Agnes Obel tellshow she channelled the grief from her father’s death into her music
The death of a parent is one of life’s most traumatic rites of passage. For Agnes Obel the pain of losing her father in 2014 was exacerbated by the fact she wasn’t around to say goodbye. She was on tour when he passed away and had to process the news alone in a dressing room.
“My father would have had a much better life if he could have made music,” says the Danish-born, Berlin-based songwriter. “It had a lot to do with why he didn’t feel great in the last 15 years.”
Her dad had experienced depression, on and off. With age, it grew more severe. He once spent the best part of a year in bed.
His family felt his condition flowed in part from the path his life had taken. In his youth he had played in jazz bands around Copenhagen. But the responsibility of raising a family had forced him to give up music and follow the more conventional route of providing for his children. His final days were full of regret.
All of this came flooding back to Obel (39) as she toiled on her new album, Myopia. It’s a stunning record. But it is also in places claustrophobic, almost oppressively intense. A tempest was raging inside Obel as she recorded it in a studio near her home in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
“I made an album just for me,” she says. “Because I know how bad it can go if you don’t make music for yourself.”
She wondered sometimes if she wasn’t being indulgent. But then she remembered her father, with his depression and his sense that out there somewhere was a life he had not been free to lead. And she understood she had to be true to her muse. For herself. And for her father too.
Obel has written about her father before. Just So, from her 2010 debut album Philharmonics, was about his year as a bed-bound recluse and her wish that he could emerge somehow from his cocoon and re-engage with the world ( “He was depressed a lot of his life, and when he was depressed, he would sleep,” she told Songfacts. “There was a year when we were just talking to this guy underneath the covers, y'know?”).
Myopia revisits these feelings over 10 bleak and suffocating songs. This is an album that inhabits the wee small hours with a vengeance. Obel, whose dense, elaborate pop has drawn comparisons to Bjork, has suffered insomnia on and off. That sense of exhaustion mixed with magical thinking runs through the LP.
Yet in another way the record is a new beginning. Obel has a loyal following in Ireland. Her recently-postponed Vicar Street show was a sell-out; she had also been announced for the cancelled All Together Now festival at Curraghmore Estate Waterford during the summer.
But she is even bigger on the Continent, where her records are a fixture in the top 30. It is an indication of her status that Myopia is released by Deutsche Grammophon , the storied German subsidiary of Universal Music.
“I only see the label when the record is finished,” she laughs. “When I’m making it I don’t play it for anyone. Maybe for my boyfriend. But nobody else.
It can be a foolish to mistake an artist for their art. That would certainly be a error with Obel. Her songwriting is often severe. And if the aforementioned comparisons with a certain Icelandic pop eccentric are generally lazy and obvious at its most intense her music does indeed feel like a Bjork-ian stormfront. It manifests in a swirl of strings and vocals apparently beamed in from a different dimension.
She presents a very different figure in person. Obel is quick to laugh. She regards this as part of her Danish upbringing. Laid-back and with a sarcastic sense of humour, Danes are essentially the Irish of Scandinavia. In Germany, where she has lived for more than a decade she is reminded in endless tiny ways that she doesn’t fit in.
“I like Germans, the way they communicate,” she says. “It’s a lot more formal. Danes don’t talk like that. I’ll come off tour and have to remind myself they do things differently in Germany. The humour is different. I’ll make a joke and nobody will be laughing.”
One thing she is constantly struck by is the seriousness of German media. The TV news is incredibly severe. There is no space for humour. Obel generally approves – if ever the world needed more seriousness now is it. However, it is also another elbow to the ribs telling her that she isn’t at home.
“I like it. But at the same time I want to make it cosy and nice and everything. And sometimes things have to be serious.”
Berlin has changed during her time here. She recorded Philharmonics in her apartment and at a studio around the corner. At the time, the facility, which dates from the old GDR days, was essentially a haunted shed. Obel had the place to herself more or less, so that it felt she was making a record at the end of the world. Today the building swarms with trendy start-ups. The blasted landscape has been replaced by breathless bustle.
“It used to be completely empty,” she recalls.
“It’s so different today. There are all these media companies. Berlin is changing. The club scene now is just a business. The rents are going up. Berlin is becoming like anywhere else.”