It’s 9am on a miserable, British, winter morning and Agnes Obel has resurfaced from some time in seclusion: writing, recording, producing and mixing her fourth album Myopia.
Being away from distractions has helped the classically-trained Danish musician to grow ideas and build worlds around a central theme. Erything stems from an idea or theory that Obel feels is relevant and inspires her to create music. Myopia - probably her most accomplished and original record yet - picks up from where her previous record, Citizen of Glass left off and delves deeply into her notions on perception, reality and how humans receive information and understand what is in front of us. She's created a world from her mind to reflect an inconsistency in modern life.
“I really like this word Myopia because there’s the word ‘My’ in the beginning. It represents this idea of ‘MYopia’, my world, you know?” she tells me as we sit in someone else’s world (the humdrum of a record label meeting room). When I'm first introduced Obel, she seems distracted, and wearing a plaster on her left eyebrow after an injury from the night before, she's understandably self-conscious. As we speak about Myopia, she progressively becomes more animated and passionate, with never-ending philosophical musings on freewill, her sense of perception and how it all ties into the album. Her stream of thought is only interrupted by my questions, label employees bringing us refreshments or Obel’s publicist telling us we're running out of time.
As a window into Obel's world, Myopia started with a simple thought - a moment of reflection - and expanded into a bigger project. Myopia actually means short sightedness, or in other words, people, like me, who have to wear glasses to see signs or watch the TV, not for reading. But for Obel's fourth album, it was about something completely different: “I was just looking for a word to represent skewing of perception,” she tells me. “I think the more you think about consciousness, a question is; what is actually true of what we are perceiving? The more you think about this, the more you realise you can’t really trust your own perception.
“The way, for instance technology distributes information, it’s designed to hijack us. If you search for something on Google or Youtube, the next thing it will recommend to you will be a slightly more extreme version of the previous thing, so your lense is becoming, in a way, more myopic, and it’s making us more addicted to it. It’s really terrifying."
Born Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel, on October 28, 1980, the young Dane grew up in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen, with her brother, mother, father and his three children from a previous marriage. Music was encouraged from a young age in the household. Her father collected odd instruments while her mother played Chopin on the home piano. Obel was trained as a classical pianist almost from the get-go, which led to her first band when she was only seven. She sang and played bass and they even recorded a few tracks.
While still in her teens and studying at schools which encouraged students to embrace creative endeavours in Copenhagen, she formed the musical collective Sohio. Their albums would embed Obel in the Danish scene at the time.
Then suddenly, something had to change. She had lived her whole life either near to, or in, Copenhagen and it didn’t excite her anymore. A trip to Berlin aged 24 sparked a move there with her boyfriend - photographer and animation artist Alex Brüel Flagstad - a year later. This is when the possibilities of her music really began to open up.
Obel had started to write the songs in her debut solo album, Philharmonics, in her teens but she didn’t start to record it until 2008. All done in her Berlin bedroom, the record eventually came out in 2010 and would go on to achieve double platinum status in her native Denmark.
Philharmonics was a meditative time capsule of Obel’s childhood and teenage musical influence up to that point. “They were songs I had to record so they didn’t get lost,” she tells me. It's an innocent record, mostly free of technology’s grip and earthy, like Vashti Bunyan.
“The next album I made was the first where I really tried to push the production,” she tells me. “That was the first time I tried to make it sound a bit different, still having everything very sparse and recording it myself but like building with the few means I knew how to and developing new ways to make percussion out of the piano.” Written, recorded and produced by herself in her own studio (now dubbed Chalk Farm Studios) Obel released Aventine in September 2013. The songs were more complex, with Obel really flexing her songwriting abilities, especially where atmospheric strings in pop music was concerned.
By the time Obel hit album number three, everything she believed she could achieve and explore with her music had changed. While on tour in 2014, she read about the theory of the "gläserner berger" in an issue of Der Spiegel. “In social sciences you talk about humans being made of glass," she tells me. "It’s like a term, it’s super funny, but a very beautiful term. We are all becoming that more and more, I saw so much in it, then I started making Citizen of Glass. That was the first time I had a concept I could start getting ideas from.”
Released in late 2016, Citizen of Glass was her first concept album and featured a kaleidoscopic, repeated snapshot of Obel on its cover is used. It's production techniques were also a departure for Obel and she brought those ideas to Myopia. Experimenting with manipulating the sounds and instruments she had regularly used on her previous records gave her an outlet for a skewedness she was desperate to embody in her music. “It was not like I had a main instrument that represented Myopia," she explains. "If that was anything, it was my voice, but it was also the processing of my voice and the strings.
"Like pitching them down, or putting them on tape and then playing with that. I got this strange, vibrato, you know? When you play something slow on a record player it sounds sort-of skewed. I was really into that, it became the main sound of Myopia. It’s still my voice. It’s still the instruments I normally work with but they are somehow skewed. They are somehow slightly out-of-phase, a bit like an old memory that you tried to understand again.”
This was the connection: Obel wanted to find out how to emulate her ideas on skewed perception through music. Screwing around with the pitch of her usual instruments was the perfect opportunity. “For me that was how it felt the most, like how I experience, the feeling that you can’t trust your perception or that you can’t trust your own judgement of things,” she says. "It’s the familiarity of the violin, for example, but it’s way lower, or has a strange sort of vibrato. Same with the voice, you have this lower voice, it still sounds like my voice but it’s different.”
Tropes aside, the tampered production of Myopia makes the album stand out from Obel’s previous records and sets it apart from a lot of modern folk and pop music released of recent years. Myopia is a cold album, almost unrelenting in its efforts to show the listener its shoulder. It presents these dark, twisted notions and then offers no remorse or guidance from them. Lead track “Island of Doom”, is a perfect example, with vocals switching between heavenly high-note screams and what sounds like a repeating, flangelated, chopped-and-screwed cut of those same godly cries. Imagine PJ Harvey making a pop song with Lil Wayne and a lot of lean: it’s perfect.
Shifting the pitch of her instruments and voice wasn’t just for thematic effect; Obel also attempted to make “organic synthesisers” out of pitching and mixing strings and vocals together. “How does your mind sound? Your own voice is a perfect representation of it but then again you can’t hear your own voice. My voice sounds much different now in my mind as it does on your recording,” she tells me. “Having some sort of slightly morphed or warped voice that’s my own but it’s different somehow, I felt was the best way to represent the inner experience of not trusting things,” she continues. “I really like the idea that music or art is sort of empathy technology. It’s a way, you know, when you read a book you step into the mind of the author.”
Perceptions of reality was also a major theme for the record: "It’s also a lot to do with memories because I guess memories are what constitute who we are. I feel like it’s often the thing I’m most afraid of losing because if you lose your memories, who are you then.
"So I wondered a lot about finding the sound of memories. Again I felt it was something familiar but it’s changed somehow in time. The great thing with pitching is you are changing the time a little bit as well, it’s getting slower. For me it was a good representation of something with time being off. It’s a nightmare to work with, when you start having twenty strings, a piano and a voice pitched down everything moves in the project. It was actually quite challenging.”
It wasn’t just the usual instruments that were played with for Myopia too. “I also work with a celesta. I played on the lowest part of the celesta and then pitched it up. it started sounding like a marimba but a very strange, sort-of marimba,” Obel explains. “So it was like you find these new instruments in old instruments. Our psychology is so easily hijacked. I know that’s probably why I work alone, so it’s a way of protecting my mind from being hijacked by something but even if you’re alone, it can still happen.
"As soon as you’re together with other people you will feel their expectations. Even if you don’t think you are, you will probably comply to it somehow because we are social beings."