S1:E4 Vespertine

Sonic symbolism, 9 septembre 2022

Oddný Eir : This is Sonic Symbolism, Episode Four, Vespertine. (music)

Björk : The working title for Vespertine was Domestica. Maybe from touring way too much for five years, or however long it was. I really wanted a home. I would like be in a taxi from the airport in some country on the other side of the world, and I would peek into windows of people having a home life, cooking meals, and it will be like, from another planet. I would kind of fantasize about it, it was like paradise : domestic life. I would first have to sort of create it sonically, like a bed that you wanted to move into. And a digital bed, because I wanted to not just go back to something that was in my childhood, but it meant like a new way to make a home including my laptop, and including my newfound self-sufficiency, being able to work at home. (music)

Oddný Eir : You’re listening to Sonic Symbolism, where Björk explores her emotional landscapes, the textures and timbres of her albums with her friend, musical curator Asi Jónsson, and me, author and philosopher, Oddný Eir. Vespertine was released in August 2001, Björk’s fourth album.

Duna : The words that describe Vespertine are winter world, paradise. (music)

Björk : Threading The glacier head

Duna : Frozen. (music)

Björk : Looking hard for Moments of shine

Duna : Celestial. Whispered vocals. Micro beats. (music)

Björk : When I wake up The second time In his arms Gorgeousness He’s still inside me Who would have known Who ahhh Who would have known

Duna : Loyal. Swans. Harps. (music)

Björk : Pedaling through The dark currents I find an accurate copy A blueprint of the pleasure in me

Duna : Music boxes. Laptops. Orchestra. (music)

Björk : It’s not up to you (Oh, it never really was) It’s not up to you (Oh, it never really was) It’s not up to you (Well, it never really was) It’s not up to you

Duna : Glockenspiels. Salvation. Choir. (music)

Björk : I’m praying To be In a generous mode The kindness kind (The kindness kind) To share me (To share me) It’s not meant to be a strife It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill It’s not meant to be a strife

Asi Jónsson : After releasing her third album, Homogenic, Björk got her first laptop computer and with it she began writing the music for Vespertine. She aspired to create an album with an intimate, domestic feeling, a harp, the celesta, strings, choir, and the music box became part of her sound world. As Björk says, "Vespertine is a very introverted album. Maybe the most north I have gotten so far." The music became quieter from what we had previously experienced from her. And as always, there were surprises. When Björk started to plan the touring of Vespertine, she replaced the urban choir on the recordings with a choir from Greenland that she had assembled and auditioned while traveling there.

Björk : Hello, hello.

Oddný : All right. Yeah, so we just continue into the next album, and we will see it as somehow like a person or a being that comes through the thick, thick fog of times. Could you describe it ?

Björk : Yes, I think if Homogenic was the middle of summer, like very hot, very masculine, this is very feminine, and like, frozen, winter world, passive, celestial, and also trying to find peace and salvation. After all the violence, both with the fame, with loss, but also just the violence that I caused on myself, being on 11 for two years, singing these songs over and over again, very confrontational. So it was like the opposite, like a healing balm or something. With Homogenic, I managed to isolate myself in Spain and concentrated in some sort of essence. So it was very like truth obsessed. But then, like most musicians, I toured the world. And that’s the kind of like, the punishment you get as a musician is you have to sing your own ideas a million times. And after two years, you’re like, "Oh." You’re just like totally done. And you realize, through experience, that, of course, the world cannot be so simple. You cannot just have that emotion. It is not creative or a pro-life. It’s very one track mind and almost fascist or too extreme — too aggressive and too dogmatic. So I think, when I started doing Vespertine, it became very much the opposite. (music)

Björk : She touched My arm And smiled

Björk : It was also the time where I got my first laptop in ’99. And I had total freedom from the studio, which is kind of a huge moment for me and also for women. Because maybe you know this from being an author, you can always write wherever you are.

Björk : But musicians couldn’t really do this. You know, if you want to have more than just you and your accordion, or piano, or acoustic guitar, you have to go into a studio and it’s very expensive. And then you have to also go into the patriarchy system and work with the engineers and producers and you know, like the whole sort of system, or deal with that somehow. I have no complaints, but what was amazing for me was to get the laptop and realize that I could do it all in my laptop.

Björk : But now, we have forgotten what this feeling is like. But it was like somebody had come with a space shuttle and delivered to you all the tools you wanted when you were five-year-old. (music)

Björk : Don’t say no to me You can’t say no to me I won’t see you Denied

Björk : Around this time I started recording all my vocals just either in my bedroom or like in this room we are now. And that was a big breakthrough for me because I think it’s kind of underrated for singers. If you go to the studio, and it’s very expensive, on Tuesday at seven or something, you have to sing, you know. It’s kind of like doing a concert, which is cool, it’s good, but the luxury of working at home is, as you may know as an author.

Björk : If you can wait and wait, and then maybe you just have to wait two more days, and then you just wake up and you’re in that mood. If you want to sing at 12:21, you sing at 12:21. And if you then change your mind, you don’t want to do it, think you’re not in the right mood, or your voice is a little dry from something or whatever, or you haven’t finished the last verse of the lyrics, you can wait, you know ? You can serve the emotional creature you are, more, better.

Björk : Because you can wait for a moment where you feel like singing. (music) An echo A stain

Björk : At the time, I started collecting a lot of sounds that were like quiet sounds, that were almost the opposite to Homogenic. So things like insects, harps, glockenspiels, the music box, picking with my fingers on the table that will be the bass drum or…so it was very much what I think I found materials, or found sounds, and editing that like scrillion times into some sort of jigsaw puzzle. So, actually, Vespertine doesn’t have so much synthesizer sound, the beats, for example, are mostly like recorded with a microphone like in the environment, and then that’s taken and edited into beats, so micro world. (music)

Björk : It was so much adventure for me because Homogenic was like spending two years finding 100 beats that were so big that you almost didn’t need anything else in the song. So you had the beat that was like Led Zeppelin kind of huge, and then you had strings that were huge, but you only had two things that are very, the most dramatic ever. And then this was like the opposite. You needed like 50 insects that took me two months to edit into a million micro little things to even hear just a little bit. (music)

Björk : And it would be like what Arca said so beautifully : “When you work like that, it’s like a prayer,” she says. (music)

Björk : It’s like there’s two ways of working. Either you have bold, spontaneous, few strokes, or you edit something that takes like, four months to edit. It’s like making a mosaic, like that of the ceiling of a cathedral or something, you know ? But it is because you’re placing one piece, and then place another piece, and then you, "Oh, this one’s too loud," and next piece and then like 5,000 decisions later, you make up one whole thing. It’s very humbling, it’s not equal, it’s humility. So I became very, very interested in humility at the time.

Asi Jónsson : So Vespertine is a humble Björk ?

Björk : At least, I tried. (music)

Björk : From twilight Utter mundane

Björk : For me, Vespertine was switching to finding the soul or the spirituality in the laptop or in the digital world. I mean, we’ve forgotten this now because the speakers on the laptops are so good, but back then they were horrible. And I wanted to…Because all my friends— who were always the antagonists — who are, "Oh, now music is dead," it’s always this kind of story. And I’m like, "Well, maybe not." And so, I wanted to do an album that would sound good in small speakers. The sounds that sound amazing when they’re digital are things like harps, and plucky sounds, you know, and glockenspiel and music boxes. They sound very, very beautiful in this kind of compressed digital world. (music)

Björk : And I still meet journalists today that always have this, "Oh, if it’s done with a computer, it doesn’t have a soul."

Björk : That argument, but it’s not about the tool. You know, you cannot rely on a guitar to put a soul in a song, or a violin, or a laptop. If there is not a soul in it, it’s because the human didn’t put it there. (music)

Björk : So I was using…doing all the glockenspiel and music box and harp arrangements in Sibelius, and then I basically went and got made music box, like a huge music box that could fit like two 12-inch copper plates that we carved the songs into. (music)

Björk : I recorded everything live as well and then I sat down and spent at least a year going through, “Okay, this section, I want the live thing.” But then sometimes I would actually go back because I preferred the software sound and sometimes there were both of them. So the editing process of that was, kind of for me, anyway, monumental, because it sounded like 10 different things, and then I would change my mind through one song, you know, which instrument I would use to do it in each section. And so for me, it was a big breakthrough. (music)

Björk : Through the warmest cord of care Your love was sent to me I’m not sure what to do with it Or where to put it

Oddný : I thought Homogenic was getting into like, the very mystical if you look at the words, but even more in Vespertine, I think. It’s almost like cryptical. For me it’s also erotic, it gets into like a very erotic dimension. I must say also hot, you know, it’s like it’s warm-

Björk : Mm-hmm.

Oddný : -in this frozen… there is still a lot of really subtle feelings, actually. (music)

Björk : I’m so close to tears And so close to Simply calling you up I’m simply suggesting We go to the hidden place That we go to the hidden place

Oddný : And really, there’s a lot of weaving. So there’s like you could almost feel the woosh element or the silk or something weaving, and also the songs are somehow flowing, or the melodies, we feel that they are flowing. So even the distinction between each song is blurred, so that was very feminine, but very, extremely sensual.

Björk : Yeah, I think something about having the whole album in my laptop, gave me freedom, and also liberated me as an author and as a producer to weave together all the songs so that it became one whole thing. The craft of that is quite feminine. Because it’s kind of like when you are doing embroidery, your intention is just as strong as when you do bold, big strokes, but it does have like some kind of trance element, or like a hidden power in it, because you have to rely on your patience. And I think, in a way, to have a three-year portrait of someone’s life, you have almost like a truer organism.

Oddný : Yeah.

Björk : Then, if you have, maybe, how at the Homogenic if you don’t do anything… I remember how sometimes when I was in Spain, I wouldn’t do anything for a month. And I would just wait and wait and wait, and then be like, [makes explosion sound] one song in one day, you know, explosion. But I mean, to be honest, I like both. I still enjoy both states, you know. (music)

Björk : He’s the beautifulest Fragilest still strong Dark and divine

Oddný : So actually, this becomes like artisanal, handcrafted processes. At the moment, where people thought that now craft was dead, computer had taken over. You somehow managed to use the computer or your laptop, somehow, you can feel the touch. So it’s almost like a paradoxical state.

Björk : Mm-hmm. Yeah, I really enjoyed that.

Oddný : For some, it was a paradox ?

Björk : Yeah, yeah.

Oddný : I mean, you do not make something where you could feel the touch and you could-

Björk : Mm-hmm.

Oddný : -feel the handcrafted effect with something as technical as the laptop.

Björk : Yeah, totally. My mother was quite good at knitting and sewing, and actually she did furniture. And I was in school from eight-years-old, two schools, to 16, where we were three hours a week or something knitting and sewing and embroidering. And so, I think it’s a very big part of me, this kind of energy. (music)

Björk : Morse coding signals (signals) They pulsate (they wake me up) From my hibernating (wake me up from my hibernating) On the surface simplicity But the darkest pit in me And it’s pagan poetry Pagan poetry

Asi Jónsson : Every song begins with an idea. Does every album you create begin with an idea that is the core, or the essence, to all the creativity that follows ?

Björk : Yes, I would like to say that, if on each album there is, for example, 10 or 12 songs, they usually come in very different ways. So one will come first on the lyric, and one will come first, a melody, the one will come first, like an idea or something. And then very often, in the beginning, I try to just trust that my subconscious is documenting who I am those three years. So I just try not to police or control anything the first two or three years. And then usually there is a moment where I sit down and listen through. First time, I try to save it till as late as possible. And then I will listen and then I will be like, "Oh, I can see a theme." And usually, it is something I didn’t expect. I think everybody is like this. They are aware of things in their lives last three years, but then there is the thing that you’re not aware of, which is usually more interesting.

Asi Jónsson : Mm-hmm.

Björk : And there is like a theme in your subconscious, or in the part of your life that you cannot control. Because it’s very easy, to the part of your life that you can control, that’s very easy to come up with some very clever concept and blah, blah, blah, but that might not be so interesting.

Asi Jónsson : Mm-hmm.

Björk : You know. I try to rather surprise myself, and after two years of writing, listen to what I have and go, "Oh, wow, there’s a theme there."

Asi Jónsson : Mm.

Björk : And try to find a theme that I wasn’t aware of. And then I tried to pretend that I’m somewhere else, someone else. Then, I finish the album in that theme. And then sometimes the best song on the album, in my opinion, is sometimes the last song I write. Not always, but sometimes when I see the big picture, and I have assembled the album and the album order, and I know like, "Okay, we have this, this, this, this, this, this, but this is missing for this to be whole." And then I’ll just go, "Okay, now I’m gonna write this kinda song." “Cocoon”, for example, on Vespertine was this kind of song. (music)

Björk : I was like, "Okay, I’ve done a whole album here about quiet, whispering music, and insect sounds, and micro beats, but there’s no whisper song." So I have to do one and the lyric has to be, whisper, and everything has.. It has to be like, complete, you know very like a secret, something you’re whispering in someone’s ear and nobody else can hear it. (music)

Björk : Who would have known That a boy like him Would have entered me lightly Restoring my blisses Who would have known That a boy like him After sharing my core Would stay going nowhere

Björk : And I actually remember where I was, I was walking on Arnarhvoll, which is a place in Reykjavik, and the melody came to me all in one go. The element, which was the main theme of the album, which was intimacy, and the sort of ecstasy of not having to shout at the top of your lungs in an aggressive way, like Homogenic was, but finding the ecstasy in quietness. (music)

Björk : Who would have known A beauty this immense Who would have known A saintly trance Who would have known Miraculous breath.

Björk : I think for me, all my albums have been equally pop and equally experimental. But maybe I’m not a good judge. But I think in a ways, Homogenic, yes, when it came to the song structures, they were very traditional song structures. But I think the content of it, for me, was not pop, because it was very confrontational-

Asi Jónsson : Mm-hmm.

Björk : -and quite aggressive, especially in life, you know. (music)

Björk : But I think in certain ways Vespertine was, yes, maybe the structures of the songs are maybe not the conservative pop song structures, but I think it was much more sweeter. And songs like, “It’s Not Up to You”, for me, and “Cocoon”, is as pop as I get, you know, at least. But I think I understood if you are going into making some sort of digital dream winter world that’s frozen, if there is a shape to the songs, it should be almost like they are clouds, or it’s more like a dream state. You know, it’s not like a busy schedule. But now it’s this section and now comes the chorus and now comes this, and I think Homogenic had this kind of urgency, and this kind of a lot of, a lot of adrenaline, you know, and I wanted to get away from all this urgency and adrenaline and this kind of will, will power, to will yourself into something which can be great, but it can also be very predictable. (music)

Björk : If there is a troubadour washing It is he If there is a man about town It is he If there is one to be sought It is he If there are nine she is They are bought for me (music)

Oddný : The melodies, how did they come through for Vespertine ?

Björk : Mm. I think overall, I was trying to not tap into this sort of Hunter character that I actually wrote a song about on Homogenic. This character that, since I was six or whatever, goes walking and if something is not right in my life, or I’m not balanced, I will just work for an hour until I find the equilibrium. The melodies would be me making sense of stuff that happened. But that part of my character was kind of exhausted after the Homogenic tour, and also Dancer in the Dark. So, I was trying to approach it different, like not with gusto, not this kind of flamenco — when I say flamenco, I don’t mean the style, I mean, more the sort of the amount of physical energy. And that became a cliché for me, I was like, "That’s, yeah, maybe sometimes, but it’s too easy." Sometimes you can find the more magical things by whispering or by being quiet or passive. (music)

Björk : (Alsemalallforthesay) (Endenogatai) (Endenogatai-dah) I am strong in his hands, I am beyond me On my own, I am human, and I do faults

Oddný : And the emotional spectrum, like you described Homogenic as being with like a one emotional core, but still you can see it on a spectrum from like description of vulnerability into a more fighting mood and this transformative desire. I could also find this spectrum in Vespertine, but it’s not so clear there. It’s not from one song to another, it’s almost like the spectrum is, it’s all over somehow. So it’s like almost in every song there is no on switch-

Björk : Mm-hmm.

Oddný : -or like no solution, but there is more like a questioning mode. So it’s more philosophical in a way, that’s when you’re through the album you are in an open state a little bit like questioning-

Björk : Mm-hmm.

Oddný : -questioning everything.

Björk : I think now looking at it, at least today, that Homogenic was about the will. And it was very much about the hermit, or what the union master’s call intuitivation and Vespertine is almost the opposite. So it’s about wanting to unite to someone. It’s like offering someone to have a dance or a tango, or a very soft tango. (music)

Björk : I think also, for example, a song, “It’s Not Up to You”, which is written here in the Meistaravellir where it hits the ocean where that football field is. It is the opposite of the will. (music)

Björk : If “It’s Not Up To You” would have been on Homogenic, the lyric would have been, “It’s up to me. I’m gonna get this done.” You know, like “[Grunts] come on.” And so Vespertine was “It’s Not Up to Me”, and just surrendering that I didn’t know the answers and I had to trust and let go of the will. (music)

Björk : If you leave it alone, it might just happen Anyway It’s not up to you, oh, it never really was It’s not up to you, oh, it never really was It’s not up to you, well, it never really was It’s not up to you

Björk : It’s over and over in the lyrics. Maybe, I can think of “Undo”, which was, for me, maybe the most spiritual moment of self-sufficiency where it was, you know, all this kind of willful wanting something and knowing what you want, and getting it, and then you can’t get it. And the suffering that comes with that is kind of like, it’s what do you say…a fiction. So you just have to undo it all. (music)

Björk : It’s not meant to be a strife It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill Oh I

Björk : The lyric in “Undo” is, “It’s not supposed to be a strife, it’s not supposed to be a struggle uphill.” That this sort of struggle is an invention of yours. It’s not coming from there or there or there, it’s like a farce that you invented. So you have to undo it. I think for this particular time in my life, I think it was very, very important. But right now I could look at all the albums and say all these characters and all these places, they were all right. No one thing is the only way to react to things, you know ? (music)

Oddný : There’s like a seduction in the air, like there is surrender, seduction, so there are lots of feelings, actually, when you read the text, just as poetry, but there is somehow sadness or like a melancholic strike in it. So, there is like, from sadness into new kind of joy, which is more like, I don’t know, what kind of joy. Could you describe that ? Do you remember, like those— What kinds of melancholy and what kind of joy ? It’s so different from the imposed, for example.

Björk : Yeah, I mean, I think I would like to say on a more romantic note, personally, most of the songs in Vespertine are written before I met the father of my child. Most of the songs are me going through a very important spiritual process. And it’s this discussion between me and myself where I’m undoing a lot of trauma, and undoing a lot of struggle and getting myself back to point zero, you know. And kind of questioning the necessity of always having to make things as meaty as possible, which kind of was the Homogenic thing. But then somehow coming out on the other end, and maybe it was exaggerated by doing the film in Denmark, which was really, really extreme. Yeah, I remember actually doing the film, coming home in 1999, like in September or something and just stop completely, go cold turkey on wine and alcohol and coffee for like eight months. Just, what just happened to me ? Just not…I couldn’t have any, what do you call it ? Crutches. I had to just understand with my essence, process it. And my responsibility of that, or not. And then, writing songs while I was doing that, and then coming out the other end to some sort of… as much salvation as I could create for myself. Vespertine was also the ideal. It definitely was a case of first you write your future, and then you move into it. It is kind of about something that doesn’t exist yet, a little bit. And it’s more like the recipe.

Björk : It’s about like, "Oh, what a fantastic recipe. I wonder if I will ever be able to cook that meal," sort of thing. Then, being lucky that biographically, they’re lined up for me in real life. Someone that I could share this newfound domestic laptop paradise with, where I could whisper things and find ecstasy in the simplicity of just staying at home. (music)

Björk : Let’s unite tonight We shouldn’t fight Embrace you tight Let’s unite tonight

Duna : Sonic Symbolism is a co-production of Mailchimp Presents, Talkhouse and Björk and was made by Björk, Oddný Eir, Ásmundur Jónsson, Anna Gyða, Ian Wheeler, Julie Douglas, and Chrstian Koons. It was produced by Chrstian Koons and edited by Christian Koons and Anna Gyða. Special thanks to Derek Birkett, Catherine Verna Bentley, Zach McNees, Ævar Kjartansson and Duna Hrólfsdóttir. Music appears courtesy of One Little Independent Records. (music)

Björk : Let’s unite tonight We shouldn’t fight Embrace you tight

publié dans Sonic symbolism