Björk Is Full of Love Again

Pitchfork, 16 novembre 2017

Following a painful heartbreak, the singular musician details the restorative powers of her new album, Utopia.

Björk has earned the right to a little levity. After releasing the harrowingly vulnerable Vulnicura, which documented her separation from longtime partner Matthew Barney in painstaking detail, the Icelandic artist felt spurred on by an entirely new energy. She wanted to be around people, to make new friends—to levitate out of a well of grief. Her imminent 10th studio album, Utopia, stands at the exact opposite emotional pole : Where Vulnicura painted black lakes, barren landscapes, and frozen rooms, Utopia seeks out a lush island where love is abundant and given without condition or hesitation.

The joy and excitement that courses through Utopia recently led Björk to jokingly dub it her “Tinder album,” though, as she notes during a phone conversation from her home in Reykjavik, she’s never actually used the dating app. For her, Tinder is shorthand for a heightened emotional space, the kind where sparks seem to flow in all directions, and connections with new people come readily. Of course, opening yourself up to people you might not trust yet can be terrifying. But it can also be rejuvenating, and Utopia is saturated with a honeymoon glow, even as it occasionally calls back to darker moments from across Björk’s career.

The result of a collaborative writing process with Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca (who co-produced most of the songs on Vulnicura), Utopia often sounds like a conversation between two brilliant musical minds communicating on their own telepathic wavelength. It’s also the product of a fruitful mentorship ; Ghersi is 28 and Björk, who has been recording music since she was 11, is about to turn 52. Björk describes their intergenerational creative union as a rare bond. Writing with Ghersi, she could let her guard down and simply play, an approach that brought bright, bubbling synths, an Icelandic flute ensemble, and the sounds of birds into the album’s mix.

As much as it’s flush with the jitters of new love, Utopia doesn’t gloss over the pain of the past. On “Tabula Rasa,” the singer wonders how we can “break the chain of the fuckups of the fathers”—how humanity as a whole, as well as Björk as an individual, can shed patriarchal baggage and detoxify the world. The 10-minute “Body Memory,” which features Iceland’s Hamrahlid Choir, serves as a personal manifesto about braving a new chapter in one’s life. It’s not that the scars on Vulnicura have disappeared ; it’s more that, as they’ve closed, they’ve changed shape and transformed into something new. A wound becomes a gate. That’s how you heal.

Pitchfork : Utopia includes several moments of striking, almost alien birdsong. Where did those sounds come from ?

Björk : Some of it was recorded in Iceland. I have a cabin by a lake, and there are a couple of pairs of Arctic Loons that live just outside there. They’re really beautiful and huge. They obviously ended up on the album.

Also, I used a vinyl album of Venezuelan music I had, [Hekura–Yanomamo Shamanism From Southern Venezuela], that was recorded in the ’70s—Venezuelan birds. The birds there sound completely different. They sound like R2-D2, or techno. There’s one beautiful sound that ended up in the beginning of “The Gate,” a recording of these birds that Venezuelans believe are the ghosts of fetuses. If they have stillborns or young children that die, they think they go into the jungle and make these sounds. They sound like ’70s analog synths. It’s one of my all-time favorite noises. I had sentimental feelings about that particular album. You can actually hear the scratches of the vinyl on the birds. It’s a layered affinity for me.

You’ve often taken inspiration from animals and the natural world in your work. Do you look to nature for the ways it can illuminate humanity ?

Definitely. When I was a kid, I was really shy. I would walk 40 minutes to school and back. I felt at one with nature and animals more so than with humans. I would find cities claustrophobic and I was not so good in social situations. But I think I’m getting better. Now, I think I actually prefer being with humans.

You collaborated with Arca again on this album. Why do you think working together is so effective ?

There was just such a musical connection between us. We were speaking in some kind of shorthand, sending each other songs, really on a high, seeing each other as a potential that we felt other people couldn’t see. It was like we could mirror each other. Overall, it’s the same amount of co-production as Vulnicura. What changed on this album is that Alejandro wrote more—I think I wrote 60 percent on my own, and he co-wrote 40 percent.

Maybe it’s some strange contradiction, because a few years ago, the lady that interviewed me for Pitchfork [Jessica Hopper] really encouraged me to speak up about female producers not being credited enough. And then I was talking a lot about that, and feeling more resolved, more healthy, more strong, and also more appreciated. People started asking me different kinds of questions after that. It really made a difference. I got more balanced and more confident, and I felt seen for what I can do. And then it was really exciting to meet this maybe once-in-a-lifetime person, where I could drop all my defenses and just play like kids.

To what degree was the process of making Utopia an extension of making Vulnicura ? Did it feel like a continuation or an entirely new chapter ?

It’s a bit of both, though more something different. “The Gate” is the bridge from one album to the other, in a way, even though I didn’t write that song first. The wound featured in almost every video for Vulnicura changed into a gate that you can love from. Then the rest of the songs are in a new place.

Vulnicura is so sad and heartbreaking. All the sounds are heavy—the beats are like rocks. There’s a lot of weight to it. It was really exciting to drop all those rocks off and suddenly be really free. You just lift off like an air balloon and float up to the sky. I started listening to completely different music, very euphoric, hyper, free music. I just needed that light so badly.

Looking back now, the melodies on Vulnicura are very sad, and there’s short spaces between the notes. It’s kind of paralyzed. The first song I wrote on this album, the opening song, “Arisen My Senses,” is the opposite. The melody’s like a constellation in the sky. It’s almost like an optimist rebellion against the normal narrative melody. There’s not one melody. It’s like five melodies. I really loved that.

The narrative on Vulnicura was so heavy, the story was so important and prominent, and the instruments and beats served that story. When we did the concerts, that became even more exaggerated. We did Carnegie Hall, and the whole room was sobbing. When we did the last gig, me and Alejandro went in the dressing room and had a few glasses of champagne. We were just like, “Oh my God, we’ve earned the lightness !” When I was writing Utopia and still singing the Vulnicura songs, I felt like I was having an affair from my own grief. Maybe that even exaggerated the contrast : You sing a really, really tragic song and you go home and you stand on your head and make a beat out of a ping-pong machine. Just go slapstick.

After finishing this album, do you feel you’re closer to the places you wanted to go when you first set out to make it ?

Absolutely. Heartbreak is so weird—I wonder if physics can ever measure it, take a picture of it. I don’t know when humans first started writing stories, but they all talk about their heart being broken. Spiritually, it’s like daggers in your chest. It’s extreme. And I just stroke my chest now and it’s fine. It’s like I’m me again. It’s a really extreme, physical difference. And that was a big surprise to me.

There’s a cultural suspicion around technology—people say it alienates us, but your music has always seemed to approach it positively. On “Blissing Me,” you sing about swapping MP3s with a romantic interest as a form of bonding. Do you see a relationship between the technology you use to make your music and the technology you use to connect with other people ?

There was definitely a moment making this album where how much I was texting went up. It was with several people ; it wasn’t just one person. It was really curious. I was almost like an explorer going to new territory, seeing what it felt like. When you feel really connected to someone and you are texting them every day, sometimes all day, and then you meet them, you kind of feel embarrassed. It’s like it’s more natural to be texting them than to actually sit next to them. I’d never really had that feeling before. I found that very exotic. It was this mental energy that was almost utopian, like a fantasy. I wanted to explore that and see what it felt like. I don’t think you can blame that on technology—you hear stories about people 200 years ago writing each other letters and completely falling in love. Maybe they didn’t meet that often, but it was still pure love.

Obviously, as somebody who makes music, I’m very curious about the written word, or the fact that you can make something, whether it’s a play or a movie or a song or music or literature or poetry—or texts—that can be so strong that it takes on its own life. It becomes more powerful than everyday life. That’s very interesting. It’s like a physics experiment.

Maybe it’s fun for a while, but I don’t think it would be healthy if all your relationships were like that until the end of your life. Like with anything, it’s a balance. Whenever I get an idea, all of a sudden I can get a laptop and do it in my home. Technology has served me so many times in that way. It’s just one of the things we have to express ourselves. It finds areas where we couldn’t express ourselves before, like recording a song on a top of a mountain and texting it to your friend five minutes later. That’s a powerful feeling.

You’ve written some amazing love songs about friendship. Is there a connection between romantic love and platonic love for you ? It sounds like there’s plenty of both on this album.

A lot of pop musicians do this : simplify things and find an emotional coordinate and then write a whole song about that coordinate. Maybe the first verse of a song is about a lover, and the second verse is about a friend, and then the third verse is something you saw in a movie, but it’s all about that particular emotional location. Pop music is so often an attempt to make sense of something that’s really complicated in everyday life. Often, the method that works is to zoom out and try to look at it from afar. There are definitely songs on this album which are about platonic love and then there’s also real romantic love, all the way. And also maternal love. It’s a real mixture.

You wrote for strings on Vulnicura, and on Utopia there are a lot more flutes. You studied flute as a child, so what drew you back to that sound ?

It was a gradual thing that became obvious. As a kid, I had a complicated relationship with the flute. It wasn’t my first choice. I was always moving away from it and doing everything except flute. So maybe enough time has passed that I can actually go back and rediscover it. And after all the gravity of the last album, it feels so light and floaty. It’s like sitting in the clouds.

We started collecting mythological stories from around the world, from South America and Africa and all over, and I read all these books about utopia. I was trying to see : Why am I obsessed with flutes right now ? Where is it personal and where is it universal ? So it was really satisfying to discover that a lot of the stories were about women in the tribe stealing the flutes. They escaped with the children and went to a utopian place. Sometimes they got found out and something terrible happened, like violence. But in some stories, they managed to create a world where there was no violence or war. I was really excited by that. I also think people who end up being flute players are such interesting characters. They’re always eccentric.

Utopia seems like an idea that people have had forever. It always feels like humans are striving toward it, but we have different ideas of what it would look like. Do you think it’s possible to achieve ? Or do you think it’s something that we’ll always reach for but never quite get to ?

I think it’s a bit of both. It’s so human to dream and want something really far-reaching. And sometimes it actually comes true, and sometimes it doesn’t. I like the gap between. Just looking around at my friends, I saw there was an interesting gap between “this is what I want, this is my manifesto” and what actually comes through. If there’s a really big difference, that’s bad, but it’s a beautiful quality that humans have. It’s a survival mechanism to have a recipe for what’s going to happen. A minority of it happens, but you still need that recipe to get going. Maybe I just wanted to write an album about that need.

How did you explore that idea with the sound world you built on the album ?

There was a certain period where I was saying to my friends, “Maybe this is a tryptic.” There were definitely three stages [of writing]. There’s the utopian, futuristic, sexy part where we’re heading off to this island where everybody’s naked and there’s no violence, like a sci-fi novel. We were reading these black lesbian sci-fi books and really going off into that direction. The second part is more real and human. And then in the third section, songs like “Body Memory” and “Loss” are more of a continuation of previous albums.

“Loss” is very much a continuation of “Pagan Poetry,” a certain sort of girl goth music. And “Body Memory” was a really strange song for me. I did not know what to do with that song. In the beginning it was 20 minutes long, and I ended up recording a 60-piece choir [the Hamrahlid Choir] on it. They all came to my cabin. It’s one of the best choirs ever. We invited [conductor Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir], this incredible Icelandic woman who’s in her 70s. She’s a legend in Iceland. I sang myself in this choir when I was 16. I’ve listened to this choir all my life, so to finally write something for it was really scary and courageous. Just sitting in the church when we recorded it was really satisfying. It felt like I’d broken into a new place.

“Black Lake” on Vulnicura was the darkest and saddest I’ve ever gone. “Body Memory” is a reply to that. It is my manifesto. My subconscious was like, “OK, I’ll let you write the saddest song ever for 10 minutes if you then write something to counter that.” And then this song came out all in one go. Each verse is about big things in life : destiny, love, sex. It’s a bit big-headed. It’s about, “OK, how am I going to live the second half of my life ?” It’s a new territory, a door that’s opened.

par Sasha Geffen publié dans Pitchfork