S1:E3 Homogenic

Sonic Symbolism, 1er septembre 2022

Mots clés : Warrior, active, volcanic beats , confrontational, icelandic octet, beats, cosmopolitan/icelandic contrast, green, patriotic

Oddný Eir : You are listening to Sonic Symbolism where Björk explores her emotional landscapes, the textures, and timbres of her albums.

Asi Jónsson : With friend, author, and philosopher Oddný Eir, and me, musical curator, Asi Jónsson.

Oddný Eir : This is episode three, Homogenic.

Björk : I think I was very aware of, somehow, when I was in London, it was a very hyper lifestyle, but I knew, also, it would not be for long. It was almost like my subconscious knew that I would do it for a short time. Then I went to Spain and it was kind of great to get just peace and quiet and be somewhere remote. So all you could do was make music. Duna : The words that describe Homogenic are warrior, active.

Duna : Volcanic.. Confrontational. Icelandic. Cosmopolitan. Icelandic. Contrast. Green. Patriotic

Oddný Eir : After the experience of becoming world famous so suddenly, having met artists from all over the world in London, Björk moved to a small village in the south of Spain to work on her next solo album, which was to be entitled Homogenic. In the beginning of our talks by the seaside in Reykjavík City, in her home, she explains the symbolism that both shielded and opened up her sonic world at that time of her life.
So we are at Homogenic. And if we just start by the archetype, who was this, like, what if you see this work as a person or like this archetype or like this being — who do you see ?

Björk : I think Homogenic, I looked at her as an emotional warrior. That’s how I was defining her at the time, and someone who is not with a weapon, not to destroy, but to confront people and try to unarm violence or weapons.

Björk : And I think for me, it also continued with the character that is in “Bachelorette”. And I think that lyric maybe captures most. There’s sort of a narrative of that sort of persona. And somehow the lyrics, because they were most personal, I couldn’t write them myself.

Oddný Eir : Okay.

Björk : It’s like a strange contradiction. So I did that with sitting down with Sjón, and tried to kind of almost make fun of this character. Like, for me, it was almost like comedy, because that character is almost the most extreme side of me. And I think we are all like this as humans, that at any given time — every two years — we probably completely change. Every two years we are still completely the same. And then every two years, there are sides in us that are kind and tolerant and beautiful and gorgeous, but also parts in our characters, which are like over the top and very annoying and ridiculous. And I think for me to write the lyrics with Sjón of “Bachelorette” was almost like a ridiculing of this character that has sincerity, but is also making fun. But it is like a warrior of love.

Björk : Yeah. I mean, for me to go on stage and look people in the eye and say, "I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl it’s like…it is very beautiful, but it’s also kind of ridiculous, you know.

Oddný Eir : Around this very beautiful text in “Bachelorette”, it’s very poetic, very narrative also. But the rhythms, you are making, like, new ways of presenting music at that time, like new ways of enveloping both the melodies and the texts. Could you tell me a little bit about that ?

Björk : Well, I felt a little bit like Post was almost like school. So it was kind of like almost trying these things out, but then Homogenic was the album where I moved to Spain and it was like a statement. Like, I’m gonna go here and I’m going to isolate myself and I’m just gonna make music in an album, which is the opposite. So instead of Post, was like cornucopia. It was like, "Oh, let’s go back and concentrate everything into one point." So for me, Homogenic was one flavor, and also had like a contradiction inside it, which I liked. Because in interviews, everybody’s like, "Oh, you’re this elf and woolen sweaters," and, you know, all the cliches about Iceland and I refused to participate in it. And I always said, "No, I’ve never seen an elf," like, and this kind of sentimentality that people wanted to force on me. Like, I’m not like that. People who are connected with nature…nature in Iceland is not sentimental. It’s very, very raw. So I think for me, I wanted the music to be very patriotic. I wanted to, tried to, invent beats that were volcanic. That were techno and volcanic.

Björk : I wanted to go back to Icelandic romantic string songs and melodies that I knew from, like, choir music and from songs that Icelandic people sing by bonfires. But at the same time, I wanted to have the contrast there. So instead of having the album cover where I was, would be, you know, wearing an Icelandic sweater with elf hair or something. I don’t know what it would be. I wanted to give it a twist. So when I asked Alexander McQueen to do the cover with me, I said, "Okay, that’s Mexican jewelry, Asian clothes, South American, this, you know, from all the continents.” You know, European manicure and then have it futuristic, you know, have the contact lenses, so it’s also like sci-fi. Because, also, what I was really not liking was people who were obsessed with Iceland, they were like, "Oh, civilization was a mistake. We should all go back into our caves," and something that we worked with later which was not to go back to nature, but to go forward to nature.
So I went to Spain and was in a studio there for one year and in a way made the most patriotic album I had made, yet, at that point in my life. But somehow I could not make it in Iceland. I needed the distance. I needed to be in Spain and somehow be homesick and, you know, recover, after having been a hundred times more extroverted than I actually am, and just kind of really introverted and very solid — as solid as I could be.

Björk : Looking back at it now, after being in London for a couple of years and feeling like part of something that was like a zeitgeist to somehow try to mix together something like zeitgeist and Iceland. Post was more, all the collaborations I was in London. And then Homogenic was more the relationship, the conversation between me and myself. And I decided that I was gonna go really selfish and just make it like a me album and to almost make my passport or something. Like what is the grown-up me ? Debut was more the child and the teenager me and maybe the girl who I had ignored while I was in all the bands so she could run free simply. And then when I finished doing that it was over and I needed to catch up with myself, you know ?

Asi Jónsson : Homogenic takes the listener back to Iceland in the search for Björk’s roots. It is about exploring both Icelandic questions and nature. The two worlds of its past and future expressed with acoustic and electronic sounds. Björk said, "It was time to make an album where I search for my musical roots, exploring the border between nature and the city.” Homogenic has distorted beats with volcanic qualities and an Iceland romantic string octad. Let’s talk about the sound world in your musical creativity. In “Joga,” the second song on Homogenic, you work with parallel fifths, which is common in Icelandic traditional music. Is that correct, that you were influenced in “Joga” by this tradition ?

Björk : Yes, I think so. I think especially things like, kvintsöngur, I think Iceland is one of the few places where this is done, or was done, where people sing in fifths. And this is something that inspired a lot of musicians like Jon Leifs and Jórunn Viðar and a lot of the Iceland composers of the 20th century. And that I just decided to be very blunt with this. Like, yes, that’s what I’m gonna do, and do music with fifths. So yes, I was definitely very conscious of it.

Asi Jónsson : During the time leading up to Homogenic, I remember that you made the comprehensive analysis on chamber music. You mentioned Jon Leifs earlier and his string quartets are quite important in Icelandic music history. Did that influence you when it came to working on the string arrangements ? I mean you did use double-quartet or the octad on your tour and also on some of the recordings and even bigger string orchestra as well ?

Björk : Yes, definitely. I was listening a lot, at the time, to a lot of string-quartet music. You know, basically, for two years, you would come to my house and it’d be, like, intolerable. I would only listen to string quartets. So I was listening to Ravel and Debussy and, you know, like of course the most famous ones, but then also a lot of Jon Leifs. But I realized after my experience of being on stage for a thousand years, that a quartet with techno beats, it would just die on stage. So you would have to put those microphones, clip them on, and then, the balance with having to make them so loud, it would give, sort of a distortion. You have to over magnify the thing and it wouldn’t be beautiful. But somehow just to double each voice made more sense with the techno beats. So it was, in a way, a double string quartet just to… so that they had some ammo, because the beats were so aggressive, you know ?

Asi Jónsson : Yeah, no, it was interesting to see them perform “Pluto” on stage, so to speak.

Oddný Eir : I always felt that you have such like an uncanny, strong sense of timings. Like you meet people that are really connected to nature and they know every time there is like this flood coming. They can read the nature so closely that they know where the sea is coming, or when it’s going down, or when the weather will change, and so on. I’ve just thought that you are really sensitive to just like natural cycles, mostly maybe like creatively. Could you explain this for me ? Like, how come…Is it something that you can put into words or ?

Björk : Yep, thank you. I mean, I admire it in you too.

Oddný Eir : Well, it’s maybe in me and in every artist in every human being, maybe. Like this, somehow, you have the cycles in yourself. But I must say, I was not aware of it. So, and when we started discussing a project, we were just like making, not even artistic projects, but nature-protective project, yeah, I got really much more aware of those-

Björk : Timings.

Oddný Eir : -of those timings, you know. I mean, who taught you this ? Or how come that you somehow— Björk : Mm-hmm. Oddný Eir : Could you please teach us ? Tell us.
Björk : Mm-hmm. I don’t know, to be honest. I could speculate today. Probably, if you ask me this in the year, I will probably give you a completely different answer. But today, I would probably say that maybe my mother pushed me a little bit too early to put out an album when I was 11. And I was not ready. And I was lucky enough to be in an environment, on a small island with a very small audience, and with a mother who listened to retreat, you know. And I really hated it, as a scorpio child with scorpio everything : introvert person. To go walk into a bus and people, everybody knows who you are. It really felt like strip show or-

Oddný Eir : Mm-hmm, threat, threatening.

Björk : Yeah, like being naked in a public place. Very aggressive. And because they wanted to do another album, and I said, "No, I don’t want to do another album." So I retreated, and I think, in my mind, I was like, "I will never do this again," kind of thing. And I kind of blamed it on how megalomaniac it was. You know, how can a whole album be just about one person ? And it doesn’t make any sense, because there are always people behind the curtains doing it, pulling the strings, and then this person comes, and you put that person’s face on the cover, and it doesn’t add up, you know. I will never do that again unless it’s justified You know ? That it is a fully developed music. It wasn’t just done by someone else. Like, if you have someone on a cover that didn’t make everything that’s inside, you know, that it’s not the truth, or I felt like a charlatan, or you know, like it’s a lie.
Oddný Eir : So when you feel that some elements is synchronized, you can do it ? And you should do it. Because later, then comes the punk element, also, just do it. You don’t have to think too much about it, or analyze it. You just have to do it.

Björk : You have to go for it.

Oddný Eir : You have to go for it. Yeah.

Björk : Yeah. Yeah, and also, maybe also being in a band in the background for 10 years shows you that there were a lot of amazing songs. I still cry over the songs of Kukl, the band I was in. Because the best moments we had was in some chaotic punk club in Berlin. We never filmed a show, you know. We never documented that. But then we went to some studio and, you know, that was good too, but it was different.

Oddný Eir : Okay. It didn’t capture this right spirit where it all was synchronized. But then there are like things that take time and you’re working on some melodies for a long time, though. So there, there seem to be like different timings, also-

Björk : Yeah.

Oddný Eir : like working processes, like some are slower. Björk : Yeah. Oddný Eir : But it’s like…

Björk : That’s beautiful. Yeah, beautiful question. Yeah.

Oddný Eir : Yeah, all right. I witnessed that. Like some are really much slower and they are not stillborn. And so there is-

Björk : Sure.

Oddný Eir : I’m not contradicting you , but it seems to be a little bit complicated, this feeling for this momentum. And I’ve never actually really understood, like, this momentum. I just understand it when you, somehow, describe it with your hands. But like, what is this momentum ? Just this word ? Björk : No, it’s a beautiful question. No, I mean, I think I see it with you too when you are doing a poetry book and you wait another year and you have patience, you know, of the gardener. The rose will not bloom this year, it will bloom next year. And I admire that about you, too. But yeah, I mean, I like to think that with each album there is always one thing that takes a lot of, a lot of time. And I actually really enjoy that. And then you wait with the same song maybe, you will wait for the right day to sing it, and then you will wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and then shortly, after like two and a half years, you wake up one morning, and today is the day and you do it in one take. So, it is… I do like singing when it’s really, you feel you’re in the moment. It’s like in real time. It’s like the rawness, you can hear the person think, and feel, and breathe, you know, with errors and being a human being.

Asi Jónsson : So we go back to strings maybe, call operation with Deodato starts with the string arrangements on “Isobel” in Post. But on Homogenic, it’s kind of he is watching over your shoulders, and you’re doing the string arrangement yourself. I was listening to this the other day, and it is quite different, the string sounds on “Isobel” and “Bachelorette”, I find. Björk : When we did “Isobel” together, I played him the chords on the piano, and he took that and arranged it. But I think also the flavor of “Isobel” and “Hyperballad’’, you almost want it to be some, like sugar, like not disco, but the strings, we wanted them to be quite euphoric. And then on Joga‎, all the notes come from me. But he wrote it out and decided, okay, the violin does this, and the viola does this. But the sort of idea of the string octet and the sort of…to have the sound really not sugary, really like lava, or, like, quite confrontational and angular, like string quartets usually are when you listen to them at home. The sort of strength of them is that they’re very confrontational and almost psychological, or it’s not, sugar on the dance floor. It’s like the opposite— not pleasing.

Asi Jónsson : You said somewhere that the string arrangements, that it enabled you to unite your musical universe with the academic at that time.

Björk : Yes. I actually invited, to Spain, eight Icelandic string players. And a lot of them were the same age as me and went with me to school at the same time. When we toured as well, it was very cathartic for me. Because we would, in the after parties, after the shows, you know, in the hotel rooms, we were playing each other’s music, and almost, for me, healing this gap between and understanding maybe what would have happened to me if I would have continued school, you know. Not that I have never regretted that but just to understand that maybe that classical music, of course, has a lot of diversity. There are people that are very perfectionist and controlled then there are people that are very raw and passionate and there’s all kinds of ways to approach classical music as well. And to have your character or individuality involved in it.

Björk : With Homogenic, the thing that took the longest time was the beats. And I think what kept me sane in doing the Post tour, which took a very long time, was that I hired an engineer called Markus Dravs, and I set up a studio in my house and I wanted volcanic beats. So I played him some references, and then for a year and a half, he was just working on that. And then I would comment, I would say, " A little bit more like this, a little bit more like this. Throw away most of it. Okay, these two are great." And then I would go tour Asia or whatever, and come back. So by the time when I went to Spain, I had one and a half years of beat-making. So I had like 100 beats actually in a bank. Oddný Eir : Okay. Björk : And we numbered them. Each beat was like one bar. So when I had the songs to go to Spain, for example, when I made “Joga”, I could put beat number 27 in the verse, and beat number 69 was the chorus, and beat number 2 was the intro. All the volcanic beats in Homogenic, they all come from this volcanic beat bank.

Oddný Eir : Hundred volcanic beats ? Okay. And were they like other beats also that had other natural references ?

Björk : Yes. Then I started working with Mark Bell. And he came to Spain and he did more of the 909 beats.

Oddný Eir : What’s that ?

Björk : That’s the drum machine called 909. The best thing he did on Homogenic was the beat 200. Which, I still think today, that the 909 drum machine programmers talk about it. That’s one of the best programmed 909s. I’d like to say to those people it was done in one take. Is the champion on 909. And in a way, “Hunter” is the exception on Homogenic because that was maybe the song reference to Spain because we were sort of joking listening to Ravel’s “Bolero”. And Mark hadn’t heard that song and I played it for him and he was like, "Oh, okay." And just did the beat to “Hunter”. It’s genius. And he also did the beat for “Alarm Call” and “Immature”. So he did the beats that were not like volcanic.

Oddný Eir : Yeah. But, like, what was the description ? What did you ask him to do ?

Björk : I actually decided to bring him in because we had a connection. And I tried to, in each album, tried to introduce guests and tried to represent them as equals, you know. So for me, Mark Bell was almost like the sort of guest person.
Oddný Eir : So he is somehow transcribing or what’s called afritað, emotionally transcribing you with this machine ? Or could we say that or is that like old- fashioned too ?

Björk : I think that’s a beautiful way to put it, but in this case I just wanted Mark Bell to be Mark Bell. Yeah. It’s a different thing. I invited him because he is a genius andI wanted him just to be him. I didn’t want him to, especially in Homogenic, I wanted an equal. The deep connection that formed between me and Mark Bell came maybe from, you know, me going to raves in Manchester in ’88, ’89. So we had this kind of mutual obsession with what was going on in this area and in this world. He’s, you know, he’s a giant. We met in ’88 and he passed away in 2014. So, I mean, that’s like 25 years. So, I mean, of course, some albums was just one song or something, most of them. But he was the one that continued when I would run into trouble at an end of an album and was like, "Fuck, how do I do this ?” I could talk to him.

Oddný Eir : And he was not a man of many words if I remember right. I just saw him once.

Björk : Yeah. Very, very introvert. So, yeah, definitely two introverts communicating but one of them learned to be an extrovert artificially. I remember actually in “Joga”, a lot of people think he did the beat, but he didn’t. That came from the volcanic beat bank, but he did the bassline that it is in the chorusAnd for me, the first time I heard it, it was not in the right key. It was like a fifth out. And fifth, like a lot of people know, they work well together, you know, it harmonizes. And I remember hearing it I was like, "Wow, that sounds really strange." Like I understood it gave it the path that the chorus needed and it was perfect, but for me, it was a fifth out. And now I cannot even imagine it being any other way.

Oddný Eir : Wow.

Björk : But he was right. You know, he opened it up a little bit by not keeping the whole song in the same key, you know.

Oddný Eir : Isn’t it quite rare to meet somebody, like an artist with whom you can do this, just make something that you could not imagine or think of yourself ?

Björk : Mm-hmm. I think so. I mean, I haven’t met that many, at least in my lifetime, and still I feel like I’ve been blessed. I think it’s also, you know, the magic of, "Okay, you can be a solitaire, and a hermit, and a monk and whatever, and go on and live in a lighthouse on your own and do stuff." That’s probably magnificent, but then I feel it would be a shame, you know, because I feel, you know, to communicate is such a huge spectrum of our capacity. And what happens in communication can so often push us out of our comfort zone and collision, you know, of two galaxies can really get true birth of new stars. I think to be a good collaborator you have to be able — It’s like a contradiction of course — If you are capable of doing an album on your own in a lighthouse, then you are a very good collaborator. Which makes no sense.
Oddný Eir : But a little bit like in love. Okay then.

Björk : Yeah.

Oddný Eir : It’s like-

Asi Jónsson : Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Björk : -it’s like the romantic desire that you finally understand, that you could even read this actually on the emotional level in the lyrics on Homogenic. This written or this contradiction in terms is at work there that you have to be self-sufficient. You have to be able to leave your solitude to be with somebody else. And not pleasing.
Björk : Yeah.

Oddný Eir : Like not somebody that’s really doing what he thinks you would like, but really coming from his direction or her direction.

Asi Jónsson : I remember when I heard Post, I thought by myself, what will be the future of Björk’s music ? And the future was Homogenic, that was kind of quite different record. But what I’m coming to is that every album has been musically the future of the one before, where we are dealing with different sound worlds or with musically, but often lyrically as well. What I’m saying, you are usually not tributing your past times. Is that conscious ?

Björk : I think around the Homogenic period, I was trying to take me and make whatever my DNA is and make it as large as possible. And I was very attracted to, you know, the group of friends I was hanging out at the time and the books I was reading and the things I was watching. It was very into kinda magnifying things, you know, to be like larger than life, you know ? And I remember when I started doing Vespertine, I wanted to do the opposite. Because I think it’s one thing to make an album like that, but then you have to tour the world and always be on like 11 during the concerts. And they became quite, sort of, cathartic and aggressive and confrontational, like this magnifying, the ego became very high, you know ? And the last few concerts were kind of, you know, if I was a race car, it was…I pushed myself to the top, you know. But I am very happy I did that, but I also don’t believe in it when people just do that for 30 years. It becomes very monotonic. So, I also knew that I wanted to do that for a little while to see, okay, how fast can I turn this car ? And quite, sort of, megalomaniac in a way, quite sort of ego energy, you know, which I’m kinda, sometimes, have issues with when other people are like that, but I wanted to document that part inside me, for once in a lifetime, you know ? Yeah. I mean, I think you asked in the beginning about the mystical aspect of Homogenic. I think for all of us, we have periods where we are very social and we are very like strong, socially. And then these periods, they end its course, you know ? And I think definitely Homogenic was very much about, both emotionally and also in a musical way, about retreating. And instead of finding beats that go with the club, you know, like, [mimics 808 beat] you know, the party. You are finding beats that have similar weight, but they are not urban. They are rural. And that you can have the same amount of oomph. But in your own home, you know house in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains somewhere. But also with that sort of retreating from the crowd that comes with it, the gift of the mystical. Because there is like a void. In the beginning, it feels like a void, but then the void fills with who you are as a person, as a solitary human being.

publié dans Sonic Symbolism