Published February 6, 2015
Björk has a way of messing up our plans. We were all set with a February-feature when she surprise dropped her new album, out of the blue. And, you know, it’s a really goddamn great album.
Sure, her albums usually are—even if you don’t like what she’s doing at a given time, you have to respect it—but this one feels especially important somehow. After years of addressing the world at large through her art, examining the grander themes, asking the greater questions; after all the effort she’s put towards literally saving Iceland; she’s once more turned to examining her core, baring her soul, exposing her wounds.
This inward gaze is part of a long and difficult process that’s intensely personal, yet infinitely relatable (and if you don’t relate now, just wait: pain is coming). In its musical form, it serves to remind us how and why we connected in the first place, while providing context to understand and appreciate what preceded.
We thus really had no other choice than basically drop everything and celebrate, pay tribute (even if it basically meant forfeiting sleep and physical well-being for a week). The Artist was kind enough to grant us an hour of her time for conversation and introspection; what follows is a transcript of that meeting (by the way, this fancy online version is like twice as long as the one that appears in our print edition (anything after that “cake” bit is new), so do read this one too. It has some cool extra stuff).
Thanks again for giving us time. We got so excited about the record when it appeared all of the sudden, we felt we had to feature it somehow. The accidental release. How do you feel about that?
Well, the leak happened just a day after the record was mastered, so, the album was ready, you know? I probably would have reacted differently if it hadn’t been, if the songs were half finished or the sound was off. But this just seemed right. It’s been such an unusual record for me, both in terms of the subject matter, and also just how quickly I made it. I started working with Alejandro [Ghersi, Arca, Björk’s collaborator on ‘Vulnicura’], and all of the sudden we had a record, before we knew it! So when this happens, we’re just, “let’s release it, then!”
Everything about this record was a bit impulsive.
That comes through! Vulnicura feels like you were riding a wave of creativity, rather than carefully crafting some masterpiece.
Yes, it was a mix of things. I’m just now comprehending it all. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to grasp the bigger picture. I think what happened was that a lot of things aligned to allow for that, to create that environment. With Biophilia, I was actively attempting to map the music theory within me. I spent a lot of time working with programmers trying to get it down.
It felt like a big spring cleaning, the act of trying to somehow visualize the music theory I work by and map it out. And it put me back at the beginning, at square one, writing music again.
I had also developed a knot in my vocal cords. I underwent an operation two years ago, after which all my high notes returned, I could sing the whole scale again, having experienced a lot of problems with my voice for the two or three years prior.
It felt like a new beginning in so many ways. My music theory was at square one, I was back to writing songs, I had a new voice to work with… and then, of course, the divorce happened…. Which is something you really have no control over. And then, I just wrote the songs really fast, sort of when you’re in that state…
So, when Alejandro came along, I had probably seven songs ready. I’d written the lyrics, recorded the vocals, arranged the strings. It’s such an unusual method for me; it’s more akin to how I made Post, maybe. When I was more of a singer-songwriter type, and would just bring in guys in to craft beats to my songs. As time has progressed I’ve turned to doing more of that by myself. The songs get born alongside the arrangements and beats and the rest—that’s the process I’ve developed over the years. This was therefore the first time in a really long while that I began by working on songs, lyrics and string arrangements.
So, Biophilia is about mapping out your music theory, and when you start the process of Vulnicura, you’ve developed a sort of toolbox to work with?
I think it was somehow cleansing for me to have to define my music theory, to go back to square one with regards to these really basic questions. Like, “what does songwriting mean?” I had to rediscover simplicity.
And then, of course, Alejandro entered the picture. That had a lot of effects. He just contacted me out of the blue, and he’d been a fan of mine… at first I was a little reserved, you know…
But then he turned out to be just really… He knew my old records probably better than I did. And he gave all this wonderful energy—he was so happy all the time—I just decided to go with it.
I could have made the beats on my own, but it would have taken me two more years of work. And then this man arrived as if from out of nowhere, and after a while I decided that I should just drop the ego and assume the role of backseat driver with regards to the beats.
When he came in, the structure was there for a lot of the songs, so he knew where we had to bring a racket and where we had to keep it calm. I’d drum the beats out for him [bangs on the table] to sort of demonstrate what I was after. And, of course, he would add to them from his own heart.
We started at the beginning of the record and worked our way forward. As we got to know one another, something happened… When we reached the latter half of Family, song number five, he brought in some parts that he had written. And then, the seventh song, Notget, we wrote that one together. At that point, we had become a fifty-fifty team.
So the first five and a half songs are ones where I act more as a backseat driver in terms of the beats and the programming, but we eventually got to know one another better. When you work that closely with someone, you’ll forge a deep connection; you realize where your tastes overlap. Like, we’ll both love a certain record. Even though we are totally different in every respect, we share this common ground, and in Notget we took that all the way.
Notget is like the centre of a Venn diagram, then…
Yes [laughing], exactly. Like in the latter half of Family, he wrote music and I added strings to what he wrote. Which is actually the reverse from the rest of the songs, where I wrote the strings first.
STUCK IN THE PAIN
Tell me about the string arrangements. Like with Black Lake. That song is like ten minutes long. How do you organize the strings for such a monster? It’s hard to imagine. How you decide how things are laid out, what goes where, why, et cetera?
Is this a stupid question?
No, not at all. I’m trying to remember how I made it. I think I was mostly focused on emotion. This is the record’s hardest song for me. It was written three months after the divorce. I flew to Japan and didn’t manage to adjust to the time difference, because… you know…
It was really the bottom for me, in that process. I had checked into this wonderful health retreat to recover from the jetlag, it was just me and James [Merry, Björk’s assistant] and his boyfriend Jón, acting silly and having laughing fits. And there were these hot springs and everyone was wearing Samurai clothes, as if we were in a Japanese animé.
I would operate on Icelandic time, sleeping through the day, spending my nights soaking in the hotsprings by myself. And I wrote this song, insanely jetlagged, and I had to work through this feeling… [silence]… It’s like, when you’re trying to express something and you sort of start, but then nothing comes out. You can maybe utter five words and then you’re just stuck in the pain. And the chords in-between, they sort of represent that. Those minutes of stuttering silence. Then, you maybe manage a few more words, and then you’re stuck again.
We called them “the freezes,” these moments between the verses. They’re longer than the verses, actually. It’s just that one emotion when you’re stuck. It is hard, but it’s also the only way to escape the pain, just going back and having another go, trying to make another verse.
Black Lake also employs a method that I used a long time ago, in a song off Post that’s called Possibly Maybe. In that song, each verse was named after a month, it was nine verses for nine months. Actually, some of those verses wound up being cut, and of course it’s not at all as dramatic, but it shares with Black Lake a… a temporality? As in, the song progresses through time. The first verse happens a month after… I can’t remember for sure, but the second verse is maybe a week later, and the next verse is a week after that.
By the time we reach the last verse, something has changed, something is different.
This also seems true of Vulnicura as a whole. It’s like this record, this song, they can be a little… rough to take in. But then, we progress, and by the time we reach the last track, I want to listen to it again.
That’s good to hear.
Listening to the record, it’s hard not to attempt to contextualize it with your prior work. The first track sort of eases you into the experience, like slipping into a hot pool. It sounds kind of friendly and nice, and then there’s that allusion or callback to Who Is It?”—is that intentional, by the way?
Yes. Yes, I think that’s probably correct.
It feels as if revisiting that melody in an entirely different context somehow creates a really personal moment with the listener, you feel really ready for what follows, ready to take it on. And then we sink into the Black Lake and it becomes clear we’re on a ride… the entire experience, the structure, they feel really mapped out and skilfully executed. Is that by design?
No, not really… I couldn’t have planned this. It somehow just happened. I think that’s why I decided to assign timestamps to some of the tracks, like “nine months before,” “five months before”, et cetera…. to maybe offer some context.
I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’ve never in my life felt this way, ever. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But, when it happens to you, you’re just… you’re stuck in one month, then you move on to the next one. It’s like chapters in a book that you go through. That process of grief.
What helped me the most—which really annoyed me, actually—was a book that [composer/frequent collaborator] Jónas Sen gave me. A self-help book that Oprah Winfrey really loved or endorsed or something. You know, one of those books that shifts fifty-nine scrillion copies. And it describes this process of grief, and it says it’s the same whether you’re going through a divorce or losing your job or if someone close to you dies… it maps out this process that everyone goes through.
I just felt ridiculous reading that book [laughs heartily]: “After one month, you’ll feel like this. At month two, you’ll feel like this. At month three, it’ll be like this. And so on. And so on.” I was super annoyed. I hated feeling as if I was just scrolling through some predetermined programme.
As if you’re just some Dr. Phil cliché?
Exactly, am I just some cliché? Everyone goes through that same process, but I just resisted at first. It felt so normcore. But, then, I also thought it was really funny. That you just have to concede to it somehow. That’s why I wrote down the months along with the song titles.
That was also maybe because, I felt almost embarrassed about some of what’s on that album. Like with Black Lake. It’s so full of self-pity. However, it feels a little different if I can say: “that song was written three months after the divorce—give me a break! I was maybe feeling really sorry for myself and filled with cowardice when I wrote that, but a few months have passed—I’m doing better now!”
So there’s also humour in it. But I could barely stand to play it for my friends. I felt embarrassed.
What was the book called?
I don’t remember. It was just one of those books you get off Amazon, you know. It helped me so much. I felt so horrible. And I’d read, “you’ll feel better in three months.” And I’d think, “OK…” and get more frustrated, but then it turned out to be absolutely true.
It seems like your listeners have been really connecting with the album in the few weeks it’s been out. Online and off, folks are praising it, claiming it’s the best thing that you’ve done in ages. That leads one to wonder: Since your last album could be construed as a grandiose macro meditation—an examination of the universe as whole—the act of narrowing your focus so much, down to your inner core, maybe results in even grander universal themes? As your art turns more personal, it becomes more universal, touching upon mutual human themes, something we all experience in one way or the other….
Mhm. Yes. That’s an interesting proposition. I remember reading some article that claimed European films were focused on the psychological plane, American films revolved around the hero’s struggle—adversity and conquest—and Japanese films were all about the environment the protagonist inhabits.
That idea, that division, somehow resonates with me. That’s maybe why a lot of Japanese art and filmmaking is the way it is—it feels almost ambient at times. Environmental. I watch a lot of Japanese films, and read Japanese books—they’re ambient too. They are all about the atmosphere—there are rarely any psychological or symbolic underpinnings. And neither are there any Rocky-type themes about overcoming adversity… the filmmaking is on a different plane.
The reason I mention this is because I quite enjoy that kind of art, but I also enjoy other approaches. I don’t necessarily think any one style or form trumps others. I probably listen the most to music that belongs to that Japanese model, as I described it; instrumental music, world music, electronic and classical—no vocals or lyrics–music that’s more about the atmosphere. It fits my days better, when I’m doing things around the house it can be hard to have that confessional singer-songwriter type talking at me.
I guess what I’m clumsily trying to say is this: I think there’s a place for music that’s more environmental and ambient in spirit, like Biophilia. I think it’s justified. People use music so differently. A lot of music nerds, like myself and Ási [head of Smekkleysa/Bad Taste Inc.] will listen everything; the psychological singer-songwriter model, music concerned with the struggle, and, you know, ambient and world music—the whole spectrum. But people who are maybe more amateur listeners—and I don’t mean that in a bad way—people who aren’t obsessed music nerds maybe prefer something that’s of the psychological model, that’s more direct and addresses specific situations.
And I think that’s great.
Still, at the same time I think someone like myself couldn’t write that kind of record every time. I think the reason that maybe more people are connecting with Vulnicura is because it’s been such a long time since I made this kind of record. If I had always stuck to that formula, it would be more of a routine…
When I was a kid, my heroes were writers, people like Halldór Laxness and Þórbergur Þórðarson. Writers were really the only models we had to look up to, and in their sphere, it’s always a question of a fifty year career, where you’ll eventually get good at what you’re doing: If you keep at it, you’ll be good at around age fifty. That was a real influence, and I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind.
And thinking about it in those terms, if you want to document every side of yourself and still have plenty to talk about when you’re sixty five, you need to circle the solar system—making a Biophilia here and a Volta there—and then you can return to the first person singular singer-songwriter narrative. And then you go another round. I absolutely couldn’t make another Biophilia at this moment in time—now that there are all these app guys emailing me, it’s not at all exciting.
Like after I made Vespertine, all these guys kept sending me beats. And I was just, “No, now I’m making an acapella record.”
I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. I mean it more like, I think I work like a writer works, or a director. Someone like Sjón will write a book, like his last one, about a gay man in Reykjavík at the turn of the 20th century, and then he maybe writes one that’s set in the Westfjords in the 17th century… Each work comes with different themes, a different approach….
I think my albums are more like that, you know? That’s why I like to explore new places on each one. Like film directors; they’ll make a costume drama and then a sci-fi comedy… Perhaps Biophilia was my sci-fi film?
Do you feel as if there’s a demand for the musician to always inhabit that autobiographical space, that she is perhaps not warranted as much freedom as, say, the director or the writer?
Sometimes. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Seriously—and I’m not joking—I can’t believe that people are still interested in what I’m doing after all these years. That still surprises me. But it would be kind of boring if I always occupied that singer-songwriter role. You know, if every record of mine was like that, it would be tiring. Everything in the first person singular, always. It’s kind of narcissistic. However, when you’re making a heartbreak record like this, you just need to start from the bottom.
That’s one thing I love about music; you can write a song about rolling down a grassy hill, or what’s inside a grape, or getting drunk in Fáskrúðsfjörður on a Friday afternoon… a symphony about fish… music can be so many things, other than Freudian psychological exploration. You know?
This is an interesting topic. I don’t know. I wonder why this feels like a necessary disclaimer. Do we make different demands of musicians than other artists? Or is it maybe because you are part of pop culture that you feel inclined to explain it like this? The classical composer, which you’ve often aligned yourself with, seems like she’s free to explore whichever theme…. Is it different traditions clashing, or?
I still look at myself as a pop musician. I am very proud to be one. I love folk music, what’s common, what belongs to everyone, and I love songs, like [classic] Kvölda tekur sest er sól. There are a scrillion folk songs that aren’t necessarily about heartbreak or in that singer-songwriter vein… but then, there are of course tunes that are [laughs].
There’s room for everything, is what I’m trying to say.
HAVING SOME CAKE
How important is it to you, reaching a large audience?
Well, it isn’t… it isn’t number one in my book, as you might have noticed. I would probably be making different music if that were the main goal. But, I’m still always elated when it happens. Especially like now, when I don’t feel like I have sacrificed anything…
No. And that makes it feel like a great bonus.
I’m such a veteran now, I’ve been in this business for a billion, scrillion years. I’ve seen success come and go so often. Like with The Sugarcubes. We were the hottest band around with our first record, the flavour of the month. Then by the second one, we were out in the cold…
I don’t know, maybe not seeking mass appeal is also a survival mechanism. Then again, I never really consider public or critical reception when I listen to music, and the people that I most appreciate, like Kate Bush, never seem to strive for that.
Kate Bush. I remember being back in Iceland, listening to her obsessively by myself, not having any idea which of her records had done well and which had flopped. I was totally lacking any context. Twenty years later, I saw a documentary about Kate that denoted the high and low points of her career. I learned that her most successful songs and albums were the ones I least liked. And those instances where she was said to have completely blown it—those had been my favourite moments.
So I’ve always sort of thought that time will tell, you know. Some twenty-year-old will maybe go to Kolaportið and find some forgotten old vinyl album and she’ll fall in love with track number five… I enjoy that, how people respond differently to songs, how the context changes. Breaking through to a large audience is wonderful, but it isn’t everything.
One of the reasons I ask is because I recently saw Kanye West perform, and he seemed to be taking massive inspiration from your shows and general approach. It felt evident that he desires to express himself on an artistic level, without compromise, while still reaching an audience of millions—a very lofty goal…
I’ve never seen him play, I couldn’t say…
I’m not so much asking about him as that ambition he exudes. It feels as if he, along with a few contemporaries, look to you as someone who got to have her cake and eat it too. You got to do all that crazy shit, while maintaining a huge presence, staging grand concerts for a legion of dedicated fans…
Mhm. Yeah. I don’t really know how to respond to that.
I think I’m maybe a little lucky to have come up in Reykjavík with [independent record store/Smekkleysa precursor] Grammið and Smekkleysa and that whole group.
We always emphasized self-sufficiency, we didn’t need approval from Jón [Ólafsson, former record mogul, current businessman] from [Iceland’s then-major label] Skífan to be good. “If you get a deal with Skífan, you’re a good musician, if not, then you’re a bad musician…”—we rejected that ridiculous mode of thinking, certain that whether or not some Jón from Skífan liked you had nothing to do with the quality of your music. That we needed to follow our own conviction. If we wanted to release a record, we couldn’t just stand around waiting for someone to come and rescue us—you just need to have faith, and do it yourself [laughs].
Of course seasons change, and sometimes it gets hard, but you always have that backup plan. You value your creation on your own terms instead of seeking outside validation… I’ve always felt fortunate to come from that background.
It brings to mind a conversation I recently had with my friend Antony [Hegarty], the singer. He had been listening to my record, and he said something interesting, he said: “When everything fails, you can always just go back home.”
That made me think. Yes, it’s true. I went back to Iceland and wrote a record. I could do that—I am incredibly fortunate. There are so many people here [gestures out the window, at Manhattan] who, if they have a bad year or something, simply cannot go home—there is no “home” to return to. A lot of Antony’s friends are transgender, people who have been ostracised from the communities they come from. New York is like a collection of all of America’s outcasts. They all flee here. So, I thought that was an interesting point of view, this idea that we from Iceland can allow ourselves to be a little more daring; if everything fails, we can just go home.
It makes me feel very privileged. So many talented musicians out there never entertain the notion of making the record they want to make. It’s an odd little pursuit; I’ll meet these really talented musicians who keep just waiting for some John Brown or whoever to give his approval, for some gatekeeper to say yay or nay. I can’t imagine anything more horrifying.
So your group created its own system, played by its own rules…
Yes, there was never any desire to seek outside acceptance. I think a lot of Icelandic musicians are kind of like that…
Do you think this attitude is the result of an older tradition that you guys carried on, or is it more a thing of your own making?
I’m not really sure. Of course, I mostly know about my own generation. There were definitely people before us who played by their own rules, like Þursaflokkurinn… I’m thinking out loud here… people Jón Leifs and Jórunnn Viðar, who were making this specifically Icelandic kind of music…
Because the country is so small, you could maybe exist on the periphery and still reach most everyone…
Yeah [laughs] and making the top ten charts didn’t really bring any benefits, really. “Great! My song is number one! Now I’ll never have to worry about money again! Woohoo!” [laughs hysterically].
That was never in the cards. If you wanted to play difficult music, you played difficult music. If you were into pop music, you played pop music. Not to make money, but because that’s what you liked to do. That’s just the way it was—the only questions we concerned ourselves with were: “What is good music? And what isn’t?”
Tell us about the album cover… will the image released on iTunes grace the physical version?
The physical copy will feature a different image. We’re doing something similar to what we did with Volta, which had two covers. Because of the leak and the rushed release, only one of the cover images was ready. The second one will appear with the physical version.
How involved are you in that process, artwork and visual representation in general?
I’ve always been very involved in that process. I supply the basics; I’ll bring the clothes, dictate the colours—I always have very definite ideas about each album’s colours, and a clear sense of the emotion that needs to be conveyed. Then I’ll work with photographers and [long-time collaborators] M/M Paris to create the final product.
Can you tell us about the tiara you’re wearing on the cover?
Ah, yes. I think James [Merry] found it somewhere. I used one of those in concert last year. I was in the process of writing Black Lake, and there was just something about it that I felt signified forgiveness, and pain. It’s a symbol of forgiveness. You’re in pain, but the only way to move forward emotionally is through forgiveness. And if you manage that—which I don’t claim to have always done, although I do my best—you’ll reach this state you’re trying to attain, where you can admit: “OK, I have a soul. I can forgive. Can I move forward now?”
These colours on the cover, the yellow and the lilac, they have a lot of spiritual implications… in scenes of heartbreak or grief, there’s a lot of black, but there is also a lot of light.
It’s that juxtaposition. I mentioned this in an interview the other day, this whole thing with “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life,” it’s an important idea. It’s when you have this scar on your heart, but you’re on the dance floor and you’re ecstatic and both are equally true. Salvation comes through the pain, and through the light that follows.
So, this tiara is a little bit about that. Accepting the darkness is the only way to seek the light.
This brings to mind the album’s last track, Quicksand, when you sing: “when i am broken, i am whole…” It feels like a declaration that you’ve moved on, that the cycle is broken…
You’re always waiting for that moment when you’re entirely cured. That’s the black and white of things.
It’s maybe about thinking that someone else is broken, and that you’re whole. But if you mirror it… it’s a little abstract. It’s about criticising people, that mirror.
Or an attempt at that.
And, you know, living with yourself. Being broken and whole at the same time. And learning that this is OK. You know.
But, I don’t know. Sometimes words just look well on a page. They’ll sing.