We should be aware of that it is good to be here and now, not looking from the outside – interview with Agnes Obel

Agnes Obel is a Danish artist living in Berlin, who began playing piano in the age of six. Her mother was a brilliant musician and her father was a collector of exotic instruments. Because of the growing up surrounded by art, Agnes’ inspirations came from Swedish jazz pianist John Johansson, to more popular music such as PJ Harvey, Claude Debussy, Roy Orbison and Joni Mitchell. Her debut album Philharmonics has been certified five-times platinum, but thanks to Aventine the vocalist become popular not only in Europe, but in the United States. The third album of Obel Citizen Of Glass from 2016 is about transparency in human life and there is a tour connected with it. Agnes played in Wrocław on 39th May, and in Łódź on 31st May; before the second concert, in Łódź, we talked about the album, social media, Berlin and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies.

Małgorzata Kilijanek: We are meeting during your Citizen Of Glass tour. When I was making a review of album titled the same I was intrigued by the idea of it. The citizen of glass means someone, who is transparent and came from german gläserner burger – individual, who losts its privacy. It’s negative term, but can it be inspiring?

Agnes Obel: Certainly. It is political term, systemic, used in discussions of rights for privacy and it has been big subject in Germany. I took the term not because of the political discussion but because I like that image. I think it’s a great way of describing the fact that you lose your privacy and your secrets. I also thinks it is sort of image for something bigger than that, something which is fitting our time, and maybe it is fitting me, what I do. I couldn’t define what is it. As soon as you have a feeling that something you can’t understand empirically, you can hear, see how it looks and then you know you have something, you can use. So, I’ve taken it and use it much broader than just political, put it into my own context. It’s my own interpretation of this phenomenon.

And after that, during the interviews you have a lot of questions about political issues.

Absolutely, but I’ve got used to that (laugh).

I won’t ask about political issues. We need to say that the glass is tender and fragile, not only transparent. So being a citizen of glass isn’t safe…

It’s not safe, you’re right, it’s fragile. It is also an image that says you’re transparent and you don’t have secrets but on the other hand if you think a about a prism, crystals and light shining forward them, it is also distorting the images. For example, you can compare photo of cover artwork of the tour taken in the city and the second taken here, in the club [Wytwórnia, where the interview was conducted]. You can notice the prisms in front of the camera, so it’s the same image but it is reflected in different versions and it is slightly distorted. I think that it is such a brilliant image of our time, of what we’re doing with ourselves, what we show in the internet. We are photographing and seeing ourselves throuh the others’ eyes, from the distance.

The posters of the tour show you with little balls made of glass, screening the eyes. Face without eyes looks like empty. Do eyes show human identity? Are they important to get to know more about people?

Absolutely. I associate eyes with the image of glass, ice, they are the mirrors of the soul. I love the whole connection of water, glass, eyes, ice… They are things that I find inspiring. Talking about psychopaths, we can see that their eyes look dead. It’s interesting how these organs are revealing all sorts of complexities, what is going on behind. Like you! You have blue and brown eyes!

Yes, it’s heterochromia.

It’s Willkür (laugh). You’re so lucky.

The photo used on the poster of the Citizen Of Glass tour

I think that this project of posters despite of being incredible is great connected with the whole idea of album and tour. It brilliantly fits into the main theme. You once said that when we’re taking photos of ourselves and then looking on it, we see ourselves from the other side. Is it important to watch ourselves that way?

It is hard to say, I don’t know if it is always good. I think it is interesting and creative, but you can have fun with it, too. I’m not sure if it is always good to have camera in your life because as soon as you take up the camera you in that way are distancing of in the moment…

… like on the concerts, when we’re recording the show. We don’t know if we are in the real world or in that one inside our mobiles.

Exactly. I am married to the photographer, we are both photographers and we are protecting ourselves from distancing from the reality every time we take the camera up. I think we should be aware of that it is good to be here and now, not looking from the outside. Then, after sharing the photos lots of interesting things is happening. People don’t have the whole story of it, just tiny splits of something, and everything else is made up in the mind of someone who look at the photo. In that way, it’s very creative what happens with all the missing information that are put into blank spaces. I think that it is very interesting, too, but I can also see it can be a source of great manipulation. It’s good if we, as a culture who use this technology, talk about the fact that it is also the illusion. It can only exist because our minds make up the rest of information. It’s important to make conscious especially the kids. I know I’m lucky, I grew up without it. It came when I was my twenties, so I was already pretty fixed who I was. When I was a teenager I was very fragile and easily disturbed by other people’ ideas of who I was. Teenage time is time when you’re finding out who you are. You can seek out images of someone and wonder if it’s that one who you’ll going to be. That’s a little ambivalence, when you think about humanity, and when you think about Instagram, perfect images. And the second it’s out of picture. It’s not about real life, when you say that you can’t pay your bills or just “Fuck, I can’t afford it”. It’s weird.

We are creating simultaneous world – world of social media, where everything can be control by us. Not like just in real life.

If someone is aware of that fact, it is good. But we can worry about younger people, whose main form of socializing is that one.  They can think that they’re not good enough or that there is someone who has so much better life than them.

It can be dangerous.

It can be dangerous, so any kind of reflection about this – positive and negative – is good.

Maybe thanks to your album people can be aware of this. They will notice that should change something, maybe it can open their eyes, made them to stop be as transparent as they are. Do you think about it?

I would love to. There could be discussions with openness about the weaknesses of the technology to realize that we don’t have to be under its control. The technology is pushing us to reveal ourselves. It would be great. I’m trying to use my own Instagram account which my label put up for me and I have sort of thoughts about it. There are many young girls who can see woman making music. When I was a teenager it was very hard for me to find any women, who was producing and writing music, and what was behind. I find this all as an extremely beautiful, women who just performance. Especially when you have more creative desire, like me. It’s difficult subject, that only men are creatives. There’re always men. If you just say the word composer, you can think about: why men? Fortunately, it’s getting changed now, but it’s very hard for me too, when I do interviews and people still ask me: who writes your music?

And you need to answer: I make everything on my own…

Yes. And it seems like incomprehensible for people. So, I think that I should take some photos sometimes when I’m recording and rehearsing to show that it’s possible to do that.

I suppose that during every interview journalists are asking about trautonium… It’s not surprise – this beautiful metallic and original sound made your album incredible. I know that someone made it especially for you. Was it hard to find this person?

I was very lucky that this guy from South Germany, who had this instrument, show it to me and said that know a guy who can make it and has got the original manuals from Oskar Sala, who is one who really developed the instrument. It’s a new thing from scratch but after the original directions of Oskar Sala. We ordered one and it took him almost a year to make it, but he put his soul into it. I have a new one, but it’s made like a real one.

But it’s so fragile that you couldn’t take it for the tour.

No, it’s two meters and it’s easy to break, has pedals and it’s an expensive instrument. I’m not even sure if he could fix it if something happens. But we have copied its sounds by the dulcimer, the mellotron and voices, cellos.

Your voice is one of your instruments, but in the last album Citizen of glass there is more texts than on previous albums. The texts are important, in Familiar you’re singing about the secret, which is fascination… Is it important to give a piece of you in your songs? Something private but indirect, hidden for listeners.

Yes, that is important for me, I always have that on albums. I think that even my partner, my best friends don’t know everything. I like it because it became extra special for me if the album has a secret, about which nobody else knows.

So, it looks like an autobiography.

A little bit. I use these things also to feel that it’s something magical in album. It’s purposeful that I don’t reveal everything.

The silence is one of elements of your music, but it’s just like an illusion. Listening to the song and hearing silence I find it as a music… Am I right?

Absolutely, you’re right. This is part of music, it’s hard to talk about it because we live in the time when it’s getting louder and louder. There’s so much noise everywhere, even in the radio. It’s strange because I don’t think that mind and the soul get anything good from that, but intense sound experiences. But what we need first of all is silence.

The week before our interview I was in Berli and I went for a walk through the Neukölln, the district where you live. It is so multicultural, but I was a little bit disappointed – I didn’t feel too safe. Maybe I’ve chosen not the best way to go?

Neukölln is a very big area. It’s one of the biggest in Berlin, so there’s some really big and noisy streets, and not very nice. But what’s nice in Neukölln are small streets. You need to go down the small streets, there’s area called Rixdorf and it’s almost like a village. It’s the oldest area in Berlin and full of old farm houses with squre windows, there are horses. I recommend going there in the winter, it’s so magical. There’s an area called Schiller Kiez, too, next to the airport, which is also really beautiful.

So, before the walk in the Neukölln we should ask what to see someone who lives there?

Yes, you must know that what I love about Neukölln is that you have to know the good places. It’s not a classical touristic area, where you can find everything immediately, but you need to know the good places or discover them by yourself. I really like that it’s multicultural, I love especially Turkish culture. Lots of Turkish families moved to Berlin in the sixties, because Berlin was completely bombed after World War Two and they’d become a part of the history in Berlin rebuilding it and creating a new Berlin, which is humanistic and believing in universal human rights. I wouldn’t live in Berlin, if it wasn’t multicultural. This is something what I love about it.

I could say that in Berlin there’s just that feeling of freedom in the air. I didn’t feel something like that in any other city I was.

That’s the same with me. It’s exactly why I’ve chosen that city to live.

Where to find good sounds in Berlin? Because on the streets I heard… techno.

I must say I’m a little bit sad about it. I feel like techno, sort of electronic music which is not artistic electronic music but commercial, is still existing. This is no why I’ve moved to Berlin, but it’s just part of the culture. After 80’s there was more rock, experimental, performance music. There was a period with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and David Bowie, these people where there and there were fantastic local bands, too. It was communicating cross the show art, performance art and a music. Then, there was really a blooming time, like Big Live Parades and others techno and Rave parties. It has been fun, but it’s a different story, not related to the art scene and a cold wave, that I find inspiring. Even though it’s still present, I know that there are more interesting scenes like a minimalists’ piano scene.

Are there any clubs with that kind of music or we should go on the concerts to listen to that?

I would go to concerts. There’s lot of great concerts all the time. I don’t go very often to clubs, because I’m not interested in it. Some of my best friends is doing that stuff, so it’s very hard for me sometimes trying to be interested (laugh). To be honest, I must say I find it a little bit boring.

Looking on the map, we can notice the title of your second album Aventine. In February when I was in Rome, I was listening to Aventine in adorable Aventine, what was an awesome experience. You are travelling a lot because of your job, concerts. Are travels inspirations for new music?

At first, I love Rome (laugh)! At second, I don’t know if it’s travelling but I think that you always need to seek out new things. It’s like research for the brain when you just take a new route for work or do something in a different way, and you exposure brain to new things. You wake up and new things happen, new connections are made. So obviously when you’re in a new city, with a new culture, language, food, smells, then your brain is lighting up and you’re becoming more creative. I look at it that way very often.

I know that you like movies of Krzysztof Kieślowski. I think that his movies can create awareness, that after watching people can realize something important. Just like after listening your Citizen of glass. Can we say that it gives similar effect?

I hope so. What I love about his movies is the depth of them. It’s something what I like in music, too, so of course I want my music to be like that.

Your music is depth, too, I think.

I’m trying to. But when I’m very unhappy with what I’m doing is not because of the mistake, but because I’m not getting that depth there. It’s very difficult to explain how do you do that, but I think pieces of art, works of art, can even be political just for being meaningful. What is incredible in works of Kieślowski is that they are different from anything else, show humans experiences in such a profound way. They put very big questions about fairness, friendship and stuff like that. After watching Blue I felt that everything is very commercial and that is hard to look at the world from outside and see human being. The danger of our very commercial society is that humans are becoming numbers and something you use to earn money, which is utilitarian. Kieślowski is timeless saying that human being is well of complexities and every human has a different experience, so I feel it’s sort of humanistic and I find it very inspiring. I hope that I can do something human like he.



Agnes Obel - Familiar (Official Video)

Photos: fb Agnes Obel / Alex Brüel Flagstad, Play It Again Sam

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Małgorzata Kilijanek

Pasjonatka sztuki szeroko pojętej. Z wystawy chętnie pobiegnie do kina, zahaczy o targi książki, a w drodze powrotnej przeczyta w biegu fragment „Przekroju” czy „Magazynu Pismo”. Wielbicielka festiwali muzycznych oraz audycji radiowych (Radio Nowy Świat i Radio 357), a także zagadnień naukowych, psychologii społecznej i czarnej kawy. Swoimi recenzjami, relacjami oraz poleceniami dzieli się z czytelniczkami i czytelnikami Głosu Kultury.

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