Ghosts and Glass, Getting Transparent with Agnes Obel

Danish singer Agnes Obel’s music is the like the beautiful dream you have in a rain storm. The darkness sets in outside your window, raindrops chase each other down the glass, the thunder rumbles but, in the centre, you are cradled within the folds of a subconscious bliss. There, the haunting whisper from a ghostly angelic voice and the soft melody of a distant piano keep the storm at bay.  

Ghosts…glass, both themes explored in Obel’s latest enchantment.

Citizen of Glass is a concept album where the musician slipped out of her own skin and into the mindscape of others. There, she populates her songs with transparent citizens, where hidden vulnerabilities surface in an age where more and more people are become glass-like.

“Glass is a material which is bother strong, fragile and transparent all at once. It’s very relevant for our time,” explains Obel. “People have different limits on how far they want to go but a lot of people go incredibly far when it comes to transparency.  It’s like there’s almost an obligation on you to write your autobiography on social media and constantly share personal things. That intrigued me a lot.”

Having achieved acclaim with her first two albums, 2010’s Philharmonics and 2013’s Aventine, Obel was ready to take a few more musical risks. Citizen of Glass sees her moving her often deeply layered lyrics, ethereal vocals and songs that dance between the borders of light and dark into even deeper caverns of complexity.

Already no stranger to adding multiple interments to her recordings, Obel decided to dig up some fresh ground to unearth new sounds sourced from a German museum of music. Glass harps, a melotron, a cembala, a harpsichord from the Renaissance and the mysterious trautonium all embrace one another to form a strikingly otherworldly layer of mist over the music. It is one that beckons but also eludes to things not being as safe the deeper into the fog you walk. Still, you can’t help but step forward, moved by the unseen hands of melody, until you vanish.

“The trautonium is a really exciting instrument—arresting and tense-sounding at the same time. I wanted the album to express both of these qualities”, tells Agnes Obel on her choice to feature it on the release. She adds that she also experimented with multi-layered tracks in some instances coating as much as 250 layers to her canvass before feeling the song was complete.

“The vocal manipulation emphasizes that we’re not just one thing but that we, as people, change depending on where we are and who is watching us”.

As a performer who still feel strange exposing her life through her art and live performances, it was a welcome kind of lucidity stepping into the thoughts of the characters in the new material. Here, quietly, she observed even if at times what she discovered was that she was actually watching herself from a distance. The song “Trojan Horses”, for example, allows the listener to peek into Obel’s paranoia about having to exhibit herself in her work.

Obel, who will be performing at the Bronson Centre Theatre on March 3, elaborated on the themes of the album, how she approached this release and how she’s come to accept the transparency she has to maintain as a musician.

Ottawa Life: You grew up in a pretty musical family with a father that collected instruments and a mother who was also a musician. What do you feel you took away most from your parents’ musical influences?

Agnes Obel: It is hard to say exactly. There are a few obvious ones, like they sent me to music lessons and that there were instruments in the house. I think my mother introduced me to a certain kind of piano music that I still really like and associate with my childhood. Maybe the fact that they often preferred more minimal instrumented music across different genres has had an influence, I think.

How do you feel the move from Copenhagen to Berlin helped your music?

It was while living in Berlin that I got the confidence to really work alone on my music. I had met some electronic musicians and I think their way of working, on their own until the track was done or only needed mastering, inspired me and made me think I could do the same. I also discovered a more experimental approach to music making, especially in regard to production. It seemed to me that had a lot to do with having fun with the instruments and the sounds and that it was okay to record and do things a bit aimlessly, just for the fun of it.

Your style both in instrumental and vocals is this kind of haunting beautiful, sometimes dark lullaby. How did you go about developing that?

It is strange because to me it seems like there are two opposing forces at play when it comes to making music. On one side there is the feeling of a musical vision or idea you need to reach and express somehow, and then there is the feeling that you have absolutely no idea of what it is going on and that it is all very open ended and you are just hoping for the best. To me you need both state of minds to go somewhere with a song or a piece of music, because a too focussed approach will make you forget to listen to the less obvious things you want to express that are hidden to you but can reveal them self in a song. Also, I really like to work and record on my own, and I think that make things sound in a certain way that will become more and more your own over time the more you keep working at it and developing it.

Is that dreamlike quality something you knowingly working towards when composing?

I’m not sure I see it like that. Dreamlike, I mean. But I do enjoy how music can take you somewhere else and give you a break from your immediate reality surrounding you.

You’ve touched upon Satie being of profound inspiration for your own compositions. Each new album seems to expand upon your sound. I wonder, who are some of the more recent influences on your music?

On the new album I really wanted to see if you could make songs that were like you would step into the head of another person. One musician I really admire for doing this with his songs is Scott Walker. The song “The Electrician” (from 1978 with the Walker Brothers) does that, and I have thought of this song several times while I was making this album.

I find in modern music there is a lack, sometimes, of risk in merging genres as you have with folk and classical. Was it ever something you thought about while composing, how radio would accept the sound and style, etc. or did you just focus on the music you were feeling and wishing to express?

I agree, I think it would be great if we all were less categorical when it comes to music.

I haven’t been so worried about merging styles, I’m not even sure I really thought about while I did it. It was more about finding the right instruments for the song and the right lines for them to play, something that would make sense to the main idea behind the song.

From your first release, you were receiving exceptional acclaim not always lavished on a debut. How did you react to these growing accolades early on?

I guess with the first album I had not expected what happened with the album and I can see now, looking back, that I could not take it all in and appreciate it for what it was. Now, with my third album, I just feel very grateful and I always thought I would have to do film music or write music for others to be able to do music professionally so I’m just really thankful for these possibilities and for the fact that I can do what I do with my music.

Now, much of this success came overseas. How did you find it to be getting your music out across the ocean into the United States or in Canada?

It’s great. I had never been to neither Canada nor the US before I started touring over here. I couldn’t think of a better way to discover new places than through travelling and touring with your music.

You’ve said, in regards to your writing, that your self-discipline predicated a lot of your own motivation. What is it that motivates you, I wonder, to start writing new music?

For me it is about getting ideas, or just a hint of an idea, mainly through improvisation and through experimentation. When you are sort of playing aimlessly, but still aiming at something that you are not quite sure of what is. Then sometimes something cool appears and then you just have to run with it and see where it takes. That’s where the self-discipline comes in, otherwise the idea is just gone forever.

I read once about how you feel you need to have control over your career, how you’d find it difficult to be micro-managed like other musicians. Why is this control important to you?

It’s hard for to answer because I don’t know how it is for other musicians who are releasing music, but for me I care about how the music is represented, visually, sonically and in text, maybe because it takes me so long time to make an album and the process is so all consuming. But obviously a lot of things in regards to how an album is released are really out of my control. That is just how it is with projects that are spread out between many places and many different people.

Both Aventine and Philharmonics seemed to be very personal releases. Citizen of Glass, however, lends itself to a more concept album. How did you approach this album differently than the previous two?

I wanted to see if I could make an album where I had the title and the theme before I had anything else. I found the theme for the album in the beginning of 2014 so I had a bit of time to think it through and do some research before I actually started writing and recording the album. This way of working is very new for me, starting looking for new instruments and literature before sitting down at the piano and writing from there before anything else.

The title evokes so much imagery. Can you tell me how you settled upon this and what it means to you?

I think one thing that immediately got my attention when I came across this concept for the first time was how the legal term “citizen” and the fragility and transparency of glass were matched. During the process of making this album I found numerous ways of understanding this concept. One way I really like is the understanding of glass like a prism and how you can see yourself as a glass prism through which your past continually will be shinning through. The past is what makes you who you are in a way and in that sense our past will always be with us. I like how the glass human or a glass citizen can be seen as a representation of this, human beings as these reflection machines, shining our past experience upon everything we see.

In regards to that, while glass can be strong, it is also very breakable and something you can see through. How do you feel this represented itself on the songs on the album?

For me it was important to have songs on the album that could communicate how, at least to me, it feels to be made of glass, so I worked with a lot instruments that to me sounded like that. I really wanted to convey the feeling of tension, just before something was about to break. Also, high bright tones and slightly metallic sounds.

Transparency, of course, can give way to feelings of paranoia. As a musician who has to take the stage in front of large crowds, do these types of interviews, etc., you’ve touched upon your own paranoia of having to exhibit yourself, so to speak. How do you personally deal with this outside of composing music about it? Are you able to just shut some of that off in your daily life off stage?

For me, where I have felt the most transparent and made of glass have been when I have released my music. I didn’t know this before these releases, but for me a big part of writing my songs is the feeling that I have a secret, that the melody or the mood of the song is a secret I have with the song, and I guess releasing these tracks and playing live meant that I was suddenly showing everybody a side of me I didn’t normal expose. I’m still trying to understand exactly how it all works and why it has been so strange, but in many ways I think we are all mysteries to ourselves and the only way to get to know your self is to do new things and maybe at times push yourself a bit out of the comfort zone.

Can you tell me how you experimented with your vocals on this release?

I really like vocal music and how you can see the voice an actor channeling many personalities and character traits. So in one song called “Golden Green” I try to sing very high and sound a bit desperate. The song is about envy and how it can take over your mind and everything you see in your world. On another song I have worked with the idea of a secret that had turned into a ghost. I really wanted that ghost to sing the chorus and after some experimentation with different effects I realised that I could simply pitch shift my voice down and this eerie slow-sounding man’s voice would appear. I also have used a lot of my voice for the rhythms on the album to create a sense of intimacy.

Along with the vocal experimentation, you seem to always be adding more unique instruments to your albums. How did you discover the trautonium, what drew you to it and how did you decide to incorporate on this release?

A friend of my introduced me to the instrument because he knew I would like the film The Birds by Hitchcock. The soundtrack was made on a trautonium and he thought I might be into it because that. It turned out to be pretty perfect for the new album I was working on. The trautonium is basically an early form of a modular synthesiser so you can change its sound quit dramatically. You play the sounds on a metal wire, either by pressing it down like a keyboard or by sliding your finger on the wire like a string instrument that is playing glissando. To me, it has this peculiar metal like sound, especially in the high range and it can sound both old and modern at the same time.

How do you find the music from this album has translated into the live performance to your audience and your personal exploration of the material live?

Turning this album into a live performance has been really different this time and way more complicated than any of the other albums mainly because of the many new instruments but also the many layers of strings, vocals and trautonium. I really like many of our solutions, like replacing the trautonium with clarinet and mellotron for example. It’s quite incredible how close they sound. Also, some songs sound so different live that I think we will have to record them at some point so it is not lost.