Agnes Obel on the ups and downs of performing at SXSW & the development of her live shows

Agnes Obel‘s time at SXSW brought with it some shows that had us reeling with emotion. The artist is no stranger to the way SXSW likes to roll, yet for many people seeing her for the first time at the festival, they were definitely treated to a one-of-a-kind experience. We were lucky enough to catch some of Agnes’ time out in Austin to chat about the development of her shows since those early showcases and how 2017 is shaping up.

Is it hard for you to get into the rhythm in such a short period of time? Because, you must be used to playing much longer shows by now.

Yeah. I have to say that I was really prepared for it, because I played here in 2011, and I played here in 2014, and I know how the deal is, in SXSW …

You’re a seasoned veteran of the SXSW?

Yeah, exactly. I actually only had really horrible experiences, except for 2014, we had a good show, I think, but it was a struggle just to get there, like technically. My expectations were …

Low.

Yeah. I have to be honest, that, yeah.

No, fair enough.

That’s just how it is here. You just have to go in and hope for the best, and have the fun you can have, and you can’t expect you can have your …

Perfect set.

Hope you’d maybe get the music across in an okay way, and just so people just going to have a little sort of taste of what you’re doing, and feel it a bit.

Yesterday was certainly a taste. You played a couple of songs from each of your records, just about … You’ve now got such a plethora of music to choose from at your shows.

Are you now in a position where you really get to kind of play around with some of your favourite material at each set, and focus in on what you want to play, as opposed to having, with the first time you toured, just the one record, so you’ve just got that limited scope to play with?

Yeah, definitely. In the beginning it was like, we had to tour, and we just had one album; we were just trying to make songs longer, stuff like that. It’s really nice, now, to have three albums; some of the songs, especially [from] the first album, I wrote them when I was really young. I’m a different person now. It can be hard to relate to some of the earlier songs and when you have to play them again and again, it can feel hollow.

I’m really happy that I can play my new material now; [I] also just choose songs that still speak to me, or they speak to me in another way, I’ve sort of found another angle.

The songs in the live setting … I mean, you might think last night wasn’t a great performance, but I’ve never seen you before, and I thought it was wonderful. I love the building of the cellos, and the looping, and just the sound just growing, and growing, and growing, and growing.

It doesn’t sound dissimilar from the record, but certainly bigger, and bolder. Have the songs been evolving on tour? As you go along, have the songs changed? Not just with the new material, but of course, over the years with some of your earlier content?

I think what else happened is that I’ve gotten to know strings, especially cello, and the technical possibilities you have. It’s the same also with keyboards, and different kind of how you can have a 300 year old spinet with you, in a perfectly stable version, but you have it played with all sorts of dynamics. All these things are things I’ve learned from touring and trying out and experimenting, and also recording the instruments, especially the cello.

I think it has very much formed the direction my music has taken and also the live set. I really love to make dynamic music. That’s what I miss in music today, the dynamics are gone. I love that you have the physicality of this beautiful, acoustic instrument, the cello, but you also have the power of amplified music, and the effects and the octaves make them sound really bass-y and I love to mix these things. To have the good things from both of them and then switch between that. Also [to] have a new, quiet part and then having these buildups. It’s an emotion that just builds and builds and builds. It’s sort of like this tension. I really love that when I have that feeling also in orchestral music, but you can also experience it in electronic music and also some music from Asia.

That seems to be something you’ve experimented with quite a lot over the years with your music. Just that buildup, that tension and then letting go. It’s some familiar and some of the songs are just so, so beautiful and so powerful. More so live, as well. I’m a fan. I really, really enjoy it. When it comes to your tour, you’re on … these dates are stuck in the middle of your shows around America. How long are you on the road for?

This time around…for five weeks. It’s pretty long, I think. I think the max is four weeks, which is also really long. Or five, which is this extra week. I feel like we’ve been on the road for two and a half weeks or something. At this time, it’s usually towards the end, but we’re not even halfway now. It’s really incredible to me. It’s also really exciting because you can really improve things musically when you don’t stop the process.

That’s what happened, at least for me. I just realised, “Okay, this song, you can do this and this and this.” When you play it every night and you have the soundcheck every day, you can really develop the live performance even more. I’m very curious to see how everything is sounding at the end of the tour. If it’s even better. I’m going to try to record it a little.

I was just about to say that last show, the last couple of shows, record that because that could be the best example of …

Yeah, I really think so. It’s such a waste. The tour is over. Everybody disperses. Some people, even myself, forget about all these cool things that happened, and you find it again on the next tour. I think, sometimes, it’s really just in that moment, that shows that you have this inspiration of these songs. Otherwise, it’s gone. They’re all like the result of playing them but also just the musicians I’m playing with. Their personality and their personal relationships with the songs.

You’ve been playing with them for a long time.

Yeah, no. It’s a new band.

Oh, it is a new band?

Yeah, yeah. It is also very new for me to play with them. We have to find each other musically.

How did you find them to begin with? Because they’re from all over the world.

Actually, Christina, one of the cellists from Canada, I know her because of SXSW. I was playing with a German cellist and she didn’t get her visa. We were touring Canada and we had to fly into Austin for SXSW in 2014. Then she didn’t get her visa and I had to find a cellist last minute, like three days before SXSW. Then a friend of mine recommended Christina to me because she had a visa and she could come with me. Then she learned all the songs in three days and played on equipment and loop station in a church here in SXSW. Pretty insane.

I really fell in love with her playing actually, on that tour. We did a little tour afterwards in the U.S. together and she played so beautifully. Yeah, that’s why I’m playing with her now.

You’ll be with them on the road for how much longer is this touring going to be lasting?

‘Till the fourth of April. Then we’re back in Europe. Except I think Christina is going to Montreal, but the rest of us are going back.

Are you looking forward to getting home?

Actually, I have like a big project waiting for me at home. I’m in the middle of building some studios together with a friend of mine who makes electronic music. We bought like this little house outside of Berlin, close to the old DDR radio building and we are building … or renovating our own studio thing there.

Oh, amazing.

I’m looking forward to it but I also …

It’s a lot of work.

Yeah! He’s really excited about it. We had a studio together before and it’s a very nice contrast, because he’s completely electronic experimental and I really write songs. We have a very different approach, but it’s such a great synergy.

Would you ever collaborate?

He always wants to collaborate. I think I would more prefer this, [where] we can fuel each other with ideas. He uses always really great sounds that I get inspired from. I can very often play some of the instruments he can’t really play on because he doesn’t really play so many instruments. Yeah, but then we can help each other like that. But maybe one day we could …

Actually I thought about doing some trautonium. We use this instrument called trautonium on the album, which is an old, old German synthesiser from the 20’s. I’m really not very good at playing the trautonium. Daniel, my friend, that I’m gonna share a studio with, he’s really good at it, or he’s becoming better and better. I think maybe I would maybe make an album with him, where we just had trautonium and maybe vocal.

Wow. That would be incredible.

But impossible to tour, I tell you. It’s a really dangerous instrument and very big and you can get electrocuted if you don’t put it into a power with ground. Because you’re playing on metal wires. It’s a really special instrument. I don’t think many people have a trautonium. You can really get it anywhere.

I’ve heard of the instrument, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Maybe I saw it at a museum once, but probably not. We’re really excited about seeing you here. I’m looking forward to eventually going to see a full set from you in your normal touring setting. Are there any plans to get you down to Australia that you know of?

They were talking about last February and then it didn’t happen. I was really disappointed, because it would have been summer in Australia. I don’t know. I hope so. Yeah, I would love to go there again and play. It was really incredible the three shows we had in 2014, so I cross my fingers.

You played some beautiful venues, as well.

Yeah, it was my first time there and then we played this incredibly beautiful venues. The audience knew the songs. It was a great experience for me.

Well, thank you so much for your time and looking forward to seeing what comes next. Until next time, thanks for joining us.

For more about Agnes Obel, visit www.agnesobel.com.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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