Singer Björk talks cheerfully and at length. Eleven years ago we met in Manchester where Björk presented a musical project about nature. Now the conversation takes place via Zoom. Björk is more accessible. Maybe because we can’t see each other (“my camera is broken”) or because she’s at home in Reykjavik and the sun is shining (“unusual”). Or because Björk Guðmundsdóttir (1965, Reykjavik) has had a “rooting period” that she says has done her good.
Rooting has been more or less forced over the past two years. After decades of touring and coming up with new music, she stopped her activities at the beginning of 2020 due to corona, in the middle of a European tour. The elaborate show with orchestra members and moving projection screens was closed and Björk started a different way of life.
A life with time for friends and family, walking every day and listening to podcasts – especially about psychiatrist Carl Jung – meeting the only ten people in her ‘bubble’.
And there was an opportunity to sharpen the album fossora, a next phase in Björk’s search for new musical possibilities. That search started when she was twelve, when she recorded her first album with covers. After that she became radical punk and then opted for an exuberant pop style, as the singer of the band Sugarcubes.
Her solo career began in 1993, with the album debut. Björk largely came up with the music herself, incorporating her love for dance and movement into stuttering beats and angular melodies. In the wake of the house movement, she followed the need for sophisticated dance music.
But Björk worked according to her own ideas: her performances were carefully staged, she designed stylized sets and stood on stage in bulbous colorful costumes.
She became an example to others, and not just musicians. Because Björk showed that you can make your own music with contrarian rhythms and an emphatic Icelandic accent and get recognition too. In 2000 she played the lead role in the movie Dancer In The Dark by the Danish director Lars von Trier, for which she received the Best Actress Award at Cannes. Björk was everywhere.
In the new century her music became more avant-garde. As a producer she works according to strict concepts, forging elements from classical music with gabber and electronics. Björk is no longer a pop singer, she is a sound architect.
Like being in a cave
The fanatical love for music and its possibilities stems from her childhood, she says. Her parents always played records, they had no books or TV at home. Over the past few years, she felt the importance of music even more intensely. “For me, songs are a natural companionship, more than people,” she laughs for a moment. “I find the confrontation with a room full of people with whom you have to have a conversation astonishing. A song is a more natural environment.”
A song can feel like a cave, an excavated space in the ground. And that is the security she seeks. That’s why she named the album fossoraa self-invented feminine form of the Latin ‘fossor’, graver.
“The beats and rhythms I programmed were supposed to make you feel like you’re in a cave,” she says. “Deep away, where the ground trembles and rumbles.”
I can’t wait for my voice to get even lower
This is how she stepped from the enchanting high sounds of the previous album Utopia (2017), moving on to a deep earthiness. ‘Low’ was created by the use of bass clarinets. Six, no less. She had to plan and adjust for a long time to make sure the bass tones wouldn’t get in each other’s way.
“That’s why it was good that we had the time. We rehearsed and recorded in my cabin in the mountains. There we all slept, cooked, got stuck with the car in the snow and through trial and error we found the way to use six basses at once. That is the advantage of Iceland. In studios in European cities you have to come in with a ready-made score and you have one hour to record.”
Her voice is also lower these days. “After fifty years of singing my voice has changed, I have lost a bit in height, but I can get more bass notes. Awesome, can’t wait for it to get even lower. About like this!” She bursts into hoarse singing, like a female Tom Waits.
First dance, then talk
In the new songs, her vocals wander between the sounds of drum, clarinet and electronics, which seem to slide like large blocks and sometimes clash with the dance rhythms of Gabber Modus Operandi, an Indonesian electronic duo known for their radical version of Dutch ‘gabber’.
In her home in Reykjavik, she has hosted parties with friends in recent years, says Björk. “We ate together in a restaurant and then went home to listen to music on my large speakers. First quiet, then dance music, and finally we put on Gabber Modus Operandi, jumping up and down like in a catharsis, for about fifteen minutes.
“At eleven o’clock everyone left except the one who had a problem, with love or something. We put on some sad music and talked for a while. I thought that was a great order. Before Covid, you talked first and danced at three in the morning. But then I’m too tired, I’d rather turn it around, dance first, then talk.”
That’s what the new album is about, she says, about your home as a dance floor, as a psychiatrist, as a space for the love of music. on fossora There are also songs about Björk’s mother Hildur Rúna, the environmental activist who once went on a hunger strike to stop the construction of a dam in Iceland. Rúna passed away in 2018. In ‘Sorrowful Soil’ her daughter lovingly names her life force, in ‘Ancestress’ she sings about the still present influence: “You see with your own eyes, but hear with your mother’s”.
Björk recommends listening to this album on the largest possible speakers, and not on headphones. “Sit in your easy chair in front of the box, turn up the volume and let yourself be surrounded by a sea of sound.”
That’s especially true for “Victimhood,” she says. The idea for this song came from the podcast about Jung. As a result, Björk delved into his ideas about psychological archetypes, especially those of the ‘victim’. “There are about fifty types of victims, according to Jung. People who are captivated by conspiracy theories is one, they think they are being chased. I wanted to be honest about it, when do I feel like a victim?”
First she was honest in her diary, then in the lyrics. “My victimhood arises in my work, when people come together, or in my family and group of friends. Sometimes there is no harmony between people. Then I do my best to bring back the harmony. I sacrifice my own wishes and interests for the benefit of the group, resulting in self-pity.”
The moaning clarinets here express self-pity (“I hate that emotion. In myself and in others”). Björk arranged them in twisting loops to evoke the sensation of quicksand. “You sink, sink, sink, and don’t get out because you think you’re so pathetic.” That she wants to deal with this feeling is apparent from the words: “Out of victimhood, here I go now.”
After walking in Icelandic nature in sweatpants, it is now time for major productions and performances, in venues from Paris to Chile. At the moment, Björk is preparing for the release of her album, making videos and devising sets for the tour that will start soon. She still loves the extravagant style. In the enchanting ‘underwater’ clip accompanying the new single ‘Atopos’ she dances on a homemade coral reef, dressed as a soft green anemone.
But today she doesn’t have to think about anything. „I am looking forward to this afternoon, when I go to my house for a few days, outside with my family. It’s ten degrees. We call that warm here.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 24, 2022