The challenge of creating a glass-themed sound world for her third album led Agnes Obel to explore some little-used instruments and techniques.
Since 2010 the Copenhagen-born, Berlin-based singer/composer Agnes Obel has honed her atmospheric sound over three albums that take classical influences to another, more otherworldly place. Inspired as much by the soundtracks to David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock films as the compositions of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, Obel places her smokily expressive voice and ornate piano playing into a sonic landscape of treated string instruments and strange aural textures.
Agnes Obel’s individualistic approach to her music can be traced back to her upbringing in Denmark, and the influence her parents had on her musical development. Her mother played classical piano pieces at home, alongside more exotic hybrids of styles. “She liked classical music that was sort of simple and had these folk influences,” says Obel. “She was taught Bartok by a Hungarian piano teacher, so she was already in that tradition in her playing, but she also loved Russian and Swedish folk songs interpreted in a jazz way. I think I have from her playing around, I guess, the storytelling and then this classical sensibility.”
Meanwhile, Obel’s father collected unusual musical instruments, and was interested in cutting-edge technology. “He had been a guitar player in his youth and then he stopped, and then I think he was sort of living the dream through buying instruments,” she says. “So we had a bunch in the house. He was really a gear person, but also technology, computers and big screens. We had the first flatscreen of anybody I knew. It was really weird — you had to sit right in front of it, otherwise you couldn’t see it.”
This mix between the classical and the technological would later inform Obel’s creative methods. But, as a young girl learning piano, she also dabbled in different roles in bands. “In the first band I played in, I was just singing,” she remembers, “and then when I was 12, I had a second band project where I played electric bass, but it was not super-advanced [laughs]. The music I had around me was rock and pop and blues and in the children’s band we played the Beatles. I had a whole bunch of other music around me other than classical. So I’ve been in a lot of different constellations over the years.”
At 17, under a Danish scheme where students were given state funding to study for three years outwith high school, Obel chose to learn music production. “It was just analogue, recording to tape, but I would sit in with some guys who made hip-hop and did some Cubase stuff. And then in the second half of that year I had an internship in a studio with this guy who was really a Logic guy.”
As a result of experiencing both analogue and digital recording, Obel quickly realised that she preferred the latter, given its manipulation possibilities. “I loved that I started with analogue,” she says, “because it’s so simple and then you sort of understand the digital from that point of view. But I have to say, after I learned to use a sequencer program it was just so nice and easy. I never had a budget for the analogue stuff, or room for it, anyway.
“So I ended up really loving to record digitally, ‘cause it meant I could do it on my own, and it also sort of affected how I write songs and how I do everything. The times I’ve just been recording to a tape machine or been limited like that, it’s like the songs become different. As soon as you want to experiment with strings and new instruments and sort of play around with that while you’re still writing the song or making the arrangement, recording digitally works really well for me.”
In 2006, Obel moved to Berlin with her boyfriend, photographer and animation artist Alex Bruel Flagstad, who pushed her to further develop her solo recordings. While there, she also met a bunch of electronic musicians who inspired her, in the sense that they were entirely in control of every aspect of the creative process.
“I had already started working alone before I moved to Berlin,” she says. “I had a little setup at home. But I was very encouraged by my boyfriend, who said, ‘It sounds so much better what you’re doing on your own than the stuff you’re doing with your different band projects.’ But I had this idea of ‘the studio’ and being dependent on an engineer and a producer and a band and this whole structure. I still had that in my mind. Then, when I went to Berlin, first of all I just had much more time, and I had my little home studio setup there. I just immediately started writing and recording much more music because it was really liberating. And then the friends I ended up getting in Berlin all made electronic music, and they were all just sitting and making everything, even mixing and mastering themselves. Completely their own little universe they were building every time, and I loved it.
“You could just really do whatever you wanted, and it was cheap. It didn’t have to cost anything. And I found this wonderful freedom in it. You can work really intuitively and you don’t have to stop. You just continue and see where it takes you. And so I think that really had a big influence on me ending up with making everything myself.”
In 2008, Obel uploaded a track, ‘Just So’, to MySpace and it was picked up by T-Mobile, who used it as the soundtrack to a commercial. Even still, it was another two years before she managed to secure a record deal. “I think I was sort of an example that it doesn’t always help to have a song in a commercial,” she says.
Nevertheless, signing to PIAS Recordings, she completed work on her first album, 2010’s Philharmonics — which, boldly for a debut artist, was self-produced. “I had a studio out in an old radio building where I recorded most of it,” explains Obel. “I was using Logic and I had just a Focusrite eight-channel soundcard and some compressors, and this Universal Audio Solo preamp which I used for vocals. I had this really great Neumann TLM microphone which was actually built for this radio house and that really amplified the highs. It doesn’t work with all voices, but with my voice it works really well. I think I barely EQ’ed the vocals on the whole album.”
The other main feature of the sound of Philharmonics was the Grotrian-Steinweg piano that Obel bought in 2008. “With that I used two Neumanns, which I don’t remember the names of, but they were ones used for classical recordings. And I also did something unusual: I actually sampled the piano so I had it in my keyboard and I used it in the bass, ‘cause I had problems with recording the bass. I still use this sound sometimes because I don’t know how I got it. It’s really in-your-face and it’s cool.”
Obel admits, however, that she wasn’t entirely confident at that time about overseeing the entire recording and production process herself. “Well, I have to say I’ve become really comfortable,“ she reasons, “because you sort of gain confidence after doing it more and more. But initially, I wasn’t. For Philharmonics I recorded everything, and then I really wanted some producer friends of mine in Denmark to go in and add some stuff or make it more professional, and also thought they should mix it. In my mind, I wanted to feel more secure. It’s sometimes just psychology. They worked on it for a week, and then I heard it and I was completely sad. It was so wrong and it was completely not what I wanted. The mixes were way too compressed — all the choirs [of her own multitracked vocals] were just taken away. And then I had this song ‘Riverside’, and there was electric guitar all over it.
“It was just like, ‘No no no’. But maybe it was also the wrong approach. I should probably have been there with them, you know, ‘cause I had a pretty specific vision about these things that I realised I had. And because I didn’t have any more budget left, I ended up then mixing it myself.”
For her second album, 2013’s Aventine, Agnes Obel had a definite sonic aesthetic in mind: to close-mic and record the various instruments featured on it (piano, harp, guitar, cello, violin and viola) in a small and very dead space. “I recorded a lot of that album in a little drum room I had rented,” she says. “They had a bunch of microphones I was trying out. I tried recording the piano and cello with ribbon mics. I did a bunch of different tests to find out what worked the best. But I think for the song ‘The Curse’ I ended up going back to using the Neumann.”
On Aventine, Obel wanted the sound to focus on the cello, played by Anne Muller. “I had fallen in love with the idea of using the cello more as a sort of driving force in arrangements and songwriting,” she says. “I wanted to explore that to tell some of the melodic stories with the cello rather than the piano. I’d just discovered col legno where you use the bow as sort of a percussive element but you still have the tonal structures in there. So I was trying out these things for the first time.”
When it comes to string arrangements, Obel employs two different techniques: writing an arrangement using sampled sounds to create a finished piece, or else having the players perform parts which she then re-edits and refocuses in her home setup, which she calls Chalk Wood Studio. “On the song ‘Aventine’,” she says, “I made it all on MIDI first and then I re-recorded it with the cellist. That was pretty sort of basic, and the same with ‘The Curse’, which I just worked out with a pizzicato sample or string sound and then I remade it.
“But I also like to have a session with a great cello player and we record what I have and then I just edit so much. It can be really fun and so time-consuming. But I feel like a lot of the stuff I now know about what a cello and a violin can do and how they can be played and how different they can sound, I learned that from doing these sessions — from editing and from re-amping them and putting a lot of different weird reverbs on them and playing around or finding out how I can create a rhythm out of it.”
Sometimes, as with the pulsing cellos of filmic 1950s-echoing ballad ‘Run Cried The Crawling’ from Aventine, Obel had to add delay to the parts before she could decide if she could actually use it. “Because it’s not sort of a natural cello that I really use,” she points out. “That song is a rhythm pulse created from the delay and the loops. There’s a lot of places where it’s just editing different parts together. Sometimes we re-record it, but in my experience, I feel like there’s some sort of tension in these recordings when people don’t really know how it’s gonna be and they don’t try to make it too beautiful.
“The lead line in ‘The Curse’ was played as part of a big harmonic structure, just in between a lot of other lines, and then it ended up being this solo line. And we tried to re-record it so many times and [Anne Muller] just kept on playing it in such a pretty way that all of the tension and eeriness was gone. So I feel like you get a lot for free from just making the player play without trying to sound good [laughs].”
Agnes Obel’s latest record, Citizen Of Glass, finds her creating a new sound world to reflect the album’s theme of humans in the digital era being ‘glass citizens’ whose sense of privacy is increasingly transparent. In this brittle universe, Obel’s ‘prepared piano’ — customised internally with different felts and other materials, on or between the strings — is paired with harpsichord, spinet and celesta.
“I felt like this theme I had chosen, and the way I wanted the songwriting to grow out of that image of being of glass, it should have some sort of eeriness or tension to it,” she explains. “And I felt like glass as a material is somehow more percussive-sounding and also higher and sometimes even unpleasant-sounding compared to where I normally would go, sound-wise. I needed to explore that, so I mixed spinet and celesta. When you mix that with prepared piano, this completely different sound comes out. It can even sound like a muted harp. So there were all these combinations I was trying out, just to see if I could create the right sort of atmosphere. ‘Cause as soon as I just did the piano, it sometimes just became too beautiful, you know. I wanted it to be beautiful, but not so obvious in a way.”
Less obvious still is the chorus of the first single from Citizen Of Glass, ‘Familiar’, where Obel appears to be duetting with a male voice which is in fact her own, pitched down. “I was really wanting to hear my voice differently,” she says. “I wanted to make a statement about how we all have different identities. And I feel like, with all this new technology, it’s clear that we really are more fluid and we have different voices. Even online, you have the online version of yourself. So I really wanted to somehow get that across in the music, and it’s so easy to do when you can just change your voice: it’s still you, it’s just sort of a warped you.
“I tried to sing the song with my normal voice and it just sounded less interesting than with this male version of myself. I tried the Waves [SoundShifter], but the Pitch Shifter in Logic was the one I liked most. It made the voice sound really sort of scary almost. [Laughs] You’d be surprised how many people thought it wasn’t really me.”
For Citizen Of Glass, Agnes Obel added a rarely used sound source to her sonic palette: a recreation of the 1920s electronic instrument, the Trautonium. “One of my friends who’s an electronic musician always wants to introduce me to stuff he thinks I should get,” she says. “And one day he showed me this Trautonium and this [video clip of a] guy sitting playing it. He said it would fit into my themes of Citizen Of Glass ’cause it has this eerie sound, and Hitchcock used it on The Birds.
“We ended up ordering one from a company down in South Germany called Trautoniks. It’s a fairly uncommon instrument, but I can really understand why, because it’s really difficult to play! You play it on this metal wire — so you can let your fingers go up and down like it was a glissando on a string instrument or a slide guitar — and you can also play it like a piano, but only monophonic. Originally I wanted to make the whole album on it, but it was just too difficult for me. I realised this instrument, for me, at least fitted to using as sort of like a string instrument or an effect to amplify an atmosphere.”
For the making of Citizen, Obel worked on a setup comprising Logic X running on an iMac, with an RME soundcard and UA Apollo. Again, though, she decided to do the preliminary writing and recording — and eventually the mixing — in a small deadened space at BrandNewMusic Studios in Berlin. “They have these two acoustically perfect rooms there,” she says, “which makes it much easier to listen to things. I like to work in these small boxes. I like to sit in those for long periods of time, ‘cause you get this wonderful focus and nobody can hear you.”
At home at Chalk Wood Studio, for additional recording and editing, Obel switched between Genelec monitors and Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones. “I just change all the time,” she says. “Your ears get so tired with headphones all the time, but then suddenly it’s nice to be in this little bubble of the headphones. I have a Genelec subwoofer which I’m actually not using at the moment ‘cause it’s too crazy.”
As with her previous albums, Obel spent countless hours editing the performances. “There’s some songs where you just get it the first time,” she says. “That’s just amazing when that happens. I sing and play much better when I don’t know that this is the final one, when you’re not conscious about it and you’ve just got the idea. And this is something I actually struggle with sometimes when I get this semi-correct lyric in there. I want it to sound like that, it has the right feeling, and I try to recreate it when I have the lyrics and everything in place. It can take me a long time. But I use a lot of editing on the choirs to make them fit and I also re-amp the choir using this Orange amp. I did that a lot on Aventine and Citizen Of Glass: choirs treated like they’re not even a voice, and really ice-cold.”
In much the same way that Obel says her writing process is affected by recording in the digital domain, she also says that her performances are often informed by the hardware she has at her disposal. For instance, singing or playing through her Tube-Tech compressor lends intimacy to her recordings. “I’m singing and playing to the hardware,” she says. “I really sing differently when I have a certain compressor on my voice. The same with the piano: if you have a really good compressor on it, you can play really softly and play around with that.”
For mixing, Obel tends to return again and again to the same UA plug-ins within her Apollo. “I use the UAD EQs like the Neve and the Cambridge, ‘cause I feel very safe when I can see something,” she laughs. “I like to use the reverbs, like the Lexicon and I use some of the tape effects sometimes, but not always. I can’t always tell if I really can hear the difference. It’s sort of psychological.”
Mixing Citizen Of Glass, says Obel, was a tricky proposition, because of the frequently elaborate arrangements. “It was a difficult album to mix, because I’m not used to having so many tracks,” she admits. “Maybe not ‘Citizen Of Glass’ or some of the really more simple songs, but ‘Trojan Horses’, ‘Stretch Your Eyes’, ‘Familiar’, ‘It’s Happening Again’; they were all on the max of tracks and I was starting to have to bounce things down, but still kept them growing and growing and growing. So it was very easy to lose track at some point. It was a big mouthful.”
Even though she’s mixing alone, Obel relies on the advice of her boyfriend Alex Bruel Flagstad and his comments on how the tracks are shaping up. “I ask him always what he thinks, because he has wonderful ideas and he has a very secure or confident taste in music. Like, he listens to a lot of hip-hop, so he loves when the mixes are really clear. I think it’s a very good influence for me because I could also go in a more ethereal direction. But he’s always the one who’s making sure I’m not.”
Additionally, there is much back-and-forth email activity during the final process between Obel and mastering engineer Martin Englert of Elektromos Studios. “He’ll always tell me, ‘Oh you should be aware of the bass,’” she says. “He’s my saving-it angel or whatever you’d call it. And we’ve never met. We’ve only had contact over email, but he lets me have as many corrections as I want every time.”
With no kick drums or traditional bass parts in her tracks, most of the low end is provided by piano or cello, which sometimes presents problems in terms of sonic range. The song ‘Familiar’, for example, proved lacking in low frequencies when it came to mastering, and so Obel was forced to go back to the file and get inventive. “I got a cellist with me in the studio again and we recorded just some ‘tinks’ on the chorus and then I put an octaver on it so it’s more like a double bass. A lot of places I just added cello bowing with an octaver on, just to have a little body down there in the low end.”
In the end, Citizen Of Glass is both a creative and sonic triumph. Given the intensive nature of its recording and mixing, however, Agnes Obel isn’t quite sure at the moment how she’ll approach the making of a fourth album. “Yeah, I actually worked myself a little bit physically down while I did this album,” she admits. “‘Cause I had a deadline and I was working every day a minimum of 12 hours at the end. So I was a little bit wrecked when I finished Citizen Of Glass, and I haven’t been writing at all since I delivered it. And that’s very new for me because I’m always working a little bit doing something.
“It took everything I had to make it,” she laughs. “Let’s see what happens. Right now I feel completely like I really gave it everything I’ve got.” http://www.agnesobel.com/
The sparseness of Agnes Obel’s music means that conventional drum sounds tend to overwhelm the delicacy of the other instruments. As a result, she’ll often use percussive sounds that are more in the style of musique concréte, particularly gentle foot stamps or taps on parts of the piano. “When I’m doing it,” she says, “often it’s just the mic I’m recording with is on, and then I just sit next to it and hit stuff! It’s not direct miking. I really had to develop my own percussive thing with using the piano and stomping on the floor. Especially the piano I feel is so wonderful for a rhythm because there’s metal in there and there’s wood, and there’s this wonderful resonance. So it’s really easy for me to use it as sort of a percussion instrument.”