Sunday 25 February 2018

A great Dane with no time for hygge

Agnes Obel is a songwriter determined to do things her own way, she tells our reporter, unlike her conformity-loving countrymen

Free spirit: Berlin is Obel's adopted city, and it's a place where she feels very little societal pressure
Free spirit: Berlin is Obel's adopted city, and it's a place where she feels very little societal pressure
John Meagher

John Meagher

Six months ago, in the run up to Christmas, it was impossible to get away from 'hygge', that Danish concept of contentment. A whole industry seemed to have sprung up to sell us the dream of living close to nature in gorgeous and expensive Scandinavian homes, of having unlimited candles at the ready for when our beautifully dressed and photogenic friends call round, of eating exquisitely presented food that's been foraged half-way up a mountain. It was hard not to be thoroughly sickened by it all.

And it's reassuring to hear a real-life Dane call 'bullshit' on the whole thing. Agnes Obel has little time for hygge and certainly hasn't imported it to her adopted city of Berlin.

"The Danes conform quite a lot," she says, "and hygge is typical of that. One of the things that first drew me to Berlin is the fact that you're not expected to conform. You can be yourself completely." There's very little of that societal pressure, she insists.

In a world of homogeneous sounds and identikit popstars, the Copenhagen native truly is herself. She makes the music she wants to make and to hell with anyone who tells her otherwise. It's one of the reasons her music engenders such devotion in those who discover her.

"I find it very inspiring to live in Berlin," she says. "It's one of the places in Europe where artists have come for many years, not just because you can truly be yourself here, but because it's affordable. In too many cities - especially places like London - creative people have been priced out. And that's really bad for those cities because the richness of its cultural life is one of the things that can make it a great place to live."

Obel has spent most of her adult life in the German capital, where she lives with her German photographer boyfriend - and occasional collaborator - Alex Brüel Flagstad. And it was in her home studio that she recorded the bulk of her stunning third album, Citizen of Glass.

The title comes from the German concept of the gläserner bürger, which translates as 'glass citizen', and is a legal term about the level of privacy the individual has, or should have, in a state. "I read about it and it fascinated me," Obel says. "As a songwriter, you wrestle with the idea of how much of yourself you should put into your work. What do you reveal and what do you hide?

"And I wanted the album to actually sound like my concept, like glass. It had to sound strong and sure of itself, but also fragile and easy to break."

If the idea sounds ever so slightly off-putting, fear not: the songs are utterly exquisite - and her glass analogy really does work when you hear the hard, yet brittle music. They're also painstakingly recorded and one can hear the layers of sound that Obel carefully built up in the studio. Some compositions boast as many as 250 tracks. "Maybe I'll make a very straightforward album the next time," she says, with a chuckle.

There's unusual instrumentation, too, including a trautonium - a pioneering type of synthesiser developed in Germany in the 1920s. "One of my favourite film soundtracks is the one [German electronica pioneer] Oskar Sala did for Hitchcock's The Birds. He created an extraordinary sound and he was able to do it by using a trautonium. I became obsessed with the idea of using one on my album, but they're not easy to get hold of, they're very expensive and, if you're unlucky, you can get electrocuted."

Obel had hers built by a craftsman who had copies of the original manuals, but don't expect to see it on a stage near you: trautoniums are big, heavy and fragile - and very hard to transport. "I'd love to bring it on tour but it's impossible," she says. "Maybe I can do a one-off show with it in Berlin."

Citizen of Glass was released last autumn to overwhelmingly positive reviews and the first leg of her tour called to Dublin's Vicar Street in December. Now, after a month of dates in North America, she's back in Europe and will play the Olympia in early June. "It will be quite different to what I was doing before," she says. "I've lived with the new songs for longer now, so I think I will approach some of them in a different way."

Obel, born in 1980, grew up in a bohemian household that was steeped in the arts. Her father was a musician and her mother an accomplished pianist and she studied classical music at college. She first came to our attention in 2010 with the release of her stunning debut album, Philharmonics. A collection of exquisite songs - including a beautifully stark cover of John Cale's 'Close Watch' - largely built on the power of vocals and piano, it heralded the arrival of a startling new talent.

I remember seeing her make her Irish debut that year when she played an intimate show at Dublin's Sugar Club. All those clichés about hearing pins drop were present and correct that night.

Her second album, Aventine, arrived three years later and continued where Philharmonics left off - hushed confessionals, comparatively sparse arrangements, haunting vocals.

"I don't think I could have made this album [Citizen of Glass] when I was starting out," she says. "I had to find out who I was first as a musician and develop that before I could have taken the path I took for this one."

Obel reveals some of the songs are inspired by her father, who died in 2014.

"He suffered from depression at various times in his life and even tried to commit suicide. Depression is something that affects so many people, including me, when I was a teenager, and it's a subject I didn't want to ignore when making this album."

Other songs are inspired by the lives of friends and acquaintances. "A friend told me a secret some time ago and I told her I would write a song about it one day," she says. That song became 'Mary', the closing track on Citizen of Glass.

"I mailed her to let her know and heard nothing back. Then, when the album came out, she contacted me to say she had heard the song and realised it was about her. And she loved it. It was only then that I realised I had never pressed send on the original email, so you can imagine my relief."

Agnes Obel plays Dublin's Olympia on June 6

Indo Review

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment