Agnes Obel shows the power of a soft touch

“I’m very happy that I got introduced to music only as something you got pleasure from,” says Agnes Obel, who performs in Cambridge Saturday.
World Music/CRASHarts
“I’m very happy that I got introduced to music only as something you got pleasure from,” says Agnes Obel, who performs in Cambridge Saturday.

Agnes Obel’s earliest memories of music are also the ones that molded her into the artist she is to this day. Growing up in Copenhagen, she was surrounded by music at home, from her father’s obsession with exotic instruments like the vibraphone to her mother’s taste in classical music as both a fan and pianist.

Young Agnes took to the piano at an early age, but not under the usual regime of long hours of daily practice. She was left to explore, to see what she liked.

“My parents were very relaxed about music,” Obel says recently from a tour stop just outside Ottawa. “We only did exactly what we wanted, my brother and I. In fact, I wish my parents had been more strict and made me learn more instruments. I was never told that I had to be good at music.”


That casual attitude toward making music liberated Obel, 33, to pursue her own strain of music that bends pop melodies with classical precision and an air of elegance bordering on art songs. Her music, for which she writes the lyrics and arrangements, is luminous with playful melodies reminiscent of nursery rhymes, anchored by the warmth from her ghostly croon. Reverb is her friend.

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Since releasing her debut, 2010’s “Philharmonics,” Obel has quietly amassed a cult following that hasn’t quite rippled beyond Europe. That’s likely to change with a string of tour dates in this country. World Music/CRASHarts brings Obel to town for her debut Boston performance on Saturday at First Church in Cambridge Congregational, paired with the kindred spirits of the spectral indie-pop band Gem Club, which is based out of Somerville.

Maybe it’s because Obel is conducting the interview from a quiet coffee shop, but she speaks the way she sounds in her songs: with a hushed intensity that leaves you leaning in. As heard on her latest album, the sumptuous “Aventine,” Obel makes great use of space and stillness, often turning her attention to the power of memory and how she can re-create it within a song.

“I was hoping I could make an album where I was dealing with things that were happening during the writing of the songs, to see if I could musically capture a state of mind of that very moment of time,” Obel says of her new record.

Her allure is borne out of intimacy, which she diligently captures at every step of making music. She places the microphone close to everything — her voice, the piano, the cello, the strings, occasional choirs. Each layer sounds like a voice in its own right, the interplay between her voice and piano is pure alchemy.


Oftentimes Obel’s songs give the impression that she is playing them at the piano with the listener by her side on the bench. Piano is her main instrument, but she also plays bass and guitar and added some percussion and harp on “Aventine.” Whatever she needs, she adds to the mix, but she’s careful not to overstuff. Her scope can be vast, but it’s never superfluous.

She traces that approach to her childhood. Her parents’ tastes in music informed her own; she got jazz influences from father, who played guitar, and her mother turned her on to French composers such as Debussy. The only common ground they found was in the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. When Obel started to discover on her own, she fell in love with Portishead’s “Dummy,” another example of an album that puts mood first and foremost.

“I have early memories of melodies and harmonic structures,” she says. “I was always longing for that but couldn’t find them anywhere. I couldn’t find it in the music around me or in the band projects I did. That had a lot to do with the way I ended up working on my own.”

Obel attended a music school that put an emphasis on creativity over commercialism, and she’s thankful for that. “I don’t have a classical-music mentality,” she says. “I haven’t been taught that way, and it doesn’t fit my character, either.

“I’m happy about that because I know people who don’t have the feeling that music is a free space for them,” she adds. “So I’m very happy that I got introduced to music only as something you got pleasure from and it has nothing to do with ambition.”

James Reed can be reached at Followhim on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.