Hello Utopia! Interview Magazine
Björk will feature on the cover of Interview Germany September issue. Soon the full article.
“The only way the 21st century is going to work if we collaborate with nature. The earth needs more feminine energy.”
Barcelona in June. Björk has invited to the Hotel Alma, a five-star hotel whose concept, which takes some getting used to, is to allow as little light as possible. Those who are wandering inattentively through the aisles inevitably get bruises
How good that Björk is sitting right now. She sat at the window of her suite, in front of her a laptop, on her nose a pair of black-framed glasses. She wears an exceptionally uncomfortable-looking ensemble of thick fabric somehow reminiscent of bronze-colored wrapping paper, and consists of an oversized shirt and harem pants with boots sewn shut. The occasion of the meeting is a Vorspieltermin their new album, which is so new at the time that it has no title, actually, the album is not even finished. An Icelandic choir still has to be recorded as well as the one or the other flute. Outside of their environment, nobody has heard the new pieces, now two curious strangers have arrived from England and Germany, the artist is correspondingly nervous. It comes to a complicated introduction in which Björk excuses himself word for excuse that what you will now hear, not yet sounds as it should sound, which of course the new listeners will not notice, why they Listening experience maybe commented here and there. She laughs, she looks so adorable and approachable as you had imagined. Then Björk launches the Pro Tools program on her laptop, turns up the knob and lets the show begin at the highest volume.
Björk is one of the kind of artist who is the more skeptical the further one moves away from it. It’s a bit like Joni Mitchell’s and Kate Bush’s great role models – there are moments in life where you can do something with your music, and if you do not have that moment right now, a voice and music will get on your nerves ,
I had my last Björk phase at “Post”, and by 1997, when “Homogenic” appeared, it was definitely over. Everything that came afterwards seemed terribly hard-working and pretentious to me, without me even listening to it. An album whose music is inspired by weaving art (“Vespertine”, 2001), one that consists only of human sounds (“Medúlla”, 2004), which explores the connection between nature and technology (“Biophilia”, 2011) or processed her separation from Matthew Barney (“Vulnicura”, 2015). In addition, all the disguises and videos and apps – from a distance it can seem like an imposition, but instantly loses its terror as soon as one deals more closely with Björk’s work. Suffice it to just listen to their records – they are invariably great, if you only get to know them with a delay of many years. In fact, Björk has long been in a different league. She’s her own genre, a superstar who has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide and does not sound like a second after that, as if sales to him were a bit of a relevant category. Also, the new album is sovereign without a noticeable hit and should at best run on public holidays on the radio. But Björk does not seem to care.
HARALD PETERS: What is it like to play two completely strangers his new music, which nobody else has heard?
BJÖRK GUÐMUNDSDÓTTIR: Definitely worrying, haha. Especially since the songs are not finished yet.
H P: You did it anyway.
B G: Yes, my label has often asked me if I’m interested in giving the press an insight into how I work.
H P: And?
B G: I just stared at my people stunned (rowing with their arms, making sounds of mock panic). Well, further than now I would not go, and I’m not sure if I have not gone much too far. The songs are not mixed yet, there are no instruments, and besides, I’m not happy with the speakers here. They make such a Tsss sound.
H P: While the album was playing, you never looked over at us. Did not you care how we react to the music?
B G: Maybe I just wanted to leave room for you and not put pressure on you. Such a audition in the presence of the artist is of course a strange situation.
H P: For both sides, I suppose.
B G: Absolutely. Besides, I know from myself that I have to listen to an album several times to make friends with it. I’ve been wondering all the time if you hear what I hear. Very confusing.
H P: What I have taken from the first listening impression is that this time in the acoustic field there are mainly wind, flutes, harp and birds singing.
B G: Yes, the idea is that you sit in the clouds and create a world. There is a lot of wind and air around you. On the other hand, there are hardly any elements that are ground-based. Instead of what is, it’s about the courage to imagine what might be. How would one wish for the world in which one wanted to live? On the other hand, I also make fun of the idea of a utopia in the texts. How do you expect that it would be better otherwise? Why does everything have to be always new? In the time of Trump Utopia is also a necessity. We have to come up with an idea of how we want to live in the 21st century, we can not hope for our governments. We have to muster the courage to imagine something big.
H P: On the other hand, even the twentieth century was shaped by utopias of all kinds – in society and in art as well, I am thinking of futurism, for example. You can say that nothing came of it. Unfortunately, humans tend to want to enforce their romantic ideas by force.
B G: Yes, sure. Often the ideas are just bizarre. In China, Utopia is called “Peach Blossom Spring,” which goes back to a fifth-century fable that describes a kind of paradise. In Japan, you know something similar, and in Iceland, actually in the entire Nordic mythology, there is the idea of Asgard, the place where the gods live after their death. Incidentally, I read about a satellite called Asgardia, which is about to be launched into space soon. You can upload your data to the satellite’s hard drive and become a citizen of a digital nation. Incidentally, dual nationality is allowed in Asgardia, which means you can keep your actual citizenship.
H P: Which may be handy at the next border control.
B G: Haha, yes, exactly. At first, Asgardia looked like a sympathetic utopia, but now she seems to be in the air because capitalists have captured the satellite to save taxes.
H P: What are the utopias on the album?
B G: Actually, much of the dating is about.
H P: Achso?
B G: Yes, as soon as you meet somebody you like, you’re already in a utopia. You imagine a relationship that has not really started yet. Much is also funny, although I’m not sure that anyone else will find my stuff funny. Data is exciting on the one hand, but always embarrassing on the other.
H P: Unfortunately, I did not pay much attention to the lyrics.
B G: No problem. I briefly thought about printing lyrics, but then decided against it. At “Vulnicura” I did it that way, but there was a narrative in the album as well. There was a chronological sequence of songs: before separation, during separation, after separation. The album was very analytical. All the things that go through your head when you split up.
H P: You mean those endless conversations that you lead in your thoughts with yourself?
B G: horrible. But this time it is very different. It’s about something abstract, it’s about creating a new sonic territory. For this album, the words are secondary.
H P: If you listen to the songs of other artists, what is more important to you then: the words or the music?
B G: The music, of course, especially as many of my favorite songs are in a language I do not understand at all. A friend recently sent me a YouTube link to a video by Abida Parveen. She is one of my favorite singers and comes from Pakistan. Yes, and there were subtitles on this video. I was just like this: “What? She sings about that? “On the other hand, I like poetry, and if song lyrics are very poetic, I appreciate that. However, most of the music I listen to is without lyrics anyway.
H P: What are you listening to?
B G: One day maybe I’ll listen to Rihanna, the next something electronic with chainsaws. I like pop, I like music that is direct and communicates, such as flamenco or fado. But sometimes I just listen to techno. This may seem strange to some people, but it may be related to Iceland. When you come from a city where there are barely more than 100,000 people, you are inevitably confronted with musicians who play everything between classical and pop. It makes no difference there. Your sister plays the violin, and your brother is in a metal band, but one thing is worth no less than the other.
H P: So everybody hears everything because otherwise, if you specialize, you would be alone?
B G: Well, maybe not so extreme, but we would at least visit our respective concerts, because it’s a small town. Maybe I’ll watch the concert because my cousin is on stage or a friend’s sister. If you know each other, a number of reasons quickly come together. Otherwise, not so much happens there.
H P: If so many things come together in your music, then that’s not just an intention, but a logical consequence?
B G: Yes, on the other hand, I wonder if the way I grew up with music really differs so much from other people. My mother sent me to the music school at the age of five, where I learned to play the recorder. It was similar for at least half of my friends. They learned the violin or the piano – that’s definitely the case in Germany. That way you get in touch with classical music early on, and then you go home and listen to pop. If you look at the movie “Star Wars”, you are confronted with orchestral music by John Williams, and on the way home in taxi Beyoncé. We all have this diversity in our lives anyway, so there is no reason not to embrace this diversity.
H P: Do you think about listening to music?
B G: Yes and no. Because I have been making music almost all my life, it has become part of me to think about the audience, it happens automatically. Since I’m twelve, 13 years old, I’m on stage. And for the first ten, no, even fifteen years, the stage was the place where I developed my style as a singer. I was 27 when I released my solo Debut, which is pretty late.
H P: But before that, there were albums with their bands Tappi Tíkarrass, KUKL and the Sugarcubes.
B G: Yes, but what I wanted to say is that I have learned and internalized what it means to be on stage and reach people with my performance – or, if things go badly, not to achieve them either. I certainly gave thousands of concerts before the beginning of my solo career, so that was intense training. And then at some point you record your own album and think, “Now I can finally do what I want!”
H P: What did you do then?
B G: Yeah, and then you go on tour with the album and say, “Okay, the fifth song seems to work pretty well.” Such things naturally have an impact. On the other hand, I like surprises. And because I like her myself, I think my listeners like her too.
H P: Are you surprised?
B G: Yes! Sometimes when composing, things that were not so planned happen but still fit – then I leave them that way. On the other hand, I like it that I realize that over the years I master the craft better. For example, the string arrangements on “Vulnicura” are better than the strings on “Homogenic”. I like that.
H P: Vulnicura had a comprehensive visual concept with videos and apps. Will that be the case with the new, yet nameless album?
B G: Yes, but not from the beginning. First I want to let the music speak. Then, next year, there will be a visual twin.
H P: In “Vulnicura” you often wore masks on stage. Was that necessary to get in the mood?
B G: I’m not sure. More likely is a combination of different things. On the one hand there is the functionality of a mask, because I often find it difficult to be in a crowd. And when you get on stage, it gets even more uncomfortable because you’re constantly being photographed out of the audience, by people you do not know who they are.
H P: I suppose that annoys?
B G: Above all, it’s very strange. It did not exist ten years ago, but now: As soon as I go to a restaurant, ten people pick up the phone and take pictures. Very strange. So the mask is a kind of protection. Besides, I just like masks. When I started doing that many years ago, I still made them myself, these were very simple, naive masks, but then my assistant, the wonderful Mr. James Merry, began to make for me, which were much more sophisticated and also a lot more fun.
H P: Are the masks comfortable?
B G: Yes! In any case, they are easier to wear than many a dress that I have on stage.
H P: There are two effects with a mask: first of all, you are no longer recognizable as the person you are, and secondly, you become someone else. What is more important?
B G: Both. If the facial features are no longer identifiable, it creates confusion. As a celebrity one becomes a kind of animal. You become a fox, and all aim at you with their guns and want to kill you. If you go down the street, it is hunting season.
H P: Is that how you feel? Are you being followed by paparazzi?
B G: No, the problem is not the professionals, but the ordinary people who take pictures.
H P: Understand!
B G: The masks are a way to regain control of my image. I take this negative cause as an opportunity to make something creative out of it. Apart from that, the masks made it easier for me to sing the sad “Vulnicura” songs. Through the songs, I first understood why widows often wear veils at funerals. “Vulnicura” had this veil feeling. My voice was present and big, so the words were in the foreground. You hear me, but you do not see my face, because I was in mourning … I do not know, in many things I only try to discover a deeper meaning in hindsight.
H P: Did you ever have the idea to do something completely different?
B G: No, I do not think so. Rather, my problem is that I have neither the time nor the energy to do all the things I would like to do. For example, I would like to record 50 albums until my death – and I can handle the fact that, if I’m lucky, I can do just half.
B G: No idea. At least I never manage to do that in my life. What I wanted to say was more, that I have problems rationalizing my energy. So I keep saying, “Okay, now I’m doing this, and when I’m done with it, I’ll do it.” That’s a kind of self-discipline, because I get so excited about a variety of things and then lose focus. So I have to calm down: “Stay focused!” That’s my problem.
H P: So you work constantly.
H P: How are you doing right now? At the tenth? At the eleventh?
B G: No, not really. I’m not one of the people sitting in the studio all night. I like to work during the day, and then only a few hours, when I concentrate on the music. But there are so many aspects to my work that I have to deal with. I’m there when the songs are mixed, I’m there when they get mastered. If you invest so much energy into composing, arranging, writing and singing, you have to be careful that the songs are not ruined at the end.
H P: Sure.
B G: That’s how I protect my songs. Otherwise, I am a family man. My house is always full of friends. I cook, we play songs, in between I may write lyrics – making music, the music itself, is very interwoven with my everyday life. At the weekend I do not try to work, but maybe I talk about music, just for fun, which then also flows back into the music, so my work.
H P: Many artists have problems deciding when a work is done, because there are always things that you could change.
B G: No, I have no difficulties with that. When something is ready, it’s done.
H P: Sounds obvious.
B G: I am not a perfectionist. I also have no problems with errors. I have problems, but I do not have the problem. My problem is that I want to deal with everything at the same time and then think I have to be in different places.
H P: Do you live in Reykjavík?
B G: Yes.
H P: Are you interested in being a star? Or are you one of many?
B G: One of many.
H P: Your fame does not matter there?
B G: Icelanders do not consider glory as such admirable. Which is pleasant.
H P: So you are left alone.
B G: Only the tourists are not. But as long as I avoid tourist places, I am okay.
H P: But you do not live in Iceland all year round?
B G: No, only half of the year. I used to divide the year between London and Reykjavík, meanwhile it’s going back and forth between New York and Reykjavík. Half of the year, my daughter goes to school in Brooklyn.
H P: And that works?
B G: Yes, very good. And that for nine years. In the fall we are in Iceland, and in the spring we go to Brooklyn.
H P: What is your relationship with your old songs?
B G: I would not sit down now and listen to my old records.
H P: What if something is on the radio?
B G: Actually, I only listen to them in the run-up to a tour, because I have different musicians on every tour. For example, at the “Vulnicura” tour I had many strings. And because I did not just play songs from the album, I was looking for pieces that worked well with strings, going through my old albums. At such moments, I sometimes think, “Fuck, how crass my voice sounds because!” But I like it when I discover overlaps in my albums. “Debut”, “Post”, “Homogenic”, “Vespertine” and all after that are different, but there are connections: “Isobel”, for example, is a sequel to “Bachelorette”.
H P: Does this happen on purpose?
B G: No, I have no idea how that will happen. I write a melody, and then I realize, “Oh, that’s the second chapter of whatever.” Because I’ve been doing this work for so long, these interconnections are more and more common. I think that’s a good thing, it gives the thing a special flow.
H P: When “Vespertine” appeared and electronic duo Matmos appeared in the credits, everyone automatically assumed that Matmos was responsible for the entire music. Very much to your displeasure. They gave an interview to “Pitchfork” in which they cleared up the misunderstanding.
B G: Well, I deliberately choose the battles that I strike, and that was not a fight I wanted to pull into. I figured that the work I’m doing would be seen in the long run. But then there were a number of feminist artists who complained of sexism in the music industry because their accomplishments were simply ignored, questioned, or attributed to men. They also felt that I cheated on them or did not support them in this matter because I made everything look like it was not a problem. So I opened my mouth. “You know, it’s not easy at all!” It was good that I said that.
H P: The problem persists, of course.
B G: I can even understand why it is often confusing to the public to see who did what with the albums. For example, my upcoming album is a collaboration with Arca – but that’s an exception. Almost everything came from me at “Verspertine”. Matmos were in the studio with me only in the last few weeks, taking care of the sound effects, but not the beats. But every album has a different story.
H P: Apart from the routine sexism, the misunderstanding probably arises because electronic music never makes it clear who is doing what.
B G: Yes, in a conventional rock band, the responsibilities are much more obvious: you have a guitarist, a bassist, a keyboardist, a drummer. Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush went to the studio with the songs they had written, where they could record them with the best musicians of their time. Of course, Mitchell and Bush have told these musicians what they should be playing, but moreover, these studio musicians naturally did what they did anyway. The credit for both got, without that much had to point out. In electronic music, on the other hand, everything you do falls into the production category.
H P: And production is invisible.
B G: Yes, there are no photos of female producers bending over their laptops or sitting at the mixing console in the studio. You show them, if at all, only in some great clothes. I mentioned that in an interview with Pitchfork. Right after that someone set up a website where thousands of producers and sound engineers uploaded their pictures to show at work. That touched me a lot, but it was also necessary. In doing so, I really hate the ego when making music, I do not like to go to the studio and insist afterwards that I did that and that too, but the others only. That actually kills everything and brings with it a strange energy. But in that case I did not do it for myself, because as far as this specific problem is concerned, I am the least affected. I mean, I did not have to address it until 2015, which is pretty late, considering how many albums I had already released at the time.
H P: Absolutely.
B G: I did it for the younger musicians, the little girls who might want to become musicians later on. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I believe in karma. So if I take on this fight now, maybe she has to fight less later. But I think that does not mean that from now on, just to prove myself, I have to do everything myself.
H P: What you did not do this time either.
B G: Exact.
H P: The new album is a collaboration with Arca. How would you describe that? Were you in the same place as you worked on the album? Did you send files back and forth?
B G: We spent a lot of time together. No idea, it was pretty magical. We had already worked together on “Vulnicura”. At that time I wrote all the songs, arranged the strings and then told Arca, where and when which beat was going and so on. At the end of the album we had become friends. Actually, we just wanted to work on this one thing together, but then he came to Iceland and came back to Iceland and back to Iceland. Then we hung up together, spent time together, went on holiday together. And then we wrote “Notget”, a song for “Vulnicura”, and suddenly the synergy was there. You can not plan something like that. Both of us know, especially me, because I’ve been in this business for so long, that does not happen to you often in life, especially with someone as talented as he is. This may happen to you once in a lifetime, maybe twice, in three times you have been very lucky.
H P: What was the inspiration at work?
B G: Our talks. We talked a lot about feminism and matriarchy. That the 21st century will only work if we come to terms with nature, that the world needs more feminine energy, that our egos often block our way. We should not be territorial but open and vulnerable because that is a strength and not a weakness. If you have enough confidence, one plus one becomes three. You can connect with someone without destroying each other. Anyway, I really liked the collaboration with Arca. He helped me with two albums, I helped him with his singing – he started using his voice now. We talked about singing, about melodies, voice training.
H P: You were his singing teacher.
B G: No, rather the aunt by his side, haha. It’s a very symbiotic relationship in which we support each other.
H P: So basically he is a very good friend.
B G: Yes, it’s a friendship. For which I am very grateful.
H P: That’s never happened to you in your career before.
B G: No, never.