Agnes Obel is the musical equivalent of one of those riveting Danish TV dramas: a one-woman sound wave of noirish Nordicana, or darkly romantic pop Lieder.
Aventine, the second album by this 33-year-old Dane, has been top five in five territories, building on the sales of her 2010 debut Philharmonics, which far exceeded expectations. France’s coolest music magazine, Les Inrocks, put her on its review of 2013 cover, alongside Daft Punk, Arcade Fire and Nick Cave, calling Obel “the miracle of autumn”. She first came to wider international attention when US TV show Grey’s Anatomy featured her early song “Riverside”.
Bemused isn’t the half of Obel’s reaction to this degree of success. Traumatised might be nearer the mark. When we meet in a hip café – not so much shabby as reclaimed chic – in the Neukölln district of Berlin, she still seems to be processing the facts. She talks of “taking one step at a time”, as if recovering from some sudden life-changing event.
“I never go into anything expecting something specific to result,” she says, with the modesty of one for whom music has always been fundamentally a private passion. Her solo work is “way more personal” than previous, more amateurish projects with bands.
So she was unprepared for all this? “Yes, definitely,” Obel replies. “I think it was too much for me [to begin with]. When I had bands, it was more conceptual. You could absent yourself. Now there are lots of things I didn’t think I’d ever have to do, even at a technical level.”
These technical challenges involve performing her songs – which revolve around piano, cello and violin – at larger venues such as London’s Barbican, where this month she plays one of her biggest gigs to date. While she strives for the “same intimacy” as chamber music, Obel insists that she is “not playing acoustic concerts”, existing rather “at a crossroads” between pop and classical. Another of those “things”, though, is talking about her art.
“It still doesn’t feel supernatural for me,” she says, her accented English haltingly emphasising the gap between the two key words. “With Philharmonics, I had to do a lot of interviews, and it was like I was corrupting something. In many ways, I’ve said everything in the song. And either I can’t go back to what it was, because it’s changing when I play it, or I still haven’t figured out what the song is about.”
One factor in her hesitancy is that, until Aventine, words were secondary in her compositional approach. Obel is unusual in the pop realm in being primarily a pianist who sings, instead of the other way round. Both her albums contain pensive instrumentals that owe plenty to early 20th-century French composers Debussy, Ravel and Satie.
I ask Obel whether she could envisage making an album solely of piano pieces. “Yes, definitely. It’s very tempting,” she says. “But I’m also getting so curious about strings and other keyboard instruments like the celeste. It’s always difficult to know if a song needs more than piano, and I worry about my tendency to go in a sparse direction. When I was in bands, I always liked the demo best.”
Born and raised in Copenhagen, Obel has lived for the past eight years in the German capital, drawn by its cheaper rents and her appetite for adventure. Obel’s mother, a civil servant, plays piano to a good standard, but “the main musical person in the family” is her father. A jazz guitarist before Obel’s birth, he gave up professional playing for financial reasons.
“I admire him a lot,” Obel says, “but I see it as his biggest mistake to stop doing this, so I’m always reminding myself how lucky I am, and how important it is to stick with it.”
Obel père bought and sold instruments, which is why Obel fille had two grand pianos to play as a little girl. Although she went to a musical school, she dropped out because she “had an idea to be a record producer” (going back later “because everybody got so stressed out about it”). She tends to deride her classical knowledge.
“I’m just this uneducated type,” Obel maintains. “In Danish, you’d say, ‘Who has come into the candy store and taken whatever they like without any respect.’ ” But her self-deprecation is not quite convincing.
Discussing how pop critics often struggle to describe her music – and, indeed, any that has apparent classical leanings – she becomes most particular. “Everything that has a spare piano is ‘like Satie’ and everything with strings is ‘filmic,’ ” she says. “Sometimes I get annoyed when they say my stuff sounds ‘like Satie’. No, it doesn’t. At least, I don’t think so. My tempos are way more like Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances.”
She concedes that Philharmonics, on which you’ll find “Riverside”, is a “folkier” record than Aventine, although she is reluctant to pin the “melancholy” label on the latter. “I wanted to make a more upbeat, bright album, but at that time a lot of things were changing in my private life,” she confesses. Written during a spell apart from her long-term boyfriend, songs such as “Pass Them By”, “Run Cried and Crawling” and “Words Are Dead” are undeniably aching laments.
Their torch song element, a swooning quality of unresolved longing, attests to a more surprising influence, Roy Orbison. For the first time, Obel says, the lyrics arrived together with the music.
Does she worry about revealing too much in her lyrics? “I’m more worried about that when I do interviews,” she laughs, a bit nervously. “I’m used to saying what I’m thinking [a characteristically Danish trait, she will confirm] and in this situation I’m thinking before speaking. But I’m more concerned about doing justice to the song.”
Obel admits she is “protectionist” about her material, holding it close for as long as she can. But “releasing is important if you want to develop,” she says, commercial considerations clearly far from her mind. “It forces you to face things about yourself, while playing live I’ve done things now that I didn’t think I could do. And without releasing, I’d never finish anything.”
Agnes Obel’s European tour starts on April 7 in Nancy; she plays Latitude Festival on July 19.