Bjork’s Newest Vision, 15 août 2001

With movie making and awards shows behind her, Bjork is crafting innovative music — again.

The last time most of us saw Bjork, she was wearing a swan dress — complete with beak and feathers, not to mention eggs, which she "laid" playfully. It was Academy Awards night, March 2001, and she was there to perform her Oscar-nominated song "I’ve Seen It All," from the film Dancer in the Dark, in which she also starred. To her core fans, it was a delightfully eccentric touch, of the sort they’ve come to expect ; to the rest of the world it must have been quite perplexing.

It’s just that sort of eccentricity that has typified Bjork’s relationship to the world. Her fans are charmed by it — it’s the frosting atop the cake of creativity she seems to be constantly baking. Although not everyone understands her, it’s tough to deny that she is explosively talented, and that her artistic vision — not to mention her unique voice — is one of the most innovative in recent pop music history.

That has been both a boon and a bane : When it was applied to dance music, as it was on her first two solo albums, 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post, she scored both creative and commercial hits (not to mention notoriety for groundbreaking videos). But her quest for innovation led to a dramatic retooling of her approach to record-making, realized on the exquisite 1997 album Homogenic, with its combination of steely beats and lush strings — and although that work garnered many Album of the Year nods from critics, it yielded no hits.

Now, after her three-year, often harrowing detour into acting — her tour-de-force performance in Dancer earned her the Best Actress Award at Cannes 2000, among other prizes — the Icelandic native has returned with her first complete album since Homogenic (excepting 2000’s Selmasongs, the soundtrack to Dancer).

Vespertine picks up where that album left off, further exploring ideas of intimacy — Bjork is openly sensual throughout — and offsetting odd percussive devices (such as household spoons) with beds of organic instruments such as harps and celestas. CDNOW caught up with Bjork recently at her New York label offices to discuss all this and more in an exclusive interview.

CDNOW : How was it for you performing on the Academy Awards in front of a much more mainstream audience ?

Bjork : I was very aware when I went to the Academy Awards that it would probably be my first and last time. So I thought my input should really be about fertility, and I thought I’d bring some eggs.

I don’t watch many Hollywood films, and being from Iceland, it’s pretty accidental what gets over there. Most Hollywood films that I watch are Busby Berkeley musicals and ... what’s that movie called with all the swimming ? Esther Williams, that sort of thing, so I thought it’d be very appropriate to wear a swan. I guess they don’t do those things anymore, right ? But it was a tribute to Busby Berkeley and that sort of elegance.

There’s a part of you that loves musical theater, notably with "It’s Oh So Quiet" and the musical dance scenes in Dancer in the Dark. Do feel like now, "OK, I’ve done that" ? Or will we see more of that side of you ?

Well, I’m very wary of nostalgic things. I think it’s OK to listen to music that’s older than 100 years maybe one day a year, and the other 363 or whatever it is, you should listen to recent stuff. I feel a certain sense of duty to deal with what’s going on now. When I did "It’s Oh So Quiet," that was obviously a cover version. If you do four albums, and one song out of four should be that cover version, that’s OK. But I think I won’t be doing a lot of that. It’s very important to move ahead.

So let’s focus on the new album. First of all, you originally called it Domestika, then you changed it to Vespertine. Why did you do that ?

Well, in a way, the first song for Vespertine was "All Is Full of Love" [the last track on Homogenic]. When I wrote that song, it was kind of a new page for me. It sort of busted out the back of Homogenic. I think I saw very clearly where I wanted to go in the next album.

Domestika was all about trying to create a paradise in your own home, a very introverted euphoria, a quiet ecstatic state, in that you’re self- sufficient with your heaven. You don’t need stimuli from the outside world. All you need is imagination and human spirit, and faith to want to get there.

So I started recording just little noises around the house, like with pencils and toasters and pots and pans, trying to limit myself that I could only use stuff around the house. Half a year ago when the album was ready, everything about it was domestic. So I thought, OK, we’ve acquired that in an audio sense ; we don’t have to be so literate about the title.

I thought I’d maybe go for more of the poetic, prayer-like aspect on the album with the title. Because if I were to ever do a prayer album, it’d be this one — Vespertine being vespers, evening prayers. And also because the whole thing was done at winter time in Iceland, when there is only one hour of daylight a day. So it’s quite nocturnal, like hibernation. Vespertine means things that come out in the dark and shine, or islands that come out in the dark, and I wanted to stress that angle — all the noises on the album are trying to be winter-like, or frozen, like the harp and the swan and the music boxes. And celesta, of course, being an ultimate winter instrument.

Also, these things, music boxes, harps, and celestas are some of the few acoustic instruments that actually download really pretty. I was bored with other musicians who thought that Napster was from the devil, and it was all to make their music sound bad. Of course not. Limitations like that have always been a turn-on for creative people. One hundred years ago or something, people said the orchestra sounded terrible through the radio. But then they learned about it, like where to put the microphone, so they perfected it. Now the fact that there are these little speakers on the computer, I mean, that’s exciting, right ? The more limitations sometimes, the more inspiring. So I think we should write with those little speakers in mind.

Along the same lines, the beat of "Cocoon" sounds almost like a needle scratching on a vinyl record. How did you get that effect ?

Yeah, in that particular song the beat was done by Thomas Knak. He’s Danish, and he actually did click noises from the synth. What is actually quite interesting is that I have one sample on this record — and it’s on "Unison" — and it’s from this band called Oval, who have been one of my favorite bands for a few years, and they actually DJ. [Leader] Markus Popp would actually take CDs and scratch them, and put them on the turntable machine ; then he would play off of that.

And the good thing about that is, it’s sort of conquering the fact that most people think that technology is cold because it has no mystery, and it’s very calculated, and blah, blah, blah. So when you take technology and use the areas where it breaks, where it’s faulty, you’re entering a mystery zone where you can’t control it. It’s reacting more like an animal or a person to you, and you have to react with it. It’s not like you tell it what to do and then it does it, like a controlled, cold thing. But you take a knife, scratch a CD, put it on, and it will skip. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

I guess the same thing happens with guitarists. I mean, 34 years ago Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend would make everything distort. These guitar amps were not made for that. But they went into the area that the people who made the amp didn’t want them to go because it would go out of control, and it would be wild again like nature, you know, and raw. I think you can find rawness and nature in anything if you just want to.

There’s a bit of that in the lyrics as well here. Let’s start with "Sun in My Mouth," which was actually from an E.E. Cummings poem. What was the inspiration for that ?

Well, there are not that many poets that have won me over. I tend to read certain poets over and over again, and E.E. Cummings is one of them. I was reading a lot of him these last three years. I ended up just writing a song. It’s hard to say why these things happen because most things just grow naturally, like a plant, on this record.

But looking back on it, I think he’s very interested in climaxes — in the divine and euphoric states. But what is special about him is that he’s always humble. It’s very common for people who are really into peaks and crowns, and euphoric states that they go really pompous and... [makes poof sound] sort of Wagner-like. Which he never, ever, ever ... I guess that’s something I found really curious — that you can go to the sharpest peak ever, but it’s completely humble.

The first single, "Hidden Place," is about retreating from the world, but there’s also a very sensual quality to it.

"Hidden Place" is about how two people can create a paradise just by uniting — you’ve got an emotional location that’s mutual. And it’s unbreakable. And it’s obviously make-believe, so you could argue that it doesn’t exist because it’s invisible, but of course it does. It might be artificial, but you just keep on believing in it, and it grows strong. It’ll become real, you know.

One of the things that fascinates people about you is that you seem to have a lot of paradoxes. You combine, say, technology with stringed instruments. Similarly, you have a very singular vision, and yet you do this by working with a lot of collaborators. Please explain how that works...

I think the safest way to describe a working relationship is to compare it to friendship, and how you just meet with someone — say someone at your work or your school — and you know you like them. Then you meet them again in six months or whatever, and you have lunch, and then two years later you end up doing something.

I think also with how you exchange ideas, it’s different in every case. Certain friends really influence you or you influence them. The most magical friendships are where it’s really equal. You might not be giving the same thing to each other, but one person is giving green and the other person is giving red or something.

The only thing you can do is when you feel the energy happening, you have to document it. That’s the only thing you can be conscious of, because you can’t [say], "OK, let’s make sure this is recorded," or it goes away, you know.

Take Mark Bell, for example. We never committed to each other. It was quite magical like that, that he came to Spain for two weeks, and he stayed six months [working on Homogenic]. But I always expected him to say the next day, "OK, I have to go now. We had a great time. See you later."

And even when we did the Homogenic tour, I organized to have another musician to play the beats and stuff, and I remember doing the first or second gig, [Mark] was backstage and [I was] not even knowing he was in that country and turning around, and he just replaced the guy. It was like ... [puts fist in air triumphantly].

You’ve acknowledged that the experience of filming Dancer in the Dark was tough. But in retrospect, were you proud of the work you did ? You’ve said you don’t want to act again. Is that still the situation ?

Yeah, something in me knew the whole time — like when I said yes, I’d do the film, it was ridiculous. And people were saying, "This is silly." But it was something like instinct. It was something I had to do. Even at the most painful moments, I continued and completed it.

Everybody, when they’re kids, they have this romantic idea, to once in a lifetime do something impossible — rescue a child from drowning, or go across the Antarctic on their own and almost die but still survive. I guess this film was a little bit like that for me, to just get that out of the system for once, go all the way.

It also related to my romantic ideas about collaboration and seeing when the union is stronger than the individuals. I have romantic ideas about that sort of creative energy. I think there’s a little misunderstanding with people thinking that the reason I don’t act again is because of this film, but it’s the other way around. I never wanted to act, but I made an exception because of this film. So that’s why I’m not doing it. I’m getting very tempting offers, though. It’s kind of crazy, really. But I’m very happy to be home again.

par John Bitzer publié dans