An audience with Icelandic art pop star Bjork ahead of her Perth Festival show, Cornucopia

The West Australian , 12 février 2023

She’s one of those stars who needs only one name — Björk. The Icelandic musician has been pushing artistic boundaries since she burst onto the scene with The Sugarcubes, and throughout her 30-year solo career. Now, as she prepares to fly to WA to close Perth Festival with her spectacular Cornucopia show, Bjork speaks to Simon Collins about the connections she hopes to make here, how life informs art and why she’s optimistic about the future of our planet.

When Bjork Gudmundsdottir was looking for somewhere to shoot the video for her eulogy to motherhood, Sorrowful Soil, she decided the backdrop of molten lava from an actively erupting volcano would do the trick.
Despite having a modest budget for the clip, the iconoclastic Icelandic musician and actor, and her team, hired a helicopter to fly onto the side of Fagradalsfjall, a volcano about 40km from Reykjavik.
“It was actually magnificent,” Bjork begins, over a Zoom call from her home in the Icelandic capital, “but we had to postpone it because the weather wasn’t right.

“Then finally the weather was right . . . but then the eruption stopped and we were like ‘F…’.”
(Honestly, hearing the trilling voice responsible for It’s Oh So Quiet and Venus As A Boy drop an F-bomb felt a bit like a Westfield Santa using blue language.)
What the Army of Me and Human Behaviour singer, who heads to WA in March to present her acclaimed theatrical concert Cornucopia exclusively for Perth Festival, did next will do little to dispel the image of her as the manic pixie of art pop.
“I called a couple of my friends who are like my personal witches,” Bjork explains, “and I said ‘OK, is the eruption going to start again ?’
“They were, like, ‘Give me a few minutes, I’ll work on it and get back to you’. Then they both got back to me and said ‘OK, it’s going to start again’.
“We got in the helicopter and not only did the mist lift, so you could see the sunset — it was perfectly in time with the sunset — but literally as we landed on the hill, the eruption started again,” she continues in an accent festooned with rounded vowels from stints in England but still blessed with the Icelandic tongue’s delightfully rolled r’s.
“We had half an hour before we would get trapped in poison gas or something. We did three or four takes and then flew off again in that sunset.
“It’s one of the biggest highs of my life,” Bjork giggles. “It was totally mental.”
The video depicting the otherworldly singer in a gold orchid-shaped mask wandering on Fagradalsfjall as iridescent red rivers of lava flow behind her was shared in December last year.
Featuring the potent line “In a woman’s lifetime, she gets 400 eggs but only two or three nests”, Sorrowful Soil is one of two songs on latest album Fossora that Bjork wrote for her mother, activist and hippie homeopath Hildur Runa Hauksdottir, who died in 2018 after a protracted illness.

jork says she is selective about where to perform her theatrical concert Cornucopia, in keeping with its environmental messages. null
The other song, Ancestress, is a collaboration with Bjork’s son, Sindri Eldon, while album closing track Her Mother’s House features her daughter, Isadora Barney. Both songs are the first time Bjork’s now adult children have co-starred on music released to the public.
Given Bjork has been fiercely protective of her family and private life, their appearances on the new album raised eyebrows.
“We were hanging out much more than we normally do in COVID. I was blessed that they were both here in Iceland,” the 57-year-old artist explains.
In particular, Eldon — whose father is Por Eldon, guitarist in Bjork’s first major band, The Sugarcubes — was close to his late grandmother and wanted to contribute Ancestress as a tribute.
“He said, ‘This is my gift to my grandmother’,” Bjork says.
“My mother did an album with me when I was 11 (1977’s eponymous release) and I know she meant well but, in hindsight, I think it’s too young.
“Even though a kid says ‘yes’, it doesn’t understand what it brings with it . . . you’re not anonymous any more. I was lucky because Reykjavik is such a small town.”
Bjork adds that she’s “very happy” that she did include her children on Fossora.
“It would have been weird not to do it, to represent this period in my life and not include them would have been odd.”
This period in Bjork’s life has been turbulent, even though she insists it’s probably been no more tumultuous than anybody else’s living through a pandemic running parallel with Donald Trump’s presidency.
Before her mother’s death, Bjork’s long-term relationship with American contemporary artist Matthew Barney came to an end. The split and subsequent fallout informed 2015 album Vulnicura.
Isadora moved out of home in New York, and Bjork — rattled by Trump and the seemingly non-stop sequence of mass shootings in the US — sold “second homes” in Brooklyn and London to move back to Iceland full time.
“It felt great and also it happened to coincide with COVID, so I didn’t travel at all for two years, so that felt amazing,” she says.
“It was really good to just hang out with all my friends — like, most of my friends are friends that I’ve had since childhood and they live within walking distance (in Reykjavik).”

Bjork left the US and returned to her home in Reykjavik as the COVID pandemic struck. null
Bjork would swim in naturally heated pools, drink and eat in cafes and have small parties at home. There was karaoke.
“It’s a good little life,” she says, adding that even when she does tour, she usually keeps her head down. “My life is not glamorous. I live a pretty normal life wherever I go.
“I usually don’t go to openings or premieres. My life abroad is also pretty down to earth.”
For those folks still stuck on tabloid tales of airport stoushes with pushy paparazzi in Bangkok or that swan dress at the Academy Awards, all that happened more than 20 years ago.
Bjork insists that the past few years at home in Iceland have been “grounding”. But even before the pandemic made homebodies of musicians acclimatised to an endless cycle of airports, hotels and concert venues, Bjork was rethinking the way she tours.
Given that Cornucopia draws on the environmentally themed Utopia album of 2017 as well as Fossora — the singer’s Latin-ish word for “digger”, as in digging into the soil of the soul, putting down roots and reconnecting with home — she says it would be hypocritical to create a huge carbon footprint taking the production to all parts of the planet.
“I try to stay for longer when I go to a place, and go to fewer places, both for the environment and also for myself and my team,” Bjork says.
“It means we can connect better to each place and get to know it, find our favourite cafe or whatever.
“It’s more of an organic interaction than old-school, quite patriarchal (touring, where) you do five cities in a week. It doesn’t bring out the best in people. It’s like a stamina competition.
“I always try to do the opposite,” she continues, “just two shows a week. I feel like there’s more of a chance I can be emotionally generous. When people come to the show, I can give them all I’ve got. I’m not just tired after the last gig.
“I feel a certain responsibility being my own boss, I guess, that at least I practise what I preach.”
Thus, Cornucopia made its debut four years ago with an eight-show residency at The Shed cultural centre in Manhattan and has only been staged 26 times in total across the US, Mexico and Europe.

Bjork performing Cornucopia in San Francisco last year. No
The four Perth shows on the Langley Park foreshore are the first in the southern hemisphere and an Australasian exclusive.
Describing Cornucopia as the “shiniest bauble in the middle of Bjork’s universe”, Perth Festival artistic director Iain Grandage says securing the Icelandic icon for the 2023 event is a massive coup as well as the top item on his personal bucket list.
Grandage credits contemporary music programmer Thomas Supple, who has a longstanding relationship with Bjork’s management and touring agency, with bringing the star to WA.
Supple says a “long-running conversation” led to Perth landing Cornucopia against stiff competition from major Australian festivals and venues, including the Sydney Opera House.
While the pandemic prevented him from seeing the production firsthand, he says offering to build a custom venue similar to the second staging in Mexico City helped get the Perth dates across the line.
Part-funded by Tourism WA, the four riverside performances of Cornucopia to 5000-capacity audiences will be hosted in a 100m x 55m “clear-span” pavilion designed by Portuguese company Irmarfer Structures and re-engineered by Sydney’s Stage Kings to meet Australian standards.
“It’s a really amazing thing,” Supple says. “There isn’t a structure like it in the country, and that’s why we had to get it redesigned to deliver the show.”
For her part, Bjork is looking forward to being able to spend more time on the ground in Perth than during previous visits on the Big Day Out, which saw her sets sandwiched between performances by head-bangers such as Rage Against the Machine and Grinspoon.
“We used to laugh about that,” she admits, adding that she still likes festivals and will perform a career-spanning concert with an orchestra (or Bjorkestra ?) at US mega-fest Coachella in April.

“I still do these crazy things. I do like festivals. One of the main reasons is that they are outdoors.
“It’s a great way to meet other musicians because you’re hanging out backstage and can see each other’s shows . . . I’ve made good friends,” Bjork says.
“I go to the extremes. I like festivals and then I like private shows where I can be really bossy,” she laughs, “like the one in Perth, and I’ve stopped doing the middle stuff.”
Bjork plans to premiere two new songs from Fossora at the Perth production of Cornucopia, which will feature a seven-piece flute ensemble, 18-strong local choir Voyces (led by Luke Donohoe), water drums, nature-inspired projections and many other moving parts.
Previous instalments have opened with birdcalls and ended with a message Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg recorded for the singer in 2019.
What does Bjork hope people take away from the experience ?
“Hope,” she says. “Also, a sense of agency, that people can actually do something about (the climate crisis).”
Bjork describes Thunberg’s message as a “call to action”, but also an encouragement to look at environmental issues from a perspective other than the US or westernised way.

Cornucopia aims to present an optimistic view of the challenges facing the planet, Bjork says. No
“All the films on Netflix, I’m not dissing them, but a lot of them are very dystopian and it’s a very one-sided view of where we as a humanity are going,” she says.
“I feel it’s very important to try to represent other world views . . . It doesn’t have to be this dystopian, repeated sinking of the Titanic with mass murders and Trump.
“Maybe the planet is not going to go back to what it was 200 years ago but we can create a new world that is livable,” Bjork states. “That’s what Utopia is about.
“Plants are very resilient,” she continues. “For example, Chernobyl is covered in mushrooms that are processing all the radiation.
“I think plants will maybe absorb crap and toxicity, and become like the fish in the Simpsons with three eyes.
“I’m still optimistic. It’s important to be optimistic.”
Bjork insists that nature is “not feeble”. She’d know, having seen a volcano spew lava up close.
“It’s more us that are delicate,” she adds. “Nature is pretty feisty. It’s not sentimental at all.”
Speaking of nature, Bjork looks forward to checking out some West Aussie flora and fauna — can’t wait for the quokka selfie — but especially wants to connect with Noongar representatives while here for Cornucopia.
“My friend, a singer called Anohni, she is one of my best friends back in New York and she asked if she could put some people from that community on the guest list,” she trills.
“I’m very excited to meet them.”
When she was Down Under for her Bjork Digital shows at Vivid Sydney in 2016, the singer entertained the idea of flying to the East Pilbara to join the Martu people’s protest against a proposed uranium mine, but decided she had to preserve her voice and energy levels.
Perth Festival is keen to offer Bjork a window into Noongar culture during her visit to make her time here, as a spokesperson described it, “both spiritually recharging and deeply rewarding”.
This engagement might be musical or experiential, and one idea is to have a Noongar custodian deliver her a personalised message stick before or upon her arrival in WA.
Grandage believes there are “beautiful synergies” in the connections between Iceland and Boorloo, geologically the youngest and oldest countries respectively on the planet.
While Bjork says that every album of her career has represented a new chapter, the two albums feeding into Cornucopia do feel like a fresh start, especially given the series of upheavals in her personal life in the past decade.

“For me, when I’m writing . . . I’m gathering together songs until they feel like they represent an album,” Bjork explains. “I only pick the ones that feel like a fresh start.
“I feel like there are enough Bjork songs in the world. And, actually, there are enough songs in the world.
“It’s easy to stay the same. The challenge is to change and grow,” she says.
“We all, as human beings, we go through periods that are traumatic or dramatic, like the end of a period, which for me was Vulnicura. We have to start all over again.
“When we start all over again, I think it’s human nature to say ‘Next time, I’m not going to do all these mistakes . . . and everything is going to be perfect’.”
When Bjork retires from music, which moments will she identify as “perfect” — or as close to it as human nature allows ?
“Wow, that’s an odd one,” she says before a long pause, oh so quiet. “God, I don’t know. I just never think about things in those terms.
“Maybe when I’m 80 I’ll think like that,” Bjork laughs. “When I’m in the rocking chair, I’ll be sitting there with a glass of cognac and only thinking things like that.”

par Simon Collins publié dans The West Australian