Agnes Obel’s Philharmonics was a work of such carefully thought-out beauty that when news of the impending release of its follow-up, Aventine, emerged a couple of months ago, we were overjoyed and simultaneously wary: could Obel match the gentle magic of her debut?
Be strung out in suspense no longer, as we can tell you for nothing that Aventine is enthralling in equal measure to its predecessor. And to chaperone your listening experience, we also busied ourselves chatting in-depth with the talented Dane about each and every song on the album.
Best Fit: This is the first of three instrumentals on the album. When you wrote it, did you specifically set out to make an instrumental track?
Agnes Obel: Well, very often the first thing I record is the piano. With ‘Chord Left’ I very quickly thought, “ah, this is nice just as it is”. There was a story going between the right hand and the left hand and that’s why it was called ‘Chord Left’. The left hand was being the pulse. I like that it is very sparse and I felt that it had a very nice dynamic to it, which I thought was a very good beginning for the album. It sounds similar to ‘Philharmonics’ but if you listen carefully, you will notice that it is elaborating on it – there’s more details and some tempo changes. But everything is very subtle. I didn’t know it was going to be the introduction to the album when I made it but I feel that it makes a very good one. We’ve made a new arrangement for it with strings which we tried out [at the recent iTunes Festival show] for the first time and which I am very happy about. It’s nice to do more things with it and I really like the new costume change for it. But I really love the album version as well, obviously.
Fuel To Fire
Best Fit: You’ve included ‘Fuel To Fire’ in your live set for a couple of years now. Is it quite an old composition?
Agnes Obel: Yes, I wrote ‘Fuel To Fire’ and ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ just after I finished recording Philharmonics. It took me some time before I got released so I was still in the mode of writing and that’s when I wrote it. These two songs are from the summer of 2010. I was completely terrified, the album was going to get released and I was so freaked out about it because it was a very big thing for me, so I just stayed at home and recorded. I then made a demo of ‘Fuel To Fire’ and ‘Smoke and Mirrors,’ and then we didn’t have enough songs to play live in the Philharmonics set – so we brought this song into it, and the string arrangement developed through doing that.
Best Fit: So it evolved organically by you playing it live?
Agnes Obel: Yes, exactly. It developed in a different way than the string arrangements on other songs, which are basically very controlled. But we were trying it out in big venues and we could hear that the song had the potential to be more dynamic and powerful. And then I went home and started recording it after the tour. I saw in the live situation that it worked really well and something about that song was different from the rest of the songs and I felt that it had a special vibe to it. I liked that I was connecting different stories to it all the time, myself. It was not so fixed in my mind like a lot of other songs I write, where I have specific things that influence them.
Best Fit: Who or what is ‘Dorian’ about?
Agnes Obel: ‘Dorian’ is about the inter-relational thing between two people, that you can’t put words on but you know is there. And when you reach the point of no return, and you are sort of swaying, or are suspended, into this weird space of nothingness, and you are still longing for all the good stuff that you had before. ‘Dorian’ is sort of my construction of that state of mind. Nobody outside this bubble of these two people can see it, so it looks really pretty and great but then if you step into this ring, you see that it’s all sort of falling apart and rotting. I felt like Dorian was such a beautiful name and… for me, I like to make out my own meaning for a word, imply my own stories to words or names, so in the back of my mind, of course, I knew about Dorian Gray but it was not deliberate or about that character. I am sure it coloured it but it wasn’t about it.
Best Fit: Aventine is one of the hills that ancient Rome was built on. Is that what inspired this song?
Agnes Obel: ‘Aventine’ was a song that I wrote on piano first and then I worked with some viola samples. It was very joyful and playful but it had an edge of something else to it as well, which was not necessarily as joyful and playful as its other parts. And then it felt like it was a song about working intuitively, working in the dark and feeling joyful about it but also worrying about it, sort of… what am I doing? I thought of it as walking up a hill, something really naïve and beautiful about working like that, like you really believe that there is something out there. So I was looking for an image of a hill or a mountain. And suddenly I found Aventine. For me it sounds like a mountain but it also sounds ancient and not really real. And then I read something about it being haunted by birds, of ill omen, and I thought- ah, that’s perfect for my song. When I’m writing and I am sitting in a room and listening to a sound, I think the sound and the semantics are colouring each other somehow.
Run Cried The Crawling
Best Fit: This is, hands down, the winner of The Line of Best Fit’s “Best Song Title On Aventine” Award.
Agnes Obel: I actually wrote a song a long time ago called ‘Run Cried The Crawling Spider’, which I never finished but I kept thinking about it. There was something about the title which I really liked. I knew I had to use it at some point. And then I wrote this song, which at the beginning was called ‘Crawling’ and then I felt it had the perfect mood for the title.
Best Fit: Do you think you might ever re-visit the original song?
Agnes Obel: Yeah, maybe. It’s sort of like a lullaby or a nursery rhyme. Yeah, I might do that.
Best Fit: When we searched for a translation for this word, expecting it to have some meaning in Danish perhaps, the only thing we could find was the word ‘herd’ in Finnish.
Agnes Obel: Oh! I was thinking of the Italian word, Tocca, which means ‘touch’ but they spell it differently in Italian. It’s great that it means that in Finnish, though. Cool! I didn’t know that. But I felt like… I very often like to name songs after the way they are played. And with this song I was barely touching the keys, I had to do it very softly so it was all about the touch of the piano.
Best Fit: This is one of the more story-led tracks on the album…
Agnes Obel: I think it was a song that asked for the story. I felt like there was a story there as soon as I started writing it. The first thing that came out was “And the people…”, it just sort of came out. And I just knew that it was something that was outside of me. I was reading two books at the time and maybe that had something to do with it. One of them was a book about how we think and how we construct meaning and memory and the author has a great way of describing how we construct our own stories. We apply so much symbolic meaning to things. Humans do that all the time, it’s like the curse of being a human but also a blessing because a lot of beautiful things come out of it. We put meaning into random things. The other book was a diary and the author was standing between the old world and the new world and he was rationalising the meaning of the new world and longing for the meaning of the old world. But with the curse of modern life. So it was just what I had in my mind at the time.
Best Fit: Why did you choose it as the first single?
Agnes Obel: Well, actually, I wanted it to be the first song on the album. It would have made a good introduction, I love the narrative and the build-up. I felt like it would be a powerful beginning for the album. It was tough trying to find the right track-listing.
Pass Them By
Best Fit: ‘Pass Them By’ has a lovely rich arrangement to it. What can you tell us about it?
Agnes Obel: It was a song I wrote in the summer. It started with the piano and then not long ago I recorded the guitar and the viola and violin. The song itself came fairly easily but all the plucking and picking in the arrangement was something which I had to spend a bit more time on. I wanted to have a song with a guitar on it but I also tried out other, different things for it. I wanted it to be rhythmical.
Best Fit: Have you played it live, yet?
Agnes Obel: We haven’t. But I think it is going to be fun to play live. I’m very happy about the piano in the end but I’m afraid it’s too low, like you can’t hear it .
Words Are Dead
Best Fit: This is the first song you actually recorded purposefully for Aventine, isn’t it?
Agnes Obel: Yes, it’s the first song I wrote and recorded, like in one big thing, just when I came home from touring with Philharmonics. And I was, like, ok now we stop, no more. And I felt like it could be interesting… I got a new piano and a new computer and I wanted to try them out so I wrote this song. I wrote it quite quickly.
Best Fit: You’re either going to agree with the next comment or you might take it badly, so here goes… there’s a whiff of Enya to ‘Words Are Dead’. Especially the “Mhhmmm Mhhmmm” humming bits.
Agnes Obel: Ah. Actually, that’s the stuff I like about Enya, all that stuff. It’s really nice. So I have no problem with that. It was basically just me using my voice as an instrument in the most simple way I can think of. Layering it. And I guess it could sound like Enya but I think a lot of people are also doing that.
Best Fit: Who are you singing “don’t cry for me” to?
Agnes Obel: That was supposed to be “don’t cry for them” but on the first take I sang “don’t cry for me” and I really liked it for some reason and kept it. It was about not being sad that you don’t have words for things. Just because I have lost my words, or can’t explain myself doesn’t mean that I am unable to. There are other ways. With ‘Words Are Dead’ I really wanted to make a song that was bittersweet.
Best Fit: This is the third and final instrumental cut on the record. What do you remember about how it came about?
Agnes Obel: I remember when I worked on the piano part for this song and I’d been to an electronic concert in Berlin the night before. I felt like I wanted something repetitive for it, something simple but still having a pulse to it. I was really inspired by the concert and felt like there was this deep bass that would be nice to try out. It took several takes to record, which is why it’s called ‘Fivefold’. First was the piano and then came the cello and then three sessions of viola and violin and it was built up like that.
Smoke & Mirrors
Best Fit: You mentioned that you wrote this song at the same time as you wrote ‘Fuel To Fire’. Do you see the two as linked together in some way?
Agnes Obel: Yes. But I don’t know if it’s because it was written at the same time. I also seem to have new stories connected to it but it’s three years since I wrote the two songs and you tend to change what you think about a song and what you think it is about over that sort of length of time.
Best Fit: Was there a specific reason for it being placed last on the record?
Agnes Obel: ‘Chord Left’ and ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ are somehow connected to Philharmonics the most and so it was nice top open with one and end with the other.
Aventine is released on 30 September on Play It Again Sam, and is available to purchase here.