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Agnes Obel's Vitreous Voyage: Singer-Songwriter on 'Citizen of Glass' [Q&A]

By Philip Trapp on Sep 26, 2016 02:20 PM EDT
Agnes Obel Agnes Obel (Photo : Alex Brüel Flagstad)

Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel will release her new album, Citizen of Glass, on Oct. 21. The third album from the ethereal, down-tempo chanteuse proffers an icy expansion of her 2010 debut, Philharmonics, and 2013 follow-up, Aventine, with the musician exploring subliminal subject matter -- the German concept of "gläserner Gürger," anyone? -- within an über-delicate musical structure.

The Classical Arts spoke with Obel about the new record, its singles "Familiar" and "Golden Green," the emotional meanings behind the songs and the unique instruments contained within the compositions. Agnes also shared some of the musical and literary influences that inspired her in creating Citizen of Glass. The album comes out on Friday, Oct. 21, via PIAS Recordings.

The Classical Arts: On "Familiar," some of those lyrics feel almost religious to me. Am I misreading that, or what were you aiming for in the song?
Agnes Obel:
For me, that song is about a secret. It's about a secret love affair. You know, when you're in love, you feel like you can do anything. But if it's a secret, if you can't tell anybody about it, then the secret turns into this ghost, this haunting.

It does have this religious undertone, I like that. There's also something [in it] about our relationship with technology. We have such incredible faith in technology. Even the way technology companies present themselves these days has almost a spiritual, religious vibe about it. I wouldn't say it's our new religion but, in many ways, it can seem like that, in the way that we understand technology today.

Our love lives are now becoming more and more intertwined with technology. Everybody who's been in love -- and it didn't work out -- knows about this horrible feeling of seeing the one you love, or who rejected you, seeing them online having this other life without you.

You said you wanted to make this album without relying so heavily on the piano. Do you think you accomplished that on Citizen of Glass? Is there piano in "Familiar" or on the latest track, "Golden Green"?
Yeah, I think we did. In "Familiar," it's not piano, it's spinet and celeste. There's actually no piano on that track at all. In "Golden Green," there's only one little place with piano.

I felt like this theme of transparency and secrets and watching yourself from a distance, there's sort of a tension within that. It's something that's not so pleasant. And piano is very beautiful. It's a very beautiful instrument, it feels very calming. I wasn't sure that was the right way to communicate what I had in mind, so I knew I had to find other instruments that were more percussive and sounded more like glass. Something to make the imagination go new places. Something lingering and depressing and beautiful.

What were you listening to while making this record?
I was listening to a lot of vocal music, actually. I'm really into vocal pieces and really like how the voice sometimes can sound like it's really ancient. It's something we've been using to communicate even before we had language. Sometimes, when I listen to vocal music, like a choir or something, I feel like it's tuning into something very universal and very old.

I was also listening to this Bulgarian TV & Radio Choir, this really beautiful choir. They sing without vibrato and really use the voice like an instrument. I tried to take those influences and really push my voice outside of my normal comfort zone, singing higher and pitching my voice. I don't really know if we all have only one voice, I think we probably have a lot of different voices. I wanted to push myself into new places like that.

Some of those chorus places on "Familiar," it sounds like a totally different person.
Yeah, exactly. I was surprised at how many people actually thought that wasn't me singing; I didn't expect that. It's pitched down, like, a fifth -- so, that is a lot. It was really interesting for me to hear my voice sound like a man's voice. Very fascinating.

But I also pitched my voice up. Like on "Citizen of Glass," the voice is pitched up one note. I was trying to get it to sound more glasslike. On "Golden Green," I tried to sing with a higher, more desperate sound, to try and mirror the theme of the song.

Citizen of Glass

And the theme of "Golden Green" -- like that lyric, "Who are you to take over my mind?" -- is that directed at someone in particular, or what is it going for?
It's a song I wrote after reading a book by Yuri Olesha, a Russian or Soviet writer in the '20s. The book is called Envy; it's about envy of the emotions. I wanted to write song from that perspective. I was reading a lot about that emotion.

For example, Dante, he talked about how you can only be envious if you have your eyes closed. You're not really seeing what you're seeing, it's only your imagination. You just have a few clues and the rest is your mind making everything up. Envy is sort of a blind emotion and, in a way, a creative emotion. I wanted to describe it as an emotion that takes over your mind, even if it is an emotion that is really created within your mind.

"Familiar" and "Golden Green" are the two songs that everyone's heard so far -- do you feel those cuts are representative of the album as a whole?
I don't know. Each song, to me, has a specific meaning and story. I feel they are all very different. It was very hard for me when we had to choose singles. It was my boyfriend who decided to go with "Familiar," because he wanted to do the video for it. I don't have a clue about these things. I work so much on these songs; I've done everything I could.

Yep. You're almost too close to them to judge them.
I love them all. It's hard for me to choose one over another.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Cover image © PIAS Recordings

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