Björk dreams of matriarchy

Atlantic, 21 septembre 2022

On her fascinating 10th album, the artist takes stock of the world she helped create—and, once again, conjures a new one.

Midday on a monday in iceland’s capital of Reykjavík, Björk walked into a coffee shop and gave me a riddle. Just that morning, our interview had been rescheduled to an hour earlier than originally planned so that we could travel to a location unknown to me. Upon arriving at the plant-filled café where we’d agreed to meet, Björk thanked me for my flexibility. “We had to set our clock to the tide,” she said, brightly, as if I would know what that meant.

Björk looked very Björk, which is to say that she looked like no one else on this planet. Her Cleopatra hairstyle had been dyed with strips of white, pink, and mold blue, and the pendulous ruffles of her gown-like overcoat were patterned orange and gray-green. The whole look read as fungal chic, reflecting the earthy aesthetic of her new album, Fossora, which will be out at the end of this month. But she moved through the busy café unbothered, even un-stared-at, by the other patrons. “Icelanders,” Björk explained, “are too cool for school.”

Yet at age 56, having spent three decades as one of music’s most important figures, Björk has hardly gone unnoticed in her home country. When I checked into my hotel in Reykjavík—a city of 135,000 that blends the vibes of a mountain-climbing base camp and a bohemian port—a song of hers was playing in the lobby. The Icelandic Punk Museum, a tiny labyrinth in a converted public bathroom, is partly a shrine to The Sugarcubes, the rock band that brought Björk to international fame in the late ’80s. At a nearby bar, I got to chatting with a middle-aged man who said that Björk had babysat him when he was a kid.

Her influence is also inescapable worldwide. Starting with her 1993 solo album, Debut, and continuing through her acclaimed work of the past decade, she has carved a path with her guttural voice and counterintuitive melodies, her edgy instrumentation and wise lyrics, her surreal visuals and alchemical tech. Many observers have been confused by this brew, but for others, Björk is a comfort, an affirmation of their own inalienable originality. Today’s forward-thinking female and queer stars—as varied as Rosalía, SZA, Solange, Perfume Genius, and Lizzo—tend to salute her as a foremother. In Billie Eilish’s glamorous grotesquery and hyperpop’s chipper chaos, you can see a surging interest in Björk’s longtime quest : proving supposedly soft qualities—vulnerability, caring, wonder—to be forms of guts and brawn.

Björk’s new solo album is her 10th, and the round number is apt for a moment in which she’s taking stock of where she has come from and what she’s accomplished. Her new podcast, Sonic Symbolism, revisits the creation of each of her albums. Fossora addresses legacy and ancestry in a different way, with some of her most vivid songwriting and most daring arrangements to date. As velveteen-sounding woodwinds respire amid hard beats, Björk examines her place in a lineage of nurturers, peacemakers, and problem solvers. In our four hours together, she described the workings of “matriarch music”—a term that defines both Björk’s ethos and a broader, now-strengthening current in pop culture.

First, though, we had to talk about actual currents. Björk’s secret plan was for us to head to the Grótta lighthouse, located on a black-rock point northwest of Reykjavík. She has periodically gone there to record music, and when the tide gets high, it becomes unreachable by foot—which is part of the fun. “Sometimes you’re working on a song for a few hours, and it’s like, either I leave now or I work six more hours on it,” she said. “You have to choose.”

Her assistant drove us to the beach parking lot, and then we made a trek past volcanic pebbles and fragrant kelp deposits. The August day was typical for Icelandic summer—mid-50s and sunny. But the wind blew ferociously, flattening the coastal grass, undulating the fronds of Björk’s coat, and contributing to my sense that we were marching to a portal at Earth’s end. As we approached a stout white tower, Björk let out a sigh : “Ah, yes ! The feeling.”

Our destination turned out to be not the actual lighthouse, but a building near its base. Her assistant unlocked the door, revealing a tall-ceilinged meeting room with blond-wood beams and a blue-tiled kitchenette. This was, to my eye, a neat-and-tidy lunch spot for science-class field trips. But to Björk, it was layered with history : Masterworks had been made here ; friends had slept here ; birthday and Christmas parties had been thrown here. The location’s mix of untamed exterior and orderly interior came to feel very Björk too. As we began discussing her music and the world it reflects, a high, faint whoosh sounded through the room. “Yessss, you’ll get the Icelandic wind on your recording,” she said, interrupting herself. She then tilted her gaze to the universe. “Thank you !”

Nature always bleeds into björk’s work, and Fossora’s emotional landscape is inspired by the mushroom kingdom. But, Björk emphasized, she wasn’t thinking about the red-and-white toadstools of children’s cartoons. “Elves and all that sort of shit, [people have] really tried to throw on me for my whole career,” she said, referencing portrayals of her as a Peter Pan–type figure, naive and mystical. Fossora channels “the adult, sensual, delicate side of fungi, where they act like nervous centers for forests,” she said. “Like, that sort of techno energy.”

Connection, rootedness, delirium—these feelings ruled Björk’s early COVID-19 days, which she spent at home in Iceland, playing living-room DJ sets for her buddies. For a world-touring musician from an island nation with low infection rates, forgoing travel meant finally enjoying “a village life,” she said : “Wake up, walk to a café, meet your friends, go to the swimming pool.” To evoke this coziness in song, she asked a sextet of bass clarinetists to imagine they’d drunk “one and a half glasses of red wine—not more” at some northern Scandinavian jazz bar in the year 2050. On some tracks, she added percussive outbursts that sound like a board getting hammered hundreds of times a minute.

What Björk really loved about pandemic-pod life was that “you went further with each friend or relative—you went deeper.” Fossora goes deep, startlingly deep, in the same way. Her two grown-up children sing on the album, and two tracks address her mother, who died in 2018 at age 72. A number of songs celebrate some unknown sweetheart (“his capacity for love is enormous !”). Björk’s music has always had a personal side, but a mineral vein seemed to open in her songwriting with 2015’s Vulnicura, a wrenching masterpiece about her breakup from the artist Matthew Barney. Now she delves into her identity as a daughter and a mother.

That Björk has been a parent since before she was internationally famous has been a key, if sometimes misunderstood, part of her story. In 1986, as the 20-year-old singer for an underground punk band, she caused outrage in Iceland by performing on TV with her pregnant belly exposed. She bore her son, Sindri Eldon Þórsson, on the same day that The Sugarcubes formed (the guitarist was his father). When she famously attacked a journalist in Thailand in 1996, she said it was because the reporter had been pestering her kid. Another legendary incident, in which she wore a swan-shaped dress and dropped eggs on the red carpet at the 2001 Oscars, was intended as a statement about fertility. The following year, she gave birth to her daughter, Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney.

The media and listening public have rarely been respectful to entertainers who are young mothers—the 2007 implosion of Britney Spears’s image, for example, was linked to scrutiny of her parenting (Björk wrote Spears a sympathetic letter around that time). But Björk said that she never felt much tension between being a musician and being a mom. When she went on the road with The Sugarcubes, she reasoned that young Sindri would either love traveling or not—and if he didn’t, she recalled thinking, “I’ll just write my own music and live in a lighthouse or something.” Her bandmates agreed to split the cost for a babysitter to come on tour, an accommodation that she credits to Iceland’s family-oriented, remarkably women-led culture.

A sort of practical-minded inspirationalism, loving but steely, has long run through her work. You can hear it in her buck-up-and-stop-complaining sermons (“Army of Me”), celebrations of selflessness (“Pleasure Is All Mine”), and anthems about emotional intelligence (“Mutual Core”). Fossora makes these themes especially visceral, presenting love as a kind of labor. On “Victimhood,” sampled fog horns conjure the murk of someone drowning in self-pity—a quality Björk used to pride herself on lacking. But she recently realized that she does tend to put other people’s needs in front of her own and then feel bad about it. “It’s a matriarch sort of problem,” she said. “You have to just own it and say, ‘Yes, I make this sacrifice.’”

With Ísadóra now 19 years old, Fossora finds Björk without a juvenile in her care for the first time in her career—a milestone noted in the album’s moving finale, “Her Mother’s House.” “The more I love you, the stronger you become, the less you need me,” she sings, and her daughter eventually replies, in a gracious lilt, with her own poetry. Björk gave Ísadóra a good amount of time to think about whether she wanted to be on the song : Björk feels that her own entry into the spotlight at age 11, via an album her mom and stepfather helped her record, was premature. But Ísadóra had already begun to pursue a career in the arts (both she and Björk acted in this year’s Viking epic The Northman). “She’s like me in that she’d rather do a few things and have them be precious,” Björk said. “I’m very proud of her in that way.”

Sindri’s appearance on the album makes a statement as well. Last year, social-media users disparagingly circulated a years-old statement in which he, an indie-rock artist, wrote that he was “a better songwriter and lyricist than 90% of Icelandic musicians, my mother included.” He recanted, and Björk was surprised that people took what was obviously a joke so seriously. “I was actually thinking the other day, feeling for him a little bit,” she said. At 36, and as a father himself, Sindri is a “very self-sufficient, very healthy, emotionally, individual,” but sometimes he has been subjected to the assumption that “sons of successful women … must be losers or something,” she said. “Well, it’s total bullshit.”

He lends his handsome voice to “Ancestress,” a seven-minute, string-laden stunner about Björk’s late mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir. Björk said she wrote it and the elegiac “Sorrowful Soil” as rejoinders to a centuries-old Icelandic song that lists the mere facts of a dead man’s life (“how patriarchal,” she said). Her songs, by contrast, form a “biological or emotional obituary,” with impressionistic scenes : Hildur singing lullabies to Björk as a child, Hildur losing coherence on her deathbed. On “Sorrowful Soil,” Björk and a choir sing, in a stammering cadence, “You did well.” She said that’s the message she tried to “squeeze” into her cool-headed, compliment-averse mom in her final days.

But Björk did not really want to talk about her mother with me. For most of our interview, she’d spoken in tumbling sentences illustrated by decisive hand gestures, which caused the pleather-ish material of the kimono she wore under her coat to creak. A few minutes into discussing “Sorrowful Soil,” her patter slowed to a crawl, and she drummed her fingers on the table. “My brain—it’s like there’s smoke coming out of my brain,” she said. She asked if she could go to the restroom to clear her head.

When she returned, she explained that the other journalists she’d spoken with recently had grilled her about her mom, the subject of only two of Fossora’s 13 tracks. “People think this whole album is a grief album,” she said. “I think you will get a more interesting article if we move on.” So we did.

To be honest, i had wanted to learn more about Hildur, but mostly to understand what has long made Björk’s worldview—and art—so hard to pin down. An activist who once went on a hunger strike to oppose industrial development in Iceland, Björk’s mom had an uncompromising nature that, according to interviews Björk gave earlier in her career, caused her daughter to feel ambivalent about hard-core feminism. Björk has, over the years, come to fully endorse women’s empowerment—but Fossora makes clear that -isms still make her squirm.

The album’s title is a feminization of the Latin term for digger or miner, and I wanted to know whether she’d chosen it to make a statement about gender. “Yeaaah,” she said hesitantly. “I try not to talk too much about it, but pretty much the last 10 years, that’s what I’ve been doing. I want balance. I love guys and alpha males and all that. I just want 50–50. The first half of my life, I was working more inside … y’know, I almost don’t want to say it. It’s so tired. But inside ‘the patriarchy,’ or whatever. And maybe not totally understanding it, because I was too young.”

On Fossora, the search for nuance sounds urgent, even harrowing. The album’s thunderous opener, “Atopos,” features Björk singing, in an agonized tone, that “to insist on absolute justice at all times / it blocks connection.” Its message is both personal and political, a call for fractured homes to work things out. I told her that in the United States, extreme partisanship has made compromise seem fantastical. “You start talking about each other’s kids,” she suggested. “What do you want for them ? I think it’s more about the future and where we’re going. Take the heat off the moment, because it’s unsolvable.”

The song, she said, was also inspired by the fallout from #MeToo. She aligned herself with the movement in 2017, publicly alleging that she’d been abused on a film set earlier in her career. But she worries that name-and-shame campaigns don’t always serve healing and compassion. “If you cancel everyone, that’s not a solution,” she said. “Especially with younger males, they have to have an opportunity to evolve and grow and learn.”

Recent events have tested her on this issue. One of her prime collaborators on Fossora was the Indonesian experimental-dance-music duo Gabber Modus Operandi. An accusation of sexual assault that emerged online this summer led the band’s emcee, Ican Harem, to issue a public apology and go on hiatus. Björk edited Harem’s voice out of Fossora’s title track and removed shots of him from the planned “Atopos” video. But when we spoke, she was still debating whether to also scrub the album of the band’s beat maker, Kasimyn, who wasn’t accused of anything. “I want to have courage to be in the gray area,” she told me. A week after our interview, the “Atopos” video premiered, featuring shots of Kasimyn DJing a freaky forest rave.

The forces that drove #MeToo are reshaping music culture in a more fundamental way too, Björk suggested. In a 2016 Facebook post, she lamented that society pressures female musicians to “cut our chest open and bleed about the men and children in our lives.” She isn’t worried about that expectation as much anymore, thanks to the past five years of women sharing their stories in public. On Fossora, she freely moves between abstraction and confession, guardedness and revelation. “When you have a good moment in a song is when you overcome the contradiction between the universal and the personal—it becomes the same thing,” she said. “That is the soft spot we are all craving.”

Discussing the topic of emotional openness in songwriting, Björk brought up her lifelong fandom of Kate Bush, whose music has always had a “current of generosity” running through it. As a self-produced songwriter singing about her inner life, Bush “wasn’t a guest in a guy’s world,” Björk said. “She made the matriarch world. All of it.” The example Bush set went beyond lyrics : In the first episode of the Sonic Symbolism podcast, Björk cited Bush while tracing the way that synthesizers and drum machines have long been a haven for women and queer people alienated by macho rock and roll.

Of course, back in the ’80s and early ’90s, Björk pointed out, some male gatekeepers treated Bush as a “third-class loony woman.” Many listeners, in turn, felt embarrassed to openly embrace her. So this year’s worldwide resurgence of Bush’s old hit “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” may well represent a sweeping change. “Gen Zed, they have room for matriarch music,” Björk said. “It’s not like crazy witches, old ladies, [going] ‘oooh’”—she made an appropriately spooky sound—“with cats and on brooms.”

She sees appreciation for matriarchy elsewhere in music these days too, especially in the popularity of female rappers expressing themselves in fiercely feminine terms. But as for Björk’s own cultural renown, she said that she tries to tune out most of the chatter about her. On the day that Fossora was announced, she did let herself peek at the reaction online. She couldn’t believe the enthusiasm she saw for a clarinet-and-techno album about fungus. “I just felt really grateful that people really care,” she said. “When it comes to people making an effort and understanding me, I think I’ve been pretty lucky.”

After more than three hours on Grótta Island, the tide was coming in, and it was time to escape. We exited back into the wind, and Björk gave me a high five. On the walk, she said that she was glad we’d talked about “Ovule,” a lurching, trombone-driven standout from Fossora. The song outlines her theory that we each carry three “eggs,” filled with ideals, realities, and darkness. It is also about the way that Björk’s view of human connection has morphed since her girlhood, when she dreamed only of fairy-tale romance. “You realize, as you get older, it’s not so black and white,” she had said. “Love is in lots more places. And it’s just as strong. It just lives in other shapes.”

par Spencer Kornhaber publié dans Atlantic