Every album Björk produces resolves itself into a story. The story begins with the songs, the raw material through which Björk channels emotion, autobiographical experience and philosophical ideas. The songs cohere into a universe. They take on colours, elements and instrumental sound.
They have a physical character, whom Björk will portray on the album cover: the shy-girl songs of ‘Debut’ as an innocent in silver mohair; the volcanic beats of ‘Homogenic’ as a patriotic warrior; the tribal rhythms and trumpets of ‘Volta’ as a wanderer in electric blue, neon green and red.
The albums and their stories map the bifurcation of Björk’s artistry. There is Björk the musician, who creates her music in an emotional cocoon, tinkering with technologies, concepts and feelings; and Björk the producer and curator, who seeks out collaborators to help her translate her work beyond sound, who has an unparalleled ability to disperse herself across a vast range of media.
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In the popular imagination, it is the latter vision of Björk that spectacularly dominates: she has a gorilla for a dentist; a pearly dress that pierces into her skin and a mask of spines. But it should be known that by the time these visions of the singer reach us, even as they seem like dispatches from the future, they are snakeskins that Björk has already shed. They are the stories that have coalesced, while she has continued into the protean, the experimental and the unsung.
Björk spent her teens and early 20s immersed in the collective do-it-yourself ethos of Iceland, where “if someone else wanted to put out a record we would just make the poster by hand.” She made a record of folk songs at 11, then found punk as a teenager. Still, she was, in pop music terms, a late bloomer when she diverged to what she describes as the “matriarch energy” of electronic beats, the effeminate, queer, culturally diverse heritage of underground dance music.
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In the late 1980s, as a singer in the post-punk band ‘The Sugarcubes’ in Reykjavik, Björk began secreting albums by 808 State and Public Enemy, teaching herself about a musical lineage that ran from Kraftwerk to Detroit techno and into England, to Kate Bush, Brian Eno, and Warp Records. It’s only a two-and-a-half hour flight from Iceland to London, so that’s where she moved with her young son at the age of 27. It was 1993, and a new technological era came about. She was a single mom interested in the solitary endeavour, intrigued by what she’d seen in some nightclubs in Manchester.
The move from the charming mess of homegrown collaboration to the unknown possibilities of a career as a soloist in a newer genre of music, was also her declaration of independence from the macho vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll (You may have noticed that Björk, who has used a Tesla coil as an instrument, has ignored the electric guitar.) From then on, “mostly it was my songs and my vision, and I would decide what would be in which song and when.” Going forward, she would express her vision clearly to her collaborators and choose them carefully.
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As she finished her first solo album, ‘Debut,’ she saw a music video by a French band called ‘Oui Oui’ on television. She contacted its director, a young filmmaker named Michel Gondry. They talked about their hippie parents and the Russian folk tales they had watched as children, and he directed the fairy-tale video for ‘Human Behaviour,’ her first music video as a solo artist. From then on, each album doubled as a nexus of deviation through which Björk exposed popular audiences to often-obscure fashion designers and filmmakers.
Unlike David Bowie, who created an alter ego, or Madonna, whose visual transformations always have a mocked-up, storyboarded feeling, Björk tailored her collaborations to the specificity of each song, to the character and story that she wanted to convey. When she worked with the director Chris Cunningham, who directed the robot-s*x video for ‘All Is Full of Love,’ she told him the song was about where love and lust meet and showed him ivory statues from Asia that he translated into his melancholy vision.
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To invoke the scale of ‘Biophilia’ on tour, she wore dresses from an Iris van Herpen collection inspired by photographs of micro-organisms. “It’s creating a whole universe and not only creating the music,” said van Herpen. “She knows what she wants.”
The oldest song on ‘Vulnicura,’ Björk’s album, is called ‘Quicksand.’ It was written four years ago when Björk’s mother had a heart attack that left her in a coma for a week. Her mother recovered, but in the course of her illness, a series of revelations about her health gave her daughter a new understanding of the worldview of the woman who raised her.
Björk always thought of the woman, she calls her “nihilist mother” as cool and “kind of punk,” but it meant that growing up, Björk often played the role of the Pollyanna in their relationship. In the two years that followed her mother’s recovery, Björk’s optimism faltered. She underwent a complicated surgery for vocal cord nodes and ended her long partnership with the artist Matthew Barney, with whom she has a 12-year-old daughter.
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“It’s my turn or something, and then I have to deal with it — the black lake in me,” she said. “Because when a relationship falls apart, you have to. . . It’s pretty hard-core stuff.”
As Björk was emerging with a collection of songs from that difficult time, she was introduced to the work of Alejandro Ghersi, who records under the name Arca and has produced beats for Kanye West and the R&B singer FKA Twigs. Ghersi is a 25-year-old from Venezuela. Despite the variance in their biographies and their age difference, the two musicians quickly formed a deep creative connection. Björk explains that in the Chinese astrological calendar, they are both snakes and therefore intuitive and prone to merging.
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But she also sees Arca, along with emerging artists like Mykki Blanco, Kelela and Le1f, as the newest branch of the music she has loved, a generation for whom she now figures as a matriarch.
Björk might still be in a reclusive compositional phase of work were it not for Ghersi, who interrupted her normal process of slow curation. They drove to her cabin for an exploratory session under her reindeer antler chandelier, and Björk was impressed by Ghersi’s efficiency as a producer. For ‘Vespertine’ in 2001, Björk had crafted most of her beats, but the process had taken three years. “There’s no way I’m going to wallow in this self-pity for three years, forget it,” she said.