Sitting upstairs at Iðnó, pouring out a cup of coffee in a fetching fluorescent yellow ensemble, an animated Björk is expressing how pleased and surprised she is that people still want to talk about her work. “I spoke to someone earlier who had been online researching all the Biophilia set lists and comparing them,” smiles Björk, “and I was like, ‘respect!’ It’s crazy that people actually still care, or can be bothered.”
She hasn’t done a press day for three years. The last time seems a long time ago, back when Biophilia was being unveiled to the world—the album app was new, the Manchester International Festival had just premiered the live show, and the music media was palpably reeling as writers tried to comprehend the scope of the project.
This process of talking about an album is when Björk’s analysis of a new piece of work can begin. “It usually isn’t until afterwards when you sort out what is what,” she says. “You’ve handed in the recording, and then you do the interviews when it’s wrapped up with a bow on it. Suddenly you have a lot of cappuccinos and become an expert on it, and pretend you know everything about yourself.”
It’s hard to imagine how someone could start with a blank page, and end with a towering construction like the Biophilia universe. How much of it was planned, and how much grew during the process? “Well, in the beginning, you just have no clue,” she says. “In the beginning, the stuff that you already know doesn’t interest you—you’re attracted by the magnetic force of the things you don’t know.”
She pauses to take a drink, before continuing: “To contradict myself completely, I could also say that in the beginning, I kinda know what I’m about to do. It’s a mixture of intention, and the unknown, and probably more stuff too. The people I have a relationship with at the time matter. I don’t just mean boyfriends, although obviously that matters a lot, but the other musicians you feel connected to. Both onstage, like a drummer or somebody who programmes beats or whatever, but also engineers—people like that are artists in their own right.”
Three years on, the resulting audio-visual feast has become iconic. After touring the world, the final live presentation was recorded for a recently released concert film, ‘Biophilia Live,’ shot at the end of the show’s run at Alexandria Palace in London.
“As a musician, I love to hear bands at both the beginning and the end of a tour,” Björk says, “but on this particular tour, it was maybe better at the end. I get to know people and figure out where they shine most, and you can encourage that, and decide on which songs work best. For example, my relationship with Manu, the percussionist, grew over time. I pulled out an old song of mine called “One Day” and he really flourished on it. Little things like that—we were able to arrange “Possibly Maybe” to work with the Tesla Coil, because we’d spent the time getting to know each other.”
Björk surrounds herself with talented people, all of whom contribute to realising the vision of each new album. Biophilia was no exception, as she was often quite literally surrounded on the stage by a choir comprising 24 young Icelandic women.
“The choir gave so much to the tour,” says Björk, sparkling with affection, “not just in their musicianship, but with their energy and enthusiasm. They were like a slice of Iceland wherever we went—from the concerts themselves to the other parts, you know, like the difficult airport journeys—they were troopers.”
“They got better and better, too,” she smiles. “It’s tough to do what they did. Some of them have sung together since they were six, but they had to learn all over again, to sing in microphones. They were doing chords that are really complex, very dissonant, sometimes onstage with questionable festival monitors, with loud beats in the background. They had to hear the chord of a chorus coming through all that noise and attune to it—they got really good at it.”
The final show was a long time in the making, with daily four-hour practises over a period of four months. “I wanted the performance to become intuitive,” Björk says, “so they learned every bit by heart, to move from their note-reading brain to that more impulsive side. By the time the show began, they could sing it in their sleep.”
This long process of rehearsal came with some welcome surprises. “One thing they could do,” Björk enthuses, “after singing so long together, was that they’d be singing a chord maybe with five notes and three girls in each note—and then suddenly mid-chord, two would jump to another note—like if one note wasn’t strong they’d balance it. And it would sound much better, and I’d stop and say, ‘What did you just do!’ And they’d just look at me as if to say, ‘I dunno!’ That’s one reason we worked on it for so long, because I’d write those intuitive changes into the arrangements.”
But filming a concert at the end of a tour was not without challenges for Björk. She has always poured her whole self into each performance, and the addition of festival dates between city residencies proved too much. Several South American and European dates were cancelled as a result of a nodule on her vocal cords, and the final Biophilia show came at the end of a challenging schedule. “I had to deal with the opposite of Manu and the girls,” she explains. “At the beginning of a tour my voice is really good, but by the end I’m a little scruffy, my notes are not as clear. So I was a little worried about my voice. There were definitely shows on the tour where I had more flexibility and I could improvise more at that particular gig.”
“But what I love about playing shows,” she continues, “is that nobody knows exactly what it is that makes one show better than another, like when you walk offstage feeling like you didn’t deliver as much or get to be as generous as you wanted. And it’s not about technical stuff; it’s some sort of emotional unison or merge between the musicians and the audience. I don’t know what it is, nobody knows. But at that gig, we walked offstage and we knew it was good one.”
It hasn’t always worked out so well, she says. “I remember when we came offstage after the ‘Volta’ gig that we recorded, and it was definitely not the best one. If you took all the ‘Volta’ gigs and rated them out of ten, that one was like a 6. But if you rated all the Biophilia gigs, that one was an 8.5. You can’t ask for more really, so when I walked offstage I was like ‘yessss!’”
But such issues aside, Björk remains resolute about her boundaries on how much post-production should take place on live recordings. “I heard rumours, back when I was in The Sugarcubes, of bands who came offstage and went and re-recorded all the vocals for live albums,” she says, her eyes widening in faux-shock. “To me, this was not good at all, and I said ‘I will never do that, I will never replace one note! I will never auto-tune anything!’ So the only thing we got to do afterwards was adjusting the levels, the mixing.”
Her adopted way of reconciling her spontaneity and perfectionism is to do live retakes, which means telling ticket-holders that some songs might be performed twice. “For the film, we did three songs twice,” she admits. “Because the stage is in the round, I have to have a cordless mic, which sounds way more digital than the normal Shure 58. So two songs I repeated to sing with that mic—the ones with just me and the choir. It’s nerdy and ridiculous, I know, so when I explained that to the crowd, they just laughed and thought I was stupid and gave me a break.”
The other re-do came from the inclusion of inventor Henry Dagg’s Sharpsichord—a stringed instrument so large that it couldn’t reasonably come on the Biophilia tour, instead making cameo appearances at the first and last shows. “We hadn’t been able to bring the instrument with us,” Björk explains, “so we’d been performing that track differently for seventy shows. The parts were in a different order, and we all just kind of looked at each other, and fucked it all up, and said, ‘Let’s try that again.’ My inner perfectionist came out.”
The decision paid off: the result is a film nothing short of spectacular, like capturing lightning in a bottle. And so, even as it draws to a close, the Biophilia project continues to teem and flourish, taking on a life of its own, and preparing to travel the world once again.