This was the cover feature for the 200th issue of Dazed & Confused (August 2011), which was guest-edited by Bjork, ahead of her ambitious album and app project Biophilia.
Photography Sam Falls Styling Katy England
As Björk prepares to launch her multimedia music school on an unsuspecting world, Rod Stanley visits her at home in New York to find out how iPad apps, the Icelandic banking crisis and explorers that sleep in trees became part of her new project
The 21st century is going to be fun. To say this is not the received view in 2011 would be an understatement – if it’s not political turmoil or global economic meltdown, take your pick from climate apocalypse, Mayan prophesies of doom, cancer in your toast or any other number of emergent threats to happiness, sanity and stability. Icelandic pop maverick Björk is refusing to be cowed by the weight of expectations we face in this unfolding century, however. The future might not be the shiny utopia of self-lacing moonboots and flying cars we were once promised, but she is of the mind that evolving technology is about to reunite humanity with the natural world. Yes, the 21st century is going to be fun, Björk has decided. She leans forward to take a cup of fresh mint tea in her hands. “This is getting a bit lofty,” she says, pausing to bury her nose in the fragrant steam, then looks round. “Oh, wow! The roses are really coming along.”
The roses disappear around the corner of a balcony that encompasses the top floor of this apartment block in one of the older and more refined neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. Björk shares this home (and one in Iceland) with her partner, the artist Matthew Barney, and their young daughter. “We moved here like a year ago,” she says. “We used to have some pretty good parties upstate, but we had to organise buses for people.” Björk is now in her mid-40s, but the voice and demeanour are younger. She talks fast and fidgets often. She’s wearing a cute striped and hooded Bernhard Willhelm dress, and black Jeremy Scott Adidas hi-tops with little wings that flick out, in which she skips around the apartment – enormous, uncluttered, and with a few eye-catching curiosities such as a shrunken head in a glass case.
Björk describes her next project Biophilia as “ambitious”, which is saying something coming from the person who sang to a global audience of four billion at the 2004 Olympic Games, while her giant dress slowly unfurled to cover everyone inside the stadium. At one point, Björk runs off to get pen and paper to jot down bullet points for topics she wants to return to later. “Sorry, trying to give you the whole project. Three years in five minutes! God, I’ve got like five brains in this project,” she laughs, before adding, unforgettably, “My brain is a bit like cheese.”
What Björk has been working on for these three years is not just an album but also a terrifically ambitious “app suite”, which turns each song into an interactive experience on the iPad, with a musical game based on something from nature (i.e. lightning, viruses), which lets the user manipulate the song while subtly teaching them about aspects of making music. She has created new software to record it and even new musical instruments to perform it, while working with a jaw-droppingly elite ensemble of computer programmers, musicologists, explorers, animators, scientists and designers – the A-Team of the avant-garde, basically.
These new instruments include a MIDI-controlled organ and “gamelan-celeste”, and four 8ft-high pendulum harps, plucking different notes as they swing back and forth. While MIDI itself is nothing new, simply allowing any enabled instrument to be controlled digitally rather than played directly, Björk can now trigger these new instruments via her iPad, or even game console controller. She laughs that sometimes her friends and her have drinks and set the organ running to MIDI files they’ve downloaded (“The best so far has been Snoop’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’”), and have “organ karaoke sessions”.
“With these new tools, it’s like this whole world is opening up to us,” she enthuses. “On the last tour (2007-8), we were using the Reactable (a futuristic electronic musical instrument) and the Lemurs (touch-screen controllers) for performing music we had already written, but I was like ‘This is the future! How about we set up a system where we can actually write music on these?’” Her production collaborator Damian Taylor started experimenting with a computer program called Max/MSP. “I’m so proud of all this,” adds Bjork. “It was a new idea, which was a reaction to the fact technology’s finally caught up with us!”
It was a new idea, which was a reaction to the fact technology’s finally caught up with us!
Björk explains how she had never conceived of this to be an “app project” – it was meant to be a “musical school”, with songs educating people about music by explaining its connection to the natural world. “I thought maybe we could renovate a house in Iceland and make a 3D film, and that would be the project.” Then National Geographic contacted her, after she did a song with Matthew Herbert and Thom Yorke for the environmental cause in Iceland – the venerable society and magazine was planning a music label, and wanted her to be on it. “I would get to be label-mates with whales and sharks, that’s cool!” she laughs. At this time, Björk was off all contracts, in what she describes as a position of freedom: “sort of what Radiohead were like three or four years ago, when they could just put out their album.” She laughs again. “I was like, wow! I’m off the grid!”
Björk asked visionary French director Michel Gondry (who has directed seven videos for her, from 1993’s “Human Behaviour” to 2007’s “Declare Independence”) to make this film, and they drafted a synopsis in which Björk zooms around the universe (“It’s a bit Carl Sagan”), but Gondry was sucked into the Hollywood vortex of The Green Hornet. “I’ve now got much more respect for people that actually get movies made,” Björk observes. “I would go to his meetings and sit there. And they’d look at me like I was out of space.”
Back in 2008, Björk was writing music on the Lemur controllers, imagining that she would eventually play this music on something similar; then the first generation of the iPad launched in April 2010. “I was so excited, you have no idea! Just seeing that what I was imagining wasn’t insane.” Björk’s team contacted someone who re-wrote their early program as an iPad application. “When that happened, we were like ‘Maybe all these rooms in this house are just like apps…’” Derek Birkett, her manager, emailed what he describes as ten of the best educational app-makers in the world, and asked them if they wanted to be involved in the project.
In June 2010, Björk was on a camping trip in Iceland: “I remember going to some internet café – really, really hungover – and writing out the manifesto: this song about lightning is teaching you about arpeggios, crystals are teaching you about structure, DNA about rhythms, and so on… and all the app-makers immediately answered back, like ‘Wow! This is excellent!’”
Björk invited the developers to come and meet her in Iceland for what she describes as a “show and tell”, but sounds more like a cross between a dinner party and impromptu scientific conference. “One guy brought a spoon with him to the dinner and melted it into his cup. They were doing all these kind of chemistry magic tricks, and talking about dark matter and galaxies over dinner. It was a slightly different crowd.”
Does Björk really think we are on the brink of a revolution, about to reunite humans with nature through technology, as she puts it? “I think now it’s not only that we can do it, it’s also that we have to do it,” she answers. “Solar power, wind power, the way forward is to collaborate with nature – it’s the only way we are going to get to the other end of the 21st century.”
The way forward is to collaborate with nature – it’s the only way we are going to get to the other end of the 21st century.
Björk loves nature, but is no hippy fantasist. She is probably the only pop star who has not only been invited to the National Geographic Convention, but attended for the whole three days and sat through each lecture. She tells the story of one explorer, who had spent years walking through Africa. “He can’t sleep in houses any more. The offices happen to be near the White House… so they say, ‘He’s coming over, is it ok if he sleeps in your trees?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh him? Yeah, no problem.’ So he sleeps in the trees of the White House garden, then presents his lecture at National Geographic. It’s these kind of characters.” Listening to Biophilia for the first time in Björk’s studio, it’s an exhilaratingly experimental affair that combines thrilling moments of musical abstraction with emotional vocal beauty. It’s a remarkable work, a real statement, although not really something you could envision a middle-aged executive jabbing his finger to and joyfully exclaiming, “That’s the single!”
In a decade defined by the recombination of past genres, attitudes and styles, as discussed in Simon Reynolds’s recent book Retromania, suddenly the idea that we might have run out of, you know, ideas, seems – at least in this room, at this time – to be absurd. “I think there is always going to be a certain percentage of people being curators and deciding what we take into the future and what we are going to leave behind,” considers Björk. “But I mean, I know a bunch of people that are doing things no one has done before!”
Björk was a child star in Iceland, releasing a record at 11, before rebelling and playing punk at 14. “I went to music school from five to 15 and was always at the director’s office. I think he thought I was a bit hilarious, and I think he liked a drink. When he was bored he would get me sent up just to have a debate. And I’d be like, ‘You should not have your school like this!’” Classical music education is so limiting, she explains.
“Anyway, I complained so much that I had to come up with a solution,” she continues. “And I always wanted to do my music school, but then this pop thing just happened” – by which Björk means a critically and commercially successful career of over twenty million albums sold – “and it was fun, but it wasn’t planned. Sometimes, I laugh at how grand this new project is! But I think all artists my age become tutors.”
Inspirational as the project sounds, one has to wonder whether the average music fan has the time or inclination to investigate, say, the subtleties of the Indonesian musical scale. “Yeah, but there’s so many people out there making electronic music, and they’ve been told they’re idiots because they don’t know the difference between C and C sharp, and that’s not fair because there is a lot of musicology to a lot of electronic music. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but connecting these different worlds is something no one has done before. And if some guy making wicked hip hop beats can learn about different time signatures, and figure out there is no big deal doing a hip hop song in 7/4 then that’s great.”
In the past, Björk has discussed the difficulties of reconciling her punk ideology with her ever-growing success, even remaining “hands-off ” on things like her website due to being uncomfortable about anything that might seem like putting her “on a pedestal”. (It’s now been relaunched in HTML5 and designed by M/M Paris, and she hints she will use it to release future material.) Now that technology has changed everything, does she feel closer to those original punk ideas? “Yeah, I think it’s incredible – we are so lucky to live in these times,” she answers. “It’s revolutionary. The people left in the music industry are the ones that love music – because you can’t really become a billionaire any more.”
That said, artists like her and Radiohead who celebrate the levelling of the playing field were involved in the music industry at a time where you still could make a lot of money. Does she feel she has a responsibility to artists starting out today? “I do actually, because I’m really lucky that I’m from a generation where you could make money from music,” she says. “Now I have a lot of friends who are making music that are from the next generation, and it’s a different landscape out there… but in a way there are more opportunities. I remember when I did Vespertine (2001), everyone was like ‘Oh, computers are going to kill music, and it’s all going to sound rubbish.’ I just thought it was kind of hilarious. Now you can download huge files and do very complicated things – technology will always solve it. And now we have other riddles to solve.”
I remember when I did Vespertine (2001), everyone was like ‘Oh, computers are going to kill music, and it’s all going to sound rubbish.’ I just thought it was kind of hilarious
For the next generation, politics have returned as a riddle to be solved. 2007’s Volta was a more political album; this new one could perhaps be seen to be out of step with the times. Björk hums and looks at the sky. “Well, in a way in the last album I was complaining, and in this album I’m bringing solutions,” she says. “I thought I would never ever get involved in politics, because when I was younger you couldn’t get un-cooler than that! Then I saw how they were planning to change Iceland from an untouched natural spot into something like Frankfurt. People my age and younger didn’t have a voice.”
Björk explains that she gave a concert that “like 30,000 people came to… 10% of the nation!” but felt that this changed nothing, and started workshops with her friend, the author/philosopher Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir, to encourage young businesses. Then the 2008 bank crash happened, almost wiping out the Icelandic economy overnight. “All these economists were like our best mates by then, so we were right in the centre of it. And a lot of people in my generation who never cared about politics before were like, ‘This is an emergency situation!’ It was kind of amazing, though, because we’re such a small country that we can actually make changes.” Some of Björk’s friends even formed a political party called The Best Party, with a stand-up comedian running for mayor. “And he won! Much to his surprise! So now for 11 months all these punks have been running the city!”
“We started a petition, and before I came here to complete my album, we had a karaoke marathon for five days – it was amazing, the whole nation came! Ok, not the whole nation. But we got 47,000 signatures, and there are only 350,000 people in Iceland. Then we delivered it to the Prime Minister, that was a moment! We will see what happens, but at least it raised awareness.”
Maybe she was doing half the time on this project, and half on that, she admits. “It was a lot of work, but if you do all that work and don’t follow it up, it’s never going to change anything. It’s been really crazy doing both projects at the same time… but in a weird way they fed each other. Maybe that’s the reason I started doing a project like this…”
Despite claiming not to be part of politics, Björk is still making things happen in her own way – whether that’s the skyscraping ambition of her Biophilia project, which has the potential to revolutionise the way a generation thinks about electronic music, or the grassroots activism in Iceland, and her reluctant admission that the two might feed into each other. But with that, Björk’s daughter skips in from school and we bring the interview to a close. Björk has places to be, and with a theatrical air-kiss and kick of those winged heels disappears out the door to make the 21st century a lot more fun.