In Björk’s ideal fantasy life she spends all of her time writing music, cued by the cycles of the moon. “When the new moon comes, I’d go under, like a submarine,” she explains, motioning up and down with her arms. “On a full moon it all comes out. Then I’d descend back down toward the new moon. Whatever happens between two full moons is enough material for a song. Between two full moons you’re a different enough person that the songs will always be different. It seems like a natural cycle.”
Of course, life isn’t so exact. Her most recent album, ‘Vulnicura’, was leaked two months in advance of its release date. “When Vulnicura was leaked, me and James [Merry] looked at each other and were just like, okay, let’s surrender,” she says. “Let’s just let it do its thing.”
That attitude of surrender has been consistent in this album, from the writing of the opening lines to the planning of performances. ‘Vulnicura’ was written rapidly in the wake of a searing divorce—by no means attuned to the tides of the moon. “I’ve been trying to ride this beast Vulnicura and just be true to it,” Björk explains, “so it’s been very improvised. I think it suits the subject matter to present it this way. It is a nice counterpoint to the severity of the contents.”
The organic development of the work itself has carried into her tour and into the accompanying virtual reality exhibition, Björk: Digital. “I’m at a place in my life where I’m really enjoying not making plans,” she says. “Each album I’ve done, I’ve toured less and less. Part of what I’m enjoying about this Björk Digital exhibition is that it changes from month to month. There is no master plan.”
Tune with a view
2007’s ‘Volta’ and, especially, 2011’s ‘Biophilia’ plunged Björk into the world of programming and app creation, which evolved into a fascination with virtual reality. The content of ‘Vulnicura’ is so physically invasive, Björk explains, that it takes something like a VR experience to display the power that she herself felt in the music. The track ‘Notget,’ for instance—whose completed VR form will premier with the exhibition in Reykjavík—“is about having a heart wound, sewing it up yourself, and then starting to somersault and tumble into the sky,” Björk says. “In a music video that would look too simplistic, but with a tool like VR the person listening to the song is sewing up his or her own chest and somersaulting and flying through the sky. That’s pretty powerful. It matches Vulnicura.”
Since the beginnings of her career Björk’s music has had a visual—even visceral—presence. Her second solo album ‘Post’ was accompanied by music videos from Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. In 1999 Chris Cunningham famously brought to life the love story between two robots for “All Is Full Of Love.” Last year, in 2015, the MoMA in New York exhibited a retrospective of audios, visuals, artifacts and everything quintessentially ‘Björk’ from the past two decades.
“When I write a song it’s always very visual and very physical,” Björk says. “I think most people who write music are like that. For example, I might be writing and all of the stars above me are shivering, and I want to make a sound for that. When you say that to someone it’s kind of like: ‘Okay, you’ve got a problem.’ But in VR you can just make the stars shiver, and match it to the song.”
Ten points for heartbreak
VR opened into another unforeseeable expanse for Björk. “After Björk Digital in Australia and Tokyo I found a nice surprise: that there was quite a feminist statement here,” she says. In September, New York Magazine featured Björk in their cover story “In Virtual Reality, Women Rule The World.” The field, still in infancy, has no boundaries, no systems, and no hierarchies. This creates an opportunity for a high proportion of women to enter the notoriously male-dominated tech world in positions across the board—financial, technical, and design alike. Similar to the way the ‘Vulnicura’ and ‘Björk: Digital’ tour are developing, the Virtual Reality world is being created as we speak. Organically. At Björk’s command.
She grew up “rolling her eyes” at her radical feminist mother who “was always moaning about how guys were horrible,” she relates. “I was just kind of like ok, that’s great. You did that for your generation. My generation is not about moaning, it’s about just going out and doing things, and then presenting it once it’s done, so you can be like: ‘Look what I’ve done, I’m equal to the guys.’”
In the past two or three years, however, Björk noticed a new place to voice her feminist concerns. Or, rather, to un-voice them. A place in the music. “One thing I can do to support young women in the music industry,” she says, “is to adjust how we talk about what we do apart from just being singer-songwriters.”
Recently Björk was talking with fellow singer/producer/mix-master-badass-lady-musicians M.I.A. and Peaches, wondering: “Why do people think that some guy turns up and does the shit in the studio, and then we turn up and sing?”
“Maybe it’s because we don’t talk about it,” she answers. “There are no photos of us at the mixing desk.” She decided that her “way of being a feminist” would include speaking more blatantly about the music she composes. And also getting photograph of M.I.A. at the mixing desk.
‘Biophilia’ and ‘Vulnicura’ were released a few years apart. While ‘Biophilia’ revolved around her interests in musicology, technology and education, ‘Vulnicura’ sprang from heartbreak. “A lot of journalists didn’t know what to do with Biophilia,” says Björk. “Because I didn’t write about my boyfriend or not-boyfriend, they were like ‘uuuh, this is a failure. She didn’t score any points on the emo-love-affair scale.’” ‘Vulnicura,’ on the other hand, has been one of her most well-received albums ever released. It’s a fact that she doesn’t dwell on, but at the same time, can’t tune out. “The little prankster in the back of my head goes: ‘Okay, so if I sing love and heartbreak I get a ten, but if I sing about crystals I’ve failed,’” she says.
The planetary scheme
For the London premiere of Vulnicura Björk performed, for the first time, without any beats or outside production. ‘Vulnicura Strings’ is an orchestra and voice version of the album that she composed and released in November of last year. “I was really blessed in England,” she says. “I got really good reviews of the shows—but not one person mentioned the arrangements. All of the emphasis was on my divorce. That’s kind of typical.” She plans to perform ‘Vulnicura Strings’ for her Airwaves shows as well.
But Björk is not ungrateful. In fact, she mentions repeatedly how “spoiled” she is with attention, and how lucky she feels to have people interested in her work after all these years. The longevity of her career speaks to her instinctual curiosity to disassemble and reassess the world around her; the Sugarcubes’ 1988 “Television Talk” footage provides a testament to the former, her voyages into virtual reality a testament to the latter. As long as there is the universe to be examined—whether on the sub-atomic level of heartbreak, or the planetary scheme—Björk remains curious, and creating. So while syncing up with the moon is romantic, maybe it’s more in her nature to make the stars shake.
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Posted October 26, 2016