Track by Track: Agnes Obel on Aventine

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.

Chord Left

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.

Dorian

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.

Aventine

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.

Tokka

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.