Björk and the beats behind Volta, 8 mai 2007

Every few years, Icelandic singer Bjork emerges with a new album that both entrances and disorients. Even when she works with a proven hitmaker such as Timbaland — as she does on her latest album, Volta (One Little Indian/Atlantic) — the results won’t remind anyone of the producer’s recent top-10 work with Nelly Furtado or Justin Timberlake.

Timbaland’s signature is his rhythmic inventiveness, but even he sounds conservative next to Bjork’s otherworldliness. That’s instantly apparent on the album’s opening track, the Timbaland co-production Earth Intruders. Bjork takes the tribal beat and transforms it into a march for an alien invasion, which she narrates in a lioness’ growl.

As she launches a North American tour, which brings her to Chicago on Saturday for a sold-out concert at the Auditorium Theatre, Bjork described in an e-mail interview how she works.

You’ve talked about this album as being more rhythm oriented, but the beats were one of the last things you did on Volta, weren’t they ?

I started doing upbeat stuff [on computers], but it wasn’t until the end when I managed to make a family out of all the beats, unify them. Then I asked Chris Corsano and Brian Chippendale to play [drums]. They spent a day each improvising on all of the tracks, and I then spent a month editing and looping [parts] into the final stage. We used most of the beats. The ones we threw away were the white noise, static. ... They sounded too pretentious for this album. The beats weren’t meant to be too clever. They had to be impulsive. So they ended up being a mix of tribal acoustic rhythms and lo-fi drum machines. ... Since I started making solo albums [in 1993], I have mostly written the melodies first ... and almost always the beats last.

Isn’t that backward ?

After being in bands for 10 years ... I got a bit bored with [working the other way]. It didn’t matter what idea you got, it was always going to be worked on with the same method and then played by the same instruments. I am probably guilty of having gone extremely to the other direction. No two songs are worked on the same way. Each song gets the arrangement it deserves.

We live in a time when pop music is very beat-driven and producer-driven. Sometimes the artist gets lost in the production. You are both a producer and artist. Do you see the roles as the same ?

I have always felt that too many different things in electronic music are called « production. » In a rock band you have rhythm, bass line, keyboards, guitar and production. In electronic music all of this is called « production. » I have written a lot of songs where someone comes in right at the end when the song is 90 percent ready and adds in a bass line and gets production credit. I feel a lot of it is because computers carry a lot of mystery around them, and it is hard for people to see it for what it is. Also a part of it might be a pinch of sexism. I have seen [this] over and over. ... Obviously creative girl producers like Missy Elliott, Peaches and M.I.A. credited in the press as only singers, and then whatever guy who was in a 5-meter radius when the recording happened gets all the production credit, even though it says on the CD cover credit that they produced it. But I feel it is changing now. Everybody has computers ; everybody is writing music on their computers at home, including girls. So we’ll see.

When you choose collaborators such as [Nigerian kora master] Toumani Diabate, [Congolese band] Konono N°1 and [Chinese pipa virtuoso] Min Xiao-Fen for the new album, are you looking for something specific from them, or is it a case of just being curious about what might happen, with no expectations ?

Have you ever been disappointed by the results ?

Usually the song rules, and I am serving the song, and we just try out stuff. Most of the time it works out. I only work with people anyway where there is already a bit of chemistry going on, and then you just baby-step it. And that baby step that went over the line, you just mildly undo it. I can’t remember being disappointed, maybe you choose to forget that stuff. But it isn’t only up to the people to be marvelous. If it doesn’t work out, it is also my fault for not setting up the right situation. But mostly it is a very positive thing.

After working with Timbaland, you edited and reworked his tracks. What was lacking ?

Earth Intruders was a 12-minute jam. I made a structure and shortened it into 3 1/2 minutes, and added Konono and Chris Corsano on top. I didn’t change Timbaland’s stuff, really. Innocence we edited more, exaggerated all the stops and starts, tightened it up, and I wrote the middle eight into it. ... "Hope" was just the beat. I then added the bass line and the structure. And then Toumani Diabate played on top. Many takes, which I edited in bundles. This album had to be raw and immediate, so I didn’t want to work too much on it.

Do you have to know and like someone to collaborate with them musically ? Can a little bit of creative or personal tension with a collaborator be a positive influence on your music ?

Overall I’m not too much into negative tension ; I find it vulgar and immature. I feel if you are going to use that kind of stuff for writing, it means you’re bankrupt and have run out of good stuff.

In your duets with Antony [Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons], especially The Dull Flame of Desire, his voice is more « feminine », and you have a very « masculine » side to your voice — did you play off these contrasts intentionally ?

We had tried to sing a lot of stuff, but it was too whispery and sweet. We were two people trying not to step on each other’s toes. So one morning I arrived with a melody I had written in the middle of the night and a lyric by a Russian poet. The [translated] syllables fit perfectly, and we joked about now it was time to belt it out like two divas, be singers. There was a sensation of merging vocally, moments where we didn’t know whose voice was whose.

How many different ways will you approach a song as a vocalist before you settle on a finished version ?

I’m pretty loyal to a melody. For me a melody is something sacred and ancient that has its own little magic powers if it is structured right. So I will wait patiently for a good melody and usually don’t even start with a song unless that has come to me. Then the other half of me can noodle endlessly on arrangements. When I am recording I will wait for the right day, when my voice is in the right place and I am in the right mood. I don’t believe in forcing things that way. It would be bulldozing over fertile stuff.

Has the Internet changed the way an artist such as yourself makes music ? And what impact has it had on the album, with music fans now listening more and more to individual MP3 files rather than entire albums ?

When I wrote [the 2001 album] Vespertine, I wrote it thinking it would be downloaded. And I picked all the noises that sound great in the virtual reality world : harp, glockenspiel, celeste, whispering, distant swooping strings and so on. Changing formats like that can be creative sonically. I feel overall the whole marketing machine that was built on top of a song from the ’50s until now wasn’t meant to last. It was kind of weird anyway with the artist getting 3 percent [per album sale] and 23,948,572,093 people in an office with jobs with weird names getting 97 percent. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people doing a great job out there, but if you look at the whole picture it wasn’t in balance. With Volta I created sound design between the tracks to make the whole album into a journey, but the tracks can also be individually downloaded.

par Greg Kot publié dans