Danish-born, Berlin-based artist Agnes Obel mixes old and new in striking ways on her new record, Citizen of Glass. The title refers to the idea that our culture increasingly demands us to become transparent, surrendering privacy and our inner life to an outward-facing performance of ourselves.
Obel builds her songs through layers of piano, voice and cello, with an old German synthesizer created in 1929 called the Trautonium, which makes pitch by pressing a wire carrying electrical current against a metal plate. She had a Trautonium constructed for her in Berlin, acquired a harpsichord and celeste to write with, and used prepared piano (with cloth or clothespins between the strings) to create textures that oscillate between old and modern on Citizen of Glass.
We caught up with Obel and her band recently at the Wonder Ballroom for a soundcheck session, to learn about how they re-create those layered songs on tour, the concept behind the record, and her introduction to the music of Elliott Smith.
David Christensen: The concept of the album Citizen of Glass is about transparency and privacy. Were you imagining it in terms of surveillance and privacy from the state, or in a more personal way?
Agnes Obel: In relation to the album or myself?
AO: Of course the political subject of surveillance is something that disturbs me and I wanted to write about that, because I feel it’s a state of mind we are in now, unfortunately. But for the album, I also understood the term [Citizen of Glass] as a cultural ideal we have. There’s a push towards revealing yourself because of social media we use, that makes us feel you have to document yourself to a degree. I think before an artist or writer could stage their own life and have an audience, and now we all can have an audience. We all look at ourselves in an aesthetic sense and also [ask], ‘How can I stage myself?’ and look at ourselves from the outside all the time. This is a new phenomenon.
DC: For songwriters, there’s an expectation that you’ll reveal something about yourself in music, and also now be personally connected in social media. How do you manage that as an artist?
AO: I don’t know. When I released my first album, it was a really terrifying experience for me. I felt really exposed and like I was showing sides of myself that I didn’t even show my family or my partner and now everybody could have an opinion about it. I had not really thought it through.
I’ve gotten used to that feeling, that big open scary feeling, but it’s not something I can master or can plan. But on the other hand it’s very good to push yourself and get to know yourself. I realized when I started releasing my own music that I’m a mystery to myself and maybe we all are. So we can make up a persona or brand and push that forward. But if you don’t want to do that, you can’t be this calculated, you just have to be open with the investigation of who you are through what you’re doing. At least that’s how it feels to me. I didn’t know my music was so personal until I released it.
DC: How do you translate the layers of sound from the record to the live show?
AO: Well, we did a lot of rehearsals and we did a lot of experimentation. I use some very old synthesizers and keyboards you can’t travel with. I’ve been recording them and have them in my computer so I can play them together live on a keyboard. We also found out a flugelhorn could sound like a Trautonium if you put it through certain effects, so we’ve been experimenting, in a way becoming more analog in the process. At some point we’ll do a concert in Berlin where my Trautonium is, so people can experience it because it’s really a unique instrument. It has this strange metallic sound and sounds really modern but then sounds really old.
DC: You’ve covered Elliott Smith’s songs before. What’s your connection to his music?
AO: I discovered his music because my brother was in some films when we were kids. And there was a director from Portland who came home to our flat —
DC: Was that Gus Van Zandt?
AO: Yeah, that’s the guy. He was at our place to talk to my brother. And then he showed us Elliott Smith’s music. This is all back in the ‘90s, and my brother was 14 and I was 15 or 16 at the time. The film project never happened but afterwards my brother and I watched all his films and got into Elliott Smith. I think the first song we heard was “Needle in the Hay” from the album Elliott Smith. That’s also what I think of when I think of Portland, that director and Elliott Smith.
I think I sort of recognized something in his way of writing music that I also like to do, and that is that you can hear the voice and the melody are the same thing. I do that often with the piano. A sensitivity to melody that I love. I still to listen to his music. It’s one of my favorites.
I think I owe a lot of my knowledge of production from Elliott Smith’s albums. People wouldn’t think so when they hear my music. The early stuff I did was really inspired by him, especially [Obel’s 2010 debut album] Philharmonics, many production details inspired by him.
Audio recording and mixes: Steven Kray
Videographers: Jarratt Taylor, Nate Sjol, Sam Smith
Editor: Jarratt Taylor
Executive Producer: David Christensen