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It's not often a German phrase inspires the concept of a pop music album, but that is precisely what occurred with The Glass Citizen, the third full-length from the Denmark-born/Berlin-based singer/songwriter/pianist Agnes Obel. The title is the English translation of the phrase "gläserner burger," as the album deals with the topics of transparency and privacy in the modern age due to the emergence of social media.

As evidenced by the music on her first two releases, 2010's Philharmonics and 2013's Aventine, Agnes specializes in a minimalist sound, which puts the focus on her vocals and piano. She spoke with Songfacts shortly before embarking on a North American tour in support of The Glass Citizen to discuss some of her best-known songs and videos.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): How do you approach songwriting?

Agnes Obel: In general, I can only work on my own. I don't get any ideas if there's anybody there.

It's always been a form of escape, and it always grows from improvising and from me just playing on piano. I really like to just make something up, and that's where most of my songs come from.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Familiar"?

Agnes: That is a song about a secret. When you lose all your privacy, when you become transparent, or when you make yourself transparent, what is it you're losing? You're losing your secrets.

So I wanted to make some songs about secrets. And also, how great they can be, because I believe secrets can make things feel special - I know that for myself from when I make songs. But they can also be bad. This song is about a secret love. The secret grows, and it's so hard for the person who is in love with this other person, or the person having the affair.

The chorus, it was sort of "secret singing," like a ghost singing. And then I used this pitch shifter to make the voice sound ghostly. I also wanted something that sounded a little digital, because I feel a lot of our love life today is taking place in the internet - it's digitalized, in a way. I thought it would be nice if it had this digitalized, electronic sound to the voice in the chorus.

Songfacts: What are some memories of the video for the song?

Agnes: It was my husband, Alex [Bruel Flagstad], and a guy named Julian [Hayr], who was coincidentally visiting us from Paris and staying at our flat. I had just finished the album, and I was a big mess, because I had worked very hard.

They just started filming the ideas. Alex knew the song was about love, and he knew that one of the ideas I had for the album had to do with new technology. So his interpretation of the song, he wanted to put in images of this technology-driven and also industrialized love world, so he filmed me and wanted me to look like a robot. He told me to sing sort of like a robot, and he used a lot of images of highways and also some really great pictures underwater. We all sort of created this emotional world that has become industrialized and technological in a way.

Songfacts: What about "The Curse"?

Agnes: "The Curse" is a song I wrote after I read the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It's a book about the mind, and there is a chapter in the book about narrative fallacies, and I thought that was really interesting - how we construct these narratives of our own lives, even though so many things, almost anything that happens, is the result of a lot of things outside of our own control and doesn't have any meaning - it's completely accidental. But our minds want to put meaning into everything and to make sense of them. We're like these "meaning machines" - human beings.

I thought it was really beautiful and interesting, because in a way, he says it's why we invented math, music, science, and poetry: this need for meaning. And religion, and so forth. But there is also the flip side, why we have all these wars and these hardcore ideas of national identity. That you can go out and kill other people. It's a blessing and it's a curse. I just thought it was interesting, and then I wrote this song about it. Some people couldn't figure out if it was a blessing or a curse.

Songfacts: "Riverside"?

Agnes: "Riverside" is a song about water. I wrote that whole album [Philharmonics] next to the river Spree, in Berlin. I just came up with a melodic part, and I felt like it sounded like water.

I wanted to write a song about how people can be transformed, and sometimes how when you meet other people who have been through this strange transformation, you can tell. It was a time in my life when I was changing a lot myself, and I wanted to describe that, using water as a border between one world and another.

Songfacts: And what about the video for that song?

Agnes: It's also Alex. He had some ideas about fire and throwing me in the river. I was pushed in the river by a friend of ours several times.

They shot the whole thing on 8mm. It's just random, is what it seems to me. But Alex had some specific ideas about change, so I came out of the lake and became somebody new.

Songfacts: And lastly, what about the song "Just So"?

Agnes: "Just So" is a song about my dad. I wrote it a really long time ago. I wanted to write a song from his perspective. He was depressed a lot of his life, and when he was depressed, he would sleep. There was a year when we were just talking to this guy underneath the covers, y'know? So it was just a big thing for him getting out of bed.

I wanted to make a song for him. I just wanted him to get out of bed and try to make him a little bit happy.

February 22, 2017
For more Agnes, visit agnesobel.com
photos: Alex Bruel Flagstad

    About the Author:

    Greg PratoA journalist from Long Island, New York, Greg's books include A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, and MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video. Get more info about Greg's books here. You can also follow Greg on Twitter.More from Greg Prato
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