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Björk: guided by voices

Bjork GBV-longread lead

Despite shunning all instruments except the human voice, Björk’s sixth album Medúlla is less concerned with human nature than with nature itself

Taken from the September 2004 issue of Dazed in celebration of her retrospective MOMA exhibition. Read the rest of our Björk archive here

Never, in the 20 years that Björk Gudmundsdóttir has been transmitting wave after wave of distilled human spirit, has mass communication ever felt so intimate. All is given and all is full of love. But if the indivisibility of her art from her being is her gift, it is also her curse. Björk is not the elfin, crystalline creature of popular myth. She is a working mum who likes to party; a hardened traveller who can take care of herself; and an overgrown punk who doesn’t give a shit. She is brave, not eccentric; passionate not irrational. Björk’s emphasis on the album as the focus of her unified approach to each new phase of her creative development – music, artwork, videos, clothes, make-up, all working together – is what makes her equally important a figure in the worlds of fashion, film and art as she is in music. It is also why, at times, the most exceptional of her many gifts is sometimes overlooked – her voice.

At home in Iceland, of course, it was precisely this prodigious singing talent that first brought the pre-teen Björk to public attention. The rest of us, meanwhile, didn't have our first encounter until she emerged rebelling against her cherubic self, hiding her virtuoso skill under a punk veneer with The Sugarcubes, or later still, shouting, albeit gloriously, through a club PA. It was her drama, energy and otherness that hooked us – the revelation, later, of one of the most glorious singing voices of our time was an unexpected bonus. As such, the prospect of a vocal-only Björk album is one that has had her legion of dedicated followers in paroxysms of anticipation for months. If a ‘normal’ Björk album feels like a private dialogue between her and a million estranged souls, then Medúlla makes a closer connection still. Perhaps that's her second greatest gift – connecting with people. Even more than on previous albums, Medúlla evidences Björk’s unmatched ability to make meaningful creative and personal connections with all kinds of people from all corners of the world.

Alongside longstanding beat-programming partners Matmos (San Francisco), Mark Bell (Manchester) and super-mixer Spike Stent, there are vocal contributions from former Faith No More turned Fantômas/Mr Bungle frontman Mike Patton, ex-Roots beatbox maestro Rahzel, Canadian Inuit throat singer Tanya Gillis AKA Tagaq, quirky Japanese a cappella king Dokaka, singer/songwriter Robert Wyatt and classical vocalist Gregory Purnhagen. Not to mention the full majesty of both the Icelandic and London choirs. After the ultimate mass communication with an estimated four billion TV viewers as part of the Athens Olympics opening ceremony this month, Medúlla may well be her most intimate transmission yet.

Björk: In the beginning you are like a sponge, just soaking everything up. And then there is always a turning point, when you realise, ‘OK, that's it, I know what I'm going to do now,’ and you put the blinders on and just march on until it's done. You can never choose when that moment will come, it just happens. I think on Vespertine I got a bit too clever for my own good – it was important for me to do something intellectual, more in my head – but I wanted to do the opposite this time, a totally compulsive, blood-and-muscle kind of album. I didn't want any rules this time. But then somehow it developed into an even more disciplined idea than before.

How did that happen?

Björk: Well it was totally spontaneous, it wasn't planned. For the last year, whenever I've got too tipsy, instead of playing Michael Jackson and Peaches and dancing on the table and taking my top off, I've been turning the music off and making everyone do a cappella music together. It's excellent. I've recorded all my mates making fools out of themselves, doing beatboxing and, like, death metal guitar solos with their mouths, you name it. But everyone except me! I should really do it myself too, shouldn't I? Bit unfair really, isn't it? Probably bad karma or something. So anyway, when I started recording bits for the album I was being like a difficult teenager. Every time I put an instrument into a song I didn't like it, so I would replace it with another voice, and before I knew it I started getting obsessed with all kinds of a cappella music. I was doing it just to be silly at first, but when I started connecting to people, all the people who said ‘let's do something together’ all happened to be vocalists. So it just happened.

So that was the turning point this time?

Björk: I had been recording things and playing around with stuff on my computer all over the place – New York, Brazil, England, Iceland. Then, last winter I went to La Comera, a little studio I found on a tiny, untouristy island in the Canaries. It's run by an English guy and his family, it's basically their living room. I was their first customer. It was kind of nice to travel to this tiny island that looked a bit like Iceland except it's hot. There's nobody to distract you, and you get to have dinner with English people and argue about the football or watch Kylie in the evenings. I liked that. It was nice. Then I went home to Iceland for Christmas, and for the first time I listened through what I had in perfect quiet and realised there was enough for a whole album with just voices, so I thought, ‘Why not?’

“When foreign people go through problems, like messy divorces, they suddenly start going to church more. In Iceland we start going into nature more” — Björk 

Do you think you work better when you set yourself rules and restrictions?

Björk: Maybe, yeah. I really loved doing the music for Dancer in the Dark (2000) because I love challenges and I could only use sounds that were in the room in that scene. And we did the music before we filmed it, so I had to think really carefully about what the different characters would sound like and how they would be feeling. It is liberating when it’s not about you and your emotions. I would actually love to do something like that again. 

As someone who places a lot of emphasis on the album as the focus of each new phase, and yet has always embraced technology, how do you feel about the potential threat to the future of the album from the MP3?

Björk: I’m not sure, really. Previous formats have all come from the market, not the people that actually make music. And there have always been limitations from somewhere. When the church asked composers to write hymns, they knew it had to be three minutes long, the lyrics have to be about Jesus and all that. And only 100 or 150 years ago, when composers wrote a piece of work, they were lucky if they heard it twice in their lifetime! Can you imagine? So I feel pretty spoilt rotten right now. Me doing a totally vocal album is a pretty good example of someone who is spoilt for choice and can do whatever they want, putting my own restrictions on myself.

How did you meet Rahzel?

Björk: Mike (Patton) introduced us. It’s funny, because at first I thought if you are gonna do an a cappella album, rule number one is you don’t get Bobby McFerrin, rule two, you don’t get Manhattan Transfer and rule three, you don’t get a human beatbox. It’s just too predictable. But then when I saw Rahzel performing with Mike, he was way above and beyond any cliche. He’s not just a bag of tricks either, he’s really musically sensitive, too. I heard him do Kelis’s ‘Milkshake’ track, the whole thing, all at once, in one take: vocals, backing vocals, beats, bassline, everything. I know a lot about some nerdy specialist music but I knew nothing about him before. I was so amazed, he is incredible.

Do you feel as a singer you are still learning and improving?

Björk: I can be a totally analytical, self-indulgent nerd when it comes to arrangements and production but with my voice, I try not to be like that at all. It’s sacred to me, like my kid or something, I just let it be whatever it is. So I am the last person who could know what my voice is like, to see the changes from one album to the next. I guess, when I started in the punk scene, a lot of people here in Iceland had never heard that way of singing before, so it kind of got really beaten up, a bit of rough treatment – which of course you love when you’re a punk! But it wasn’t until I started getting recognition from abroad with The Sugarcubes that it suddenly changed. You know, it’s the insecurities of a small place, it’s like, ‘Oh, the foreigners like her now, that must mean she is great,’ so there was a lot of fighting against those prejudices.

Have you ever had any formal vocal training?

Björk: Only once. In the summer of 95, after everything went a bit crazy for me, I overworked myself and ended up having to cancel, for the only time in my life, three shows in California. I couldn’t even speak. I got a vocal trainer, who worked with me for the rest of that tour. He taught me a lot of tricks and techniques that I adapted and made my own. But what was most interesting about it was meeting someone who was so passionate about teaching, not just singing, but teaching. He taught me to be interested in being a teacher. So now, working with all these singers, for the first time in my life, I can share something that I am actually pretty good at. When I was working with orchestras, I was an amateur, saying things like, ‘But what if you use your bow upside down?’ – just being a bit punk or whatever. That was interesting too, but with the singers, I could tell just by listening to one take, if they needed a rest, or what exercises would work, little things like that. It was kind of nice to be able to use my intuition as a fellow singer. It was fun. I can imagine becoming a teacher sometimes.

Do you think the full potential of the human voice is under-explored in popular music?

Björk: In some ways, yes, I think the human voice could be explored a lot more. But then there’s nothing worse than those singers who just show off. If it doesn’t flow with any tension or emotion or reason, it’s pointless. There are certain people that are just incredible, though, people who have definitely added to the field, like Klaus Nomi or Nina Hagen or Freddie Mercury. It’s their life – the stance, the philosophy, the humour...

“It would be a victory for politicians if music had to take stand against a political leader – then you would have lost why music exists in thie first place” — Björk 

Who’s the greatest ever?

Björk: I know it’s very predictable, but I have to say Aretha Franklin. She is outrageous. She is this natural phenomenon, but she is also a populist, she’s in both worlds. Also there is this guy called Alim Qasimov from Azerbaijan who I saw sing live in Morocco six years ago. He’s not well known in the west, but honestly, I think he is probably the best singer alive in the world today. Technically and emotionally he is just incredible.

Did you try and get in touch with him for this record?

Björk: No. Maybe I will one day. With someone like that, someone who is part of thousands of years of tradition, you have to do a lot of homework, to give him what he deserves and treat his music with respect. Like in Afghanistan, for example, there is one scale for love songs, another you can write songs about regret in, another for passion and so on. If you write a song in the wrong scale, you get put in jail! Call the police! He sang out of key! I hate it with world music when people sample something and stick it on top of a house beat or whatever, just for decoration. It should be illegal, actually. I know for myself, being from Iceland and being treated in the press by, if you like, ‘the imperial countries’, and being made out as something weird and exotic. You become like a tiger stuffed and mounted on the wall. I’m lucky because I’ve always been able to defend myself, but that’s why I would never treat other singers in the same way, to use them just as a flashing neon sign of exoticism. The way I have worked with Tanya (Gillis) was really great because I waited until both of us were able to spend a proper amount of time together to create something together from scratch as equals, as human beings. Not as the weird Icelandic one meets the freaky Eskimo one.

Are you someone who needs to get back to nature on a regular basis?

Björk: I’m really lucky because in New York I live 30 minutes outside the city in a forest, and in Reykjavik I don’t feel like I’m in the city, so the majority of the time I am away from civilisation. That’s why, after working really hard, I love to dress up, put on my high heels and lipstick and go into town and get tipsy and dance to some really rude urban electronic music. Just to get the other extreme, as brutal as it can be. 

Do you think it is the elemental environment in Iceland that gives the people their unique characteristics?

Björk: Over the years I’ve been asked a lot of questions about what makes Icelandic people so special. I used to talk a lot about things like elves and isolation, but as I get older I think, especially with what’s going on in the world today, perhaps what really makes us stand out is the lack of religion. Give me a few bottles of red wine and I could probably go into that one all night. It’s just amazing talking to friends, especially from the States, who will tell you that half of their teachers at school were religious fanatics. I never had any religion imposed on me, I went to church maybe twice as a child. I find that when a lot of foreign people go through problems, like messy divorces, they suddenly start going to church more. In Iceland you wouldn’t do that, you'd start going into nature more. The difference is, as you grow up, you don’t expect anyone else to sort out your problems – a priest or a president or a god or any kind of authority to surrender to or seek punishment or guilt from. If you are in trouble, you have to sort it out yourself. There are plenty of things we’re not good at, though. We’re hopeless at teamwork because everybody is so independent.

Do you think, on average, opinions in Iceland on Bush and the war in Iraq are closer to the US or Europe?

Björk: I would say it is closer to Europe. There is a US military base here and if the soldiers go into town, they get beaten up. They just hang out at the base, they don’t mingle. We have the same thing that you have in Britain, that, like Blair, our prime minister is totally pro-Bush even though the majority of Icelandic people are totally against the war. Iceland was the second country after Spain to support the war, totally against public opinion. I’m excited, though. There is going to be a general election here soon and it seems the same thing is happening here, where this old-school white, male capitalism is collapsing. I don’t know what would take over, but almost anything else would be better. I think it is very important that music remains outside politics, or beyond politics. It would be a victory for politicians if music had to take a stand against a political leader – then you would have lost why music exists in the first place. Without being too serious about it, living in Manhattan after 9/11, patriotism suddenly didn’t seem like a good idea. Civilisation didn’t seem like a good idea. Religion didn’t seem like a good idea. This is definitely an album made under those circumstances. By playing with the whole raw thing, it was an attempt to come up with music that exists outside of all that, that isn’t linked to any culture, religion or ideology. To me, being anti-war is just as war-minded as being pro-war. It’s the same thing, it’s still allowing yourself to be drawn into the fight. What is most brutal about Bush and those people is they think that their black-and-white way of seeing things is how everyone should see things. They can’t see that there are a million other things going on. Life is so colourful and rich and they don’t see it.

Read the rest of our Björk archive here