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Agnes Obel Reveals The Secret To Living As A ‘Citizen Of Glass’

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Photo: Agnes Obel press image
Agnes Obel

Surveillance is a fact of life in the 21st century. Security cameras film our movements. Governments listen in on phone calls. Hackers break into email accounts.

A lot of artists who think about surveillance take cues from George Orwell's “1984.” They talk about fear and dystopia. But Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel made it sound intimate and personal on her new album.

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She found her inspiration when she was reading an article about a German concept related to surveillance called "gläserner mensch."

It means "glass person." If someone is transparent -- like they’re made of glass -- you know everything about them. There’s no privacy.

"I just thought it was really poetic and beautiful and interesting," Obel says. "And it spoke to me in other ways than just the political and social scientific way. I can really relate to the sensation of being made of glass. You know, the experience of being transparent and people can look right through you.”

Obel’s new album is “Citizen of Glass.” She says everything about it connects to glass: the artwork, the music videos, the music even sounds like glass.

“Glass is very much a sensation of something that is about to break," Obel says. "It was a high sound, but also sort of a build up where you never really reach the peak in a way. Just building and building.”

Obel went to great lengths to make sure listeners could hear glass in her music. She searched online, and even went to instrument museums looking for the perfect sound. And she found it in the trautonium, a German synthesizer from the 1920s.

“It has this coldness and this tension that I was looking for," she says. "And when I was mixing that with the string parts ... something really eerie appeared. Something beautiful, but also something slightly unpleasant and not so nice.”

Sometimes the vocals sound like glass too. Obel says she wanted a ghostly voice to sing the chorus in the song “Familiar.” So she lowered the pitch of her voice to make it sound like a man's. At one point she even layered 250 tracks on top of each other. There are strings, a harpsichord and other keyboards.

“Citizen of Glass” is a complex record about living in a complex world.

“We live in this time where we are pushed to reveal things about ourselves online and so forth. And it’s sort of coloring our entire culture and our art,” Obel says.

It’s a feeling a lot of her listeners can relate to. And some of the most powerful moments on her new album come from the personal moments that Obel chooses to reveal about herself.

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