When I arrive at Deutsche Grammophon, my interview has been pushed back the usual 10 minutes. Almost as reliable as the Berlin bus service you can count on the 5-10 minute delay. Through the glass door I can see Agnes Obel chat intensely with another interviewer. Then she finally opens the door and greets me with a smile and, at last, we sit down on the black leather couch at the impressive studios. Dressed in a blue jumpsuit she makes the utility piece, which could have been worn to a construction site just as well, look surprisingly elegant. A blonde curl falling into her face, she sits back and looks at me with her bright blue eyes.
Jokingly, she apologizes for the bruise sitting right above her left eye. Not quite hidden away by the playfully messy bun, it looks like Agnes has been in a fight with someone. ‘No, just the car door’, she laughs. ‘After a double jetlag from flying from the States to Japan, I went grocery shopping and tried to stop my dog (a rescue called ‘Woody’) from jumping out of the car. That was when I hit my head right on the edge of the door. I had to get three stitches.’ When speaking about her music, the artist suddenly takes on a way more serious tone. Piercing me with her deep wells of eyes as I ask about recording Myopia, she takes her time to answer slowly and well thought out. Radiating a personal and unhurried vibe Agnes answers each question with utter detail and dedication.
‘Myopia’ sounds beautiful, right? If you are not familiar with the word – like me in the beginning – it draws analogies to almost fantasy-like worlds. Some dreamy forest with deeply green grass, decorated with tiny pearls of early morning dew, maybe a fairy or two flying by with delicate wings? Those are just a few things that popped into my mind when first reading the word – maybe because it sounds similar to Utopia. However, the picturesque vocabulary is just another word for nearsightedness, my research showed. It is not something that sprung from Agnes Obel’s mind but the theme and title of the forthcoming album because that is exactly the state that the artist moved in to create. In the creative isolation of mostly nocturnal writing sessions, she worked out the tender melodies.
As a musician putting the inner life and emotions outward, Agnes Obel has to balance her myopic working state with world-openness. ‘It is a super big paradox,’ she tells me. ‘I need this Myopia to create music in the first place but I also have to step out of it. I have to find a balance, which is still somewhat of a struggle. Every time I write an album I could just keep on working on it; that is how deep I dive into it. Sometimes I do not even know where to stop.’
The Quiet Place
Finding this balance is something that especially interests the musician. ‘Because it is a mystery to me, I wanted to elaborate on the subject with this record. I still do not understand it completely. I have been making music since I was very young, I went to a kind of music school, I played in a band. Then, aside of that, I always had a different style of music I liked to play just by myself on the piano. It was private, nothing I played for anyone else, almost like a diary. To me it was the connection to something quiet. I thought of it as irrelevant to other people because this type of music does not fit in any category. But that is the music that stuck with me and that is the music that I put out now.’
‘I want to find a way back to the states of complete privacy that I worked in when I was not releasing music – the myopia.’ The process of writing the record was a solitary one, the singer explains. Working her way back to the very roots of her songwriting, she often found herself awake at night recording and writing. ‘The way I want to make music is by finding into a quiet place. Everything around me and in my mind is loud and noisy and sometimes makes me feel like I am not present at all. It feels like it is just a film playing in front of me.’ To escape these moments when it feels like life is just passing you by, Agnes sought out the quietness that comes with nightfall. When your phone does not ring anymore, when your neighbors are asleep, when the traffic reduces down to the occasional nightrider drifting by, when everything closes. The quietness of the night is a welcome refuge in those moments when life becomes just a little bit overwhelming.
Late nights and early mornings
‘I have had insomnia since I was a little kid. Sometimes I worry so much that I cannot sleep and then I worry about not sleeping.’ With her song Broken Sleep she is poking fun at the way we fear insomnia. The best trick she has against it is to not take it seriously. ‘I pretend it is an old friend coming around once again. When I am not scared of it, it loses its power – it is a psychological thing for me.’ When listening to Myopia the nocturnal vibe shines through strongly. It almost seems to drift by like one long dream, the kind of dream that leaves you sitting on the edge of your bed for a few minutes because it was so intense – not in a nightmarish way, but in how it moved you emotionally. That’s what I felt after listening to the record for the first time. It flew by so effortlessly but left an aching hole once it was over. Good thing, that unlike a dream you can just play it on repeat.
When the artsist does not spend her waking nights worrying about the days ahead, she is working. ‘I feel like I am more creative at night and I can enter into flow-like states where you get high on the process.’ Loaded with euphoria, the singer tells me that she can work until the early morning hours without getting tired. ‘When you start something and it goes well, time disappears.’ Especially, regarding creative things that demand a certain state of mind, it is worth cherishing. These creative highs are what keeps Agnes Obel coming back to it. ‘I am addicted to this feeling. That is why I make music.’
‘I need this creative rush.’
Subjective experience of art
Agnes Obel, like all of us sometimes finds herself in that state aching for quietness. Myopia is her journey to finding it. ‘The music is a place where it slows down. It is not about performing, style or aesthetics but about some layer underneath that. Of course, I am still battling with finding the natural bridge between that space I create with my own music and the outside world.’
When the music you create comes from such an intimate state and way of interpretation showing it to even the closest person to you can be horrifying, not to speak of releasing it to the world. Agnes Obel’s compositions come from a very private and quiet place sometimes leaving her vulnerable to negative feedback. ‘The feedback I get is very different. People see different things in my music, which is good because that means that there is no truth to it but sometimes I still hope that some people experience it the way I do.’
Between dreams and nightmares
Sleep can mean many different things. Sleep can be beautiful, it can be relaxing but it can also be terrifying. When your mind wanders off to strange places in your dreams – it is equal material for nightmares. ‘I think my music has an equal dose of both in it. So far, I have not made a literal nightmare song yet. Not like Scott Walker’s ‘The Electrician’ where you really step into this nightmarish world of his dreams that get more and more absurd with each turn it takes.’ The tenderness of Agnes Obel’s compositions does, indeed, remind more of an ethereal dreamscape than a dark hellhole. Yet, dreams are not only taken to be in the literal sense.
Sometimes we dream when we are awake. ‘By dreams I also mean daydreams and old, old memories, like things that you think you remember from your childhood. When I think back to them they are vivid but far at the same time. There seems to be something else, some kind of a blurry layer covering the memory. It is like when you are trying to retell a dream; it seems to be so clear but there is a haze, a filter over it that stops you from capturing it accurately. I wanted to try to recreate that experience musically,’ she tells me about her creative process.
‘I think in many ways our personality is just the sum of our memories. If you took away all of my memories, who would I be? I would not know myself. To represent the mind you have to rely on the memories and that is the sound I was trying to find.’
It is getting existential. These are the questions that Agnes found herself confronted with when working on the album. Or, more so intentionally confronted herself with to work her way into the matter through music. With many layers and high-pitched vocals, she explores the dreamy sides of music making. Skillfully, she crafts songs that, like abstract paintings have many different facets to explore yet, melt together to one vision.
‘I wanted the record to sound like my mind and my memories, how I experience it.’
Like each song sounds just a little bit different and individual, Agnes tells me that there are many voices speaking and adding to the way she perceives the world. Her song ‘Parliament of Owls’ is about having many different viewpoints and voices within. ‘The song is about having many sets of eyes and many voices.’ The owl is a fitting animal to express this with. With their night vision, they seem to be able to stare right through the blackness and see something else in it. ‘I have always liked owls. Their eyes are amazing, almost like black glass.’ The voices in Agnes mind gather like a parliament of owls. They came together to work out Myopia, an exceptional piece of music.
‘The past is with us all the time. It sort of is the fabric of our minds.’
Mind over Matter
Myopia is Agnes’ very own interpretation of what her mind, the voices, her senses, and her eyes and ears tell her. It is her personal way of reaching for memories and dreams that lie right behind that blurry curtain – somehow so close and yet, out of reach – the slipperiness when you desperately try to grasp it. ‘This is my interpretation of what memories and dreams sound like. I do not know what it sounds like to another person and I will never know.’ And we return to the myopia that any creative person has to work with, from, and somehow, away from. Art is among the only things that can allow a glimpse into how another person might perceive the world. In its highly subjective way, it shoots right past being ever objective but instead is subjective for every single person.
‘You can look at art and music as empathy technology,’ Agnes explains as our time slowly runs out. ‘It is a way of stepping into another person’s mind.’ By laying out her personal experience and memories, Agnes enhances the feeling of being in another persons mind. The beauty of music is that it comes from another mind, takes you to another mind, but moves your own mind meanwhile. With her record and with the twenty minutes that I got to talk to her, I feel Agnes has shared more of her mind and emotions than many others I have met. Opening up is scary and what it reveals is not always pretty but the musician worked her deepest thoughts into a record that does not only tell us how she feels but conjures existential and private emotions within the listener. Like a secret key to our souls, Agnes Obel opens up our souls and creates a private bond to whoever is willing to listen.
Agnes Obel‘s new album Myopia arrives on February 21 via Deutsche Grammophon.