Her new album Utopia imagines a better world, while our own plunges into darkness. Why? Because nihilism is not going to save the planet, a fired-up Björk tells Al Horner, in a conversation also spanning nights in New York with the Wu-Tang Clan, self-care canal walks in London, a near-collaboration with Jay Z and her anger at Spotify and Apple Music.
“You know when you should go home from the bar? But you just stay for one more drink and one more drink and one more drink…” It’s early November, and Björk Guðmundsdóttir is searching for the words from her Icelandic home to describe an addiction she recently threw herself into: texting. “Oh, I was texting people like borderline crazy,” she laughs. “If I was with people in a room, my heart would be 51% with the people I’m texting and only 49% with the people in the room.” After a period of gloom following the breakdown of her marriage – distilled into stark, stormy audio violence on her last album, Vulnicura – the 52-year-old found herself drawn to the giddy thrills of shooting messages back and forth to friends and new acquaintances in her life. The puzzle of what they’d text back, the suspense of when or even if they’d reply, was a strange rush. “I really enjoyed it, but it was kinda fucked up!”
This, it turns out, is something Björk does a lot: finds a pastime, then takes it to an almost obsessive-compulsive extreme till she can bottle its sensation in musical form.“The same way I would obsess over an album or a lover,” she explains. During the making of 2001’s Vespertine, she didn’t just watch the TV trial of Michael Jackson: “I followed it manically. I just binged. I totally binged, curious to see how civilization would treat a creature like him.” Then there was her late introduction to Facebook. “At first, I didn’t want it in my life. Then when I did, I went really extreme. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it with gravity and obsession, like it was the ocean,” she says. “I wanted to make it a feeling.”
“When you’ve been at the bottom of the lake for so long, eventually you’re going to float up to the surface”
There’s an argument to be made that this, above everything else – her constant search for innovation; her immaculate, instantly recognizable voice; the devastatingly beautiful visual worlds she builds around her music – is what has made Björk one of the most unequivocally singular artists of the last 30 years. Björk is a translator. She scrounges in all corners of the human experience, finding the feeling of nuanced, often unspoken situations, then translates them to melody, to the adoration of hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide.
In March 1997, when the Reykjavík-born artist won the first ever Nordic Council Music prize, a jury member compared her to the Norse god Heimdallr, guardian of Bifröst – a burning rainbow bridge linking the realms of god and man. Raised on classical piano and flute, baptised with punk in her teens then revealing herself to be an avant-pop marvel as her career took flight, the implication was that she bridged the gap between “the classical and the cutting edge,” as Emily Mackay puts it in her 33 1/3 book on the star. Two decades of trail-blazing later, you could push the analogy further: the most significant gap she bridges is between the emotions we all experience (and sometimes have never thought to articulate) and the melodies that truthfully, authentically best represent them.
“Vulnicura was a barren landscape. On Utopia, we wanted to make melodies that were like constellations in the clouds”
Like, for example, the multiple mini emotional rollercoasters that spring from your phone’s messaging apps daily. “There are some songs on there about texting and over-texting,” she beams of Utopia, her ninth album, and first full-length proper collaboration with new musical soulmate, Arca. The Venezuelan producer had a pivotal role on Vulnicura, but only began contributing in its final stages. Here, he was so deeply involved, “we kinda wanted to [title the album] ‘made by Björk and Arca’ because the mode was so intense between us,” Björk reveals.
The album was billed half-jokingly in an interview as her “Tinder album” and understandably so. The airy and light exhalation to Vulnicura‘s asthma-attack panic-grip of grief, it’s a harp, flute and romance-filled voyage to a peach-pastel paradise, in which Björk is learning to be intimate again. On lead single ‘The Gate’, the titular gate is the one in which you let someone in, and let love out in return: “If you care for me, I’ll care for you,” she sings over the sparsest of orchestral blossoms. “Didn’t used to be so needy.” She is, critics have been in a rush to point out, full of love again.
21 years ago, in Martin Aston’s Björkgraphy, she likened releasing an album to “putting your diary out for everyone to read.” Has that sensation intensified, I ask, over these last two albums, on which her personal life – the grief of divorce on Vulnicura, and the excitement of meeting new people on Utopia – has been such a public part of those records? “Yeah… but in a good way,” she smiles, and our conversation – touching on her long lost Wu-Tang collaboration, her frustrations with streaming services, our obsession with the end of the world and much, much more – gets underway.
“We don’t have the luxury of indulging in this “poor me, the world is going to die” dystopia stuff. We have to get up on our feet and act”
Do you still get nervous before a release?
I still get nerves when I release an album. It’d be odd if I didn’t, you know? I’d be worried if it was like, drinking a glass of water. It’s also a good feeling, like AHHHHHH. There are two different things: making an album with your friends in a sort of protected cocoon, and then seeing it venture out into the light outside. I’ve done it long enough now to know that people will react to it differently than it felt inside the cocoon. What I hold my breath a little for is that it’s the right proportion: that they don’t take one element and exaggerate it into something huge, or take something that’s a big deal for me on the album, but be like, “forget about it!” So it’s like that. Accepting that people are going to see it different from what I see, but hoping that they see something close to what I intended.
Was the lightness of Utopia, compared to the darkness of Vulnicura, something you consciously set out to do, or something you gravitated towards naturally?
Because it was such dark subject matter with Vulnicura, we were definitely keen on lightness. I guess we’d just been listening non-stop for two years to really grim lyrics and rough string arrangements. And when you’ve been at the bottom of the lake for so long… eventually you’re going to float up to the surface. It’s like physics. So I was really excited by things really fluffy and airy and floating and, like, fireworks!
The first song we did was the first song on the album [‘Arisen My Senses’]. I actually found a loop of a mixtape or a SoundCloud thing that [Arca] had done three years prior. I just thought it was the most happiest firework that he’d ever done. I didn’t tell him about it – I just sampled it, sang it to him and he just exploded, you know? I wasn’t really conscious of what I was doing. I was reaching for the most euphoric, antigravity moment that he’d done, and then I exaggerated that by looping it and writing a harp arrangement around it and singing on top of it these ecstatic lyrics. After we’d taken the saddest coordinates of each other and combined them into Vulnicura, we were doing the opposite now. And that was kinda the starting point.
“Since Trump got elected and resigned from the Paris Climate Accord, I think resistance has to be DIY”
So ‘Arisen My Senses’ became the blueprint for the rest of the album?
After that, the songs would just roll out. You know, we didn’t really know how to credit this album. I think we managed with what little logical sides of our brains are left – and there’s not a lot, by the way! – to write on a piece of paper the different [ways] we wrote this album. One is: he’d send me music that he’d made, then I would pick a bit, like I just described to you, in ‘Arisen’… I would edit it on ProTools, because all the songs on my albums are edited by me on ProTools. That’s one way.
Another way was more similar to Vulnicura: I would write a song like I normally do – I’d do a flute arrangement or a harp arrangement then sing – and then he would come and make a beat to it. There were a couple of songs like that: ‘Blissing Me’, ‘Body Memory’ and I think like five or six songs like that.
Then there were songs he would send me [complete] songs and I’d write over the top of it, which I’ve never done but I’ll do with him. ‘The Gate’, the first single, that was that sort of song. He sent me the instrumental and it was so perfect, it didn’t need any editing. Actually I take that back – it did need some editing [laughs]. So I wrote the flute arrangement and my vocals. ‘Painstaker’ was also like that, the second last song.
Then there were songs similar to how we did ‘Notget’ on Vulnicura, where I took a song he’d already written, and a song of mine that I’d already written, and we’d do a mash-up. I just choked them to pieces and made a new thing out of two songs that already exist.
Was writing something that was lighter less of a strain than mining the darkness that you did on the last record?
Yep, absolutely! It couldn’t be more extreme. I think something about grief of Vulnicura, which was so sad, made the melodies like they were just lying on the floor. They don’t move a lot. The strings were very heavy and the beats were very heavy. There were no plants: it was just a barren landscape. And so I think we wanted to do the opposite. To make melodies that were like constellations in the clouds.
I think for me, in the beginning of Utopia, I was very excited to break away from the narrative on Vulnicura. It was so heavy and “me me me” and “poor me.” I just wanted to disappear and become one of the instruments and lose that heavy narration. All the first songs I wrote [for Utopia] had three or four lead vocals and not one of them was in the front. Part of it was because I was doing a lot of VR and I wanted to do something where my vocals were around you. But also emotionally, I’d just OD’d on the self-importance of the narrator. So a lot of the melodies have like five vocals and none of them are lead vocals. They’re like musical statements.
“After taking the saddest coordinates of each other on Vulnicura, we were doing the opposite”
You mentioned in an interview last year that you and Richard D. James swap tracks via email. Did Aphex get a sneak peek of Utopia?
Hah, no. I was kinda blushing that that was blown up… Back when I lived in London, we did. If we hear a track we think the other one is going to like, we send it to each other. But other people’s music. Everything I find I really try to share.
The album is titled Utopia. In literature, in film, in TV and in video games, you’re much more likely to encounter savaged worlds and post-apocalyptic tomorrows than futures in which humankind has got its shit together. Do we as a society fetishize dystopia?
Yes, absolutely. Utopia is a political statement for me. I’ve had enough of western civilisation feeling sorry for themselves and being paralyzed and not acting. Western civilization thinks their story is the only story in the world. The self-importance of the west makes them think they’re having this tragic, Titanic moment where they want the rest of the planet to hold their breath and feel sorry for them while they sink. That’s okay for a little bit when something sad happens, but not like for like 100 years. We can’t spare any time. We need to go into action. We need green energy. We need to react.
We don’t have the luxury of indulging in this “poor me, the world is going to die” dystopia stuff. I think we have to get up on our feet and act. And I think the entertainment industry should feel responsible, definitely. Maybe I’m being too much of a mum but 90% of material that is coming from the [western entertainment] has normalised killing. It’s okay if it’s an aesthetic of a singular artist who wants to be nihilistic or dystopian. That’s one thing. But now our survival of the human species is at stake and I’m not being dramatic, unfortunately. I think we need to kick into action and come with solutions. And we need to do it now.
What do you think is the first step?
I could cry all day about the fact that the majority of the animal species are disappearing and my grandchildren might not see a lot of them. That’s tragic beyond words. But we need to ask ourselves: how can we make the best out of where we’re at right now? That has to be green energy solutions that are functional.
I’m not a megalomaniac. I understand that utopia is not singular. But I think there has to be a mass that stand up and do stuff. Seeing what’s happening online, especially after Trump got elected and resigned from the Paris Climate Accord, I really think it has to be ground-up. I has to be DIY. It has be grassroots, the people. We cannot rely on governments to go green. And that’s where popular music comes in. It’s always been the voice of the people. So yeah, that’s how I feel about that.
“RZA and I wrote a couple of songs. And I really think what we made was magic”
That paralysis you describe – where people are so overwhelmed by the negativity that they’re incapable of acting – is a really tricky thing to overcome. How do you stop yourself becoming overwhelmed by negativity? How do you avoid that paralysis point?
I go for walks in nature. Outside my window now, there’s a beach. I need that nature connection. I think there’s something in the molecules of nature that just brings equilibrium through the elements. When you move through it, it balances you. And you’re not meant to do it on your own. That’s not how nature designed us. You’re not supposed to go into an isolation tank. [laughs] If you go for a 30 minute walk every day through trees, or a river, or whatever natural elements are close by, it’s really very healing.
When I lived in London, I walked around the canals a lot. It’s maybe not like the highlands of Iceland, but the elements of water and the fact they are not straight lines… something magical happens. [Science is] proving more and more that nature harmonizes between your mind and your body. The three things are not separate. I find very often when I go on walks, whatever is making my mind busy or is causing me frustration after 20 minutes will show its face, and usually, by the time I’m back home I have a plan of how to deal with it.
I think something in our survival mechanism likes you to walk and find a rhythm. So, walking. But also, have you tried kundalini yoga? I just find it on YouTube. There’s a lot of breathing and if you have anxiety, the best cure for it is that amount of breathing. If you wake up with anxiety, just find a 40-minute kundalini class on YouTube and you’ll be amazed. The anxiety is just gone. And sometimes before bed – if you’re finding it hard to sleep at night, that’s a really good trick.
“The question with all technology is: how do we adapt morality to it?”
As well as nature, you’ve long been an advocate for the positive power of technology. Have the changes in the way technology has impacted our lives over the last few years – fake news, Russian bots, the dark side of companies like Facebook and Google – threatened to make you reevaluate that positive belief at all?
Yes. I think we have to readjust all the time. Progress is going to happen if you like it or not. We don’t live in caves. So it’s like, how are we gonna live with it? I’ve said this many times before, but every invention of the human race, it’s always been incredible and miraculous. But then the aftermath is always: well, okay, how do we adapt morality to it? How do we adapt this to the human soul? It’s always the same question – whether it’s fire or the radio or Facebook.
Homogenic recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Here’s something I’ve always wondered about that era in your career, as a big Wu-Tang fan: RZA is said to have recorded with you around that time, but the sessions never saw the light of day. What happened?
Ha! You know… I don’t know! I think what happened was… I wanted these kinda Icelandic, volcanic beats, and I was kind of struggling with it. I had done beats on my albums, but it takes me a long time to make them. And sometimes I get impatient and I want other people to do it, so I sit there and describe to them what I want them to do. So, I was in Spain, and Wu-Tang Clan were supposed to come to Spain. RZA was supposed to come. But then months passed. Then the album got finished and I delivered it. Then RZA was like, “I’m ready! Shall I come to Spain?”
Instead, I went to New York. We wrote a couple of songs together. And I just felt… sometimes when you do things and you don’t plan them it’s magic. And I really think what we made was magic. But I think because it wasn’t part of the whole Homogenic thing and it wasn’t part of what Wu-Tang were doing at the time, it was better as an idea, if that makes any sense?
We met a few times though – my favourite moment was when I did an in-store at Tower Records. I’d never done anything like that before. I turned up – and seven of the Wu-Tang Clan turned up to, like, protect me! I was signing books for an hour, and they sent some of their team, standing there with me. That was one of my all-time favourite moments: I had been on my own, so when they turned up I felt very protected. It was magic. In my eyes, they’re punk. We are definitely [similar] – we do things in, like, a ritual way. The good thing was that I got to hang out with them. I got to see Wu-Tang’s version of New York. Which was pretty cool. A very specific angle on that city that I feel very blessed to have experienced.
“Hand to heart, I think streaming platforms are taking the piss”
I also once heard a whisper you recorded with another New York rap luminary, Jay Z. Is that true?
There was, perhaps… He asked me to write for one of his albums. It was a section for a song. But it just didn’t happen in the end. Wasn’t meant to be. I’m always flattered when people ask me. There’s a lot of things that I like about him.
I wanted to ask a question about streaming. You’re a great believer in technology and the idea that progress is going to happen. But you’re also someone who makes very complete bodies of work. How do you reconcile those two things when the nature of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music means a lot of people will probably experience tracks from Utopia on playlists, rather than as a whole?
I’ve always been a great believer in polarity. Polar opposites. We don’t have to choose nature or urban, that’s not the point. The point is, how can we make them coexist? I think the same with men and women, pop and ‘serious’ music… Why choose? Eliminating things is not natural.
So same goes with this. Albums can be albums, but songs can exist on their own. I’ve been making playlists of a sort more or less since I was a teenager, for DJ sets. It’s one of my favourite things actually – being able to take three minutes of that song and three minutes of that song, complete opposites, and putting them back to back. Completely different musicians. If we say we can’t do that, we’re limiting the powers of music. It’s one of the most powerful things that music can do.
I’ll tell you though, hand to heart, I think streaming [platforms] are taking the piss. I think we need more fairness. I’m okay – I sold CDs in the ‘90s. I’ve got a house. But kids who are now in their 20s, I’m seeing it seriously affecting incredibly talented musicians, who could become really really incredible and grow into beautiful artists, but they can’t do it, because everything they make, they have to give away for free.
So they tour more.
Exactly. It tears them away from their family and uproots them. Streaming has exaggerated that. Kids in their 30s now have been on the road for 10 years. You know? With no breaks. I’ve toured a lot, but I would tour for a year, then I would be somewhere for a year and a half and write an album. So you could lick your wounds and heal and get your shit together and be with your family members. Now, you don’t have that. Streaming is not fair. I’m hoping it will change. Maybe we are slowly figuring out a way that is going to be a solution, so musicians get paid for their work.
“Rihanna’s voice in ‘Work’, it’s so present. It’s like right there with you. Right next to you”
You mentioned your DJ sets a few moments ago, which give fans real insight into the music you like that maybe isn’t represented in your work as Björk. Lil Yachty for example. How do you stay across new music in 2017?
It’s a combination. I have websites I go to where I find things. I’ll spend days online looking for inspiration. It was real fun when I was mixing my album. I couldn’t take in any more music. So I was listening to a lot of spoken word for like a month or two. Once I delivered my album, I was so ready for new music. And I’d put aside all these links. Then I spent two or three days on these links. Being away from it for two or three months meant there were tonnes of amazing things.
You’ve dropped Rihanna in quite a few sets.
I just think what I find most exciting about her over the last two years is how she’s grown vocally. Like, her voice in ‘Work’, it’s so present. It’s like right there with you. Right next to you. But still the most relaxed way possible. I love the emotion of her beats. I think it was really brave on her last album not to think in singles. She did the songs she would listen to herself and dance to herself and you could really hear that. It’s in the tone of her voice. That’s what’s amazing. It’s about sound. But I don’t know. I just like it, it’s that simple.
Coming back to Utopia: does the mood of your next album depend on how much of this album’s message humanity chooses to adopt? Do we have it in us to make your fantasy a reality?
Hmmmm. I think fantasy and imagination are just as valid as reality. And I think that’s maybe what Utopia is also tapping into: how our fantasies are just as valid as reality. It’s kinda curious how the two things then try to coexist. When you want that fantasy to come true, if half of it comes true, that’s good going, you know? But how do you execute that? I find that fascinating. It’s a beautiful thing.
Al Horner is the editor-in-chief of FACT. You can find him on Twitter.