When Björk was recording her new album in a New York studio, she stuck a newspaper picture of a bear cub, all four of its legs in plaster, onto the fridge door. According to the story printed beneath, the bear was an orphan who’d been rescued in the wild. “He will be introduced later in the month to another young bear and they will be put together in some den and they will hiberbate together,” says Björk, remembering the text. “Fucking hell, that’s a blind date.”
Eventually, the story finds a point. “Maybe that’s what the album is about : let’s hibernate. It’s a good pickup line, right ? No.”
Seclusion, privacy, curling up in a place away from prying eyes— these are themes what have been concerning Björk a lot of late. ‘Vespertine’ is an album of tiny sounds—glitchy laptop beats like the flutter of insect wings, ghostly harps, melodies played out on antique music boxes—and introverted sentiments. The first single, ‘Hidden Place’, is a good guide : a beautifully understated meditation on escape and leaving pressure, attention, and the extraordinary life of Björk far behind. Initially, like much of the album, it seems like a hymn to solitude, until you realise that Björk is taking her lover along, too. The track that follows it on the album, ‘Cocoon’ is more explicit ; she wants them to be hermetically sealed away, entangled and almost certainly fucking.
The other-worldly atmosphere of her music is more emphasised than ever, but it’s hard to accuse Björk of whimsy this time. ‘Vespertine’ is a proudly adult record in theme and execution, and an apparently personal one, too.
“It sounds like a winter record,” she says, sat in a café overlooking the canal, in a posh and noisy corner of north-west London. Perversely enough, it is stiflingly hot. “If you wake up in the middle of the night and you go in the garden, everything’s going on out there that you wouldn’t know about. That’s the mood I’m trying to get. Snow owls represent that pretty well.”
In person, Björk is less eccentric than legend suggests. The mutant cockney accent isn’t quite as pronounced as it once was (except when she swears), soothed away by her having lived in Manhattan for the past year. She’s jetlagged, back in London for less than 24 hours and thrown on the nearest extravagantly traffic-halting dress to hand (it has a jagged lightning strike of colour across the middle). A cab drives past, and a man starts waving at her frantically from inside. “I wonder if I know this person,” she says, waving back nevertheless. “I think I know him, but I haven’t been here for a while.”
At times, of course, she has given the impression that she knows everyone. Her extended family stretches from international creative statesmen like Alexander McQueen and Aphex Twin, right down to the newest sound designers. Though ‘Vespertine’ is personal and mature music, it’s also fearlessly contemporary : among those who worked on the networks of microscopic, scuttling beats are cutting-edge craftsmen like Matthew Herbert, Bogdan Raczynski and the fantastic San Franciscan duo, Matmos, who’ll act as her band—with a 16-piece choir of Eskimo girls, obviously—on the forthcoming world tour.
“Martin from Matmos is quitting smoking.” she says, “so he’s got a nicotine patch. He’s gonna make me an exaggeration patch, so I stop exaggerating. If I want more of this beat, I’ll ask for five billion more. I’m terrible.”
With this warning in mind, it’s time to try and break into Björk’s secret world. Wrap up warm...
Björk started on her new album soon after ‘Homogenic’ was finished in 1997. While she worked on Lars Von Trier’s remarkable musical, Dancer In The Dark—both as its star and its composer—she was also writing and collecting sounds and collaborators for ‘Vespertine’. “The film soundtrack was the day job and this was the hobby,” she explains.
‘Vespertine’ seems characterised by smallness, by small sounds and tiny detailing. Did you want to get away from big noise ?
“Yeah, for sure. I was bored with big beats. I’d listened a lot to it, to drill’n’bass, a lot of Rephlex stuff, the most mental cut-up shit that you could find. This is more electronic folk music, music for the home. It’s corny to make a soundtrack for making a sandwich, but I quite like it. For so long I wanted to whisper. It was a watercolour as opposed to an oil. But ‘Pagan Poetry’ was the best song I did, and I was hungry for something physical again.
"I’m starting writing stuff for the next album, and it’s a nice feeling. It normally starts when you go out record shopping and you can’t find anything you like, so you have to make it yourself. It sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s self-sufficiency.”
A lot of the album, ‘Cocoon’ especially, is so intimate it feels intrusive to listen to. Is it hard to put a record like that out ?
“It took me a while to work on that one, but the emotional heart of the record was still not there. I had kept away from that personal stuff for a reason.”
What was that ?
“I just didn’t want anybody to know. I wanted it for myself. The lyric to ‘Cocoon’ was a whole diary, then I had to edit 90 per cent of it out. It’s very hard to explain, but when I read it and the other person it’s about reads it, we don’t feel abused or anything. I think there’s songs where I’ve been more... scruffy about what I’m expressing. I have a problem with music that’s too indulgent. It’s like ‘Keep your own dirty laundry, please.’”
But after all the publicity around Dancer In The Dark, this album is represented very much as a personal retreat. In fact ‘Vespertine’ seems to be putting far more of your private life on display than before. This is far more exposing.
“It’s like when you’re four or five, you wanna walk up to a stranger in the street and sing them a song and they’ll be happy. That’s pretty naïve, right ? Pretty silly, right ? But I think that’s the main drive, even behind people that are very private. They would like to play you a song, or sneak up behind you and put headphones on you. I think there’s something in me that wants to give. But it’s finding that what you’re giving is truly precious, it’s not some tabloid gossip, some trash that nobody wants to know anyway.”
So you don’t mind exposing yourself as long as you have control ?
“That’s one side of it. I’m always very aware of the word ‘control’. I would rather say ‘protection’. But I think that’s very human. Say for example you meet someone who becomes your friend, you would like to... control what you show of yourself and when. So he doesn’t burst into your home Tuesday night because he wants to have dinner with you. You both agree to meet on Thursday and become friends. I don’t think it’s control, I think it’s a choice of what you give and what you keep for yourself.”
But for you to become emotionally disturbed when you were playing a role in Dancer In the Dark and then being completely happy putting out such an intimate record, that’s quite odd ?
“I don’t think it is. Part of me had a lot to prove after that experience, mostly that naïve need that people who make music have—like Michael Jackson—that magic exists and you want to give. Music is about generosity and I think it’s rubbish that people give their best—in performance and in life—if they’re forced to. Call me naïve, but I really don’t believe that. I think people are at their best when they’re happy and confident.”
‘Cocoon’ seems to be very sexually explicit.
“Erm, yeah. I guess a part of me wanted to be truthful about what it is that really drives me, and maybe give back to the place that is nourishing me... I don’t know what to say. When I read books or see films or listen to albums I want certain things. I want a heart—I’m very old school like that, I’m very emotional.”
But this is like a book or movie with sexual content. These songs seem to be about caring for someone so much you want to write about how erotic they make you feel.
“Yeah, well, I think these things are that important to all of us at the end of the day. But I think sometimes they get dealt with in a funny way. I dunno, I’ve seen so much stuff that’s supposed to be sexy but definitely didn’t turn me on. It’s very tempting to ignore it altogether, but I don’t think it’s very fair. We’d be pretty bored without it, right ? Erotic stuff and love stuff on their own are not that exciting to me. But when they’re united, that’s when the magic happens.”
Are you concerned about releasing sexually exposed music when you’ve had problems with stalkers in the past ?
“Just because certain people have treated what you’ve given in a way you’ve not liked, it mustn’t make you stop giving. That’s very important, because it means your faith wasn’t that strong in the first place. This album’s about cocooning, and reaffirming that little secret contract you sign with yourself ; you’ve got something to give in the purest form possible.”
How’s your partner (artist Matthew Barney) feel about it ?
“I asked many times. I was super, super, careful at all the stages I was doing it. A lot of it’s to do with the sort of things I was interested in at the time, too, the sort of books I was reading and the films I was enjoying. Books that don’t scream for attention, that are very private and personal. Stuff like Tarkovsky (Russian director whose films were notoriously slow-moving). Three years before you’d put me in front of it and I’d be ‘Fucking hell, c’mon, sort it out ! What happens next ! C’mon, car chase !’ But I’d watch on my own and rewind and watch the same scene over and over until I grasped it, really devour it.”
Do you think this interest in slower and more intimate things is to do with getting older ?
“I thought so and I was fine with it. I’m lucky I’ve had 20 years of record-making. I’m happy to move on— next, please. But I think it was more a period for me. Now I listen to some CDs I was listening to every day for two years ago and I’m like, “C’mon ! Juice !’”
There’s been such a stereotype of you as childlike, elfin, pixie-ish, to be seen as mature and sexual must be a relief ?
“Yeah, when people tell me this album’s mature, I go, ‘WHOO-HOO !’ It’s my favourite word. Everybody else goes, ‘Oops, reminds me of cheese.’
“That’s the sort of things I’m attracted to now. I want a fucking book with something in it. I’m more interested by things people do at the age of 50. A novelist writes anarchistic poems about killing the government when he’s 19, but maybe he writes his best book when he’s 50.”
There’s a point in ‘Vespertine’’s last song, ‘Unison’, where you sing, “I never thought I would compromise”. What’s that about ?
“That’s the only song I thought was a bit too self-indulgent. I’m moaning a bit in that song. I’m not very proud of moaning. I guess it’s about when I was doing the film music (for Dancer In The Dark). You write a song for them and they hear it and say, ‘Can you cut out 41 bars ? Er, no. I was excited, I felt ready to be very collaborative, but I wrote that in the middle of the film when I was tired of changing my tracks because some Danish person (Von Trier) thought something. But I’m taking the piss out of myself, too.”
That line, “I thrive best hermit like, with a beard and a pipe”.
“It’s like, ‘C’mon, communicate, collaborate, get a life.’ I speak out. If I don’t like something, I’ll say it, y’know ? But that’s OK when people collaborate.”
But you’re the boss with your records, ultimately, and Von Trier was the boss on the film. Don’t you think that’s the difference : that you like collaborating, but you like to have the final say ?
“I appreciate all that, for sure, and I take the piss out of myself for that. But I did collaborate then, and when I’m doing videos I give up all control because I trust the other person.”
‘It’s Not Up To You’ has the idea that you’re powerless against fate. Have you become religious ?
“I always thought religion was really dodgy, so I had to swallow some pride for that one. It definitely hasn’t got anything to do with religion, because I’m as anti-authority as ever. I think I’m pagan. I believe in nature.
“No, that’s like a ’60s beatnik movie.”
Hang on, you just said you worship nature...
“No. As much as I’m vulnerable confessing this, it’s about just nature. All Icelandic people are nature- lovers. If they have problems, they can’t handle work or relationships, they will go for a walk on a mountain, and they’ll come back and it’ll be fine. It’s the same occasions when, if you were a Catholic, you’d go to church.”
So how can you live in cities ?
“It’s really weird. I don’t get that one myself. I went to Iceland from August ’99 to May 2000 and experienced all the seasonal changes for the first time in years. It’s actually when I wrote a lot of the stuff, winter outside. And I was like, ‘OK, that’s it, I’m moving to Iceland forever now, it’s wonderful and amazing and all that shit.’ And by May I was like, ‘Fuck this.’ No disrespect, but it’s the same village I was born in. I love it, and I know it’ll be there when I’m 40 and when I’m 60 and when I’m 80. It’s like paradise.”
As long as you can get away from it ?
“Exactly. The reason my friends still live there is because it is paradise, but I’m that sort of character who needs to explore the unknown. To feel alive.”