Published December 7, 2017
I’ve been looking out the window into the snowy sky for less than two minutes when Björk walks into the low-ceilinged room, only slightly late for our appointment. She smiles welcomingly and slides into her chair in a swift single movement, coffee in hand, expectant.
Artists of all calibres have imitated this woman, but most never come close to capturing her powerful creative energy. We’ve seen her perform in the weirdest onstage costumes, but today she is dressed modestly; still, there’s nothing anonymous about her presence. Behind her calm appearance I feel the turbulence of a thousand thoughts, and I can’t wait to untangle the knots.
A new adventure
Björk has just come back from a trip to Georgia, where she performed the final concerts of her ‘Vulnicura’ tour, backed by a string orchestra. Her face lights up when she talks about it, the recent memories dancing behind her eyes. “It was amazing. I think it‘s one of my favourite places I‘ve been to,” she says. “It‘s so strange to be in a country with a European culture that’s so strong, and to know nothing about it.”
It would be tempting to say that this Tbilisi adventure finally locked the door to all the sorrow and pain of ‘Vulnicura.’ Experiences, however, don’t live in closed quarters in our minds, and neither do our choices. It seems apt, then, that Björk’s new album, ‘Utopia,’ stems from the pain of ‘Vulnicura,’ but overcomes it with a new, promising light.
That isn’t to say that ‘Utopia’ doesn’t stand up on its own. On the contrary, a myriad of preciously woven arrangements embroider this entirely new aural world. So intricate are the details that bounce, cross and fuse together that a single exploration of this microcosm is impossible. Sounds and textures push through the elegant tunes, often unexpectedly, like explosions of joy. ‘Utopia’ can’t be simply skipped over; it’s an album to ponder, and to rediscover time and again.
Notorious for helming her projects independently, Björk created this album in partnership with Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca—a Venezuelan producer, musician and DJ. The two had previously collaborated on a few songs from ‘Vulnicura,’ after Arca contacted Björk during her final run of ‘Biophilia’ concerts. “We DJed together at the after party for five hours, and realised we have a lot of similar favourite songs,” Björk explains. “Then he decided to come to Iceland. Before we knew it, he did almost all the beats on ‘Vulnicura,’ and then we performed it together at Carnegie Hall.”
The relationship—at first only professional, sparked by the deep admiration Arca held for Björk—gradually turned into a lasting friendship. “We just really connected,” she says, candidly. “We were sending each other emails all the time, and songs, and links—sharing music libraries and hanging out all the time with our friends James Merry and Jesse Kanda, going on holidays together, having a really fun time DJing, and talking about music a lot.”
This environment became the fertile ground from which ‘Utopia’ sprang—not only because Björk surrounds herself with people whose creative energy feeds into her own process, but also because she places so much value on her friendships. Throughout our meeting, she regularly relates memories and experiences with friends. While she has often been depicted as a modern Mona Lisa, her enigmatic presence blooms into unconscious expressions of love when she talks about these firm points in her life.
Accordingly, ‘Utopia’ celebrates precisely those elements that push her further into the light—friendship, love and hope. “It’s the polar opposites of ‘Vulnicura,’ emotionally and musically,” Björk explains. “I‘ve done the saddest music I‘ve made in my life, and I felt, as musicians, we could do so much more. It became almost like a joke to do the opposite.”
A new coordinate
The partnership with Arca didn’t only provide additional input to the music but also a different approach to the creative process. The way Björk generally works is almost automatic—arrangements first and beats later. For ‘Utopia,’ however, this workflow took a different course.
“Half of this album is about when me and Alejandro meet as equals, for the first time,” she says. It was with the opening track, “Arisen My Senses,” that Björk came to that realisation. When she took a mixtape of tracks Arca had made a long time before the two met, she wrote accompanying harp arrangements, and sang over it.
The result is one of the most breathtaking songs on the album. “Without knowing it, I was probably taking an element out of his musical character,” she says. “The most extreme happy, euphoric element, and maybe the most extreme happy element of my musical character, and putting them together. It was kind of a new coordinate—the opposite of ‘Vulnicura.’ For me, it sort of went from there.”
Thus, for half of the album, Björk wrote over songs that Arca sent her, also taking existing songs from both of their repertoires and meshing them together to create something new. The other half was written in same way as ‘Vulnicura,’ with Björk writing and arranging the songs, and Arca adding a beat afterwards.
Only one track bears someone else’s influence; in “Losss,” the beats were made by Texan producer Rabit. “For me, that song needed to be about that same pain and the same grind of ‘Vulnicura,’ but zoomed out,” Björk explains. “You’re looking at the big picture, so it’s not personal like ‘Vulnicura,’ but it does have to have that same sort of feeling.”
If anything, “Losss” almost feels like a bridge—the pain of the past is analysed and acknowledged, but there’s a sense that it’s also time to move on. As the lyrics explain, “Loss of love, we all have suffered / How we make up for it defines who we are.”
Scale and texture
Throughout her career, Björk has always been described as an experimental artist. In the past decade, the word “experimental” has come to be affiliated with all sorts of artistic endeavours that are out of the ordinary, bizarre, and oftentimes even ridiculous. In Björk’s case, however, it would be inaccurate to say that it’s her work alone that’s experimental. Björk herself is the eponym of experimentation, with an array of albums that bravely chart the unexplored areas of her own creativity, often using new technologies to do so.
If others usually describe and define her experimentalism by its sound and texture, Björk often uses scale. After the macho warrior-like angle of ‘Homogenic’ came the crocheted micro-perspective of ‘Vespertine,’ followed by the cosmic sweep of ‘Biophilia.’ But if critics expected ‘Utopia’ to be a social commentary or a reactionary response to our zeitgeist, for Björk the connections with current events, such as Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, came only in hindsight.
“It was strange to have that happen while I was doing this album, because it’s based more on my personal life,” she explains. “To see it also happening also in the bigger scheme of things… I was heartbroken.”
A city in the clouds
‘Utopia’ is far from the avant-pop music of Björk’s early career, and while electronic beats form a large part of its core, it also exists on an orchestral scale like nothing that’s come before. On ‘Vulnicura’ she chose to use strings, as she explains, “Because it’s easy to make them sound very sad.” However, flutes dominate ‘Utopia,’ making as airy an album as you can get.
“‘Vulnicura’ was very heavy, and the melodies were sad, so they didn’t move a lot of the ground. On ‘Utopia’ I kind of gravitated towards everything that was light and happy, because I had overdosed on seriousness,” Björk explains with a laugh. “Flutes are probably the lightest musical instruments. They are fluffy—they‘re wind, and flow.”
The album’s soundscape is of the kind, she insists, that would permeate the air in a city in the clouds. Indeed, songs like the title track, “Saint,” as well as “Paradisia,” exist in an environment made from the softest of sounds. Fluttering wings and guttural bird song bursts gently into the beats, giving the tracks a lingering oneiric feel. Gusts of melody breathe freshness into the lyrics. “You feel like there’s wind blowing over you,” Björk explains. “It’s to clear the air after the drama of ‘Vulnicura.’ To breathe.”
A city in the clouds, however, isn’t the only thing Björk envisioned for this album; she sees her utopia, in keeping with literary tradition, as an island. Björk’s nova insula might bear some sci-fi characteristics, but it’s paradoxically more realistic than the one Thomas More envisioned centuries ago. It isn’t a place where things automatically get better. Instead, it’s meant to describe a new way of thinking—a recipe, as Björk calls it, to live by.
I had my reservations about the concept, at first. The way ‘Utopia’ was described in the months before its release sounded like an unattainable dream. Not only that—it felt irresponsible. A bunch of women break free of their chains and go off to a new place, leaving the world behind? That’s not change for the better, but escapism. And in real life, there is no escaping.
As it turns out, Björk’s concept of utopia is as far from this as can be. Her version of utopia isn’t about escaping a bad situation by shutting the door on it. She takes her time to mull over her words, making sure that she cannot be misunderstood. “If it were just happy songs, I would have called the album ‘Paradise’ or something,” she chuckles. “Yes, there are moments that are very euphoric and happy, but then there is also—like in all sci-fi films and stories that humans have made about the perfect place—that moment when two thirds into the story, the tail of a dinosaur knocks on your door and you have to deal with it.”
That tail has a very familiar, ominous sound to it. It can be the pain of heartbreak, but also sorrows such as war, or illness. Dealing with bad situations, and understanding loss, is a part of the human condition, and a crucial part of moving on. And moving on doesn’t mean forgetting; if you wipe out your past, how can you ever learn and heal?
“When you go through heartbreak—or any loss—you’re full of self-pity,” Björk explains. “You think you’re the only one who’s ever experienced it, and then once you get over it you realise that everybody has lost something. In a way, this is me getting over my self-pity and getting on with life.”
The track “Losss,” in particular, is all about looking at pain in hindsight before you’re ready to move forward. But the album isn’t merely a passive reflection of things; rather, it’s about agency, and seeks to spur active steps forward. “I think I’ve never been as honest and naked about the fact that it was difficult for me to get over heartbreak,” Björk says, slowly. “I had to use will, and be intentional about the light. It’s not going to happen by itself. You have to decide that you’re going to get over it.”
But this call to arms isn’t relegated only to the personal. Instead, it branches out to the social aspects of life such as politics and environmental care. In an uncannily Shakespearean way, ‘Utopia’ encourages deeper relations between individuals as part of a community, as well as being themselves. If Björk is Shakespeare’s Prospero, we are her audience, and while she seeks no redemption, her spiritual call to us is no less important.
Björk’s expressed her sadness about Donald Trump’s retreat from the Paris Agreement on social media, where her post was widely shared, but her approach to our current social and political situation remains optimistic. “I think change is possible,” she affirms, decidedly. “But I think it’s become obvious that the governments are not going to save us and change our cities. We‘re going to have to do it from the ground up, and the sooner the better. It might seem utopian now, but we can totally do it.”
She cites the urban changes in London, where the air pollution from the factories was once so intrusive that it blocked out the sky; or those in Paris, when the city dismantled their underground foundations to install a sewage system. When authorities realised that systematic changes could improve life for everyone, they decided the long-term benefits outweighed the costs; their utopian view gave them a plan, and they stuck to it.
Now that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis, Björk says it’s time for us to find our own utopian recipe for change. “We’ve got to go green, and we’ve got to be intentional about it,” she says, gravely. “It’s so far out that it’s hard to even imagine right now. Imagining Iceland with no oil—it’s like a sci-fi novel. But we have to do it. We don’t have a choice.”
A game of blame
According to Björk, change is already occurring at a social level. One example is how we deal, both personally and societally, with sexual assault—although there’s still resistance from those who feel threatened by changes to the status quo. Even those who advocate for change seem to repeat the same mistakes. For example, in the US, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was largely anti-Trump, rather than offering a concrete alternative. Here in Iceland, the electorate feels increasingly left out as the Left Green Party, which was supposed to bear the torch of change, just recently ended up joining the right-wing Independence Party in government.
Despite being largely apolitical, Björk has strong opinions, and insists that the problem isn’t solely about the rise of right wing populism. “We were pointing our fingers at the right, saying that all the misogyny and corruption was there,” she says. “And that‘s true—but it‘s also in the left, and that needs to be addressed and revolutionised, We need to not just go by something that worked in the 1960s. The reason why we haven’t been able to form a left-wing government in last two elections isn’t just a problem of the right. It’s apparent that the left has just as much of an infrastructural problem as the right. I think they need to renew the idea of what it is to be a socialist.”
The real ideal
Throughout our time together, it strikes me how there’s never anything cheesy or oversimplified in what Björk says. Her thoughts are hard to keep track of, but they bear the wisdom of a woman who has lived. She’s intentional with her words, and even more so with her music. Nothing is left to chance—but at the same time, she leaves enough space for humour and self-deprecation to come through. After all, one has to have fun, too. What she does is purely herself—nothing more, and nothing less.
We end on a contagiously optimistic note. Björk wants to make it clear that while systematic change needs to come from politics, we can all make conscious choices when it comes to social change. And if it sounds grim to hear that solar and wind energies might soon be embraced by right wing governments because of their pecuniary benefits rather than their environmental impact, at least it’s a change for the better.
“When I talk about utopia, it’s not just some pipedream,” Björk finishes. “It’s more about the human need to try and rewrite the recipe. And then it’s not only about defining what you want, but also making it come true. Because even if only half of it comes true, you’re good.”