Danish Musician Agnes Obel Talks Berlin, Past Lives & Selling Out
You could say that success wasn’t always on the cards for Danish music star Agnes Obel. Headed perhaps for a quieter life, things exploded for her at the age of 30 when in 2010 she released her first solo LP, Philharmonics, to critical acclaim. The Album went on to sell over 500,000 copies, a true anomaly in today’s independent music world.
She is a thoughtful artist and refreshing in that she doesn’t give everything about herself away. On the eve of her latest LP, Citizen of Glass, we sat down with Agnes to take a peek beneath that mysterious persona.
So I noticed you don’t talk a lot on stage?
No but I think if you’re really present in what you’re doing then you can create something together with the audience in that experience. If they’re attentive and they are open to what is going on up on stage then it will make the music better, and it will make you more focused as well. It’s like a synergy. When a lot of minds are thinking of the same thing it can create something that you can’t create alone.
Is it also about maybe not wanting to give too much of yourself away? That you want your music to talk for you?
No I don’t feel like I don’t want people to know about me. I think it’s more that I just don’t know what to say. And I already feel slightly exposed in that situation because it’s not just like something I just made. It’s really what I spend all my life and time on, and playing to people couldn’t be more exposing. So I probably get even more shy.
AGNES OBEL ON Selling out
Let’s go back to your Philharmonics LP. You’re catapult to success was unpredicted. PIAS originally budgeted for 15-20,000 and ended up selling hundreds of thousands. Then there was also the telekom commercial –
Well the Telekom commercial didn’t help. That story is not correct. It was only shown in Germany and it actually just made a lot of trouble for me. It was not helpful. I couldn’t get the song that was used onto my album, and it delayed the release of my album. I would have loved not to have done it, first of all because everyone asks me about it as if it was a great help and it wasn’t really, it just delayed everything. And the album did much better outside of Germany. Also it’s sometimes good to not have your music in a commercial. I can’t recommend it.
But many artists would dream for that, and might say that you’re one of the lucky ones in today’s music industry where there’s no financial reward unless you’re playing 200 shows a year.
I don’t know, I think there are a lot of better ways to get your music out there, like having your music in films, making soundtracks. I think it’s possible to do it without selling your music to a commercial. I’m not against it at all but it’s something I didn’t feel super comfortable about and I definitely wouldn’t do it again.
Have you reinvented yourself from Philharmonics to this album? Is this a different Agnes?
I think in relation to the music I’m the same. I’m still doing it the same way, recording on my own. But I’ve learned from every album. When you do it on your own the learning curb is steep. I feel like I’ve learned a lot technically, and of course I’ve learned a lot about playing live and performing.
AGNES OBEL ON past lives
This is going to sound like a very strange question, but do you believe in past lives?
You mean like reincarnation? I’m not sure I believe it in a religious way, but I believe in cultural way that we’re all standing on the shoulders of things that have come before us. Music is the perfect example of that. I’m not the one who created everything that I’m doing, I’m standing on the shoulders of thousands of years of musical history.
That was actually why I was asking, because watching you live I get the sense that you’re channeling?
This was only the second time I played this album live, and there are some stories on this album that deal with secrets. And some of the secrets are not my secrets. The song Mary, the last song we played, is about a friend of mine who told me a story many years ago, 15 years ago I think. She told me the story of her first sort of sexual experience, and it was not good. Anyway it was kind of a secret and she didn’t want to tell anyone about it because it was very shameful for her. She told me the thing that was hard about it was the secret. The secret followed her and it grew into this nightmare thing in her head, like a distorted fairy-tale. I wanted to tell her secret. So you’re right I was channelling that world and that story. Performing it I felt that I was in the world of that song.
Agnes Obel on Berlin
You moved to Berlin back in 2006. Why did you move there? And how have you noticed the city change?
There’s intense gentrification going on and I’ve experienced it up close because I live in Neukolln, and have lived there for seven years. Even in the building I live there’s a new owner and he’s desperately trying to raise the rent. So obviously there are a lot of sad things with people being pushed out of neighbourhoods, but there’s also a side to it I like. Berlin seems to be becoming more and more international. I would love to see it become more international without it being so gentrified, so I’m hoping that balance can be found.
You moved there from Copenhagen right?
Yeah I moved to study but I had been there before at Transmediale. I loved Transmediale, and it’s part of the reason I moved to Berlin. I thought it was so cool. I think I moved there because it seemed like things were growing and it’s a place where things are not so defined. The Scandinavian culture is very homogenised, so it can be quite liberating to get away from that. Even though I love my home town it’s nice to be in a place where the possibilities are wider. I’m not talking about careers but more how you can understand yourself and what you want to do. I don’t know why but I think I’ve been socialised to do what my surroundings want me to do. I guess we all are. So it was really important for me and my music that I walked away from that, because then I had space in my mind to feel what I wanted to feel. Also I could forget about all these rules, like, you have to study, you have to get a producer, you have to get a record label before you can do anything.
Walk us through your perfect day in Berlin?
I love Templehof, the old airport, and there’s an area right next to it called Schillerkiez. I love that area very much. It’s all cobbled stones and there’s a lot of good places to eat. In the evening it almost looks like a clean version of Paris. You can look down the road and see a bright light that looks like the ocean, but it’s Tempelhof.
I love Teufelsberg because of the view and the amazing acoustics. My local coffee place is called Two Planets it’s run by an English guy and a lot of Australians. They’re very sweet. It’s in Hermanstrasse. On the same street as that there’s a cinema I love called Neues Off. It’s an old art deco cinema with beautiful velvet seats. I love the venue I just played, Schwuz. It’s a famous gay club and a very cool place.
Have you ever been to Berghain?
Oh yes, I love it there. but I love Schwuz. It’s small and the people are very sweet.