« Say, for example, the corner here ? Where the roads meet ? » Björk is leaning backwards over the sofa, pressing the hips of her pink dress against the cushions, and jabbing a finger towards the view of the street.
« So this building’s this tall », she says, holding one hand way up in the air, and gesticulating wildly with the other, « and then this road goes at that angle, and that road goes at that angle, then this building is shaped like that, and it sort of directs the characters. And so when you hear that in a song it either opens up or it goes really narrow. Do you know what I mean ? »
Björk is trying to explain what she sees when she is singing. She recently had a similar conversation with Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, she says, and was delighted to discover they see quite different things when they sing. "« Music for me is like fact. Totally like algebra. And he’s the total opposite, Antony. He’s kind of more esoteric and feeling his ancestors singing through him - it’s more about humans. For me, it’s not about humans. In a weird way it’s about maths and physics. Sorry », she adds, sitting back down again, « I got a bit excited ».
There is a gleefully unrestrained air to Björk today. As she talks, she squirms and fidgets and pulls at her face. She speaks like someone doing a jigsaw puzzle, feeling the shape of each word before she places it in a sentence, and her voice ripples between Icelandic and cockney and American. She is discussing her new record, Volta, the latest episode in a recording career lasting 30 years (she recorded her first album aged 11).
After the rarefied atmosphere of albums such as Vespertine (2001) and Medulla (2004), records that seemed so fine-spun as to be « like filigree, mosaic, like embroidery », Volta sounds like a re-engagement with the outside world. The insular nature of the previous two records was the result of time she spent at home following the birth of her second child, Isadora. « I was working for a few years with the luxury of having a laptop and not having to be in studios », she explains, « if you’re having a child, it’s very convenient, you travel a little bit and you work a little bit, so you don’t have to leave, you know ? So my driving force for the beginning of this album was maybe I had a little bit of cabin fever. My girl was going to kindergarten, so I was ready to get out a little bit. »
Björk will certainly be getting out a little bit this year, embarking on a huge world tour to promote the new album. « We’d almost planned the tour before the album release », she says, animatedly, « because I was excited about forming the band and playing live and just physically being with the musicians around me and feeling it with my body, as opposed to being in a room and noodling with something forever, and putting musicians in a song that I’ve never actually physically met. » Indeed, there is a sense of physicality to Volta, both lyrically and musically. Even instruments - the kora, the pipa, the clavichord - were chosen to bring a certain earthiness. « The clavichord, it’s like the ancestor of the harpsichord », she darts on, « so when you play it, it sort of goes duuuuunnnnnngh, so those three instruments have that in common, a kind of dirty sound. When I did Vespertine, there were a lot of instruments like that, but they were pretty clean : harps and music boxes and glockenspiels. »
These are, perhaps, the two sides of Björk. « Yes I think I’m probably both », she says after some consideration. « I’m like romantic and sort of old-fashioned, and part of me is very stubborn, and I’m really loyal. So I have a lot of solid stuff. But the other half of me is totally restless, and I get really easily bored. And maybe this album is also about that. »
One track on Volta sums this up best : Wanderlust begins with the sound of water, a ship’s horn, and seagulls, before Björk sings : « I have lost my origin/ And I don’t want to find it again/ Rather sailing into nature’s laws/ And be held by ocean’s paws », before washing out again in a tide of « restless relentlessly, restless relentlessly, restless relentlessly ». Does she regard the sea as somehow emblematic of her restlessness ? She smiles brightly and bobs her head. « I’ve been trying to live in Manhattan », she says, « and I do love it but it’s been complicated for me because I get very claustrophobic. And so we bought a boat, so you always have that option that you can just sail out of it. So it’s more like that’s my home, the boat. »
Volta also seems to suggest a new engagement with world politics, with songs about suicide bombers and paratroopers and declarations of independence. Björk once said she never votes, but she admits she has felt a political reawakening of late. « All my friends, 10 years ago or five years ago we’d have a dinner, eat at someone’s house, have some wine or whatever, and we’d never talk about politics. Ever. But now, people talk. »
Her reconnection to world events in part began on Boxing Day 2005. Following the tsunami in Indonesia, Björk recorded an album of fans’ remixes of her single Army of Me, donating the proceeds to Unicef. A year later, she was invited to visit the region and found « they were still just digging in the earth and finding bones and dresses of relatives », an image that you suspect might have occasioned her desire for the dirty sound of the clavichord. She flew from Indonesia straight to New York, to a studio session with the producer Timbaland, and immediately wrote the song Earth Intruders. « It just came like a tsunami out of my mouth », she says, sounding still faintly surprised, « and lyrically it’s probably the most chaotic song that I’ve ever written, it sort of doesn’t make sense. » It is a marching song, « Bundle of bombardiers », it insists, « We are the canoneers/ Apache voodoo. » She shakes her head a little, rubs her nose. « I tried to edit it afterwards to fix it and make logic out of it », she says, « but it’s just like chaos. »
She is also rather fierce on the subject of Iceland. « It is my home, I still spend half my time there and I always will, but it is complicated, that identity thing. » On Debut, her first solo album, she says that perhaps she was making a statement : « That I could be very Icelandic but I could still be global. You don’t have to pick one or the other, and then you’re having an affair. » Nevertheless, the rest of the world has insisted upon portraying her as some sort of kooky woodland creature. It interests her, she says, « this marketing of what is Icelandic, this whole elfin thing, and that we are this naive race. And I’m just against it. » Her face curls up grumpily. « And I never said in the press that I saw elves. I never did see elves. Tolkien based his Lord of the Rings on Iceland and maybe that exists in the imagination of a lot of English-speaking people, so maybe it’s English-speaking people projecting that on to Iceland. »
And yet Iceland is changing. « Now they’ve made the biggest dam in the world and the biggest aluminium factory, and in the next five years, they’re going to build five more. So Iceland, that used to be the biggest untouched area in Europe, in the space of five or 10 years is going to be like Frankfurt. » It infuriates her. « It seems to me if Iceland wants to make tons of money and wants to work universally, the last thing it should do is destroy its nature. You don’t need a genius to work that one out. And yet the first thing they do when they get money and independence is say ’Let’s destroy our country ! » She falls into a ruminative silence and pulls at her dress. « So maybe this whole album being about the ocean is also speculations on all that », she says finally, calmly. « And maybe just being a bit exhausted with nationalism. »
Musicians of many nationalities appear on Volta : Toumani Diabete, the Malian kora player ; the Congolese band Konono No1 ; Min Xiao-Fen, the Chinese pipa player ; a 10-piece female brass section from Iceland ; and the Americans - drummers Chris Corsano and Brian Chippendale, singer Antony Hegarty, and producers Timbaland and Mark Bell. « There seemed to be a lot of that thing happening on the album where ... I don’t know how to say it because when you say it, it sounds banal, but there were a lot of arrows pointing at north Africa. At the same time not in a ... » She flounders a little, desperate, perhaps not to sound like a colonialist. Or Sting. « Coming from a place like Iceland », she explains, « I always really sympathise with people from other nationalities that have that same luggage, you know ? So I’d be very proud if somebody from Africa would tell me that the references on this album are on an equal level, not as sort of an exotic ’Here’s a tiger I shot and put it on the wall’ sort of thing. »
It is arguably the beats that differentiate Volta from Björk’s earlier albums. « With albums like Homogenic and Vespertine and even Medulla, the first thing I knew was the beats », she nods. « So I went ahead with Homogenic and got a programmer and just said OK, we’re gonna do distorted beats, and we just did a library of beats that sounded like they’re coming from an eruption, like volcanic. And then afterwards I wrote the songs and we would say, ’Oh let’s put beat 73 in the chorus’ or ’Let’s put beat 11 in the middle eight.’ I knew it was a universe that happens in the virtual reality, similar to how the thought process is - quite electric and static and whispery voices and beats that kind of crackle. There’s always the side of the process where you sit down and you’re like little archaeologists, digging out little things and putting them in little boxes. But with this album, beats kind of came last. »
There was no library of beats on Volta ; the process was much freer, more impulsive. « The thing with electronic beats is you have to always put them to a grid, like a computer grid », she explains. « So it’s always dum dum dum », she beats the table several rhythmical times, « so it’s mechanical. » When she first heard Konono No 1, she realised they were doing something entirely different. « There they were doing electronic music, but it wasn’t to that grid, so all the electronic nerds like me went berserk when that record came out. I knew I wanted to work with them. » Later, she drafted in Corsano, known for his work with Sonic Youth, and Chippendale, from the experimental duo Lightning Bolt. « They are kind of the opposite sides of the same coin », she smiles. « Chris Corsano plays very butterfly, very light, and Brian Chippendale’s very ... » she scrunches up her face and mimes some furious drumming. « I’ve never done this before, it was so fun - they didn’t hear any music beforehand, they just went in a room and heard a song and they just reacted to it. » She shrugs. " « But they come from this scene where it’s all about improvisation and just jumping off a cliff every time. »
She asked Hegarty to sing on two tracks, the cinematic sweep of Dull Flame of Desire, and My Juvenile, « a song about my teenage son and the conversation you have in your head. I haven’t met a parent who doesn’t carry guilt. » She had already performed two sets of vocals, one as the parent, the other as « the conscience » before asking Hegarty to perform the latter role. « So the backing vocals were sort of like Jiminy Cricket and the main voice was sort of a Pinocchio », she explains blithely. « Jiminy Cricket is going, ’You know you did your best, don’t worry about it,’ and being soothing. And Antony’s naturally like that, he’s really soothing. »
You wonder how Björk communicates with these collaborators, with all her talk of Jiminy Cricket and butterflies and algebra. Do they grasp her dreams of waves of people and George Bush’s floor tiles, or understand her quoting EE Cummings ? The joy and the genius of Björk has always been that she communicates in an unexpected, unconventional yet entirely eloquent manner. « I think of the tracks as characters, like my friends », she says now. « I get really, ’This is the track with lilies that are dying, past their prime, and black and kinda sexual,’ or whatever. And then another track is the happy one with all the kites and childlike energy. So I’m pretty stubborn, once a track is that character, I will stay with that character. I’ll say things like, ’No no no, this is not a pink song. It’s more like this section is narrow and the chorus is wide, there’s a lot of space.’ » She looks towards the street again and smiles. « I can stop them if they’re going down the wrong road. »
Seduced by dance beats, Björk abandoned the indie-rock of her previous band, the Sugarcubes, and embraced post-acid house club culture, abetted by Soul II Soul producer Nellee Hooper. Debut spawned playful hits such as Human Behaviour and Big Time Sensuality, and became a defining album of the early 1990s.
The electronic and orchestral Post saw her recruit techno faces such as Howie B, Graham Massey (of 808 State) and Tricky. Its defining moment was It’s Oh So Quiet, a vivacious mugging of a 1948 show tune and Björk’s biggest chart hit to date.
As fame took its toll on Björk - she attacked a journalist in Bangkok in 1996, and was shocked when obsessed US fan Ricardo Lopez posted her a letter bomb before killing himself - she began a partial retreat from the mainstream. Experimental in tone and texture, the dark-hued Homogenic also betrayed the drum’n’bass influence of her then-lover, Goldie.
After her turn in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark yielded the soundtrack album Selmasongs (2000), Björk returned with her most introspective and intimate record. Composed on a laptop, Vespertine was decidedly short on tunes your postman might whistle.
Medulla found Björk eschewing instruments and roping in beatboxers and Inuit throat singers to explore the primal extremes of the human voice. Yet it sounded like the Sugababes next to the abstract noises of Drawing Restraint 9, the 2005 soundtrack to the film she made with partner Matthew Barney.
· Ian Gittins is the author of Human Behaviour : The Stories Behind Every Song by Björk (Carlton).