a musician of integrity, whose soul drips into her hypnotizing music. Piano, viola, cello and violin put with Agnes’ disarming vocals makes for a whimsical yet engulfing experience. Her most recent record, Aventine, is to be released as a deluxe version next month. She will grace our shores in November, accompanied by a band of string musicians. Visit her at The Old Museum on 25 November.