Casual Cadenza: Agnes Obel and her folk for folks

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Agnes Obel sings on stage at the Cruilla Barcelona Festival. Obel learned to play piano at a young age, a skill often cited in her records such as “Riverside”. Photo by Ferran via Flickr.

The definition of folk music has always been ambiguous. It’s a phrase used to describe assorted works consisting of different artists, composers and instruments. Folk music also varies depending on whichever side of the world it’s produced. European folk music, for example, is known for its traditional themes and its tendency to be passed down from generation to generation. Although folk music is not nearly as popular as it was during the 19th century, there is one artist who I think is capable of bringing back a positive folk mentality into 2020: Agnes Obel. 

When I first listened to Obel, I already knew I liked her music. I had no idea what genre it belonged to, but I liked it. “Broken Sleep” was sent to me by a friend who heard the song from the German TV show, “Dark.” The beat is held up by four consecutive plucking sounds, which I’m assuming come from either a violin or harp, along with a soft piano accompaniment and even a subtle cello. Describing it doesn’t do the song justice, but it fits the vague definition of folk considering its vast use of instruments. For a show as cool as “Dark” to use it, “Broken Sleep” is surely a good song. 

Over the past week, I’ve led myself down an Obel rabbit hole. It wasn’t that difficult to listen to all of her songs, considering she only has four albums, but I managed to compile a semi-long playlist of my favorites. “Broken Sleep” is my notable pick from her most recent album, “Myopia,” but to spare some time, I’ll just talk about one honorable mention from each of her other albums. 

Her first album, “Philharmonics,” came out in 2011 and acts as evidence of her unchanged process of making music. Obel learned to play the piano from a young age, which explains her common use of the instrument in her songs. “Riverside” is a prime example of where Obel exercises her piano-playing skills paired with her melodic vocals. It’s definitely one of her more “folksy” songs, but it just goes to show that traditional does not necessarily mean bad. 

Of her four albums, “Aventine” tends to contain most of my favorite songs. “Dorian” is one I listened to so much that I ended up adding it to my fall playlist. I never realized it before, but I think I have a thing for pianos. Like “Riverside,” “Dorian” is another song that consists of Obel’s gifted musical ability of singing and playing. There’s some cello here and there which only makes the song that much better. 

Next: “Citizen of Glass.” It came out in 2016 and is probably my second favorite album of hers. My honorable mention for this one is “Mary.” I like it for a somewhat different reason than the others (although it does feature piano, what a surprise). The song itself is amazing, but my absolute favorite part is the outro. Saying that it gives an almost angelic fever dream vibe may be enough to make potential listeners ultimately not want to listen, which is understandable. Maybe experiencing it first-hand will change your mind. 

Overall, Obel isn’t what I would call a conventional artist. Perhaps that comes off as a superficial statement, as anyone who is a fan of any musician will make it their job to remind others of their alleged originality. But in my eyes and according to my ears, it’s true. Although piano is commonly featured in Obel’s songs, and it surely isn’t considered an unconventional instrument, her unconventional use of chords and melodies makes an authentic statement compared to most mainstream music. Traditional isn’t an adjective that can be used for many contemporary works. However, Obel’s use of traditional roots to imitate music of a different time period creates a universal image of the folk genre, making “Bring folk back 2020” a plausible statement of today. 

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