The Icelandic icon gives us a sneak listen to her new album, Utopia, and talks about creative control, the trouble with men and Friday flute club
Its quite hard talking to Bjrk about her music. This is for a few reasons, the most important of which is that she doesnt 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 doesnt 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, Bjrk 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 Gya and Kristin: Gya plays these kind of cello loops, its really meditative).
Even off-duty, Bjrk is always full-Bjrk: interested in the off-beat and experimental. Shes worked in music for more than 30 years, so shes called a pop star. But really, shes 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 shes 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 grannys house: ornaments in glass display cases, Victorian side tables, antimacassars on curly-armed sofas. Bjrk 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, its quite hard. Though were trying to connect, it feels like Im standing on one side of a rushing river and shes on the other, semaphoring her thoughts across at me.
Bjrk 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 its all done, shes 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 Bjrk about what Id just heard. I cant hear Utopia any other way because Bjrks last album, Vulnicura, was leaked online three months before its release date. The river between us is swirling with her experiences. Ive barely got my toes wet.
Anyhow, Bjrk 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 Bjrk 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 Ive ever written, is how she describes it to me.
And so, for Bjrk, 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 were 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.
Thats the contrast with Vulnicura. The continuation what Bjrk calls the seed is provided partly by Ghersi. He came into Vulnicura towards the end of the process, when Bjrk was in full control: I was the bossy back-seat driver. They got on well, and during Utopia, their partnership was more equal, Bjrk 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. Theres an ebb and flow dynamic, like the turning of swallows in the sky. Sometimes Bjrks voice is at the fore, sometimes its woven in, just another instrument. This is not really an album of pop songs, although you might find one or two, at a push; its more orchestral and detailed, all-enveloping.
Bjrk 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: Bjrk is funnier than shes 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 everyones heads off. Bjrk didnt fancy that bit, so I decided Im going to change the ending. I think we can change it, you know.
Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us