The woman is allowed to be the voice and the soul and the emotive creature — and the guy is the creator and the maker and the genius,’ declares Björk, her Icelandic burr veering from Cockney Elvish to the staccato and rolled Rs of an alien dialect. ‘I thought it was a cliché. If someone told me that as a teenager, I would yawn and go “Boring !” But it is interesting, after all the stuff I’ve done, that it still hasn’t changed that much.’
The source of her ire ? Journalists who have over-credited the contribution of Venezuelan electronic producer Arca in the creation of her album Vulnicura — a harrowing autopsy of the death of her 13-year relationship with the American multi-disciplinary artist Matthew Barney — based on Björk’s 15-string arrangement.
‘If a guy had done all the strings, all the choir arrangements, and a lot of the production on his album, he would have credit for his work. It’s always like I’m this esoteric creature ; that I just turn up and sing and go home. People still don’t seem to take me seriously as a songwriter and arranger and producer.’
I am shocked. Genius is not a word to use lightly, but if it can be applied to any female artist of the past 25 years, it must be to Björk. She has won five Brits, been nominated for 14 Grammys, won Best Actress at Cannes for her tortured turn in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark — as well as an Oscar nod for the soundtrack. But none of this quite conveys the restless innovation of her work. Last year, MOMA in New York put on a retrospective — a testament to her artistic status. Her creation of unimaginable universes via the intersection of avant-garde music, performance art and technology is only rivalled in pop by the late David Bowie. When we meet in the wood-panelled bar of Kensington’s Gore Hotel, she’s wearing a metallic turquoise padded Tibetan-style jacket and platforms, with a strip of shimmering rose fabric draped through a necklace of bone trinkets. The Rolling Stones look like embarrassingly dated dads staring down from photos on the wall.
‘My mum’s generation was really good in the 1970s with protesting,’ she continues. ‘Then for my generation, the best proof that women can do what they want, was just to go out and get things done. That’s always been the best way for me to be a strong woman. But in the past three or four years, there’s been a new wave of feminism, especially with girls in their 20s. I thought : “Okay, now is the time to moan.”’
Of course, Björk’s ‘moaning’ sounds more wondrous than most. It takes the form of Vulnicura Strings, an orchestral arrangement of her album of the same name, which she has promoted with two acoustic dates in London last month — at the Royal Albert Hall and the Hammersmith Apollo — as ‘the best way that I could support me as a female producer and a female arranger’. She will follow this up by publishing her own handwritten scorebook for Vulnicura next month as authorial ‘proof’.
In fact, I have always considered her work to be feminist because she has always been so self-defining. Where sex has been a subject, she has circumvented the mainstream tropes that most female singers become entangled in. ‘I like a lot of erotic books and films but I just don’t find the kind of Las Vegas corset-and-fishnet-stockings thing very sexy. It’s a bit mediocre, norm-core.’ She also finds the natural world an aphrodisiac. ‘I like bestiality. I get turned on by nature. I don’t find urban brothel situations very hot. But that’s just my taste... like, National Geographic porn.’ I say I’ve always had a thing for David Attenborough with whom she made a documentary in 2013. She chuckles : ‘I’m probably more into the animals.’
Björk’s avant-garde art, in all its forms, has a habit of making everything around her appear pedestrian. Yet in person, she is gentle, thoughtful and unassuming, leaping up and down to the bar to order more coffee to soothe a hangover — she was up late with friends in her hotel room last night celebrating the end of her shows. ‘I did only a limited number of gigs. I thought : “I’m not going to sing this a thousand times. There’s a really thin line when it becomes too self-indulgent. The way I did it was I started to write my next album and worked on a series of VR videos so that they could travel [on my behalf].”’
The result is Björk : Digital, a virtual reality installation at Somerset House, which feels like being taken inside her grief-stricken mind. Exhibits include Black Lake, her immersive film commissioned by MOMA, and Notget VR, in which she is reduced to a black wading figure in an illuminated moth mask. The digital stand-ins, the techno-masks and the cloaks and shields of protective clothing are all testaments to the difficulties of performing an album born of the personal apocalypse of her split in 2013 ; something she felt compelled to forensically ‘document’, as a ‘survival mechanism’.
She first met Barney, an American surrealist filmmaker and sculptor — who has exhibited everywhere from MOMA to the Venice Biennale and in whose film Drawing Restraint 9, set on an Icelandic whaling ship, Björk starred — through the New York art scene in the late 1990s. They lived in a penthouse co-op in Brooklyn Heights, one of the city’s most intriguing and creative couples. In the album artwork, Björk appears with a fatal purple gash at her chest, impaled by a halo of plastic spines that resemble acupuncture needles in a kind of self-surgery. Did she cure herself ? ‘Yeah, I think so. It’s not about erasing things. You overcome them and you exorcise them. I think looking back on it, now that some time has past, it was the fact that it was a long-term relationship, you know ? I mean, it was 13 years.’
When she first saw Barney’s work, she said it was ‘the closest thing to seeing my dreams’. So the loss of a husband was also that of a creative soulmate ? ‘I think the soulmate thing for me distributes over quite a lot of people. I have a really good group of girlfriends and most of them are artists as well. I think the biggest death for me was the death of this idea of family. I have a big family in Iceland, and they all have long-term partners and children.’
She has found solace in a new musical family. These include, yes, Arca (who is based in Dalston and has also collaborated with Kanye West and FKA Twigs), as well as the mask-maker James Merry. ‘That’s the good thing with being so obsessed with music, you’ve always got other nerds who are obsessing, too. It’s kind of ageless.’
Indeed, Björk has always recruited a team of collaborators to help realise her visions, among them the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen (she sung at his memorial service in wooden wings) and director Michel Gondry. Perhaps this is why, despite clear authorship of her own work, she has often been considered the female vessel to male genius. ‘I’ve never bragged about my arrangements in my albums, or my production work,’ she says simply.
Growing up in 1960s on the outskirts of Reykjavík with six brothers and sisters, her imagination was fed by the solitary landscapes of Iceland. She hailed from a family of ‘craftspeople and knitters’ — though her father was an electrician and union leader, and her mother a hippie and environmental protestor. Both the safety of Iceland at the time and the countercultural leanings of her mother — with whom she lived after the couple split up when she was a baby — afforded Björk infinite freedom. At six, she walked a 45-minute journey to school, where she studied flute and piano. She was a musical prodigy, composing symphonies, making beats out of the sound of her grandfather snoring ; her voice so singular that when a teacher sent a recording of her aged 11 to a local radio station, she was immediately offered an album deal by local label, Fálkinn records.
The self-titled Björk was released in 1977, and was successful enough that she was offered a second deal. She refused ; instead forming her own, predominantly punk and post-punk, bands before meeting Þór Eldon, her future boyfriend and father of her son Sindri, born in 1986 (both now live in Iceland and dabble in music).
She formed the surrealist pop group Kukl (meaning sorcery) which eventually evolved into smart indie collective, The Sugarcubes. When they went on tour, Björk took Sindri with her. ‘Iceland is a matriarchal country. I could do pretty much what I wanted there. It was only when I went abroad that I hit walls,’ she adds.
When The Sugarcubes broke up in 1992, she moved to London where she was quickly signed for a solo deal with Massive Attack producer, Nellee Hooper. Along with PJ Harvey, she became one of the few female artists blazing trails through the ladism of Britpop. She dated trip-hop’s Tricky and drum‘n’bass’s Goldie, was pursued by a phalanx of paparazzi, but soon became weary of the scene. ‘I felt very blessed with being invited to all the A-list parties so that I could try it for a year and know that there is nothing to miss. It’s not what it looks like. They’re really boring. Everyone is standing there frozen and you can’t move, you can’t get pissed. Most importantly, the music is terrible at those parties. Horrible. And then soon there were 40 paparazzi hiding in my bushes. I thought : “I can’t write songs like this.”’ After an incident with an acid letter bomb from a deranged fan which was intercepted by the police, she moved to Spain to work on her third album Homogenic, withdrawing from the celebrity milieu that threatened to contaminate her music. ‘I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to be dependent on being liked.’
Although she was based in New York with Barney, Iceland has always been her creative sanctuary. Since the split, she and Isadora, their 14-year-old daughter, divide their time between an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, her lo-fi crafty home in Reykjavík and a cabin near Lake Þingvallavatn, an hour’s drive north-east, where she hikes and works. ‘I always through it was really strange when people said that Greta Garbo was anti-social. I never got that [about being an artist]. I mean, if you are going to write music about being human : you know we cook, we love each other, we fall out, we laugh, we cry — and you are writing in a village somewhere, it’s actually more human embracing.’
I wonder how she feels about living in New York now in the light of the break-up. ‘It’s always been compromising for me. There’s a lot of pollution, there are terrorist attacks, the Sandy Hook Massacre happened at a school that is 40 minutes drive from me. There’s not a lot of outdoor space. But I’ve met some of my best friends there. So it’s a complicated place. Especially if Donald Trump becomes President...’ Any mother would have concerns in the current American landscape, I say. But she’s uncomfortable now, a little defensive — and she has every right to be. There’s been talk in the press about a custody battle between herself and Barney, with the latter reportedly suing his former partner, accusing her of sacrificing their daughter’s ‘emotional wellbeing in favour of her own selfish desires’.
She is understandably vigilant about another long-term relationship — the one she has had with her own voice. In 2012, she had an operation to remove a polyp from her throat. ‘My throat is my strongest thing, but also my weakest most fragile thing.’ Sometimes, she adds, ‘towards the end of a tour I can’t speak between gigs, when I’ve been like that for two days I get this kind of negative space around my mouth. And then I go “Waaaaa !” when the last gig has finished’.
She is also protective about the direction of the new album : ‘I’d like to keep that a mystery,’ she says as if the output of her extraordinary, protean mind could be anything else. Genius must protect itself, after all.
Björk Digital runs at Somerset House until 23 October (somersethouse.org.uk)