At home in the unknown

Sidney Morning Herald, 12 mai 2007

"I read on the internet that I was doing a hip-hop album with Timbaland," Bjork says, and giggles. Timbaland, the producer whose splintered beats have propelled some of the best current hip-hop, collaborated with Bjork for three songs on Volta, her first album of more-or-less pop songs since Medulla in 2004. But Bjork being Bjork, Volta is no hip-hop album.

Bjork, 41, describes it as "techno voodoo," "pagan," "tribal" and "extroverted". Those words barely sum up an album that mingles programmed beats, free-jazz drumming, sombre brass ensembles, African music, a Chinese lute and Bjork’s ever-volatile voice. It’s a 21st-century assemblage of the computerised and the hand-made, the personal and the global. "This relentless restlessness liberates me," Bjork sings in Wanderlust, which she calls the album’s manifesto. "I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me."

She was on more familiar ground giving an interview in the recording studio at her house in Rockland, New York. It’s an odd-angled room with fuzzy pink walls and a view of trees leading to a glimpse of the Hudson River. Dressed all in red, with her hair up in puffs on each side of her head, she looks like an Icelandic cartoon elf. She is adding some final mixing touches and sound-effects transitions to the album, and there is a song left to finish. The next day she will visit a New York City studio to record some French horns, seeking a sound for Pneumonia that would be "creamy with a blue emotion".

Volta is earthier than Medulla, her almost entirely vocal album, and Vespertine, her 2001 album full of ethereal harps and string sections. It’s bound together by the brass instruments she deployed in her 2005 score for Drawing Restraint 9, a film by her husband, the multimedia artist Matthew Barney. She says she heard more possibilities than she could use in the film. Volta also rejoins her, in some songs, with a big beat. "It’s like I’ve got my body back, all the muscles and all the blood and all the bones," she says. "It is definitely in your face, but I feel it overall as being quite happy."

Volta doesn’t aim for any known format. While some songs touch down with drumbeats and synthesiser hooks, others are rhapsodic and strange. Bjork sings about travel, passion, nature, self-reliance, motherhood, religion and a suicide bomber. For this album, she says, she was determined to be "impulsive".

"I didn’t start off with a musical rule," she says. "It was more emotion." She asked herself : "Are you playing it safe here ? Are you actually being impulsive or are you totally subconsciously planning every moment ? Are you really allowing enough space for accidents to happen ?"

In her native Iceland, Bjork sang everything from children’s songs to punk before reaching an international audience as a member of the Sugarcubes in the late 1980s. She knew early on what she wanted to do with her voice. "I was quite conscious that I wanted permission to be able to be sad and funny, and human and crazy and silly, and childish and wise, because I think everybody is like that."

As with much of Bjork’s music since she started her solo career with Debut in 1993, Volta harnesses technology to sheer wilfulness. No other songwriter can sound so naive and so instinctual while building such elaborate structures. And few musicians have sustained her unlikely combination of avant-gardism and pop visibility. Even those who ignore her music can’t forget her fashion statements, such as the swan-shaped dress she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards. She also set down ostrich eggs along the red carpet. "People didn’t find it very funny," she said. "They wrote about it like I was trying to wear a black Armani and got it wrong, like I was trying to fit in. Of course I wasn’t trying to fit in !"

Bjork is suspicious of the word "pop" and does not sell her songs to advertisers or accept sponsors for her tours. "I don’t want to be the conqueror of the world or be the most famous person on earth," she says. "I’ve got no ambitions in that direction. Otherwise I would have done things very differently, I think."

But she appreciates reaching a large audience. "It would be too easy to walk away and say, ’Oh, I’m just going to do these ornate objects that only a few people, blah blah blah.’ That’s just pretentious and snobbish.

"I believe in that place where you plug into the zeitgeist, the collective consciousness or whatever. It’s very folk. Soulful. Not materialistic. I believe in being a fighter for that soulful place."

Bjork made Medulla and Vespertine largely at home while nurturing her daughter, Isadora. "I was breastfeeding and organising my work around that," she says. "Even though I had a lot of collaborators, they would come for one afternoon for a cup of tea and leave. They would be visiting my universe, my world. When I started doing this album, I had a bit of a cabin fever of being too much in the protection of my own world, so it was time to be brave and get out."

Bjork recorded Volta at studios in the three places she lives - New York, London and Reykjavik - and travelled to San Francisco, Jamaica, Malta, Mali and Tunisia. Now she is willing to show a visitor some of the inner workings of her songs.

A computer sitting open on her recording console shows a screen for the recording and editing program Pro Tools, a familiar sight to musicians, with the multi-track mix of Earth Intruders, the first song on Volta. "Is music getting too visual ?" she asks. "We could open a bottle of wine and talk about that for five hours."

Stripes of colour, each one a sound or an instrument, cross the screen, starting and stopping. "It’s like doing embroidery, like when I used to knit a lot as a teenager. You just sit and noodle all day and have a cup of tea and make pretty patterns."

She hits the play button and the tramp of marching feet begins, soon topped by percussion, swooping synthesisers and Bjork’s voice wailing, "Turmoil ! Carnage !" New blocks of colour announce new instruments : in this song, the sound of Konono No. 1, a Congolese group that plays electrified thumb pianos amplified (and distorted) through car-horn speakers. (She recorded with the members of the band in Belgium and they will join her on some tour dates.)

The beat came from Timbaland, a longtime fan who had sampled Bjork’s song Joga and finally got around to collaborating with her last year. "I walked into the studio with Timbaland with no preparations," she says. "Usually I would have already written the song and there would just be a small little space for the visitor. But now I just wanted some challenge. We improvised for one day, and I just sang on top of whatever he did.

"You just walk in the room and it’s just" - she makes an explosive sound - "pfff ! and I just went pfff !, and we did seven tracks, just p-p-p-p-p-p. You get really smitten by his energy. It’s like, why doubt ? Who needs the luxury of doubt ?"

Timbaland’s beats made their way into Earth Intruders, Hope and the song that sounds closest to other Timbaland tracks, Innocence, which has sucker-punch syncopations from, among other things, a sample of a grunting man. After their recording session, Timbaland became involved in producing albums and touring with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, leaving Bjork to edit and augment the tracks.

"I was a bit confused first, because I got a lot of stuff of his and was maybe expecting him to arrange his noises," Bjork says. "It ended up being quite a good thing for me, because apparently he never gives other people stuff and lets them complete it for him. So he actually trusted me to do that."

For Hope, a song that ponders the story of a pregnant suicide bomber, Bjork went to Mali to meet Toumani Diabate, a djeli (or bard) who plays the harp-like kora. They could have exchanged musical ideas electronically. But "I wanted to sing it with him at the same moment, because it’s always different when you do that," she says.

"She wanted everything to work naturally," Diabate says backstage after a recent concert with his Symmetric Orchestra at Zankel Hall. In Mali, he played and she sang, trying lyrics she had brought until the syllables fitted and they had a few songs. She chose Hope and handed another one to him. "She said, ’Take this and use it any way you like’," Diabate says. "I couldn’t imagine a superstar doing that."

Hope ended up using a Timbaland beat and multiple, overlapping, tangled tracks of kora, traditionally a solo instrument. Diabate tweaked the results until he was satisfied. "She opened a new door for the kora," he says.

Other new songs have their own convoluted stories. Bjork visited Jamaica with Antony Hegarty, the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, to record a lovers’ duet with lyrics from a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, The Dull Flame of Desire. They sang together, improvising back and forth, for a full day, then Bjork edited their duet into a smouldering seven-minute drama, worked up a brass arrangement and decided to set the whole thing to an electronic beat.

It didn’t work. She brought in Brian Chippendale, the drummer from the duo Lightning Bolt and told him : "I’ve tried so many beats on this song, but I think it should start with silence, and I think it should build up and then you should sort of take over. And it should be a beat that’s not a normal drumbeat but more like a heartbeat or something that you feel." He improvised it in one take.

Some of the lyrics on Volta obliquely address topics such as politics, feminism and religion. Declare Independence uses a stomping, distorted, rave-like ’80s beat from her longtime collaborator Mark Bell while she exhorts : "Start your own currency ! Make your own stamp ! Protect your language !" She was thinking, she says, about Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, which are still part of Denmark, as Iceland was until 1944. "But also I just thought it was kind of hilarious to say it to a person. It’s just so extreme !"

Other songs, she acknowledges, are messages to herself. The elegiac Pneumonia uses only French horns, building up slow-motion chords behind Bjork’s voice, as she reflects on a bout of pneumonia she had in January and on whether she had made herself too isolated : "All the moments you should have embraced/All the moments you should have not locked up."

She also sings to her two children : her daughter and her son, Sindri, who is 20. In My Juvenile, a ballad accompanied by sparse clusters on a clavichord, she chides herself for the way she treated Sindri - "Perhaps I set you too free too fast too young" - while Antony sings "the intentions were pure" by way of reassurance.

"You sort of let go too much when they’re 14," Bjork says. "And then suddenly when they’re 16, you behave again like they’re eight. And then when they’re 18, you think they can fly across the world on their own. And then when they’re 20, you tell them off because they’re wearing a dirty jacket. It’s clumsy."

I See Who You Are speaks gently to her daughter, imagining her entire life span and beyond, "when you and I have become corpses". It’s set to lightly plinking electronic tones, the Icelandic brass ensemble and the fluttering, surging notes of a Chinese lute called a pipa. The song is simultaneously a lullaby and an international concoction, an improbable mix and a cosy sonic fabric.

When making the album, Bjork says, she read Leonard Shlain’s book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which propounds a theory of history shifting between dominant brain hemispheres : right and left, image and word, intuition and logic, natural and man-made. "It doesn’t have to be right ; it’s just an interesting speculation," she says. As the embroidery of her songs moves across the computer screen and as her voice carries the lyrics of Wanderlust - "Peel off the layers until you get to the core" - it sounds as if the alphabet and the goddess were, for the moment, in harmony.

par Jon Pareles publié dans Sidney Morning Herald