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Photo: Thomas Kolbein Bjørk Olsen
Photo: Thomas Kolbein Bjørk Olsen

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A Citizen of Berlin

When Danish singer Agnes Obel moved to Berlin, she suddenly had a lot more space and time in her life. The city has also had a profound influence on her new album.

“Everything’s happened to me since I’ve been living in Berlin,” says Agnes Obel.

Name: Agnes Obel
Age: 35
Lives: Berlin
Family: Partner Alex Brüel Flagstad
Career: Singer-songwriter and musician

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We meet the Danish composer and singer-songwriter at a lush oasis in the heart of the hip Kreuzberg neighborhood. The urban garden, located by a busy roundabout between graffiti-strewn buildings, has been created by a group of handy Berliners. It has vegetable patches, beehives and a café in a narrow grove.

“This marks the limit for how far north I go”, jokes Obel. She has, for the past ten years, been living just a little way to the south in Neukölln, a district where gentrification is now starting to compete with the area’s inherent dilapidation.

Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel’s 2010 debut album, Philharmonics, was both a critical and commercial success, selling over 500,000 copies worldwide and winning numerous awards. She followed up this success in 2013 with another celebrated album – Aventine. Her songs have featured in many world-famous TV series and commercials. “Fuel to Fire” was even remixed by director David Lynch, who was enchanted by the Danish songbird’s voice.

Photo: Thomas Kolbein Bjørk Olsen

Obel will be releasing her third album on October 21. Her normally restrained piano sound has been augmented by a whole host of new instruments. Violin, cello, harpsichord, spinet and celesta intermingle with the rarely-heard trautonium, a monophonic electronic instrument developed in the laboratories of the Berlin College of Music in the 1920s. The title of the new album, Citizen of Glass, also bears the influence of the Dane’s adopted homeland.

“Citizen of Glass is a German term about the level of privacy of the individual in a state,” Obel says. “It sounds so poetic. It’s interesting that when people lose their private life, they say that they are made of glass – it’s such a nice analogy.”

The 35-year-old may be known for her melancholic sound, but it is a happy and relaxed Obel who now talks about the new album, humor shining from her big blue eyes. The days are long right now, taken up by rehearsals for the European tour in the fall and video recordings, but Obel shows no signs of stress.

“Last night, we were wrapped in silver paper, filming in our bathroom right into the small hours for one of the songs on the new album”, she says cheerfully.

This particular video is being produced by long-time boyfriend and fellow Dane, Alex Brüel Flagstad, a photographer and animation artist. He has directed several of Obel’s past videos. She moved with him to Berlin after falling head over heels in love with the city during a study visit to Transmediale, an art, culture and technology festival that is an annual fixture on the Berlin cultural calendar.

“We got wristbands for the festival and went around on our own”, Obel says. “It was the perfect introduction. We saw established sights such as museums, but also places that were very DIY. It was the first time I’d experienced the ‘pay what you want’ concept, where you pay what you think is appropriate for a bar or an event.”

Gentrification versus dilapidation in Neukölln, the district where Agnes Obel lives. Photo: Thomas Kolbein Bjørk Olsen

Obel was immediately caught by the enormous amount of space that Berlin exuded.

“We lived in a tiny apartment in Christianshavn in Copenhagen, which doubled as our studio”, she says. “I was playing in two bands, and it cost a fortune to rehearse. So when I saw all these huge apartments and all the space people had in Berlin, I got the feeling that there was an abundance of opportunities. Everything came not from the top down but from the bottom up.”

The couple moved in 2006 and took over a 150sqm apartment with no heating in the kitchen and they still live there. Obel got exactly the space she wanted. And all the time in the world.

“It was crazy just how much more time I suddenly got,” she says. “I started writing and writing, it was nothing short of a creative explosion. The whole thing about being in a new place where no one knows you also played a part. I grew up in Copenhagen, which is where my friends and family still live. It’s a fantastic city, but it can also be difficult to completely forget about the expectations other people have of you. It was very healthy to get away. It was really obvious from day one that moving was the right decision. The only thing I regretted was that I hadn’t done it sooner.”

But it’s not just the physical and the temporal space that has fueled her creativity. The free attitude of her Berlin musical colleagues has also influenced her perspective on life.

 “People I knew in Copenhagen were very ambitious about their music. There was a particular way of doing things”, she says. “In Berlin, I’ve never heard friends talk about getting a record contract or being heard on the radio. I’ve become more open here to having the courage to try things and play around. It makes making music so much more enjoyable – and you do a lot more of it.”

Agnes Obel regularly stops for coffee at the Two Planets café. Photo: Thomas Kolbein Bjørk Olsen

A decade living in the mecca of electronic music has also changed Obel’s work processes. And the traditional set-up of an artist, a producer and a band, is now a distant memory. The Dane now gets involved in each step of the process. She writes, composes, plays, sings, records and mixes.

“The only people I know who do this are electronic musicians”, she says. “My friends all work in that way, so it was very natural for me to do the same. It’s been very important for me.”

But after an intensive period of work producing the new album, she’s now itching to get out on tour in Europe. “I’ve been trapped in a studio all alone, so I’m very excited about the tour”, she says. “It feels like I haven’t played live in ages. It’ll be great to experience some loud music.”

We take the metro to the neighborhood in which Obel lives and she shows us some of the landmarks. A stroll through the leafy streets of Schillerkiez leads us to the grounds of the enormous former Tempelhof airport, a favorite haunt of her dog, Woody.

“It’s just as good here in the evening as it is now. Everyone who comes loves it”, Obel says. “It’s a shame if people come to Berlin and only see the Brandenburg Gate or Prenzlauer Berg. They’re nice places, but I think there’s definitely more to see.”

After her upcoming tour, Obel will return to Berlin, the place she now calls home. For the musician who often composes deceptively simple, totally mesmerizing melodies based on her own recollections, the city is a fountain of inspiration.

“It’s more chaotic here, nothing runs in a straight line. My boyfriend’s parents are also artists and they usually ask themselves: ‘Where can I work best, where am I free?’ It’s in Berlin that I feel free.”

 

Text: Eva Paulsen

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