When critics rated their albums of 2015, Bjork’s release topped many of the lists. Emily Witt met the singer at her cabin in Iceland.
EVERY album Bjork produces resolves itself into a story. The story begins with the songs, the raw material through which Bjork channels emotion, autobiographical experience and philosophical ideas.
The songs cohere into a universe. They take on colours, elements, an instrumental sound. They have a physical character, whom Bjork will portray on the album cover: the shy-girl songs of Debut as a virginal innocent in silver mohair; the volcanic beats of Homogenic as a patriotic warrior.
The albums and their stories map the bifurcation of Bjork’s artistry. There is Bjork the musician, who creates her music in an emotional cocoon, tinkering with technologies, concepts and feelings; and Bjork the producer and curator, who seeks collaborators to help her translate her work beyond sound, who has an unparalleled ability to disperse herself across a vast range of media.
In the popular imagination, it is the latter vision of Bjork that spectacularly dominates: Bjork who has a gorilla for a dentist; Bjork in a pearly dress that she pierces into her skin; Bjork wearing a mask of spines.
However, it should be known that by the time these visions of Bjork reach us, even as they seem like dispatches from the future, they are snakeskins that Bjork has already shed.
They are the stories that have coalesced, while she has continued on into the protean, the experimental and the unsung.
The long seam between the Eurasian and north American tectonic plates runs mostly under the Atlantic Ocean and surfaces in Iceland, in a national park called Thingvellir. Here, the plates inch apart above sea level, forming in their rift a deep and formidable lake, Thingvallavatn.
A thousand years ago, the Vikings held their parliament here. It is near this place, on a snowy slope overlooking the water, that Bjork keeps a small cabin.
On the Saturday before the winter solstice, in the twilight of late morning, a veil of mist and snow lay over the landscape. The drive from Reykjavik was a journey through a desolate cloud, the sameness broken only by the occasional huddle of shivering Icelandic horses.
The lake was invisible behind a wall of fog, except when it vertiginously appeared alongside the road, gray and roiling.
Bjork drove to the cabin in a landrover. She waded through snow up the hill in white platform shoes, a dress and tights of fluorescent yellow and an ellipsoidal white puff coat.
Later, one of her friends will tell me that she has been wearing neon yellow all year, a colour she associates with healing and transformation. Bjork comes in from the snow with a lunch of bread, cheese, pastries, yoghurt and chocolate.
She finished mixing her newest album two days ago, followed by a party to which she invited the girls’ choir that sang on Biophilia, the brass band that played on Volta and her knitting group, which meets Wednesday nights in Reykjavik.
Bjork’s current knitting project is a lilac mohair sweater. She thinks she might have pulled a muscle from dancing. She puts on a pot of coffee. Bjork has been feeling a little sensitive about her visual collaborations lately. It’s not that she isn’t proud of them, but she worries sometimes that the visual element of her work overshadows the music, her life’s obsession.
“It wasn’t so much that I was really ambitious to do the best visuals in the universe,” she says. “It was more that I burnt myself on spending a lot of time doing music and then seeing visuals accompanying them that just didn’t fit that music at all.”’
Bjork, now 50, spent her teens and early 20s immersed in the collective do-it-yourself ethos of Iceland, where “if someone else wanted to put out a record we would just make the poster by hand”.
She made a record of folk songs at 11, then found punk as a teenager, but she was, in pop music terms, a late bloomer when she diverged to what she describes as the “matriarch energy” of electronic beats — the effeminate, queer, culturally diverse heritage of underground dance music.
In the late 1980s, as a singer in the postpunk band the Sugarcubes in Reykjavik, Bjork began secreting albums by 808 State and Public Enemy, teaching herself about a musical lineage that ran from Kraftwerk to Detroit techno and on into England, to Kate Bush, Brian Eno and Warp Records.
It’s only a two-and-a-half hour flight from Iceland to London, so that’s where she moved with her young son at the age of 27. It was 1993, early in a new technological era. She was a single mother with an interest in solitary endeavour, intrigued by what she’d seen in some nightclubs in Manchester.
“It was really difficult for me to be that selfish,” she would later recall.
The move from the provincial to the global, from the charming mess of homegrown collaboration to the unknown possibilities of a career as a soloist in a newer genre of music, was also her declaration of independence from the macho vernacular of rock ‘n’ roll.
(You may have noticed that Bjork, who has used a Tesla coil as an instrument, has all but ignored the electric guitar.) From then on, “mostly it was my songs and my vision, and I would decide what would be in which song and when”.
She expressed her vision clearly to her collaborators, and choose them with great care.
As she finished her first solo album, Debut, she saw a music video by a French band called Oui Oui on television. She contacted its director, a young filmmaker named Michel Gondry. They talked about their hippie parents and the Russian folk tales they had watched as children, and he directed the fairy-tale video for ‘Human Behaviour’, her first music video as a solo singer.
From then on, each album doubled as a nexus of deviation through which Bjork exposed popular audiences to often- obscure fashion designers, filmmakers and, later, when she made her first app for 2011’s Biophilia, computer programmers.
Unlike David Bowie, who created an alter ego, or Madonna, whose visual transformations always have a mocked-up, storyboarded feeling, Bjork tailored her collaborations to the traits of each song, to the character and story that she wanted to convey.
When she worked with the director Chris Cunningham, who directed the robot-sex video for ‘All Is Full of Love’, she told him the song was about where love and lust meet, and showed him ivory statues from Asia that he translated into his own melancholic vision. To invoke the scale of Biophilia on tour, she wore dresses from an Iris van Herpen collection inspired by photographs of micro-organisms. “It’s creating a whole universe and not only creating the music. She really knows what she wants,” said van Herpen.
From the vantage point of a couch in front of a cathode-ray television on some lost Saturday afternoon in 1998, I can see Bjork shaking her bald head as if avoiding a gnat and morphing into a silver polar bear.
I was unsurprised when Andrew Thomas Huang, the 30-year-old filmmaker who directed a video for Bjork’s MoMA show, had an identical adolescent memory of watching ‘Hunter’, the video directed by Paul White. Young Americans, bored in their homes, exposed to some vision of Europe and art and electronic music.
Like the best science-fiction writers, Bjork has always tempered the futuristic with a reminder of the ancient. Both hunter and techno-bear, she is an avatar of the digital future, the soul in the machine.
Few musicians have so enthusiastically embraced technology, often using unorthodox methods. On her last two albums, she has used audio software called Melodyne to embroider harmonies with her own voice, altering the pitches on a single track and then weaving together the result.
“I spend sometimes a couple of weeks on each song,” she said of her process with the software, “like painting the cathedral ceiling.” When dealing with more complex technology, like the fabrication and programming of the new electronic instruments she has helped invent, she thinks of her role as “the Kofi Annan that goes between two worlds”.
“She doesn’t even go in and make records in a traditional way,” said Derek Birkett, Bjork’s manager, whom she met 32 years ago when she was playing benefit shows for the miners striking against Margaret Thatcher with her band Kukl.
(Birkett’s label, One Little Indian, has put out her albums since then, and beyond selling distribution rights she has never signed over to a major label.)
In search of new ideas, Bjork has toured the MIT Media Lab and attended the National Geographic Explorers Symposium. She has interviewed composers she admires, including Arvo Part and the late Karlheinz Stockhausen. She rarely records in a studio, preferring the spontaneous session.
Antony Hegarty, who sings accompaniment on a song on her latest album, recorded the track while they were on holiday in the Caribbean. “We were just swimming in the ocean and then I was like, ‘Oh, do you want to sing on this song?’?” she said. “I think he literally had sand on his legs when he sang it.”
“She creates a circle around her which is her universe, and before each circle closes itself she jumps outside to create a new circle,” said Gondry. “So each album goes into a new direction regardless of the success of the previous one.”
Or, as Bjork says, “When people expect something of me it’s the only thing I can’t do”.
For her retrospective at MoMA, she has sought to ensure that the visitor will not merely see a visual or documentary archive, sterilised from the process of creation itself, but some combination of Bjork the orchestrator and Bjork the musician.
The clarification need not be made that Bjork is an artist, but, as she has adamantly reminded the MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, her medium is not her videos or photographs but the songs that precede them.
It was due to Bjork’s concern about the neglect of her songs that she initially hesitated at the prospect of the MoMA show because, she thought at the time, how do you hang a song on a wall? If she were going to do a retrospective, the existing museum practices for formatting sound would have to change from tinny speakers emitting noises in darkened alcoves into something entirely unfamiliar.
As Biesenbach told me, the exhibition is not about Bjork’s art, it is Bjork’s art — an attempt to transform forever how a musician’s work might be presented in the context of a museum. Wearing headphones, visitors will walk through an auditory hallucination of Bjork’s career, which culminates in a new immersive environment — in Bjork’s language, “a song”.
The song, from her latest record, is 10 minutes long and called ‘Black Lake’. I listened to it in Bjork’s cabin, watching the snow melt as it hit the windowpane. Outside, the pine trees trembled in the wind. Later, I asked Bjork what it was about. The question felt petty and even ruthless because I already knew the answer, as anybody who has heard the song will know the answer.
“Yeah?” she replied. We sat and stared into our tiny glazed coffee cups. “It’s about an end of a relationship, really,” she finally said. “Probably that’s the best way to put it.”
THE OLDEST SONG on Vulnicura, Bjork’s most recent album, is called ‘Quicksand’.
It was written four years ago, when Bjork’s mother had a heart attack that left her in a coma for a week.
Her mother recovered, but in the course of her illness a series of revelations about her health — undiagnosed dyslexia, an undetected cardiac condition and the aftereffects of a polio infection as a child — gave her daughter a new understanding of the worldview of the woman who raised her.
Bjork always thought of the woman she calls her “nihilist mother” as cool and “kind of punk,” but it meant growing up, Bjork often played the role of the Pollyanna in their relationship.
In the two years that followed her mother’s recovery, Bjork’s optimism faltered. She underwent a complicated surgery for vocal cord nodes and ended her long partnership with the artist Matthew Barney, with whom she has a 12-year-old daughter.
“It’s my turn or something, and then I have to deal with it — the black lake in me,” she said.
“Because when a relationship falls apart, you have to ... It’s pretty hard-core stuff.”
As Bjork was emerging with a collection of songs from that difficult time, she was introduced to the work of Alejandro Ghersi, who records under the name Arca and has produced beats for Kanye West and the R&B singer FKA Twigs. Ghersi is 25, from Venezuela and gay.
Despite the variance in their biographies and their age difference, the two musicians quickly formed a deep creative connection.
Bjork says in the Chinese astrological calendar they are both snakes, and therefore intuitive and prone to merging. However, she also sees Arca, along with emerging artists like Mykki Blanco, Kelela and Le1f, as the newest branch of the music she has loved, a generation for whom she now figures as a matriarch.
Bjork might still be in a reclusive compositional phase of work were it not for Ghersi, who interrupted her normal process of slow curation. They drove to her cabin for an exploratory session under her reindeer antler chandelier, and Bjork was impressed by Ghersi’s efficiency as a producer.
For Vespertine in 2001, Bjork had crafted most of her own beats, but the process had taken three years.
“There’s no way I’m going to wallow in this self-pity for three years, forget it”, she said of her decision to finish the album as quickly as possible, to close this circle and move on to the next.
Over the next year, she and Ghersi continued to meet, sometimes joined by the producer Bobby Krlic, who records as the Haxan Cloak. The work went quickly and, unusually for Bjork, the songs in Vulnicura appear mostly in the order in which they were written.
I was lucky to meet Bjork at a moment when the story of her new album had not been set. She described the video for ‘Black Lake’, directed by Huang and influenced by Ingmar Bergman, as operatic in scale but also stark, centred on her voice and her performance.
For now, there is only the album itself. It is, I think, one of her best albums, intensely personal. String arrangements were prevalent on Bjork’s first four albums but they have been all but absent from her music for a long 10 years, swapped out for experiments with choirs, brass and beats.
On this album, Bjork returns to strings, and the arrangements are the most complex she has composed. The intention was to create a solitary, psychological sound. “I used to say when I did Homogenic that the strings are almost like your nervous system,” she said.
“Like being played with a bow.”
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