Björk Surprises Her Fans Once Again, This Time With A New Album That Uses Vocals And Beat-Boxing Instead Of Instruments
In case you're not a linguist, doctor or botanist, Medúlla, the name of Björk’s latest album, refers to the marrow/center of bones or organs, or the pith of plants. Basically, it’s the inner part of living things. And if her first solo albums, Debut and Post, are explorations of electronica and dance, this new record is anything but.
In fact, if you thought her last record, 2001’s Vespertine, was low-key, just wait until you hear the mostly vocal-backed new album. Singing over the percussive vocals of some of the masters of beat-boxing, like former Roots member Rahzel and Dokaka from Japan, Medúlla is like one big exhaling for the infamously shy yet intimate singer. And after the arduous filming of Dancer In The Dark (for which she received the best actress award at Cannes) that turned her off acting completely, the birth of Isadora with acclaimed artist Matthew Barney, and having to become a “librarian” in order to put out her Greatest Hits collection, it’s no wonder Björk is taking more control of her art, having produced or coproduced and arranged all 14 tracks on Medúlla.
We caught up with her in Iceland after she had just finished a photo shoot with the London-based photography duo of Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton-Jones.
INSTINCT: Hi, Björk. It’s seven a.m. over here in California, so I apologize if I sound a little groggy.
BJÖRK: That’s brutal.
If you had told me a week ago I’d be interviewing you while sitting around in my boxers, I would have laughed.
[Laughs] That’s cute.
Anyway, I know you have a place in New York with Matthew, but how often are you back in Iceland?
Quite a lot. Last year, I stayed seven months here. But I never feel as if I really leave Iceland. I’m so attached to the climate and the space…and the oxygen! When I’m elsewhere, I feel like I’m holding my breath.
I know what you mean. In L.A. we have to go to special bars and pay for fresh oxygen. Maybe Iceland should think about making it one of their exports. Speaking of fresh air, your new album is quite soothing. I’ve only had two days for it to grow on me, but I have to admit that you’ve once again created something bold and new.
Yeah, if there is a theme for this one, it was to work quickly and not think too much. I wanted to be spontaneous and not analyze the songs too much. Homogenic was a pretty spontaneous album, but then with Selma Songs and Vespertine, I was more conscious making those records. I wanted to go back to being more raw and flowing with this album.
How did having Isadora affect how you make music?
[Chuckles] I don’t know if you’ve ever had to deal with pregnancy, breastfeeding and female hormones during pregnancy, but I became a librarian of my music when I was pregnant and for the year [following Isadora’s birth]. I decided to archive stuff. I had put it off for forever, and I was getting a lot of pissed-off people nagging me about it. I listened to all my live shows and picked the best versions. That took a while, like half a year. I also listened to all of my b-sides and alternate recordings—I knew I could be the only one to do it.
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You sound like you got pretty organized.
I did. [Giggles] I was putting everything in alphabetical order, cleaning up my attic. I’m not an organized person, but somehow pregnancy made me become that way.
Was this album a response to all of that?
When I started doing this album, I felt like I was holding my breath for a long time and I just wanted to just go, go, go. You know, fuck the librarian that I had become and just have fun.
Well, it sounds pretty sensual. Was that intentional, considering what “medúlla” means? I wasn’t conscious of it. Vespertine I had to write from a place that I usually don’t write from. Being in a great mood with lots of energy and wanting to run around and climb mountains—like when you’re peaking. And then to contrast that with being alone at your house, not feeling social or energetic and wanting instead to cuddle under a blanket and read a book. Does that make sense?
Well, it sure makes me want to go listen to Vespertine again. Do you ever feel the pressure to make more “commercially accessible” albums? Like return to the dancy/poppy roots of your first two albums?
I do dance a lot—I’ve never stopped enjoying dancing. I’ve always been obsessed with pure pop music. There are some real “up” songs on Medúlla, but they won’t be played in clubs. They’re more for dancing around your house, like a domestic rave.
Domestic rave. I like the idea of that. Now, you do realize you have a very devout gay male fan base. Okay. [Giggles] I don’t think too much about it, but I have to say that a little bird whispered it in my ear at some point.
Why is it something that you don’t think about?
When people tell you marketing figures about your fan base, it just sounds a bit cold. I like to think of people who buy my records as equals. Don’t think of them as gay or black or young or old. They’re just people who enjoy my music. I’ve had so many close gay friends all my life, it’s not that big of a deal with me. [Pauses] But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things I find easier to talk about with gay guys. [Giggles]
What’s the gay scene like in Iceland? There’s quite a lot of gay people here. I’ve gone out with my mates trying to track down the gay scene here. It isn’t cosmopolitan, so they’re all local bars. But if you don’t have expectations about what a gay club should be, then it’s fun here.
I feel odd asking you this, but what makes a man sexy? I’m a bit off the map when it comes to sexiness.
[Giggles] I can find men sexy, women sexy, plants sexy, the ocean, fish. If we’re talking something physical, the back of necks. Necks on people and animals.
You must really like giraffes.
[Laughs] It’s not about length!
Well, at least when it comes to necks. So, what lady would you switch for?
Too many. That’sa bit slippery. If you want a specific, I’d have to pick an animal. [Pauses] A panda. I’d switch for a sexy panda.