10 Questions For Agnes Obel

For Agnes Obel, making music is a pathway to self discovery.  “I think I’m still trying to understand why I make these piano songs.” the Danish singer/songwriter tells Pollstar.

Having movie director David Lynch remix Obel’s “Fuel To Fire” seems like such a natural decision, if only because much of the songstress’ music would sound right at home in one of Lynch’s movies such as “Blue Velvet,” or “Mulholland Drive.”  Her atmospheric melodies coupled with her haunting voice invoke almost surreal cerebral soundscapes often taking the listener to other worlds of music exploration.

Obel is giving her new fans a chance to catch up on her music by bundling her latest album, 2013’s Aventine, her 2010 first album,2010’s Philharmonics, in a deluxe edition released via Play It Again Sam/PIAS America.  The new edition includes a second CD with new songs “Under Giant Trees,” “Arches” and “September Songs,” as well as live versions of “The Curse,” “Words Are Dead,” “Aventine,” a Daniel Matz reworking of “Dorian” and Lynch’s “Fuel To Fire” remix.

Obel launches her next tour of the U.S. and Canada later this month in Minneapolis.

Photo: Andre Lamar

You were discovered on MySpace.  At that time were you posting music just to share with people or were you hoping to attract the attention of a label or talent agency?

I was posting it for myself to sort of have a deadline to finish things. I had, actually, been making music for a while. At that point MySpace was very big and I used it as a way to force myself to finish songs.  I had decided to work alone and record everything on my own.  But working alone, you don’t have anybody to give it to.

MySpace was wonderful for me because I got to know a lot of musicians.  We were all listening to each other’s stuff.  I never thought of MySpace in relation to getting a record deal. … Then it grew from there.

Did you always want to be a musician?

[Music] was something I was always interested in.  I went to a school where you picked [your classes] … and I would always choose the music lessons.  I never thought about it.  It was just what I liked.  [Music] has been a very strong influence from early on. I think it was so important to me that I never said it out loud. … The more important it gets, the more difficult it is to put it into words.  I never said, “I want to be a [musician].”

Can you talk about why your albums sound very personal, as if you’re playing for just one person?

 I started out writing my own music before I played in other bands, something I decided to do for myself.  I knew I had all these piano songs and all these harmonies and melodies in me, but I didn’t know what they were. … I had to understand myself. … I’m still figuring out a little bit about myself with my music but also the people around me, the people I love.  Hopefully, that’s what you’re sensing when listening to my music.

I think I’m still trying to understand why I make these piano songs … and why it’s so different for me to make this music [compared to] all the other music I’ve made all these years.  I’ve played on a lot of different projects and they never felt like … what I’m doing now.  I played guitar and bass parts … on different projects.  I played in a band for a long time.  I also played with a songwriter full time.  When I was a teenager I had a girl band where I was playing bass guitar and piano. So I had a lot of projects.  They were very important to me in learning about writing songs.  Every time I play a show and every time I was recording songs for this project … it’s a different experience.

What’s different about your latest album, Aventine, compared to Philharmonics?

I would say Philharmonics was a collection of songs written over a longer period, stretching back to my teens. Several songs were written when I was in high school and college. … Songs that I played for many years but I never understood why I was playing them.  Just making sure they wouldn’t disappear into a black hole.

Aventine is more linked to my life right now.  I made that album after I toured for two years, nonstop, for Philharmonics.  [Aventine] was a big thing for me to do that. [Philharmonics] was a project I did for myself.  This project, I did not think of that, originally. I felt I had to cross a lot of borders within myself … and turn that into some kind of performance.

How difficult was it to expose your music to listeners in the U.S.?

It wasn’t really something we were talking about when we released the album.  It was going to be released in Denmark. … The whole American thing came about later on when it was released on iTunes [and] it grew from that. Then we had some songs in films. … I was really pleased about it.

After that we went over and played a few shows.  That was the first time I was in the U.S. … I feel like it’s just happening … not something that has been planned.  It’s like surfing.  You’re like, “Oh, that’s a wave?  OK, I’m going to try to surf that one and see how it works out.”  That’s how it’s been and that’s how it still is.

When you first begin working on a new song, do you know how it will sound or does the song take you somewhere not expected?

The latter.  I very much believe in going with your instincts.  I’ve even written songs about it, about working sort of in the dark. If [I] can feel there’s something there, I have an idea but I can’t [describe it] but I can express it musically and by experimenting, trying out things. … It’s very exciting because you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

What kind of room works best for your music?

It’s a lot of different elements.  It’s not so simple to say, “Oh, the room is great,” because then it can be the P.A. is not nice or the piano is not nice.  You can also play … an old rock ’n’ roll club and people think it’s not going to work and then it works fantastic. … This tour … [the venues] have all been very different.  I just can’t say the room has been decisive.  Sometimes it’s like psychology – you have a good day and a good connection to the audience.  Then everything feels perfect.

Is it difficult having to rely on house pianos?

It’s tough for me because it’s an important part of the songs … Sometimes you’re lucky to get a piano [where] everything you play sounds great.  Sometimes you get a piano [where] it’s almost painful to play.

When getting a piano that isn’t necessarily up to par, do you feel it in your hands as well as what you are hearing?

Yeah.  I feel that, unfortunately. … I can play on just about anything but [the piano] must have some beauty in the sound.  I like it when you can play in any key and it sounds beautiful in itself. … Many sort of bar pianos are [affected] by changes in temperatures and many people playing it.  Then any key will just sound like two or three keys even if it’s really well-tuned, and it’s very difficult to play.  It changes the whole concert.

Where do you hope to be in five years?

I hope I’m still recording music …  That’s my goal.

Photo: Frank Eidel
“I very much believe in going with your instincts. … It’s very exciting because you don’t know where you’re going to end up.”

Agnes Obel’s upcoming shows:

Oct. 17 – Barcelona, Spain, Teatre Principal
Oct. 19 – Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Rockhal
Oct. 20 – Tours, France, Le Vinci
Oct. 21 – Hove, England, All Saints Church
Oct. 22 – London, England, O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
Oct. 30 – Minneapolis, Minn., Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Nov. 1 – Chicago, Ill., Park West
Nov. 2 – Stoughton, Wis., Stoughton Opera House
Nov. 4 – Toronto, Ontario, Harbourfront Centre
Nov. 5 – Toronto, Ontario, Harbourfront Centre
Nov. 6 – South Burlington, Vermont, Higher Ground
Nov. 7 – Northampton, Mass., Iron Horse Music Hall
Nov. 8 – Northampton, Mass., Iron Horse Music Hall
Nov. 9 – New York, N.Y., Le Poisson Rouge
Nov. 10 – Cambridge, Mass., The Sinclair
Nov. 11 – Montreal, Quebec, Olympia de Montreal
Nov. 13 – Quebec City, Quebec, Palais Montcalm
Nov. 25 – Brisbane, Australia, Old Museum
Nov. 27 – Sydney, Australia, City Recital Hall – Angel Place
Nov. 28 – South Bank, Australia, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall 

Please visit Agnes Obel’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel and SoundCloud page for more information.