Bjork talks to John Lewis about her album Volta
Uncut, April 2007
"My accent is all over the place,” giggles Bjork. “I tend to copy the person I’m speaking to. You’ve got a London accent, right, so when I talk to you I’ll be all cockney. Now, if an American was sitting next to you I’d turn to him and talk in an American accent, and then get all cockney again when I talk to you. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m like a parrot!”
We’re here to talk about Bjork’s new album – more of that later – but it’s difficult to avoid the fact that her famously idiosyncratic accent sounds even odder than you might remember it. Six years in Manhattan has made it a deliciously mangled hybrid of cockney glottal stops, Nordic vowels, mock Americanisms and almost Mexican-sounding rhotic Rrrrrs. When Bjork self-deprecatingly describes herself as “nerdy” – as she does constantly – she manages to turn the word into the almost unbelievably exotic “neh-rrrrrr-dy”, like an Italian opera singer pronouncing “Verdi”.
She left London in 2001, tired by the baggage that came with her celebrity status. By this time she’d become something of an A-list celebrity, attracting tabloid attention with every move – be it dating Tricky, getting engaged to Goldie, lamping a TV reporter at Bangkok airport for photographing her son, recording a track naked in a cave full of bats, eating her blouse during an argument with Lars Von Trier on the set of Dancer In The Dark, or dressing as a swan and laying an egg on the red carpet at the Oscars. She was even immortalised with her own Spitting Image puppet – not a fate that befalls too many classically trained, jazz-literate avant garde musicians.
“I couldn’t handle the celebrity thing,” she says. “If I did this” – she raises her arm 12 inches from her lap – “a hundred people would know and it’d be in every tabloid. And it wasn’t just them taking pictures of me, it was me watching all these different photographers fight with each other to get the best pictures. That’s just madness!”
Moving to New York (“people are a bit too cool-for-school to care about me there”) coincided with Bjork moving out from the spotlight. She fell in love with Matthew Barney, an eccentric, acclaimed conceptual artist and filmmaker, and, in October 2002, gave birth to their daughter Isobella. She already had a grown-up son from a previous relationship (Sindri, now 21 and living with his father in Iceland, working as a journalist and bass player), but this was different.
“Having a little girl changed my perspective on everything,” she says. “As a woman, you start thinking about the relationship between you and your mother, and your mother’s mother, and a gate opens up to the past and the future. My mother was pretty fierce about feminism – that very militant, 1970s brand of feminism, where she wouldn’t even go in a kitchen! – and I reacted against that a bit. I felt that her generation had achieved a lot but now it was my turn to get on with it and not moan. But now I’m not so sure. I go to the toy shop and everything is pink, everything is Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, all the stories are about how the most important thing in the universe is for girls to find their prince. And I hate that.
“And then she starts asking questions. We live on the 12th floor of an apartment block in New York. Like most high-rise buildings in America, it doesn’t have a 13th floor, it goes straight from 12 to 14. And your daughter asks you why this is. How do you explain that? Well darling, it’s because 4,000 years of organised religion has tried to cover up the fact that there are 13 lunar months, and the fact that ladies bleed 13 times a year, and they’ve tried to force the year into 12 sections. They want to take away the number 13 because they want to be clean and they don’t want nature to impose itself… It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? So there’s a track on the new album called ‘Vertebrae By Vertebrae’, which is a kind of film soundtrack, in which Mother Nature emerges from the ocean, angrily marches to Manhattan armed with a giant crayon, and scrawls the number 13 on the 14th floor of every tower block…” She giggles again. “That would make quite a funny film, wouldn’t it?”
Bjork – now 41, but looking at least 15 years younger – talks about her new album Volta being an escape from the “cabin fever” that comes with parenthood, and the last year has seen her reconnect with the wider world. In November she played a one-off reunion gig with the Sugarcubes in Iceland to raise money for their still extant label Smekkleysa (“it was fun: enough time had passed for it not to seem strange”). She and her partner bought a boat in Malta and sailed it to Tunisia and then onto the Caribbean and Florida, with Bjork leaving the boat docked for weeks at a time as she’d travel back to New York, London or Iceland to work on the album.
Early in 2006, in her role as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, she visited the Aceh province of Indonesia, an area devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. “I was in a village where 180,000 people had died in a single moment,” she says. “You could still smell death in the air. It takes a while to recover from that.”The trip informed some of the lyrics on the album. The album’s lead single “Earth Intruders”, a compelling slice of junkyard funk featuring African musicians Konono No1 and Toumani Diabate, was written while the images of Aceh were still burned into her head. “The song is about the people of the Third World, armed with Western technology, leading an uprising,” she says. “It’s a bit chaotic.”
Volta might be her poppiest album in a while, but the mix of tribal drums, colliery band horns, African instruments and glitchy electronica is still pretty uncompromising. “It’s an album of extremes,” she says, and it contains, variously, the funkiest (“Innocence”), punkiest (“Declare Independence”) and most serene (“Pneumonia”) material she’s ever recorded. Part of this is due to the intriguing presence of producer Tim “Timbaland” Mosley, the “king of the beats” behind Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake and a host of hip hop royalty. She first met him more than a decade ago, not long after he had sampled Björk’s “Jòga” for Missy Elliott’s “Hit 'Em Wit' Da Hee”.
“We’re both obsessed with Indian and Arabic music, which is quite a peculiar thing for an Icelandic singer and a man from the Deep South of the United States. I think the first time we met he started asking me about how I recorded the Bollywood strings on ‘Venus As A Boy’. We’re a bit nerdy like that. We’ve always planned to work together, but it was all about finding the time.”The opportunity arose in late 2005, with Bjork emerging from three years of childcare and Timbaland taking something of a career break as he launched his own label. They recorded seven tracks in two short but productive sessions, with Bjork using them as the basis for three tracks on Volta. All this happened a while before Timbaland’s 2006 career rebirth and his huge international hits with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado.
“I was really happy for him,” says Bjork, “but people are assuming that I was working with him because he’d just had some Number Ones – it’s not like that at all!”Timbaland – and his young protégé Nate Danjahandz – are just two of the ultra-hip guests on Volta, which also features Antony Hegarty from Antony & The Johnsons on two tracks. Bjork’s magnetic ability to draw in a diverse array of collaborators has defined her career since her 1991 solo debut, with luminaries like 808 State’s Graham Massey, LFO’s Mark Bell, Nellee Hooper, Tricky, Talvin Singh, Matthew Herbert, Howie B, Eumir Deodato, Mike Patton, Robert Wyatt, Matmos and Zeena Parkins all coming into her orbit. Yet, unlike Bjork’s one-time collaborator Madonna, who is often accused of buying credibility by randomly picking collaborators from the names-to-drop phone book, Bjork’s associations tend to be rather more organic.
“At first it was a very adolescent thing,” she says. “I had just come to live in England and I was keen to merge and mingle with these extraordinarily creative people I was meeting. I became very musically promiscuous. But it’s still very important to have an organic relationship with the person you work with. It’s about chemistry and spark and love of music.”After the quiet celestial majesty of 2001’s Vespertine, 2004’s entirely a cappella album Medulla, and her largely instrumental 2005 soundtrack to Matthew Barney’s experimental film “Drawing Restraint 9”, much of Volta sees Bjork returning to the basics of rhythm and noise.
“My recent work has been studio-bound and a bit serious,” she says. “This album is designed to work when I play it live. It’s much more fun.” The drum tracks on Volta certainly leap out from the speakers. Timbaland’s beats on the three tracks he co-produces are a juddering electronic barrage of computer game noises, gunshots and lo-fi drum machines; while the tribal live beats laid down from guest drummers Chris Corsano and Brian Chippendale pitch up somewhere between Adam And The Ants and a bhangra band.
“I’m obsessed with rhythms,” she says. “I used to drum in punk bands as a teenager. I’d probably still be a drummer today if things had gone a little differently. I’ve always been very clinical about programming rhythms. But I’ve got a bit tired of that. People started asking me what beats were going to be cool this year. What a crazy question! You realise that beats have become a fashion statement, like a handbag or a haircut or something. Rhythms are much more important than that. They have to come from internally, from the heart. That’s why I didn’t use any breakbeats on Medulla, and why I want to go back to square one with the beats on this album.”
Much of the album’s vibe recalls Bjork’s recent musical enthusiasms, which include Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective and Will Oldham, the “perfect pop” of Cassie, Amerie and early Michael Jackson, and the global sounds of Azerbaijani singer Alim Qasimov (“he’s the Aretha Franklin of Azerbaijan! But, err, a man!”), Portuguese fado diva Amelia Rodriguez (“she’s on fire!”) and some rare Japanese “group sounds” of the 1960s (“it’s like a rural Japanese Motown!”). She’s also obsessed with the ravier end of hip hop, most notably Spank Rock and MIA. Does this mean that Bjork, emboldened by her collaboration with Timbaland, will be making a hip hop album?
“God, can you imagine me making a heep-hop album?” she giggles, poking out her tongue and swinging her fists together, pinkys and forefingers outstretched, in a mock hip hop salute. “Me doing heep-hop? Yeah, right. That’d be a bit slapstick, wouldn’t it?”
Who's Bjork working with this time?
Born in 1971, Tim Mosley grew up in the same Virginia town as the Neptunes and Missy Elliott and first came to fame as Elliott’s co-producer. He has also produced Jay-Z, Ginuwine, Aaliyah, Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx, Justin Timberlake, The Game, Jennifer Lopez and Nelly Furtado.Bjork says: “He’s a musical force. He’s raised hip hop production to a whole new level, above and beyond anything that’s been before.”
Sussex-born, California-raised singer and pianist, whose band Antony & The Johnsons won the 2005 Mercury Music Prize.Bjork says: “I loved the album ‘I Am A Bird’ and I love his voice. But there’s even more potential. Sometimes he sounds a little unsure of himself and sings a bit quietly. His new stuff is even better. He’s really blasting it out emotionally.
Malian kora player, born 1965, who has collaborated with Taj Mahal, Rosewell Rudd, Ketama and Ali Farka Toure before assembling his own big band, The Symmetric Orchestra.Bjork says: “I’ve always like plucky things – harps, celestes, glockenspiels – which I used a lot on Vespertine. Here I wanted the plucky sounds to be a bit *dirty”, a bit twangy, a bit DWOWWOW! And I’ve always love Toumani’s kora playing. He’s a genius. It’s virtuoso musicianship, but it’s for the people.”
Congolese outfit who’ve been making crazy African techno on likembe thumb pianos for nearly 30 years. Bjork says: “For electronic music nerds, Konono’s first album was mindblowing. Most electronic music is made to a grid – the computer gives you an equal tempo, and you write on top of that. But Konono were doing it free style. We got them into a studio in Belgium to play over the Timbaland beats. It was their first time in a studio – their first album was like a field recording. We recorded it and it sounded great. Then I asked them all to play separately, so I could edit it easier. They looked at me like I was mad.”
New England-born jazz and improv drummer who has worked with members of Sonic Youth, Six Organs Of Admittance and Sunburned Hand Of The Man.Bjork says: “We’d nearly recorded the album but I wanted more thumpy, tribal drums. So we got Chris in London and got him to improvise over the album. He’s got these jazz chops but here he sounds like John Bonham. But kind of, err, pagan.”
Drummer in the Rhode Island noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt, with bassist Brian Gibson. Bjork says: “I’ve always loved Lightning Bolt. I love the tribal sound to the drums. As with Chris, I played Brian the tracks and got him to drum over the top, without letting him hear it first. It’s like blindfold challenge. It’s very left hemisphere and instinctive.”
The knob-twiddler behind Warp’s LFO, Bell also produced Depeche Mode’s Exciter and has collaborated with Bjork since Homogenic.Bjork says: “He’s great to work with. A track will nearly be finished and he’ll turn up and provide the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle – a drum beat, an electronic riff, something to complete it. He works very instinctively, like me.”
US-based Chinese pipa player and vocalistBjork says: “The pipa is another one of those plucky instruments whose sound I love. It’s like a Chinese lute, and Min is one of the best virtuosos in the world. She played it almost too beautifully on that track. She has a daughter the same age as mine, and I had to ask her to think about how demonic her daughter could be, and to try and play like that.”