Agnes Obel grew up surrounded by music. Born in Denmark to a father that loved collecting instruments and a mother who was both a jurist and musician, Obel began learning piano at a very early age. Although she began playing music early in life, it wasn’t until she was age 30, in 2010, that Obel released her first solo album, Philharmonics. She aimed to tell more stories through the lyrics on this album, rather than Philharmonics, where the lyrics were more sparse and the music was left to tell the story. Now touring for her most recent album, Citizens of Glass, concept album about the idea of people being like glass, Obel continues to offer a unique blend of classical and folk to anyone who attends her shows.
The tour for Citizens of Glass began on February 28th and her first US date will be March 7th at the 9:30 club in Washington, DC.
Interview conducted by Matt Rucker.
Matt Rucker: I’ve listened to your music for a while and I like not only how you perform your music, but also that you write and produce it. I was wondering whether you see yourself as more of a writer, a producer, or a performer? And which do you like the most?
Agnes Obel: I see myself more as a writer and a producer.
MR: A writer?
AO: Yeah, sort of mixed together. But I would say sort of a writer who is producing it right after. Yeah haha. Its just for me it’s a little bit together. And that’s so... some people they just write and go into a studio, and I do both a little bit at the same time.
MR: Yeah I feel like some of your production is almost part of your writing. I was curious -— with the new album there’s a lot of vocal distortion. There’s almost a male vocal on Familiar. When you’re writing a song do you think of this ahead of time or do you think of it in the studio later?
AO: No, because, for example Familiar, I really wrote that while recording it. So I had that sound. I had that (singing) da da da da. And then I wrote the verse out of that and then the rhythm for it and then with my voice the words and everything before I had the chorus and then recorded it. It’s about sort of a secret love, love that becomes like a ghost, a person that is in love. Then I wanted this ghost love to be the same in the chorus. And then I wrote the chorus and the sound and the big sound of like a ghost. So it sort of in a way I used the production to amplify the ideas I have in the song.
MR: Because you see yourself first as a writer, I’m curious, what was your writing process like for this album? Do you typically write your lyrics first or does the music come first?
AO: I always … well this time it was very much the writing being informed by this general concept about being made of glass and I had this idea that I should write songs about having this experience of being transparent and being seen by others — sort of a little bit of paranoia — and also writing some about secrets and how secrets can be in your life and because that’s what you are losing when you are transparent. And mystery and see what happens. And yeah I wanted to write about that. I write on piano or on celeste and then soon I record and start writing the lyric. So it's sort of coming together. I’m very much a sound person so I really need sort of the sound to shape the sound.
MR: I was going to ask about the instrumentation on this album. It seems more than your previous two albums. I read about your use of the Tratonium. Why did you use these unusual instruments rather than a piano or other more conventional instruments?
AO: First of all, I’ve always liked minimal production. Like, ok I’m going to make this album with only piano and cello, and no more. And it’s a little bit how I made the last two albums. I like how if you need rhythm, you feel it on the piano. And so this is something I just like. I like the simplicity and the minimalism in it and how you as a listener step into a very defined universe where you don’t fall back on drums and bass and stuff like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but that’s just not what I wanted to do. And then for this album I just knew I had the sound ideas or visions for the theme like for example I knew I wanted to make a sound where I sort of would communicate this feeling of things happening in a loop, being in the inside of my mind when I have that feeling. So I had to make something that was repetitive in a way but also a feeling that you’re inside of my head. And obviously that’s super subjective but so I knew for example I wanted to use strings, like these swells of emotions. But I also wanted to mix in something that was less beautiful then strings, which is why I chose the Tratonium. Its like a guitar or a string instrument, it’s a metal wire. You can make swells on a Tratonium as well. It sounds very metallic alone but when you mix it with the strings then you get the emotions of the strings and the harshness of the Tratonium. It was exactly what I was looking for that song. And there’s another song called “Trojan Horses” and that’s trying to create the feeling of being made of glass. You’re watching yourself from the outside and people are looking from the outside and looking in and being paranoid a little bit. For that, we had to do that, it wouldn’t work with just piano and strings, it would be too beautiful. I wanted this feeling of tension of something that’s about to break that’s still beautiful but also crystal clear like glass and maybe slightly unpleasant sometimes.
MR: I want to keep asking about the theme of glass. The album seemed more focused than Philharmonics and Aventine were. Was it harder to write like that? Being more focused and having all of the songs circling around this central idea of being made of glass and being transparent?
AO: Umm I have to say I think it was easy, in a way because I had so many ideas going into this process and I could really relate to this feeling of being made of glass. I know this feeling not so much from a political term even though that’s also really interesting, I know from making my music and feeling like you’re exposing yourself. Not just to a listener but my friends and my family. I use stuff in my music that I don’t talk about in my private life. When I started releasing my own music I felt really funny. It’s really overwhelming. I think that’s also why this theme spoke to me. I can really relate and then I also saw like glass being this person in a way. And I thought it was such a nice way of combining that with the word citizen, or human. In a way we’re all the sum of our memories and our experiences in our lives and everything we’re doing and the way we see the world is very much because of what we’ve experienced before. We are walking around having our past coming through our actions and how we see the world. I feel like the glass was making sense cause we are like these persons of our past. And even though we like to think of the future and the now and everything new we’re so, we have so much with us all the time and the past is so alive in our heads. And I think we can see that in other people when we look into their eyes. You know? So there’s a lot of this imagery in the glass. This potential of it falling apart, it breaking. For me that’s really human too, and something I get inspired from.
MR: This may be a deep questions. I really like how you elaborated on exactly what being made of glass means, but throughout the album I got the feeling that you were questioning whether its good to be more transparent now or not? Do you think it’s a good thing that progressively we’re expected to be more transparent? Especially where you are in the music industry and constantly gaining popularity, I’m sure you constantly being felt like you’re exposed to society and the world.
AO: I don’t think me as a private person. I have music and I have me. Even if I sold a lot of albums I’m still a super normal human being. Living my normal life. And it’s not in that sense. Its more this feeling of releasing music and using myself as material in my work and I don’t know if it’s a unique thing for me or if its just how it feels to make something creative and release it to the universe and the world. For me the big difference from before, I played in bands and we played shows and recorded songs and then I started doing it alone. That was much more challenging for me because yeah I’m not really sure why but I think it has something to do with me having this sort of secret with the piano and with melodies in my own mind when I write the songs. And its something I’ve done on my own for my own pleasure in a private moment that has nothing to do with anything. And then suddenly you’re just releasing that. I felt like people could see inside of me in a way that I thought nobody would ever see inside of me.
I’m also a private person and I like my secrets and my inner world. I wanted to keep that, I wanted it to not be corrupted. I think its not special for me because everybody now can have an audience and expose themselves. Everybody can look at their own lives and stage it in a certain way and put it on Instagram or whatever. You know more and more we are internalizing on social media. In a way I am critical towards it. I don’t think its good that we look at ourselves from the outside. It’s not a pleasant way to live. Its ok to do it if you want to create something or have fun around it, and creation is fun in many forms but its not to distance yourself from the moment and from your life. The obvious but boring example is people at a concert filming it. The camera is a filter; in a way they’re distancing themselves from the moment. I’m critical towards it but there’s a lot of great things with these new technologies. People can express themselves with no filter or anything, that’s a good thing.
MR: It’s interesting you would talk about looking at yourself from the outside. What sets this album apartment from the previous albums — it still has that sad feel to it but is less minimal than your previous two.
AO: Its hard for me to talk about myself, we’re all a little bit blind. I really like that every song is related to the theme but in different ways. Like the song “Mary” is about a secret, a really bad secret. The song about guilt and sin and love and secrets we all carry around in our intimate relationships. Sometimes I feel like the closer you are with somebody the more guilty you feel towards them. Just like not really listening to what they’re saying or family or your partner. I don’t know if its specific based on cultures but I feel like a lot of the way our love and relationships are regulated with guilt. [People] feel guilted and that’s why you do stuff. I would love it not to be but we never talk about it. There’s all these secrets and people control each other with this guilt. I did that and you do that and I just feel like it’s an unspoken secret between lovers and people who care about each other, that we feel guilty and we control each other with it.
That’s what “Stone” is about. So its different ways I approach this idea of being made of glass and secrets and why you need secrets and also how good it is to let go of secrets. In a way it’s very subjective because I — in a way a lot of my secrets are on the album. I knew I had to do that, I had to push myself to write stuff that I normally wouldn’t write about. And sort of reveal all my own secrets. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense, I couldn’t just write about other peoples secrets, even though I also tried to do that. And so I’m very proud of that, I’ve never done it before. To push myself to write about things like that. And then obviously I’m really happy I got to record on all these instruments: how to record them and how to produce them and arrange them. It feels very different from the other songs that are all written on piano. Basically they were sort of a collection of best songs I made in a certain period.
MR: Wow, for a lighter question; what is your favorite song from your new album?
AO: I think its “Mary”. No no no, it's "Mary" or “It's Happening Again”. Those two songs get really close to what I wanted to say.
MR: Are those your favorite songs to play live or do you have a different favorite song live?
AO: Live? Live I like to play “Trojan Horses”. It's got drums and its fun to sing, its got a really low part and then you have to go up really high and I love the bass clarinet we have in that. I love the looping the girls are doing and the ending is very different then the one on the album, its more sort of freestyle and all the repetition reminds me of Steve Vai, actually. I really like the live version of that song, we have to record it. I think it’s better than it is on the album. No, it IS better than what is on the album
AO: I think so.
MR: In your NPR video you played “It’s Happening Again”, “Stone”, and “Golden Green”. What made you choose those songs? And for the full shows, will it be mostly the newer stuff?
AO: Yeah, it’s because they didn’t have so many channels. I would have loved to play “Stretch your Eyes” and “Mary” and “Trojan Horses”. But it had to be this desk setup so we had to play the most simple ones we had on the album.
MR: How do you choose the people you play with live?
AO: I want to have sort of a band feeling. I like musicians that have a sensibility I like and that I connect with. Often they’re my very good friends. Of course, their abilities are important; I need a cellist that can loop themselves very well and can improvise and can sing at the same time, there are not a lot of cellist that do that very well. And so I’m really happy with the two girls I play with. One of them is mostly an instrumentalist; she plays a lot of other instruments. With her alone I have a lot of abilities. And we play with a clarinetist who is also a bass clarinetist and a really great singer. So with her, I can sort of expand. So I look for somebody with the capabilities of a classical musician but who can also improvise and loop and sing and is nice and cool to be around. It’s a lot of things, so it can be difficult for me to find. It’s not like “lets find any drummer.” And yeah, the two cellist play all of the cello on the album. Yeah, it really makes sense in my mind to play with them.
MR: Yeah, that will be a really great show. You’re coming pretty close to [Harrisonburg], at the 9:30 club in Washington, DC. So I’m just going to ask one more rather unrelated question. If you could see any artist live right now, who would you see?
AO: Who’s alive?
MR: You can do either, I’m curious about both.
AO: Hmm, well dead, there are so many. Maybe its because when you know they're dead and you know you cant see them live you become desperate to see them live, but then its too late, you’ll never see them. I obviously very sad I never got to see Leonard Cohen. And of course David Bowie, Prince. All three would have been great and never saw any of them. I even played a festival where Prince played and I could’ve just came one day earlier and then I would’ve seen Prince. Yeah, it’s a lot that you can’t ever see them again. I’m sure there’s a lot of living musicians I should go and try and see because at some point they will also disappear. It’s about understanding how precious it is with all these great musicians out there. So, somebody live, I think I’d really like to see Frank Ocean play live. Yeah that’s it.
MR: Thank you so much for time, it was great to talk to you.
AO: It was great to talk to you too.