Summer Series At Somerset House: A Preview Chat With Agnes Obel

Agnes Obel, photographed by Frank Eidel

Agnes Obel, photographed by Frank Eidel

The annual Summer Series at Somerset House has become one of the highlights of the outdoors music scene in London, with some very impressive acts joining this year’s lucrative lineup at the much-loved open-air venue.

Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel is one of the international artists recruited for July’s festival and, notwithstanding an incredibly busy touring schedule over the past nine months, she has still found the time to up-cycle songs from her recent album, Aventine, with fresh arrangements for her Somerset House show, which promises to differ from her recent gigs at Union Chapel and The Barbican.

This week also sees the release of the fourth single from Aventine, ‘Words Are Dead’, a song which Obel wrote about being unable to explain oneself with words and finding different ways to express feelings and thoughts. You can watch a gorgeous live performance of the single right after this interview we did with Obel.

What have the past few months since the release of the album been like for you?
It’s been quite intense, I would say. A lot of concerts and travelling… but I feel like it has been very beneficial for the album and the music because we have been developing the arrangements a lot so, with each concert, we are getting new ideas and developing each song more and more. I am finding it really interesting to also think of the concerts as not just playing Aventine but mixing up between the album and the previous one, Philharmonics, and trying to make them fit together.

You’ve promoted the album here with shows at St Pancras Old Church, Union Chapel and also The Barbican. Have those experiences felt different from one another to you due to the sizes of the venues?
Yes, the sound in the venues is very different. Union Chapel is all wood and stone and has a very unique acoustic whereas the Barbican is more dry for a concert hall. I think that’s because it is made for contemporary music so they were not going for something classical or reverby. The audience also somehow felt closer than when we played Union Chapel. But the other part of it is that, by the time we played at the Barbican, the songs had changed so much in terms of the arrangements, because we had been playing them so much. When we played Union Chapel it was all so new, I think it was only our second or third concert of playing Aventine.

Would you say that you are more confident with playing this newer material live now?
[laughs] I am not the type to ever feel confident so that would be a stretch but I think I feel that we are doing something special, we are using these classical instruments, this sparse instrumentation, and building it all up with effects and with playing them dynamically. I feel, after playing a lot in Europe and North America, that I am happy about where we are with it. It is always moving in the right direction and we are getting something interesting out of it.

Which of the songs have changed the most, arrangement-wise, over the last 9 months?
We have a lot of transitions and parts in-between songs – interludes, if you like. On Powdered Ground, for example, builds up into one song and the same goes for Fuel To Fire – they go together now and have grown together because we are playing them together and improvising them. We didn’t do that at the beginning. Also, we are building instrumental songs into other ones, which has come out of improvising on the road all the time. It’s necessary to develop the material, I think. With the help of the musicians I play with, I can find new layers in the music, new voices. We recently played in Brussels with an extra cellist and found new voices through that.

When you were touring Philharmonics a few years ago you played new material, some of which ended up on Aventine. Are you doing the same with your current live shows?
Yeah, well I am writing new material, but we haven’t really played any of it, yet. This album has been so much more challenging in terms of the instrumentation so we are spending most of the time on that and on getting it better and better. With the Philharmonics shows I had much sparser arrangements to play so I had more time on the road to fit in new songs. But I am hoping to include some new songs in live shows soon.

Is it difficult working on new material while on the road?
I find it easy to develop new material if I already have songs that are written in part. I can then start playing them with the girls and see what we come up with. But I very seldom start new songs on tour because there are so many other things to worry about and take care of. It’s difficult because I am touring for the rest of the year but I would like to write some more new songs. So I am going to try but I am very easily distracted. Touring and developing the current material is taking up all my time somehow, in my mind.

Earlier you mentioned a certain lack in confidence. Does this mean that you prefer the writing and recording process to the public-facing touring part?
The two things are so different that it is very difficult for me to compare them. Originally I preferred recording in the studio in a focused way, it’s really wonderful and enjoyable and I look forward to that. I very often write and record at the same time and you can easily forget where time goes when you do that. It’s really nice. But it’s also sometimes a little bit lonely and strange. There is something more social about touring. You meet so many new people. There are all these different cultures and languages and people interpret the music in their own ways and adding their personalities to it, which is wonderful. I’m starting to really enjoy the playing live itself, especially with this album. When you have a really great concert you forget yourself and forget where you are and it can be an addictive feeling.

Do you get nervous before going on stage?
Yeah. Yeah, I do. Definitely.

Is there a song that you love to play live which perhaps helps you with the nerves?
I really enjoy playing The Curse and Run Cried The Crawling, because we are doing new things with them and it is always exciting to see how that works. I also love On Powdered Ground from the first album. But, actually, my favourite at the moment is Smoke & Mirrors, but that’s because I understand that song so much better now than I did before.

It’s a fairly old song, isn’t it?
Yeah, I originally wrote it for Philharmonics. We forgot about it and then it ended up on Aventine.

You’ve visited London quite a lot since the end of last summer. Do you know London well?
I think so. I find London very vast and I feel like I still have to discover parts of it. I still have to get to know it a bit better. When you’re coming in and out for shows, you don’t really get to see much. As a teenager, I played with a guy whose parents lived in London so I came to London and I remember buying records. Living in Copenhagen, if you went to London you would buy records [laughs]. Those are actually still some of the coolest experiences I have had in London. Record stores, where you go down to the basement and it’s so dusty you cough and find something really special. I am planning to stay in London and wander around during the week off I have after the Somerset House show and before Latitude Festival.

And what can we expect from the Somerset House show?
It’ll be quite different to my previous shows in London because we are going to be a quartet this time and so we have to change the arrangements for that. I am going to try a few new things.

Agnes Obel plays Somerset House on 12 July. Tickets are available here. The new single Words Are Dead is out now on Play It Again Sam.

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