The Observer: ‘People miss the jokes. A lot of it is me taking the piss out of myself’
The Observer has published an interesting article by Miranda Sawyer in conversation with Björk.
It’s quite hard talking to Björk about her music. This is for a few reasons, the most important of which is that she doesn’t make music to talk about it. She makes music because that is what she does (“I write one song per month,” she says, “sometimes two months”), and usually the whole picture of an album doesn’t emerge for her until very late in the process.
“OK, I will put my head into the place where I have to talk about me,” Björk says, shifting in her seat. She is feeling “a bit scruffy” – she means rough around the edges – after a night out at a gig (her friends’, twins Kria and Kristin: “Kria plays these kind of cello loops, it’s really meditative”).
Even off-duty, Björk is always full-Björk: interested in the off-beat and experimental. She’s worked in music for more than 30 years, so she’s called a pop star. But really, she’s an artist in disguise, often literally (at the moment, she favours delicate feather or filigree head dresses).Today, despite her hangover, she looks great, in a white dress with storm trooper shoulder-stitching, black tights, black platform shoes. There is kohl smudged under her eyes, and she’s drinking tea and chewing gum. Every so often she takes her gum out and puts it on her saucer; then picks it up absent-mindedly and chews it again.
We are upstairs above a cafe in Reykjavik, Iceland. This building was once the home of an important politician, and the rooms are small and decorated like a granny’s house: ornaments in glass display cases, Victorian side tables, antimacassars on curly-armed sofas. Björk folds herself in and out of her olde worlde chair, her body language opening and shutting according to how comfortable she is with the conversation.
At the moment, the conversation concerns her new album, Utopia. And, like I said, it’s quite hard. Though we’re trying to connect, it feels like I’m standing on one side of a rushing river and she’s on the other, semaphoring her thoughts across at me.
Björk has only recently worked out what Utopia might mean. For a long time, as is her wont, she was creating it without a huge idea, just working. Her music involves her exploring small triggers, connecting “emotional coordinates”; matching technical difficulties with musical aims; processing the results of time spent with musicians, editors, producers; arranging, recording, editing, mixing. Mostly editing. “Eighty per cent of my music is me sitting by my laptop, editing. Weeks and weeks on each song,” she says. Now it’s all done, she’s marshalling her multitudinous ideas – musical, conceptual, conscious, subconscious – trying to organise everything into a single quotable notion. She has been working on this album for two and a half years. I have heard it exactly once. Seventy-five minutes ago, in the room next door, I plugged earphones into a laptop and listened to Utopia all the way through. Straight afterwards, I walked into this room to talk to Björk about what I’d just heard. I can’t hear Utopia any other way because Björk’s last album, Vulnicura, was leaked online three months before its release date. The river between us is swirling with her experiences. I’ve barely got my toes wet.
Anyhow, Björk has been making Utopia since she finished her last tour. It started, she says, like many of her albums: as both a reaction against her previous album, and a following-on from it. Released in 2015, Vulnicura was bleak. It dived into the misery of her break-up with artist Matthew Barney, her long-term partner and father of her daughter, Isadora. Its centrepiece, Black Lake, had Björk at her most vulnerable and bitter, with lyrics such as “I am one wound, my pulsating suffering being… You fear my limitless emotions, I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions… You have nothing to give, your heart is hollow.” “The saddest song I’ve ever written,” is how she describes it to me.
Utopia is overwhelming, lush and gorgeous, with harps and flutes and real-life bird calls, a magic forest of sound
And so, for Björk, this meant that her new album had to be the opposite: “Optimistic,” she says, “non-narrative”; beautiful, universal.
“We did the final gigs for Vulnicura in Carnegie Hall,” she remembers, “and they were so tragic. Everybody who ever had a broken heart ever was there, and they were all telling me their stories. It was really sweet and, genuine, you know? And with the performances, I was like: ‘This has to be discreet, and treated with grace.’ But after the first one, I almost felt guilty. Because the whole room was crying and I was not. Me and Alejandro [Ghersi, AKA electronic artist Arca, who worked on Vulnicura] were guiltily drinking champagne in the back going: ‘Next time we’re going to have fun, OK?’ I wanted this album to go towards the light. You indulge in the grief to a certain point, but then you have to be a little bit Pollyanna.”
That’s the contrast with Vulnicura. The continuation – what Björk calls “the seed” – is provided partly by Ghersi. He came into Vulnicura towards the end of the process, when Björk was in full control: “I was the bossy back-seat driver.” They got on well, and during Utopia, their partnership was more equal, Björk letting him contribute more as an artist. They took small elements they liked from Vulnicura, passed sounds they liked to each other via email (melodies from South American flutes, singers from Cambodia) and played with them.
The result is exceptionally beautiful. Utopia is overwhelming, lush and gorgeous, with harps and flutes and real-life bird calls, a magic forest of constantly changing sound. There’s an ebb and flow dynamic, like the turning of swallows in the sky. Sometimes Björk’s voice is at the fore, sometimes it’s woven in, just another instrument. This is not really an album of pop songs, although you might find one or two, at a push; it’s more orchestral and detailed, all-enveloping.
Björk thinks of her utopia as an island, perhaps one that was created out of an eco-disaster, an island where plants have mouths or hover like hummingbirds or grow out of your hands. “Do you know the fish in The Simpsons, that has three eyes? Like that.” (This makes me laugh: Björk is funnier than she’s given credit for.) In her head, women arrive to create a new, better society. They bring kids and music and eco-friendly tech, “and then there is the everyday life on the island”.
This idea came partly because she wanted to use flutes, and her friend James Merry (originally hired to do research for her 2011 album Biophilia) dug out flute myths from around the world. He found tales “from South America, Amazon tribes, and Africa, and Indonesia, and China, and Icelandic mythology”. The thread between the tales was a story of escape, where women break out from a society that oppresses them, steal flutes and run with their children to a new place: “And they live very happily for, I dunno, two-thirds of an album. But then the guys come and chop everyone’s heads off.” Björk didn’t fancy that bit, so “I decided I’m going to change the ending. I think we can change it, you know.”
Another idea of utopia came about because, in these scary Trumpian times, she wanted to show that optimism is a choice. “He got elected when I was two years into the album,” she says, “and I felt like, OK, it’s really important now to be intentional. If you feel this world is not heading the right way, you have to be DIY and make a little fortress, over here to the left.”
I don’t know that I got all this from one listen, though the sense of wildlife, physical space and bliss was very strong. My notes say things like “epic, full of nature”, “rattle (monkey sounds)”, “flutes gorgeous, beats tough, transcendent”. I did get the idea of a new place, of women supporting women, of rejecting old systems (in Tabula Rasa, she sings: “break the chains of the fuck-ups of our fathers”). There’s also – excitingly – strong hints of a new lover (Blissing Me: “I fall in love with his song”). And the feeling of the end of a difficult relationship, of moving forward (Sue Me). Though I may well be being too literal. Björk laughs when I quote lyrics at her, and ask her about her love life.
“It’s pretty active, I’ll leave it at that,” she says. “I think it’s still too early to be too specific. Look, I’m happy that people are still listening to me after all these years, but sometimes I feel people misunderstand the lyrics. People miss the jokes. A lot of it is me taking the piss out of myself and being, what do you call it, self-deprecating…”
How are you with “dating”?
“Oh for me, that word is so ridiculous!” she says. “In Iceland, especially in my teenage years, we didn’t date. You just went out and you got plastered and you woke up the next morning with someone and… And you married them! I definitely don’t date, like go to a restaurant all dressed up.”
In a recent interview, Björk called Utopia “my Tinder album”. “Yes, because I thought that was hilarious, but obviously I would never be able to be on Tinder.” What she’s talking about, really, is fresh experiences with new people: the excitement and sexiness and clumsiness of those encounters. “People trying things out, and rejection, both ways. We all have chapters, and then when you start new chapters, it’s like: ‘I’m walking down the same streets I’m always walking down, I’m wearing the same clothes, but it feels like I’m on Mars.’ In the best possible sense, but also in a scary sense. I missed being this emotional explorer, I enjoy it.”
“I’m wondering if I feel good talking about that,” she says. “Because of my daughter. When you make art that is about your life, which both of the parents do actually, we have a way of introducing it to her and talking about it with her. Both of us. I think my daughter does it [manages things between her parents] gracefully. But it’s because we can do it in little packages.”
Björk has always had children around her. The oldest in her family, with six younger siblings, she says: “What’s normal to me is two kids pulling at my skirt” (she grew up in a commune with her mum, after her parents divorced when she was born). She had her first child, her son, Sindri, at the age of 20, “so there was a complete overlap”.
“And Iceland, compared to London, it’s very 19th century,” she says. “Very family, you see your family every week, and you meet them at the store, and you go to have your breakfast… it’s like living in a village. All the people you ever went to school with and all your family members live 10 minutes away from your house. And we don’t really have any crime or violence or guns, so kids are out by themselves from age 11. If you’re busy, your kid can just hang out at your mate’s. And a lot of other kids are always hanging out at my house.”
I wonder if this proximity is stifling, but she says not. Also, of course, she’s been travelling with her music from when she was a teenager, so she’s had regular breaks from Iceland’s closeness. Her first foreign tour, in 1983, when she was 18, was with Tappi Tikarrass. They went around the UK, supporting the punk band Crass. Back then, Björk spoke no English, but learned “Fuck Margaret Thatcher” from another band, Flux of Pink Indians, who had a song with that as the chorus. These were the days of skinheads and punks fighting at gigs. Björk loved it. “It was like I went to the moon!” she says. “Like: ‘My God, things are so exotic here!’” She and her band camped in Crass fans’ gardens.
From then on, Björk was in various Icelandic punk/goth/indie bands, until in the 1990s, post-Sugarcubes (an alternative rock group that were big in NME-land), she broke big. Her first solo album, Debut in 1993, married her art tendencies and soaring voice with producer Nellee Hooper’s dance sensibility and went platinum in the US. Back then, I would see her at parties, and she enjoyed herself in the same way we all did. There is no VIP velvet rope instinct in Björk. She likes stimulating people, whoever they are.
We talk about that time a bit; interestingly, through the filter of gender politics.
“I remember going to raves in Manchester,” she says, “just me and my mates going out and clubbing – and especially in the early 90s, it was important to be asexual. As long as you could sweat for five hours in your baggy clothes, you were fine. It felt like we thought: ‘The way we’re going to deal with the communication of the sexes is, we stick our tongue out at it.’ It was a rebellion to not address it, a statement against the status quo. Not being male or female, undoing the role you were supposed to play, you know?”
Do you think that changed anything?
“I think, perhaps no. But we’ve got another story going on now and it is important to address it. There’s this feeling in the air that if we address it now, in three years’ time it might be over.”
She is talking about sexual harassment and abuse. The night before I arrived, Björk issued a statement on Facebook in support of the actors who have spoken out about this. She said that she, too, had been sexually harassed while working in the film industry. She named no names, though she was clearly talking about Lars von Trier, the director of Dancer in the Dark, in which she starred (Von Trier has since denied her claims). “My humiliation and role as a lesser sexually harassed being was the norm and set in stone with the director and staff of dozens who enabled it,” she wrote. Having long operated from a position of power in the music industry, she was shocked to find that actresses did not have such power. (In the cab on the way to this interview, I noticed that her first statement was the number one news item. It’s a reminder of how important Björk is in Iceland.)
“I did it in support of women who can’t say no,” she says, “or are not fortunate enough to have said no. I’m conscious of not wanting it to be about me. Because I got away good, you know? And because I come from this world where [sexually bullying behaviour] is not normal, I could see the contrast between the two worlds. I wanted to say, ‘You’re not imagining things. It is like that.’”
She is stimulated about the prospect of the world changing, of old patriarchal ideas being brought down, to everyone’s benefit.
“What is exciting is that boys are really changing now,” she says. “Boys who are now in their teens, they’re really emotional. That’s maybe the thing that needs to be addressed next. Where do men put their feelings? They’re clumsy, and they don’t know where to put them. My generation of men were told for 20 years to suffocate them, and then women scream at them because, where are they? So they’re getting like: ‘Wait a minute. You don’t want me to be emotional, but you want me to be emotional? Can you make your mind up?’ And then there’s the other story of the white man now. If there’s a universal unconscious narrative, it is the self-pity of them losing power. It’s very hard to feel sorry for that, but at least it hurts. They are feeling it.”
But what will they actually do about it, I wonder.
“Yes, if all these men feel this way, and they’re genuine about it, are they not going to make films for the next 20 years? Is that what we want? To be honest, I don’t know the answer. I just think it’s a curious question.”
Björk is slightly uncomfortable talking about feminism with a capital F. Her mother was an activist, and when Björk talks about the 90s, she speaks of them as a time of reaction against 1970s feminism: “It was making everything exhausted”. Also, labelling things definitively is not very Björk: she dislikes rigidity, in her life and in art. But anyway, now she pushes herself forward in her chair, because she wants to tell me something.
When she was promoting Vulnicura, in an interview with Pitchfork, she pointed out that, for years, she has been regarded as a singer-songwriter who works with male producers. In fact, she produces her albums (those long days in front of the laptop), and she is in control of the arrangements, the sound, the mixing, everything. She wondered, in the interview, if it was partly her fault: she likes to create beautiful visuals and so has never really been photographed in the studio, next to a mixing desk, or holding an effects unit. Lots of young female musicians took her at her word, and there is now a website dedicated to pictures of them next to technical equipment.
“I am so honoured by this,” she says. “And so now I’m going to try and talk about these things more. Agh, I’m blushing! But I am going to own it… for the ladies.” (She says this in a funny voice.)
What she wants to tell me about is the all-female group of 12 flautists on Utopia. “The flute club! Flute-föstudagur!” She got them together and they would meet at her cabin every Friday (föstudagur means Friday). Björk, who’s been paying the flute since she was six, rehearsed them over and over, “like 50 or 60 days”, and did all the arrangements and the conducting, everything. It was the same for the choir and the brass, “and for all the arrangements I’ve done on my albums. But people… it’s like they think it happened by magic and fell from the sky.”
Why do we have the impression that Björk isn’t a technical musician? Perhaps it’s because she’s a singer, with her exceptionally emotional voice.
“Yes, and I think more with women than men, if we have that access to the emotional side in us, people think it has to be oblivious,” she says. “We are allowed to be oblivious, but we can’t then step back and edit it. But the mixing of this album was really tricky. You know, without trying to sound too pretentious, it was not necessarily about the events but the filters around the sound. The juxtaposition of the flutes and the electronics and the voice and the birds. It’s really delicate. If it’s wrong, the whole thing just tips… It took me three months to mix the album.”
She thinks of Utopia as having three parts. The discovery of the island, the living there day to day, and then, more prosaically, how humans survive difficult times. One of the songs, Body Memory, is about how your body can get you through trauma when your head and heart can’t. It was sparked by another day she spent at her cabin, this time by herself. She wrapped herself in loads of coats, lay down on the moss, and listened to an audiobook of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. She’d been aware of the book for a long time but had dismissed it as “a bit goth”. This time, though, she found it stimulating, especially the final part. “It’s about having people who are experts in dying,” she says, “who have physical practice to help you to die. Like yoga exercises. Breathing exercises… Like death doulas. I was so impressed by this.”
And so she wrote Body Memory to remind herself that she is able to move through grief, get past Vulnicura and survive. She wrote six verses, to herself, about “destiny, love, another about sex, another about motherhood, one verse – and this has been a struggle for me – is urban, another rural nature”. The verses are reminding her not to think too much, “not be neurotic, just do this”.
“It’s my version of helping myself, suggesting you have it all in you, you have all the answers. Without sounding mushy. It’s like my manifesto. Let’s do this!”
Björk laughs and picks up her gum and her body language is open. She’s waving from the other bank, not semaphoring. “I think I’m Tindered to life,” she says. “I’m dating life. I’m like: ‘Oh, those are new hands and I’ve got new legs and new… it’s a feeling of… It feels like a new adventure.’”