On her 10th album, Björk makes herself a cozy nest deep in the ground

Double J , 4 octobre 2022

Björk on the pitfalls of child fame, the importance of being selfish, and why her new album sounds like mushrooms

Last week, Björk released her tenth album Fossora, a record the acclaimed idiosyncratic singer, songwriter, composer, and producer sees as a natural progression.

After years of letting go of an old life and dreaming big for a new one, she’s now found herself settled.

"Vulnicura [2015] was, for me, almost like the end of one period in my life," she tells Double J’s Zan Rowe. "Then Utopia [2017] was like the beginning of a new period in my life.

"I think in beginning of periods, you sort of come with manifestos. ’This time around, I’m gonna do this and that and I’m gonna not do all these mistakes’.

"You have a list for yourself of all the things you want your life to be. You have sort of a recipe for paradise. I think that’s a very human instinct. I think it’s survival instinct, actually. Then, if half of the things you want come true, that’s enough.

"Utopia was very much that kind of album. I feel like Fossora comes after that. It’s time to land on Earth and see if all these ideas I had work."

With her recipe for paradise scaled down and her grand plans for a new life in check, Björk found herself embracing ’regular life’ as she worked on the album.

"It’s more sort of the day to day," she says. "It’s not the ideal, it’s more the sort of mundane, everyday life. Hanging out with friends, walking to the grocery store, having a coffee. It’s about this kind of emotion."

To match this mood, she wanted to feature instruments that sounded warm and earthy.

"I feel like that’s why I was interested sonically in very grounded things, like six bass clarinets and very, very deep, fast bass drums," she says. "It was almost like drilling yourself into the ground and making a really, really cozy nest.

"The colour palette on the album are very earthy colours : dark, dark red, and dark, dark green. And trying to isolate the focus on this particular nesting, digging into the ground feeling."

Björk’s pandemic album

Being grounded and appreciating the comfort of home were prevalent pandemic themes for many, Björk included.

"In the quarantine, it was maybe claustrophobic to some degree, it was also very grounding," she says. "The few friends or family members you could see, you were seeing much, much, much more. So, you develop deeper relationships with these people.

"Maybe you discovered, ’I don’t have to travel the world for a lot of things, I can do a lot of these things just in my own neighbourhood’, which I actually think is a beautiful thing. This album is sort of also a little bit about this."

Björk is grateful that her lockdown experience was relatively pleasant.

"I have to say, I was blessed," she says. "Reykjavik is on a peninsula so most of us have access to the ocean and mountains. We’re in nature here. So, I could still have a walk every day on the beach.

"A lot of my friends were stuck in the middle of a city, and they couldn’t even leave their apartment. I definitely did not go through something like that. I feel for people who didn’t have access to nature during the pandemic."

In fact, for Björk, lockdown was enjoyable.

"I did really enjoy it," she says. "It was wonderful to have month after month, adding on another layer of grounding, and more grounding, more grounding. After two years, I was so grounded. It was like the most grounded I’ve ever been."

Which brings us to mushrooms.

Björk’s mushroom album

Mushrooms have been mentioned quite a lot in the lead up to Fossora’s release.

When describing it to collaborators Gabber Modus Operandi, Björk stated this was her "mushroom album". As if to labour the point, mushrooms are everywhere in the clip for ’Atopos’. One of the album’s songs is called ’Mycelia’, another is ’Fungal City’.

So, what makes it a mushroom album ?

"I think musicians speak a language that is quite visual in a way sometimes," Björk says.

"You’re trying to find visual shortcuts. If I spoke to my mixing engineer, Heba Kadry, I would say to her, ’Oh, this is my mushroom album’, and she’ll go, ’Oh, okay, I got it’.

"That means that you want a heavy sound that’s bottom heavy. It’s kind of murky and fuzzy.

"The last album, Utopia, was the opposite. It was very digital, very high definition and very precise. A lot of air sounds and not a lot of bass lines, or bass drums and things like that. If they happened, it was very occasionally, they would anchor down the songs, but not that often."

Björk doesn’t approach writing a new record with mushrooms, or any other visual cue, in mind. As the songs develop, she considers what they call to mind and follows that track.

"In the beginning of albums, I just write whatever I want to write, and I don’t think about concepts," she says.

"But often, like two years into it, – depends on the album – I’ll start to maybe have a moment where I listen to all the songs back to back and then I’ll be like, ’Oh, okay, it’s this kind of album’.

"I’ll say ’Oh, this is a mushroom album’. That for me is some strange kind of sonic joke, but It basically means it’s bottom heavy, and it’s earthy or like in the ground."

This sets a direction for everything that will come next.

When choosing sounds, she’ll opt for something earthier – like a deep, bass clarinet (or six) – rather than something airy like a flute (or seven).

"I mean, the violin can be both raw and growly and also very sophisticated," she considers. "But overall, I would say six bass clarinets are earthier than seven flutes any day."

’Our differences are irrelevant… Our union is stronger than us’
’Are these not just excuses to not connect ?
Our differences are irrelevant
Too only name the flaws
Are excuses to not connect’

The first verse of ’Atopos’, the first single take from Fossora, speak to the divisions in relationships, politics, and broader society.

’Our union is stronger than us’ Björk sings.

"It’s not a coincidence that when I wrote this song, Trump was still the [United States] President," she says.

"I think it was just a few months before the election when Biden got in. The gap between Democrats and Republicans in US was widening. And I feel like it’s happening in a lot of other countries at the moment.

"So ’Atopos’ is kind of about this gap widening and how to overcome it."

While the political discourse seems more divided than ever, those gaps exist in our personal relationships too.

"Like lovers, or friends," she says. "When we hang out, are we going to focus on the things that that we have in common ? That we both like the same kind of music ?

"Or are we going to focus on what we don’t have in common ? That one of us likes sports and the other one visual art. Or [that we are from] different generations, or whatever it is that separates people. Different food tastes or whatever.

"I feel like, in a lot of lot of friendships or love relationships, it’s a choice. When you hang out with that person, are you mostly focusing on what you guys have in common ? Or are you focusing on the things that separate you ?

"The song is sort of like a meditation on this and the reason why I wanted the beat, or the mood of the song to be a little feisty, is because it’s sort of a confrontation.

"’Snap out of it. If you want a union, you have to focus on the things that we have in common’. When people get stuck on focusing on the things that separate us and then they’re complaining that there isn’t a union."

Pulling together macro and micro concepts is one of the many things that make has made Björk’s music so intriguing and fascinating for so long. In ’Declare Independence’, from her 2007 album Volta, she sang both for an entire country, and for a single person.

"When I wrote that song, I was very aware that I wanted to include the emotional aspect and the personal, intimate aspect to it," she says. "I guess that’s very much a lot of what I do in my work.

"’Declare Independence’ is addressed to the Faroe Islands and Greenland who, believe it or not, in 2022 are still a colony of Denmark, which is unbelievable.

"But also, I wanted to write the lyric that was… let’s say somebody who works at a woman’s shelter could say it to a woman : ’Declare independence ! Don’t let him do that to you !’ It could be a protest song, or about justice on a very, very personal level."

Songs for her mother

The songs ’Sorrowful Soil’ and ’Ancestress’ are tributes to Björk’s mother, activist Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, who died in 2018. The woman who started Björk’s path in music.

"When I was a kid, I was always singing and humming a lot," Björk remembers.

"I was kind of introverted and I didn’t like language very much. So, she sent me to music school at five, which was very important for me. Also, which I probably feel more complicated about, but I got lucky. It turned out okay."

It got very complicated a few years later when Björk signed a record deal and became a child star.

"She did an album with me that came out when I was 11," she says. "In Iceland, it was a gold record. It meant that people in the street or on the bus would recognise me, which I was totally not ready for."

Björk doesn’t harbour resentment about the spotlight falling on her when she wasn’t prepared and considers herself lucky to have been something of a big fish in a small pond.

"She wanted the best for me, and I think she didn’t understand maybe what psychological effect it has on a child to lose the innocence and become a celebrity at 11," she says.

"I was lucky, because in Iceland, it’s a small village and I don’t think I sort of came to a lot of harm because of it. I did have to do a lot of sort of counter work to fix it, but that’s okay."

There was also a clear bright side to Björk’s early interactions with making records.

"Obviously, all the good things that came from it was that I was in a music studio at the age of 10, seeing how all that works with all the engineers and microphone and learning how to pronounce words into a microphone," she says,

"Having all that time spent on my album, which I think for a 10 or 11 year old is very unusual. I’m very grateful for her for to give that to me."

At the time, it was not an experience she hoped to replicate.

"After that experience I was like, ’I will never ever do that again. Doing a solo album is the most evil of all evil’," she says. "That’s maybe why I was in bands for 15 years after that.

Instead, she played in a string of bands through her teens and 20s – punk band Spit and Snot, jazz fusion group Exodus, the genre-bending Tappi Tikarrass, post-punks KUKL – before forming revered indie group The Sugarcubes in 1986.

"I just wanted always to be in the background and to be part of a group and went very brutally into democracy in bands energy."

While her childhood success might have prevented us from hearing a proper Björk solo album until 1993, it meant that she emerged on her own terms, which allowed her to give us her best self.

"When my album came out when I was 27, I was ready," she says. "I think maybe subconsciously, I’d sort of done my homework for those 16 years. My mother maybe pushed me out in the limelight a little bit too early, but I managed to, for 16 years, kind of hide.

"When my solo album then came up when I was 27, which is probably quite late if you compare it to other singer-songwriters, I feel like I was probably more ready on many levels. Both with the visuals, also psychologically, and also with collaborations."

Björk’s gabber album

A handful of guests help Björk achieve her vision on Fossora.

Her children Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney and Sindri Eldon, Norweigian singer Emilie Nicolas, celebrated genre-defying performer serpentwithfeet are among them.

The most talked about contributions thus far, however, have come from Kasimyn, one half of Indonesian electro duo Gabber Modus Operandi, who contributes to three of Fossora’s songs.

"I’ve been listening to them for a few years," Björk says. "When I would have mini 10-people raves in my living room, quarantine raves, we would try [playing] everything.

"Then we sort of ended up just playing them and everybody would just go to the dance floor, no matter what generation they were from, and headbang for 15 minutes. Then sit back down and have another glass of wine.

"I think they just cracked me up. I just really like how Kas, the guy who does the music and the one I collaborated with, combines rhythms from gamelan music and uses both authentic Balinese instruments, but also techno sounds."

Björk saw parallels between this approach of mixing the traditional with the cutting-edge with the music that she tries to make.

"It felt really familiar to me," she says. "On the album there is also a choir song. I believe Iceland’s choir culture is probably one of the most Icelandic things there is. In every village there’s a choir. A lot of Iceland’s composers have written music for choirs.

"I do share this vision with Kas, that I like to have very Icelandic things, and be very, very Icelandic and feel this kind of authenticity of Iceland run through me or hopefully through my work.

"At the same time, I want to be part of the conversation that’s happening in 2022. And to be a global musician.

"I think it’s dangerous when people are making music or culture that’s about roots. It isolates [the music] into some sort of a museum idea, where it just becomes a monument of something that passed a long time ago.

"I do try to be vibrant and try to be part of the current conversation. Because I feel you can have one foot in the roots and connected to your roots and the other foot in whatever year that is going on at the moment. I feel Gabber Modus Operandi and Kas do it in a very graceful way."

The importance of being selfish

Hearing music as beautiful, complex, otherworldly, and sometimes challenging as Björk’s, one might wonder if she creates solely for herself, or if she keeps the expectations of her fans in mind while working.

"It’s one of those questions that I could both say yes and no to," she says when asked if she considers her audience while composing.

"It is about the generosity of music, which is this kind of magical thing.

"You learn very quickly that the best shows are when you are so generous that you are selfish. Or you are so selfish, that you are generous. Where these two meet at the same point.

"When you are stuck in the middle, you don’t get that universal moment. If you’re trying to please 10 of your friends or your partner or some niche 10,000 people out there somewhere, or music critics, or whatever, you stop the flow somehow.

"But if you are working on yourself, kind of like when you do yoga or walking, you’re sort of doing it for your own wellbeing. Those moments are the ones where you actually can be the most generous, it’s that sort of contradiction, which is magical."

The idea is that that, ultimately, if you create solely for yourself without any consideration of external parties, you will almost accidentally make work that resonates stronger with others.

"I feel that if I’m truthful to my own journey and I focus on that, in the long run, if you look at my albums when I’m 85 or something, I think the moments where I was probably most generous, was probably the moments where I was most selfish.

"Moments where I was trying to heal myself out of some traumatic heartbreak or something. I was somehow creating some sort of a balm for myself. Those are the moments where you actually happen to create balm for others. When I watch films, or books, or listen to music, this is the sort of music that nourishes me.

The way Björk explains it makes a lot of sense, but there’s nothing about this that’s easy. In fact, the more you think about it, the less likely you are to be successful.

"It is the sort of thing that, if you are self-aware of that – ’Oh, if I make this balm, it might help these people’ – you lose the magic," Björk says. "It’s a strange little contradiction."

The importance of sharing your own struggles

When considering her contribution to the world, Björk has realised she is essentially telling her own story, and letting us find the parts of it that resonate with us.

She sees the complexities of life as riddles and acknowledges that everyone’s riddles are different. That doesn’t mean we can’t relate to the challenges and joys of others.

"Do I think of my listeners when I’m writing ? Yes, as a documentarian," she says. "But I do it [through] the relationship between me and myself. Dealing with myself and [my] riddle, whatever that is.

"If it helps others [with] the riddles they have in dealing with themselves, that’s amazing. That’s beautiful that it can do that as well. But I cannot think of that as the main reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. Because then it will shoot itself in its foot and the magic will stop working."

By way of comparison, she points to prolific writer Anaïs Nin.

"I feel my role as a singer-songwriter is to document the life of a woman going through all the different ages and stages of life," she says.

"I read Anaïs Nin diaries a lot when I was in my 20s. I was reading so much that people were like asking me like, ’Why are you reading her so much ? Like, she’s good, but she’s not that good’.

"I didn’t quite understand it at that point. But I think I understand it better now. I was very fascinated with how she started writing diaries at the age of 11 and she did it all the way to her death [at 73].

"I think what fascinated me was the sort of democracy of age groups. They’re all equal, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing in a diary, if you’re 12 or 22, 32, 52, or 72, it’s all equally important.

"Your conversation to yourself, and how you deal with what’s around you, they all deserve equal attention from yourself. They are all have their challenges, and they all have their benefits. Each age group has things that are easier and things that are harder."

Björk proudly hasn’t read every Anaïs Nin book. She wants to relate to each one as strongly as possible.

"I’ve still, to this day, only read her diaries up til the age group that I’m in. When I was in my 20s, I read her books about when she was in her 20s. In my 40s, when she was in her 40s. So, I’ve actually not read the diaries where she’s older than I am now, yet. I’ve saved it for my 60s and 70s."

Hopefully, like Nin, Björk continues to share her riddles, her anxieties, her joy, and how she’s working through it all, for decades to come.

par Dan Condon & Zan Rowe publié dans Double J