Interview Magazine

Björk

With an experimental new vocal album, one of pop music’s great explorers continues to venture into
uncharted waters. Here, she talks living on the edge with a fellow avatar of the avant-garde

So, Björk, I love your new record, Medúlla [Elektra/Atlantic]—especially some of the words. The
song “Sonnet” sounds like the kind of thing 17th-century poets like John Donne or Andrew Marvell would have written.
What did you have in mind there ?

Actually, there are two lyrics on the album that are not by me, and that’s one of them. It’s by e.e.
cummings.

What about e.e. cummings struck you ?

I didn’t even know he existed because I’m more familiar with Icelandic and other European things. I
was introduced to his writing, like, five years ago. It’s the first person I read who I just immediately
wanted to sing his words. I have read a lot of poetry, but never stuff where I felt like, Oh, I want to make
this mine ! But it’s so different with him. I can’t put my finger on it. He’s kind of euphoric, but humble at
the same time.

He also has a way of breaking things up into smaller fragments, like something broke and he’s putting it back
together in a different way. I can see why you would love e.e. cummings.

It goes so well in the mouth ! It’s weird. He’s somebody who was born in Boston 100 years ago. What
would I have in common with him ? But yeah, it’s one of those few times when somebody writes something
and you sort of wish you could have written it. But it’s just, like, 10 times better because it’s easy to do
lyrics. It’s kind of slogans, you know ? But e.e. cummings’s poetry is all the little bits in between.

Tell me about singing with Robert Wyatt [on “Submarine”]. How did you end up collaborating on that one ? It’s so
gorgeous with all that low chanting.

He’s got an incredible range—like seven octaves or something crazy ! Robert was probably the most
spontaneous one. After I finished the record I felt that someone or something was missing, and maybe it
was the more improvisational thing that the voice does to be soulful. So I thought he would be excellent
at it. I literally called him up, and he said yes. He got a CD the next day, and I drove to his home, which is
three hours north of London. We set up a laptop and a microphone in his bedroom, and he sang all day.
Basically, he would replace my vocals and obviously add a little bit of his own, too. Then we got drunk in
the evening. The next day we were going to continue, but we decided it wasn’t necessary, and I just went
home.

[laughs] That’s so great ! It must have been so satisfying to do something so quickly, because some of these songs
sound like bigger productions, with all the choirs. Was that fun to do ?

Yeah, you’re spot-on. It was so fun to do. You just want something instantaneous, you know ? So you
enjoy it so much. And going to Robert’s house—he’s got such a charming little house with his gorgeous
wife. They told us tons of stories. It was just so much like going into somebody else’s universe. It was just
delicious.

I had that experience a couple of weeks ago because I went to Iceland for the first time. I was in Reykjavík for that
big music day. That was incredible ! It was a shock to be in a country where everyone is an artist, you know ? People
were either singing or playing or writing a saga or making a film. [both laugh] It was like a dream come true. What is
it like to live in a place where everybody is doing something like that ? Was it claustrophobic at all, or was it inspiring ?

For me at least, it felt great. It’s not only art : My father built his house, and my family hunts the food
they eat. Or half of it—let’s not exaggerate. They knit dresses, too. So it’s kind of self-sufficient in that
way. It’s also kind of nice because being an actress and things like that aren’t put on a pedestal. Sometimes
the reason why you start making music is that the music in the local bar is rubbish, you know ?. So you
might as well do it. So, I think you are right because on most small islands, the people have a really strong
tendency of getting claustrophobic—you have that sort of lifelong “Should I stay, or should I go ?” I noticed
that also in places like Japan or New Zealand or Hawaii. You can feel pretty stuck after a while.

But Iceland seems so different from the other islands like Japan or England. They seem like they have a lot in
common : They have the king and the tea and the big navies and the gardens and all—they have the same kind of
obsessions, and they’re very formal. But I was so shocked by the people in Iceland. They didn’t see formal at all. They
gave me this book to read, Independent People [Halldór Laxness’s chronicle of tragedy and survival in Iceland], and
while your record is filled with so much generosity and graciousness, in that book there’s a lot of silence and
stubbornness. Can you relate to that as an Icelander also ?

I think Icelandic people are very stubborn. It’s kind of a stereotype to find the reason, but I think maybe
it’s because it was a pretty hard place to survive in before the last century. The people who survived were
the ones who were almost aggressively optimistic. It was like they insisted on surviving. Like, with a lot of
people in Iceland—I don’t know if you know this—but if you start saying, “Oh, the weather isn’t so nice,”
they get really defensive. They go, “Yes it is !” [both laugh] But we’re definitely not the Latin kind of
extrovert types.

Oh, yeah. Hot Latin blood does not come to mind when I think of Iceland.

No. [laughs]

People in Iceland were also talking pretty casually about elves. They would just drop them into the conversation,
and they’re quite sure they exist. You know those little houses they build in Hong Kong for the elves ? Have you ever
seen those ?

I’ve heard about them. They wanted to get a woman from Iceland who is a specialist to go over there
and help with them. I heard rumors about it, but I didn’t see pictures or anything. So they built the
houses ?

Well, they built a tiny one because they don’t have a lot of room. I heard that when they build a new high-rise and
displace the elves, they need to have a small house for them. So they attach a little one, the size of a dog house maybe,
next to the door to the high-rise for them to live in.

[laughs] Wow !

It’s very hospitable, no ?

Yeah ! It’s funny. So what is this project you are doing in Japan—what is it, the Expo ?

Yeah, World Expo [2005]. I’m making a film and doing a long piece of music that people will listen to as they walk
through the gardens. There will be installations all along the way to look at. I’m doing all these things outside because
I’ve gotten too claustrophobic being inside with computers. That was another question I had for you : Did you do a lot
of laptop stuff on Medúlla ? Once you get the music done, do you like to sit around and edit it ?

Yeah. I was almost religious about it on the last album, Vespertine [2001]. The vocals sound like I was
whispering and trying to have a sound that would be the same coming out from tiny speakers as big ones.
Medúlla is really different in the sounds, but with all the vocals, I wanted them to be quite bloody and
meaty. But we actually ended up recording a lot on a laptop.

Why not ? That’s so great and handy.

Yeah. And we traveled to so many of the singers’ houses and just set it up. You can just be chatting
while you’re working. It was fun. I really feel like I’ve touched on something. Since I gave the record to the
publishers, I keep finding new CDs of sounds that I never knew about, like yodeling.

Oh, yodeling. Yes, of course. [Björk laughs] So, would you do another record with just voices ? I love the little things
you’ve put on Medúlla, with synths and stuff—it was really great that you didn’t do that very much. And what was
that bass line ? That was such a great one on “Who Is It ?” It just links through like another character, but it sounds like
a vocal. It’s really amazing.

It is a mix between two things. There was a baritone called Gregory Purnhagen. I think he sang with
Philip Glass and Meredith Monk, and he was really precise ! It was exciting to work with someone so
professional. He did the drone almost like, you know—what do you call the people in the Himalayas ? The
monks ! So he did that noise, and then we put it down an octave. Then there was Mike Patton, whose voice
is a roar. He’s got many foot pedals when he sings. He would do some of this bass line, too, where he would
actually put it in some sort of harmonizer.

I was really happy to hear the word “kidney” on “Triumph of a Heart” [Björk laughs], and all of these great body
parts like the teeth. I loved the choice of words-just very abstract.

I always think I’m saying something really upfront and direct. I guess through the years, I’ve probably
done a lot of alternative medicine like acupuncture. I’m probably interested in the Chinese things overall.
But that song is actually about that because—I don’t know if you understand this—but I have a tendency
to finish my kidney energy. It’s my weakness. And if you kick your heels into the earth, you send back the
kidney energy. So I was trying to have one verse about that, and one verse about oxygen, and one verse
about the nerves.

I think you accomplished it. I wanted to ask you about where the joy of music comes from for you. When you’re
using your voice to jump out of yourself, or when you invent something, where does it live for you ?

Well, having started as a singer, I think the main kick for me is the singing. The rest is something I just
have to work at every day. It brings out a more maternal side of me—making sure that people don’t give
up on songs even though it looks hopeless. You know, “You still have to give it one more try !” and that
sort of thing. I guess having new ideas is probably the part of me that I am least proud of. It’s probably a
bit of a show-off thing, right ? But then again, I like stuff like that. When I used to go to hip-hop clubs—
very rarely because there weren’t any in my country—people would be break-dancing. I mean, how showoffy
can you get, right ? But I love it so much ! Like when people try to top each other. Sort of like who has
got the biggest feathers or something. A little bit of that isn’t that bad, you know ?

I think it’s a lot of fun. Otherwise, the playing field is suddenly level—and it’s not. There are a bunch of hills. Some
of the songs on Medúlla are about relationships. Do you think that being partners with another artist [Björk is in a
relationship with Matthew Barney] influences you in a way ? When you’re writing lyrics, do you ever think, “Wow,
maybe I shouldn’t say that ?” because it’s, like, a secret ?

Yeah, well, I use all sorts of tricks, both consciously and unconsciously. I’ll write a song, and a few days
later I figure, “Oh, it says ‘she’ all the time.” Then you’ve worked out that you’ve just hidden it. You don’t
want anybody to know that it was a “he.”

Good hiding, when you can’t recognize it yourself ! [both laugh]

Also, because I’ve been doing it for a long time, you kind of know who is going to get hurt and that sort
of thing. Overall I’m careful, but since I was a teenager, a lot of the times I’ve been with artists. And that’s
probably affected me in all sorts of ways. I don’t know if it’s because I’m more of a grown-up now, but the
biggest influence is just the mutual respect and the support.

It’s true. You don’t have to explain why you’re going to be all night in a studio.

Yeah, totally. The support makes you strong—you’re being loved, so then you can be stronger when
you go and do your work. I think that’s more how the relationship is an influence than “Oh, he’s doing
pink this year, so I’m doing pink, too.” Or something superficial like that.

Well, Björk, I think Medúlla is so beautiful.

Thank you ! I keep getting embarrassed and flattered ! [laughs]

When you see somebody do something and it’s just really precise and gorgeous and they don’t overdo it, you go :
[shouts] “Thank you ! Thank you ! Thank you !” So, anyway, thank you for the record.

[laughs] Thank you ! I just respect your work so much. And now I’m blushing like a little schoolgirl !

Laurie Anderson

publié dans Interview Magazine - 01.11.2004

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