Björk Is Magic
We sit down with the illustrious Icelandic artist to talk about her latest book, her VR project, and the weight of the personal.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
It's a glum, grey Wednesday in April when I meet Björk in New York City. She arrives swaddled in black, her eyes smudged with kohl, bright and smiling and wired on coffee. Caffeine has a powerful effect on the Icelandic polymath. She mentions it today and I remember her making a similar comment 12 years ago when I interviewed her in London around the release of her fifth album, Medulla. Back then she made a somewhat more dramatic entrance, gliding through the gossamer curtains of a penthouse hotel suite, draped in Grecian-style gown of the palest peach. I still remember the way she sat back with a question once it was asked, pausing for a thoughtful beat too long; the way her tongue clicked against the roof of her mouth as it formed the words to respond; the way she frequently licked her lips – on one occasion sweeping up the chocolate dusted cappuccino foam that had settled on her top lip.
She still licks her lips a lot, but today there's less time for lengthy thoughtful ruminations. The 51-year-old artist has a three-pronged agenda she's keen to zip through during our allotted half-hour: the LA stint of her globe trotting exhibition BJÖRK DIGITAL (May 19-June 4), her one-off performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (May 30), and the upcoming publication of her book, 34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord and Celeste (out on June 5). The exhibition is a rare chance to properly immerse yourself in the isolating, but ultimately moving VR videos she created for her 2015 live album, Vulnicura. Deep dive into her mouth as she sings "Mouth Mantra," join her on the black expanse of Iceland's Island Beach in "Stonemilker," or immerse yourself in the sound installation of "Black Lake." It's also a chance to reacquaint yourself with iconic collaborations including those with Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, Alexander McQueen, and Michel Gondry.
But today it's her forthcoming book that we discuss the most thoroughly, a project that started gestating back in 2009 during a fruitful eight-month stint in Puerto Rico, the same year she began to devise the Biophilia app – released with the 2011 album of the same name. The app technology was eventually adapted to become the Biophilia Educational Program, which "aims to inspire children to explore their own creativity, while learning about music, nature and science through new technologies," and is now part of the curriculum in Scandinavian schools. The project is classic Björk: nerdy, artful, laboriously mapped, and meticulously executed—Björk making art from her heart while utilising cutting edge technology.
But back to Puerto Rico, where Björk began to wonder: "How do I personally experience musicology?" It was here that she began talking to Jonas Sen about her feelings regarding music notation. At the time, Sen was Björk's accompanist, both on tour and in the studio (he also taught both her children piano). For 10 years she'd resisted all requests to tabulate her music, but her feelings towards sheet music have evolved, and with the help of Sen, and her longterm Parisian design collaborators M/M (responsible for creating an elegant original font for the lyrics – a process which took at least two years), Björk's first official book of sheet music has arrived. With Sen on deck, they took her arrangements for vocals, strings, and brass and piano, and worked them into notations aimed at beginners, those who've been playing for five years, and musicians with advanced skills.
"I'm not the biggest fan of piano – I usually end up having on my albums more organs or celestes or harpsichords, those instruments with more mystery to them," she explains. "I like ornate things, I like embroidery, I'm just like a girl – I love knitting. My music arrangement is quite feminine. When people sit on the harpsichord or at a harp and do some filigree patterns, I'm in heaven."
Björk believes the importance that she's placed on her arrangements is part of her "soft feminist stance" – a little nod to let you know she's been the mistress of creation the whole damn time. For the immediate future she's continuing to promote 2015's Vulnicura – a work which, much to her chagrin, saw new levels of praise heaped at her feet, specifically because of its stark honesty and easily correlated autobiographical nature. (She dissected her split from her partner of many years, stitching her heartbreak and engulfing emotion into each composition.) Although she's already begun work on her next record – another collaboration with Arca – today she (politely) won't be pressed: "I feel in a way I already said too much. I think I will jinx it!"
Noisey: I have a friend who says the best part of what he does is at the end of the day there's something where there was once nothing – there's a song. Your involvement with your art is 360 degrees, down to the tiniest detail. I'm curious what your favorite aspect of what you do is.
Björk: Definitely the best feeling is if you've written a song you think is good. We are hard judges, we write a lot of songs we think are OK, but when you write a song you think is good –that feeling is special. You do the whole thing for that feeling and you couldn't put it any better for me: to have nothing and then there's something. It's like magic. It's a philosophical statement, it's proactive: you don't like this world, how about this? It's you coming up with an option or positive rather than the other option which is going down the drain. There's no neutral, you have to make things to go forward – I mean that in the purest philosophical way.
[But] I love a lot of aspects, I love getting lost in making some new programs, or some software, or sitting with a bunch of nerds and drinking a lot of tea or coffee. I'm a homebody; I mostly work in my house [in Iceland]. I have a little studio room here [in New York]. You don't need a lot of space to make music. Occasionally you do if you're recording strings then you go for a day in a fancy studio, but then you go back into your room, it's less pressure. I don't like writing in fancy studios because that hour you didn't do anything cost a billion dollars. I also like having nice candles and I like having my little things there, making a cup of tea and telling jokes and cooking and having a few drinks.
I don't like a nine-to-five mentality. Definitely my least favourite thing is the money side. I am very blessed because I have someone I work with since I was 16. I know a lot of my friends don't have that and I don't take it for granted and also it's unconditional, we're in it for life so it's unconditional. Sometimes he's my manager and sometimes he's my record company, but he's probably both. That's really special.
You've only really performed songs from Vulnicura a handful of times and it's a very emotional work. How has your relationship with the record changed since its release?
It's probably changed most out of my albums. I'm really glad I just performed it for April, May, June, July 2015 and then I stopped and then I started working on my new album. I'm very glad I did that. Then I would just go and support the string album [version of Vulnicura] – that was another side in me that came out. In a way, this score book and doing the gigs with no beats, just the strings is me listening to all the new young feminists and people also asking me to do all sorts of feminist stuff and me thinking, the best thing I could do would be to tell the world that I actually do my own arrangements. I'm not a person who brags, but I feel overall, people don't know that! Even some of my relatives don't know that. They think it comes from magic, from the sky or something. I felt like OK, that's going to be my feminist stance and part of the scorebook. Make a stand in the world. In a way, from that angle, when I did Royal Albert Hall, I was expecting everyone to write about my arrangements and… not one word. Obviously I'm not trying to control anybody, but there was no mention of it.
There was certainly a lot of focus on the personal aspect and the heartbreak of the album…
I'm not blaming anyone because in a way, the last few albums before I purposefully didn't talk about stuff like that because I felt with albums like Biophilia it was my time to do an album about science, about galaxies, or atoms, and boys can do that and do their science fiction film and no one's like, "Why aren't you talking about your girlfriend?" It was my choice with Vulnicura to do the predictable: be a girl and moan about my boyfriend. I was like, there's going to be three years of talking about this and it's going to take a lot time to get out of that too. Once you play that game, they just want you in that role for a long time. It took me two years to write the album then I was like, OK let's just do it and take it on. It will take me a while to undo it, but I will just take it on.
How is it to perform those songs now?
When I sing now it's actually more like a singer now, it's less about my life. The oldest songs are five years old – that's a long time. It feels different to sing it now. It's still painful because some of the songs are not even about me, or my personal experience, but just about how hard love is sometimes, for everyone. Any love, not just that love. You never know when you wake up in the morning to do a gig what mood you're in. Sometimes this song is going to fuck you up and another day it's another song, but that's the part of the fun.
Have you fallen in love again?
[Giggles shyly] Yeah, for sure. Maybe it's too fragile to talk about.
Sure. I get it. I'm glad. Changing tact, do you feel that technology is bringing people closer together or creating boundaries?
Hand on my heart, I would say neither. I think it's in human nature to both isolate yourself and to merge, and the tools are just tools. I look at farms in Iceland 150 years ago, there'd be five farms and they weren't exactly experts in communication and they'd be snowed in and meet people twice a year… I'm exaggerating but, civilisation has done a good job of bringing people together. It's like anything, like sugar, how are you going to treat it? You know the feeling if you're on Facebook for too long? You feel like trash, you stand up and it's like what did I just do there? But it's a feeling; it's not a formula to it. That's with every technology or tool, the nuclear bomb, or the man who discovered fire, or made the first knife. First you're like, wow amazing, then you have to debate the morality of it and that's part of being human. These subject matters don't come with the tools, it's not in the manual – it's something we have to work out. I also see texts, especially from kids in their teens, who are really intimate and close. My generation was different. I also see amazing things.
In 2015 you dropped this line in your Pitchfork interview: "Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times," which really resonated with a lot of women. It feels like you've become more outspoken – specifically when it comes to feminism – since the release of this record, and you've mentioned that you're being approached more frequently with this specific bent in mind. What kind of things are people asking of you?
I mean just magazines or be part of different things and events. I'm very flattered, I don't want this to come across that I don't think it's good, but I've been doing it so long, sometimes it's better to not spread yourself thin. Do one thing that you do from your heart and has weight and that's going to change more things. That interview, everyone was telling me it had a big influence for young girls out there. I had no idea when I did it, but then there were these websites that started afterwards because I said, "Well maybe we should also blame ourselves, maybe people are not crediting us as engineers or producers because they never see us like this – they see us in a pretty dress. You never see Missy Elliott next to a mixing desk even though we know she's a producer…" I don't want to blame Missy Elliott for a second here, I'm to blame too… all of us are.
What were these websites?
There was one where girls put photos of themselves next to their mixing desks or tech stuff. That's been a good thing about having this digital exhibition in different countries—I've met people and talked to them and it's different than doing a gig where sometimes you're on this pedestal. I think the most help I could do is to do things. Get them done. When the girls say, "You programmed your beats?" I'm like yeah, half of them. They're like, "Really, that's important for me to know that." You can theorise forever but somebody like me who has been around for so long, if I tell them, "Yes I wrote the bassline and did the beats for 'Venus as a Boy,'" that's going to be more hopeful to a 20 year old. I've never had that mirror in my life until now. I've never thought of me like that sort of inspiration and the last couple of years I dared to do that.
When I look back when I was their age, just the fact that Kate Bush produced her albums gave me hope. It wasn't that I wanted to copy her music or Joni Mitchell's, it was the fact that she actually did it was like, OK, it's possible.
That's why I did the score book and that's why I'm doing those string only gigs – hopefully people will appreciate my craft. I'm to blame slightly, but it would be great if they would take it for my craft, the same way say if somebody from Radiohead, or someone who plays arrangements, and people would write about them for what they are and not about his love life.
BJÖRK DIGITAL runs 15th May-9th June. 34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord and Celeste is out June 5th via Wise Publications
Lead photo: Santiago Felipe / Getty Images
Kim Taylor Bennett edged creepily close to Björk at Arcade Fire's first ever London show. Follow her on Twitter.