On a chilly Friday afternoon in late August, in an otherwise empty Reykjavik restaurant, Björk Guðmundsdóttir is having trouble focussing. “My eyes are going all over the place looking at the people, I can’t concentrate,” she complains jovially, getting up to switch seats. Finally comfortable, she leans forward to indicate she is giving her full attention. “I’m with you,” she says.
Björk’s new album, ‘Fossora’ is her first in five years—the longest period of time she has gone without releasing an album since her first solo record, ‘Debut’. It has also come out at a time of stark contrasts and upheaval for both the artist and the world at large. In the intervening period since 2017’s ‘Utopia’, Björk has gone through the loss of her mother, her daughter leaving home—and the small matter of a global pandemic.
Riding out the pandemic
“It was actually amazing for me, because I could just stay at home. I didn’t pack my suitcase for two years or more, which is the longest since I was like, sixteen,” Björk says of her experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, almost guiltily.
“There wasn’t that much of a lifestyle change here. I would be lying if I said otherwise, because the album is so much about that period,” she adds. “I had so many friends who knew people who passed away or who were stuck in one room for months, and we didn’t have any of that.”
Björk was lucky, she says. Lucky to be in Iceland, where restrictions were less harsh and outbreak numbers lower, lucky to be near her kids and loved ones, and lucky because she had a whole new album to create.
“For me, it was perfect timing,” she explains. “I was writing.”
“Like chocolate pudding”
But Björk resisted the urge to engage in overwrought pandemic productivity. While many of us fretted over how to spend our new-found time with knitting projects and sourdough bread, the artist took the time to do something she has never previously indulged in—slow down.
“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, this is the weirdest time ever. How can I at least try to turn it into something?’ Probably my biggest weakness is I put too many things on my plate,” Björk says emphatically. “And so I decided to not do that and just write the album.
For those—and there are many—who picture her as some kind of mythical elf creature, imagining Björk just kicking back at home might be inconceivable, but the musician insists her Covid life was relatively mundane.
“I was just really relaxed,” she says. “I was hanging out doing normal things and cooking and sort of partying—you know, living room raves.” Björk laughs “We all did that, right?”
This relaxed approach explains to a certain extent why ‘Fossora’ came together slowly. “I would only write when I felt really inspired,” Björk says. “My gift to myself during this time was not to be a workaholic.”
Despite the novelty of it, switching to this slow and measured approach to writing only delighted the artist: “I loved it, I really loved it. It felt like chocolate pudding every day.”
Another result of creating a pandemic album is that the supporting musicians and collaborators it features are almost entirely Icelandic, or Iceland-based. This is somewhat unusual for an artist who has spent much of her life living, at least part of the time, abroad, working with artists of all kinds across the world. But from another perspective, it is not surprising at all; Björk very much sees herself as a homebird, and considers being thought of as an Icelandic musician as “very important.”
“I was in a band when I was a teenager,” she says, of her early punk career. “And I was the one out of all them who wanted to stay at home.” She smiles at this. “Which is a very funny contradiction. It’s funny how life works.”
Despite finally leaving the country at 27 and having spent a significant part of the last three decades elsewhere, Björk is adamant that Iceland is, and always was, home.
“I’m always in Iceland half the time,” she insists. “Still, when I meet Icelanders, they always say, ‘Oh, I thought you lived abroad.’ But the thing is, when I’m here, I don’t go to openings or big things—I just go to little bars and meet my friends. It’s a kind of undercover lifestyle.”
Now though, with her daughter having graduated from school in Brooklyn and flown the nest, Björk has finally sold her home in New York, and sees herself being more permanently based in her home country from now on. It’s an idea which obviously excites her—there is visible joy and relief as she talks about it.
“It’s a new chapter in my life where I’m just here,” she says. “I’ve got all the boxes unpacked. Everything I own is in Iceland.”
The Icelandic album
Beyond just living in the country, Björk clearly sees herself as firmly embedded in the Icelandic musical community, as evidenced by who she has chosen to work with on ‘Fossora’. Local underground band Side Project, who are part of the post-dreifing community of artists, appear on the second single, “Ovule”, alongside Iceland Symphony Orchestra percussionist Soraya Nayya, who provided grounding timpani beats. Soraya, who is one of many musicians from the orchestra to be featured, also performs the distinctive tubular bells on Björk’s lament for her mother, “Ancestress”.
“We spent a lot of time in [Soraya’s] percussion basement,” Björk says of the arrangement process. “It was fun—like a playground.”
Björk’s albums are often conceptually tied to a particular sound or instrument, and ‘Fossora’ is no different. In contrast with the high-pitched, breathy flutes of her previous release, ‘Utopia’, this record is grounded by Gameleon Gabber beats and weighty bass clarinets. While putting the album together, Björk regularly took her fellow musicians to her summer house just outside of Reykjavík to rehearse. One can only imagine the experience of overhearing six bass clarinets booming across the Icelandic countryside.
Even the more international elements of the album were funnelled through Björk’s Icelandic context. ‘Fossora’s distinctive beats were produced by Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi, whose work was also the themetrack to Björk’s aforementioned living room raves. The pair collaborated with Björk remotely—via Zoom calls. It seems even an ethereal, world-renowned artist was not immune to the ubiquitous Zoom meeting during lockdown.
The track “Ancestress” also features vocals from another significant guest musician: Sindri Eldon Þórsson, Björk’s son. In fact, both of her children lend their voices to the album, with Björk’s daughter, Ísadóra appearing on the poignant “Her Mother’s House”—tackling the subject of her leaving home head on.
It’s notable that what Björk is processing in this work—themes of maturation, empty nest syndrome, the grief of losing a parent—are common elements of life, especially for women. Through her brutally honest lyricism, she displays herself as sandwiched between two generations, with her kids on one side and her mother on the other. Despite the universality of the situation, it feels like quite uncharted territory; there is relatively little artistic output that deals with these particular experiences.
“Both my kids are grownups now,” Björk acknowledges. “With that and my mother gone it definitely feels like a new phase in our family, which I find very interesting. I’m very curious about that period of life.”
Finding the moment
This is the first time Björk’s children have appeared on her records, despite the fact that Sindri is now an established musician himself. But having herself experienced the pressure of releasing music and appearing in the spotlight at a very young age—she was only 11 when her first album was released—Björk held back from showcasing her kids until the moment felt “right.”
“I wonder why I did that for the first time now,” she ponders, before laughingly half-answering herself, “Sometimes you don’t know why you do things!”
“I think it’s because my younger one is grown up now, I can deal with them both as equals,” Björk goes on. “I don’t know what word to use—they’re all kind of ugly—but my fame, I guess— it has affected my kids.”
She puts the word ‘fame’ in inverted commas in her voice, screwing up her face in distaste. “It sort of sucked a lot of the time,” she says honestly. “But I felt at least with my work, it should be about meeting them as equals.
Nevertheless, Björk felt anxious about including her children in the process and thrusting them into the limelight of her very real ‘fame.’
“It feels good, but I was worried till the end,” she admits. “I kept asking them both, ‘Does this feel ok? Are you sure about this? You can pull out at any time.’ But they are both very happy with it. They felt it was something we should do.”
Sold out stadium concerts, world-wide success, featuring her kids on her 10th studio album… It’s all pretty impressive, but does this really make Björk a cool mom? She giggles at the suggestion. “You’d have to ask my kids,” she says.
She confesses, however, that Side Project are “sort of more friends of my daughter, really,” and that she sometimes “gatecrashes” their hangouts. She recently saw them play downtown on Culture Night and describes the experience with glee.
“They’re the continuation of the sort of music I love—experimental electronic music,” Björk says, her eyes lighting up with the memory. “So I mean—I was in heaven. Standing there, with a jar of white wine, in some garden, listening to Side Project. I was like—my life is wonderful!” She bursts into peals of laughter “It’s everything you need. And then, boom, fireworks!”
While that does all sound pretty cool, Björk thinks that there is something more inherently Icelandic about hanging out with older relatives. “In Iceland, the generations drink together,” she says. “You’ll get drunk with your grandfather.”
“That’s considered ‘shock horror’ in London or New York,” she explains, laughing again. “But I don’t think it’s because we’re particularly nice people. It’s more of a necessity. There’s not many of us, you naturally meet other generations at a concert or a poetry reading or whatever.”
Björk continues, more seriously now. “I actually really like that about Iceland, that it’s such a small village and you have to deal with it. All the shit that you’ve done over your lifetime—the good and the bad—it’s just there.”
“So,” she concludes, joking again. “In that sense, I have partied with my kids, yes. Does that make me a cool mom?” She smiles. “Not necessarily. I have tried to give them space, too. To not be too much.”
A right to be private
Again, for those outside of Iceland, it might seem totally bizarre to imagine an artist such as Björk just turning up to a casual neighbourhood concert. If you google ‘Björk’s house,’ a picture comes up of a hunting lodge on Vestmannaeyjar, with the caption, ‘This is Bjork’s house. The country where its located is called Moose Gay Moose Tits. This is where Bjork lives.’
When I tell her this, Björk is amused and perplexed. “Ok, weird,” she chuckles. To be clear: this is absolutely not where Björk lives. But getting her audience to understand the relationship between the two sides of her identity—Björk the mystical, whimsical creative artist, and Björk the extremely private, easygoing homebody—has always presented a challenge.
“I’ve always just lived a very normal life, that was very important for me,” she says. “I go to the shop, I buy food, I come home and cook it.”
It’s a far cry from the life of whimsy and glamour her fans might expect, but Björk is adamant that she is entitled to a quiet private life.
“I did some things in the beginning that I’m still benefiting from now, because I’m very persistent,” she explains. “Like, I never do autographs in Iceland. I never do photos. And everyone in Iceland knows this, so they leave me be.”
While Björk makes it clear that she loves her fans, and appreciates their support of her work, she is grateful for the hard lines about her personal life that she laid down early in her career.
“When this all happened to me in the 90s, it was before the internet.” Björk says. “So it was like, you’re either a celebrity or you’re not, and if you are a celebrity, people get 24/7 access to you. And I was like, no! That’s not fair!”
“I’m the sort of musician who gives so much of myself,” she continues. “I’m always writing music, I’m always writing lyrics, I’m always releasing stuff.”
“That’s my way of being generous,” Björk says, with feeling. “But you coming and bothering me in the supermarket? Fat chance!” She makes a downward motion with her hand to drive the point home: “That’s where I draw my line.”
It seems clear that in her 50s, child-free and divorced, deeply rooted in Iceland but with her head still in the clouds of her unbound creativity, Björk might have found her way into a groove that works. She writes by walking around, recording herself singing, coming home with a melody that she then arranges.
“That is always more time consuming, because it sometimes takes weeks for me to do a string arrangement or a clarinet arrangement,” Björk explains. “And then obviously, it’s the rehearsals. And then you change the arrangements depending on what you hear. So with all this is and then obviously the beats it’s a long, long process.”
That long process is nearly up for ‘Fossora’, however, and soon a new cycle will emerge—of performances, tours, and many, many interviews like this one.
At the beginning of our conversation together, I had to make a confession. Embarrassingly enough, I admitted that ‘Fossora’ is the first Björk album I have listened to. To my relief, she is delighted.
“I’m quite excited. I’ve done quite a few interviews in my life,” Björk says, her eyes twinkling with the ironic understatement. “It’s good for me to start from a fresh point.”
In some ways, the idea of starting from a fresh point epitomises ‘Fossora’. It is post-Covid, post-grief, post-parenthood. A new identity is being formed, which for Björk takes place, conceptually, “somewhere cosy in the ground, with the mushrooms.” Somehow, even with her 10th album, Björk always knows exactly how to rip it up and start again.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!