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Björk: utopia now

‘I needed to find a new manifesto’ — back with a brutal and breathtaking new album, the avant-pop prodigy pierces her ‘heartbreak bubble’ with a blueprint for utopia

Taken from the autumn issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

Björk Guðmundsdóttir is DJing at Barcelona’s Fira Montjuïc, and the room is sweating. She’s playing a special four-hour set to open Sónar Festival, and over the course of the night the music has been oscillating between aggressive and sensual sounds – a neck-snapping polyrhythm might mutate into a Rihanna vocal, a guttural bassline into ecstatic R&B. The crowd, a mixture of both 20-something clubbers and older fans, are transfixed as they watch the Icelandic pop icon make her selections from a stage made to resemble a hothouse, densely packed with potted plants.

“When I DJ, I’ll be crying over the most beautiful Bollywood vocals in the universe, and then I’ll play the most brutal, banging techno set for half an hour straight,” says Björk. “I’ve always had this taste. I like things that are pretty, and I like things that are very brutal.”

It’s the day before her set, and we’re meeting the musician in her room at the modernist hotel she’s staying in downtown. She’s wearing a pink and silver metallic sari – a comparatively casual affair next to the all-white, Leigh Bowery-esque bodysuit and facemask she’ll be playing in tomorrow. We’re here to listen to her new, currently untitled ninth album, which she’s been working on for the past two years, beginning almost immediately after releasing her last full-length Vulnicura at the start of 2015. Leaning over her laptop, she explains to me that it’s the first time she’s played it to anyone outside of “three or four friends” in her close inner circle.

The push-and-pull between beauty and brutality may have been a defining element of Björk’s music for the past four decades, but it’s come to the fore in recent years. Vulnicura saw Björk address her split from Matthew Barney – the avant-garde artist she’d been in a relationship with for 13 years – in unflinching terms. For an artist whose previous albums had explored topics like the primal nature of the human voice (2004’s Medúlla) and the relationship between biology and technology (2011’s Biophilia), such a personal, intimate narrative was striking. But even though it contains some of her most spellbinding compositions, Vulnicura remains a tough album to revisit, as if the listener is committing an act of emotional voyeurism. “Maybe I understood, as a musician, that if that album was going to make any sense, I had to not beautify anything – just show all the rawness and the visceral core,” she reflects today.

By contrast, Björk’s new album feels lighter than air. Even in its unfinished form, it feels like the weight of Vulnicura has been lifted, the elegiac string arrangements replaced by flutes and woodwind instruments, the compositions punctuated by the sound of birdsong and the natural world. There are still moments of harshness, of course. Like Vulnicura, it’s once again co-produced with Alejandro Ghersi (better known as Venezuelan artist Arca), whose twisted take on electronic music gives many of the songs their unusual form, while Texas-based producer Rabit provides a crushing jackhammer rhythm on one of its tracks. But even these act to contrast with the buoyant sound of the rest of the album, providing an overall feeling of weightlessness, an unwavering up-ness.

“It’s natural for me, maybe more subconsciously than consciously, that whatever I do on one album, I tend to do the opposite of on the next,” says Björk. “I did Homogenic and that was very big – big beats, touring, a billion gigs around the world, probably the most rock’n’roll I’ve ever been – and then I went home and did Vespertine, which was very petite and micro. I think that the same thing has happened here. Vulnicura was very, like, warts-and-all – you’re in the centre of something very personal. I think I needed to zoom out and find a new manifesto.”

Björk’s career has been defined by shapeshifting and about-turns. In 1977, when she was just 11 years old, she recorded her first album, a novelty set featuring covers of The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. But when she was offered the chance to do a follow-up, she declined – she wanted to focus on writing her own music instead. Even at this young age, she seemed destined to go wherever her muse took her: Björk's subsequent teenage years saw her immersed in Iceland’s punk and experimental scenes, playing with Spit and Snot before fronting the temperamental Tappi Tíkarrass (translation: ‘Cork the Bitch’s Arsehole’) and the convention-shattering Kukl.

“(The new album is) my Tinder album... It is definitely about that search – and about being in love. Spending time with a person you enjoy on every level is obviously utopia, you know?” – Björk

Between the mid-1980s and early 90s, Björk released three studio albums with the alt-rock group The Sugarcubes. At the height of their success they were playing stadiums supporting U2, but Björk’s interests lay elsewhere, and she was soon pursuing a solo career, ditching guitars to immerse herself in the UK’s electronic scene. Her first three solo albums – 1993’s Debut, 1995’s Post and 1997’s Homogenic – remain among the most ambitious of that decade, establishing Björk as one of pop’s true renegades: a singular voice, a sonic adventurer driven by an insatiable curiosity and relentless pursuit of the new, and a talent who could terraform electronic subcultures into her unique strain of avant-pop.

2001’s Vespertine took a different tack: largely recorded at home on her laptop, its more pastoral, delicate sound explored Björk’s nascent romance with Matthew Barney (they would have a daughter together, Isadora, a year later). The rest of the decade was defined by more esoteric records like Medúlla, made almost entirely using the human voice, and Volta, a rousing eco-political assault on the senses. 2012’s Biophilia was released as a series of apps, setting the tone for other technological experiments like her recent travelling exhibition Björk Digital, which transformed tracks from Vulnicura into immersive 3D music videos.

Björk explains that her new album is an exploration of utopia, with its writing process coinciding with some of the biggest political upheavals in recent history. Against a backdrop of rising xenophobia and the looming threat of climate catastrophe, the album asks whether paradise is possible. “Maybe that’s why it became a utopian theme – if we’re gonna survive not only my personal drama but also the sort of situation the world is in today, we’ve got to come up with a new plan,” she says. “If we don’t have the dream, we’re just not gonna change. Especially now, this kind of dream is an emergency.”

The album isn’t capital ‘P’ political – Björk always hesitated to describe herself as a political artist, even after releasing the angry, supercharged Volta – but it does paint an optimistic view of the future, pointing to a path that puts love at the centre of resistance. “When we started talking, we were talking a lot about the concept of paradise, knowing it’s kind of an unattainable thing but we’re always striving for it,” says Andrew Thomas Huang, a video artist whose first collaboration with Björk came in 2012. Huang and Björk recently returned from LA, where they were shooting a video for new track “The Gate” — the LP’s debut single, which was announced today — which sees the musician wearing a bespoke dress designed by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and a headpiece by regular collaborator James Merry. “‘The Gate’ is essentially a love song, but I say ‘love’ in a more transcendent way. Vulnicura was about a very personal loss, and I think this new album is about a love that’s even greater. It’s about rediscovering love – but in a spiritual way, for lack of a better word.”

For Björk, who grew up amid Iceland’s gnarly volcanic terrain, it’s perhaps unsurprising that her own vision of utopia is one that puts humanity in harmony with nature. “I’ve been talking about environmentalism for the last 20 years, about green energy and solar power and how technology is what’s going to help us collaborate with nature in a non-violent, amicable, collaborative way,” she says. “I talk about it a lot with my friend Anohni – she started the Future Feminism group. There’s this old argument that civilisation treats nature the same as man treats women – you have to oppress it and dominate in order to progress. I just don’t agree with that. There is another way.”

Emphasising these links to the natural world are the tranquil sounds of birdsong that appear between tracks. While some of these are field recordings made by Björk herself, others were collected by musician David Toop on the 1980 release Hekura. It’s a subtle way of linking Björk’s past to her present: she describes Toop’s recordings as one of her favourite albums, while the nature of the sounds – captured in Venezuela in the 1970s – connects to her co-producer Arca’s home country.

“‘The Gate’ is essentially a love song, but I say ‘love’ in a more transcendent way” – Andrew Thomas Huang

Björk’s relationship with Ghersi is the key to unlocking this record – it’s impossible to fully capture the joy that finds its way into her voice as she talks about working with him. “It’s the strongest musical relationship I’ve had,” she beams. “I hope this doesn’t sound too megalomaniacal, but I’m gonna blush now and just be brave and do it. My favourite albums are Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, where Joni Mitchell worked with Jaco Pastorius, and you can tell they’re doing the tango. It’s that synergy when two people lose their ego.”

Björk brings a new track up on her laptop, “Allow”. It’s one of the most straightforward, melodic songs that she’s played so far, though she isn’t sure if she’ll include it on the final record. The song illustrates the way that her relationship with Ghersi has developed over time. “We had a lot of holidays together,” she says. “(A group of us) got Airbnbs in the Caribbean. We’d walk in the jungles, recording birds. The lyrics are very much like that. Just us, swimming in the ocean for days. On day nine, that song just happened.”

While Björk and Ghersi established their relationship on Vulnicura, it wasn’t until halfway through the album’s writing that the producer came onboard. This time around, they worked together from the start, a process that Björk says is completely new to her. Ghersi knew Björk’s discography inside out – he’d been a fan since he was a kid – and encouraged her to pursue a direction she’d hinted at on obscure cuts like “Batabid” (a synth track from her Vespertine era) and “Ambergris March” (from the Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack). “It grew very naturally,” says Björk. “A musical conversation that was cross-generational, cross-Atlantic, him encouraging me to go into this area that I sort of suggested years ago, but didn’t necessarily go all the way.”

At the same time, Björk was encouraging Ghersi to sing on his own records, introducing him to her vocal trainer. The result was his self-titled album Arca, released earlier this year, that saw the producer bring breathtaking, operatic vocals to his production. “She’s given me advice on anything, (from) live shows, arranging, how to breathe, how to sing, when to bow, when to fight, when to search, when to hold stillness,” says Ghersi. “It’s not just advice as a musician, it’s how she unlocks things in others simply by seeing them on a deep level.”

Björk and Ghersi’s friendship also led her to a host of DJs and producers from the global club-music community, many of them from LGBTQ and other marginalised backgrounds. Shortly after Vulnicura’s release, I remember seeing people talk on social media about nights she’d been at, or seeing her party alongside underground DJs like Lotic, Total Freedom, and her friends at the Tri Angle Records crew. I even came face-to-face with her at Tropical Waste, a basement night in Stoke Newington, London, where producers Kamixlo and Kablam were playing explosive sets. “Was that in the cellar?” she laughs. “That was a really good night!” It seemed to me like catharsis – partying to get over the end of a painful breakup – though she’s quick to offer a counterpoint. “I mean, obviously I’m a very sensible person too,” she says. “I’ve been a single mum since I was 20.”

Meeting that group of people, at that time, was an important healing experience. “I guess when I came out of this ‘heartbreak bubble’, it was like there were some karma points I’d earned earlier,” she says. “Somehow, life took care of me. These people who were from another generation approached me, and by some blessing – I was definitely not planning it – there seemed to be a conversation I could be a part of. I’m very grateful for that. It’s given me a lot. I’ve been really, really flattered by some of these people taking me to a corner in the club, telling me that I saved their 11-year-old, confused selves. I unknowingly planted some seeds there.”

“Iceland is weird... We have this group mentality, a strange mix of anarchy and a total hate of authority. We don’t like being told what to do” – Björk 

Eric Burton, who produces as Rabit, released his debut album Communion on Tri Angle in 2015. Burton met Björk at a party two years ago and, after he learned that she’d made some mixes of his tracks for her DJ set, they ended up collaborating, with Burton adding production to one of the new album’s immediate highlights, “Loss”. “The song that we made is pure feeling,” says Burton. “It’s my first outside production work – it’s important that it means something. Thoughts and ideas have wings; we talked about this a lot throughout the process. How force of will is the ultimate force – our ability to choose. I think that the world needs a reminder of that right now. That’s what the song is to me, and why it’s so necessary.”

Björk’s recent flurry of DJ sets has taken her everywhere from Texas to Tokyo, but, as she explains, DJing is something she’s been doing back home for years: “Iceland is weird. It doesn’t really have a hierarchy – like, you’ll see the president at the supermarket. If you’re in a bar and the music’s not good, you fix it. When I’m with my Icelandic friends, they’ll be like, ‘Ugh, this is rubbish!’ and plug their phone in at the bar. We have this group mentality, a strange mix of anarchy and a total hate of authority. We don’t like being told what to do.”

She’s recently taken this attitude with her to New York City, where she and her daughter Isadora live when they’re not in Iceland. Just a few days before our interview, she was spotted DJing, unannounced, at a RuPaul’s Drag Race afterparty in Bushwick. “I DJed with Robin Carolan from Tri Angle Records. I’d play one song, he’d play one song, back and forth. It’s the same energy as when I go out in Reykjavik – we’re just trying to make it really casual, so it’s not like people are staring at you and you’re on a pedestal.”

In previous interviews, Björk has been vocal about her love of Drag Race. As she explains, watching it has become something of an event with her daughter. The love goes both ways, too, with one contestant impersonating Volta-era Björk for a segment on the show. With the latest season’s finale taking place a week after our interview, I ask her who she’d like to win. “I’m going to get in trouble if I say,” she laughs, covering her mouth with her hand. “I keep forgetting people know who I am and if I say something, the internet goes upside down, so I’m gonna keep it a secret – but I’m going to Iceland next week and we’re all watching the finale in my cabin.”

Björk may be searching for utopia in an unstable world, but at the same time, it seems like she’s having more fun than she ever has right now. I’m not surprised when she describes her new record as a ‘dating album’. “It’s like my Tinder album,” she says slyly. “It is definitely about that search – and about being in love. Spending time with a person you enjoy on every level is obviously utopia, you know? I mean, it’s real. It’s when the dream becomes real.”

On the subject of love, one moment on the album sticks out. While Björk says her lyrics shouldn’t be read as 100 per cent biographical, one song, “Features Creatures”, describes the feeling of seeing someone with the same beard and the same accent as a lover. Is she talking about anyone specific? “Yeah,” she says sheepishly, holding back a smile that’s creeping across her face. She doesn’t want to say any more. “I mean, I’ve thought about what I would say here – I set myself up with the last album being a heartbreak album, so everyone’s gonna be like, ‘Are you married?’ with this one. But… it’s too fragile still. I think, if I could, I’d just say this is my dating album. Let’s just leave it there.”

“I like really open situations – being on the dancefloor at three in the morning, losing myself, but also going to my cabin by the lake the next day and playing the flute” – Björk

It leaves me thinking that the record is as much about discovering a personal paradise as building one for the planet, an idea she expresses in another, as-yet untitled new song on the album. “I got a cabin by a lake in Iceland three years ago,” says Björk, drawing herself closer. “I like really open situations – being on the dancefloor at three in the morning, losing myself, but also going to my cabin by the lake the next day and playing the flute. That, for me, is also utopia. Being in love, in the countryside, in nature, with the lake and the sky. That’s enough. You don’t need anything more.”

Hair Shon at Julian Watson Agency, make-up Isamaya Ffrench at Streeters, set design Arthur De Borman, photography assistant Thomas Rigarde, styling assistants Katie McGoldrick, Pablo Martin-Ortiz, hair assistant Kazuhiro Naka, make-up assistant Yoana Pj, set design assistant Nicholas Hancock, digital operator Chloe Cohen, production Juliette Larthe, Hannah May, Hannah Bellil at Prettybird, production assistant Ella Knight, on-set production Kitten Paris, special thanks Jerry Stafford, 6up, Salo, Iris van Herpen