For her sixth studio album, Volta (due May 8 via Elektra/Atlantic), the Icelandic artist collaborated with longtime partner-in-music Mark Bell, Congolese outfit Konono ° 1, Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), Malian musician Toumani Diabate, hip-hip guru Timbaland, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and others.
« Since I was a child, singing and writing melodies have always been quite a solitary process », Björk says. « More and more, since I’ve become savvier on the computer, I spend perhaps 90 percent of the time working on the album alone. So, collaborations are the treat at the end of the stick. With every collaborator, there is a completely different method », she continues. « It is probably part of my philosophy, a little romantic, I know, that one of the main targets is to communicate, to merge. Then magic happens — when one plus one becomes three. It is easy to do solo albums where you play absolutely every noise, but merging is tricky. It takes courage to let go like that. »
Yet no matter who Björk works with, she still enjoys following the beats and rhythms of her own beautifully off-kilter drum. Among the musical instruments on Volta are a Chinese lute, French horns, a brass band and, Björk being Björk, major slabs of electronic programming.
Aggressive instrumentation intertwines with suspenseful cinematic rushes, but there are also quiet and meditative moments like Pneumonia, which builds and builds with no release. Björk says she wrote the song at the piano in one take, after seeing the film Pan’s Labyrinth — and after having pneumonia for two weeks.
« There is a physical sadness to wheezing away with that disease », she says. That, coupled with « the determination of the little girl in that film to believe in her imagination, whatever it took, even though no one believed her », struck a chord with the singer. A few days later, the song was recorded with seven horn players.
While lyrics on Volta frequently veer toward motherhood and religion, other tracks could very well have been ripped from today’s headlines. One of the latter — the war-themed Earth Intruders — recently made headlines of its own. One of three Timbaland collaborations on Volta, it became the first Björk track to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 in 13 years, since Big Time Sensuality in 1994. Though its chart visit was fleeting (one week, attributed to 16,000 download sales), Earth Intruders is being spun by 31 modern rock stations.
But it remains to be seen whether exposure for the single translates into sales for Volta and helps turn around the downward slide of each of Björk’s past solo studio albums. Her solo debut, 1993’s Debut, sold 918,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Post, issued in 1995, has sold 810,000 units. Homogenic (1997) stands at 501,000 sold, Vespertine (2001) at 402,000 and Medulla (2004) at 235,000.
Still, Björk’s label is optimistic that this trend can be reversed — and for good reason. Her head-turning performances on Saturday Night Live (April 21) and at Southern California’s Coachella festival (April 28) have been widely covered. She has just commenced a yearlong global tour, and her online activity is up.
As of April 27, for instance, the video for Earth Intruders was in the top 10 of downloaded videos at iTunes, while pre-orders for Volta were in the top 15. Björk also supplied iTunes with an exclusive six-part podcast series.
And for the first time, she has agreed to license her catalog for ringtone and video ringer use.
While the label focuses on extending Björk’s reach, the singer remains focused on her music.
« One of the reasons I have headspace on this album to take on issues like the Earth, suicide bombers and so on is possibly because all things are pretty good at home right now — as good as it gets. »