The character-acting operatic singer whose shrill high voice would frighten Yma Sumac put Iceland on the map with the chilly Sugarcubes in the ‘80s. Later, she was a New Wave refugee who threw herself into electro-dance long before Gwen and Nelly (that is, right after she made an Icelandic bebop album called Gling-Gló), writing mischievous lyrics that toyed with psychology (“Human Behaviour”) and sexuality (“Venus as a Boy”). Ahead of the remix curve, she released oddly-appointed remix albums of recordings that were still on the charts (1996’s Telegram was the entire Post album from 1995 re-configured for the dance floor), then make a left turn and acted in and scored Lars von Trier’s Palme d’Or-winning Dancer in the Dark, ultimately getting named Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival (this right before the infamous “swan dress” incident at the 2001 Academy Awards). She made music — and babies — with Matthew Barney, America’s premier avant-garde multi-media artists and ultimately wound up here, in 2007, with the sage, raging Volta, its furry percussion and muzzy electronics enhanced by Timbaland, Antony, a female Icelandic choir, and the calamitous Konono No. 1.
Calling from Switzerland, Björk spoke to Harp about her method and her muse.
HARP : How has your view of Volta changed since its release and since you’ve had the opportunity of playing it out and about ?
I still feel that the imaginary place that Volta is… I still have a long way to go to get there. But I feel like that with most projects. The good thing about that though is that during the year that is left — I’ll tour for another year — I will still have food for touring, videos, photo shoots and such. The album is only a piece of it all. I’ve recorded all the gigs so I will probably release live stuff. You´ll be able to see how it has changed. Songs like “Wanderlust” for example have grown a lot since we started touring.
HARP : Has interaction – with the large band, the Konono percussionists, with co-vocalists like Antony – given you another way in to the material ?
Me and Antony had to develop a new way of singing it on stage. It took a few runs. But at the Harlem Apollo we mashed it in ; took a different angle than the CD. It was fun, too, to play with Min Xiao Fen. She added a rawness to the song live. But overall, since I’ve been touring for so long, I’ m aware that the album version is often a work-in-progress, on purpose. So leave it that way. We still have a long way to go. I’ve always altered the songs live, all the way up to the last gig : new arrangements, overall molding of the thing. We noodle in hotel rooms and have long sound checks. We rotate 40 songs. It keeps the show alive. Stagnation’s less likely. I don’t decide on a set-list for each show until after sound check, see what sort of venue it is, what sort of mood we’re in. Be in the moment.
HARP : From “Earth Intruders” on, Volta moves differently and more immediately than Medúlla and Vespertine did. Was that as much an emotional response to your recent past’s efforts as well as an aesthetic one ?
These three particular albums are very different to me. Volta’s the raw, immediate, loud, big, justice hungry, earthy, brassy one. Tribal ; I don’t know why. I was just up for something like that right now.
HARP : Because there’s definitely something primal and direct about the rhythms of Volta : blunt, human, aged… crisp. Where did its rhythms come into play within the production process ?
I knew from the start I wanted the album to be bloody, physical and urgent. But then trying to work out how you do it is sometimes like solving a murder mystery thing. But that’s so fun. I love solving riddles. So this one got solved with the use of either tribal live drumming or 808s, 909s, the old-school drum machine noises. Or the mix of all those. The rhythms were actually some of the last things we worked on. The melodies, clavichord, the pipa and kora and the all the brass came first.
HARP : By the way, what are you doing right now ? What were you doing right before we spoke ?
I am in Geneva. Just before this I went to a pet zoo in a forest with my daughter.
HARP : Other than the usual life-on-the-road scenario, what are you going through not being in the constant home of husband and child ?
They are with me here. To be honest, it feels more natural to me to travel around right now than to stay put. Home can be great but it also feels claustrophobic. It depends where your head and heart’s at.
HARP : OK, why was Medúlla necessary for its moment ?
It was where I was at ; enjoying the domestic bliss ; nurturing and being nurtured. The horizon on that album is quite narrow. It is a very cozy album. Let’s all sing together at the fireplace kinda thing.
HARP : Nice way of putting it. Was there a spirit from that record and the Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack you did for Matthew that you wanted to retain for Volta ? Or was it all just something you wanted to move from ? I know you’ve mentioned “fun” as an aim of Volta. But it’s not as if Volta is “Little Deuce Coupe” or “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight.”
All my albums have interconnectedness, are all related. And then there are things on them that are totally different. I feel for example doing the all vocal Medúlla stirred up my own idea of my voice and made me ready to merge better with Antony on Volta, for example. In regard to fun, I guess we all have different ideas of what fun is. And that’s OK. I am not too familiar with the things you mentioned. They sound like oriental desserts.
HARP : Let’s talk about some of the collaborations. Have people read too much into the whole recording thing with Timbaland ? You did a few songs together ; some you used, some you manipulated, some you didn’t use.
Well, rumor spread out that I was doing a commercial hip-hop album, which of course was never my intention. I don’t feel I manipulated anything. I worked with Tim as I have worked with any person. That’s a collaboration.
HARP : “Dull Flame” feels as if it’s yanked from something aged and primal yet weirdly dignified. Is that Antony or you ?
I wrote the melody before I met him and thought it would be good if one is after… that moment just after things are fully ripe, when the flowers turn brown a little. It’s sort of a continuation of “Pagan Poetry” on Vespertine for me. And these words I have kept in my diary for like eight years now, waiting for the right moment. It was helpful for me and Antony to have the words written by the third person so we could meet in the middle.
HARP : What do collaborators bring out in you — guys like Mark Bell, Thom Yorke, Timbaland, Antony ? Is it the physical combat, competition or the spiritual union ?
I don’t feed so much off competition. Union is definitely more interesting to me. No two people are ever going to be the same but I am curious about which aspects of two characters overlap… where the merge occurs. Sometimes physical, sometimes musical, sometimes ideological, sometimes spiritual ; sometimes a mix of all of the above. Every collaboration I’ve taken part in has felt quite different. Also, there’s very different work ethics at hand. I enjoy playing a different role each time ; sometimes the organized one, sometimes the innocent one, sometimes the impulsive one, sometimes the anarchic one, sometimes the nurturing one ; whatever the merge craves.
HARP : When is “politics” a dirty word ? Or “muses” ? Because I feel as if both play a part in Volta and I don’t know when I’ve sensed that last in your work.
Not sure if I understand that question ; my English is not excellent. Dirty muses ? I feel politics are pretty much always a dirty thing. Calculated cold stuff. But Volta isn’t really so political as it is emotionally eager for justice. That can be quite a personal feeling with nothing to do with party politics. It’s very impulsive warm thing.
HARP : When was the last time you listened to a Sugarcubes song and what did you think when the experience was over ?
We did a gig last November so I listened to all the songs again for the first time since we stopped playing together probably. My surprise was how “Euro” we were. Also how well-formed my opinions on the world were back then – the whole “God does not exist” and so on. Hasn´t changed much…
HARP : I know you weren’t keen on the Dancer in the Dark experience and that acting isn’t a goal. But could you be coaxed into another film ?
I’d d be up for doing film music at some point if it was totally the right project. But not acting. I think it is made for a different kind of person than me. Or I would have had to start it when I was a child to devote my life to it. I’m quite old fashioned about stuff like that.
HARP : Are you a nostalgic person ? How does that play into how you work ? Because for all its future-forwardness there’s something chunky and lo-fried about Volta. Your last few recorded efforts actually.
I am actually quite conservative about a lot of things. People only seem to see me as weird but there are a lot of things about me that have never changed. People also seem to notice the difference in my albums, that each one is totally different, which is only partly true. There are many connections on Volta to two points in my musical life : when I was in KUKL between 1982 and 1984, and the electronic years 1992-1994. Those are the two most cathartic music styles for me — the cacophonic energy of KUKL and the trance-like fuel of rave. Things go in circles like that. “Wanderlust,” for example, is a sort of continuity of “Hyperballad.” When Timbaland came up with the beat for “Earth Intruders” it reminded me of KUKL’s years. But I don’t think of it so much as being nostalgic. It’s sort of weaving in time. Life is just like that, nothing to do with me really. It is not like I have a choice. But I feel it is OK to have a couple of reference points like that from the past if its purpose is to catapult you into the future. You just have to add stuff to it.
HARP : I’m guessing you’re part of your own marketing and shrewd at it as well. How much did you play into the viral promotion of Volta or create its PR ? Since your last records, YouTube and MySpace have grown up around you.
That’s another question I am not sure I totally understand. What do you mean with YouTube grown up around me ? Actually Volta’s the first project ever when I hired two publicists. Not because I wanted a mass thing happen but I was very aware of that, emotionally, this was a way more extrovert album than the couple before and I didn’t want things to feel stifled. Fluidity in communication, you know ?
HARP : What was the last thing that you said or did that you wish you could take back ?
You have to live with it ... Not ! I guess when things pop out of me that are not thought out I usually find them revealing and that gives me something to work on. The subconscious is such a wonderful surprising thing. I’m not so into censoring. If anything I think we should say more. We are not perfect. We are human.
HARP : Do you think you’re removed from pop or part of pop – whatever pop is ?
Bit of both really.
HARP : What made you come up with “Damn colonists/Ignore their patronizing/Tear off their blindfolds/Open their eyes ?”
The oppressors did. All oppressors ; men and women and countries. Emotionally it is about justice, the subject matter. It’s not so far away from Aretha’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”
HARP : Is religion of all stripes anathema to you ? “Wanderlust” points that out pretty effectively.
I’m just bored of the self-importance of religion. Perhaps people don’t spend enough time in nature. Then it becomes obvious how silly it, religion, is. They build cathedrals in urban situations with tall ceilings to imitate nature. Get a feeling for the sky. But it is much easier to just take a trip into the Tundra. I also feel a lot of religious people first come across as someone interested in goodness, then very quickly how interested they are in power and hierarchy ; how that seems more in the forefront. The idea of God is saying yes to hierarchy. That someone is above you. I guess I am too much of an anarchist to agree with that. As far as I’m concerned, everyone is equal.
HARP : How do you hear your voice with age and how did that figure into Volta ?
As you get older your technique becomes more important. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Technique can become natural and impulsive. Like riding a bike. With Volta I didn’t notice a lot of difference but now, touring, I had to bring a vocal trainer with me for two months and my voice has grown a lot. One more show and we reckon I can do it on my own again. It sort of comes in chunks. But he says my voice has just grown into its best stage now. He says, “If you are good with your technique the voice is at its best between ages 45 and 60.” Which is the reason why most working opera singers are that age. But on another note, I love when you can hear age in voices – whether it is childlike or old croaky style. This over-importance that everything has to sound teen-age is a bit boring, a bit anti-life.
HARP : Do you feel as if you stayed young for as long as you wanted or that you grew up – grew too mature – for your youth ?
Bit of both. Because I had to be self-sufficient from early age, I sort of peaked at age seven. And the balance I found then has sort of stayed with me. I’m half child half ancient.
HARP : How long do you want to sing for – carry on a career and an aesthetic where vocals, even music, in a “commercial sense” is part of your mien ?
I feel it is important to not decide beforehand. Then you take away the freedom, the spontaneity. One thing I know though is I feel I have just started developing my music. And I think I will need all the time I can get.