Björk ... Iceland’s Cool Queen

The Sun, 5 mai 2007

Note : ****1/2

The door swings open and there she is, standing up in greeting, a small person whose big personality suddenly fills the West London hotel room.

She ushers me towards two chairs either side of a small table in the corner. As she sits, the spring sunshine, streaming in from an open window, rests upon the pale skin, the slanted eyes, the tangle of dark hair, the multi-coloured dress.

It takes about a nano-second to become mesmerised by Björk, here to discuss her sixth studio album, Volta.

She looks far younger than her 41 years and communicates not just through her strongly-accented English but with dramatic hand gestures and infectious laughter.

And though this is her « last, most caffeine-fuelled » interview of the day, Iceland’s elfin icon still fizzes with the same energy as her new music.

She’s just arrived from France and immediately launches into a conversation about how people react to her in different countries.

«  In France, they want to know what I’m like, the spirit », she says. « Over here, its more about the music, the beats. Maybe it’s because that’s my relationship with England. I quite like it though. »

Then it is on to the album, its fascinating collaborations with the likes of hip-hop hotshot Timbaland and sublime singer Antony (as in The Johnsons), the global adventures she had making it, her and our place in the world, the effect of religion on society, her feelings towards her homeland of Iceland.

Self-produced Volta is grand in scale and ambition, full of unexpected twists and turns, driven by some of the craziest, most imaginative beats known to man.

It also draws on the skills of Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, an experimental band from the Congo called Konono No1, Chinese pipa maestro Min Xiao-Fen and boundary- pushing drummers Chris Corsano and Brian Chippendale.

I asked the singer how it varied from previous efforts.

« When I’m doing them, they all feel kind of similar in the sense that I’m trying to do something that I’ve never done before. It’s like here’s a mountain and I’ve never tried to climb it but I’m going to go for it.  »

But she adds : « I do feel that I’ve become better at certain things. I was singing live from a really young age but I didn’t start making Björk albums until I was 27 and maybe it was quite late in my life that I became this studio boffin. I was probably quite clumsy the first few years.  »

She says that doing 2004’s Medulla (just that inimitable voice and no instruments) was «  trying to catch up with the singer in me ».

On Volta, she feels the marriage of vocals and instruments is equal, allowing her to weave her thrilling sonic tapestries.

«  I’ve acquired enough experience in the studio to let things sound live. From the beginning of this album, I was imagining what these songs would sound like on stage. With this one, I knew what I wanted to do emotionally. I wanted to do something that was like…  »

At this point, Björk stretches out her arms and makes a noise of unbridled excitement to describe her vision.

«  I did a lot of stuff and threw a lot away because it didn’t have that eager to communicate feeling. I recorded the last two or three albums at home. Maybe I had a bit of cabin fever and was ready to just go out and have an adventure, be in situations I didn’t know. »

The energy of the album is perfectly reflected in the title. «  I wanted the album title to have a lot of energy and have a voodoo connection because there’s a lot of trance stuff that I feel. It wasn’t until right near the end that I happened to see this word Volta. I Googled it and, by accident, it seemed to have all the right connotations. It comes from the Italian scientist who discovered Voltage and it’s also a river in Africa that’s a source of electricity. They put a dam on it and there’s an artificial lake called Lake Volta. »

Sixth studio album ... Volta

The album has this seamless quality where the songs seem to ebb and flow, the edges blurred. « It was like putting together a map of all the emotions  », she says. « You have loud/quiet, loud/quiet, like say the Pixies or Nirvana. »

« If you’re going for a particular emotion, you have to put in the extreme experiences. To make them all work together can be a bit confusing but the album does come from one emotional space, even if geographically it’s like China, Africa, Iceland etc. It has that spirit of me wandering the world as a kind of techno-pirate. Of globalism. »

Volta begins with the riot of sounds that is Earth Intruders, the first of three tracks featuring Timbaland and inspired in part by the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed so many over the Christmas holiday in 2004.

Björk says : « The tsunami hit me really hard. I put a message on my website asking fans to do remixes of my songs. We released them and gave the money to Unicef and, a year later as a thank you, they offered me the chance to go out there and see what they had done with the money.I went to Aceh and I had never been in a place like this, a town of 300,000 people where 80,000 had died. I could still see people digging in the earth, finding bones, scraping off the dirt to see floor tiles. There was still this morbid smell. »

Earth Intruders partly came to her in a dream as she flew from Indonesia to New York. A week later, she was in the studio recording it with Timbaland. And though the song is touched by the souls of those who died, it contains a wider message about the state of the world.

« When you think about the religious situation, they’re not doing very well, are they ? All this religious stuff is like a weird little sidestep. The self-importance of religious people angers me. They are trying to make it into an intellectual affair where everything below the waist is ugly and dirty. But if we could forget all about religion and become this one tribe, it would be such a gorgeous thing. For me, the whole album is about that. I think people are great. We make mistakes but we’re fantastic.  »

Bjork suggests that in Western civilisation we think we have to get drunk to get to a state elevation, to find rhythm. «  But the next day, you feel guilty, ashamed. ‘Ooh, my God, I’ve taken my top off on the dancefloor !’ and ‘Ooh, let’s pretend it didn’t happen’. »

The process of making Earth Intruders made a huge impression. «  It was strange to get out of the bedroom first to this universe then to that universe. Timbaland flew to the studio by private jet. Probably 300 years ago, his ancestors were slaves, so it’s such a victory for him to have this status. Good for him. »

She says : « We’d met a few times accidentally and he’d sampled a song of mine 11 years ago. I think we developed a mutual respect. Now we share this tiny little island somewhere called Timbaland/Bjork Island. It’s very small but I think these tracks can happen there. I’m quite happy that they end up being not really Timbaland tracks and not really Bjork tracks.I just walked into the studio, fresh from Indonesia, and he played those beats. He works with a guy called Nate (aka Danja), who makes a bassline on the spot. They work really quickly and I improvise there and then. It was like pow, pow, pow and five minutes later you’ve got a song. »

Another of the Timbaland co-writes is Innocence, which speaks of uninhibited youth and how it becomes more thrilling when you become older and more afraid. «  I guess it’s a handshake with fear. When you’re 19, things don’t enter your mind. You’re untouchable. Later you’re like, ‘Whoa, what can I learn from experience ?’  »

Bjork adds : «  For this album, I was trying to get that sensation of not knowing what you’re doing, which I really love. We like to close ourselves in a little box where everything’s certain. Out there in the world, there are five million billion things but we’re only dealing with seven. It’s so arrogant to say, ‘I’m not innocent any more’ so I’m just taking the piss out of myself really. »

One of the most challenging songs is Hope, which describes issues raised by a pregnant Palestinian suicide bomber. It features Toumani Diabate and more of Timbaland’s beats.

« We were due to record it and I imagined Toumani was thinking about setting up microphones and doing run-throughs. But then, at six o’clock, he brings out the prayer mat and goes down on his knees. Suddenly I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing making a song about a pregnant suicide bomber with a Muslim in Mali ?’  »

She sat down with him to discuss this potential faux-pas. « Obviously, he’s a very educated man and he just said that these things needed to be addressed. So he says, ‘Great, do it.’ He’s an incredible person, so graceful and generous with a gentle spirit. »

Next we turned to Björk’s two stunning duets with Antony, whose haunting delivery and sad songs won him the Mercury Prize in 2005.

They recorded Volta’s becalmed finale My Juvenile at her cabin in the wilds of Iceland and the stunning vocals for Dull Flame Of Desire were put down in Jamaica.

« With three days’ notice, we Googled a studio in Jamaica. It’s only a three-hour flight from New York and we just jumped on it. The studio was near the beach. We were just singing and swimming all day. Both of us are pretty Northern Hemisphere creatures, white skin, black clothes so it was hilarious.

« Also, Antony’s big and I’m small. We were singing at the same microphone and I had to stand on a chair. We’d done hundreds of little sketches that were really whispery. Than I said let’s do a diva song, Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand. »

Bjork describes how she used the words of a poem by late Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. «  It was not my song and not Antony’s. It liberated us. We could both be just singers. So we just blasted it out for a whole day. Proper divas. He was cute, saying that he’d never sung so loud in his life. We had that feeling where I felt I was him and he felt he was me. »

My Juvenile affectionately tells of her 20-year-old son Sindri. «  It’s about how complicated it is to let go, to stop interfering in their lives. It’s kinda hilarious because he’s a bit clumsy and sometimes doesn’t know jacks**t what he’s doing. And I was going to do it so well because I thought my mum did it totally wrong. But now I’m in the same situation as her. I don’t know one parent who doesn’t have guilt. »

Perhaps Volta’s pivotal song is the ethereal Wanderlust, an incredible aural evocation of the artist’s adventurous spirit, which comes with a helping hand from leading Icelandic writer Sjon.

« This one is my manifesto  », says Björk. I had written a whole diary of what I wanted the lyric to be but I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Sjon took it and came back with something totally different. And I took his version, edited it, put my own lines in. It took a while. It’s about that adventurous spirit and reflects where I was at that point in time. Even now, I’d write a different kind of anthem. »

The album also reunites Björk with long-time collaborator Mark Bell, a musician and producer. «  I’m really grateful to him », she says. «  He will come into the picture when I run into problems. He will be graceful enough to fix it without ego. My 911 person through the years. »

Their most memorable moment on Volta is Declare Independence which sees Björk « going back to my punk voice that I used when I was a teenager. »

She adds : «  It’s like saying to someone with a terrible boyfriend, ‘Declare Independence ! Make your own stamp’. It’s a bit slapstick. There’s also a bit in there about Iceland being a colony of Denmark for 600 years. Greenland and the Faroe Islands are still run by Denmark and so this song was partly written for them. Greenland almost became independent, then they found oil there and Denmark wouldn’t let it go. »

Our conversation moves neatly on to her mixed feelings about her home country.

« When I was doing music there as a teenager, they all thought I sounded really weird. Only when Melody Maker gave us single of the week for a song sung in Icelandic, did they say that they loved us.I don’t know how Icelandic I am. I think I’m really connected with the nature there.I’ve always had more of a relationship with it than the people. My cabin in the mountains is smaller than this room and I spend a lot of time there. My house in town is on the ocean and I can walk outside on to the beach. »

Björk says there’s a nice balance to her relationship with Iceland. « Even since the days of the Sugacubes, I’ve always been coming and going. I like that because the minute you get sucked in, it’s a bit much. »

These days she spends about « 35 per cent in Iceland, 35 per cent in New York and 30 per cent everywhere else ».

This slightly nomadic existence seems appropriate, for Björk’s new album serves as a glorious, exuberant love letter to our imperfect world.

publié dans The Sun