From Iceland — A Conversation With Björk

A Conversation With Björk

Published July 20, 2009

A Conversation With Björk

As part of the promotional campaign for the new Voltaic box set, Björk Guðmundsdóttir gave out several interviews to the local press. Grapevine was invited to participate, and we of course jumped at the chance. It’s the Björk we love and respect, and when she speaks, we listen. Carefully. So we won’t waste any more wordcount on introductions, we got 35 minutes with Björk, and the following details most of them.
On Voltaic…
Congratulations on your new box set. It looks swell. Can you describe the process of making such a compilation? How involved are you – do you yourself choose everything that goes on them?
Well, I did when I made the live box set that was released six years ago or something. We’d recorded all the concerts for ten years, we had many hundreds of hours of recordings to go through, and we did, Ásmundur [Jónsson, head of Bad Taste/Smekkleysa] and I. It was a lot of work, but it fit me at the time, because I was enveloped in my nesting hormones. I was pregnant, and could turn into a librarian. That’s not usually my strongest side; I am not a collector, that’s not my thing. When I was done with that, I thought: ‘OK, in the future, I am not waiting ten years.’ The Volta tour would be coming out in 2019, and that makes no sense. It’s missing the point.
So I decided to do this as I went along, which is also the nature of the Volta project. Vespertine and Medúlla were total studio endeavours; they were worked on an toyed with for a long time. I wanted… when I made Volta, I hadn’t toured for four years, and I wanted to go out. So Volta took a year to write and four years to tour. It’s the first time I make a record like this. Usually it’s the reverse. Three years crafting a record and then maybe touring it for five months. That’s what I did with Vespertine; I put all emphasis on the creative space and writing, touring was like an afterthought.
But with Volta, I wanted to get out of the studio. I was stuck there, making a record that I knew wouldn’t be good until after two years of touring. Initially after its release, I felt Volta was just OK, but the songs started coming together and by the end they had taken a shape that I liked.

Rock-animal mode
So you prefer the live versions on Voltaic over the studio ones?
In the Volta project, at least. It was that kind of experiment. I wanted to make raw music. The idea was all this tribal, rave something, battling for equality and justice, standing on a mountaintop with horns, waving flags. It needed to be raw. It couldn’t be a three-year studio record with doilies and patchwork.
So you were conveying a different emotion than on the previous two records? More on the physical or primal side of things?
Yes, yes, very much so. I wanted to do all the festivals and visit all the continents this time around. I had left them out for the decade prior. I hadn’t been to South America and Asia for ten years, outside of Japan, and I thought I’d just, you know, go all the way with this. This might even be the last project where I’m this sort of rock-animal. Volta was sort of a rock-animal record.
On her next record, and past records…
-Do you write music while touring? In rock-animal mode? That seems like it could be interesting to hear…
Well, I don’t usually write when I am touring. I keep trying, and I do travel with equipment to do so, but it doesn’t happen. Partly because you’re inhabiting that other world that comes with being on tour. Also, as a singer you are sort of an athlete; you have to tend to your body, eat right, take a massage after the long flights. You turn into a racehorse that needs to be maintained and stay in shape – which is fun, but often frustrating. You’ll just have to focus on that, so the other animal in you suffers.
I often write melodies on tour, in my head, I always write the melodies first. We also worked a lot on the arrangements for the other songs, we always rehearsed during soundcheck, we’d practice and add new songs to the program. The only way to survive two years on the road was to keep adding new songs to the programme, right up to the very last concert. Even if it was only one song per month, it really saved you; there was always something fresh to tackle. We studied the arrangements and changed them, and we had many options for doing so. We had a drummer and all these newfangled electronic instruments to work with, like computers and the Reactable.
The Reactable is an amazing tool, and similar developments in the world of electronic instruments have made it so that you can now create electronic music using your right brain hemisphere. Right now, you don’t have to program a song for ten years; you can make a whole record using this movement [waves hand]. Like with the Reactable, I don’t know if you saw the tour, but we used the first working model in the world. Using it is just remarkable, everything is like playing chess: The beat is here [gestures to her coffee cup], the bassline is here [points to a glass of water], you move them around in relation to one another and then you add more objects. Or pound on the console.
This is such an exciting development; we now have around twenty different ways to make electronic music live. People think it’s just ‘Press play’, but it’s not at all. It’s never the same two times in a row, the way we’re now doing it. Now you really have more options for live music than with traditional instrumentation. All these new programs that nerds are making in their bedrooms are just crazy, that you can operate by moving your hand, pouring water between containers to set the filters on the synths…

The promise of a thousand possibilities
Is this something you will employ on your next album?
 Can you smell it? Yes, I am excited about this. It’s more
complicated than pouring water around, of course, but all these
programs are very exciting and bring with them the promise of a thousands unexplored possibilities.

What are you thinking in terms of the next record? Not so much in how it sounds, but in terms of themes, underlying concepts, emotional spectrum and ideas. I’ve experienced each of your records as examining certain concepts or thoughts, Volta being all screaming physical revolt, then you had Vespertine with its frail undertones of courtship and introspection…
Well, Vespertine was… I made it around the time I bought my first laptop. It was very exciting. Everyone was so depressed, talking about ‘THE END OF MUSIC’ and ‘music is doomed, what with all the downloading’ and I was just… ‘No, it’s not. You just need some imagination.’ It was partly inspired by that. There was a collection of instruments on the record that all sound very good when they’re downloaded – like the harp, glockenspiel and celesta – and all the voices were whispered instead of sung at full blast.
The soundscape was kind of virtual, more thought than physical. More mental and frozen. I decided: ‘OK, this world is not warm summer, it is a frozen winter. It’s cold, you turn off your body.’ In Vespertine, I made a record that you experience in a frozen state, from the cover artwork to the soundscape and all lyrics being about being in a pupal stage on a winter’s night. Hibernating. I was playing with that idea. It’s funny to think that in the year 2000, when I was making that record, people were acting very scared about the purported ‘end of music’. It’s always that same cliché. I liked turning it upside down.
 And now of course, almost ten years later, there’s a whole lot of music out there being made that’s directly influenced by what downloads well. Music being made by people that have been for the last decade listening to mp3 files at their house, and now they’re making music out of them. There’s no real focus now on listening to Dolby Stereo at your house. The bitrate can be shitty for that matter, there’s no right way to listen to music. Anyway, I thought that work with Vespertine was equally exciting and challenging. And then Volta was a very
different affair…
Up on the hill with a flag and a horn
So what are you thinking or contemplating right now that might be reflected on Volta’s follow-up?
My friend Gabríela [Friðriksdóttir, artist] is big on numerology. In the time leading up to Volta, she’d calculated that I was an eight, which means justice. I thought that was funny, especially since my dad is always working in the union movement and my mom has that gene in her… she went on hunger strike for eighteen days to try and stop the Kárahnjúkar dam from happening. So I thought it would be funny and humorous – although maybe no one but me gets the joke – to do a justice album, an EIGHT; up on the hill with a flag and a horn.
For the next record, if I can promise you anything about that, it’s that it will not be a justice record. It’s fun to run up the hill with a big flag, demanding justice, but it can be a tiring feeling in the long run. Trying to think you can tell others what’s right and what they need to do. It was fun for two years but now I am done with that. I liked it, though, the raw energy with the brass girls and the hooliganism. But now I have something different. I will say that I am excited about all the new programs and instruments we’ve been talking about.

On the Náttúra organisation…
Perhaps in line with Volta’s theme of justice, you have lately been very involved in grassroots organisations, promoting environmentalism and sustainability with the Náttúra group. The song you released in support of the project last fall (‘Náttúra’) was a big success, too. How is the Náttúra project going?
Yes, well, at the moment we’re dedicated to running the website [] and are in the process of deciding what our next move will be. We were kind of stunted during this spring’s election and that whole recession and economic collapse thing, that’s no secret, but we are working on a lot of ideas. There are currently many groups in Iceland – not just us, but all sorts of people to the left, right, green and not green – that are interested in creating what can be called a national assembly. We are also really keen on that idea.
They do this in a lot of nations that are going through trouble. We would need a certain proportion of the 300.000 persons that make up Iceland, around 1.500 people, and we would meet with the aim of mapping out what we want Iceland to be in 20 years. We’ll get a wide assembly; Jón and Gunna from Bíldudalur, folks that wish to harness everything and build dams everywhere, and people that wish to harness nothing. Groups that want Iceland to become the biggest electric car country in the world, and people that want us to hunt more whales. The whole of us, planning out a course. We cannot be everything, and we cannot be nothing – there needs to be some sort of commitment. And as I said, we [the Náttúra group] might very well cooperate with another ten groups in calling together a nationwide meeting. These are some very different groups, many of whom totally disagree with us on most things. But I think that it’s the first step to a national assembly, that these groups work together.

Are you aiming to do this in 2009?
Yes, but I don’t know if we can do it. It’s a dream, participating in that. A dream we foster. This is in any case a good idea, and it came from the people themselves, not from an elite or politicians. People have lost a lot of faith in politicians. But I don’t know if I should be talking about this, I’m not at all sure it’s going to happen. It would take months to plan and put together.
On what she’s listening to…
What are your current listening habits, what sort of music are you digging at the moment?
I think it’s been an unusually fine year for pop music. The year is only halfway through and already I’ve found a lot of new releases that I genuinely like and will listen to at home. It’s a good year for pop music. Like Antony’s new record [Antony and the Johnsons’ The Crying Light], Animal Collective [Merriweather Post Pavilion], The Dirty Projectors [Bitte Orca]… I’m forgetting something. On the whole, I feel this is a really exciting year for music.
There were a few years in between that I felt nothing exciting was going on. At least not to my tastes. But now, observing the new generation of Americans – the aforementioned, along with people like Joanna Newsom, Americans between 20 and 30 – I feel more excited. I feel I have more in common with that generation of Americans than with a lot of what’s been making the rounds these past years. 
So I am excited for the next generation. Maybe Bush saved the day by staying in power for eight years, so everyone got fed up with careerism and marketing and making money. It was always said that Europeans make pop music and they just try to make great music, not caring if it makes it to number one or not, but in the US people are always thinking about success. And I feel like that’s totally over now. Like Animal Collective and that whole generation, it’s like they´re on the whole other side of that coin. I’ve been living in New York and it’s been an exciting time, the extreme flipside of materialism. The new generation isn’t even thinking of profit, it’s like, ‘forget it, I won’t even go there!’ And that’s fun to witness. The line now is that people are supposed to be creative and prolific, in line with nature. Making money or possessing money it is no longer the one two three of it all. So I like that, that’s my department. 


What’s In The Box?
Björk is an exceptionally prolific artist, and her vault of must-haves and curiosities is larger than most. Indeed, the Voltaic box is packed with goodies. The basic set has a CD of live performances from the Volta tour, deemed by many to be superior to Volta itself. It has a DVD of live performances. And another DVD. And another CD. And some more stuff. There’s also a triple vinyl + DVD version and a limited edition CD version. Check out the basic one:
Disc One – CD – Songs from the Volta tour performed live at Olympic studios
Disc Two – DVD – The Volta tour
Disc Three – DVD – The Volta Videos
Disc Four – CD – The Volta mixes


Screenings At Háskólabíó
The Volta tour DVD that comes with the Voltaic box is a pretty sweet deal. It features an entire concert from the tour shot in Paris, France, where Björk and her tight ensemble perform Volta tunes and various re-arranged favourites (including Medúlla favourite Who is it?) at a hall packed with admires. The latter half of the DVD features her super-excusive 2008 concert at Reykjavík’s Langholtskirkja, an intimate and moving concert that is a must-see for any Björk fan.
As your great luck has it, you now have the opportunity to experience the Volta Tour film on the big-screen, in high quality surround sound, no less. The Grapevine is proudly co-sponsoring screenings of the Volta tourfilm at the Háskólabíó movie theatre for a limited time.
Experience the Volta tour at Háskólabíó in July, Saturdays at 16:00 and Wednesdays at 18:00.
Who Was There?
The Volta touring ensemble had a lot of people in it. Babysitters. Chefs. Organisers. Roadies. Engineers. Soundpeople. And musicians, too. The crew that performed at the tour included Mark Bell on computers and keyboards, Damian Taylor on keyboards and programming, Chris Corsano on drums and percussion, Jónas Sen on piano, harpsichord and church’s organ and the all female, all Icelandic ten piece brass section Wonderbrass on the horns. And Björk, of course.
Where Did They Go, Now
The Volta tour was the most extensive one Björk has embarked upon in her solo career. The following is a list of the countries the Volta touring outfit visited in 2007 and 2008. It is divided by continent. It has a lot of countries in it.
New York
British Columbia
The United Kingdom
New Zealand

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