With each album she makes, Björk immerses us in a fantastical universe of her own design. Now, on Vulnicura, she’s letting us in to her world—though it is not necessarily one of her own choosing. The album outlines the dissolution of Björk’s relationship with her longtime partner, the artist Matthew Barney. She confesses the devastation with candor. By the third song, “History of Touches”, she’s lying awake in bed, indexing the past with startling intimacy : “Every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time-lapse with us here at this moment,” she laments over glistening synths. She details her struggle to keep her family intact, limning distance, rejection, and the death of their covenant. The blunt force of her words is striking. And damning.
The cast of Vulnicura is limited to a “you” that is only Barney, Björk, and their child ; the “we” of it is fleeting. There is a joyous, striving before, which only makes the familial fragmenting that plays across these long, dramatic songs even more wrenching. She tries to staunch the ruin with love, but it’s no use. The album ends with Björk’s reclamation of herself, her voice, and her music, turning Vulnicura into a document of salvation, albeit a fraught one. “When I’m broken I am whole,” she sings on closer “Quicksand”, “and when I’m whole I’m broken.”
Sitting in a hotel room in London’s East End on Halloween, Björk, casually clad in a flamingo-pink kimono, red tights, and platform high tops, is as eager to talk about Vulnicura as she is reticent to talk about what inspired it. The love, struggle, and dissolution are all plain in the lyrics, which are uncharacteristically diaristic ; singing about a desire for “emotional respect” is more what you’d expect from Mary J. Blige than an artist whose previous album considered the world atomically. The few metaphors that do arise involve natural, immovable objects like stones, a lake, quicksand—dark forces, being consumed, certain destruction. The album’s centerpiece, the 10-minute “Black Lake”, is the relational post-mortem, a litany of incompatibilities over rising strings, before Björk spits the rhetorical “Did I love you too much ?” as if the question curdled in her mouth as she conjured the words.
As much as this record is about him, it is also about Björk returning to herself. In motherhood, one quite literally becomes a vessel—a role that often continues postpartum. The young family takes precedence, and ambition takes a back seat ; a mother can become the net around her loved ones, their needs veiling her own. It is the natural exile of domestic life. And it is a strange and powerful thing to imagine that one of the most singular vocalists in modern music could lose the tether, just like any of us. But here, Björk opens up about coming back to music from such a scene, filling her house and her days with loud songs.
Over the few hours that we talked, she became emotional whenever we broached the album’s core themes. The pall would lift immediately, though, whenever she touched on the music that had pulled her back into the light : befriending and exchanging ideas with the album’s Venezuelan co-producer, Arca, waking up to mixes by anarchic DJ Total Freedom, her lifelong love of Chaka Khan, Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush, her desire to stand up for her female peers. Vulnicura may be the most tender-hearted work Björk has ever issued, but it also finds her most sure of her power as a woman, a producer, and an artist ; all of her invisible work made clear.
Pitchfork : How does it feel to be putting out a record this personal ?
Björk : I’m a little nervous. Definitely. Especially coming from an album like Biophilia, which was about the universe. This is more of a traditional singer/songwriter thing. When I started writing, I fought against it. I thought it was way too boring and predictable. But most of the time, it just happens ; there’s nothing you can do. You have to let it be what it is.
Pitchfork : Did you know this was the record that was going to come out of you ?
B : No, no. With most of my albums, I don’t really know what I’m doing for the first year or so. It’s afterwards, when it’s almost ready and I start mixing and doing the photographs, that I can see it for what it is. With this album, it was a big surprise. When I listened to the songs, it is almost like a diary.
Pitchfork : It sounds like an album about partnership, motherhood, and family—things that bond us—and your worst fears about them...
B : [crying] I’m sorry.
Pitchfork : The minute your children are born, underneath every thought is : How do I protect them ? How do I keep this family surrounded in love ? Then you quickly figure out that you can’t always protect them. All of that is on this album, very nakedly.
B : That’s why I was nervous. I’ve never done an album like this. With Biophilia, I was being like Kofi Annan—I had to be the pacifist to try to unite the impossible. Maybe that was a strange, personal job between me and myself, to show how overreaching I was being as a woman. The only way I could express that was by comparing it to the universe. If you can make nature and technology friends, then you can make everyone friends ; you can make everyone intact. That’s what women do a lot—they’re the glue between a lot of things. Not only artists, but whatever job they do : in the office, or homemakers. Biophilia was like my own personal slapstick joke, showing I had to reach so long—between solar systems—to connect everything. It’s like the end scene in Mary Poppins, when she’s made everyone friends, and the father realizes that kids are more important than money—and [then] she has to leave [crying]. It’s a strange moment. Women are the glue. It’s invisible, what women do. It’s not rewarded as much.
When I did this album—it all just collapsed. I didn’t have anything. It was the most painful thing I ever experienced in my life. The only way I could deal with that was to start writing for strings ; I decided to become a violin nerd and arrange everything for 15 strings and take a step further than what I’ve done before. I had like 20 technological threads of things I could have done, but the album couldn’t be futuristic. It had to be singer/songwriter. Old-school. It had to be blunt. I was sort of going into the Bergman movies with Liv Ullmann when it gets really self-pitying and psychological, where you’re kind of performing surgery on yourself, like, What went wrong ?
Then I got really lucky. I’m not religious but I must have earned some good karma at some point, because as one thing got taken away from me, Alejandro [Ghersi, aka Arca] came. [smiles, tears up] I don’t want to brag, but I get a lot of requests to work with musicians and a lot of time I say, "I’m very flattered, but it’s not right.” But he approached me almost two years ago, and it was just the most perfect timing ever. I’d just written like a scrillion songs and done these string arrangements, and the subject matter was so difficult that I wanted to move away from it. Then he came on a visit to Iceland, and we just had the best time ever. He’s the most generous, funny person I’ve ever met. It was such a contrast, the most fun music-making I’ve ever had [tears up], with the most tragic subject matter. Somehow, he could just take it on.
Usually I do half of the beats and then I will get someone like Matthew Herbert to help me with the chorus of the song, or another guy to help me do other bits. But this time around, maybe because it’s a relationship album about the duality between you and that person, doing a whole album with just one person made perfect sense. Towards the end, we needed someone to mix it, so the only other person who came into it was a guy called Haxan Cloak. Literally, just the three of us. Really simple. That’s been really fun.
Alejandro knew all of my albums from his childhood—apparently, I’m big in Venezuela. [laughs] He knew my songs better than me. I would say, "Oh, can you make that third beat like…" And he’d say, "Oh, you mean like the third break of song five of album two ?" He was like a library of my music. At first, I was really defensive ; I’m not good with people who are fans. But it just wasn’t that energy at all. It was a really healthy energy, like a student. Suddenly, I got to be a strange kind of teacher. I would literally sit next to him and, for the first few songs, the heartbreak songs, I would be the backseat driver. I would describe all the beats, and then he would do them and add stuff. We did it together. I’ve never done that before. So I just sat next to him for weeks, and we did the whole album. It’s the quickest I’ve ever worked. He’s so incredibly talented and so eager to learn. It’s one of those crazy things in life where people from opposite ends meet, and you’ve got so much to teach each other. It’s really equal, what you’ve got to give to each other. [tears up] It’s been a strange album—the most painful one I’ve done, but also the most magic one.
Pitchfork : In the first two songs on the record, you’re singing about wanting to find clarity. Does writing a song about something that has happened bring you clarity on the other end ?
B : Yeah, I think so. When it works. I go for a lot of walks and I sing. That’s when you find an angle on things, where it makes sense for that particular moment. It’s more that feeling. In a way, I also rediscovered music, because [crying]—I’m sorry—it’s so miraculous what it can do to you ; when you are in a really fucked situation, it’s the only thing that can save you. Nothing else will. And it does, it really does. I’m hoping the album will document the journey through. It is liberation in the end. It comes out as a healing process, because that’s how I experienced it myself.
Pitchfork : It very much does. Towards the end of the record, there is a Buddhist sentiment about the obstacle being the path. You sing, "Don’t remove my pain, it’s my chance to heal." That’s how we figure things out, isn’t it ? That the only way out is through, that having things be easier is not helpful in the long run.
B : When I say that, it might come across that I’m incredibly wise. But it’s the other way around. I’m fucked and I’m trying to talk myself into it, like, "Go, girl ! You can do it !" It’s me advising myself. It’s not me knowing it all—not at all. It’s just a certain route you just have to go ; I went through it.
It’s really hard for me to talk about it. It really is in the lyrics. I’ve never really done lyrics like this, because they’re so teenage, so simple. I wrote them really quickly. But I also spent a long time on them to get them just right. It’s so hard to talk about the subject matter ; it’s impossible—I’m sorry. [tears up] There’s so many songs about [heartbreak] that exist this in the world, because music is somehow the perfect medium to express something like this. When I did the interviews about Biophilia, I could talk for four hours about tech and education and science and instruments and pendulums—all the things we did. This one, I couldn’t put any of that stuff on top of it, because it has to be what it is. And I can’t talk about it. It’s not that I don’t want to, I’m not trying to be difficult. It really is all in there. [chokes up]
Pitchfork : The song “Black Lake” illuminates these parts of partnership, or marriage, that you don’t even want to give voice to, the stuff that you never want to think or say, because it feels too worst-case-scenario, too charged, too deep—because it’s so unmooring to consider.
B : I was really embarrassed about that song. I can still hardly listen to it.
Pitchfork : How will you perform these songs, then ?
B : I have no idea. But it’s like you were saying, there’s no easy exit through. I wish. I would have taken it if I could. [long pause] It’ll be emotional. I’m just going to have to cry and be a mess and do it. Right now, my life is not getting any discount, as we say in Iceland. There’s no easy access. I have to go through that to get to the next bit.
I’m blessed that Alejandro is going to do the gigs with me. That’s gonna be fun. It’s going to be concert halls, because I’m going to have a 15-piece orchestra : five violins, five violas, and five cellos, so the sound is really dark. It’s very muddy. Earthy. We’re going to start in Carnegie Hall ; I’ve never played there, but it’s perfect for this. It doesn’t really have an orchestra pit, so the string players have to be on the stage. Carnegie Hall is also good for beats. It’s no coincidence that Duke Ellington played there.
Pitchfork : Who are confessional singer/songwriters that you like ?
B : Funnily enough, with my favorite music like that, I don’t understand the words. I really like fado singers like Amália Rodrigues, but I don’t speak Portuguese. [laughs] I really like Abida Parveen from Pakistan, but I don’t understand a word she sings either. As for American singers, you know who I’ve loved almost since my childhood ? Chaka Khan. I love Chaka Khan. I’ve totally fallen in love with a remix album of hers from the ‘80s. I don’t know if it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s just pleasure. Obviously, I really love Joni Mitchell. I think it was that accidental thing in Iceland, where the wrong albums arrive to shore, because I was obsessed with Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Hejira as a teenager. I hear much more of her in those albums. She almost made her own type of music style with those, it’s more a woman’s world.
Pitchfork : Hejira is one the most feminist albums ever.
B : Right ? The lyrics ! And The Hissing of Summer Lawns as well. I love “The Jungle Line”, it sounds like something somebody would make now, it’s crazy. Maybe it’s because it’s not my generation, but when I hear the folk stuff that she did before that, I hear it as a lot of people and not just her. It’s a zeitgeist.
Pitchfork : When it was originally misreported that Vulnicura was produced by Arca, instead of co-produced by you and Arca, it reminded me of the Joni Mitchell quote from the height of her fame about how whichever man was in the room with her got credit for her genius.
B : Yeah, I didn’t want to talk about that kind of thing for 10 years, but then I thought, “You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” So around 2006, I put something on my website where I cleared something up, because it’d been online so many times that it was becoming a fact. It wasn’t just one journalist getting it wrong, everybody was getting it wrong. I’ve done music for, what, 30 years ? I’ve been in the studio since I was 11 ; Alejandro had never done an album when I worked with him. He wanted to putting something on his own Twitter, just to say it’s co-produced. I said, “No, we’re never going to win this battle. Let’s just leave it.” But he insisted. I’ve sometimes thought about releasing a map of all my albums and just making it clear who did what. But it always comes across as so defensive that, like, it’s pathetic. I could obviously talk about this for a long time. [laughs]
Pitchfork : The world has a difficult time with the female auteur.
B : I have nothing against Kanye West. Help me with this—I’m not dissing him—this is about how people talk about him. With the last album he did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second. If whatever I’m saying to you now helps women, I’m up for saying it. For example, I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats—it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album. [Matmos’] Drew [Daniel] is a close friend of mine, and in every single interview he did, he corrected it. And they don’t even listen to him. It really is strange.
Pitchfork : How does it make you feel when this happens now ?
B : I have to say—I got a feeling I am going to win in the long run, but I want to be part of the zeitgeist, too. I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them : You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times. Girls now are also faced with different problems. I’ve been guilty of one thing : After being the only girl in bands for 10 years, I learned—the hard way—that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they—men—had the ideas. I became really good at this and I don’t even notice it myself. I don’t really have an ego. I’m not that bothered. I just want the whole thing to be good. And I’m not saying one bad thing about the guys who were with me in the bands, because they’re all amazing and creative, and they’re doing incredible things now. But I come from a generation where that was the only way to get things done. So I have to play stupid and just do everything with five times the amount of energy, and then it will come through.
When people don’t credit me for the stuff I’ve done, it’s for several reasons. I’m going to get very methodical now ! [laughs] One ! I learned what a lot of women have to do is make the guys in the room think it was their idea, and then you back them up. Two ! I spend 80% of the writing process of my albums on my own. I write the melodies. I’m by the computer. I edit a lot. That for me is very solitary. I don’t want to be photographed when I’m doing that. I don’t invite people around. The 20% of the album process when I bring in the string orchestras, the extras, that’s documented more. That’s the side people see. When I met M.I.A., she was moaning about this, and I told her, “Just photograph yourself in front of the mixing desk in the studio, and people will go, ‘Oh, OK ! A woman with a tool, like a man with a guitar.’” Not that I’ve done that much myself, but sometimes you’re better at giving people advice than doing it yourself. I remember seeing a photo of Missy Elliott at the mixing desk in the studio and being like, a-ha !
It’s a lot of what people see. During a show, because there are people onstage doing the other bits, I’m just a singer. For example, I asked Matmos to play all the beats for the Vespertine tour, so maybe that’s kind of understandable that people think they made them. So maybe it’s not all sexist evil. [laughs] But it’s an ongoing battle. I hope it doesn’t come across as too defensive, but it is the truth. I definitely can feel the third or fourth feminist wave in the air, so maybe this is a good time to open that Pandora’s box a little bit and air it out.