Danish-born, Berlin-based musician Agnes Obel has made waves overseas with her debut album, Philharmonics, a hypnotic blend of classical instrumentation — think piano, harp, cellos — with tender, graceful lyrics. But while the album has gone double platinum in her native country, you’d be hard-pressed to find many fans Stateside. (You might have heard her single, “Riverside,” on Grey’s Anatomy.) Before her show at Joe’s Pub last week, we caught up with Obel at the Gershwin Hotel to discuss her creative process, love songs, and performing live.
Did you come from a musical family? Yes and no. I would say I’m from a family of music fans and music lovers, but they are not specialists. I grew up with a lot of instruments, so my brother and I could basically choose whatever we liked to play, and he ended up playing a bunch of instruments, but I ended up playing the piano.
Is there a particular environment you like to be in when you’re writing music? I am not very good in an environment where it’s very competitive. I don’t like that at all. I get really scared.
I imagine it’s hard when there’s a lot of pressure put upon you to write a song. When it’s like, “You have to do it now now now!” that doesn’t work with me. I need time and I have to feel really comfortable.
Is it frightening to you to put so much of yourself out there in your music and lyrics? Yeah, I wish I could say its really easy, but you feel really vulnerable, and sometimes when you’re performing, it feels like you are stepping over a border, but then on the other hand you get so much back when you do it, so it’s worth putting yourself out there.
I heard that you would love to one day score a film. Are there any directors whose films you’d love to create music for? I have some directors that I really like, but I’m not sure I would support the lyrics very well because they have a very distinct style. I’m not sure I would be the right one for them. I’m totally aware of that. There is a director I like very much called Tomas Alfredson from Sweden. He made a movie called Let The Right One In. It’s amazing. It’s almost like it takes place in my childhood or something, it’s really scary.
Do you find a big difference between music here and in Europe? There’s some rock culture here. I feel like I don’t know it well. It’s really interesting to me. And then of course there is a lot of that bluegrass and country music that has really deep roots here. I like this feeling that it’s building up on something up in history. It’s really amazing to me, this experience. I don’t know a lot about this music yet, but I like that it’s a way to tell stories and I’m really fascinated by it.
Your album was a huge success overseas. Was that surprise for you? We didn’t expect anything! This is a quiet album, it’s kind of a surprise to everyone. It kind of moved out of nothing when it was released in October. There was no big promotion. I know a lot of friends of mine had heavy promotion, but I didn’t have any.
Was there a reason you chose to make this album? It was a personal project, it was something that I always wanted to do, to make my own album with my own piano, to do it my way after working with other people for my whole life. It’s the first time I’ve stood on my own. It was completely terrifying when I first had to release it, and if I knew it was going to be released here, I would have been even more terrified.
Do you have to be in love to write a love song? I don’t know. I know some musicians and artists, in general, they work really deliberately with their own emotions and cling on to sad experiences or rejection, but I have not been doing that. I could lie on my back and listen to my mother play piano, and that can trigger emotion, this creativity in me to create songs.
What do you do in your spare time when you’re not playing? I like to read American literature. Truman Capote is one of my favorites. I just read In Cold Blood, it was amazing. I was like, ‘We have to go to Kansas on tour, I want to see the tumbleweed!’
How do you feel about performing live? I have a little bit of ambivalence towards it. I play an instrument that I can’t carry around, so I am very dependent on the instrument that they have in the venue, and this is very different from place to place. At some places it’s totally out of tune and broken, and you have to play a half hour concert on it, and that’s just how it is. But I learn from it, and I love the fact that you can meet new people and see all these places. Since October, I’ve been in so many countries. I’ve been all over Europe. There are so many different cultures, and it’s such a small place.