Voices Carry

Newsweek, 6 septembre 2004

Defying expectations has always been Bjork’s favorite game. The eccentric musician from Reykjavik has experimented with electronica, show tunes and the sound of crunching snow. Her latest album, Medulla, is almost entirely a cappella. It embraces Bjork’s soaring harmonies, Rahzel the human beat box, an Inuit throat singer and Gregorian chanters. The 38-year-old explains why instruments bore her and defends her newest flight of fancy.

I have to admit when I first listened to Medulla, I didn’t notice it was instrument-free. There’s so much going on-from guttural bass noises to choral arrangements-it’s hard to tell it’s pure a cappella.

Is this my turn to speak ? I’m just learning this new game, where you review and I answer. So now it’s my turn ?


Here I go then. I think I’ll take your comment as a compliment. It’s good you don’t feel anything is missing. You shouldn’t be listening to just a great idea, you should be listening to music. A lot of the bottom end-like the bass and drums-is just these crazy guys who make insane noises. It’s the wonders of the human voice at the end of the day.

But if they’re going to imitate instruments, why not use instruments ?

I was really spoiled rotten with the project I did before, Vespertine. On that tour, I had, like, 50 people in the orchestra and 20 in the choir. I mean, how far can you go ? I just OD’d on instruments. Plus I started making my album three years ago when I was pregnant. I just couldn’t believe the miracle of the body. You say, I don’t need food, it’s right here in my breasts. You’re superwoman, but just for a little bit. That’s another reason it became a vocal album-it’s like celebrating the body.

Halfway through the CD it hit me that instruments actually mimic the human voice.

Yeah, totally. Like the slide guitar is somebody crying.

And by just singing it brings music back down to a primal level.

I just got put off with civilization and religion and wanted to dig down to the human spirit. I was influenced by the war and fed up with politicians’ ego trips. They are blind to so many things in the world : planets going in circles, flowers growing, people telling bad jokes, people making cutlery, whatever. There’s all these things, but suddenly politics are 95 percent of our lives.

The song you sang at the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, Oceania, has a great line : « Since you left my wet embrace and climbed ashore, every boy is a snake, a lily. Every pearl is a lynx, a girl. » I love the image of mankind crawling from the sea.

That lyric was written by a friend of mine. See, I was supposed to write some sort of Olympic lyric and I kept making stupid jokes-writing words like « Pull up your socks and carry the torch ». I can’t really take the credit for that one.

OK, here’s a song I don’t like. Piano II, it’s, well-

C’mon. Give it to me, give it to me.

OK, it’s really hard to listen to. It’s just so dark and claustrophobic. The pained groans. The heavy, labored breathing, like a cacophony of last gasps.

Like when you watch a movie, there’s parts you can’t look at because it’s really uncomfortable ?

Yes, exactly, except covering my eyes won’t work. Maybe plugging my ears...
But you have to go through it to get to the happy ending. I don’t like records that are the same from beginning to end, that are too styled and slick. Everything is so designed and airbrushed and Botoxed, it makes us think, « Oh, everybody’s perfect except me. Everything’s smooth except me ». But nothing is smooth.

That’s why I love Oll Birtan. The way your vocals are layered-slightly off kilter-reminds me of singing rounds of « Row Row Row Your Boat » as a kid.

Thank you, but some people think it’s not finished. But I left it in because I really like humming. My grandmother and mother would hum. It’s my favorite kind of singing. I love it, especially when people are sleepy or not professionals.

But Where Is the Line is too complicated-the human beat box, the static production, the Seven Dwarfs-style whistling.

Hmm. Quite a lot of people said that’s their favorite track. I wanted a head-banging track, like Goth, gory horror music. My splatter B-movie. But it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, like Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. It’s about that complicated voices thing [she sings the Queen song] « Galileo, Galileo, Figaro !  » For some reason I find it hilarious. I just piss myself laughing.

It scares me. It’s really jarring.

I didn’t want this to be some cute vocal album with no balls, a New Age kind of « la, la, la. » Probably the hardest thing to do was make sure it had something that was quite male and brutal because it’s easy to do pretty stuff. But I don’t believe in shock for shock’s sake. I thought punk was a bit too easy-throwing up and swearing ? C’mon, you can do better than that. I’d rather be shaken gently out of my habits to feel that I’m awake and alive.

But don’t you ever worry that you’ll alienate everyone else who isn’t Bjork ?

I think about all the albums I found in secondhand stores that weren’t even big when they came out, but totally saved my life. Those artists jumped off the edge. I went solo at 27 because I felt I was just having too easy of a life. I was relaxing, going to band rehearsal, playing with my little baby. I thought, wait a minute, you can’t pick all those fruits and enjoy them and not make any efforts yourself. I had to give it a go instead of being a consumer who made everybody else take the big risks.

par Lorraine Ali publié dans Newsweek