Bjork emerges from her internal battle, with strings attached

Sidney Morning Herald , 14 décembre 2015

In August, Bjork cancelled the last three concerts of her tour promoting Vulnicura​, an album dominated by heart-rending songs about the sudden disintegration in 2013 of her relationship with filmmaker Matthew Barney. One of the cancelled gigs was the headline concert at the Airwaves Festival in Iceland, which suggested something serious was going on ; Bjork would surely move more mountains than there are trolls to oblige her compatriots.

Was it simply too hard, reiterating those songs about her deepest unhappiness ? The fans weren’t angry, judging by the buzz of speculation on the internet, even after her management put out some emollient nonsense about her "scheduling conflicts". They were worried. Bjork’s polymath brilliance is dazzling, but she still feels approachable ; for a good two decades now she has felt like the inexplicably clever but beloved cousin who always turns up to family gatherings in an inappropriate dress. What was wrong now ?

Just two months later, however, Bjork bounced back. She had been completing work on two variations on Vulnicura. For Vulnicura Strings, she had stripped out all the complex beats on the album’s instrumentation and rearranged it for stringed instruments, including a one-off plucked instrument activated by a keyboard that was invented by Leonardo da Vinci : the viola organista. Hard on its heels came a live album, also prepared by Bjork herself. It was her voice, she says, that meant she had to wrench herself out of the tour.

Three years ago, she had surgery to remove a polyp on her throat. "I just got instructions from the operation that any time I get scrappy, stop," she says. "So listen to yourself and then you are fine." There was an internal battle, she says, between her "wilful, workaholic" side and "the other person, the instinctual side that knows that OK, you are crossing a line". So she stopped, switched gears and plunged back into the material she had written three years earlier and, only a few months before, could barely discuss without weeping. "And it actually was quite nurturing to just sit there and, while my voice was getting back to normal, slowly edit the string thing."
The string thing. With Vulnicura Strings, she has written that she wanted to offer something "more wooden" than the original, with its lacing of decorative beats. In the instrumental guest slot, where she would usually manage to slip in an electronic gizmo dreamed up by some eccentric techno-whiz in his garage, she used the 16th century viola organista. "If I had squashed it into the main album alongside electronic beats, it would just sound like it was sampled. You wouldn’t feel the body of the instrument. It actually does sound amazing – the fact da Vinci designed it comes second or third."

Throughout her solo career in artpop, which took off when she moved to London at the relatively ripe age of 27, Bjork has all but ignored the strident macho clang of the electric guitar. Instead she brings together voices – her own swooping, wild soprano and the voices of choirs and collaborators – with brass bands, found sounds and strings. Of course, she is best known for her adventures with what she calls the "matriarch energy" of electronic beats ; she sees herself as a bridge between the furthest reaches of high-tech abstraction and the hand-made. Among her many other interests, Bjork is part of a knitting group.

With her previous album Biophilia​, its extraordinarily spectacular touring show and the educational apps released around it, she says she wanted to create an impossible union. "Maybe that was a strange, personal job between me and myself, to show how overreaching I was being as a woman," she told the music site Pitchfork. "If you can make nature and technology friends, then you can make everyone friends ; you can make everyone intact. That’s what women do a lot – they’re the glue between a lot of things." Vulnicura was almost the opposite feminine archetype : an exploration of her own feelings. She wrote most of the songs without initially intending to show them to anyone.

Much as she loves Joni Mitchell, Bjork has always been wary of slipping into the shoes of the singer-songwriter. Instead she carved out her space in technology and musicological experiment : the masculine sphere. "Sometimes I feel a little defensive that if women do music that is not confessional, it is perceived as not as good music," she says. Why shouldn’t she be the one to coax a melody out of a Tesla coil ? "Women always have to be the archetypes of emotion, the Edith Piafs of this world, you know, somebody who burns in flames like the sacrificial martyr. And I have always been really aware of that." What she came to realise was that she now had to establish her right to explore emotional territory as well. "It would also be wrong if I would not do it, I would be just as much part of the problem. Because I think we have both in us."

Bjork has been thinking a good deal recently about people’s perceptions of women in music. Since her early days as a member of Icelandic new wavers the Sugarcubes​, she has known the usual truths : that a woman in a band has to say something five times to be heard, that the best way to make something happen is to let the men think it was their idea, that a man who comes in on the last week of a production process that has taken her years will be assumed to have done the whole thing, even if he denies it in every interview. Bjork is 50. She has won innumerable awards and was recently the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She says it has never bothered her too much, but now she feels she has to make the point.

"If you say I make books, the character in the book is probably like the person you see in the video, but then the person who makes the books is also me. I don’t like to blow my own trumpet but I am actually quite an editor, especially for the last 15 years since I got my laptop, I probably spend 90 per cent of the album editing and arranging and 5 per cent singing it. I could give myself a thousand titles on every album cover, which is just silly. But then I have a daughter who is 13 years old. And I should care that when I don’t write that, people presume there was some guy there who did it all for me."

Isadora is her daughter with Barney. Bjork has no idea if Isadora will take up music, film or something else entirely. "She is at an age when anything could happen." At 13, Bjork herself was two years into her career ; she recorded her first album – of swing standards with a jazz band – when she was 11. "But I was pushed by my mother," she says. "That is maybe why I don’t want to push her. I think it is very important that if you decide to share your work with the world, whatever form it takes, you initiate that yourself, because it is a delicate thing. It’s important to keep that public innocence as long as possible."

So has she ever regretted exposing herself so vividly on Vulnicura ? No, she says, sounding a little surprised by herself. "Maybe I got lucky, because it is the album that has done best of all my albums. You could never plan for that. If I were to plan this, it would be horrible. It was really more like something that just happened to me and I was helpless. But what has happened in the last year is that a lot of people have come up to me, even people I know quite well and told me about their own heartbreak – and I didn’t know, you know. So I’ve been very appreciative of that and very grateful how people have treated it. Because what is important to me is that they appreciate the healing side of the thing, that it’s not indulgent."

She found it easier than one might expect to return to those harrowing songs while making Vulnicura Strings. It had been three years, she points out, since some of those songs were written. "That was enough time for me to take the songs for what they are rather than be emotionally attached to the fact that it’s about me. It’s more like someone else’s work." Taking out the beats, she says, felt like turning a fruit inside out. Instead of an electronic skin, she was looking at the flesh of string and song. "If you’re a music nerd like me, then you kind of get lost in some kind of texture shit instead of the whole song."

The fact that everything is present in everything else seems to be a recurring theme for Bjork. Even at her geekiest, she has never been cold or even reticent. Anyway, she doesn’t feel that writing about micro-organisms – as she has done – represents a flight from emotion. "Because I love looking at things like documentaries from outer space, at nebulae. I am crying at how beautiful the universe is. And for me, like, hikes in nature or being with animals, not one human in sight, no conversation, no psychology – I think that is a deeply emotional thing."

par Stephanie Bunbury publié dans Sidney Morning Herald