The Daily Telegraph (UK)

‘This time it’s intuition only — no brain, please’

Icelandic singer Björk has made a compelling new album that contains not a single musical instrument and is named
after the Latin for ’marrow’. Robert Sandall went to Reykjavík to meet one of pop music’s great originals.

In a deserted fish restaurant near Reykjavík’s charmingly uneventful city
centre, Björk has begun to come alive. A repeat order of black coffee has
done the trick. She has offered many apologies for feeling so zonked in the
middle of the day—attributable, she says, to a combination of just having
moved house and being the mother of a nearly two-year-old daughter. Now
the reasons why she decided that her new album Medúlla would contain only
the sound of human voices are coming back to her.

“Everybody was going, ‘Oh she’s making a vocal album, it’ll be a horrible
Yoko Ono experience.’” She oohs and mmms fiercely, in imitation of Mrs
Lennon’s challenging output. “But I wanted to show that a vocal album
doesn’t have to be for the chosen few. It was just about working with the
instrument I know best, my voice.”

Idiosyncratically aspirated and accented in a mockney/Nordic style, the voice
bears all the marks of having grown up in Reykjavík then left home, wandered around Europe and spent some formative years hanging out in London clubs. Since then it has appeared
in many guises on a series of albums whose indomitably adventurous spirit has established Björk as one
of pop’s true originals—and one of the very few to have made nonconformist art-pop appealing to the
wider public. She has sold more than 12 million albums.

This talk of the past sets her off on a chain of recollection which begins with an old teddy bear, and ends
with her “eating biscuits in my granny’s house”. Wearing a complicated black silk dress that itself has
something of the granny about it, and with her hair gathered in two twisted clumps on the top of her
head, Björk looks the way she sounds : eccentric going on slightly bonkers, but definitely worth attending
to.

We are meeting in Iceland because this is where she spends roughly half her time these days. The house
in west London from which she launched her solo career in the early 1990s she hardly sees. She was back
there for the birth of Isadora in 2002, but only because her partner, the American artist Matthew Barney, had a show opening in Paris at the same time. When the pair aren’t in Reykjavík,
where her 17-year-old son Sindri lives with his father (the magnificently named
Thor Eldon), the couple are based in a house that once belonged to Noël Coward,
across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

Many of the tunes on Medúlla, she reveals, were hummed into a Dictaphone during
her daily walks in the woods around the house, then fed through software
programmes in her home studio. Instrument avoidance wasn’t her original
objective : “It wasn’t like I had a set of rules and had to follow them. That is not
liberating. I was just playing with the buttons on the mixing desk and thinking,
‘Oh, this sounds better,’ and I found I’d taken out all the instruments.”

Guitars she dispensed with years ago, after her Icelandic punk band the Sugarcubes split in 1992. Since
then, her solo albums have become increasingly dependent on orchestral sounds. “I have got better working
with strings,” she says, addressing the question why Medúlla, her sixth album, doesn’t feature any,
anywhere. “The arrangements on Vespertine (her album from 2001) were better than on Post (1995). But
I’m still a beginner. I’d be standing in front of an orchestra asking them if they could play more rudely, or
make section seven sound more like blueberries, please.”

Voices, by contrast, Björk has always found more amenable. It
was her singing that first caught the attention of the Icelandic
public in 1976 when her debut album of folk and pop tunes,
Björk, went double platinum with sales of 6,000 copies. She was
then 11. As a teenager she made up tapes with layers of her
unaccompanied vocals. “So you see, this album has been in
my subconscious since I was 18.”

More recently she has taken to getting drunk at parties with a
group of friends : “We would do our favourite dance tracks just
ourselves, one person doing the beat, another on the bass line.” After lengthy experiments in this area she concludes that “most death metal and all heavy metal songs
are excellent a cappella.” Disappointingly, she hasn’t found space for any of these on Medúlla.

Life in Björk’s world hasn’t been all uninhibited fun recently. Throughout the interview she keeps referring,
in tones of gloomy regret, to Dancer in the Dark, the film by the Danish director Lars Von Trier that won her
a Best Actress award at Cannes in 1999 and an Oscar nomination. Few observing her on Hollywood’s
première red carpet, dressed in a high-concept frock tricked out like a dead swan, were aware of the
anguish she was going through at the time—though the TV journalist she attacked at Bangkok airport,
allegedly for manhandling her son, might have wondered.

Björk accuses Von Trier of off-camera mind games rooted in Danish colonial attitudes towards her country,
which Denmark used to rule. The fact that in the film she played a poor immigrant mother who is going
blind and ends up being executed for a murder she didn’t commit can’t have helped either. “That film
burned up everything I had achieved. All my confidence. I had to start all over again. You could say that
was a good thing but I personally think it felt a bit early. Ten years later I would have been up for that
crash maybe.”

The ensuing Vespertine album she compares to “little insects rising from the ashes”. The task with the
new album, she says, was “to gain again my strength”. The title Medúlla, taken from the Latin word for
“marrow”, she chose because of its physical, earthy associations. Or something. “Medúlla is primitive, like
before civilisation. It’s the soft squidgy thing in the centre. After Vespertine I was going to do an album
with intuition only, no brain please. I was thinking more visceral, flesh and blood, pregnancy…” The list
continues, ending with “death metal” again.

The key event in her spiritual recovery was prompted by the move to Manhattan in the summer 2001
where she met and fell in love with Matthew Barney, a man described by the New York Times as “the
most important artist of his generation”. Björk is reluctant to speak about a person she refers to only as “my boyfriend”. Partly, you suspect, this is because of the negative publicity that has flowed in the past from her unstable liaisons with badboy types such as Tricky and Goldie. But
mainly, she says, “it’s because a lot of people think, ‘Oh he’s into birds, so she’ll
make a bird album’, when it’s the total opposite. When you love someone you
feel secure and you get the confidence to present your own universe.”

Central to hers now is their daughter. In a little more than a year after they met,
Barney and Björk had left Manhattan, bought their house in New Jersey and had
a child whom they named Isadora “because I didn’t want to press my Viking
background and he didn’t want anything Christian”. Isadora, she explains, means “gift of Isis”, referring to the pagan goddess of nature. When Björk played a series
of big European festivals last summer, Matthew and Isadora went on the road
with her. When she then got down to devising material for Medúlla, on her own,
she found it difficult.

“It’s weird what the baby does to your head. It’s like you have to train a muscle
again. Nature is great at making you think about your baby 24 hours a day but
when the baby doesn’t need you so much, it isn’t great at teaching you to look
after yourself.” Working in 10-minute bursts, she found, wasn’t getting her very
far.

She finally hit her stride in January 2004 when she flew alone to La Gomera, one of the least visited Canary
Islands, to meet up with a Canadian Inuit throat singer who had appeared with her briefly during the
Vespertine tour. Tanya Taqaq, in Björk’s opinion, is “like the Edith Piaf of throat singing. She makes those
abstract noises passionate.” They worked on a song, The Pleasure Is all Mine, in which Björk celebrated
her newfound independence. After that, she found that the rest of the album came quite easily, thanks to
the help she received from two choirs, the English pop maverick Robert Wyatt, and a human beatbox,
Rahzel, whom she first heard performing a cappella versions of Kraftwerk songs and who can apparently
imitate every sound in the known universe. “Ask him to do a soap bubble and he can do it.”

The result of all this extraordinary vocal manipulation is another outstandingly original album from a
woman who seems incapable of playing by any rules other than her own. For those who love music for its
compelling strangeness, Björk is still the boss. And for those who love music to comment meaningfully
on the world around us, well, she’s trying. “This album was supposed to be a response to 9/11 and all this
rubbish and me thinking about a time before religion and patriotism. I wanted to show those gentlemen
that there are still insects crawling, people jumping in swimming pools, building houses, having children,
making songs and having abstract thought processes or whatever. That’s at least 98 per cent of what
humans are doing out there.” Björk obviously includes herself in this informal census of everyday
normality ; it seems churlish to disagree.

Robert Sandall

publié dans The Daily Telegraph (UK) - 14.08.2004

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