Agnes Obel

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Agnes Obel
Agnes Obel2 Sentrum Scene 20205.jpg
Obel performing at Sentrum Scene in Oslo (2020)
Born (1980-10-28) 28 October 1980 (age 39)
Gentofte, Denmark
  • Singer
  • songwriter
  • musician
Musical career
  • Vocals
  • piano
Years active1991–present
LabelsPIAS Recordings
Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics

Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel (born 28 October 1980)[1] is a Danish singer, songwriter, and musician. Her first album, Philharmonics, was released by PIAS Recordings on 4 October 2010 and was certified gold in June 2011 by the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) after selling 10,000 Copies.[2] At the Danish Music Awards in November 2011, Obel won five prizes, including Best Album and Best Debut Artist.[3] Citizen of Glass, her third album, received the IMPALA Album of the Year Award 2016.[4]

Early life[edit]

Obel was born in Gentofte, Copenhagen. She and her younger brother, Holger, grew up in an unconventional environment, with a father who had three children from another marriage. He loved to collect strange objects and instruments. Her mother, Katja Obel, was a jurist and musician and she used to play Bartók and Chopin on the piano at home.[5] Agnes learned to play the piano at a very young age. About her learning, she said: "I had a classical piano teacher who told me that I shouldn't play what I didn't like. So I just played what I liked. I was never forced to play anything else."[6]

During her childhood, she found inspiration in Jan Johansson's work. Johansson's songs, European folk tunes done in a jazzy style, have been a strong influence on her musically.[7]

In 1990, she joined a small band as a singer and bass guitar player. The group appeared in a festival and recorded some tunes.[8]

In 1994, she had a small part in the short film The Boy Who Walked Backwards / Drengen der gik baglæns by Thomas Vinterberg. Her brother, Holger Thaarup, played the main character in the movie. Credited as Agnes Obel, she appears in two scenes. She plays a pupil who shares her table with the new student Andreas (Holger Thaarup).[9]

She attended high school at Det frie Gymnasium, a free school where she was able to play a good deal of music. However, she quickly dropped out of school.[10] "At seventeen,(...) I met a man who was running a studio. I gave up quickly my musical studies to learn sound techniques."



Obel debuted as a solo singer with her first album Philharmonics (2010). She wrote, played, sang, recorded, and produced all the material herself. "The orchestral or symphonic music never interested me. I always was attracted by simple melodies, almost childish.(…) I put a long time before writing texts because the music seems to tell already a story, to project images."[5] According to Obel, her piano is much more than an instrument: "The piano and the singing are two equal things to me – maybe not inseparable but very connected. You can say they are like two equal voices."[11] She has said that, "The music is the most obvious means to express what I am, where I am."[12]

All of the songs on Philharmonics are original work except "Close Watch" ("I Keep A Close Watch" by John Cale) & "Katie Cruel" (a folk traditional; as the iTunes bonus track of the album). In Live à Paris, released on 11 April 2011 on iTunes, she sings a cover of Elliott Smith's "Between The Bars". Furthermore, Obel did a duet with Editors singer Tom Smith, performing "The Christmas Song" by Mel Tormé – to be found on the Smith & Burrows album Funny Looking Angels (released in November 2011).

Agnes Obel at the Cirque Royal, Brussels (2011)

Philharmonics has garnered generally positive reviews with, for example, James Skinner from the BBC saying that "the compositions... are slow, sombre, sepulchral even, but not without a sense of occasionally singular beauty".[13] In the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles, Johanna Seban spoke about a "disarming purity" and stated, "There is, in these deeply melancholic ballads, the clearness and reassuring nobility of bedside discs."[14] In Musicomh, Ben Edgell wrote that Obel "sings with a hushed and tender grace that waxes wistful and serene over yearning cello, harp, and piano vignettes. She's a fey siren, with a dusky, near-whispered vocal that speaks to Ane Brun or Eva Cassidy."[15] French journalists have called her "A revelation to follow".[16]

Obel's first album was also a commercial success. In March 2011, she appeared for the first time in the United States. At the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, she performed all the songs on the album.[17]

Three songs from the album were on the soundtrack of the 2009 film Submarino (Riverside, Brother Sparrow, and Philharmonics).[18] "Riverside" was featured in the episode "Not Responsible" of Grey's Anatomy, in Episode 12 of the second season of Offspring, in the episode "Duplicity" from Revenge, and in the episode "What Are You Doing Here, Ho-Bag?" from The CW's Ringer.[19] "Avenue" was played in the episode "Trust" from Revenge.[20] "Fuel to Fire" was used in the episode "The Big Uneasy" of The Originals. In April 2011, the Danish group Lulu Rouge released a remixed version of "Riverside". Keeping the track's original beauty, Lulu Rouge added their special electronic tempo.[21] Prior to the release of "Philharmonics", the soft, soothing tunes of "Just So" were used as the soundtrack of a commercial for Deutsche Telekom on German TV in 2008.

PIAS Recordings released a Deluxe Version of Philharmonics on 7 February 2011. The Deluxe Version contains five more tracks. Two instrumentals ("Riverside" and "Just So") and three live songs: "Over the Hill", "Just So", and the new track "Smoke & Mirrors". On the Riverside EP, Obel sings "Sons & Daughters". This track is only available on the EP.

In June 2011, Philharmonics was certified gold by the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) after selling 10,000 units.[2] In February 2011, her first album was nominated for the 'Impala European Independent Album of the Year'[22] and the song Riverside (from the Submarino's soundtrack) won the Robert Award for the Best Song of the year 2011.[23]

In October 2011, Obel won the 2012 European Border Breakers Award. The prize celebrates the top new talents in European pop music who "have all succeeded in reaching out to audiences beyond their home country through their talent and energy."[24]

In November 2011, she won five prizes at the Danish Music Awards for her first album Philharmonics. She won Best Album of the Year, Best Pop Release of the Year, Best Debut Artist of the Year, Best Female Artist of the Year, and Best Songwriter of the Year.[3]


Obel began working on her second album in 2011. About her new album, she said, "I started to write new pieces, but all were instrumental ones, with the piano alone… In this moment, I feel more inclined to compose instrumental pieces. I already started to write some texts, but for me, it's more difficult to compose melodies."[12]

In January 2013, Obel started mixing her new album.[25] On 20 June 2013, she revealed that the new album, Aventine, would be released on 30 September 2013.[26]

"On the last album, I didn't want to disturb the melody with too many stories. This time, I wanted to know if I was able to create images with words, with the sound of words.(...) I think that's a good thing when the one who is listening, is feeling it in a different way that the one who creates. We are all listening with different perspectives.(...) I don't want to impose my subjectivity to the listener."

Agnes Obel on Aventine[27]

On Aventine, Obel commented: "I recorded everything quite closely, miking everything closely in a small room, with voices here, the piano here – everything is close to you. So it's sparse, but by varying the dynamic range of the songs I could create almost soundscapes. I was able to make something feel big with just these few instruments."[28]

She played at the iTunes UK Festival at the Roundhouse in London on 17 September 2013.[29]

Frank Eidel from, commented: "It's a fascinating collection of remarkable pieces, with rich and intense arrangements supported by Obel's dazzling voice."[30]

On 24 September 2014, Aventine became available on iTunes. Tom Burgel wrote: "The few reactions collected have been very positive and, already, full with love: The elegance of Agnes and the rare grace of her writings will cause, without any doubts, some strong palpitations in the hearts of the amateurs."[31]

The web site Mushroompromotions said: "'Aventine' is a beautiful record, intriguingly unhurried. If the first record was a wander through the forest, this one takes the time to see the beauty and feel the texture in a single leaf. It is at once microcosmic and universal. (...) Agnes creates her own world, or as she calls it, a bubble or bell jar, to make her music. Once inside (or should that be outside?), she's no longer conscious of what's going on. This is the mystery of her modus operandi, something she cannot explain. Which simply adds to the ethereal quality of her music."[32]

In October 2014 a deluxe edition of Aventine was released. This album featured 3 new songs. The deluxe edition also contains a remix of 'Fuel to Fire' by David Lynch, who commented: "I loved doing this remix. I was turned onto Agnes' music through my record label... I think she has a most beautiful voice and can do things with her voice that are unique and extraordinary."[33]

In October 2014, Obel played for the first time in L'Olympia in Paris.[34]

Citizen of Glass[edit]

During her 2014 tour, Obel began work on her third album: "I'm planning to work less with piano, and more with other kinds of old keyboards (...) I'm trying to find new instruments to work with, so it's sort of on the research phase and starting to write things."[35] She also said: "I have some clear ideas but I'm not sure it is a good idea to go into specifics on such an early stage. I mainly plan to work with old keyboards like spinet and harpsichord and then see where they take me."[36]

In June 2015, Obel began recording the new album. She recorded strings with new musicians Frédérique Labbow, Kristina Koropecki, and John Corban.[37]

Agnes Obel (piano), Charlotte Danhier (cello), Sophie Bayet (violin) at Würzburg, Germany (2014)

In June 2016, she released the single 'Familiar', from the upcoming album. The song was recorded, produced and mixed by Obel and features the violin by John Corban as well as cellos by Kristina Koropecki and Charlotte Danhier. The music video was directed by Obel's husband Alex Brüel Flagstad.[38] Hugo Cassavetti from Telerama, wrote: "Agnes Obel, while remaining true to her fine style, expands her new musical fields. Percussions with a loud power rhythm a delicately acrobatic melody that the singer performs with a voice that was strangely moved. Yes, Obel, as split by technology, duets with her disturbing echoes with a male stamp."[39]

In July 2016, Obel announced her third studio album, Citizen of Glass, to be released on 21 October 2016.[40] Regarding the mysterious title, Obel explained: "The title comes from the German concept of the gläserner bürger, the human or glass citizen. It's actually a legal term about the level of privacy the individual has in a state, and in health it's become a term about how much we know about a person's body or biology or history – if they're completely made of glass we know everything."

In addition to violins, cellos, harpsichords, a spinet, and a celesta, Obel used a Trautonium, a rare electronic musical instrument from the 1930s.[41]

In September 2016, Obel released a new single, "Golden Green". In Dansende Beren, Niels Bruwier wrote: "The sound of glass is never far away. The song is about the way we always find other better lives than ours(…)she brings out her dreamy voice, it's actually just the perfect classic pop song without embellishment. Enchanting, elysisch and paradise-like."[42]

In October 2016, a new song from Citizen of Glass was released: "Stretch Your Eyes". This song is a new version of an older one ("Spinet Song") which was played during her tour in 2014.

In October 2016, Citizen of Glass came out. The French newspaper La Croix wrote: "With several great songs, the surrealist Stretch your eyes or the luminous Golden Green, Agnes Obel has created a sumptuous, odd and modern album. Citizen of Glass confirms, with greatness, Agnes Obel as an important pop artist."[43]

Citizen of Glass received an average score of 81 on Metacritic, meaning universal acclaim, based on 7 reviews.[44]

Citizen of Glass received the IMPALA (The Independent Music Companies Association) Album of the Year Award 2016, which rewards on a yearly basis the best album released on an independent European label.[45]

Deutsche Grammophon[edit]

In February 2018, Obel was signed to Deutsche Grammophon. The contract involved Deutsche Grammophon joining forces with Blue Note for North American releases.

Mr Trautmann, president of Deutsche Grammophon, said: "We are fascinated by Agnes's compositional autonomy and the precision with which she creates and produces her vocal and instrumental soundscapes. With every song and instrumental piece, she opens up small universes, thus reaching a broad audience with sophisticated works. With Agnes we share confidence in the long-term success of artistic excellence and credibility, as well as the intention to inspire many more fans around the world".[46]

Late Night Tales[edit]

In May 2018, Obel contributed to Late Night Tales with a series of tracks selected by the artist herself, released as Late Night Tales: Agnes Obel. For this compilation, Obel presented various titles by very different artists. Music by Michelle Gurevich, Nina Simone, Henry Mancini, and Alfred Schnittke is included on this album.

Obel said: "I was surprised at how much time I ended up spending on this. I collected all the songs together with my partner Alex and we just spent time listening to records, trying to see what would fit together. Some of the music I've included here is on mixtapes we made when we were just friends as teenagers."[47]

Obel combined new works with the original song "Bee Dance", a haunting reading of the Danish song "Glemmer Du", and a new version (the third one) of "Stretch Your Eyes" called "Ambient Acapella". The first single, Inger Christensen's "Poem About Death", is set to original music by Obel.

On the topic of the haunting cover of Arvid Muller's "Glemmer du", Obel explained: "In Denmark, the song is best known in the version from 1932, sung by the actor and singer Liva Weel. It's one of my favourite melodies. The song is about the impermanence of time and love, with memories being the only thing you get at the end. (...)I recorded it using analog tape and then running the tapes again, so it sounded old and re-recorded, playing with this feeling of remembrance and of lost time."[48]


"The entire album inhabits that desolate place of twilight solitude, and forces its listener into a mode of introspection. It's a record to experience alone. (...) There's a comfort to being pulled into Myopia's contemplative, isolating territory."

Elisa Bray, The Independent[49]

"Myopia was recorded during sleepless late nights in her home studio in Berlin, which is audible in the record's hushed, contemplative and weightless melancholy. Obel's wistful, rain-flecked gauziness has grown more pronounced here. Songs like "Island of Doom" and "Broken Sleep" prick the hairs on the back of your neck with their unnerving dissections of the fragile human heart"

Michael Sumsion, popmatters[50]

On 29 October 2019, Obel announced the title of her upcoming album, Myopia, on social media, and released the new single "Island of Doom". The album was released on 21 February 2020. Journalist Tim Peacock wrote: "Obel has been under self-imposed creative isolation with the removal of all outside influences and distraction in the writing, recording and mixing process for 'Myopia'."

About "Island of Doom", the artist said: "The song is made up of pitched-down piano and cello pizzicato and vocals, all choirs are pitched down and up… In my experience when someone close to you dies it is simply impossible to comprehend that you can't ever talk to them or reach them somehow ever again."[51]

"Island of Doom" features Obel on piano, vocals and keys, and Kristina Koropecki on cello, creating a sober tone, with sweet instrumentals, and a strong vocal performance from Obel. The visual show opens up with a shot of Obel, and is completely dominated with blue colors and hues, showing a unique landscape that appears out of this world.[52]

The new music video was directed by Alex Bruel Flagstad.

Concerning the meaning of Myopia, Obel explained: "For me Myopia is an album about trust and doubt. Can you trust yourself or not? Can you trust your own judgments? Can you trust that you will do the right thing? Can you trust your instincts and what you are feeling? Or are your feelings skewed?"[53]

On 7 January 2020, Obel released the single "Broken Sleep."[54] Journalist Drew Feinerman said: "The video (created by Obel's longterm collaborator and partner Alex Brüel Flagstad) pairs perfectly with the style of the composition; Obel sings with such beauty and ease, as the vocals complement the effortless, flowing pace of the visuals."[55]

About Myopia, journalist Tina Benitez-Eves stated: "Myopia is an abstract anatomization of the human psyche, transcending through ambient instrumentals, and an intoxicating blend of vocals, hovering on Jarboe-bred voice manipulation on atmospheric "Broken Sleep" and "Island of Doom."[56]

Ashley Bardhan, in Pitchfork, said also: "These songs are obscured like frosted glass, as meticulously pretty and faintly unnerving as a porcelain doll. Though the album ends almost as quietly as it began, Obel's whispery ambient fog lingers far longer."[57]


Agnes Obel at Les Nuits Secrètes (2014)

Obel is influenced by artists such as Roy Orbison and also by the French composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Erik Satie.[5] She also likes Edgar Allan Poe and photographers Sibylle Bergemann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tina Modotti, and Alfred Hitchcock.[58] Concerning Hitchcock, she said, "I adore his enigmatic style, his sophisticated esthetic but always with an extreme simplicity."[5] The cover of her first album, photographed by Berlin photographer Mali Lazell,[59] is an 'homage' to The Birds.

Obel also likes the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Sometimes, Obel tests some of her demos on Deren's movies.[60] Obel is also a huge fan of Nina Simone: "I have a fantastic live album by Nina Simone on which she sings "Who Knows Where the Time Goes". Her vocals seem to come out of nowhere. Magic."[61] In addition to classical music, Obel listens to artists like Mort Garson (The Zodiac – Cosmic Sounds), The Smiths (How Soon Is Now?), and Françoise Hardy (Où va la chance).[62]

In February 2017, and after her covers of John Cale and Jeff Buckley songs, Obel performed "Hallelujah" in a tribute to the late Leonard Cohen at the 'Victoire de la Musique 2017'.[63]

Personal life[edit]

Obel has lived in Berlin since 2006[64] with photographer and animation artist Alex Brüel Flagstad,[6][65] who filmed and directed the music videos for "Riverside" from Obel's debut album Philharmonics (2010), and "Dorian", "The Curse", and "Aventine" from Aventine (2013).[66]

Usage in media[edit]

Obel's song "Riverside" was featured on the Spike TV series The Mist in Season 1, Episode 2, "Withdrawal". "Riverside" has also been featured on Grey's Anatomy, Revenge Ringer, the British TV show Lovesick, the Australian comedy-drama Offspring, and the Danish series, The Rain, in Season 1, Episode 2. In addition, “Riverside” was used as the theme tune of the mini-series Next of Kin. Her songs "Familiar", "It's Happening Again", and "Broken Sleep" were featured on episodes of the German TV series Dark. "Familiar" was also used in the video game Dark Souls III: The Fire Fades Edition trailer and is the theme song to the Canadian TV series Cardinal. "Dorian" was used in the Amazon Prime series, Hanna, Season 2, episode 8. "September Song" featured throughout the first season of Big Little Lies. "Run Cried The Crawling" was used in the premiere episode of Euphoria.


Studio albums[edit]

List of albums, with chart positions and certifications
Title Album details Peak chart positions Certifications
Philharmonics 1 1 8 8 58
  • Released: 30 September 2013
  • Label: Play It Again Sam
  • Formats: LP, CD, digital download, box set
1 1 2 24 38 5 23 9 63
Citizen of Glass
  • Released: 21 October 2016
  • Label: Play It Again Sam
  • Formats: LP, CD, digital download
3 64 8 6 32 37 9 9 30
  • Released: 21 February 2020
  • Label: Strange Harvest Limited
  • Formats: LP, CD, digital download
6 7 9 15 5 34
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.

Extended plays[edit]

List of albums, with chart positions
Title Album details Peak chart positions
iTunes Live à Paris 131
iTunes Festival: London 2013
  • Released: 25 September 2013
  • Label: PIAS
  • Formats: Digital download
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.


List of singles, with chart positions showing year released and album name
Single Year Peak chart positions Certifications Album
"Riverside" 2010 2 3 71 58 Philharmonics
"Just So" 62 44 87
"Brother Sparrow" 2011 65
"The Curse" 2013 43 112 Aventine
"Fuel to Fire" 88
"Familiar" 2016 54
Citizen of Glass
"Golden Green"
"Island of Doom" 2019 Myopia
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.

Other charted songs[edit]

List of singles, with chart positions showing year released and album name
Single Year Peak chart positions Album
"On Powdered Ground" 2011 76 Philharmonics
"The Christmas Song"[90]
(Smith & Burrows featuring Agnes Obel)
2011 Funny Looking Angels


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