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