With her hushed and wistful grace, classically trained Danish singer-songwriter/composer Agnes Obel writes serene, sombre works of art surrounded by intimate concepts of the reflective self. As she celebrates her ascent into thirtysomethingness, stevepafford.com has a potted overview of her four-album career so far.
I discovered Agnes Obel in 2015 in the most unlikely of circumstances. For most of that year I was living in Melbourne, and started dating a local lad who’d recently won the US green card lottery (yup, it does actually exist, through isn’t available to Brits) and thus was in the process of emigrating to New York.
What’s the secret of my success? Timing, obviously.
One day I texted Tall Bloke to ask if he had any music recommendations “because I don’t know much about music,” I jested. He took me completely seriously and fired back a few suggestions, the ubiquitous Sia among them. This isn’t her but it may be him.
Adelaide native Sia’s quite alright — she’s even cool enough to give away some of her best material to the likes of Blondie (yay) — but the one that really connected was a Berlin-based, Danish-born singer/songwriter with an elegant and elastic voice by the name of Agnes Obel. She’s a gifted classically trained pianist, as was Tall Bloke, and her melancholic inexorably pretty chamber pop draws from the same atmosphere-heavy well as cinematic spellcasters like Lisa Hannigan and Antony & The Johnsons/Anohni, but with a spellbindingly succinct aura of Scandinavian refinery.
Born Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel, she took up the piano at a preciously young age, honing her craft amidst the strains of Bartok and Chopin emanating from the fingers of her musician mother. She later drew inspiration from the work of Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson, and it was between those two worlds that her own soundscapes began to emerge.
Citing influences as diverse as PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Claude Debussy, and drawing comparisons to the likes Ane Brun, Eva Cassidy and Joni Mitchell, Obel’s evocative blend of classical, pop, jazz and electronic music found success in Europe on the strength of the self-produced debut Philharmonics (2010) and its successor Aventine (2013), the later which features very possibly my personal favourite of hers, the haunting Fuel To Fire, which always reminds me of Clannad only much much better.
Pure, austere, with an elegant, slipping darkness that creeps in around the corners, the poised, pristine mix of instrumentals and atmospheric, melancholy balladry was both a critical and commercial success, especially in her native Denmark, where the record went double platinum. Composed, produced, arranged, and mixed by Obel herself, the impressionistic Aventine was another commercial success, charting in nine countries.
A third studio album, 2016’s ambitious, transparency-themed Citizen Of Glass, Obel introduced ghostly electronics, voice modulation, and a 1920s monophonic synthesizer called a Trautonium into the mix, helping to establish her credentials as one of the most inventive new musicians of the decade. This is best typified on the first two singles Golden Green and Familiar.
Expressly not a cover of the Eighties indie single by The Wonder Stuff, Golden Green has piercing highs, unusual harmonies, a very effective low register pre-chorus and the most playful second verse you’ll hear this year as Obel evokes her inner Bush.
Familiar on the other hand uses vocal experiments of an entirely different fashion using that modern production to pitch shift her bridge down giving a bizarre but pleasing tone.
A much-anticipated fourth opus, Myopia, dropped in February 2020, and there’s a grand sense of scale in its elegant contours and atmospheric visions. Impending Covid lockdowns notwithstanding, Obel wanted to create in deep isolation without any outside influence, allowing herself to build self-trust as she experiments within a set of strengths and limitations.
Her self-proclaimed “myopia” is the same bubble that we create ourselves, and ultimately, an attempt to better understand how to communicate art to a broader audience under those terms.
From the strings-led Parliament Of Owls to the opulent chamber arrangements of the title track, Obel manages to retain a gentle intimacy even when she flirts with the emotional transcendence of new age. She did record the album in her home studio in Berlin, after all, but it’s in how she alters her ghostly, choral-like voice that she’s able to elevate her entire environment.
These are common attributes of her work, which much to its detriment, can sometimes make it appear as if there’s a sameness to the material (her opaque explorations aren’t a huge stray away from Citizen Of Glass).
But Obel’s open-ended ideas are deeply affecting—a testament to an artist who can let out more of herself the more confined she feels.
My sincere thanks to Juan Edgardo Rodriguez. An earlier version of this article appears here