BJÖRK’S NEW TUNE

In­ter­view by Mi­randa Sawyer

The Observer - The New Review - - FRONT PAGE - BY MI­RANDA SAWYER

It’s quite hard talk­ing to Björk about her mu­sic. This is for a few rea­sons, the most im­por­tant of which is that she doesn’t make mu­sic to talk about it. She makes mu­sic be­cause that is what she does (“I write one song per month,” she says, “some­times two months”), and usu­ally the whole pic­ture of an al­bum doesn’t emerge for her un­til very late in the process.

“OK, I will put my head into the place where I have to talk about me,” Björk says, shift­ing in her seat. She is feel­ing “a bit scruffy” – she means rough around the edges – af­ter a night out at a gig (her friends’, twins Kria and Kristin: “Kria plays these kind of cello loops, it’s re­ally med­i­ta­tive”).

Even off- duty, Björk is al­ways ful­lBjörk: in­ter­ested in the off-beat and ex­per­i­men­tal. She’s worked in mu­sic for more than 30 years, so she’s called a pop star. But re­ally, she’s an artist in dis­guise, of­ten lit­er­ally (at the mo­ment, she favours del­i­cate feather or fil­i­gree head dresses).To­day, de­spite her hang­over, she looks great, in a white dress with storm trooper shoul­der­stitch­ing, black tights, black plat­form shoes. There is kohl smudged un­der her eyes, and she’s drink­ing tea and chew­ing gum. Ev­ery so of­ten she takes her gum out and puts it on her saucer; then picks it up ab­sent-mind­edly and chews it again.

We are up­stairs above a cafe in Reyk­javik, Ice­land. This build­ing was once the home of an im­por­tant politi­cian, and the rooms are small and dec­o­rated like a granny’s house: or­na­ments in glass dis­play cases, Vic­to­rian side ta­bles, an­ti­macas­sars on curly-armed so­fas. Björk folds her­self in and out of her olde worlde chair, her body lan­guage open­ing and shut­ting ac­cord­ing to how com­fort­able she is with the con­ver­sa­tion.

At the mo­ment, the con­ver­sa­tion con­cerns her new al­bum, Utopia. And, like I said, it’s quite hard. Though we’re try­ing to con­nect, it feels like I’m stand­ing on one side of a rush­ing river and she’s on the other, semaphor­ing her thoughts across at me.

Björk has only re­cently worked out what Utopia might mean. For a long time, as is her wont, she was cre­at­ing it with­out a huge idea, just work­ing. Her mu­sic in­volves her ex­plor­ing small trig­gers, con­nect­ing “emo­tional co­or­di­nates”; match­ing tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties with mu­si­cal aims; pro­cess­ing the re­sults of time spent with mu­si­cians, edi­tors, pro­duc­ers; ar­rang­ing, record­ing, edit­ing, mix­ing. Mostly edit­ing. “Eighty per cent of my mu­sic is me sit­ting by my lap­top, edit­ing. Weeks and weeks on each song,” she says. Now it’s all done, she’s mar­shalling her mul­ti­tudi­nous ideas – mu­si­cal, con­cep­tual, con­scious, sub­con­scious – try­ing to or­gan­ise every­thing into a sin­gle quotable no­tion. She has been work­ing on this al­bum for two and a half years. I have heard it ex­actly once. Seventy-five min­utes ago, in the room next door, I plugged ear­phones into a lap­top and lis­tened to Utopia all the way through. Straight af­ter­wards, I walked into this room to talk to Björk about what I’d just heard. I can’t hear Utopia any other way be­cause Björk’s last al­bum, Vul­ni­cura , was leaked on­line three months be­fore its re­lease date. The river be­tween us is swirling with her ex­pe­ri­ences. I’ve barely got my toes wet. Any­how, Björk has been mak­ing

Utopia since she fin­ished her last tour. It started, she says, like many of her al­bums: as both a re­ac­tion against her pre­vi­ous al­bum, and a fol­low­ing-on from it. Re­leased in 2015, Vul­ni­cura was bleak. It dived into the mis­ery of her break-up with artist Matthew Barney, her long-term part­ner and fa­ther of her daugh­ter, Isadora. Its cen­tre­piece, Black Lake, had Björk at her most vul­ner­a­ble and bit­ter, with lyrics such as “I am one wound, my pul­sat­ing suf­fer­ing be­ing… You fear my lim­it­less emo­tions, I am bored of your apoc­a­lyp­tic ob­ses­sions… You have noth­ing to give, your heart is hol­low.” “The sad­dest song I’ve ever writ­ten,” is how she de­scribes it to me.

And so, for Björk, this meant that her new al­bum had to be the op­po­site: “Op­ti­mistic,” she says, “non-nar­ra­tive”; beau­ti­ful, univer­sal.

“We did the fi­nal gigs for Vul­ni­cura in Carnegie Hall,” she re­mem­bers, “and they were so tragic. Ev­ery­body who ever had a bro­ken heart ever was there, and they were all telling me their sto­ries. It was re­ally sweet and, gen­uine, you know? And with the per­for­mances, I was like: ‘This has to be dis­creet, and treated with grace.’ But af­ter the first one, I al­most felt guilty. Be­cause the whole room was cry­ing and I was not. Me and Ale­jan­dro [Ghersi, AKA elec­tronic artist Arca, who worked on Vul­ni­cura ] were guiltily drink­ing cham­pagne in the back go­ing: ‘Next time we’re go­ing to have fun, OK?’ I wanted this al­bum to go to­wards the light. You in­dulge in the grief to a cer­tain point, but then you have to be a lit­tle bit Pollyanna.”

That’s the con­trast with Vul­ni­cura. The con­tin­u­a­tion – what Björk calls “the seed” – is pro­vided partly by Ghersi. He came into Vul­ni­cura to­wards the end of the process, when Björk was in full con­trol: “I was the bossy back-seat driver.” They got on well, and dur­ing Utopia, their part­ner­ship was more equal, Björk let­ting him con­trib­ute more as an artist. They took small el­e­ments they liked from Vul­ni­cura, passed sounds they liked to each other via email (melodies from South Amer­i­can flutes, singers from Cam­bo­dia) and played with them. The re­sult is ex­cep­tion­ally beau­ti­ful.

Utopia is over­whelm­ing, lush and gor­geous, with harps and flutes and real-life bird calls, a magic for­est of con­stantly chang­ing sound. There’s an ebb and flow dy­namic, like the turn­ing of swal­lows in the sky. Some­times Björk’s voice is at the fore, some­times it’s wo­ven in, just an­other in­stru­ment. This is not re­ally an al­bum of pop songs, al­though you might find one or two, at a push; it’s more or­ches­tral and de­tailed, all-en­velop­ing.

Björk thinks of her utopia as an is­land, per­haps one that was cre­ated out of an eco- dis­as­ter, an is­land where plants have mouths or hover like hum­ming­birds or grow out of your hands. “Do you know the fish in The

Simp­sons, that has three eyes? Like that.” (This makes me laugh: Björk is

‘Some­times peo­ple miss the jokes. A lot of it is me tak­ing the piss out of my­self’ ‘What’s ex­cit­ing is that boys are chang­ing… Boys who are in their teens now, they’re re­ally emo­tional’

fun­nier than she’s given credit for.) In her head, women ar­rive to cre­ate a new, bet­ter so­ci­ety. They bring kids and mu­sic and eco-friendly tech, “and then there is the ev­ery­day life on the is­land”.

This idea came partly be­cause she wanted to use flutes, and her friend James Merry (orig­i­nally hired to do re­search for her 2011 al­bum Bio­philia) dug out flute myths from around the world. He found tales “from South Amer­ica, Ama­zon tribes, and Africa, and In­done­sia, and China, and Ice­landic mythol­ogy”. The thread be­tween the tales was a story of es­cape, where women break out from a so­ci­ety that op­presses them, steal flutes and run with their chil­dren to a new place: “And they live very hap­pily for, I dunno, two-thirds of an al­bum. But then the guys come and chop ev­ery­one’s heads off.” Björk didn’t fancy that bit, so “I de­cided I’m go­ing to change the end­ing. I think we can change it, you know.”

An­other idea of utopia came about be­cause, in these scary Trumpian times, she wanted to show that op­ti­mism is a choice. “He got elected when I was two years into the al­bum,” she says, “and I felt like, OK, it’s re­ally im­por­tant now to be in­ten­tional. If you feel this world is not head­ing the right way, you have to be DIY and make a lit­tle fortress, over here to the left.”

I don’t know that I got all this from one lis­ten, though the sense of wildlife, phys­i­cal space and bliss was very strong. My notes say things like “epic, full of na­ture”, “rat­tle (monkey sounds)”, “flutes gor­geous, beats tough, tran­scen­dent”. I did get the idea of a new place, of women sup­port­ing women, of re­ject­ing old sys­tems (in Tab­ula Rasa, she sings: “break the chains of the fuck-ups of our fa­thers”). There’s also – ex­cit­ingly – strong hints of a new lover (Bliss­ing Me: “I fall in love with his song”). And the feel­ing of the end of a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship, of mov­ing for­ward (Sue Me). Though I may well be be­ing too lit­eral. Björk laughs when I quote lyrics at her, and ask her about her love life.

“It’s pretty ac­tive, I’ll leave it at that,” she says. “I think it’s still too early to be too spe­cific. Look, I’m happy that peo­ple are still lis­ten­ing to me af­ter all these years, but some­times I feel peo­ple mis­un­der­stand the lyrics. Peo­ple miss the jokes. A lot of it is me tak­ing the piss out of my­self and be­ing, what do you call it, self- dep­re­cat­ing…” How are you with “dat­ing”? “Oh for me, that word is so ridicu­lous!” she says. “In Ice­land, es­pe­cially in my teenage years, we didn’t date. You just went out and you got plas­tered and you woke up the next morn­ing with some­one and… And you mar­ried them! I def­i­nitely don’t date, like go to a restau­rant all dressed up.” In a re­cent in­ter­view, Björk called

Utopia “my Tin­der al­bum”. “Yes, be­cause I thought that was hi­lar­i­ous, but ob­vi­ously I would never be able to be on Tin­der.” What she’s talk­ing about, re­ally, is fresh ex­pe­ri­ences with new peo­ple: the ex­cite­ment and sex­i­ness and clum­si­ness of those en­coun­ters. “Peo­ple try­ing things out, and re­jec­tion, both ways. We all have chap­ters, and then when you start new chap­ters, it’s like: ‘I’m walk­ing down the same streets I’m al­ways walk­ing down, I’m wear­ing the same clothes, but it feels like I’m on Mars.’ In the best pos­si­ble sense, but also in a scary sense. I missed be­ing this emo­tional ex­plorer, I en­joy it.”

Björk’s life is spent half in New York and half in Ice­land. She is used to this (even in the 90s, when she spent a lot of time in Lon­don, she lived in Ice­land for half of the year). Isadora is now 15, and goes to school in both places – “here in the au­tumns and Brook­lyn in the springs”. This yearly rhythm is fa­mil­iar now. They “spend Valen­tine’s Day there, other hol­i­days in Ice­land. It’s like a bird’s mi­gra­tion.” I ask Björk about her cur­rent re­la­tion­ship with Barney (a cou­ple of the new songs seem to hint that it’s not amaz­ing, and he sued her in 2015 to get more time with Isadora), but she, un­der­stand­ably, doesn’t want to go there.

“I’m won­der­ing if I feel good talk­ing about that,” she says. “Be­cause of my daugh­ter. When you make art that is about your life, which both of the par­ents do ac­tu­ally, we have a way of in­tro­duc­ing it to her and talk­ing about it with her. Both of us. I think my daugh­ter does it [man­ages things be­tween her par­ents] grace­fully. But it’s be­cause we can do it in lit­tle pack­ages.”

Björk has al­ways had chil­dren around her. The old­est in her fam­ily, with six younger sib­lings, she says: “What’s nor­mal to me is two kids pulling at my skirt” (she grew up in a com­mune with her mum, af­ter her par­ents di­vorced when she was born). She had her first child, her son, Sin­dri, at the age of 20, “so there was a com­plete over­lap”.

“And Ice­land, com­pared to Lon­don, it’s very 19th cen­tury,” she says. “Very fam­ily, you see your fam­ily ev­ery week, and you meet them at the store, and you go to have your break­fast… it’s like liv­ing in a vil­lage. All the peo­ple you ever went to school with and all your fam­ily mem­bers live 10 min­utes away from your house. And we don’t re­ally have any crime or vi­o­lence or guns, so kids are out by them­selves from age 11. If you’re busy, your kid can just hang out at your mate’s. And a lot of other kids are al­ways hang­ing out at my house.”

I won­der if this prox­im­ity is sti­fling, but she says not. Also, of course, she’s been trav­el­ling with her mu­sic from when she was a teenager, so she’s had reg­u­lar breaks from Ice­land’s close­ness. Her first for­eign tour, in 1983, when she was 18, was with Tappi Tikar­rass. They went around the UK, sup­port­ing the punk band Crass. Back then, Björk spoke no English, but learned “Fuck Mar­garet Thatcher” from an­other band, Flux of Pink In­di­ans, who had a song with that as the cho­rus. These were the days of skin­heads and punks fight­ing at gigs. Björk loved it. “It was like I went to the moon!” she says. “Like: ‘My God, things are so ex­otic here!’” She and her band camped in Crass fans’ gar­dens.

From then on, Björk was in var­i­ous Ice­landic punk/goth/in­die bands, un­til in the 1990s, post-Su­gar­cubes (an al­ter­na­tive rock group that were big in NME- land), she broke big. Her first solo al­bum, De­but in 1993, mar­ried her art ten­den­cies and soar­ing voice with pro­ducer Nellee Hooper’s dance sen­si­bil­ity and went plat­inum in the US. Back then, I would see her at par­ties, and she en­joyed her­self in the same way we all did. There is no VIP vel­vet rope in­stinct in Björk. She likes stim­u­lat­ing peo­ple, who­ever they are.

We talk about that time a bit; in­ter­est­ingly, through the fil­ter of gen­der pol­i­tics.

“I re­mem­ber go­ing to raves in Manch­ester,” she says, “just me and my mates go­ing out and club­bing – and es­pe­cially in the early 90s, it was im­por­tant to be asex­ual. As long as you could sweat for five hours in your baggy clothes, you were fine. It felt like we thought: ‘The way we’re go­ing to deal with the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the sexes is, we stick our tongue out at it.’ It was a re­bel­lion to not ad­dress it, a state­ment against the sta­tus quo. Not be­ing male or fe­male, un­do­ing the role you were sup­posed to play, you know?” Do you think that changed any­thing? “I think, per­haps no. But we’ve got an­other story go­ing on now and it is im­por­tant to ad­dress it. There’s this feel­ing in the air that if we ad­dress it now, in three years’ time it might be over.”

She is talk­ing about sex­ual ha­rass­ment and abuse. The night be­fore I ar­rived, Björk is­sued a state­ment on Face­book in sup­port of the ac­tors who have spo­ken out about this. She said that she, too, had been sex­u­ally ha­rassed while work­ing in the film in­dus­try. She named no names, though she was clearly talk­ing about Lars von Trier, the di­rec­tor of Dancer

in the Dark, in which she starred (Von Trier has since de­nied her claims). “My hu­mil­i­a­tion and role as a lesser sex­u­ally ha­rassed be­ing was the norm and set in stone with the di­rec­tor and staff of dozens who en­abled it,” she wrote. Hav­ing long op­er­ated from a po­si­tion of power in the mu­sic in­dus­try, she was shocked to find that ac­tresses did not have such power. (In the cab on the way to this in­ter­view, I no­ticed that her first state­ment was the num­ber one news item. It’s a re­minder of how im­por­tant Björk is in Ice­land.)

“I did it in sup­port of women who can’t say no,” she says, “or are not for­tu­nate enough to have said no. I’m con­scious of not want­ing it to be about me. Be­cause I got away good, you know? And be­cause I come from this world where [sex­u­ally bul­ly­ing be­hav­iour] is not nor­mal, I could see the con­trast be­tween the two worlds. I wanted to say, ‘You’re not imag­in­ing things. It is like that.’”

She is stim­u­lated about the prospect of the world chang­ing, of old pa­tri­ar­chal ideas be­ing brought down, to ev­ery­one’s ben­e­fit.

“What is ex­cit­ing is that boys are re­ally chang­ing now,” she says. “Boys who are now in their teens, they’re re­ally emo­tional. That’s maybe the thing that needs to be ad­dressed next. Where do men put their feel­ings? They’re clumsy, and they don’t know where to put them. My gen­er­a­tion of men were told for 20 years to suf­fo­cate them, and then women scream at them be­cause, where are they? So they’re get­ting like: ‘Wait a minute. You don’t want me to be emo­tional, but you want me to be emo­tional? Can you make your mind up?’ And then there’s the other story of the white man now. If there’s a univer­sal un­con­scious nar­ra­tive, it is the self-pity of them los­ing power. It’s very hard to feel

sorry for that, but at least it hurts. They are feel­ing it.”

But what will they ac­tu­ally do about it, I won­der.

“Yes, if all these men feel this way, and they’re gen­uine about it, are they not go­ing to make films for the next 20 years? Is that what we want? To be hon­est, I don’t know the an­swer. I just think it’s a cu­ri­ous ques­tion.”

Björk is slightly un­com­fort­able talk­ing about fem­i­nism with a cap­i­tal F. Her mother was an ac­tivist, and when Björk talks about the 90s, she speaks of them as a time of re­ac­tion against 1970s fem­i­nism: “It was mak­ing every­thing ex­hausted”. Also, la­belling things defini­tively is not very Björk: she dis­likes rigid­ity, in her life and in art. But any­way, now she pushes her­self for­ward in her chair, be­cause she wants to tell me some­thing.

When she was pro­mot­ing Vul­ni­cura, in an in­ter­view with Pitch­fork, she pointed out that, for years, she has been re­garded as a singer-song­writer who works with male pro­duc­ers. In fact, she pro­duces her al­bums (those long days in front of the lap­top), and she is in con­trol of the ar­range­ments, the sound, the mix­ing, every­thing. She won­dered, in the in­ter­view, if it was partly her fault: she likes to cre­ate beau­ti­ful vi­su­als and so has never re­ally been pho­tographed in the stu­dio, next to a mix­ing desk, or hold­ing an ef­fects unit. Lots of young fe­male mu­si­cians took her at her word, and there is now a web­site ded­i­cated to pic­tures of them next to tech­ni­cal equip­ment.

“I am so hon­oured by this,” she says. “And so now I’m go­ing to try and talk about these things more. Agh, I’m blush­ing! But I am go­ing to own it… for the ladies.” (She says this in a funny voice.)

What she wants to tell me about is the all-fe­male group of 12 flautists on Utopia. “The flute club! Flute­fös­tudagur!” She got them to­gether and they would meet at her cabin ev­ery Fri­day ( fös­tudagur means Fri­day). Björk, who’s been pay­ing the flute since she was six, re­hearsed them over and over, “like 50 or 60 days”, and did all the ar­range­ments and the con­duct­ing, every­thing. It was the same for the choir and the brass, “and for all the ar­range­ments I’ve done on my al­bums. But peo­ple… it’s like they think it hap­pened by magic and fell from the sky.”

Why do we have the im­pres­sion that Björk isn’t a tech­ni­cal mu­si­cian? Per­haps it’s be­cause she’s a singer, with her ex­cep­tion­ally emo­tional voice.

“Yes, and I think more with women than men, if we have that ac­cess to the emo­tional side in us, peo­ple think it has to be obliv­i­ous,” she says. “We are al­lowed to be obliv­i­ous, but we can’t then step back and edit it. But the mix­ing of this al­bum was re­ally tricky. You know, with­out try­ing to sound too pre­ten­tious, it was not nec­es­sar­ily about the events but the fil­ters around the sound. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the flutes and the elec­tron­ics and the voice and the birds. It’s re­ally del­i­cate. If it’s wrong, the whole thing just tips… It took me three months to mix the al­bum.”

She thinks of Utopia as hav­ing three parts. The dis­cov­ery of the is­land, the liv­ing there day to day, and then, more pro­saically, how hu­mans sur­vive dif­fi­cult times. One of the songs, Body Mem­ory, is about how your body can get you through trauma when your head and heart can’t. It was sparked by an­other day she spent at her cabin, this time by her­self. She wrapped her­self in loads of coats, lay down on the moss, and lis­tened to an au­dio­book of The Ti­betan Book of the

Dead . She’d been aware of the book for a long time but had dis­missed it as “a bit goth”. This time, though, she found it stim­u­lat­ing, es­pe­cially the fi­nal part. “It’s about hav­ing peo­ple who are ex­perts in dy­ing,” she says, “who have phys­i­cal prac­tice to help you to die. Like yoga ex­er­cises. Breath­ing ex­er­cises… Like death doulas. I was so im­pressed by this.”

And so she wrote Body Mem­ory to re­mind her­self that she is able to move through grief, get past Vul­ni­cura and sur­vive. She wrote six verses, to her­self, about “des­tiny, love, an­other about sex, an­other about moth­er­hood, one verse – and this has been a strug­gle for me – is ur­ban, an­other ru­ral na­ture”. The verses are re­mind­ing her not to think too much, “not be neu­rotic, just do this”.

“It’s my ver­sion of help­ing my­self, sug­gest­ing you have it all in you, you have all the an­swers. With­out sound­ing mushy. It’s like my man­i­festo. Let’s do this!”

Björk laughs and picks up her gum and her body lan­guage is open. She’s wav­ing from the other bank, not semaphor­ing. “I think I’m Tin­dered to life,” she says. “I’m dat­ing life. I’m like: ‘Oh, those are new hands and I’ve got new legs and new… it’s a feel­ing of… It feels like a new ad­ven­ture.’” Utopia is re­leased on One Lit­tle In­dian on 24 Novem­ber

Björk, pho­tographed by San­ti­ago Felipe

Pho­to­graphs: cour­tesy War­ren du Preez and Nick Thorn­ton Jones, Ilpo Musto/Rex/ Shut­ter­stock, Jane Bown, Kevin Mazur/Getty Im­ages

Björk at work, clock­wise from left: in the stu­dio dur­ing a Medúlla ses­sion, 2004; in Lon­don with the Su­gar­cubes, 1986; pho­tographed for the Ob­server by Jane Bown in 1995; per­form­ing in New York dur­ing her Vul­ni­cura tour, 2015.

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