Agnes Obel – Tickets – 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – March 7th, 2017
Doors: 7:00 pm9:30 Club
Agnes Obel - (Set time: 9:30 PM)
Agnes Obel ‘Citizen of Glass’
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.
Ethan Gruska - (Set time: 8:15 PM)
At once minimalist and expansive, Ethan Gruska’s solo debut, the luminous Slowmotionary, embraces a range of sounds and styles, with influences from jazz and folk to ambient and alternative, Slowmotionary integrates everything into a whole that is original, idiosyncratic, and embraces its own imperfections. “I really tried to let that humanity in and to not only leave these quirky blemishes in, but to highlight them,” says Gruska. “I didn’t want perfect. I wanted true. I wanted honest.” He made room for a little serendipity in his creative process, sensing that too calculated an approach would diminish the impact of the music. That spontaneity provided a wonderful counterpoint to his thoughtful and revealing lyrics.
“What I hope is that people can sense the vulnerability in the writing,” says Gruska. “I hope that they can sense it’s someone telling the truth.” The deeply personal songs on Slowmotionary chronicle a period of transition in his life: The Belle Brigade, which he had started in 2008 with his sister Barbara Gruska, went on hiatus. He got engaged and moved in with his fiancé, leaving the neighborhood where he had lived for years. One chapter was closing, another opening, and the in-between-ness of the experience motivated him to write songs with no real expectations in mind—writing for writing’s sake—with no sense that he was working on an album or anything beyond the song itself.
Before he even knew he was making a solo album, Gruska had a handful of songs in his notebook—what he calls “vignettes”—vivid, wistful sets of melodies and lyrics, visually evocative and emotionally acute, inspired by short stories and short film. And poetry. Gruska avidly devours verse, which informs his songwriting. Each of these songs could live on the page without losing life or meaning. “The poet who has always had my heart is Pablo Neruda. I love Wordsworth and a lot of the Romantic poets, but Neruda was the first one who really killed me and I’ve never been able to move on from him.” Using these writers as guides and muses freed him up from the lyrical constraints he felt previously. “You have this freedom to be surreal and opaque and playful. The narrative doesn’t have to be clear all the time, so you are free to attach your own meanings to the words.”
Only gradually did the songs cohere in his mind into a statement, and with it came certain ideas of what he could express about himself, what he should leave unstated, and what the listener might interpret in the music. “I wasn’t worrying about whether every song had a chorus or a bridge or a hook. I threw all of that out the window for this, and it felt really liberating.” He let the songs themselves dictate their shapes and sounds, their repetitions and arrangements. Some needed to be short, needing less than two minutes to conjure their worlds in vivid details. Others depended on the echoing repetition of lines to conjure the inner workings of his mind. “Where is it you want to be?” he asks, over and over, on the hypnotic “Rather Be,” with its swirl of icy synths and delicate guitar picking. The song culminates in an epiphany about his own emotional dislocation: “We’re never where we want to be, we’re never where we want to be.”
Showcasing Gruska’s hushed vocals and subtle arrangements, these songs resonate with the intimacy of an internal monologue, as though we’re sharing in his darkest worries. On “Reoccurring Dream,” he reaches into his upper register to express romantic hesitations. “Reading your mind is never going to yield and answer,” he sings, as the song gently erupts into a flourish of strings and bass harmonica, like a fleeting memory of Pet Sounds. “Most of the time it’s just uneducated guessing that just leads to depression.” Similarly, opener “The Valley” turns mundane experiences into harrowing emotional ordeals: driving through Los Angeles, letting his mind wander at each stoplight, daydreaming about an ex-girlfriend, pondering his parents’ divorce and his own upcoming nuptials. “It’s family that defines me,” he sings wistfully, over a quiet cascade of piano chords. “I can’t help if they remind me of the fear that can be blinding: that history repeats itself in me.” It’s a quietly devastating moment, all the more powerful for being as uncertain as life itself.
These songs took their time from written verse to skeletal demos to finished album. With several friends and family members—including his sister Barbara, with whom he had played in the Belle Brigade—encouraging him to tackle them in the studio, Gruska called up Tony Berg and asked if he might advise. “Tony is a godfather to so many musicians, because he’s been very open to giving advice and helping people out without there being a caveat,” says Gruska. “I was pretty confused about what I was going to do and he really helped sort things out. I played him eight songs, many of which were very short iterations at that stage, and he said to me, ‘I’ll do this with you. Let’s not worry about the cost or the time.’”
Both Gruska and Berg emphasized unorthodoxy in these recordings. The basic tracking of Gruska’s performances was done live in the studio, as if he were performing for the listener. They worked in bursts and starts, a few days at a time with long breaks in between, a scattered schedule that allowed them to get some distance on the songs and hear them with fresh ears. “It gave us a lot of time to live with it.” Gruska played most of the instruments while never losing focus on the lyrics and what he wanted to communicate. A few friends and family added subtle flourishes. Gabe Noel played cello and bass; Blake Mills guitar; Rob Moose added gentle string arrangements; Barbara Gruska played drums on a few tracks.
“The goal was to have it be like a sound collage that I had made. It was really exploratory, with a lot of sampling and reversing—techniques I had tried in the past but had never gotten to fully explore.” The results are beautifully minimalist: songs as whispered confidences, with what Gruska calls an “arctic” sound, windswept and cold, befitting lyrics that depict moments frozen in time. “I didn’t want to hide behind anything. That’s why it’s produced and arranged the way it is. It’s very barren at certain moments. These songs slow down time for me, which is why I called it Slowmotionary. I needed to put myself out there musically and lyrically.”
And that meant not making it perfect. It meant making these songs sound like the results from something other than a studio. It meant conveying the sense of music that is being written at the same moment you hear it. “A lot of the record is mysterious, even to me. It’s not something you always tap your foot to. You’re listening to my thought process.”
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001