SCANDINAVIA has been a great centre of pop and rock over the last 30 years and without question Sweden is the dominant nation. It has given us pop giants ABBA; a thriving heavy metal scene; and inspired indie/alternative acts such as I’m From Barcelona, Jens Lekmann, and Peter Bjorn and John.
Norway also has a strong metal scene, while indie/singer-songwriter acts such as Kings of Convenience and Ane Brun have also done well, and above all there is A-Ha, who had a run of excellent singles in the 1980s.
By contrast, Denmark appears to be rather barren with only Metallica drummer/founder Lars Ulrich and Mercyful Fate to boast of as their best known musical exports.
However this last year has seen a notable rise in profile for Danish music, with two of its newest acts - Treefight For Sunlight and Agnes Obel - producing debut albums that are among the very best of the last 18 months, and announcing that the Kingdom has a very healthy and creative indie scene. Denmark is now ‘one to watch’.
Agnes Obel, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter and pianist from the island of Sjælland, first came to attention in late 2010 with her debut album Philharmonics. Since then it has gone on to enjoy Top 10 status in Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and France.
Irish and British audiences are warming to her music and the album has met with great critical acclaim in these parts: “Agnes Obel is a master of her craft,” said The Guardian while The Irish Times praised the album’s “beautifully left-of-field sonic synthesis”.
Philharmonics’ success culminated in Agnes sweeping the boards at the Danish Music Awards in November, with the artist taking Album Of The Year, Best Pop Release Of The Year, Debut Artist Of The Year, Best Female Artist Of The Year, and Songwriter Of The Year.
“It’s great, I’m delighted,” Agnes tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “It’s been kind of a funny, strange journey with this album. I hadn’t big expectations for it. I made it without a record deal. I made it for myself and it has slowly taken off. It’s been really interesting and great to see how it has spread throughout Europe.”
Agnes’ success has not been overnight as she has worked on, developed, and recorded the album over three years.
“Most of the album was recorded over six months in 2008/2009 and then I took a break from it,” she says. “Later I re-recorded some cello, vocals, strings. The songs are from different periods in my life and I can hear on the album what periods. I can listen to a song and remember the keyboard I had at the time I recorded it.
“For me it’s funny to listen to the album because some of the songs are from all the way back in high school days, others are from my Berlin days, and my university days.”
Agnes now lives in Berlin and it was here the album was recorded. “For me Berlin was the studio, I had this feeling in the city that everything was possible and in Berlin there is a feeling that ‘You can do it’,” she says. “People are extremely helpful. When I was making Philharmonics friends gave me money to record the album or borrowed equipment. I was new in the city and I experienced help from everybody.”
Agnes is originally from Gentofte, on the northern outskirts of Copenhagen, and lived there until she was 12, when her family moved to the Danish capital.
Gentofte’s most famous son is Lars Ulrich and although his music and Agnes’ could not be more different, she admires the Metallica man and sees him as an inspiration.
“I know about him and his father,” she says. “They played tennis there. They stood out because they did things their own way. Denmark is a small country and we are very likely to do the most normal things. In such a small society you try to blend in, but Lars and his father didn’t. They are a good example of not being like that at all and that was inspiring.”
Agnes grew up in a house surrounded by music and musicians, but her becoming a professional musician was by no means predestined.
“I come from a family of music lovers, My father was a jazz guitarist, but none of them expected you could make a good living from it,” she says. “I just got music but did not understand it could be your work, but it was something that was there all the time and it was fun and that’s the way I still look at it - as fun, not as work. I never made that decision. I don’t look at it like a job. You have to travel and carry your equipment which is hard work, but music is not work at all.”
By dint of her success and rising profile Agnes is now the public face of the new wave of Danish music gaining attention outside the Kingdom. Yet, much of her inspirations and modes of expression seem to owe very little connection to her native land.
For example, I ask her that as she sings in English, how difficult does she find it to write lyrics and express herself in a language not her own?
“I don’t speak English but it’s become my musical language,” she replies. “I grew up singing in English as I went to a music school where we learned English through music and I went to an International School where we were taught through English and it was a big thing there to speak and sing in English.
“So my starting point was English with music before I understood it, that means for me, in my mind English is the musical language in my head. When playing in Denmark it’s difficult to introduce the songs to the audience in Danish as I’m used to introducing them in English everywhere else.”
The influence of Denmark’s large northern neighbour Sweden is also calling to Agnes.
“I am thinking about singing songs in Swedish as I’ve been singing Swedish folk songs since I was a child,” she says. “You don’t really hear much Danish folk music, but you will hear Swedish folk and those are the songs I know and have grown up with. So I don’t have a strong musical national identity.”
For the birds
The artwork for Philharmonics, assuming you have the vinyl or CD version, shows Agnes looking tense with her hair pulled back tight, while beside her is perched a long-eared owl. Both composer and bird stare out, wide-eyed, at the viewer. The slightly surreal image is Agnes’ tribute to her favourite film - Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
“The cover of the album was inspired by these black and white shots of a raven and Tippie Hedren [who played the lead role in The Birds] that were used to promote the film,” says Agnes. “That was something the photographer and I found and we thought we have to use this for the album.
Agnes was struck by the photographs of Hedren and the raven and was attracted to the image of a “woman who was very self-controlled from a civilised world, and the black raven”.
“There is this weird connection between this controlled woman and the wild animal - it looks very dramatic,” says Agnes. “My album has something very controlled about it. It’s restrained and in other ways it’s not, that’s why we ended up copying the imagery, but we wanted to do it with colours and give it its own look so we used an owl. We found the owl in a taxidermists as it looks more alone and beautiful.”
Agnes Obel plays the Róisín Dubh on Friday December 9 at 8pm. Support is from Cork singer-songwriter Polly Barrett, who has just released her debut album Mr Bookshop. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and www.roisindubh.net