Björk Interviewed: “Think of it as a cauliflower!”

30 years of MOJO: Björk deconstructs technology, nature and the future of music.

Bjork MOJO 30

by Mark Paytress |
Updated on

This month, MOJO magazine turns 30. To celebrate, we’ve delved into the archives to select some of our finest interviews from across MOJO’s three-decade history. In 2011, MOJO’s Mark Paytress sat down with Björk to discuss her eighth album Biophilia which was also an iPad app, an interactive, audio-visual journey into the wonders of science, nature and music that grew out of a near career-ending crisis. Baffled? Don’t be…

Given the buzz that surrounds Björk’s new project – a cutting-edge multimedia initiative that reimagines ‘the album’ for the 21st century – the setting for our rendezvous could hardly be less hi-tech: a discreet, boutique hotel close to the singer’s home in west London. “It’s a blue-rinse ladies area,” she giggles, a hidden place where an international icon, dressed in an orange, koala-style wig and a mustard cape right out of Emma Peel’s wardrobe, can waltz about freely.

Commanding attention has rarely been difficult for Björk, the perfect embodiment of all things chic and pleasingly peculiar. But even our most distinctive and fleet-footed musicians have, in recent times, been forced to rethink their strategies as the entertainment industry undergoes tumultuous changes.

The old rules, they don’t work any more...

“I didn’t have a choice,” says Björk, fidgeting on a deep sofa that threatens to swallow her up. “Everything seemed to happen in summer 2008. I lost my voice, there was the bank crash in Iceland, I’d finished the Volta tour and I was off all my record deals. It was like, all the old rules, they just don’t work any more. I wanted to reconnect with stuff that actually works.”

The result is Biophilia, Björk’s eighth full-length studio album. In purely musical terms, it’s arguably her most subtle, magical and downright gorgeous creation since 2001’s Vespertine. Enriched by cosmic choirs, crackling, Dr Frankenstein-style bursts of electricity and gloomy pipe organs, its 10 songs shimmer with glacial mystery and imagination. So far, so happily anticipated. But Biophilia is also “more” than an album. Last autumn, film-maker and longtime Björk collaborator Michel Gondry let slip that Björk’s next album would be more akin to “a scientific musical”. One year on, Biophilia is revealed as an investigation into the science of nature and sound using songs and gaming-style visuals via a suite of different apps on an Apple iPad, a fairly unprecedented exercise in the annals of entertainment.

Already confused? If so, Björk’s own explanation of Biophilia may not help. One minute, she’s insisting that working on the album, “wasn’t that different to making a music video”, next that Biophilia can work as “a semi-educational project for children using sound, texts and visuals.” Björk describes it as a multi-stemmed thing of beauty, rooted in nature; “Think of it as a cauliflower!” she concludes, helpfully.

As a gentle introduction to this new idea, Björk’s PR brings along an iPad loaded with the first of the Biophilia apps. It doesn’t go quite to plan. Though the cosmic, visual world of Biophilia that swirls before my eyes looks intriguing enough, I clumsily press a finger on the wrong part of the screen and end up accessing the PR’s private emails. Soon the words, “Why couldn’t she have made a normal album?” are etched across my frown. “I don’t even trust this tiny digital recorder,” I complain, indicating my dictaphone.

Björk instinctively tunes in. “I’ve got the same feeling as you,” she says. “These little things where every button has 10 functions… yuk. But the touchscreen is for people who don’t like that sort of thing. It works for kids. It plugs into acoustic and natural worlds. It might be difficult to explain in words, but… it’s simple!”

Operated properly, Biophilia begins on the iPad screen as a slow- moving black-and-white virtual galaxy, song titles attached to 10 individually-shaped sparkling constellations. On headphones, a cosmic choir “Ooohs” in the manner of a landing spaceship. This is the ‘mother app’, a free download from iTunes that features Biophilia’s grand, brassy theme, Cosmogony. One ‘star’ shines brighter than the rest. It is called Crystalline, and it’s 
available now for £1.45 – eight more will follow in the weeks ahead.

Choosing Crystalline with a thumb-and-forefinger ‘pinch’ (mouse pad clicks are so passé) provides transportation to a vortex of brightly coloured tunnels. By tilting the iPad, the crystal travels down the tunnels changing in shape and size. In an act of deliberate synchronicity, the shape of the song is determined by the route taken.

Other options invite you to save your crystal (and, with viral marketing in mind, the chance to mail it to friends), call up the lyrics and musical score, scour detailed notes explaining the relationship between the science of the song and the dimension of nature depicted, and sing karaoke-style to an animated visualisation of the track. All options seem to carry – and incite – different versions of the song. To describe this as an app album seems inadequate. It’s something else entirely, a headspinning adventure into an otherworld of entertainment, but which bears little resemblance to the simple pleasure of just listening to music.

Back at the mother app, a familiar voice concludes the journey: “Listen, learn and create… We’re on the brink of a revolution.” It is David Attenborough, an inspiration for Björk since childhood, and the perfect host for this ‘wonder of learning’ venture. The key phrase used by the veteran naturalist – the one that defines Biophilia – is “restless curiosity”. It seems neatly, definitively Björkian.

“I spend a lot of time working in the imaginary,” she explains. “For Biophilia, I was imagining instruments that didn’t exist, imagining apps that didn’t exist.”

Whatever else may be said about it, as a feat of imagination it is impressive. The project’s vast scope, meticulously drawn to perfection, crowns a career that’s always been unorthodox.

 Her name, the penchant for eye-catching outfits, a series of stunning videos that intelligently complement the music, and of course that gushing, fountain-like signature voice: each element has helped Björk chart a wilfully wayward course in a career that stretches back, remarkably, to 1977. That’s when she released her first album – a concoction of home-grown folk-pop augmented by Beatles and Melanie covers. Just 12, the early exposure could have prompted a Lena Zavaroni-style burn-out. Instead, the precocious music school prodigy became a teenage participant in Reykjavik’s anarcho-punk scene, before ascending to quirky alt.stardom in the late ’80s as part of The Sugarcubes.

Earth Mutha! Read MOJO's verdict on Björk's new album, Fossora

Always that band’s major asset, Björk kicked off an inevitable solo career in remarkable, icon-creating style with 1993’s beats-driven Debut. A huge international success, it became a platform for a career built on depth and innovation. Musically, this has led her through the neo-classical abstractions of Vespertine (2001) and the “epic playfulness” of the voice-dominated Medúlla (2004) to 2007’s career-condensing blow-out Volta. There have been diversions into art house cinema (Lars Von Trier’s grimly intense Dancer In The Dark, 2000), collaborations with her partner, American extreme-installation artist Matthew Barney, and wildly theatrical stage productions that bear little relation to the standard rock concert.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. In August 2010, Björk picked up Sweden’s prestigious Polar Music Prize, a Nobel gong of sorts, previously won by Paul McCartney and Pierre Boulez. “Björk is an untameable force of nature,” insisted the jury, “an artist who marches to nobody’s tune but her own.” Behind the scenes, however, it was feared that Björk’s idiosyncratic path had reached a dead end.

I didn’t know if I would sing again.

“When I discovered I had nodules on my voice,” she says, “I didn’t know if I would sing again, at least, not as I used to. I didn’t wanna have an operation, so I saw all these experts and started this process, exercises that slowly stretch out the vocal cords.” There were no guarantees that it would work.

Calamitous news emanating from her native Iceland in September 2008 also affected her badly. When the country’s three major banks collapsed, threatening to bankrupt the nation, Iceland was plunged into a major economic and political crisis. Björk was mortified. “Suddenly, I was surrounded by unemployment, bankruptcies, people who had worked hard all their lives who were like 60 years old and had lost their jobs.”

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, the record industry continued its seemingly irreversible meltdown. Then a revelation of sorts offered a glimmer of hope…

“It was the touchscreen that started this whole project off,” admits Björk, fast shaking off her initial guardedness. “We used Lemurs and Reactables for the Volta tour, and I was like, Wow! Technology doesn’t have to be clumsy and boring any more.”

Björk gave the Reactable – a touch-screen synthesizer – its live pop debut at Coachella in April, 2007. But it was the iPad that allowed her to write new music, with new shapes. “With the touchscreen in my lap,” she explains, “I could make one bass pattern shaped like a mountain, and the next one like a triangle. It was tactile and organic. All the patterns in house music had been so square.”

Thrilled to be able to compose visually, Björk next investigated algorithms – “the math of a pendulum swinging back and forth, or a pattern based on a waterfall or the sun’s movement in a single year. We’d programme this into the touchscreen, link it up with an acoustic instrument, then play it by moving one finger,” she says excitedly. “That for me was, like, total breakthrough. I was just having the fit of my life.”

But while new technology was working wonders, old ways of selling music were not. “I was in a spoilt position,” Björk admits, “knowing that I could make a living from music even though [CD] sales were dropping.” But she wasn’t happy. A warning sign came in 2003 when the industry succumbed to digital-piracy panic, and Björk broke with precedent by allowing her distributors into the studio to hear work-in-progress for Medúlla. “It was,” she says, “like the end of the world” – both for the industry and for a musician who guards her integrity as closely as she does.

“But afterwards I was like, Er, nothing’s changed. People still wanna make music and people still wanna listen to music.” It was, Björk concluded, the system itself that was wrong. With the contract-fulfilling Volta (“My ‘tribes of the planet’ album!”) behind her, Björk broke the habit of a lifetime and got hands-on with the business side of things: “I was tired of having the money people decide the model for how your music’s sold without the artist having a say.”

As the creative scope of Biophilia began to grow, necessitating discussions with Apple in California, National Geographic in New York and various organisations in Iceland, Björk ended up spending as much time in meeting rooms as she did tapping and swiping her touchscreen. Now, with the fruits of three years’ work about to go public, many are optimistic that Biophilia will pioneer a whole new way of packaging music.

“I’ve just come back from France,” she says, “where they were very excitable and saying exactly that. I was like, Thanks for the compliment, but that’s definitely not what I’m trying to do.”

Despite its scope, Björk sees Biophilia as the more humble antidote to 2007’s “very macho” Volta tour – her response to a build-up of serious cabin fever.

“I needed to get out there,” she reflects, “so I put all the bombastic songs from my past together in one show and toured all the big festivals. But by the end of it I was completely depleted of yang energy. All I wanted to do was to plant one little seed that was totally pure and watch it grow.”

For Björk, perversely perhaps, Biophilia is a return to purity, simplicity even. She points to a digital clock in the room. “I wouldn’t even be able to set that, you know, but touchscreen is back to basics, like picking up this spoon and hitting things with it.”

And with that, she takes the spoon, strikes her tea-cup, the sugar bowl and other random objects. It’s a spontaneous interlude of wonky atonality that brings a beaming smile to Björk’s face.

 Musical interlude over, Björk gets up on her feet and orders more coffee (“Two drinks on the go in case I run out of things to say”). She’s now clearly on the scent, apologising profusely for her “vomit of words”.

“Since I was a child, I’ve always written my songs while walking outside just inspired by nature and stuff,” she confides. “I’ve never written on a piano or a guitar. I always felt that when you worked on them, you’d end up writing songs like everybody else. I hadn’t realised until this project that nature had been my accompaniment all along.”

The imminent threat of ecological disaster in her homeland played another key role in the conception of Biophilia. A group of what she calls “insane venture capitalists” proposed covering the island with aluminium smelters, “so that it might have turned into Frankfurt or something.” Her low-level alternative, one of many proposed by environmental activists, was to build “a touchscreen music school for children” in one of the island’s many abandoned houses. “Each room was to be a song – water dripping in one, lightning playing the bassline in another, crystals growing in the next room, and as you walked up the stairs, each step would play a note in the scale.”

It didn’t happen. Neither did National Geographic’s proposal to make a Biophilia tie-in IMAX documentary, although Björk hopes they’ll collaborate on something “for the second stage of Biophilia”. Instead, in summer 2009, together with a small entourage of family and friends, she decamped to Puerto Rico where much of the material for Biophilia was worked up. “We were there for eight months,” she says. “I did my vocal exercises every day, swam in the ocean and made a pendulum out of bamboo twigs, string and a bucket. We bought organ pipes from eBay. It was all so DIY.” The Caribbean humidity was a tonic for Björk’s voice, but she did begin to wonder if they’d been away too long. “I realised that my daughter didn’t know some Icelandic children’s songs,” she deadpans. “I was like, No, this is not happening.”

Childlike is a popular descriptor for Björk, as hackneyed as “elfin”, but these days she probably wouldn’t object. Even on this evidence, she’s full of empathy for the young and appreciation of their creative instincts. “When I was in music school as a child, I was frustrated because they put so much importance on academic stuff,” she says. “You know, pick your instrument, rehearse it for 15 years and you might get lucky and join an orchestra. But when kids [aged] between five and seven make those drawings, you wanna frame every 
picture. Imagine if those kids were writing songs? They’d be incredible.”

For years, Björk had joked with friends about opening her own music school “when this pop thing’s done”. And with iPad now inexorably on the rise, her touchscreen music school idea is suddenly back on the agenda. Put simply, each of the rooms in her proposed “Icelandic music house” could be an app.

Sometimes, Björk’s proselytising for touchscreen technology can seem over-ardent, though as she reminds herself, “I’m not saying it’s for everyone”. And besides, the holistic, interdisciplinary approach of Biophilia is not without precedent. In a fevered moment of my own, its exploration of the parallels between music, science and nature brought to mind what Wagner termed Gesamtkunstwerk, a union of the arts bound together by a common purpose.

An album and a suite of apps, Biophilia (literally “a love of life”) is also an ever-growing multi-media project. Several custom-made instruments, including gamelan/celeste hybrid the Gameleste, pendulum harps and a Tesla coil that emits wild Dr Frankenstein electric bolts, brought a vaguely Heath Robinson feel to the season of shows premiering Biophilia at this summer’s Manchester International Festival. Eight further city residencies between now and 2014 are planned, each reprising the children’s workshop element that proved such a success in Manchester. There’s a documentary in the making, and a deluxe £500 ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Biophilia on the way, complete with a set of tuning forks.

Beyond her own plans, Björk has high hopes for iPad-enabled music. “It’s not my opinion that all bands should make apps,” she says, but she does envisage iPad jams in much the same way that folkies used to sit around a campfire. “And,” she adds with her customary spark of positivity, “downloads are just much more spontaneous,” hinting that she’ll likely be adding to the Biophilia app box as and when she feels like it.

The effort that’s gone into making Biophilia, and the potential future it signposts, has reinvigorated Björk. And her enthusiasm is infectious, even if one shudders at an imminent onslaught of opportunistic, poorly conceived ‘app albums’ motivated more by cash than creativity. It will, surely, reorient the album form to reflect the growing dominance of interactive entertainment. But can it hope to ever replace the album?

It feels churlish to mention it, though there is something I wanted Björk to know. Days earlier, while sitting in a sun-filled park watching butterflies flutter over flowerbeds, her All Is Full Of Love made the perfect soundtrack. It was a joy-filled reminder of music’s power – to intensify feeling, to illuminate the moment, to transport – in a way that no other art form can. Isn’t all this iPad stuff a bit of a distraction? Björk looks mildly crestfallen.

“Well, I’m happy to hear you say that,” she says, a little less than convincingly, “and if you just wanna buy the CD, you can.” She spent three years on Biophilia, she continues, stressing that over half that time was spent on the music. “I think that’s fair enough.”

Without diminishing the vision and vitality of Biophilia in all its multi-faceted glory, let’s spare a thought for Biophilia the album. While the app edition heralds the launch of the traditional ‘album’ into a different dimension, it still feels like a warm-up for the real thing, as much appetiser as application. The full-scale venture into the sublime, I suspect, will demand settling back, finger-sliding the iPad to sleep mode, and cranking the CD player up to 10.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 216.

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