Shortly before soundcheck at Festival Europavox, Agnes Obel sat down with us to chat about her influences, her latest album and returning to the festival that gave her one of the first chances to play outside her native Denmark.
So Agnes, you last played Europavox in 2010 and it was also your first time performing in France, what has the journey been like since then?
“Well, I was here in the fall of 2010 before my album Philharmonics was out. But I had a few shows in the Summer also opening for some bands and my label had arranged it to get a little bit of experience as I had been touring before with other projects but not my own. So they had arranged these gigs and the festival at Clermont-Ferrand, Europavox, was one of them. It was my first time in France with my music, I had certainly been here before.Yeah, it was really special. I remember the show much better than many of the other shows I did. Well, I remember everything from that time as it was the first time I released my music. But I do remember this because I felt like people were really listening.It was really a surprise to me. As you know I was living in Germany, I was from Denmark, and I didn’t know why the should listen to me as I am not from here, you know. I was just very happy and surprised.
I flew into Lyon with my boyfriend and the cellist I was playing with from Berlin. We rented a car and drove to Clermont-Ferrand and it was a really beautiful place, so that was the first thing I noticed and I thought the audience were really a special audience and even over the entire tour, they were really listening. So this is what I remember, I was very thankful and still will always remember this place because of this.”
Of course, a road trip in France as you arrive for your first show, it sounds magical. You bring “Citizen of Glass” album to Europavox, so how does it feel to be back here now with the new album and songs? Does it feel like a complete moment?
“Yeah, it is. It is three albums later. I hope the still like it. I have changed a lot. It is always like this when you make an album you don’t know if anybody’s going to like it. Which was very much the case with Philharmonics my first album, which was songs written over many years for myself while I had other projects. I never expected to release it. So it was very personal project and I also learned a lot about myself from making that album and about maybe who I am. It sort of started the thing of recording myself and doing my own production and albums alone, Philharmonics made that possible for me and this show too because it was the beginning of everything. It brought me to Citizen of Glass is very different in that sense, it is a conceptual album and I have much more instruments on it. It is getting much more difficult to play live songs when you have a bigger band, a big bus, truck, lighting rigs, compared to the first time I came here and we just had to find the hotel.
Also, I know much more what I want, because back then just even performing I had no special ambition and just more like getting through the songs. Now, I have all these ideas of what a performance should be so I certainly have changed. But it is hard for me to explain the whole journey how I got there, I feel like it is the music and every new thing you do pushes you to a new place. I guess I have become more ambitious than I was back then, I was just had to make it through because you get a very big stage fright, so just making it through without throwing up or getting anxious.”
With “Citizen of Glass”, it is about your time in Germany? Is it about the method of living or about the city?
“Citizen of Glass” is about a concept, a German political concept, which is the elements of glass human, glass citizen. It a term you use when you speak about surveillance or privacy and there is a lot more discussions about this in Germany, much more than in Denmark because of the history, as every third person in the TDL was a spy. So there was a lot of organisations protecting the individual’s right for privacy. So there was a lot of discussions back in 2014 when I found this concept about that in Germany, I was following it and was really interesting and had seen Berlin as a focal point for these technological ripples.Which I thought was really cool, I was reading about. Then I seen this term and thought ‘I can see this as a great image as an endpoint for where we have lost all our secrets.’ But I also thought it was a great image for me and how I approach my music as I feel through my music I am revealing a lot of myself that I am not really understanding even what it is. So that is why I think it spoke to me and also I feel that we have a culture, you know a society, that pushes all of us to reveal ourselves on social media and as a cultural ideal of self-documentation. Like if you have seen art or literature, there are a lot of biographies and a lot of biographical albums that we have a culture for that. I believe, it is pushed and created by technological or media reality that is pushing our culture to go that way. So there was many reasons why I thought it was an interesting subject. First of all, I guess aesthetically it spoke to me because of this glass image.”
The political concept and living there now, has part of that by living in Berlin helped the state of mind when it is represented visually?
“I don’t know, probably. Yes and no. It is hard to know how things are influencing you. Berlin is really a strange city, each neighbourhood is very different, the history is very special and we also enter a special place of the Berlin’s history in the sense that a lot of artists have moved there and means gentrification, which is everywhere else, but it is happening while a lot of people from all over Europe and all over the World are moving there to make art and also a lot of people just to party. It is an interesting place to be and it is certainly a place you can hide. Maybe it is why I like living there, because I feel in a way, safe there. You are not so defined in Berlin, not defined the same way as I am in Copenhagen. I can somehow be more invisible, more made of glass in a way. I have to say, I am really living like a person who is not German in Berlin. I am not really assimilating you know, speaking a lot of broken English and there’s certainly an international environment in Berlin that I am part of. So it is not like I feel I am German or anything, which is maybe why I like Berlin because its a mix of people and that is also why it is hard for me to say how it is influencing me, but it certainly is somehow.”
Musically, with the album, the process and the way you were writing? How was the process and how did it differ from the last time.
“It was quite different because normally I just write songs and this time I had this concept and this idea I wanted to expressed being made of glass and being transparent in a musical sense. So I started everything differently, researching for instruments, going to musical instrument museums and researched online. I bought a lot of instruments which is really good excuse to buy keyboards, I bought a celesta and an old German synthesizer which took the guy who was making it exactly the original, a year to build it so it was a big thing. So yeah, it is certainly different for me to write it. Then I started writing mainly on the Celestia and not on a piano while reading the literature on transparency and the idea of transparency, so yeah it was really different to work like that and it was interesting and I really liked it. I felt it moved my songwriting and also the way I sing, play, record in new places, I was happy about that and I was able to do that, not stagnating in the same universe. I am very proud of Citizen of Glass, it was a lot of work for me to make the album and there were many times where I thought about giving up as it was so complex to arrange instruments. Also, I was writing about things that I normally wouldn’t write about and found difficult to put into words.but I felt like I did as well as I could, So I am very proud of this album I have to say.”
Originally written for Europavox.com