9:30 INTERVIEW: Anges Obel
Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel crafts dreamy, classical compositions with contemporary flair. We chatted with Obel ahead of her upcoming 9:30 Club show about performing live, her album-making process, and the value of social media in marketing musicians’ careers.
Madelyn [9:30]: For your upcoming U.S. tour, will you be solo or with your supporting band of cellist and violinist?
Agnes Obel: Yeah, I’m going to come with a cello player and a violin player. Mika Posen from Canada is going to play violin and Anne Müller from Berlin is going to play cello. And I’m going to play piano [laughs].
What attracts you to the musicians with whom you perform live?
I’ve been working with musicians who play classical instruments, so they have a classical training, and it’s quite different from what I used to play with, which was only rock background, which is very different from a classical background. What I’ve been trying to find is musicians who are classically trained, so they can play these instruments, but on the other side, they can also be free and sort of have a more rock and roll approach to playing concerts and working with effects, and loop stations, and improvising. Also, thinking of the whole thing as more like band - I’m not interested in hiring classical musicians, then they get some sheets, and that’s it. I want it to be something we do together because that’s how I always played in bands. Mika and Anne - they’re both very much like this; they have the classical background, but they are very capable of playing with effects and both have solo projects on their own. They’re really wonderful to play with.
I had the pleasure of seeing you at SXSW when you played in a church. That performance was very sublime; the church setting was perfect. Are your “normal” shows that stripped down, or when we see you at the Club, will there be lights and projections?
I think we’ll be able to do more than we could at the SXSW show because there are a lot of limitations to these kinds of shows, you know? You have like a fifteen-minute change over, so you can’t really do what you normally do. But it’s going to be stripped down in the set up. We’re still just going to be a trio, and we’re going to build everything up from these three instruments. So what we’re aiming at is trying to build it up to sound more orchestral with loop stations and effects and stuff, and again, having it really sparse. And I think it’s more interesting when you are fewer on stage because it gets very clear what’s happening. I really like the simplicity, and the simplicity getting more complicated. So it’s going to be something like that, but of course, not the same because SXSW was really something special [laughs].
What’s your favorite type of show to play? Do you like festivals? Or do you prefer big concert halls, or smaller, more intimate rooms?
I think I like all the three things you mentioned. But, of course, with classical instruments that you amplify and play loudly like it’s a rock instrument - that is very highly complicated to set up to play at a festival like SXSW. It’s not easy to do it. It’s a little like climbing a mountain, and if you do it, you’re very happy. But it’s really hit or miss with the set up. I’m on festival tour at the moment, and we’re playing a lot of shows like this where you have to get up on stage and everything is made for a rock band, or for an electronic band, or for somebody who has everything on a computer. [Laughs.] It’s sometimes really terrifying, actually, because you don’t know if you can do it. So when you’re in a club - a normal club - or in a venue or concert hall and you have a proper soundcheck and you have all those things and a good acoustic - of course that’s way easier. And you have time to find out the room. I really like to do that - to get to know the room before you play the concert, and find out what kind of room, what kind of acoustic, and what kind of atmosphere you can work with. In a festival, you can’t do that; I’ve never tried that, because we never have any time. But that’s also the exciting thing. So, I like it all, I guess.
As a Danish singer-songwriter living in Berlin, does writing and singing in English come pretty naturally to you? Or is it a translation process where you write in your native tongue, then do it in English?
No, no, I write in English. That’s how I learned English - from singing in English. Actually, for me, it’s very much my music language, so it’s actually more weird for me to sing in Danish. I guess that must be weird for people who speak English as their first language to hear that from somebody who comes from another language. I went to this school - it was a music school, but also an international school, so the main language was Danish, but also English, and they taught us English through music. Before we understood it, we would sing it. That means I have a very natural relationship to the language - in terms of music, at least. It seems very sort of connected for me. But also, I work with it in a very sort of sound way. Of course I think about the lyrics - use a lot of time on the lyrics - but I feel like the sound, and the sound in a room, and the words, they color each other - the sound and the semantics. And that’s even more obvious to me when it’s English than when it’s Danish. So, yeah, I like to sing in English.
Have you gravitated towards any instruments besides piano? Could you see yourself playing anything else on a record in the future?
Well, I played bass on the previous album, and guitar, and all the beats - rhythms and stuff. Because I do it myself, I end up having to do some of the instrumentation, even though I’m not very good at these instruments. So, yeah, definitely. And the next album, I’m planning to work less with piano, and more with other kinds of old keyboards, so yeah, I could definitely imagine that [laughs].
Speaking of your third record, how much have you been able to focus on that? Or are you just focusing on touring?
I’m focusing on it because I’m planning it. I’m trying to find new instruments to work with, so it’s sort of on the research phase and starting to write things. It’s still sort of just in the incubation phase - [laughs] it’s a very early phase. But most of my time is with the touring and getting that album working. I’m touring with different musicians at the moment - I’m not touring with Anne and Mika right now - I’m touring with two Belgian musicians, so every time you start playing with a new band, you have to rehearse and get to know each other. It takes a lot of time, I think. And just traveling - I haven’t been home for four weeks right now.
Do you think that, ideally, the new album would come out early next year? What’s your timeline for it?
Oh, no, no, no. I need a long time. [Laughs.] I’m just starting to think about it and to write a few things. I’m the type who needs a year or two years or something. I’m not one of these fast ones. I need a long time.
Nothing wrong with that! So, you produce your own records, and I’m wondering how having complete creative control in the recording studio impacts other aspects of your life as a musician? Does it help at all as a touring musician to know your records in and out and to say, “I did everything of this”?
That’s a good question. I never got that question before. I’m very focused on sound. Live sound - I want it to sound a certain way, so I’m very involved in the sound aspect, and of course the arrangements and everything. But it also means when we start playing it live, and we change the arrangements and we develop the songs, I keep on thinking, “Oh, I want to go back and rerecord it!” You can get sort of obsessed with certain aspects of the sound. I ended up also mixing the two last albums, so when you produce it, and record it, and mix it, and write it, and play it, you can tend to become a little obsessed with it. And when you start playing it with other people and changing it, then it’s like you’re opening the whole thing up again. I think it becomes very personal and also takes a lot of time of your life, basically. I’m still not a point where I can write the songs and leave the production and everything to somebody else. Could be fun to try it at some point and say, “Okay, you do it, and I’ll just see what’s going to come out at the end.” So far, I’ve had this need to have the songs and the universe in the whole of my hands so I can make sure I get my ideas and visions out the way I want it.
I know that Myspace was instrumental in your discovery as a musician. Do you still use social media as a main marketing tool for your career?
First of all, it’s true that I had one song in a German commercial that was discovered on Myspace in 2008, but it didn’t help me so much. It was just in Germany and it took me two years to get a record deal, and it ended up not being in Germany. I couldn’t get any contract in Germany, so it didn’t help me so much. I think sometimes it’s just something it says on Wikipedia, but the reality is it wasn’t that easy [laughs]. I learned that you have to be very careful with these kinds of things. I think, obviously, it has changed everything that music is available everywhere. Social media is part of it. I think the most important platform right now is YouTube, for discovering music and for also letting you know bands that are not on labels [and don’t] have promotion and stuff. They have an output of form; that’s extremely important. And that was also important for me - that’s how I started doing music on my own. And I remember before, I was playing in a band, and in this band project, everything was about getting a record deal, but when I started working alone, that was a time where Myspace was really big. In that period, everybody was like, “Oh, let’s just get it up on Myspace and show it to our friends.” So, the whole spirit has changed and it’s already some time ago now, you know? But it’s not about labels anymore. It’s about getting it out there and finding - because everything has become way more niche - you can always find an audience now, it doesn’t matter if they are far away. So, yeah, I think it’s super important, and it’s really great for everybody who doesn’t fit into the classical category that the record labels use when they sign us. Obiviously, it’s really good. But I don’t use a lot of time with Twitter and Facebook, I have to admit. I’m not that connected myself.
You work with your boyfriend, Alex, on music videos for your songs. What’s the collaborative process between you two like?
I’m working a lot in our home, and he has a studio in our home, too, so he ends up hearing a lot of stuff before it’s done. He will make something without me even knowing it, and then just showing it to me, and then if I like it, he will make a video for it. I dunno, I guess I’m really lucky with that because it doesn’t have to be conceptualized and planned. It just sort of happens in the process.
Agnes Obel will perform at 9:30 Club on Wednesday, August 13.