Owl play

Den­mark’s Agnes Obel talks pi­anos, melan­choly and Roy Or­bi­son with Siob­hán Kane

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

On your River­side EP there is an im­age of the Ger­man river Spree; an im­age of ru­ral tran­quil­lity amidst ur­ban cru­elty

It is new for me to live in a city where we don’t have the sea. Lakes are not the same. It is in­ter­est­ing im­agery to work with; writ­ing songs is like the move­ment in wa­ter.

Was mov­ing to Ber­lin a way of forc­ing a change in your work?

I don’t know if it was Copen­hagen or me, but I needed to cut all my mu­si­cal con­nec­tions and get away from ev­ery­thing to find out what I wanted to do mu­si­cally. I wasn’t con­vinced I was good enough.

How im­por­tant has Swedish pi­anist Jan Jo­hans­son’s work been to you?

He was my first ex­pe­ri­ence with folk mu­sic, al­though my mother used to play a lot of Bartók chil­dren’s songs, which sound sim­i­lar to Jo­hans­son. They are seen as jazz and clas­si­cal, but they are also folk songs, and uni­ver­sal some­how.

Your cover of Katie Cruel is won­der­ful. You seem to be singing in sym­pa­thy with Karen Dal­ton, who also cov­ered it

Some songs speak to you, and I first heard it from Karen Dal­ton, whose ver­sion is amaz­ing, and when you know her story it is al­most too much.

You also cov­ered John Cale’s I Keep a

Close Watch. Are you drawn to melan­choly?

I am a happy per­son, but I like the at­mos­phere of me­lan­cho­lia – the mi­nor and ma­jor cre­ates a more thought­ful sound. That song is so ro­man­tic, and is a love song but

not a love song. He has lost all hope, but he still wrote the song.

That brings to mind Roy Or­bi­son, whose love of mu­sic helped him through tragedy

His voice is so mag­i­cal. It is like hear­ing some­thing from an­other world. You just wait for his voice on the Trav­el­ing Wil­burys. Peo­ple mis­un­der­stand me some­times, and think I am sad be­cause of my sound, but it is joy­ful.

Has your re­la­tion­ship with the piano changed over the years?

I didn’t know how to use my in­stru­ment in dif­fer­ent con­texts, but now I can. The sound dif­fers from piano to piano. You can hear the story in the wood and me­chan­ics, and though it has few tones you can get so much feel­ing out of it. I love com­posers who play with the quiet­ness of it, like Satie. The piano can force a vul­ner­a­bil­ity for the player as well as lis­tener. PJ Harvey’s

White Chalk comes to mind

It is my favourite al­bum of hers. She is so frag­ile, and through the piano is sud­denly ex­pos­ing so much of her­self.

The late poet In­ger Chris­tensen’s Light and

Grass is one of your favourite books. Her ideas about the lim­its of self-knowl­edge and lan­guage’s role in per­cep­tion are so in­ter­est­ing

You are not nec­es­sar­ily want­ing to say some­thing pro­found, but by play­ing with words and melodies you get closer to say­ing some­thing pro­found. I read a lot of po­etry when I was younger and be­gan again with In­ger, maybe be­cause I was start­ing to write lyrics.

Hitch­cock’s The Birds was a ref­er­ence point for the Phil­har­mon­ics art­work, but you used an owl, and the colours are also rem­i­nis­cent of the eerily faded world of Lynch’s Twin Peaks

We had to go to the taxi­der­mist for the owl. it was not pleas­ant, they are re­ally into dead an­i­mals. It looked so alive! I was quite scared, but it was good en­ergy for the pic­tures. I like Hitch­cock be­cause his films are ar­ti­fi­cial, beau­ti­ful and scary, like Twin

Peaks, which is my favourite sound­track. We wanted the art­work to be time­less, like an old pho­to­graph that you can’t quite place.

Your mu­sic has been used in Thomas Vin­ter­berg’s Sub­marino. He has a very black sense of hu­mour

My lit­tle brother was in one of his films, The

Boy Who Walked Back­wards, when he was small. He is so cute in that film! I know what you mean about black hu­mour, we share that with Ire­land. Maybe be­ing sur­rounded by sea has some­thing to do with it.

Agnes Obel plays Dublin’s Sugar Club on April 16. Phil­har­mon­ics is out now

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