It was during Agnes Obel’s extensive tour with ‘Aventine’, the Danish artist’s bestselling and critically acclaimed album from 2013, when the title and leitmotif for her next work surfaced in her mind: ‘Citizen of Glass’, an album that would conceptually and thematically revolve around the transparency symbolised by the ubiquitous substance.
“Glass is a material which is both strong, fragile and transparent all at once. It’s very relevant for our time and it’s very relevant for me. But generally speaking, it’s a theme relevant for everyone, not just those making music or art. One constantly uses oneself and one’s surroundings as material. One makes oneself transparent.
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”, explains Agnes Obel.
Inspired by modern composers, who often have a title or theme that runs like a golden thread through their music, Agnes Obel started to explore ways the concept could be woven into her classical approach to music. With ‘Citizen of Glass’ the songwriter, pianist and producer experimented with her vocals in inventive new ways to manipulate, split and fragment them into alternative versions of her own voice “in order to make my vocals sound like they are being alternately noticed and disregarded”, as she describes it.
As well as a newfound joy of vocal manipulation, a number of different instruments have been incorporated into Agnes Obel’s sound universe, all with great success. For instance, an old instrument, the Trautonium, resembling a synthesiser from the 1920s, can be heard throughout ‘Citizen of Glass’.
Agnes Obel acquired one of these rare instruments, of which only a few exist in Europe, in 2014 and began to play around with the instrument’s glass-like sound. Obel has mixed the monophonic instrument with strings, percussion, clarinet and piano to achieve a more varied and all-encompassing soundscape.
“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.
Agnes Obel has also brought instruments onto ‘Citizen of Glass’ that are fresh ground for the musician herself, all sourced from a German museum of music. Together they produce a haunting quality. Old and new instruments and sounds—glass harps, the mellotron, the vibraphone, the luthéal piano and the cembalo, a harpsichord from the Renaissance—mix blood with Agnes Obel’s simple piano and vocals.
Each of the 10 tracks on ‘Citizen of Glass’ relates in its own way to the theme, expressed differently through melody and lyrics. The opening track ‘Stretch Your Eyes’ along with the first single ‘Familiar’ show Agnes Obel’s darker side, the cello and the Trautonium creating a nesting effect while the vocals are split and manipulated to produce a hypnotic, impacting duet with Obel herself.
“The vocal manipulation emphasises that we’re not just one thing but that we, as people, change depending on where we are and who is watching us”.
In the playful ‘Golden Green’, Agnes Obel takes her vocal expression to soaring new heights, quite literally.
“I wanted to show that even with the slightly paranoid subject of transparency, the fact that a person can watch others and imagine how they live their lives, there's something positive in there. It’s not just black and white. You write someone else’s story in your own head when you watch it from a distance and in this regard there is a creative dimension. I tried to express this feeling in ‘Golden Green’ in which the lyrics and vocal falsetto create a sense of desperation”.
Other times the theme is expressed through abstract lyrics. Like with the title track ‘Citizen of Glass’, which revolves around a member of Obel’s family who she “has always regarded as being made of glass, a fragile figure”, whilst ‘Trojan Horses’ with its smouldering atmosphere, alluring piano theme and unearthly beautiful vocal harmonies relates to Agnes Obel’s own relationship with transparency: “Both as a musician and as a private person there is an enormous amount of pressure to put yourself on display. ‘Trojan Horses’ refers to my own paranoia about having to exhibit myself and use myself as the main material of my work” explains Agnes Obel.