I had the opportunity to photograph and interview Agnes Obel, one of my favorite recording artists, during her San Francisco appearance at The Independent on March 22. I photographed the show for QRO.com, a music blog I’ve shot for in the past.
Although I’ve done some journalistic work, I had never conducted an interview. Nevertheless, I eagerly accepted the challenge. A challenge I was not expecting, however, was the lighting. Despite my experience shooting concerts, I found it difficult to find lighting beautiful enough to match and illuminate Agnes’s engaging vocal performance.
The dimly lit atmosphere did provide an intimate, and enjoyable experience for the listener, which of course is the objective. As a fan of Obel’s music, I was happy to be able to experience her performance both from an audio as well as a visual perspective.
As a novice interviewer, my main objective was to avoid boring questions. I am familiar with Obel’s discography and history. I also have many years of experience as a music producer and engineer, two roles she plays on her own records. This made coming up with some interesting questions easier than I expected.
I related with her personally on several themes she discussed during our interview. Like me, she left school to pursue music production and audio engineering. Another was her difficulty deciding when records are complete. I have engineered and produced countless songs and several full-length albums, and I understand how daunting, yet rewarding the entire process is. Some of this we spoke about briefly off the record.
One of the things that resonated with me was her response when I asked if she ever considered writing for other artists.
“When you start composing or writing for other people you look at songwriting and this form of expression as something much more utilitarian like it has a function. I see that also with friends of mine who’ve done film commercials and sort of lose their own voice, and I really don’t want to lose my own voice,” she said.
Ever since I had the good fortune of landing some licensing deals, my objective over time went from from making music, to making money from it. I’ve found myself writing new material less frequently, unless for a specific purpose – utilitarian – as Obel put it. Perhaps I, too, have lost my voice in a way. I hear my old material—On The Arm, for instance (my ’07 debut LP), and I can hardly relate to it. For better or worse, I couldn’t make anything like that again. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that soon after I landed my first commercial spot (and thus narrowed my focus to finding similar opportunities), I began my explorations in photography. ‘Losing my musical voice’ so to speak, left a creative void that I unknowingly, at first, but consciously later on, began filling with photography.
As far as the show itself, Obel and her band performed flawlessly. She played several of my favorites from her repertoire, which was a nice surprise. I wish the lighting had been better but that’s concert photography, and I’m happy enough with the shots I got (my favorite is the first image in the photo essay). The best part of the experience was enjoying a conversation with an artist whom I truly admire (and listen to almost daily)—it was a privilege and I hope to do more multimedia coverage in the future.
Christopher Markisz: Your latest record is titled "Citizen of Glass." Can you tell us a little about why you chose that name?
Agnes Obel: I wanted to make a conceptual album. I wanted to see if I could work with a title and a concept before I wrote the songs. Before I had been just kind of writing songs and I wanted to see if I could do something else. I know modern composers, classical composers and film composers often work with a title and a theme to sort of inform the writing and the production and the arrangements and the instrumentation. I wanted to see if I could work that way of thinking into my little universe, and if it would change things and push them in a new direction. I was looking for a concept.
Meanwhile, I was touring Aventine, my previous album, and I was reading about all this NSA stuff and Edward Snowden. There’s been a lot of discussion everywhere but especially in Germany, about surveillance and the rights to privacy, and the rights of an individual to have his or her secrets and keep them. Germany has a very big awareness because of their history. In East Germany, every third citizen was a spy during the GDR. When the wall came down there was a lot of talk of how everybody was spied upon and under surveillance, and how detrimental is was to society and to the trust within all social organizations. So in Germany there’s a lot of focus on this compared to Denmark, where I’m from; in Germany people are a lot more freaked out about it.
Then I came across this term for when you’ve lost all your secrets and all your privacy; in Germany you say that you’re made of glass. You’re a glass human, a glass citizen, a citizen of glass. I immediately thought it was such a cool way of describing it. I felt like I could describe this feeling of being made of glass in a musical sense, also understanding it in a way broader, personal sense, not just political. When I finished my tour for Aventine which was one and a half years, I had already been researching the subject a lot, trying to find literature; I bought some new instruments, went straight home to my little home studio and started writing for this new album, trying to collect ideas and construct this new universe around my idea of how it is to be made of glass.
Christopher Markisz: Very interesting. Listening to your catalog, one might assume you've been classically trained on several instruments. Is this true?
Agnes Obel: Well, I just played classical piano since I was a kid, but actually, the most training I’ve had that was formal was when I went to something called the Jazz Academy in Copenhagen, which is something you do before you go to conservatory, then I studied recording sounds in studios. I dropped out of high school to study engineering but I went back again, I studied cultural studies, literature and recording. My parents freaked out. They don’t get so happy when you do something like that, but now they’re fine! [laughs].
Christopher Markisz: I’m very impressed with the production of your records. How has being your own producer and engineer informed your creative process?
Agnes Obel: It makes the whole process more fluid. I don’t have to fragmentize or split up the writing, the recording, the production, the mixing; I can sort of do all that by myself. If I have an idea for a song, I can start immediately to record it and find out if it’s a cool song. Very often when I start recording it I start producing it, and then start mixing it…I can sort of go with the flow. Obviously, the danger of it is that everything usually take me longer, because there are no restrictions or time limits.
Christopher Markisz: Do you ever find it difficult to decide when a song is complete?
Agnes Obel: Yes, it’s a big problem. It’s very hard. When you do it all yourself, you become very critical and it can be very hard to listen to your own music later on, listening for mistakes. I’m trying to embrace the idea that nothing is perfect, and I just have to see it as what is was there and not be so overly critical because then you never enjoy anything. Making an album is a big task; you always forget how much work it is when you do it all yourself. It’s not good to be super neurotic; this is a little bit how I always am [laughs]. I have to say I really enjoy the process itself of recording and writing; sort of disappearing into what you’re doing is really wonderful. It’s my favorite part of all this that I’m doing. It’s what makes it all meaningful to me; I think I wouldn’t do all this if it wasn’t for these periods of intense moments of focus, letting your imagination work and flow within that project.
Christopher Markisz: It sounds like you like the studio more than the stage.
Agnes Obel: Yea, I think I do, though I love to play with my band now. I have such a good band. I love how the songs come alive and change with the personalities of the different musicians; how we improvise, all of it is really fun. I don’t like promo so much. We’re not doing so much here [in the US] but in Europe during the fall and winter, it was overwhelming. I was dreaming about being able to release music without having to do all that. Going to each country and having 15 interviews a day; they have to take pictures of you…sometimes I feel, I don’t know…
Christopher Markisz: Exploited?
Agnes Obel: Yeah, I think sometimes people don’t understand how uncomfortable it can be when people take pictures of you all the time. My boyfriend is a photographer and I really love photography but sometimes I really enjoy not having a camera in my face [laughs].
Christopher Markisz: I’m sorry that I’m here to do that!
Agnes Obel: [laughter] It’s just that it makes me…
Christopher Markisz: It makes you a Citizen of Glass.
Agnes Obel: Yeah! I guess so. I like much more to be the creator than the object.
Christopher Markisz: Have you ever thought about writing for other people?
Agnes Obel: I have and I’ve also been doing that and some film stuff, but I enjoy so much making albums because I have my own vision, and I’m really afraid of destroying some of the purity of that. When you start composing or writing for other people you look at songwriting and this form of expression as something much more utilitarian like it has a function. I see that also with friends of mine who’ve done film commercials and sort of lose their own voice, and I really don’t want to lose my own voice. I want to develop my own sound. I’m a little bit wary. I hope in time I won’t have to do so much promo as I have had to do with previous albums so I can just keep creating. That’s my goal for the future.
Christopher Markisz: Speaking of the future, do you have any other passions or hobbies, or paths you've ever wanted to pursue in the past, or perhaps pursue later in life?
Agnes Obel: Yes. Something with the mind. I love neuroscience. Everything with the brain really fascinates me. I studied literature and cultural science but now I’m really more into biology and understanding the mind. I think it’s sort of interesting that we all walk around with these hyper complex brains that we really don’t understand. We want to go into space but we don’t understand our consciousnesses. Stuff like that I find very very interesting.
Christopher Markisz: What’s happening in “It’s Happening Again?”
Agnes Obel: That song is about the cyclical nature of the mind; of my mind. I sometimes experience things happening in a loop. This album is called Citizen of Glass, so I wanted to be honest with somethings, with myself. I come from a family where my dad who had been suffering from depression basically most of my life. There was always sort of loops, when he’s good, when he’s bad, then it’s good, then it’s bad. I’m always afraid I am the same because it’s slightly genetic. I wanted to write about that. Thank God I was never sick like him but that song is about that. It’s also inspired by this German concept “eternal recurrence,” and idea that history is happening in a loop.
Christopher Markisz: That’s my favorite song on the album.
Agnes Obel: It’s also my favorite actually.
Christopher Markisz: It’s a special song. When you bring in studio musicians such as a cellist to perform on a record, do you allow them room to re-interpret your ideas or is it more strict in nature where they are playing out your melodies note for note?
Agnes Obel: Yea, I do that absolutely. I want to get their personality in there. When I do that I let their ideas come out and they improvise over the theme, and very often then I will edit it a lot. It’s not always that they know where to go. For example with “It’s Happening Again,” I wanted the production to mirror the inner state of my mind, something that’s repeating itself over and over again. But I was not completely sure how to do that so I had to experiment. I had a lot of recording sessions with different cellists. I thought I had it and then I threw everything out and I did it again [laughs]. It was a long process with that song. I had to try some things out and see what was working.
Christopher Markisz: Are your albums the soundtrack to your life?
Agnes Obel: It’s true when I hear old albums, I really step back in time. I realize, oh I was there. You also realize how much you’ve changed. A lot of the songs from Philharmonics, I can’t really identify with them anymore.
Christopher Markisz: It’s a timestamp.
Agnes Obel: Yes. And I think it’s like that for everybody.