The face on the cover of Philharmonics is sweet and faintly surprised rather like its owner, 30-year-old Danish songstress Agnes Obel. A few years ago, Obel was just another unknown, living in a Berlin apartment with two pianos. But on a February afternoon, as she sips tea in a Copenhagen nightclub ahead of an evening show, she is pondering how rapidly her life has changed in the four months since her debut album's release. Following packed houses in Amsterdam and Paris, Copenhagen is welcoming home its prodigal daughter with six sold-out concerts. "I'm a little afraid about it," Obel confides. "It just feels a little bit out of proportion."
Indeed, there's been nothing proportional about the European response to Obel, fueled by a potent mixture of social-networking buzz, YouTube views and gaping admiration of her exquisite balladry. Obel's music is as sparse as the snow-swept Scandinavian backcountry, and mostly scored for piano, voice and an occasional cello or harp. Yet it brims with a barely concealed passion that has helped make her quiet riot-in-the-heart album a huge European seller. "I don't think anyone expected it to take off quite the way it has," says Jo Horton, label manager at PIAS Recordings UK. "It's just gone completely crazy."
Obel describes Philharmonics as a collection of work composed in stolen moments "this little-bit-classical, quiet music [that] didn't fit at all with my other projects" and says that it was only in the creative freedom of the German capital, where she moved in 2005, that she found the confidence to develop it. "I could feel an openness in Berlin, which makes it possible to do things there that aren't possible in other places," she says. She began producing songs of poignancy and romance: their minimalist melodies, evoking Satie and Debussy, were paired with lyrics of longing and betrayal. In 2009, the delicate "Just So" was used in a Deutsche Telekom ad and began to arouse public curiosity. A year later, PIAS CEO Kenny Gates flew to Hamburg to hear Obel perform and signed her on the spot. "I would say it's only once in a decade you get to meet an artist so obviously talented that it overwhelms you," he says.
A buzz has been building across the Atlantic since Philharmonics was released in the U.S. on iTunes in December. Obel gave her first U.S. performance at this month's music-industry showcase SXSW. Her song "Riverside" was featured on ABC's Grey's Anatomy. And John Diliberto, host of Echoes a highly regarded ambient-music show on National Public Radio called Philharmonics "the most beautiful album of the year."
Obel blushes at such praise. She says that the release of Philharmonics involved overcoming hefty amounts of shyness, and laughs when recalling how she almost phoned the label to call it off. "This music was always something really private, and on my own," she says. "So to play it here in Copenhagen, in Paris ... it's really overwhelming." If the reception to date is anything to go by, having her private musings become public knowledge is something Obel will have to start getting used to.