“…a lightness of touch that makes complex compositions and ideas seem like misty clouds floating around your brain, before you wake up from the dream and realise you have just enjoyed a song about a fairytale monster” – Siobhán Kane on Agnes Obel.
It was a rainy night in Cork, the kind of weather that perfectly frames Agnes Obel‘s music which seems soaked through with a kind of elegant melancholy. The Triskel Arts Centre was also a sympathetic place for Obel to end her very long tour (“sixteen months” she wearily told a packed audience) before taking some time to rest and repair in her adopted home of Berlin, and set about recording some of the material she has been writing for the past year or so.
This year has been a busy one for Obel; amidst constant touring which saw her take in SXSW in Austin, Texas and the Marquee in Cork (along with Owen Pallett, who both supported Fleet Foxes), she won several awards at the Danish Music Awards (her native country) in November, and gently stole the hearts of many with her beautiful debut record Philharmonics (PIAS), which was released last year (but reissued in an expanded version this year).
Even though she has been touring for sixteen months, her wide-eyed, playful sense of life was present in the church, clear for all to see. She often comes back to water as an imagery in her work (for example, on ‘Riverside’), and there is certainly a sense of her compositions flowing and babbling, like brooks and streams, finally forcing their way to something bigger, an ocean of musicality. And tonight her musicality is greatly complimented by Anna Müller on vocals, cello, guitar and melodica, and more recent edition Gillian Fleetwood on vocals and Scottish harp, (“she is….Scottish” Obel wryly remarked).
Something that radiated from the three women, and in particular Obel and Müller, is a sense of kinship – (“we are like family now”, Obel says) and sometimes it genuinely feels as if they are reading each others minds, sending over subtle smiles when things soar, or go slightly wobbly (as in the beginning, when there was an issue with the monitor, “uh-oh” Obel sweetly mouthed), lending a contented air to proceedings.
Yet the subject matter of Obel’s songs is far from contentment – at one point she remarks on the green lights that briefly light up the church, “it looks like a nightmare, but a good one”- and in one sense the description perfectly fits her music, and befits someone whose influences range from Satie to Hitchcock, and she provides a sense of delicate grace to subjects that are weighed down with emotional heaviness – grief, loss and isolation, giving them a bobbling, sparkling quality. This is no better evident than on something like ‘Just So’ which contains elements of the nursery rhyme, and which Obel plays jauntily, recalling the Bartók children’s songs that her mother used to play when she was growing up. This quality is also present on the haunting title song from her record, with its sensuous harmonies and strange, otherworldly melody, that Obel plays determinedly, and that holds a mystery at its core, revealing itself after two minutes as a deeply layered, perfect, poetic song.
This is key to Obel’s approach to music, she has a lightness of touch that makes complex compositions and ideas seem like misty clouds floating around your brain, before you wake up from the dream and realise you have just enjoyed a song about a fairytale monster, (‘Beast’) masquerading as a metaphor for a very real lust (“going out to hunt, and then back to feast”), and particularly here, Fleetwood’s accompaniment really makes the song, her harp going beyond its usefulness to provide an element of narrative.
As much as there is something very modern, sparing and fresh about Obel’s work, there is also something very nostalgic as well, a song like the dusty ‘Brother Sparrow’ could easily find its way on to a Fleet Foxes record, which in turn could find its way back into the canon of late sixties/early seventies American folk, and it goes right back to the reason that Obel is so influenced by, and drawn to the work of Eric Satie, because his pieces are both “calm and powerful at the same time”.
Obel also possesses this combination, and her shyness has eased itself from her Sugar Club performance back in April; here in Cork she is funny and wry, and though tired, the extended tour has obviously made performing to strangers seem like the most natural thing in the world, perhaps in the same way that she makes strange songs seem like the most natural thing too. For example, something like ‘Louretta’ sounds like a broken child’s song that has found its way into an adult world – with its fairground-infused keyboard, anchored by the sturdy piano melody, and which is an unsettling joy, as so much of Obel’s work is. She often reveals her struggle with her own journey through music, by telling us that songs like ‘Over the Hill’ and the beautiful instrumental ‘Wallflower’ were songs that she didn’t feel she was going to include on her record, perhaps because of a lack of confidence, or because she was too close to them, but her boyfriend had encouraged her to believe in them (“thank you Alex” she said, as she dedicated ‘Over the Hill’ to his influence), and in turn believe in herself.
Through the melancholia there is a generous sense of joy, and her cover of John Cale’s ‘(I Keep A) Close Watch’ is as hopeful as it is full of pain. She has previously called the song “so romantic”, finding a kind of peace in a more complicated version of romance; the kind that Roy Orbison’s voice renders, or Karen Dalton’s brings – and when she comes back on for her encore of ‘Katie Cruel’ (the Scottish ballad she first heard covered by Dalton), she, along with Müller and Fleetwood, look genuinely touched by the rapturous applause and appreciative response of this Sunday crowd (which pleasingly comprised varying ages), and on this cold winter’s evening, we were left squinting at the bare sun Obel had drawn for us.