Alone in the dark

The Wire, 1er septembre 2001

Björk’s eerie night songs are infused with the mythological landscapes of her native Iceland and the concrete fjords of Manhattan. She tells David Toop about her new Vespertine album’s gestation, the joys and perils of collaboration, and how the Internet is creating a more human music.

Somebody has given me a map. Useful to have a map. A map is good for wilderness. But this is a map of Hafnarfiördur, a town that can boast, and I quote, "one of the richest elf and spirit populations among all towns in Iceland." Four types of gnome and all manner of elves can be seen in Hafnarfiördur, apparently. I stare out of the window of this four-wheel drive, equipped with its own satellite linked laptop that tracks our progress through the real world, faintly hopeful that Icelandic whimsy may be a double bluff, disguising some deeper belief in small mythical beings.

No gnomes for our wild place day trip, but the ground is flecked, now, with globs of snow. Reykjavik was warm enough but the further we go towards, Pingvellir, the Viking parliament, the lower the mercury falls. A brief stop, the landscape falling away. In rusted folds. Steam seeps out of the earth, drifts eastwards. Another stop. I can’t tell you where exactly. A huge white chimney, surface pitted and mottled like the skin of an octogenarian sun worshipper, pukes high pressure steam into the pallid October sky. Soft hummocks of thick moss and lichen bulge like fat green bears, dead or sleeping among the milky, half-frozen pools of mineral rich water that, puddle the ground ; I bounce over them, feeling low frequency tremors vibrate straight through my shoes to my skull. A roar through rock, a shout of being. Sound hammering nails into cold air. Nature is playing her Carl Michael Von Hausswolff records on a Sunday morning.

My two companions make up the perfect group for sharing a physiological assault of this alien magnitude. Vocalist Joan La Barbara is mentally preparing for her performance later that day, her programme including Shaman Song and In The Dreamtime. Shamanism may be long gone from here, but we both agree, you still feel It. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke is enjoying the rock ’n’ roll blast of it. Last August he had written the sleevenotes for a reissue of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. "It was every kind of rock," he said, "boiled down to its molten essence." Right this second, we’re not dealing in metaphors. A couple of months after our experience at the steam chimney. Fricke contributed an essay for the release of John Cale’s Sun Blindness Music. "There is, in music, no such thing as a single note," he wrote. "What you hear is not a note but a world of overtones, the transformative collision of accident, purpose and soul."

Five months later, spring sun shining, I’m sitting in Björk’s kitchen in London. Wind chimes in the garden add their accidental melodious impact to the conversation. I ask her, because I can’t resist, about these possibly spurious, romantically conceived emanations from Iceland’s interior. Something wild and pagan, animistic, entranced, of avian spirits, ecstasy, bear claws, sun drums and darkness. She thinks a bit. This is one of those questions that... oh no... 21st century, nobody under the age of 50 wants to be mistaken for Carlos Santana.

"I still haven’t worked that one out," she says, "being such an atheist all my life. It was something related to this winter world thing, hibernation, crystals and about finding paradise In one snowflake. It’s sort of pseudo-religious and seeking salvation. I still haven’t worked it out, to be honest, because so many sides of me are very defensive about anything religious, but if there’s an album that’s got anything about it that’s religious, it’s this one. Songs about wanting angels to turn up and save you."

In a way the best moment for your own personal It’s A Wonderful Life type salvation is right at the end of a question about spirituality. An angel who saves you from drowning, then finds you a place to dry off. Particularly when you are an officially designated elf. Actually, Björk is more punk than elf, though her opinions on any given subject can embrace both extremes. "I guess I feel quite strongly that pagan things don’t have to be clumsy or vulgar," she says. "They can be very poetic and delicate, even decadent. A lot of people think that if you have anything to do with pagan nature, it has to be clumsy." She ruminates on a youthful enthusiasm for 16th century Japan, the opposition of samurai and geisha, then jumps to Vikings, reciting poetry while they were chopping people’s heads off. "Obviously that was a thousand years ago in Iceland," she says, "not now, but it still interests me."

This brief religious interlude comes at the end of two days of chat between us, only surfacing because of my fantasies about Icelandic landscape and being in close proximity to Iceland’s most famous dottir. But the image of beheadings accompanied by poetry is somehow apposite, both to Björk and to other members of the Reykjavik cultural community from which she emerged. More of that later. Much of what we have been discussing relates to her new album, Vespertine, which she feels has a touch of religion about it.

I don’t see it as religion. It’s more the feeling of being alone, enveloped in a cocoon of solitude and introspection, and gaining access to deep thoughts, looser feelings, greater awareness. The title itself is a marker of transitional moments, a passing between the day’s clarity of light to a different kind of clarity, only revealed through darkness. Not necessarily a soft feeling ; there could be angelic choirs if that’s part of your psychological profile, but evening is when you might see the owls and bats in flight, setting off on their nocturnal hunt. But it’s a paradise, a hidden place that’s portable, a resource to draw on during times of chaos and disorientation.

"I think I was playing with that a little bit with this album," she says, "the choirs... to create this kind of utopia. Of course there was a bit of tongue in cheek. For me, being an old punk, it took a lot to swallow that one. Maybe that’s partly also a reaction from the film. I think it’s maybe where I didn’t agree with Lars sometimes. I think it’s OK to create gorgeous moments, where there’s not a thing evil in sight. Because we have moments like that. We do. It doesn’t happen all the time, for sure."

Here we seem to have slipped back into a previous conversation, held in the same kitchen last year, shortly before the release of Lars Von Trier’s film, Dancer in The Dark. The vespertine moments were difficult to summon at that point. Björk’s ’kooky weirdo’ image was confirmed by press reports that she had eaten her blouse, or some similar garment, during altercations with her Danish director. Personally, I abhor Lars Von Trier’s films like Breaking The Waves and The Idiots. I couldn’t quite understand why she had composed a soundtrack, let alone played the starring role, for a musical directed by a man who’s apparently content with his own intellectual and emotional dishonesty.

Her view seemed to be that the challenge of working with difficult people is a reward in itself, even if you disagree with them profoundly. "Lars, he’s talked a lot in the Danish press about having a chemical imbalance," she said. "He wakes up every day burning in hell. You wake up and you’re still there. I was curious at first. I don’t think I agree with it at all. What makes me maddest, it’s indulging in something. There’s too many people suffering in the world. I think there’s enough pain there already. It was put there before there was you. I think it’s arrogance to think you can control it. I think if I’m in a good balanced state, which I’m not saying I’m in all the time, I can do joy, curiosity, pain, pranksterism, all the things. If I’m burning in hell I can only do one song."

Collaboration is one of the keys to Björk’s work not because she can’t function without it, but because her selection of collaborators constantly redefines the image of who she is and what she can achieve. The transformation effected for the cover of Homogenic, an Orientalist hybrid of long-necked Burmese Padaung woman, Gion geisha and princess at the imperial court of the Tang empress Wu Tse-T’ien, art directed by Alexander McQueen, styled by Katy England, shot by Nick Knight, underlined the possibilities of temporarily vacating your own skin, pupating an imago in the mind of an imaginary dreamer.

The collaborators change : LFO’s Mark Bell busy with the heroes of his youth, Depeche Mode ; Guy Sigsworth working with Madonna, though as ever, he programs for Björk, co-writes "Crave", "Sun In My Mouth" and "Harm Of Will", arranges, plays celeste and clavichord. Vince Mendoza, the Hollywood arranger who added exotic, Les Baxterish drama to SelmaSongs, is invited back for more. New faces come in : San Francisco cosmetic surgery samplers Matmos program beats ; Matthew Herbert drops by at the studio and offers some noises ; film maker Harmony Korine contributes lyrics ; Thomas Knak co-writes "Cocoon" and "Undo" ; Zeena Parkins plays harp with her customary needle precision ; and ee cummings writes a text, a poem, a song : "Sun In My Mouth". He, of course, is a member of the dead poets society, or a subject of it, and wrote "Sun In My Mouth" in 1925, blissfully unaware that pop music would become a thing of computer squibs, sampled rat cage and reprogrammed music boxes in the next century.

I asked Thomas Knak, of Opiate and Future 3, about his experience of working on Vespertine. "Björk contacted me in summer of 1999," he writes, via email, "when she was involved in the Dancer film work in Copenhagen. She bought the Opiate album in UK, had brought it with her, and found out I was Danish ! One sunny day became even more sunny when there was a message from her to get in touch.

"I called her, arranged to meet up in my home and when she did we just talked about music and life... In November I received an invitation to come to Iceland for ten days in January 2000 to see what would come out of that. The basic platform for "Undo" was the result plus a few more loose sketches. I did not have any steady contact until August 2000 when she sent me an almost final version of "Undo" with a huge choir and orchestra, which completely blew me away. I very much like "Undo", as this was the first time I had the chance to see my music as a platform for someone else to use in this way with such a big sound.

"In the end of December 2000 she asked for more things as she had an idea for a new song. I worked all night, sent that, and in January 2001 I went to London to finish that one with her in Olympia Studios. "Cocoon" is a really quiet and intimate song which is almost naked - only my original production plus a fantastic performance from Björk, I like to think."

The three electronic contributors - Knak, Matmos and Herbert - are all very different. Yet in their own music, and maybe this is what unites them in common, they all negotiate the relationship between narrative structure and more cryptic forms with a comparable balance of innovation and accessibility. This act of reconciliation between two potential I opposites - pop shapes versus emergent, prickly growth - is central to Björk’s developing maturity as an artist.

I’m interested in her approach to the challenges posed by narrative in songwriting. How do you compose songs, particularly love songs, that are genuinely new and affecting, without reprising all the structural tricks, mat now seem so worn out ? The only model I can think of, just to be able to talk about this, is to bring Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love into the conversation - a film whose structure is beguilingly fragmented and allusive, yet whose emotional tenor remains compelling, deeply touching, overwhelmingly romantic.

We’re upstairs now, sitting on the white plastic sofa which squeaks and sighs whenever one of us moves. A video projector is bolted to the ceiling, thus confronting a contemporary interior decor problem otherwise solved only by a £7000 plasma screen. "We should get bottles of wine and talk about this for a week," she says. "I guess most things are pretty abstract. Being brought up with a lot of nature around, I’m obviously fascinated by mountains and rivers and things that don’t explain themselves very much. After travelling, one of the cities I fell flattest for was New York. It was the opposite. In the sense that there aren’t a lot of animals and waterfalls there, but it has a similar level of energy as Iceland, but made out of different things. It’s not narrative as how 1 experienced travelling, especially in the old cities of Europe. It’s more of an organic thing.

"But I think the true moments of narrative are an invention. It’s a human invention. The most natural way for that to happen is to go camping with someone into nature and you wouldn’t say anything if you were that confident with each other, you’re just soaking in. After a few days, the conclusion of all that abstraction would be, after a meal, by the fire, to say, ’Once upon a time...’ To draw a line between the dots and to invent the narrative, it’s a human invention and a form of generosity. Putting a spell on the other person just for a moment. Just to show them that there is a sense to it all and we’re going from A to B. Just for the gift, for one person to give it to another person. It isn’t just the need for it. It proves that it’s not artificial. It proves that it’s a human need that’s so deep, like sleeping or eating, that it’s actually human. It’s actually nature.

"To cut a long story short, I like both, and if you only have one or the other that’s not true. A lot of patterns and rhythms are not narrative at all. They’re very harmonious. It’s not about chaos. To appreciate that for what it is, it’s like celebrating nature or being fascinated by it. You go to a movie, to a good classic story like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or something, and somebody just carries you for one and a half hours. You walk out and it’s a beautiful thing that somebody wants to do that. I would consider it a better work, a better CD out of all the CDs in my house, if they did both."

I’m also interested in the way that a song may broach intimate moments from private life, revealing and concealing simultaneously. Björk is fiercely protective towards her son, for example, and his privacy, yet in the past, she has been in public scraps, seen her love life splashed in the gossip columns and been stalked by a man whose obsession was out of control. When she talks about the struggle of balancing contradictions, or opposites, then her moral imperatives come into view. Courage and cowardice are poles of an ethical standard against which she measures herself. The truth word, rrrrs rolling to keep the Icelandic drums beating alongside her sometimes consonant free Estuary English, is another marker of personal integrity.

"Being in the media since I was 11, I still believe that you can reveal everything," she says, "but you can still have stuff for yourself. I guess compared to my friends. I just have this enormous faith in mystery, that it’s bigger than us. When we say how we feel we’re just guessing anyway. We don’t know. I think there’s almost like a Houdini thing about it and still I don’t think it’s a lie, I think it’s the truth. You say a certain thing and by saying that you’re making certain things more hidden. Especially with something like music.

"I’m really secretive. My friends will tell me something after nine bottles of whisky and four years later it’s still hidden. But at the same time I can speak about those things in an interview or in a lyric but I won’t let the person down, ever. I have a naive faith that there’s something there that’s universal, that you can share. You can jump on pink clouds and tell the whole world about it but at the same time not reveal anything that’s yours and your boyfriend’s. To believe there is a line there. I’m driven maybe a little bit by being burned, by being hurt or having hurt people, and still having this naive faith that I can make people feel better with my songs. I don’t know why but that’s just the way it is and I think most people who are as obsessed with music as me still believe in that.

"That’s why we’re doing it. I think it would be a coward who would say, ’OK, I’m never gonna write about things that are precious to me anymore.’ That’s a bit of a cop out, really. You can do both things, you know ? To find that thin line is a challenge, it’s quite a turn on. Maybe that’s what you are saying, when you’re asking me if it’s tricky to write love songs. Just to write a love song that would make everybody want to run out and kiss their girlfriend or their boyfriend would be easy. To write a love song to your girlfriend or your boyfriend that they could then never show to anyone, that would be very easy too. Like a present. But to combine the two worlds without compromising either. Again, maybe, it’s a lot of guessing on my behalf, but maybe that’s trying to prove that one plus one is three. That’s even better, both for the lover and for the world. It doesn’t have to be X-rated. either way."

These issues relate back to a storytelling tradition that is central to Icelandic history and still a vibrant part of its contemporary culture. Back in October I found myself in Damon Albarn’s bar in Reykjavik, four in the morning, drunk as a skunk with Bragi Olafsson, the two of us talking nonsense with a complete stranger. Earlier in the evening at Olafsson’s flat, he had insisted on playing, or presenting to us, with impassioned speech making and dramatic finality, the songs of Billy Strayhorn, as sung by Strayhorn himself. Olafsson once played bass with The Sugarcubes but now he’s a celebrated poet and novelist in Iceland. Talking to him, and to the poet, composer, dandy and experimentalist known succinctly as Sjón - lyric writer on SelmaSongs and a big influence on Björk in her teenage anarcho-punk days - I was impressed by the value they ascribe to literature and the power of words. The music of words is a serious business, a magical business.

"The melody serves the word, ’elevating’ it, so to speak, perhaps originally lifting it above the buzzing of the spinning wheel and the scratching sound of the combs in our grandparents’ living room. This is the way it has been in Iceland since the first Icelanders sang or chanted the Eddie lays at the time of the settlement - as I am convinced they did. It was not until the late 19th century that Icelanders began composing melodies for their own sake"

  • Jon Thórarinsson, sleevenotes to Raddir (Voices) : Recordings Of Folksongs From The Archives Of The Ami Magnússon Institute In Iceland

Landscape writes its own calligraphy : a scene without perspective, falling in horizontal Rothko strips of white sky shroud, black mountain flayed by ice, a deep band of brown earth, and at the foot of the frame, the scimitar curves of a silver lake. Why was I there in Iceland, with Joan La Barbara and David Fricke ? Because the Bad Taste organisation, of which Björk was once a part, had organised a festival to examine and celebrate the intimate relationship between words and music. I was invited to do a reading on an evening that included performances by Sigur Rós. La Barbara, Olafsson and Sjón, in duo with the irrepressible noise musician and ’chaos DJ’ Bibbi, and the whimsically wonderful digital folk pop of Múm Interspersed among a host of poets and musicians. I was also there to contribute to a discussion. This included one lecture illustrated by an obscure Sonny & Cher B side, Sonny Bono sitting at the piano, talking to Cher about having to record a B side. My kind of discussion.

Reykjavik being small, it’s possible to meet many of the key players in current cultural life, not to mention Björk’s early development, in the course of a few days. Spending time in the company of Asmunder Jónsson, radio DJ, musicologist and a driving force behind Bad Taste, I find myself talking about Ennio Morricone’s Easy Listening albums and early improvised music records, all kinds of unexpected stuff, plus shaking hands with a stream of musicians, DJs, poets and artists. Here I am. face to face in the street with Finnbogi Pétursson, a sculptor who has been exploring the effects of sound on spatial turbulence since the 1980s. His exhibition at the Reykjavik Living Art Museum in 1990-91, for example, included a work called Circle, a large loudspeaker suspended over a darkened pit filled with water. As the loudspeaker directed 0-200 khz sinewave tones down onto the water, a projector threw the image of the rippled liquid surface onto the wall. This is an idea that may be familiar to followers of recent sound art.

Beneath its placid demeanour, Reykjavik bubbles with hothouse intensity. Add to that Iceland’s isolation. "Your brother would be in a Death Metal band and your neighbour would be in a disco band," says Björk, "and then they would meet down the pub on the weekend and they would form a third band together and that would be a folk band or something. It wasn’t these categories, for sure. It was more about expressing. I guess it’s also to do with Iceland being so far away and us looking at the rest of the world from a distance. The scene is so small but the horizon is so big, unlike England where the scene is so big but the horizon is so small." This is a culture built on long winter nights, sagas, oral culture, survival ; fiercely independent, defiantly different.

"Most cliches about countries being different nowadays are wrong," she says, "because it’s all becoming the same thing really. I didn’t really watch telly until I was about 20. Most of my friends doing the poetry stuff, we’re very used to storytelling. When we were touring, The Sugarcubes, we would be reading stories out to each other from books or poems people did the night before. There’d be evenings when we’d be in some stupid hotel in Texas and we’d all go to Bragi’s room and he’d read to us his latest poems and it wouldn’t even be pretentious or intellectual. It’s a very basic thing, like listening to the new Aphex Twin album. It’s down to earth. My English friends will go out with my Icelandic friends and somebody will start telling a story in a club. The story will take two hours and my English friends get bored stiff and leave, I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I’m Just saying it’s different. I found it a little bit with Irish people. They still have a little bit of that."

Recently, Björk has moved to New York to live. I want to know her feelings about her voice and the way she has been using ProTools editing software for the past few years, sculpting her voice into regions that are no longer entirely human. Her enthusiasm for Manhattan finds its way into her answer once again.

"I’ve always been a bit into extremes," she says. "I guess partly because I was brought up by a mum who thought that anything made by man was evil or something. I’m exaggerating now, of course. I think it was when I was about 20, the first time I went to Manhattan. I realised it was human invention. Manhattan is a great idea, you know ? Just to walk between the skyscrapers felt not different to walking in the valley or the mountains. The impression they have, on you is pretty strong - a lot of presence. My conclusion - not just me but my generation almost, a reaction against the hippies - is that anything that man does has to be natural because man is natural. This whole idea of the industrial age and Western civilisation, thinking that what we did wasn’t nature and suggesting that man was greater than nature, has come full cycle and now I would think something like that would be very arrogant. You can’t separate yourself from nature.

"I think most technology, it’s tools. What we do with them, whether it’s cold or soulful, that’s our choice. I also think there’s a lot of guilt there that was put in me and my generation. I’m not going to blame all that on my mum. That’s more of a generational thing. What are you going to do ? Move to an island for the rest of your life and be barefoot. Why drive a car all your life and feel guilty about it ? Do it or skip it. I think it’s important to have a unison - the lives we’re living and what we’re doing, the music we’re writing and the books we’re reading and writing, that it all makes sense. It all works together. We’re not doing one thing and feeling it’s ugly. Not going, ’Well, if I could choose I’d actually be in a Fred Flintstone car’. Get a life, you know ? I think my generation was very interested in sorting that one out. In the 80s, having 50 TVs in a stack and learning to find it pretty, I definitely come from that school of thought, that you can be organic and pagan and have ProTools.’

This drive to unite the digital domain with the corporeal, imaginative world has contributed to some unusual choices of instrumentation for Vespertine. Harp, clavichord, celeste and music box are all percussive, melodic, brittle instruments with a limited frequency range. "I picked those winter instruments," she says. "They are for me, like winter music, like frozen. I thought this album was frozen, like crystals. None of them confrontational. They’re kind. There are times when you’re not going to have any contact by screaming at people.

"On a musical level, I was obsessed with my laptop. I was getting really into it, the last three years, doing beats and recording my vocals straight on it, which is revolutionary for me. So I was really obsessed, obviously downloading stuff from the Net and emailing back and forth and getting occupied with that element of laptops. It’s all a secret. There’s no oxygen in that world. It operates like your mind. Your thought process is very similar.

"And then musicians complaining about Napster and how downloading music really compromises it and me thinking, wait a minute, that’s a bit naff. We’ve been doing folk music or whatever you call it for 2000 years and the instruments, the tools you use, if they’re limited it means you have to be more imaginative and creative. 100 years ago, radio arrived and the first music that was going on then sounded crap on the radio. Later on, humans became genius in writing and arranging and producing specifically for radio. Now we’ve got the Napster thing, the Internet and downloading and you write specifically for that.

"I use micro-beats, a lot of whispery vocals, which I think sound amazing when they’re downloaded because of the secrecy of the medium. The only acoustic instruments I would use would be those that sound good after they’ve been downloaded, so the harp, The music box, celeste and clavichord. They’re plucky sounds. Actually you can do a harp solo and download it in crap quality and it still sounds magical on the other side. And the strings - it took me ages to work out if I should use strings or not. Obviously they shouldn’t be a quartet or an octet where they’re very narrative and in your face. They ended up being more panoramic textures in the background. It’s all about being in a little house, on your own. You’re creating paradise with your laptop, or underneath your kitchen table where nobody knows about it. It’s survival in that sense. The strings would be like white mountains outside. That’s two reasons for using those instruments.’

This is the kind of thinking that distinguishes Björk from virtually any other celebrity musician of the moment, and surely one of the reasons she is so successful. Her awareness of the demands and potential of digital technology is finely tuned, yet she cares deeply about stories, about communication and the urgent desires of being human. "I learned to sing by myself by walking outside in Iceland," she says. "I can be clever about any areas but I won’t let logic into my voice. There’s no fucking way."

She relates the fruitful contradictions of her character to her childhood. "My mum left my dad when I was one," she says, "and she was very determined, like a lot of women of her generation, that she wasn’t gonna be a suppressed housewife. She ended up renting a place with a lot of like-minded people. It wasn’t a hippy commune. They all had jobs but they definitely were from that generation. There was music on 24 hours a day, which I really enjoyed. I remember a queue by the record player. The record would finish and you’d be ready to put another one on.

"My grandparents would listen to jazz, my mum and them would listen to hippy music and I just remember myself walking a lot between the two houses and singing at the top of my lungs. I didn’t realise this until recently but I was inventing that kind of singing style, whatever it is, which is made for acoustic singing rather than microphone.

"I guess it’s also to do with the fact that my father is very working class. He’s an electrician who turned union leader. He’s always telling the politicians off, cut the crap, and he’s the only one who’ll speak the everyday language that people understand. I can be as eclectic, idiosyncratic and eccentric as fuck but the final target for me, in my morality, in how I’m brought up, is always that it’s for everyone. I can’t lie when I sing. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. With ProTools, it’s not like you’re lying but it’s easier to focus on what you want things to be. For me, ProTools are more connected with a fantasy and my voice more with reality. For me, personally, it’s fantasy 50 per cent and reality 50 per cent. With the tools I can have everything I want and think of ridiculous things that don’t exist but with my voice I’m always gonna show what happened to me that day, that month, that year. I can’t hide anything and I actually quite like that."

par David Toop publié dans The Wire