Agnes Obel has suffered a bump to the head. A thick white plaster sits near the Danish musician’s left eyebrow, which she forgets about at one point, accidentally touches, and winces. She doesn’t say how she did it, but after a while in her company it’s easy to believe that a major jolt occurred when she finally emerged from her Berlin studio, fourth album completed, and tumbled back into the world that the rest of us inhabit, less than certain of how to function normally within it.
“Sometimes I feel like musical experiences are more real than what we define as the real world,” she says. “Or more honest. There are so many things you can say in music that you would never be able to say in any kind of social situation. So maybe sometimes I feel a strange disappointment when I go back. It can feel like it was greater in my mind than it actually is.”
It wouldn’t be hard for her to feel disappointed with her day today, which finds the 39-year-old giving back to back interviews in a windowless record company meeting room, accompanied by a migrane-inducing whine from the overworked air conditioning. Her album is called Myopia, named for the near-sightedness she required to make it while ignoring emails for weeks and sculpting her music deep into the night. Now that she’s back in reality she has to explain what the songs are about in her softly spoken English – sighs and long pauses a speciality.
She also needs to work out how to recreate these spectral songs in a live setting, with a tour of large theatre venues coming up. They might seem peaceful and beautiful at first – background accompaniment to a fireside session with an absorbing book, perhaps – but become stranger on closer examination. She uses traditional instruments – celesta, Mellotron, piano, viola – but pitches their sounds up or down to turn them into something else. Her singing, meanwhile, is multilayered and pitchshifted again, a ghostly choir of higher and lower voices.
With a band of dextrous, multitasking women, it can be done, just about. “The cellist plays some synthesizers and sings, the viola player also plays mellotron, the percussionist sings. They have two loop stations which are connected, and do that live while singing. It’s a tricky business,” Obel explains.
You might hear echoes of Kate Bush, Goldfrapp’s quieter moments and even Enya in her sophisticated sound, which has made her a star across Europe. Her previous three albums have been top 10 hits in France, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands – plus her homeland, naturally, where her 2010 debut, Philharmonics, went six-times platinum and won Album of the Year at the Danish Music Awards.
She hasn’t had a hit here yet, though her last release, Citizen of Glass in 2016, was her first foray into the top 30, and she’s now popular enough to perform for 3,500 at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith in April. In any case, her hushed, elegant compositions aren’t the types to explode into the public consciousness. You might be more likely to find her on a Spotify playlist – titles currently include “Atmospheric Piano”, “Deep Dark Indie” and “Bathtime Chill” – and be inspired to dig deeper some late lamplit night.
“For me, with every album, it’s always started moving a bit later,” she says of her sales figures. “So I’m totally chilled about releasing an album. It happens eventually. Apparently people need time with what I’m doing.”
Her thoughts around the new music began forming when she was still writing its predecessor. Citizen of Glass was a concept album about lack of privacy in the online world. For Myopia, she turned her gaze firmly inward. “My last album was about how technology skews our perception of ourselves. While I was in the process of finding ways to represent that through sound, I found that my own mind was also skewing things,” she explains. “I realised that a lot of the music that I made before had this experience of asking myself, ‘Can I trust this? Is this really what it is?’”
In trying to evoke that feeling of the mind playing tricks, she adjusted the way she recorded her music. “Every song on this album has undergone some kind of processing. I wanted to give this feeling that the mind has processed it, the way old memories somehow become warped by time. I used tape machines, because they really amplify the idea that this is a recorded experience. The instruments sound familiar but also like something else. For me that was a good representation of what happens when you only have something in your mind, in your memory.”
Her song Island of Doom is about her father, a former jazz musician who died in 2014, and the way that he lives on in her head. She sings: “Where the voices all have gathered up to a choir of fools/But I know my mind will reach you there and I will be with you.”
“A lot of people seem very alive in your memory. If someone gets dementia, their families feel like they’re losing them, because they don’t know who they are,” she says. “Our memories are what bind us to other people. If I smell print newspapers I get déjà vu, because my parents read a lot of newspapers. Smell a certain kind of bread, I’m eight years old and it’s breakfast time.”
It was intense work trying to, as she puts it, “create the stenography of my own mind”. She wrote and recorded in her home studio in an old factory building that she bought with her partner, a photographer who has directed a few of her music videos. They’ve lived in Berlin since 2006. “I wake up, go to the studio and start working. If it’s a good day I’ll keep going til three in the morning. If it’s less good, I’ll stop, walk the dog and think about something else.” Some of her most profitable sessions were late at night, the rest of the world asleep. “Maybe that’s because I really wanted to amplify that feeling that this is just my moment.”
She says she prefers her working life in Germany to Denmark. “In Copenhagen, the environment I was in was very musical but also very professional. It was more ambitious,” she says. “When I went to Berlin, nobody was talking about record deals or about getting played on the radio. It was about experimentation. I prefer that DIY approach.”
However, it sounds as though she would find a way to exist in a world entirely her own, no matter where she was based. “I’m one of these people who’ll jump in a rabbit hole with something and come out six hours later. The way our technology is structured, everything has to be so gimmicky and fast to grab our attention. They say even if you just check your emails it takes 15 minutes for your brain to be able to come back to what you were doing before. I just forget about them and hope nothing really bad happens! For me, I’m good at doing just one thing. I want to do it well.”
And as more people are discovering, she does it very well indeed.
Myopia is released on Feb 21 on Deutsche Grammophon