Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel (born 28 October 1980 in Gentofte, Copenhagen) is a Danish singer, songwriter and musician. Her first album, Philharmonics, was released by PIAS Recordings on 4 October 2010 and was certified gold in June 2011 by the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) for sales of 10,000 Copies. At the Danish Music Awards in November 2011, Agnes Obel won five prizes including : Best Album and Best Debut Artist. Citizen of Glass, her third album, received IMPALA Album of the Year Award 2016.
Life and career
Agnes 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. Her mother, Katja Obel, was a jurist and musician. She used to play Bartók and Chopin on the piano. Agnes Obel learned to play the piano at a very young age. About her learning, she 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."
During her childhood, she 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.
In 1990, she joined a small band as a singer and bass guitar player. The group appeared in a festival and recorded some tunes.
In 1994, she had a small 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 appears in two scenes. She plays a pupil who shares her table with the new student Andreas (Holger Thaarup).
She attended high school at Det frie Gymnasium, a free school where she was able to play a good deal of music. However, she quickly dropped out of school. "At seventeen,(...) I met a man who was running a studio. I gave up quickly my musical studies to learn sound techniques."
Agnes Obel has lived in Berlin since 2006 with Alex Brüel Flagstad. 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".
Agnes 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." 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." She says that, "The music is the most obvious means to express what I am, where I am."
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 on 11 April 2011 on iTunes, she sings a cover of Elliott Smith's "Between The Bars". Furthermore, Agnes Obel 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's 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."
Philharmonics has garnered generally positive reviews 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". 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." At last, in Musicomh, Ben Edgell writes that Agnes 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." French journalists have called her "A revelation to follow".
Agnes Obel's first album was a critical and commercial success. Critic Philippe Cornet said that Philharmonics is "A success that hypnotizes a greedy era of peace and redemption." In March 2011, she appeared for the first time in the United States. At the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, she performed all the songs on the album.
Three songs from the album were on the soundtrack of the 2009 film Submarino (Riverside, Brother Sparrow and Philharmonics). "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. "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. "Fuel to Fire" was used in the episode "The Big Uneasy" of The Originals. In April 2011, the Danish group Lulu Rouge have released a remix version of Agnes Obel's Riverside. Keeping the track's original beauty, Lulu Rouge have added their special electronic tempo on this famous song. Prior to the release of "Philharmonics", the soft, soothing tunes of "Just So" were used as soundtrack of a commercial of Deutsche Telekom on German TV in 2008.
PIAS Recordings 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.
In June 2011, Philharmonics was certified gold by the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) for sales of 10,000 units. In February 2011, her first album was nominated for 'Impala European Independent Album of the Year' and the title Riverside (from the Submarino's soundtrack) won the Robert Award for the Best Song of the year 2011.
In October 2011, Agnes Obel won the 2012 European Border Breakers Award. 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."
In November 2011, she won five prizes at the Danish Music Awards for her first album Philharmonics. She won 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.
Agnes Obel began working on her second album in 2011. 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."
In January 2013, Agnes Obel started mixing her new album. On 20 June 2013, she revealed that her new album Aventine would be released on 30 September 2013.
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."
She played at the iTunes UK Festival at the Roundhouse in London on 17 September 2013.
Frank Eidel, from quebecspot.com, commented: "It's a fascinating collection of remarkable pieces, with rich and intense arrangements supported by Obel's dazzling voice."
On 24 September 2014, Aventine became available on iTunes. Tom Burgel wrote: "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."
The web site Mushroompromotions said: "‘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."
In October 2014 a deluxe edition of 'Aventine' was released. This album featured 3 new songs. The deluxe edition also contains a remix of 'Fuel to Fire' by David Lynch who commented: "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."
In October 2014, Agnes Obel played for the first time in the legendary music hall L'Olympia in Paris.
Citizen of Glass
During her 2014 Tour, Agnes Obel began work on her third album : "I’m planning to work less with piano, and more with other kinds of old keyboards (...) I’m trying to find new instruments to work with, so it’s sort of on the research phase and starting to write things." Agnes says also : "I have some clear ideas but I’m not sure it is a good idea to go into specifics on such an early stage. I mainly plan to work with old keyboards like spinet and harpsichord and then see where they take me."
In June 2015, Agnes Obel worked on her new album. She recorded strings with new musicians, Frédérique Labbow, Kristina Koropecki and John Corban.
In June 2016, Obel released a new single, 'Familiar', from her upcoming album. The song is recorded, produced and mixed by Agnes Obel and features violin by John Corban, cellos by Kristina Koropecki and Charlotte Danhier. The video clip is directed by her husband Alex Brüel Flagstad. Hugo Cassavetti, from Telerama, wrote: "Agnes Obel, while remaining true to her fine style, expands her new musical fields. Percussions with a loud power rhythm a delicately acrobatic melody that the singer performs with a voice that was strangely moved. Yes, Obel, as splitted by technology, duet with her disturbing echoes with a male stamp."
In July 2016, Agnes Obel announced her third studio album, Citizen of Glass, to be released on 21 October 2016. About the mysterious title, Agnes Obel explains: "The title comes from the German concept of the gläserner bürger, the human or glass citizen. It’s actually a legal term about the level of privacy the individual has in a state, and in health it’s become a term about how much we know about a person’s body or biology or history – if they’re completely made of glass we know everything."
Among violins, cellos, harpsichords, spinet and celesta : Agnes Obel used a Trautonium, a rare electronic musical instrument from the 1930s.
In September 2016, Agnes released a new single, "Golden Green". In Dansende Beren, Niels Bruwier writes: "The sound of glass is never far away. The song is about the way we always find other better lives than ours(…)she brings out her dreamy voice, it’s actually just the perfect classic pop song without embellishment. Enchanting, elysisch and paradise-like."
In October 2016, a new song of Citizen of Glass was released: Stretch Your Eyes. This song is a new version of an older one (Spinet Song) which was played during her Tour in 2014.
In October 2016 Citizen of Glass was released. The French newspaper La Croix wrote: "With several great songs, the surrealist Stretch your eyes or the luminous Golden Green, Agnes Obel has created a sumptuous, odd and modern album. Citizen of Glass confirms, with greatness, Agnes Obel as an important pop artist."
The album debuted at number 30 on the UK Albums Chart, selling 3,540 copies and becoming her first top 40 album in the UK.
Citizen of Glass received an average score of 81 on Metacritic, meaning universal acclaim, based on 7 critics.
Citizen of Glass received IMPALA (The Independent Music Companies Association) Album of the Year Award 2016, which rewards on a yearly basis the best album released on an independent European label.
Agnes Obel is influenced by artists such as Roy Orbison and also by the French composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. She also likes Edgar Allan Poe and photographers Sibylle Bergemann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tina Modotti and Alfred Hitchcock. Concerning Hitchcock, she says, "I adore his enigmatic style, his sophisticated esthetic but always with an extreme simplicity." The cover of her first album, photographed by Berlin photographer Mali Lazell, is an 'homage' to The Birds.
Agnes Obel also likes the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Sometimes, Obel tests some of her demos on Deren's movies. 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." In addition to classical music, Obel listens to artists like Mort Garson (The Zodiac – Cosmic Sounds), The Smiths (How Soon Is Now?), and Françoise Hardy (Où va la chance).
In February 2017, and after the famous covers of John Cale and Jeff Buckley, Agnes Obel performs the mythical "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen song) in a tribute to the late Leonard Cohen at the 'Victoire de la Musique 2017'.
|Title||Album details||Peak chart positions||Certifications|
|Citizen of Glass||
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart.|
|Title||Album details||Peak chart positions|
|iTunes Live à Paris||
|iTunes Festival: London 2013||
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart.|
|Single||Year||Peak chart positions||Certifications||Album|
|"Fuel to Fire"||—||—||88||—||—||—|
||—||—||—||Citizen of Glass|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart.|
Other charted songs
|Single||Year||Peak chart positions||Album|
|"On Powdered Ground"||2011||76||Philharmonics|
|"The Christmas Song"
(Smith & Burrows featuring Agnes Obel)
|2011||—||Funny Looking Angels|