The Icelandic musician, who made her latest album on an iPad, shares her latest obsessions with us – from waterfronts to fado music, coconuts to surreal cinema
Last July, at the tiny Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Björk revealed her Biophilia project. Considering that her Vespertine tour had employed a 70-strong orchestra local to each city, while the Volta shows made use of brass and choirs in a riot of neon, lasers and what appeared to be giant silly string, it was remarkable to see that, even by her standards, she was continuing to push the performance of live music into another realm. This time, the booming voice of Sir David Attenborough introduced videos about nature to a soundtrack of bespoke instruments controlled by iPad apps, including a pendulum that plucked strings as it swung, and a giant Tesla coil that emitted a bone-rattling melody, unamplified.
Since then, Biophilia has continued to evolve as it slowly makes its way around the world (unlike a traditional city-to-city tour, she sets up camp in one place for a number of weeks). I visited the show in Reykjavik in October and took part in the educational programme that accompanies it, where scientists show local kids the principles behind the instruments. This involved learning about soundwaves and trying out a Tibetan copper singing bowl, naturally.
Earlier this year, it reached New York, where the Hall of Science in Queens played host. Outside, disused Nasa rockets stood tall in the gardens; inside, Björk played to 600 people in a round chamber fashioned into a venue, made more spectacular by its surrounding walls of dark glass, meant to look like the night sky. There, the education programme continued, where a tour of the museum’s usual exhibition, connected to the themes of the show, was recommended before the performance kicked off. Earlier that day, I sat in on schoolchildren from the area learning about arpeggios and lightning, then putting this into practice with a chance to take a turn on the Tesla coil. Only the bravest ones agreed (it’s very, very loud).
Biophilia recently reached South America, but due to ongoing problems with vocal cord nodules, several concerts had to be cancelled. Björk rests her voice between shows anyway, so we talked over email about some of her current inspirations. Unsurprisingly these are a broad and varied bunch, from a novel by the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who died last year, to the experimental rap of California’s Death Grips, who provided new takes on Sacrifice and Thunderbolt for her ongoing remix series. She is also a fan of harbours, Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen, and coconut water.
My friend Leila Arab turned me on to them. I love their songs, especially Full Moon (Death Classic) and Guillotine. Intense rapping, lyrics and lush beats. It’s all good. They stand out because they’re visceral, but also the global, fresh mix of a black English guy and a white Cali drummer and punk and hip-hop. Mostly I don’t listen to experimental rap but in between there are gems, the same with all music genres. I like Titica, the Angolan transsexual rapper; Rye Rye; Clipse are always good, and more …
I’ve been listening to her for years, but I just watched a documentary about her – so much raw emotion! And free of so many complications that music has sometimes. The music is just very direct, simple and strong, free of filigree. She’s direct to the heart. Her intimate collaboration with Portugal’s poets is admirable. She definitely stuck by her rifles. And it’s good to know that she was part of making the fado style. I first came across it, I would guess, 15 years ago. It has the same rawness as flamenco but it’s less flamboyant, and more stern and stark somehow.
I just went there, because we were playing some concerts in South America, and it was Easter. The people there are patriotic and rightfully so – Polynesian, charming and direct. It’s gorgeous for walks and I could really relate to the size of the island and its remoteness. It’s like Iceland, but more extreme – when the land you live in is like your silhouette, like an extension of what you are wearing. And the myth about the man swimming to those even tinier islands to bring back a tern egg on his head is not a myth, but true! And those terns fly to Iceland in our summer. The same ones!
The rainforest climate
I need it, I need it, I need it. I found it is actually so good for my voice, too. Seventy per cent humidity is ideal for vocal cords. It is and it isn’t different to what I grew up with – Iceland is very humid, but not as warm. I was hiking in Costa Rica a few weeks ago, and was crying inside myself. I wanted never to leave.
A maker of beats with huge amounts of energy. Direct! He was recommended to me. Each noise has a lot of energy. Where is he getting it from? His food? If drum’n'bass is good, it still inspires me.
He had a big exhibition in Buenos Aires where I just was. I really enjoy how he is weaving together modern and more natural ethnic stuff. So rare! And it has a sense of celebration to it, which seems, unfortunately, to be illegal in the art world. I’m not sure why it’s lacking … Some of that world is a little dry.
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
This book is so inspiring! You English should be proud of her. The book seems destined to be a movie.Free-flowing, spiky imagination. I love its freedom, its humour and how it invents its own laws. What specifically do I take from her? Her wig.
It was called The Sandglass in English. It’s based on a novel by Bruno Schulz. I feel the word “surreal” has been totally overused as a fancy word for weird, but this film is truly surreal for me, where you enter the dream, and the seamless connection between it and the emotional life … I have rarely seen this documented so well in a film. It is a state of mind. I recognise the sense of wonder.
She is an incredible Sufi singer with a gorgeous voice. It’s interesting to hear those poems sung by a woman. Female energy is different somehow, not better, just different … more pure emotion, and more open somehow. More receptive. It’s hard to describe. I’m on a slippery slope describing sound!
Their new album is coming out and I am so excited! They’re truly talented, one of the most interesting groups to come from that side of the Atlantic. David [Longstreth] has an almost psychic ability to write for other voices – his melody lines have a different character depending on who they are written for. And he is a great singer himself, too. I feel really lucky to have been a fly-on-the-wall and witnessed them growing, because they are good, but their best is yet to come. David wrote melody lines for me in the Mount Wittenberg piece, and it was the second time I’d experienced that (the other time was with John Tavener). I feel really honoured to be an instrument, to be their extension. We haven’t performed it live yet though. Hopefully soon.
I love it so much! It’s the most alkaline thing you can find and I use it for everything. Did you know you can have a total blood transfusion with it? Nutritionally, it’s the only thing you could survive on alone! Just that and you’d be getting all you need. Handy to know for when one is stuck on a desert island.
I love hiking in Iceland most, there are lots of brilliant paths. I also enjoyed hiking in Idaho, and Yakushima, the Japanese rainforest island that Princess Mononoke was based on. Magical! There’s something about the rhythm of walking, how, after about an hour and a half, the mind and body can’t help getting in sync. I have written most of my melodies walking and I feel it is definitely one of the most helpful ways of sewing all of the different things in your life together and seeing the whole picture. I have to say, hiking in cities doesn’t do the same trick for me. It has to be rural.
Alejandro Jodorowsky on YouTube
I’ve been watching some interviews with him about psychomagic, and his episode about tarot. It’s pretty excellent. I like how he is passionate and matter-of-fact about these things that are too often dealt with with whimsical new-age-ness. Overall, I really enjoy a lot of South America’s take on modernity and nature.
Waterfronts in cities
As you have probably gathered by now, I have a complicated relationship with cities. The majority of touring I have done, for more than two-thirds of my life, has been to cities. What has always saved me is walks on harbours, on waterfronts. Or in some crazy-ass metropolis such as Hong Kong, to go to the top of skyscrapers and get a bit of sky. Ever since I moved to New York for half of my time, 12 years ago, my little family has been juggling this. We started by getting a tiny, scruffy old boat, then a huge one we were going to live on full-time, and how we have one in the middle, just right. When the concrete matrix gets too much, you can speed up and down the canals, off the grid.
One Little Indian Records is releasing an eight-part series of remixes of tracks from Björk’s Biophilia, on 12in, CD and download. The series began in April and features a new collaboration every two weeks with artists Current Value, 16-bit, King Cannibal, Death Grips, El Guincho, Matthew Herbert, Hudson Mohawke, Alva Noto and These New Puritans. Each entry in the series will also be made available in a 500-piece limited edition deluxe package designed by m/m with special blue mineral papers and embossed foil lettering consisting of a 12in LP and CD.
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