theartsdesk Q&A: Björk | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Björk
theartsdesk Q&A: Björk
Reykjavik's favourite daughter talks remixes, smoked Danish pig and the meaning of life
When an artist calls the people of their hometown their family, it's usually a metaphor. In the case of Björk Guðmundsdóttir it’s actually true. Reykjavik has a population of only 200,000 and everyone is somehow related. But she's more than just the capital's favourite daughter: to the outside world the diminutive singer has become as emblematic of Iceland as its volcanoes and midnight sun. In turn, the uniqueness of the country helps fuel Björk’s individualism.
Her early work may be best remembered for a series of dance-pop singles, but there has also always been plenty of musical experimentation. This has developed over the years. Last year’s Biophilia (pictured below) was virtually avant-garde. It was also a series of iPad apps, an experimental concert tour, a documentary, and a science/music education programme. Last Monday, an album of remixes from the album - Bastards - was released.
Appropriately for someone who uses technology to such effect, I meet Björk over Skype. She appears in front of the camera with no make-up, a cup of coffee in her hand and wearing a white t-shirt which contrasts with the blue ends to her long black hair. Being a mother in her forties seems not to have diminished her essential Björkness.
She explains this week she's been creating; both in a rented woodland cabin and back at her modest townhouse in the city. That’s why, despite it being 11.08 a.m.– daybreak in Reykjavik – she’s just got up. Björk points the laptop out of the window to show the sun coming up. Even on the outskirts of the country’s capital, outside is pristine beach and rolling ocean. Björk is clearly very proud to be an Icelander. She lives there half the year with the other six months spent in her boyfriend Matthew Barney's house in New York.
Björk speaks slowly with a strong accent, but expresses herself confidently and more often than not with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. With the introductions out of the way, the conversation moves naturally on to her homeland:
RUSS COFFEY: Briefly, what's the current feeling in Iceland a few years on from the economic problems?
BJORK: It's really hard to talk about it briefly, but I'll give it a go. Being such a tiny country, the bank crash gobbled Icelanders up 100 percent and we all crashed 100 percent. There was no infrastructure to catch the collapse; but then there was a huge investigation with both the bank system and politicians and many ended up in jail. It was tough because it's a small nation with everybody related. But now I think we’re the nation that’s cleaned up the most. We're so tiny, we can. Things happen quickly here. We crashed quickly and we recovered quickly. But it's tricky because it’s all friends and family and everybody’s related to these, we call them banksters. It only took about 20 of them to collapse the nation. Basically it’s like jailing one of your family
We’re near the mountains and volcanoes, eruptions, earthquakes and storms
Speaking of Iceland, the songs on Biophilia have an other-worldly quality about them. How do you find living on top of the world affects your music and outlook as an artist?
Obviously I don't feel like I'm on top of the world. I feel like this is the centre. I don't mean that in a megalomaniac way; this is normal for me - you guys are the odd ones. The lifestyle here in Iceland is how I've always lived my life. Reykjavik’s a modern European city, with the most Wi-Fi per person, and we read most books per person but it’s still a sort of a village because there's only 200,000 people.
We have the beach here and we’re near the mountains and volcanoes, eruptions, earthquakes and storms. A lot of people have boats and for others the biggest hobby is hiking. In fact about 80 percent of hobbies in Iceland involve going out into nature; like hiking or going out on four-wheel-drive jeeps. Mainly this comes out in my music without an effort. There are moments, though, when it’s more conscious: for example on an album called Homogenic. I went to Spain for six months to do that album and I was really homesick. I found myself doing an Icelandic album - seeing it from an outside point of view. If you watch the video of a song called "Jóga", it's very homesick. I was trying to make techno beats and make them sound like eruptions.
How the custom instruments for Biophilia were created
Your last studio record, Biophilia wasn’t just an album. It was part of an ambitious multiform project which included Ipad apps and educational programs in New York and Iceland. Did you ever feel that the educational part would ever come to anything and how do you feel about it a year on?
Biophilia was an unusual album for me. When I was making it I didn't know which side of the project people would react to. It's an album and an “app album”, and a concert. It's also educational and the instruments are bespoke. Normally when I do albums I know pretty much what's going happen - there's an album and tour. But this one threw the net out really far and it was up to other people as to what would happen next. And yes the educational thing has really kicked off. Reykjavik has now put the program into the curriculum of the middle school [12-year-olds] for three years. They've been putting their teachers on courses to learn this, and uniting the science teachers and the music teachers.
How exactly does the programme work?
I never intended to do a remix album; my energy was all in finishing the apps
If you look into the apps it’d become obvious. But, for example, the “Thunderbolt” app tries to teach kids what an arpeggio is through lightning which has a jagged shape. An arpeggio is a broken chord with repeated notes. On the app you have lightning and with your two fingers you can control the pitch and also the speed. [Björk imitates the music] So that song teaches you about arpeggios. Then the next song teaches you about rhythms and time signatures. The kids all have Ipads to work with on these. “Hollow” teaches you about time signatures and rhythm through DNA replication. You see an animation by a guy who's worked on the BBC, a scientifically correct depiction of how DNA is replicated. In the school program a scientist will come and explain DNA to the kids and then a musicologist will come in and teach them about time signatures and then the kids will play on the iPad; play with the DNA replication to make their own beats. At the end of the day they go home with a USB stick of their work.
David Attenborough explains Björk's apps
Do you think, generally speaking, that as an artist gets older the time comes to stop talking about love and sex and all the things that young singer-songwriters talk about and thematically progress?
I think in the past I've talked about a lot of other things other than love and sex. I've gone out of my way to make things a bit more varied but yeah I definitely say they change, but at the same time some things are timeless. There are subject matters that are always as perplexing for a musician, for anybody, like existence or trying to be alive. That kind of stuff, you know?
The meaning of life, what's it all about?
No! just being alive, that's a bit different!
The new album is a selection of remixes from the last, which you've chosen to call Bastards and, on it, you've worked with some of the most cutting edge musicians on the planet. Why did you want to hand these songs over to another generation to find their meaning or their version of it?
In the beginning I never intended to do a remix album. My energy was all in finishing the apps which was a humongous task - something I’ve never done before. I was in this 24/7 uphill kind of battle doing something that no-one had done before. Plus we were doing our live shows differently from how other people do them and preparing specially built instruments. So I wasn’t for a second thinking about remixes.
What was nice about this album, Bastards (pictured below), was that it was something that grew naturally on the side. I worked on Biophilia for four years; a long time. And during these four years every one or two months I would think wow that would be amazing if this person would do a version of that song. I've always been really interested in remixes. I think it's a really interesting form because it allows a lot of freedom: you pick a song and you do another version of that same song but you can choose completely different ingredients so you're keeping the spirit of the song.
After remixing I invited some of them into the studio to do a few versions and see what happened. And I would pick one to go on the album, but then we would have 2 or 3 versions extra which I still thought were good enough that I wanted them to come out. About three months ago or so I started listening again to these remixes back to back. I'd done the bulk of Biophilia and thought the remixes deserved own little thing.
I started bicycling and listening to the mixes down the beach. It seemed really easy to edit them to eliminate two thirds of them and there was like a core that was kind of similar. Because the subject matter was science and nature I wanted elemental beats that sounded like eruptions or thunder and lightning.
All the collaborators, without me planning it, are people who make elemental beats, like the nature here in Iceland. The stories behind those remixes are all different. Some came and joined me in Brooklyn where I was writing at the time and they were actually involved in the making of the album. People like 16 Bit and Matthew Herbert actually ended up with some of their parts on the album and, after hanging out for a while, they went home and did their version. Others were more traditional remixes where I just sent something and then I just got sent something back. With The Slips remix, he was basically just a fan who did a remix without even receiving any parts. Somebody just sent this to us and I thought it was so great I decided to put it on the album.
I really relate to British electronic music. I was there are some of the first raves
There are also some people there were a lot older than me like Omar Souleyman and some people are my age. I think it's people of all different ages there - it's not just younger people.
How come so many of them seem to be British?
Let me think. Are they?
I haven’t got the list in front of me but I remember there were a lot of British artists
Well Death Grips is from the States and Omar Souleyman is from Syria.
Hudson Mohawk is from Glasgow, Matthew Herbert and 16 Bit are from England…
Okay. I’m not sure I definitely don’t go by that consciously. I go for whatever excites me. I think it might have something to do with the time that I lived there about 15 years ago. I really relate to British electronic music. I was there at some of the first raves and stuff. I'd say my roots go back pretty far with British music. Especially the electronic beats.
How did you choose the name Bastards?
Bastards? I was just looking in the dictionary the words that meant hybrid. That seemed too much too soft a word because a lot of these beats are pretty hard. Bastards seemed more appropriate for the elemental nature of the album.
And you put a couple of mixes of the same songs on there; why did you do that?
Just because they were good mixes!
Are there any that you prefer to the original?
I wouldn’t say prefer but I think they’re just as valid. I really like the "Sacrifice" mix by Death Grips. That would be my favourite.
Are you technologically minded?
[Thinks] I would say I’m just kind of medium. That’s probably why I got so excited about touch screens. They were around in the electronic music community back in 2005 or 2006. There was a touch screen that electronic musicians used for live mixing and stuff. After my Volta tour (pictured below) which was 2006-08, I was using those.They became like the missing tool for electronic musicians. It was never tactile writing on computers with a little mouse, but now you could be really expressive and do it all with one finger. It was like, “Wow, I can really interact with electronic music in a tactile way.” For someone like me who was sort of medium savvy, it was like finally technology had caught up with me. But at home I use my laptop most, to be honest. And I have a couple of iPads and I have an iPhone
You wouldn't be tempted to get a new Nokia to make it more Scandinavian?
I don't know. I haven't looked into it - I am not always on technology websites. I actually use my iPhone till it breaks down. I broke the glass on my iPhone and everyone was like, “Wow, you can get the new version", and I'm like, Why? I'm not like desperate always trying to get new stuff. I guess I'm more impressed by the ideas: like if it’s like a touch screen it's liberating for somebody like me who is not that amazing at computer programming.
Do you think you'll go back to conventional instruments or are you keen to explore further new musical technology?
Well I've always done both. Obviously my voice is very acoustic and human. On all my albums I've had strings and brass and on this album I had a choir: 24 girls have been touring with me. My interest has always been to unite the human and technology and this project has also been about uniting nature and technology. You don't have to sacrifice one for the other.
You said in an interview a while back that you sometimes preferred chaos to discipline when you are trying to be creative. What's your current creative process – are you spontaneous or do you sit and work at it?
It's a bit of both really. It's like organising an accident: there’s certain things you prepare and there’s other things you cannot. Either they happen or they don’t. That's sometimes why it's good to be in Iceland, there's no time pressure. You do it in your own time really.
What do you think are the qualities that make for a good artist?
I don't necessarily think that artists are the only artists. My grandad used to make fireplaces and he had a pretty great way of doing that. He’d show us Polaroids from his wallet of the latest one that he'd made. And there are mothers who bring up their children quite creatively, and so on. There are also a lot of artists who aren't really creative, as well as non-artists who are very creative. So I don't necessarily think the lines are drawn like that, you know. There's got to be something said for having idiosyncrasy and your own identity and sticking by it. It's easy to stick by it when things are going well but when things aren't going well it's much harder. I would say that's what makes a good artist. That they stick by it.
You've recently released a video a DVD of performances on Jools Holland's programme going back to 1995. When you see your younger self singing songs like "Venus as a Boy" does it ever make you want to make another pop album?
Watch Björk's video for "Venus as a Boy"
Well I don't really see any difference between the albums I'm making now and the albums I did in the beginning. I think there's always been.... well, for example on Biophilia there's a song called “Virus” and I think the pop sensibility there is quite similar to “Venus as a Boy”. Back on Post there was a song called “Headphones” that you could categorize as some kind of drone music. So I think there's always been both. I think people tend to remember the dance mixes from my early albums but when they listen to the albums themselves they're not really that dancey.
But from the early days you always have a reputation for spectacular videos. You've just released another very spectacular video for “Mutual Core” (see below): you seem to be buried to your waist in sand, you've got a blue wig on and sea creatures are swimming in the air about you. Can you tell me how this came about and what it was like to make?
If you look at the app for "Mutual Core" it has this strata, the same palette that's in the video. We made a kind of accordion made out of strata. That particular app is teaching kids about chords. Triads don't have tension but then you move one note down and then it's got a lot of tension. So you have this accordion of chords that you are trying to make work. That was the beginning. The video evolved from this. Andrew [Huang], the director, had recently made one called “Solipsist” which I thought was amazing and I thought he could go really well with this song. What's important for musicians when we pick video directors, it's not just about picking the best ones but picking the one who fits best with that particular song.
Had he worked on the app?
You know what it's like. Ups and downs right?
No, but I asked him to base it on the app and he came back with a script, where he'd done that but also added a lot of his own stuff to it and taken it way further. So it's like as I said, you're trying to organise an accident. It's one of those moments which worked really well. Andrew was flexible enough to take on the things suggested and also add at least another half of his own on top. It all goes really well together
It is true the the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA helped with that video.
Yeah they paid for it, and it was premiered there a few days ago.
Is the tour still going on?
Yeah, I'm doing something I've never done before: I'm doing residencies. It sort of goes with the educational programme. We've done Manchester, Reykjavik, New York and Buenos Aires and we're aiming to do three cities next year. You have to line up the science museums and the educational programs so basically I stay in one building like I stayed in the Science Museum in New York for a month, playing gigs there for a whole month. Meanwhile the educational program is happening somewhere else in the building.
What's your average day like in Iceland or NYC?
Well I don't really like routines so they're not really the same but if there's something similar about them it's that I always try to spend time outdoors. That's really important for me as I'm not really an indoor kind of person. I also try to meet friends and do a bit of work. In that sense I guess it's not really too different from most people. And obviously I have two kids so that also comes into it
Which language do you speak to them in?
When you're up in Iceland do you speak English much or do you become completely Icelandic?
It depends. My assistant is English. But there are periods when I only hang out with Icelanders. But also my boyfriend speaks English, and my manager’s from London so there will be periods when I don't speak any English and then I'll have periods where I speak a lot
Are you happy at the moment?
Are you thinking about the meaning of life again! Yeah I would say so, but you know what it's like. Ups and downs, right? That's what it's all about, hey?
Christmas is coming. What are you looking forward to?
I'm pretty psyched about my Christmas tree to be honest. You know I have to try and hold out. In Iceland you're not supposed to put it up until 23 December so maybe we'll have to try to pretend we're English and American in this house and put it up now!
What do you eat for Christmas? Turkey?
Well so many different things. Smoked lamb is a pretty classy timeless thing here. A lot of people also hunt. Many of my family now are hunting a bird, I think it's called partridge: in the winter it goes white and it's got big white fluffy feathers and in the summer it's brown. A lot of people have that at Christmas. My grandparents' generation were really into the Danish smoked pig. I was never big on that.
Watch Björk's latest video, "Mutual Core"
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