Björk is back with a new album, an app for each of the 10 songs and an education project for children. Still ambitious, then. The Icelandic icon meets SIOBHAN KANEin Reykjavik
IN THE church at the top of Skólavörduholti in Reykjavik, there is a pretty, round structure that houses candles, little prayers that people have put out into the world. Beside the candles is a poem by Swedish writer Bo Setterlind. “Do not let the darkness prevent you from seeking the light! And when you have found it let other people see, rethink and be convinced.”
It is this impulse that has framed Björk’s latest project, Biophilia, “a unique synthesis of music, nature and science” and her own sense of living. Meeting her in Reykjavik is special, not least because we are surrounded by places that hold resonance; the restaurant she used to go to as a teenager, the new concert hall (Harpa) where she will unveil the album to her home crowd in a matter of days; the streets she has walked. As I walk down Frakkastigur with the wintery wind licking my cheeks, towards the sea and majestic mountain Esja, which keeps watch over the city, I am struck by the poetry of the place, reflected in the poetry of her work.
We talk a lot about nature. In a 2008 essay for the Observer,Henry Porter notes some of the words that have been dropped from the Oxford Junior English Dictionary– gooseberry, acorn, conker, heron – depressingly replaced by words such as conflict, allergic, biodegradable and endangered. He goes on to write how these abstract words are replacing things that are already part of the natural world.
“That essay reminds me of a Stockhausen quote I heard as a teenager and made me laugh. He was asked about the 21st century. He said that unfortunately we will kill all the animals, but that’s okay, because we will have learned to communicate telepathically. I’m not sure why that rang some bell in me, perhaps the spicy mix of ridicule, warning and prophecy,” says Björk.
Biophiliais a response to cynicism (her “romantic gene is dominant”, she sings on Thunderbolt), and narrowness of thought – something she experienced at music school. “It was a love-hate relationship, because I felt more at home there than in my normal school, but I had other expectations beyond what the school could provide. I wasn’t up for the athletic Apollonian angle – that if you practised every day for years you might be able to join the orchestra. I wanted to find my voice. I think kids can do that pretty early. My daughter is in school in New York half the year and half in Reykjavik, there they are trained to write poems and encouraged to write differently from the person next to them to get their own style, that is amazing.”
Biophilia’s interactive side will appeal to children, as her eighth studio record has a corresponding app (designed by 10 of the world’s foremost app developers) for each song available via iPad. Only one song was created with the iPad (Dark Matter), but the sense of pushing boundaries is wholly contained within the record.
I mention Prof Robert Coover at Brown University, who has helped evolve the idea of “Cave Writing”. The pre-Romantics held literature up as a mirror, the Romantics saw it as a lamp, but in the age of the digital revolution, Coover is holding it up as a 3D experience, with immersive technologies.
“I understood at the beginning of the project that it was very different to what I had done before. I put a few seeds out and started watering them. It started so humbly, then we had Manchester, and we added to it, now we have Iceland in one week, and I have had meetings with the city council and the university. This is going to take many years to grow, and I am just going to enjoy it, because first I thought ‘argh, it has to get done!’
“There is a revolution in technology with touchscreens, because there are things that were not meant to be in books. It is no coincidence that my favourite apps are the Element Table and the Solar System – these things are not flat, the same as music, and the app for TS Eliot’s The Waste Landis beautiful. The poem is read by several actors, and you can play with the words, read scholarly articles and learn about geography.”
The poet Tom Paulin (referencing William Empson) suggests that ambiguity is at the roots of poetry, providing room for alternative reactions to the same language. The protean nature of Biophiliameans this was the same for Björk as creator, as it is for us, the receivers.
“It took me a while to understand the most obvious things. The first two years it was just me, James [Merry] and the engineer , because of the ‘head in the clouds’ element – we needed a bit of humour – in case we got a bit too serious, but ultimately it’s like this! It’s real.”
She could be a great teacher. Part of this is bound up in her voice, which is peerless, and elevated amid the all-female choir Graduale Nobili, the beats and the specially commissioned instruments on the record.
“My voice is definitely my most impulsive and intuitive side. It is still a mystery to me and I like it that way.”
The project evolved in crisis, when she developed nodules on her throat and feared she might never sing again. She spent time in Puerto Rico, reimagining. “I do try, but most of the time I am clumsy. It often takes me forever to find these places and work out the angle that will ricochet things back into connection. During Volta I lived on a boat and wrote Wanderlust. Declare Independence pointed a finger at things and complained. So when I finally got home it was my turn to offer solutions, and the answer involved uniting the rural and the urban in a fresh way.”
This unification also comes from her relationships with cities such as London and New York. “Most of the time I seem to end up with other immigrants. Cities work best like that, as a network for restless rurals. London feels light, full of wit and beats. New York has a darker force, a deep drone, almost vortex-like. It scares me at times. Through the years I have loved bands like Public Enemy and Swans, who capture that well. Some of my songs have those deep NYC notes, like Pneumonia, Trance, Pagan Poetry, Dark Matter. . . but overall I probably go to Iceland and write there, and arrange and mix in cities.”
This sense of conflating places and ideas makes her a brilliant collaborator, bringing people as diverse as Rahzel, The Brodsky Quartet and Dirty Projectors (“I felt so spoilt with David [Longstreth] writing melodies in my style”) along the way. But it also meant she was well placed to verbalise a nation’s feelings when Iceland suffered a banking meltdown.
“Because people know my face, I became a voice. The majority in Iceland felt the way I felt, so we did the petition, got signatures from 25 per cent of people who vote, and elected a group of people who wrote a new constitution, which said Icelanders should own the energy resources and have access to them. I don’t think that would have happened a year earlier. I think when you do proactive work, it goes it’s own spooky route. We have a long way to go. One unlucky thing with us, which is also lucky, is how few of us there are, that is how the ‘banksters’ managed to ruin us so quickly, as there was no regulation.”
We talk about the similarities between Ireland and Iceland (“I have always thought that”), with Björk telling me about the link between the DNA of the women of both places, and I tell her that there seems to be a link between her work and that of the great Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, who almost prophesised the recent crisis with his 1948 novel The Atom Station, which details a postwar Reykjavik society torn from its natural anchor by “foreign gold”; yet Icelanders are still those people he wrote about in Independent People who “foster all peaceful human virtues”.
“I think he is very important. He wrote down how we feel about ourselves as a country, and defined the Icelander in the 20th century. It is incredible how many homes own all of his books, and everyone has read at least some of them, but he has become an institution, and people rebel against him, too.
“It is a different Iceland now. We have the internet, half of us live in the capital, there are not many farmers left and it is easy to travel abroad – but there are certain things in his books that are timeless, like our relationship with nature, integrity, how to handle corruption and so on. I recently read his biography, and it was inspiring how he mixed gracefully his patriotic local side and the cosmopolitan in him. He seemed to be able to be purist and extreme in both of these directions and unite them effortlessly.”
She could be talking about herself.
Biophilia is released on October 11.