Björk carries something of the Bowie gene : more stardust, rainbow particles and creative genius than flesh and bone. She is a youthful 50 – ageless as she is timeless – and with her high-pitched voice, irrepressible enthusiasm and unconventional sartorial choices, it’s hard to remember a time when the Icelandic singer didn’t stake a claim on the musical landscape.
Few among those musical stars that came of age in the 90s have evolved in such complex and interesting ways, carrying their old fans into the future and picking up a whole heap of new ones along the way. A clue to her evolution may lie in her unusual collaborations with designers, scientists, software developers, composers, instrument makers, app makers and film directors.
Last year Björk released a heartbreak album, rawer than anything by Adele. Vulnicura – Latin for “cure for wounds” – is the artist’s lament for the end of her marriage in 2013 to British artist Matthew Barney, and is just as exposed as the deep wound featured on her chest adorning the album’s cover.
Björk is in Australia for Vivid Sydney with the world premiere of Björk Digital, an exhibition comprising large-scale and immersive digital and video works, including her virtual reality film clips for Mouth Mantra and Stonemilker, and an exclusive first-look at Notget – still a work in progress, the singer revealed at a media call on Thursday, but one which uses the latest in VR technology.
The exhibition also includes Black Lake, an elaborate music video commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York for its Björk retrospective last year ; restaged at Carriageworks in a larger space, the work is being showcased on huge screens and through 54 speakers.
She spoke to Guardian Australia ahead of the show’s launch.
Guardian Australia : Vulnicura chronicles your grief after your marriage broke down. Did you mean to write such a confessional album ?
Björk : After I did my album [I realised] what sort of album I had on my hands. It was a Greek tragedy, it was chronological, there was a story that ran through it. It was definitely not planned. But when a friend of mine gave me a totally generic book about grief and loss [Seven Stages of Grieving], that sold millions of copies – where you come out and you are reborn – I used it as a tool. Instead of trying to hide [my emotions] I thought, this will be the spine of the album.
You have such a huge variety of music and projects. Have you ever been tempted to simply stick with one thing ?
You have to redefine yourself every year because it’s like anything : if you work something out and keep it that way, it’s not true to who you are in three years’ time.
I try to look forward to the next thing. As much as we would like to lie in bed, we have to keep going. Bob Dylan said : “If you are not busy being born, you are busy dying.” It would be nice to skip this search and this longing, and just skip forward until you are dead, but that’s not an option.
So I just wake up in the morning and stick my nose out and see where it will take me.
How do you balance your public persona with privacy ?
All of us have to find this line, not just musicians or public people. When you go to swimming pools in Iceland everyone is naked in showers together and when Americans come in, they freak out. When it comes to what is revealing and what isn’t, go with what feels right.
I’ve tried to follow my instincts. Maybe in the beginning I was over-generous and thinking that it was a virtue, but I learned the hard way it isn’t a virtue. It would be nice to give everything all the time ; that would be easy and you wouldn’t have to use your brain. It would also be incredibly boring, and would damage what you are trying to do.
It’s something we all have to do : baby step, every day. [For example], do I tell the secret to my mum, or keep my sex life to myself, or do I talk about periods ? We have to take it week by week. It’s the same with my job.
What does virtual reality add to the experience of listening to music ?
When I started working on virtual reality, it was a home for my music. It’s a journey you are on : the fact that you have your own theatre and you have this psychological drama.
At the same time, I realised it would be a couple of years before people would have this technology in their homes. It would be an impossible feat to do – it’s like going to the moon. I thought, OK, the way to do it is for people to have a place to go to and watch the videos, and it would be like a workshop and work-in-progress and if people want to see it, they can have somewhere to come.
The older I get the more I understand what is special about how we experience music. It’s either one-on-one, or thousands of people at a festival where you lose yourself. It’s not intellectual, it’s impulsive. Virtual reality is a natural continuity of that. It has a lot of intimacy. As a musician to be intimate is really important. If you want to express certain details, it’s an opportunity to do that.
It’s no coincidence that the porn industry has embraced virtual reality. The penetration is really intimate. It’s really exciting to place to be.
Do you ever go listen to your back catalogue ?
There’s a lot of maintenance with what I do : you have to fix the roof and pay the bills, and I have to do this as a musician too. For example, someone’s done a mix of mine and I have to listen to it and make sure it’s all right – so I do spend time doing maintenance. I look at it as a form of protection, protecting my music. I probably do 50% new stuff and 50% maintenance. Recently I had to mix my live album and that took a whole month. I was really annoyed because I wanted to write new songs.
You recently did a documentary with David Attenborough. How concerned are you about climate change ?
Everybody wants to save the planet. By now the dinosaur conservatives are in a minority, but overall people don’t know where to start. The biggest hurdle is the functionality of it. What should happen now is the government says : “OK, we are in an emergency now and everyone has to walk everywhere.” There will be no cars – a whole list of things. The way we switch to the new way of living has to be so drastic.
It’s like with the coal in London, because people couldn’t breathe. When it was banned, things actually did change but change came from above. Something like that has to happen.
You seem very connected to nature. What’s your relationship to it ?
Where I was brought up in Iceland I could just walk across the street to a mountain area where I could hike or sing. It was a lot of space, and I could see forever.
For me, personally, I am used to this idea of space. It’s a habit. It’s not like I have to hunt every animal I eat, it’s not that dramatic. It’s equilibrium.
I am more used to being in nature. I feel normal. In cities I feel like I am holding my breath. I feel claustrophobic, like I am living in an airport. I love every natural situation but my job has pulled me into every city in the world. It can be tough sometimes. When I travel, I try to get Airbnb houses by the ocean or beaches.
I find New York a bit tricky. I only spend two to three months in Brooklyn each year. I have figured out a way to make it work.
Are you taking in any nature sights while you’re in Sydney ?
I am not here for so long. I went to Botanical Gardens to see the fruit bats and I was very disappointed because it’s not the right season.
You’ve had 24 years in the business now – are you mentoring any younger musicians ?
In the last three years I have experienced something totally new that I never thought I’d experience but fellow musicians in their 20s are coming to me and asking me for advice and help, and I feel really natural giving it.
It was different when they were 10 years younger than me. There was more tension, but there is something different where there is a 20-year gap. It is really satisfying to be some sort of teacher and have pupils. I have a lot of experience, and I can tell them not to do something that’s wasting their time.
But it’s great how mutual it is, how it goes both ways, when the pupil teaches the teacher.