Björk: “First you create a universe with sound, then you move into it”

The pandemic and the death of a parent saw the Icelandic icon strengthen her roots with home. In her first NME cover interview in two decades, the polymath talks new album ‘Fossora’, fungus and fighting sexism with Kate Bush

“It’s a sunny day here in Iceland, so it’s looking good!” bursts Björk. Warmly energetic as she calls NME from her home in Reykjavík, she tells us what a wild Friday night looks like for her these days.

“I’m going to go berry picking!” she replies, with her idiosyncratic blend of Icelandic, mockney twang and ever-rolling R’s. “I’m not really a jam person – my family and I mostly do the hand-to-mouth method. The moss around the lava all around Reykjavík is covered in berries. People just sort of sit on the ground and pick them straight into their mouths. It has the most vitamins to do it straight. Just like breastmilk, right?”

Homeliness, finding fun where you can, and getting everything you need from the ground around you are all elemental of Björk’s effervescent 10th album ‘Fossora’. On the first of our two chats through the summer, she confesses it’s just her third interview so far on her first record since the blissed-out folktronica of 2017’s ‘Utopia’. “I still don’t know how to talk about it – I don’t know if that’s good or bad for you,” she laughs. So we start with the big C word; but COVID life for Björk had much more silver lining than black cloud compared to most of us.

Björk hadn’t spent much of her life sitting still until this moment. Having launched a solo career aged just 11 and joining punk band Tappi Tíkarrass (which translates to ‘Cork The Bitch’s Ass’) as a teen, she would later team up with post-punks Kukl before experiencing proper international success with cult art-rockers The Sugarcubes; megastar solo fame would follow.

Looking over the pandemic, she notes how “lucky” she was to have a homeland able to close itself off and not have as many day-to-day restrictions as other countries. This gave her an anchor and routine she hadn’t enjoyed in decades. “I did have a wonderful period for two years, which is the longest I’ve been in Iceland without once having to go to an airport since I was 16,” she says. “That was pretty cool. It was a really good feeling, physically – that sense of just shooting down roots out of my feet and getting grounded.”

Björk
Credit: Vidar Logo

She adds: “You get self-sufficient when you are denied travel. Your main basic needs are met by your closest friends and family. It’s beautiful, because sometimes you look too far for these things.”

It also provided a comfort and security severely lacking during her time living in America. “I had a really, really complicated relationship with the US while I was there,” she says, highlighting “mass murders, the racial violence, Trump”. She adds: “I’m not really an urban person. I love visiting cities and going clubbing or seeing a gallery or concert, but then I just want to go home. I’m more of a rural person by nature, so it was just a total blessing for me to be here.”

Besides getting COVID twice (but never getting “seriously ill”), Björk revelled in a “very small, old-school lifestyle”: going for long walks along the beach, taking dips in the local pool and inviting her friends round for many a pumping house party to lose their shit to Björk’s “crazy DJ nights”. It was here she would be spinning everything from Norwegian pop-noir star Emelie Nicolas to throbbing Dutch techno. Just as 2001’s ‘Vespertine’ was designed to be enjoyed as an intimate listen through a computer or laptop, her new record ‘Fossora’ is made for ‘avin’ it in close quarters.

From the push-and-pull rhythms of the arrestingly romantic ‘Ovule’ to the heavenly and string-laden ‘Freefall’, it’s an album of love and a curiously communal but cosy kind of movement. The DNA of the record is best captured in the introverted but inviting ‘Atopos’: starting as a mid-tempo glitchy reflection, before erupting into skull-shaking wig-out – offering that when all else is shot, “our differences are irrelevant” and realising that “hope is a muscle that allows us to connect”. There’s a deep and bassy groundedness to both the sonics and the ideal – soulful yet ravey, jumping between dimensions and unpinnable aside from knowing this is a Björk record.

“I had a really complicated relationship with the US: the mass murders, the racial violence, Trump”

“There’s a lot of pleasure in the album,” she says. “It’s about enjoying that space. That’s why it ended up getting this kind of ‘fungus’ theme. And when I say ‘fungus’, I mean more like a sound. Six bass clarinets and really fat, deep notes. It is designed for the bottom-end. You need to almost be inside all that bass. It fills the whole room. That’s the grounding of being able to stay in your house.”

She adds: “I thought, ‘I should tell people that they should listen to this album loudly’. It’s very much a ‘sit by the fireplace and have a drink with friends in your living room’ sort of album.

Or to fuel a solo rave?

“It’s very that!” she shouts back.

Björk likens her album covers to tarot cards, posing as “the archetype or character” that best represents her on the record in one simple image. For instance, you don’t need to listen to the music to know ‘Post’ is a postcard from an intrepid artist in love with the sounds and bright lights of the big city, leaving behind the innocent newcomer portrayed on 1993’s ‘Debut’.

For ‘Fossora’, which roughly translates to feminine version of the Latin word for “digger”, 56-year-old Björk Guðmundsdóttir comfortably crouches among the mushrooms and plant-life like a Goddess born of the earth, fed and glowing with energy – a queen among her fungi. It speaks to the themes of the artist thriving among her roots and the seeds she has sewn herself.

Björk on the cover of NME
Björk on the cover of NME

Two songs on the record deal with the death of her mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir who died in 2018 following a long illness. She was a renowned homoeopath and hippie who lived on a commune when Björk was a baby, encouraged her to take to the stage as a child, and once went on hunger strike against a plan to develop the Icelandic highlands.

The hymnal eulogy of ‘Sorrowful Soil’ is an mournful ode to motherhood: “In a woman’s lifetime she gets 400 eggs, but only two or three nests/ This is emotional textile, self-sacrificial”. On the loving and warm yet futuristic ballad of ‘Ancestress’, she’s grateful for her mum’s influence: “When I was a girl she sang for me in falsetto lullabies with sincerity/ I thank her for her integrity”.

“For everybody, to lose a parent and deal with it is a cornerstone of your life,” Björk says. “‘Sorrowful Soil’ was written as she started to get seriously ill, so it’s more sad. ‘Ancestress’ was written after she passed away so it’s more like a celebration of her life. I like when you hear about Mexican and Irish people who want to celebrate someone’s life when they pass away.”

Having previously spoken of her mother as “black sheep” who she hoped to give voice to through her music and message, Björk says that need was tenfold this time. “I was trying to be truthful in the lyrics,” she says. “There are 14 songs on the album, and two about my mum – that’s one in seven, which feels like the balance of the last four years of my life and how important it was.”

“For everybody, to lose a parent is a cornerstone of your life”

Alongside the likes of Kasimyn of Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi, the aforementioned Emelie Nicolas and experimental baroque popster serpentwithfeet, the record also features contributions from Björk’s children: the musician Sindri Eldon Þórsson and model/musician/actor Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney. Sindri sings backing vocals on ‘Ancestress’, while Ísadóra (also known as Doa) lends a sweet tone to album closer ‘Her Mother’s House’ – a fitting favour from the 19-year-old on a song about being the last kid to leave home.

“I actually enjoyed that and it felt odd not to include them on the album somehow,” says Björk, having spent so much time with her kids over lockdown. “I didn’t think about it then, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that they’re both grown-ups now. That felt important so I could ask them and they could have a chance to say no based on a mature decision. Now they’re equal to me.”

Björk
Credit: Vidar Logo

This sense of peace and place among her loved ones is a far-cry from where Björk was at just two albums ago. On 2015’s ‘Vulnicura’, she was rolling through the pain of her split with artist Matthew Barney with unflinching honesty – an aesthetic of “lying on the ground in the very hostile Icelandic winter landscape with no plants”. She jokingly described the follow-up, 2017’s ‘Utopia’, as her “Tinder album” – putting herself back out there “after an emotional disaster”.

Would she have found the harmonious vibe on ‘Fossora’ if she wasn’t forced to put the brakes on? “That’s a good question,” she pauses. “I probably don’t know the answer to that one, sorry. But I know for sure that if I look back at my nature and how it works normally between albums, when I push something in a really extreme way then I tend on the next album to go back. I’m like a teenager, I’m like, ‘I’m over it!’”

“The way to start all over again is with some kind of plan or manifesto,” Björk continues. “I called it ‘Utopia’ because I wanted people to know that I was aware that it was idealism.”

The artist compares that trajectory to what she expressed from 1997’s ‘Homogenic’ through to 2004’s ‘Medulla’ – a three album arc moving from “heartbreak” to “making an ideal paradise” and then back to reality. “First you create this universe with sound, then it becomes real and you move into it,” she concludes. “‘Medulla’ and ‘Fossora’ are living in the world you’ve made. The lyrics are more about living this life day-to-day and loving it.”

Revisiting her records as key landmarks of her personal life was another thing keeping Björk sane during the pandemic, having just released the thoroughly fascinating podcast series Sonic Symbolism. Edited down from 20 hours of conversations with her friends the writer Oddný Eir and the musicologist Ásmundur Jónsson over the last two years, the series serves to share Björk’s own narrative arc over her music.

“I didn’t do it to get some therapeutic closure. The reason why I did was that I was getting quite a lot of requests to do books, biographies or documentaries. I was turning them all down. I don’t want to brag, but I’m in a position where if I don’t do this then someone else will!”

She notes that documentaries made about female artists are “really unfair on women sometimes,” that they’re often “just a list of their boyfriends and saying, ‘Oh, they had a happy life’ if they had a marriage, but if they didn’t then their life was a failure. With guys, they don’t get that.”

Björk wanted to make the series to “put importance on my work” and to present a “sonic X-ray” of each album rather than reclaim any biographical myth. Here’s a Bowie-esque singular force who has helped shape music, fashion, technology and beyond – inspiring everyone from fellow seismic agitators like Radiohead and Madonna through to the raw emotion of Hayley Williams and otherworldly art-pop of FKA Twigs.

“Gen Z-ers are really radical, and I’m relieved that the environment is a priority for them”

“I don’t think I’m the right person to ask. Of course I’m very flattered if something like that happened, but overall a musician can’t really focus on that. That can’t be my target. I am aware of some zeitgeisty things, of course.”

Just look at 2022’s The Northman – she only appeared in the Robert Eggers-directed Viking epic for just a few moments and it’s the only thing that anyone was talking about. Having introduced Eggers to screenwriter and longtime friend and collaborator Sjón, she found herself in a position where she was pals with many of those involved. Her daughter Doa had a role too, and soon “a karma thing” tempted Björk back to her first big screen role since 2000’s humanity-crushing Lars Von Trier-directed Dancer In The Dark.

“I’ve said no to a lot of Hollywood shit, where I’ve been really flattered to be asked but it just didn’t feel right,” she admits. “I didn’t know any of those people and it was just weird.”

Björk
Credit: Nick Knight

A true shape-shifting punk force throughout her fame, Björk has always been searching for new horizons in art, in representation and in man’s relationship with nature and technology. In the first episode of Sonic Symbolism, she speaks of “starting a new chapter in the book” with the ‘90s as “a prequel to the 21st century”. By then, she claims most Western art was “a ghost of a ghost of a ghost”, echoing a tired obsession with machismo and death ongoing since the Second World War.

Now that we’re 22 years into the sequel, we have to ask how she thinks the century is going so far. “I think it’s similar,” she shrugs. “I thought we’d be doing better with environmental things. We reacted so strongly to the COVID pandemic; all governments worked and we invented the fucking vaccine in 10 months or something. It was a miracle for seven billion people. I would hope we would react as strongly to the environment.”

As a friend of Godlike biologist David Attenborough and as someone who has worked with new-gen environmentalist Greta Thunberg, Björk’s fight for Mother Earth is unwavering. Fortunately she sees hope in a new age of conscientious souls. “Gen Z-ers are really radical, and I’m relieved that the environment is a priority for them – I’m up for it!” she enthuses. “When I read the news, most of it won’t matter in 20 years. The only thing that really matters is how we deal with the environment.”

“I was always quite offended by the way Kate Bush was written about like she was a crazy witch – or me being a crazy elf”

Assured that the kids coming up are more aligned with the Icelandic view of nature as something “raw, fierce and brutal that you’re in awe to” rather than the “baby-boomers’ hippy version”, Björk is confident in future leaders taking action on the climate, as well as for women and gender minorities. It’s another battle she’s been in music since the spotlight found her.

“There’s been a huge change, and it’s really hard to explain to people who are younger than me,” she says. “Just to see all the US female rappers now; that would never have happened in the ‘80s.”

While spitting at America’s recent blow to abortion rights, she also says she “can’t even start to describe” her happiness at Kate Bush dominating the charts again with her 1985 hit ‘Running Up That Hill’ in the wake of being featured in the most recent series of Stranger Things. Recalling how dismissive male critics were of Bush as both an artist and a mirror of the female experience while they were hailing “rock guys” singing about “tits, beer and heroin abuse”, she felt that “writing from a woman’s point of view was considered a lesser artform”.

“I was always quite offended by how often Kate Bush was written about like she was insane or a crazy witch – or me being a crazy elf,” she says. “We are producers. I’ve written all my scores for 20 years, you know. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying that because people still want me to be a naive elf. If we were guys, we would be taken more seriously. Finally, Gen Z-ers can imagine a woman’s production or a woman’s world and it not seem insane or a thing that they have to ridicule or be scared of.”

Laughing with a touch of moderation, Björk admits “I definitely don’t want women to take over; I’m quite happy to do 50/50! Let’s do 50 per cent ‘beers and tits’ and 50 per cent other stuff. I’ll settle for that!”

It’s a humbling and oh-so-sideways Björk take on progress. As an artist who has loved, lost, tore up rules, inspired millions and created her own worlds, she knows that to find where you’re heading you must appreciate where we’ve been. For something great to grow, you need to put down some roots. And with that, we’ll leave her to her lava berries.

‘Fossora’ by Björk is out now

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