Agnes Obel

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Agnes Obel
Agnes Obel in Brussels (2010)
Background information
Born(1980-10-28) 28 October 1980 (age 33)
OriginCopenhagen, Denmark
GenresFolk, classical
OccupationsSinger-songwriter, musician
InstrumentsVocals, piano
Years active2009–present
LabelsPIAS Recordings (2010)
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Agnes Obel
Agnes Obel in Brussels (2010)
Background information
Born(1980-10-28) 28 October 1980 (age 33)
OriginCopenhagen, Denmark
GenresFolk, classical
OccupationsSinger-songwriter, musician
InstrumentsVocals, piano
Years active2009–present
LabelsPIAS Recordings (2010)

Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel (born 28 October 1980 in Gentofte, Copenhagen)[1] is a Danish singer/songwriter. Her first album, Philharmonics, was released by PIAS Recordings on 4 October 2010 in Europe, most notably Denmark, Norway, and Germany.[2] Philharmonics was certified gold in June 2011 by the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) for sales of 10,000 units.[3] At the Danish Music Awards in November 2011, Agnes Obel won five prizes: Best Album Of The Year, Best Pop Release Of The Year, Best Debut Artist Of The Year, Best Female Artist Of The Year and Best Songwriter Of The Year.[4]

Life and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Obel, and her younger brother Holger, grew up in an unconventional environment. Her father had three children from another marriage. He loved to collect strange objects and instruments like the xylophone and the double bass.[1] Her mother, Katja Obel, was a jurist but also a brilliant musician. She used to play Bartók and Chopin on the piano.[5] With a house full of sound and music Agnes Obel learned to play the piano at a very young age. About her learning, Obel says: "I had a classical piano teacher who told me that I shouldn't play what I didn't like. So I just played what I liked. I was never forced to play anything else."[6] During her childhood, Agnes Obel found inspiration in Jan Johansson's work. Johansson's songs, European folk tunes done in a jazzy style, have influenced the young musician a lot.[7]

In 1987, Obel joined a small band as a singer and bass guitar player. The group appeared in a festival and recorded some titles.[8]

In 1994, Agnes Obel had a little part in the short film The Boy Who Walked Backwards / Drengen der gik baglæns by Thomas Vinterberg. Her brother, Holger Thaarup, played the main character in the movie. Credited as Agnes Obel, she has only two scenes. She plays a pupil who share her table with the new comer Andreas (Holger Thaarup).[9] At that time, Obel discovered the first album of Portishead. Dummy became a revelation for the young artist: "I was completely fascinated by this album and all this sound from Bristol. As a teenager, I had the feeling that it belong to me, it defined me. This mix of melancholy and daydream...".[10]

She attended high school at Det frie Gymnasium, a free school where she was able to take 10 hours of pottery classes a week and play a lot of music. But she quickly dropped out of school.[11] "At seventeen,(...) I met a man who was running a studio. I gave up quickly my musical studies to learn sound techniques." Later, and with the help of Danish musician and producer Elton Theander, Obel founded the Copenhagen based band Sohio. But work in a rock band appeared to expose the dangers of an "encumbered" music. During a visit to Berlin, the artist saw the city as an ideal ground for musical creation, far from Copenhagen which had become "a too small city, too choking."[5] Since 2005, Obel has lived in Berlin.[2] Agnes Obel had three pianos in her house : A Grotrian-Steinweg, a Berdux and a vintage house organ.[12]

In 2009, Obel put a demo of "Just So" on Myspace. The telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom used "Just So" in an advertisement.[13]However, the young musician had to fight hard during years in order to find a label : "(...)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."[14]

Personal life[edit]

Agnes Obel has lived since 2006 in Berlin[15] with boyfriend Alex Brüel Flagstad.[6][16] Flagstad is a photographer and animation artist who filmed and directed the music video for "Riverside" from Obel's debut album Philharmonics (2010). Flagstad has also directed videos for titles from her LP Aventine (2013), including "Dorian", "The Curse" and "Aventine". About Flagstad, Obel says : "I stop working when he pushed me out of the studio, and even if we have different tastes (...) He's my best judge. (...) I know him since my adolescence."[17]


Obel debuted as a solo singer with her first album Philharmonics (2010). She writes, plays, sings, records and produces all her material herself. "The orchestral or symphonic music never interested me. I always was attracted by simple melodies, almost childish.(…) I put a long time before writing texts because the music seems to tell already a story, to project images."[5] Her piano is really much more than an instrument—Obel says, "The piano and the singing are two equal things to me – maybe not inseparable but very connected. You can say they are like two equal voices."[12] Obel says that, "The music is the most obvious means to express what I am, where I am."[18] "I don't have the feeling of being motivated by anger, revenge or frustration. I do exactly what I always wanted to do. In fact, I don't have the feeling to have chosen music. The music chose me."[5]

"I don't go out and seek inspiration, I think I get my inspiration from the melody. Sometimes I feel like a melody doesn't have anything to do with me, but it's just something that comes, is accumulated from me playing on the piano, and then this little creature just appears."

—Agnes Obel about her inspiration in The Quietus[19]

All of the songs in Philharmonics are original work except "Close Watch" ("I keep A Close Watch" by John Cale) & "Katie Cruel" (a folk traditional; as the iTunes bonus track of the album). In Live à Paris, released in 11 April 2011 on iTunes, Agnes Obel sings a cover of Elliott Smith's "Between The Bars". Furthermore, Agnes did a duet with Editors singer Tom Smith, performing "The Christmas Song" by Mel Tormé – to be found on the Smith & Burrows album Funny Looking Angels (released in November 2011).

For the promotion of Philharmonics, Agnes Obel appears (under the lenses of Mali Lazell) beside an impressive and worrying owl. This is clearly a reference to Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Birds. However there is no owl in Hitchcock's film and many people find more connection with Ingmar Bergman universe. "Agnes, really superb, looks like Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman's Persona or Tippi Hedren disguised in a proud Marnie rather than to its catatonic character of The Birds.[20]

Philharmonics has garnered generally positive review with for example James Skinner from BBC saying that "the compositions... are slow, sombre, sepulchral even, but not without a sense of occasionally singular beauty".[21] In the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles, Johanna Seban speaks about a "disarming purity" and states, "There is, in these deeply melancholic ballads, the clearness and reassuring nobility of bedside discs."[22] At last, in Musicomh, Ben Edgell writes, "Obel sings with a hushed and tender grace that waxes wistful and serene over yearning cello, harp, and piano vignettes. She's a fey siren, with a dusky, near-whispered vocal that speaks to Ane Brun or Eva Cassidy."[23] French journalists have called Obel "A revelation to follow".[24]

This first album has become a critical and commercial success. Philippe Cornet underline that Philharmonics is "A success that hypnotizes a greedy era of peace and redemption." [1] In March 2011, Obel appeared for the first time in the United States. At the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Agnes Obel has performed all the titles of her album.[25] In October 2011, Agnes Obel has signed with Wintrup Musik for a more important diffusion of Philharmonics. Wintrup is an independent publisher with its own radio & TV promotion department and the worldwide network of a "major".[26]

"Just So" was featured in a Deutsche Telekom commercial in Germany.[2] Three songs from the album were on the soundtrack of the 2009 film Submarino.[27] "Riverside" was featured in the episode "Not Responsible" of Grey's Anatomy and in Episode 12 of the second season of Offspring. "Avenue" was played in the episode "Trust" from Revenge.[28] "Riverside" was played in the episode "Duplicity" from Revenge and in the episodes "What Are You Doing Here, Ho-Bag?" from The CW's Ringer.[29] "Fuel to Fire" was used in the episode "The Big Uneasy" of The Originals (TV series). "Brother Sparrow" is used in Nivea advertising for Nivea Pure & Natural.[30] In April 2011, the Danish group Lulu Rouge have released a remix version of Agnes Obel's Riverside. Keeping the tracks original beauty, Lulu Rouge have added their special electronic tempo on this famous song.[29]

Agnes Obel at the Cirque Royal, Brussels (2011)

PIAS Recordings has released, on 7 February 2011, a 'Deluxe Version' of Philharmonics. This Deluxe Version contains five more tracks. Two instrumentals ("Riverside" and "Just So") and three live versions: "Over the Hill", "Just So", and a new song "Smoke & Mirrors". In Riverside EP, Agnes Obel sings "Sons & Daughters". This work is only available on this album.

Since June 2011, Philharmonics is certified gold by the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) for sales of 10,000 units.[3] In February 2011, Obel's first album has been nominated for 'Impala European Independent Album of the Year'[31] and the title Riverside (from the Submarino's soundtrack) won the Robert Award for the Best Song of the year 2011.[32]

In October 2011, Agnes Obel wins the 2012 European Border Breakers Awards. The prize celebrate the top new talents in European pop music who "have all succeeded in reaching out to audiences beyond their home country through their talent and energy."[33]

In November 2011, Agnes Obel triumphs at the Danish Music Awards with five prizes for her first album Philharmonics. The artist wins for the Best Album Of The Year, Best Pop Release Of The Year, Best Debut Artist Of The Year, Best Female Artist Of The Year and Best Songwriter Of The Year.[4]


Obel began working on her second album in 2011. In an interview, Obel explained, "There will be new melodies that do not take origin on my life in Berlin or when I was a teenager. I will begin recording this summer when I can take a break from my tour."[13] About her new album, she said, "I started to write new pieces, but all were instrumental ones, with the piano alone… In this moment, I feel more inclined to compose instrumental pieces. I already started to write some texts, but for me, it's more difficult to compose melodies."[18]

In April 2012, Agnes Obel started recording her new album at Lichte Studio in Berlin.[34] In January 2013, Obel finalized her new album with a serial of mixing sessions.[35] On 20 June 2013, Obel revealed that her new album Aventine would be released on 30 September 2013.[36]

"On the last album, I didn't want to disturb the melody with too many stories. This time, I wanted to know if I was able to create images with words, with the sound of words.(...) I think that’s a good thing when the one who is listening, is feeling it in a different way that the one who creates. We are all listening with different perspectives.(...) I don’t want to impose my subjectivity to the listener."

—Agnes Obel on Aventine[37]

Aventine Hill is one of seven hills surrounding Rome but Obel says: "If I chose this name it's just because I like the way it rings."[38]

On Aventine, Agnes Obel commented: "I recorded everything quite closely, miking everything closely in a small room, with voices here, the piano here – everything is close to you. So it's sparse, but by varying the dynamic range of the songs I could create almost soundscapes. I was able to make something feel big with just these few instruments."[39]

Only available in iTunes : 'September Song' is a very personal work from the composer. In an interview, Obel specified : "When I compose, I don't think of a season in particular. But I like the autumn especially. A very poetic atmosphere emerges from days of immense blue skies when reddened leaves are illuminated by the sun."[40]

The French magazine Les Inrockuptibles comments: "This new album is, logically and for many people, an event."[41] "The Curse", the lead single from the album, was released on 20 August. The videoclip of "The Curse", with an oniric and vintage aesthetic, was directed by Alex Brüel Flagstad.[42] Les Inrockuptibles gives also a link to discover an another title from Aventine: "Fuel to Fire".[43] Flagstad has directed also the video clip of "Aventine" and used only a mobile phone to film Agnes.[44]

Agnes Obel has played at the iTunes UK Festival at the Roundhouse in London on 17 September 2013.[45] The show is available in streaming media on iTunes.[46]

Frank Eidel, from, comments: "It's a fascinating collection of remarkable pieces, with rich and intense arrangements supported by Obel's dazzling voice."[47]

Since 24 September, Aventine is available on iTunes. Tom Burgel writes: "The few reactions collected have been very positive and, already, full with love: The elegance of Agnes and the rare grace of her writings will cause, without any doubts, some strong palpitations in the hearts of the amateurs."[48]

Agnes Obel (piano), Charlotte Danhier (cello), Sophie Bayet (violin) at Würzburg, Germany (2014)

The web site Mushroompromotions underlines: "‘Aventine’ is a beautiful record, intriguingly unhurried. If the first record was a wander through the forest, this one takes the time to see the beauty and feel the texture in a single leaf. It is at once microcosmic and universal. (...) Agnes creates her own world, or as she calls it, a bubble or bell jar, to make her music. Once inside (or should that be outside?), she’s no longer conscious of what’s going on. This is the mystery of her modus operandi, something she cannot explain. Which simply adds to the ethereal quality of her music."[49]

In October 2014 a deluxe edition of 'Aventine' will be released. This album features 3 new songs. This deluxe edition will contain also a remix of 'Fuel to Fire' by David Lynch. The legendary filmmaker, who is also a musician, has declared about Obel : “I loved doing this remix. I was turned onto Agnes’ music through my record label… I think she has a most beautiful voice and can do things with her voice that are unique and extraordinary.”[50]

New Album[edit]

During her 2014's Tour, Obel has started to work on her third album : "I’m planning to work less with piano, and more with other kinds of old keyboards (...). 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."[14]


Agnes Obel is influenced by artists such as Roy Orbison, Joni Mitchell and PJ Harvey, and also by the French composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie.[5] She also likes Edgar Allan Poe and photographers Sybille Bergemann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tina Modotti and Alfred Hitchcock.[51] Concerning Hitchcock, she says, "I adore his enigmatic style, his sophisticated esthetic but always with an extreme simplicity."[5] The cover of her first album, photographed by Berlin photographer Mali Lazell,[52] is an 'homage' to The Birds. Agnes Obel likes also the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Sometimes, Obel tests some of her demos on Deren's movies.[44] Obel is also a huge fan of Nina Simone : "I have a fantastic live album by Nina Simone on which she sings “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. Her vocals seem to come out of nowhere. Magic."[53] Agnes Obel likes all type of music, and despite her attachement to classical music, she is able to listen various artists. Ernest Bloch (Schelomo) to Mort Garson (The Zodiac – Cosmic Sounds). The Smiths (How Soon Is Now?) to Françoise Hardy (Où va la chance). [54]


Studio albums[edit]

List of albums, with selected chart positions and certifications
TitleAlbum detailsPeak chart positionsCertifications
  • Released: 30 September 2013
  • Label: PIAS
  • Formats: LP, CD, digital download
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.

Extended plays[edit]

List of albums, with selected chart positions
TitleAlbum detailsPeak chart positions
iTunes Live à Paris131
iTunes Festival: London 2013
  • Released: 25 September 2013
  • Label: PIAS
  • Formats: Digital download
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.


List of singles, with selected chart positions showing year released and album name
SingleYearPeak chart positionsCertificationsAlbum
"Just So"124487
"Brother Sparrow"2011
"The Curse"201343112Aventine
"Fuel to Fire"88
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.

Other charted songs[edit]

List of singles, with selected chart positions showing year released and album name
SingleYearPeak chart positionsAlbum
"On Powdered Ground"201126Philharmonics

As featured artist[edit]

TitleYearPeak chart
"How Do You Dare?"[71]
(Mofosteel featuring Agnes Obel)
"The Christmas Song"[72]
(Smith & Burrows featuring Agnes Obel)
2011Funny Looking Angels


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External links[edit]