THE Q&A: BJÖRK, MUSICIAN

Björk Guðmundsdóttir laughs a lot. In conversation, these outbursts are the only moments when she doesn't sound like "Björk”, the pop star once described as "the most famous Icelander since Leif Erikson" by Alex Ross of the New Yorker. Otherwise, she trills in the same register as she sings, with a Nordic inflection that lilts and rolls. Hers is a voice made for dreams and torch songs. The laugh keeps things grounded.

Outside Iceland, many first heard Björk in a single called “Birthday”, recorded when she was the lead singer of a band called the Sugarcubes in the early 1990s. With her 1993 solo album “Debut”, she emerged as a singer-songwriter who contained sonic and stylistic multitudes. The record seemed to brand Björk not so much a rising star, but a distant planet with complex weather patterns.

Seven albums in 18 years have bred familiarity with her world. In a Björk song the melody floats freely above a modal structure. Her lyrics can appear digressive. Then, just as her words are getting too weird, too solipsistic, they conjure an image so vivid you can see it shimmer. 

This is exactly how she talks, too. She spins and spins while making the occasional intuitive leap, until finally a dazzling shape materialises. Then she chortles girlishly. Today Björk is speaking from her home on the Icelandic coast. We are meant to discuss her new project, “Biophilia”, but our conversation takes a bracingly roundabout route. Along the way she unravels a few of the mysteries surrounding her songwriting methods. 

Your albums suggest you are a listener who pays special attention to timbre. 

I was in guitar bands for a really long time. I guess the deal in bands is you become each other's teachers. But when it came to sonic stuff, what we did was never my choice. So I got a long time to think about what I might want to do. My first album didn't come out until I was 27, which in pop years is late, you know. But when it came time to arrange it, I became a kid in a toy shop. I had a harp and a saxophone quartet and a symphony orchestra. I went berserk for a time. You could say on those first albums I was mapping out the music I heard in my childhood. Though obviously it's not that black-and-white.

After those first two albums—“Debut” and “Post” (1995)—things got dark for a little while in your music.

Then there was “Homogenic” (1997), which was the first album where it wasn't so much me discovering other people's worlds. It was more me defining my own. 

And what did that mean back then? You were living in London then, right? 

Yes, and on that album I was trying to make electronic beats that were like volcanic eruptions. I was trying to update the Icelandic sonic tradition from the Vikings—the William Tell Overture for modern times, if you like.

So while in London you were making music evoking Iceland.

Yes, to me “Homogenic” was a very patriotic album, with string octets and explosions. After “Homogenic” each album has had its own sonic world. “Vespertine” (2001) was frozen, virtual, laptops, whispers. It was winter music. And that gave me a frame to work within. It's not like my childhood anymore—it's another frame. And once that frame is in place, I can work very intuitively. And we're back to being a kid in a toyshop.

Now, when you talk of a “frame” are you also talking about ground rules you adhere to when writing a new set of songs?

Yes, and it gets a bit teeny-bop. 

Sort of faddish, you mean?

Yes, as if I'm some teenager moving on from some fad. It can get to where I say something like "On this album, I'm so over snare drums! They are so horrible! I'm not using snare sounds ever, ever again!" You know, completely impulsive. Like on the new album, I decided to avoid the hi-hat. I was like "Oh, hi-hats are over!" Until, of course, at the very end when one of the last things I added were hi-hats and snares. But it's important to listen to those hunches. And also it's fun.

“Biophilia” is an overwhelming project to discuss. A practical way to begin, I hope, is to talk about touchscreen technology.

I didn't totally think about it at the time. But as I've started explaining “Biophilia” to journalists, you can make it appear I knew what I was doing the whole time. But yes, very much the key to this project was the touchscreen. When I started the album in 2008, this technology was on the brink of becoming quite important. So with electronic musicians, the feeling was, "Wow! Finally I can be more tactile.” I'm not just sitting around programming something forever. I can actually make spontaneous decisions while I'm writing.

As a musician with a strong background in music theory, did the touchscreen make it easier to compose? Or did you have to adapt to it?

I first used a touchscreen on the “Volta” tour (2007). But just for performing, not for writing. So when I began “Biophilia” in autumn 2008, I decided to write with it, too. It was an opportunity to map out what I feel about structures and music. It's as if something has always been in your mind that you could never share and, finally, there was a screen for you to show it. 

In 2008, I was more just thinking about using the touchscreen for writing the songs. From there I started thinking about how I visualised music. I couldn’t help going back to when I was in music school and I was being taught certain ways of thinking about music, some of them were liberating and excellent while others were trying to make music an academic experience, which it isn’t. 

An academic experience? As opposed to—

A spatial and three-dimensional experience. So when I started this project, I knew a key to it was the touchscreen. It immediately became semi-educational because it was almost as if I was tracking back into my own education. It was almost as if I was trying to correct it. While you’re setting something up that’s educational for yourself, you have an opportunity to teach others at the same time. So very quickly I was like, “Wow, this is my music school project.”

You designed an app to accompany each of the ten songs on the album. Were you thinking up the apps while you were writing the songs?

Not quite. I wrote ten songs, writing a different program to help with the structure and composition of each song. Then, two years later, the iPad came out. We were like, “Wow! This is a natural home for this project.” We’d already written all the programs, so it seemed this is how we should release it, as this bundle of apps. So with the ten songs I tried to use ten natural elements and ten different emotions, but I also aimed for the musicology aspect to hit ten different places. For example, one app is dealing with scales and another app is chords and the next one is compositional structure and so on.

You mentioned the natural elements which make up much of the lyrical themes on “Biophilia”. There are songs about genetics, plate tectonics and crystallisation, among other processes. You developed song structures that mimic scientific processes. Was it ever a concern while making “Biophilia” that you were perpetuating some of the mythologies built up around science, rather than eliciting the knowledge?

Not really. I remember a quote from Albert Einstein, and I’m probably paraphrasing here, but he said “the more you understand, the less you know”. And in there I saw that science and mystery are always going to be connected. 

I feel the 21st century is another new age. Not only can we collaborate again with nature, but we have to. It’s an emergency. So I feel maybe there are some wounds we’re going to heal in this century. And maybe we just needed the 20th century to go berzerk in the name of progress. 

It seems like much of what we talked about has circled around the idea of technology drawing us closer to nature. This appears to be an underlying theme to your entire body of work: using technology to transcend technology.

That’s exactly why I’m so excited about this project. I can now involve the natural elements into my song structures. But I could only do that through technology.

You know, for a long time I would write my melodies while walking outside—all my life since I was a kid and until this project. I think a lot of it was always in the same BPM [beats per minute] because I would walk in the same tempo. And the structures where always quite linear because we walk in a straight line, right? And a lot of my songs were modal, so it wasn’t like the kind of chord structure you get in rock music with the three or four chords, or whatever. I experienced the structure of my earlier songs as sort of a cross-shape or a square.

I think I got a little lazy, really. But in order to actually have a touchscreen in front of me and somehow still be connected to nature, I needed to be able to incorporate natural elements into the song structures. Because that’s always been my songwriting accompaniment: nature. Also the weather, you know: if there was a blizzard when I walked to school or if it was sunny; or I would sing the verses when I’d go up the hills; then down the hills I’d have the choruses. The natural elements in the songs on “Biophilia” gave me something to sing to in that way. Of course, this is something I didn’t realise until after the fact. It’s like I’m still solving the riddle, as well.

"Biophilia" by Björk is out now.

~ A.S. (via Prospero)

Picture credit: Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin