Published in national streetpress including TOM Magazine, 2007
“I met Brian Eno once in a steam room in London. I fell asleep and when I woke up, he was sitting next to me. He told me this theory about how singers make melodies that reflect how artistic their countries are. Countries like England and Japan have very hierarchical structures and the notes are always very close to each other; there are no big jumps. But people from Iceland, for example, sing melodies that are more anarchic. I thought it was interesting… but it could have been that I just dreamt it, you know. Maybe I didn’t even meet him.” Björk chuckles gently and lapses into silence.
For most of my adult life, this diminutive waif has loomed large on the alternative music landscape as an artist of curious, otherworldly charm. And here, for a brief moment, it seems that the Iife of the Icelandic pixie queen might be equal to the legend; that Björk might, as a matter of course, fall asleep in a drowsy mist and wake to find Brian Eno has appeared, numinous and elusive, to impart some esoteric gem about the nature of song. Naturally, this would happen, because she is Björk, and she seems only marginally connected to this world. Gnashing her teeth at photographers or turning out for the Oscars dressed as a Swan; tap dancing, screaming punk or wailing an ocean of noise from the bottom of her tiny chest; she is extraordinary and extraordinary things must necessarily happen to her, ergo Brian Eno.
The truth, of course, is slightly less romantic but significantly more robust, much like the lady herself. Though she speaks quietly on the phone, with the sweet and doughy accent of her north European home, Björk is clear and thoughtful at all times. Thirty years in the music industry, beginning with the self-titled record of 1977, has given her an immaculate polish in her approach to interviews. She answers every question as though it is the first time she has heard it and she peppers her responses with graceful frankness. Her tour, her new album, her craft – these are not randomly evoked from a witches brew, but measured artistic choices that she can easily explain, even if the end product seems creative beyond comprehension.
Björk’s sixth solo album Volta, for example, is a response to Medulla, which was a product of motherhood. “Medulla for me was really about domestic bliss and breast-feeding and the joys of that very small universe that a mother has with her child, but then when they get older the mother wants to go out and have friends as well. I think Volta is about that really, wanting to take the world on and wanting to tour and go to places that you’ve never been before.”
Medulla, another landmark record in a career of constant reinvention, was built almost entirely from layers of Björk’s voice. It was impossible to tour because, as she impishly points out, “I’ve only got one larynx,” so from 2004 until the release of Volta this year, Björk remained at home with her young daughter. When she finally set about making the new album, she was unconsciously reconstructing her own life. “A lot of the time when you’re in the middle of it you can’t really tell where it’s coming from. All your friends can tell, but not you, so it’s hard for me to say what drove me…I was probably suffering a little bit from cabin fever. It probably came from having had a baby and being tied to the house for a long time. I was really excited about touring and I think in many ways I wrote the music thinking more about how it would sound live than how it would sound on the record.”
If Volta’s cover art is any indication, Björk is a piñata, ready to burst in Technicolor brilliance on stages across the world. She appears in a glorious, candy-coated chicken suit, enormous blue feet extending beneath her and a violent red backdrop behind – a far cry from the sensual swell of her translucent breasts, which grace the cover of Medulla. But the music of Volta sounds vastly different to the cover. For fans who might expect a return to the joyful climbs of It’s Oh So Quiet, Volta will disappoint. Volta’s often dark and plangent musings will defy expectations – which is all one can reasonable expect Bjork to do. And if this record is the sound of a new spring, it is the sound of spring on Mars.
A long-time devotee of the art of collaboration, Björk brought in a host of guest artists to deliver what she has called “an energetic and fun album”. Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), appears alongside improv drummer Chris Corsano, Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and a 10-piece brass band. Always curious about the cutting edge of electronica, Björk also invited Congolese electro outfit Konono No 1 to work with her (with the traditional likembé instrument wired for sound, Konono make beats from wholly organic sources).
As Björk tells it, this collaborative process was part of her return to the outside world. “I guess 80% of the album I did on my own…it’s quite a solitary affair. I write and sing and write lyrics and it’s very introspective,” she explains, “80% of the album is that energy, so towards the end I’m always gagging for some other people, and it becomes just the opposite. When I collaborate, I don’t want to follow my rules, I want to do something wild and see where I can meet with this other person.”
Perhaps the highest profile guest on Volta, super-producer Timbaland was also called in to work on the record, with three of his tracks ending up on the final product. This, it becomes clear, was a true test of Björk’s commitment to the collaborative process – and the submission of her artistic will to that of another. “I did try at first to get him involved in the concepts of Volta and all the brass and the ideas I’ve been working on with my vocals, but he sort of sent them back to me and said that that wouldn’t really interest him,” she smiles, “I think, with Tim, you really have to do it his way. He’s very macho – in the nicest way possible. He has a very primitive and productive energy. He’d just walk into a room and in the space of three hours we’d have four songs from scratch. He’s sort of a person who likes to work from scratch, so you’ve got nothing that you’ve prepared and came with and it’s just you, that’s it, and you just write a song…He’s sort of like a race car driver – it’s very extreme, that one element, but it made me feel like a tango dancer getting thrown around.”
Afterwards, Björk admits, she returned to the songs for some additional noodling: “I wanted a bit more embroidery added in, because I’m a chick. So I sort of sat down and added in some structure, some backing vocals, some instruments. So we got the best of both worlds – Tim got to be a race car driver and I got to be…embroidery woman.”
On the tour, as well as the album, Björk has fought to maintain a feminine presence. With so much of her music seeming to emerge from a supernatural tide of earth mother majesty, she usually stands alone at the front of an all-male touring band, pouring her voice across the crowd. But for this tour – stretching ten months from end to end – Björk was determined to expand the sisterhood. “The album was almost like a rehearsal for the tour. And then I started deciding who was going to be in the band and talking to everyone and everyone was up for it,” she explains, “I had already recorded two brass arrangements with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, who are all male, and then I sort of had a moment where you can see it from the outside and thought ‘hmm, what are we missing here?’” The answer, of course, was women. Björk assembled a ten-piece touring brass section made entirely from female Icelandic horn players. “I held auditions and found out that there were only 13 female brass players in Iceland,” she laughs, “so I to say no to three of them, which was actually really difficult.”
When asked why she chose Icelandic musicians, rather than American musicians from her adopted home in New York City, she returns to the theme of exploration versus isolation that has dominated our interview. “I like a balance, you know. I’m very Icelandic and I always will be – I spend half of my time there – but I’ve always fought isolation as well, because it’s in my blood. Iceland was a colony for 600 years and it’s only 50 years ago we got independence from Denmark, you know? Part of our independence was to actually go out and mingle with the aliens, and that’s what I’m doing. I like to work with people from all over the world, but half of me is always going to be very Icelandic.”
The important thing, she insists, is to keep changing, and if she stays too long in an interior, secluded place, she is naturally inclined to fight her way out of it. Similarly – and this why Australian audiences have not seen Björk since 1995 – too long out there in the world and she starts to lose her sense of self. “With The Sugarcubes, we would make an album for two or three months and then we’d go on tour for 15 months, and a similar thing happened to me with Debut and Post. When I started doing Homogenic in ’96 or ’97, I decided I wanted to change the balance and spend maybe 15 months making an album and four months touring it, because I felt I needed to progress more musically instead of just being a rock animal in hotel rooms and sound checks. So the last 12 years I’ve toured less, but I think it was worth it, because I’ve gone into categories musically that I would never have seen if I had toured as much as I did in the beginning.”
This is all very practical, of course, and the result of her pragmatism is a career rich with massive revolutions. Still, as ever, there is something uniquely Björkian in her logic. Even if her choices are easy to understand, it is impossible to know how she does it.