As someone who’s known for her affinity for nature, it’s interesting that you didn’t see a tree until the age of nine. Do you remember the first time you saw one ? There are trees in Iceland, but they’re just very small. I saw a tree before, but I didn’t see, like, a forest, you know.
Where were you when you saw a forest for the first time, and what did you think ?
I thought it was quite magical. I was on a train with my grandfather. We were on a nine-hour train journey in Norway, and we felt uncomfortable that we couldn’t see the mountains. We both said it felt a bit claustrophobic.
’Earth Intruders,’ the first single from your new album, ’Volta,’ was inspired by your visit to the tsunami-ravaged region of Southeast Asia. It also sets the tone for a more socially conscious album — many say political — than your previous efforts.
If you look at the lyrics on a piece of paper, it’s not about politics. Not one politician is mentioned. As a singer-songwriter, what I do is write about how the human feels. You could call [this album] more personal politics — how a person, in their closest environment, has justice. That you’re not abused by your friends, or you’re not abusing your friends, or you’re not manipulating anybody and nobody is manipulating you. That you are making people laugh or people are making you laugh. Maybe on this album I got quite interested in justice. I wanted justice for people. For example, the track ’Declare Independence’ — the part about running on top of a mountain with a flag and a trumpet, and declaring independence. It could be about the girl next door or someone in a terrible marriage.
On ’Pneumonia’ you sing, "Get over the sorrow, girl/The world is always going to be made of this." Are you addressing yourself in that song ?
Yeah, I think so. I had just seen ’Pan’s Labyrinth’ and I had two weeks of pneumonia. It was really frustrating because I was trying to finish my album. I just had to sing one song and I had several choices of what would be the last song on the album. I try not to take antibiotics, but then I gave up after two weeks and took them and immediately got better. So, I went and saw the movie, came back home, and for the first time I wasn’t feeling quite as ill. I was feeling a little bit out of the thick of it. The song sort of came out of one take and ended up being that last song on the album. The album needed to go to that sort of emotional, soulful place.
’Volta’ certainly runs the emotional gamut. What emotion do you seem to be experiencing most these days ?
Oh, all of them ... as usual [laughs]. Like everybody, right ?
On ’Innocence,’ you sing about embracing and even enjoying fear. What is it that you fear ?
Fear of losing energy. Sometimes, when I have a lot of ideas and I want to do a lot of things, or when I’m traveling, I lose energy and I can’t do as many things as I want. So I have to plan days when I’m not doing anything. I find that a bit boring, but it’s necessary.
You played in punk bands throughout your adolescence and are known for doing things your own way. Is that a by-product of the punk ethos ?
Well, I’ve never been into the establishment and the hidden rules that come with that ; you’re supposed to dress a certain way, sing a certain way, be a certain way, cook a certain way. I don’t believe in that. We’re all very different. I don’t think anybody fits. It’s not only me.
You once said you were obsessed with three things : sex, death and life. How do those obsessions hold true today ?
That might’ve come from the Sugarcubes. We talked a lot about those things. That’s a very teenage thing — sex, death and life [laughs]. I would say that since I’ve started making my own albums, I’m not so black and white. It’s more about love and the emotional complexities of the human being.
What, if anything, changed for you when you turned 40 ?
I don’t think that many things changed for me, to be honest. Every year brings different things and it has been like that since I’ve turned 40 as well. I think every year brings unknowns that you have to deal with and handle, confront and embrace. If I look back, it’s always been something on the agenda.
In 1994, you were on the cover of Q magazine alongside PJ Harvey and Tori Amos in an article titled, "Hips. Tits. Lips. Power." You’re all releasing albums this year. If you were to gather again thirteen years on, what would the dynamic be like between the three of you ?
Not that different. Probably very similar, actually. We’ve never been very good friends — obviously it was set up by the magazine — but it doesn’t surprise me that thirteen years later, we’re still up to it [laughs].
How do you sustain yourself ?
It’s not like that, really. This is just what I do. I mean, you sleep, you eat, you meet your mates and you have to make music. When you look back after thirteen years, that’s a lot of music but it’s not like when you’re doing it that you’re this obsessed person. It just stacks up as the years go by. It’s very similar to people who make shoes or take care of children — it’s the same kind of hours just because you care for it. It’s just my way of living.
There’s quite a bit of humor in your work. Do you think the public often misinterprets it or worse yet, writes it off as extreme eccentricity ?
Probably, but then again, I’m sort of doing my own thing. I’ve been quite lucky and I’m not trying to please anyone, and yet people are still interested in me. I don’t expect people to get me. That would be quite arrogant. I think there are a lot of people out there in the world that nobody gets. I guess I’m quite used to not being understood rather than being understood. But then again, if I turn on the news and I see a chess player, an athlete or a politician, I don’t really get them [laughs].
In order to get someone you have to read books about them, listen to their albums, spend time with them — it’s a lot of time and effort, and I don’t expect that. I know there are people that have done that with my music and I really appreciate that. But the overall public haven’t done that so, of course, they’re not going to get me. It’s not like I’m bitter about it [laughs]. It’s just like, they don’t know what’s behind the mountain because they haven’t gone there.