Earlier this month, we went along to a private showcase for the sublime Agnes Obel. Playing songs from her highly anticipated forthcoming album, Aventine, Obel serenaded the audience in the quaint environs of St. Pancras Old Church. The album follows the huge success of her debut, Philharmonics, which garnered numerous awards and was certified 5 x Platinum in her home country of Denmark. We managed to catch up with the delicate songstress ahead of the release of Aventine this month.
PlanetNotion: So did you enjoy your time last night?
Agnes Obel: Yeah it was really exciting because we could see if we could actually play the songs [laughs]. The church was very inspiring; it was very pretty.
PN: It was amazing to watch you with all your loop pedals.
AO: Yeah it was quite exciting – but this is also why things can go wrong, as this was the first time we’d tried it with these new songs. I was very happy because the first time you play you realise ‘maybe we should do that and that’, but for a first attempt I thought it went really well.
PN: So, when you first put out your demo for ‘Just So’ on MySpace back in 2009, did you expect what was to happen next?
AO: The song was actually used in a commercial in Germany, and I was in the middle of recording my album, Philharmonics at that time. I didn’t have a very good record deal of any sort, and I had some friends in Copenhagen who could get [the album] released in Denmark. And so of course when this happened with the commercial, I was thinking that this could help me get a deal. I thought it was way easier than it turned out to be! It took a year before I found a label that was interested, but I did not expect all these things that would happen after. I was very conscious that it would maybe be able to give me a record deal, but it’s also so difficult to find the right label, which is also something I found out as it took over a year.
PN: As much of a polar opposite as you are to Justin Bieber, he was also discovered through the internet. What sort of influence do you think the internet and social media has on the music industry?
AO: I think it has a great impact; it’s changing everything all the time. I think it’s wonderful that things are sort of turned upside-down, and all these formulas of ‘it has to be like that and that and that’ have dissolved, and now it’s about – I hope – what people connect to and what they need.
PN: How did you stay grounded with the success of Philharmonics? Because it got huge!
AO: Yeah, well it was really unexpected. We were unprepared, and it was quite strange actually because we suddenly had to play bigger and bigger venues, and it was just me and my cello player. We didn’t have a sound engineer, or a tour manager; we didn’t have anything really. Our set-up was for very small venues, and then suddenly we had to play a concert hall somewhere, and we were like, ‘how are we going to do that?’ So, there were a lot of things we had to learn really quickly. I think it was a very good, but a very steep, learning experience. And then there was a lot of traveling – the second half of 2010, and all of 2011, is just a blur of traveling. And then I said ‘stop’, at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 – I had to write some new songs.
PN: Is that about the time you started working on Aventine?
AO: Yes, because the songs on Philharmonics took such a long time to get released, and then it was such a long period of touring. So, I really needed to record and write again, and find out if I still could do it. I also had to find out where I was musically. I had experienced so much; I needed to get something out. I felt like I had been getting so many intense impressions from life in this period, and I had no time to figure out what was going on, and how that would express itself musically. I knew I’d learned a lot, and I also wanted to try things out with the cello and the strings, and recording things I had learned. I wanted to figure out if I was able to use it in songwriting and recording, so it was a very good feeling when I started Aventine.
PN: Was it a daunting prospect going into the second album after the success of the first?
AO: Well, yes and no. I was really ready to do it, and it was my decision – so I think that made it much better. I’m never any good at following any sort of directions; I can only sort of follow my own interest, as this is what motivates me when I work. I had a lot of ideas, so I felt really motivated. At the end of the process, just about everybody I met and my friends were like ‘when is the album finished?’ I felt like, ‘ok, it’s ready now’ [laughs].
PN: I read that your music itself is the primary influence for the lyrics of your songs, was this also the case for Aventine? Or do you have any external influences, perhaps from touring?
AO: Touring inspiration – that would be really boring in lyrics! [Laughs, and then begins to sing]: “I’m waiting at an airport, getting up at five in the morning…”
No – I guess it was a little bit like Philharmonics. With a song like ‘The Curse’, it’s sort of like a story, and there is a narrative, so it’s not necessarily about me. The music informed the lyrics in that case. A lot of my life had changed, and it was difficult to have this big change in your life and then go back and not really be able to communicate it to anybody. It’s sort of an anti-climax. You come home and everybody has a picture about what it has been like – but you can’t really explain it. I had a need to get that feeling in there, and to be able to communicate this.
PN: Which song would you say portrays this?
AO: I think ‘Words Are Dead’ was the first one – I wrote it when I came home from touring. I wanted to get close to that feeling, to sum up the state of mind that I was in. On Philharmonics, many of the songs were old, and I wanted to have something relating to my life now.
PN: ‘Wallflower’, from Philharmonics, was written when you were in school, have you got any songs on Aventine that you had a few years ago and you developed a bit more now?
AO: ‘Fuel To Fire’: I wrote it just as I finished Philharmonics, and was hoping I would have time to put it on the album but I didn’t finish it completely. I started playing it live on tour, and that was the first time I arranged the strings and everything, so it was a more organic way I think. There’s also a song called ‘Tokka’ on the album; it’s a very sparse, instrumental folk piece.
PN: Is it good to be back on stage now?
AO: Yeah, I think what is strange to me is talking about the music. Because it’s not long ago I finished the album, so it’s still very fresh to me and I’m rediscovering it while I play. I have to rearrange it to play live and I’m still in the middle of finding what sort of songs I’ve made [laughs].
PN: When did you shoot the video for ‘The Curse’?
AO: It was my boyfriend, Alex, who also made ‘Riverside’. He was shooting ‘The Curse’ while I was finishing the album, and he shot some things and forced me down to Tempelhof in Gemrnay. There was snow in Berlin everywhere in April! Then there are some shots from our shows in Ireland and Boston when we were on tour with Philharmonics in 2012.
PN: You mentioned about Berlin, where you’ve been living since 2006, why did you choose Berlin?
AO: I’m from Copenhagen, I had always been living there, and I just fell in love with Berlin. I needed to try to live in another city, and try something else. It’s a very different city – I don’t know any city like Berlin – it’s a strange one! And I like that I still can’t figure out what it is. But a lot of people from all over the world are coming to Berlin at the moment, and this creates a very nice vibe.
PN: What are your plans for after the release of Aventine later this month?
AO: A lot of promotion, and some shows – iTunes Festival will be good. And then we start the tour in October, and the last show is on the 3rd or 4th of January, and we’re going to play in the Philharmonie in Berlin – which is really amazing. For the last album I played in the chamber music room, which is smaller – but it’s the first time I’m playing in the big one, so I’m excited to see if we can do it!
21st October – London
22nd October – Bristol
23rd October – Dublin
24th October – Glasgow
Aventine is available on September 30th. You can pre-order it now.