Björk : Mother, Daughter, Force of Nature

Pitchfork, 20 septembre 2022

In Iceland with the experimental pop icon, digging deep into the triumphs and tragedies that birthed her remarkable new album, Fossora

Rumbling down a two-lane highway in her hefty white Land Rover, Björk is chatting away in meandering tribute to Iceland’s volcanic landscape when a digger truck lumbers into view. The unexpected obstacle presents a chance for a spot of mischief. Wrinkling her nose, Björk eyes a tight opening ahead and stamps the throttle to perform a perilous passing maneuver. “Cheeky cheeky !” she trills, nearly demolishing a roadside post. Back in lane, she slides off her coat and casually resumes her ode to her island nation.

“That volcano over there,” she says, pointing through a mountain pass, “one of its most famous eruptions caused the crops in France to get destroyed, and people say that’s why the French Revolution happened. Well, it’s a very Icelandic thing : It was our mountain that caused the French Revolution.”

Björk’s voice is a little husky, but she is as effervescent as ever. In patchwork tights and a layered red dress full of gaping oval cutouts, she mechanically licks her lips and scrunches her features, as if behind her face were a factory of pipes and pistons to generate her industrial brainpower. Behind black shades, her swept-pastel eyeliner conjures an air of the carnivalesque.

The paragon of experimental pop is proving a predictably magical tour guide, sprinkling the black brooks and lava plains with her Old Norse stardust. She recites tales of truculent volcanoes and viking exploits in a tone that is captivatingly banal—half nerdy school-trip guide, half Arctic Zeus in front of the bedroom mirror, rehearsing a TED Talk on thunder.

As the Land Rover growls through the valleys, each bend and bump scatters black dirt around the foot mats, mingling with assorted hair bands, candy wrappers, and soccer trading cards left behind by a friend’s son. Though Björk is a vocal advocate for ecological radicalism, the gas guzzler holds her affections hostage, so effortlessly does it command Iceland’s treacherous terrain. Her seat-of-the-pants wielding of the brawny SUV recalls the delightfully strange video for her 1995 hit “Army of Me,” which starred Björk as a scrappy militant up to no good in a similarly monstrous truck.

That video was one of many in the 1990s and early 2000s in which Björk somersaulted onto MTV—and into pop at large—like a performance artist occupying a shopping mall. Several of those clips came from her first two proper solo albums, 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post, which introduced her explosive voice to the masses, via music largely drawn from the UK dance underground. After those eccentric records sold 3 million copies apiece, she composed an Icelandic opus of snow-swept strings and geological beats—1997’s colossal Homogenic—only to reinvent herself again, on 2001’s Vespertine, as a beatmaker and sotto voce sensualist enveloped in womb-like electronics.

These records electrified pop music, pouring fizzy sherbet into the water in which modern artists swim ; Björk’s devotees range from SZA to Caroline Polachek, Rosalía to Radiohead. And as her influence has bubbled over into the popular consciousness, she has spent the 21st century staking out new pop vanguards as both a songwriter and producer, concocting playful, knotty, sometimes punishing beats to gird her ancient melodies and inventive orchestrations. Whether chronicling a failing climate, an expiring marriage, or a family torn, her songs remain outlandishly, beguilingly her own.

Fossora, the 56-year-old’s fungus-themed 10th album, carries echoes of those past lives, even as she sinks her toes into combustible new ground in the form of reggaeton beats, endearingly goofy bass clarinet honks, and barrages of mutant gabber, courtesy of the Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi. She still writes killer love songs, too, using her skin-prickling voice to unknot cramps of the heart ; she is still psychically attuned to the little acts of self-sabotage that adults, fearing love, perform to avoid submitting to it. At the album’s core are the hymn-like “Sorrowful Soil” and chamber-folk epic “Ancestress,” bold artistic strides that serve as profound tributes to her late mother, the environmental activist Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, who died in 2018. They instantly line up alongside the most heart-rending songs of her career.

The Land Rover bobbles down a rocky slope to what Björk calls her “cabin”—actually a vast, two-floor lodge where she holidays, hikes, writes albums, rehearses clarinet sextets, and hosts weddings, as the feeling takes her. After parking, she clomps down a garden path overgrown with herbaceous perennials and birch trees, introducing me to a private stretch of ashy beach and her affable, white-bearded father, Guðmundur Gunnarsson, who is mowing the lawn in a black tracksuit.

The cabin overlooks an immense lake formed 9,000 years ago in the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The imposing location induces a sort of trance : Gaze long enough at the shoreline’s dimpled pebbles and they seem to stare right back. The eruption that formed the lake’s basin also carved out the area where, according to Björk, “the Vikings that couldn’t handle war and politics and bossy megalomaniacs started the first democracy in the world in the year 930.” She laughs. “Sorry, I’m just being a tour guide.”

She leads the way to a domed, octagonal chamber layered with uneven wooden tiles that drape the frame like a shaggy hide. This isolated hut, just opposite her potato patch, is tailored to produce supernaturally sweet reverb. From the outside, it looks like a private chapel to the deity of her voice ; step within the confines of its walls and the disconcertingly mirrored floor makes you feel like an astronaut training to live in space. In hectic moments, this otherworldly hub is where she sequesters away to sing.

The reverb chamber is a recent addition to Björk’s cabin, which she has owned since 2015, when she upgraded from a smaller nearby retreat after her divorce from the artist Matthew Barney. A 40-minute drive from the city, the getaway provides sanctuary from downtown Reykjavík, where Björk tends to hide behind tourist-repellant sunglasses while floating through record stores and bars. Dense, candy-colored wool lines the cabin’s corridors from floor to ceiling, fluffed up with rainbow tufts the texture of Troll doll hair. Half of the cabin is folky and rustic ; the rest has the feel of a psychedelic, cuddly funhouse.

Upstairs is the airy, undecorated, crimson-walled bedroom where, in 2019, Björk started writing Fossora. It is hard to believe this humble space hosted such sacred activity—that Björk burrowed away here to interrogate her soul, construct madcap beats, and sequence chords using a sample library built from her own voice. But the attic has a quiet gravitas. Through the room-length window, she points towards the northerly horizon and the mighty shield volcano Skjaldbreiður. In lockdown, this picturesque hideout doubled as Björk’s rave space for her family, collaborators, friends, and everybody’s hyperactive kids. “We would sit around the fire, talk really long talks, have some wine, go on a hike, then stand up and head bang for one hour,” she jokes. The PVC mat in the corner, she adds, is not for yoga but for knee slides.

The pandemic pastime that Björk sardonically terms “domestic raving” is one of several segments in Fossora’s patchwork. “I started this album very conceptual, like : This is the clarinet album ! Then halfway through, I was like, Fuck that.” She grins. In the end, she felt it was an “Iceland album” : often uninhibited and volatile, but also steeped in the country’s choral and folk traditions, with strings Björk programmed at her local coffee shop.

Her fascination with mushrooms—she translates the title as “she who digs”—unified the record’s themes of survival, death, and ecological meditation. She frames her last album, 2017’s Utopia, as a skybound haven after her traumatic divorce. On Fossora, she returns to Earth. “It’s something that lives underground, but not tree roots,” she explains of the fungus metaphor that guided the record. “A tree root album would be quite severe and stoic, but mushrooms are psychedelic and they pop up everywhere.” She considers this thesis, seemingly satisfied. “My fungus period has been bubbly and fun, with a lot of dancing,” she concludes. “And the head-banging at the end of each song...” At this, she lets out a cathartic “ahhhh,” drifting off in a techno reverie.

While themes of healing and reckoning abound, Bjork didn’t want a feeling of loss to define Fossora. “Vulnicura is my grief album,” she stresses, referring to her 2015 LP and its lacerating inquiry into divorce and betrayal. “This is not the grief album, but it does include that.” “Sorrowful Soil” and “Ancestress,” the two songs that contend with her mother’s death, exert a centrifugal force on the album with their luminous grandiosity, their stunning precision and scale. “The machine of her breathed all night/While she rested,” Björk sings on the seven-minute “Ancestress,” narrating from her mother’s deathbed. “Revealed her resilience/And then it didn’t.”

Björk’s mother had been in and out of illness for years, but in 2018, when her condition worsened, it came as a shock. An eternal optimist, Björk had habitually reassured her more circumspect mother that things in their lives would be OK. They had grown used to overcoming adversity through years of hammering out their clashing worldviews.

Though it seems unfathomable when revisiting a teenage Björk raising hell with her punk band Tappi Tíkarrass, she had grown up a chronically introverted science and math nerd. Her parents divorced when she was 2. She split her time between her more conservative father, who went on to lead the Icelandic electricians’ union, and her mother, who moved into a commune-like entanglement of hippies, bestowing her daughter with a complicated, anarchic independence.

Even when Björk was only 3, she has said, it was she who would look both ways before leading her mother across the road, rather than the other way around. The freewheeling nature of her upbringing became something she both enjoyed and resented. As she put it in a 1995 interview : “Can you imagine being brought up by seven grown-ups who all hate work, and all they want to do is play games with you all day long, and tell you four-hour-long stories, and make kites ?”

She moved into her first apartment, in downtown Reykjavík, at 17. She split her time between gigging with her latest punk outfit, Kukl, and factory work tweezing worms out of fish. As a side hustle, she printed and sold a handwritten fairytale book. Despite her own penchant for mysticism, the punkish, pragmatic Björk bristled at her homeopathist mother’s new-age spiritual principles. “With every generation, you rebel against something, but actually it’s part of you,” she says now. “It’s your shadow.”

In the ensuing decades, the pair settled into a rhythm : Björk the blue-sky thinker, Hildur Rúna the nihilist. In her middle age, her mother lived in a remote Californian teepee with a Native American chief, before returning to Iceland to teach martial arts. Unifying causes, like the aluminum smelter they jointly protested in 2006, grew less common. Still, when her mother began to espouse far-fetched political conspiracy theories, Björk would appeal to reason and, most often, talk her around.

“You can brag about being an optimist all day,” she says, but as she got older, Björk admitted she was using her bright outlook to shut down tricky conversations. She confronts this tendency on “Atopos,” Fossora’s riotous opener. “Pursuing the light too hard is a form of hiding,” she sings, contrailing her voice over juddering bass clarinets. “Are these not just excuses to not connect ?”

Björk has never been one for funerals. In fact, for 20 years, she did not attend a single service for a family member. “I would help organize the musicians and the set list, but I couldn’t go inside the church,” she says. “I would just get so mad. I’m an atheist, so it was like, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a priest here who has never met the person who passed away ?’ It’s like having an MC rapping raps that he didn’t write.”

During her mother’s illness, Björk had written “Sorrowful Soil” as a sort of eulogy. She describes Iceland’s typical musical eulogy as a “patriarchal obituary,” using melodramatic melodies to deliver dry biography. “Subconsciously, I was thinking matriarchy obituaries should be like : ‘She had 400 eggs, she did three nests, and she was a nihilist.’” She grins, absent-mindedly rubbing her stomach. “The lyrics are a bit odd, and I thought, I’ll just let it be odd. Sometimes you ruin things by making all the words and grammar proper.”

Soon after “Sorrowful Soil” was written, Björk’s mother died. Thrown into a whirlwind of grief and planning, Björk tried to organize a service she could bear to attend. With her brother, she put together a non-religious church funeral officiated by family friend Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who is the head of Iceland’s Nordic religion and a onetime member of Throbbing Gristle side project Psychic TV. She is pleased with how it turned out, but part of her wondered if she had really said goodbye.

After a recuperative holiday in Greece, Björk conceived a meatier tribute to her mother. This one, “Ancestress,” took the form of an epitaph in an Icelandic folk style. “I wrote pages and pages and pages, and edited it down, just to leave exactly the words I want to be there,” she says. “If I was a priest, it’s what I would’ve said at the funeral.” The recording features her son, Sindri, on backing harmonies.

After completing “Ancestress,” Björk thought of her mother’s sendoff and realized what had been missing : nature. In extravagant movie funerals, she recalled, “There was always somebody burning the boat or throwing the ashes from a cliff. I just felt really weird to be inside a church where you were letting the spirit go. So I made up my own ritual.”

She spent a year working with director Andrew Huang and James Merry, her mask maker and co-creative director, to dream up and film a ritual funeral procession in a mountain valley, set to both “Sorrowful Soil” and “Ancestress.” (One part was shot beside a volcano, she adds, “Because it’s about the mother energy, so the volcano is obviously giving that.”) This visual requiem to her mother will come out when Björk is ready, after some of Fossora’s lighter, more puckish singles. Though wary of sensationalizing her grief, she hopes the film will help form a “protective bubble” around her mother’s memory.

We return to the open-plan living room for a lunch break, where members of Björk’s team sprawl on tree-trunk armchairs carved into squiggly, fantastical shapes, mostly delivered from her former residences by shipping container when she moved full-time to Iceland during the pandemic. The congregation is sternly overseen by four taxidermy crows on sanded branches jutting from the walls.

As her photographer, Viðar Logi, and an assistant traipse in from a mushroom hunt, Björk tells of her pandemic obsession with documentaries like Fantastic Fungi, full of time-lapse footage of spreading fungal networks. “I was like, ‘I can’t work out why I’m resonating so hard with this,” she says, munching a salad. “Is it because this virus is moving, smitten-ing the whole planet ?’”

Mushrooms also held a poetic appeal : By decomposing dead plants and animals and recycling their nutrients into soil, fungi create new life from death. They can also digest pollutants, break down crude oils and plastics, and store carbon to reduce global heating—a symbol of hope salvaged. Mushrooms are often the first life to sprout from nuclear ruin, Björk adds. “They’ll probably do really well, after...”

A long silence. After humanity is finished ?

“Not that I’m a nihilist,” she says, resisting the implication that human extinction is inevitable. “But if you zoom into their world, we’re actually doing fine.”

Björk admits that a surge of apocalyptic events, at home and in the headlines, has threatened to trample her beloved rose-tinted glasses. Describing her years living part-time in New York, between her daughter’s birth in 2002 and the onset of the pandemic, the ebullient rhythm of her conversation falters. “The violence in the USA is on a scale I can’t even fathom,” she says with a trancelike quiet, considering the onslaught of mass shootings and police brutality. “And having a daughter that’s half-American in school [in New York], 40 minutes away from Sandy Hook...” She sighs, raising her palms. “When we are here, I absorb all of Iceland. If one person is killed in the north, we all hurt. It’s an island mentality. In the States, just being a simple islander, all the violence was just too much for me.”

Her hopelessness multiplied as the political landscape spiraled. She remembers Trump’s resignation from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017 as a particular low point. “It’s the only time something happened on the news where I actually just broke down and cried,” she says. “I was just ruined.” The agreement to curb emissions in various sectors, which President Biden rejoined in 2021, shows how even flawed utopianism can reap benefits, she says. “Everybody looks at this list, like, ‘No fucking way.’ But that’s how survival mechanisms work when everything is broken ! We have to come up with some utopian shit, and if half of it comes true, great.”

Part of Björk’s project throughout her career has been to demystify the human body, writing about the sticky, gloopy biological stuff, rather than the skin-deep social symbol. That unvarnished view of what it means to be human is all the more urgent in a time of renewed judicial attacks on reproductive freedom. “Do we own our bodies or not ?” she wonders. “When a woman does something like join the army, or has a baby—is it her body ? Is she the agent of it, or is it owned by the patriarchy ?”

Before Fossora, Björk spent several years creating works untethered from the corporeal form. Her Vulnicura VR project relocated her devastation to a safer, unreal world ; Utopia floated above her messy post-divorce reality on magic-carpet flutes and Panglossian orchestration. But she always knew she would have to sink back into biological reality. She remembers thinking, as she journeyed into those fantasy realms, “Later I will deal with the body, or I will just die.”

She now feels physically rooted, and emotionally, she says, there is no divorce trauma left to dredge. “I’m over it,” she says, waving a hand. “It’s absolutely finished.” Nonetheless, after wormholing in psychology podcasts, she became fascinated with Jungian victimhood archetypes, trotting them out at dinner parties and insisting that friends, too, identify their flavor of victimhood. Her own complex—deferring her needs to benefit staff, friends, and family—creates a “topsy-turvy” headspace, she says. “You think you’re being the hero, but you’re actually sacrificing something, and then you become a victim.”

“Victimhood,” the song she wrote while studying these archetypes, is her final concession to the divorce saga—a monument to its psychological fallout, built, she jokes, on a bedrock of “amateurish self-psychology.” The song features a lugubrious foghorn and a bass clarinet sextet, consisting of three men and three women. Where Utopia idealized matriarchal separatism—putting “the women and children on an island to have babies with the birds,” as she puts it—Fossora concedes that men are here to stay. “You learn how to weave [them] into the world again, and live with it,” she says, with an amused shrug.

The closer of Fossora, “Her Mother’s House,” features her daughter, Ísadóra, who is 19, in a touching lament about Björk’s newly empty nest. “It’s me trying to make fun of myself,” Björk says. “Sometimes I’m very graceful, letting go when my kids leave. But sometimes I’m very clumsy the next day.”

Did any of Björk’s choices in bringing up her daughter diverge from how her mother raised her ? She gazes outside, watching candyfloss clouds settle on the mountaintops’ shoulders. “My mother didn’t talk so much about her feelings,” she eventually says. “I would always want to understand how I got made, and why my parents were not still together. And she didn’t want to talk about that. So I decided to tell my daughter a lot of stuff.”

She believes children can withstand more than their parents tend to think. “If you don’t know something, it becomes this taboo that gets a lot more energy than it actually has. So I’ve tried to share—with limits. I want to take the mystery off some of my choices.”

Björk remains a mother figure to hordes of very online fans, many young and from queer communities. Her fanbase routinely floods her social media posts with toxicity-free hype, exchanging trivia and recirculating YouTube classics like her charming explanation, in the late ’80s, of a TV set’s mysterious workings. Her cross-generational appeal, I suggest, is a rare source of good on the internet.

“I’m really blushing,” she says. “Do you think something of it has to do with the world finally being ready for matriarch music ? I was just so happy for Kate Bush to get that international hit, ‘Running Up That Hill.’ I’m not saying we’re going to take over, but I feel like all the hidden matriarchs out there are just crying : Finally, we don’t have to hide.”

Her homage to Bush, while clearly spontaneous, has the thoroughness of a preconceived thesis—as if, subconsciously, Bush’s Stranger Things-fueled resurgence had given Björk a sideways insight into her own mythology. In the ’80s, she recalls, Bush “was the only thing. It was her who was doing that. Everything else was patriarchy.” She laughs. “I’m sorry, I’m exaggerating—but she was the producer, she was making the environment she was singing in. That, for me, is the most matriarch environment. And I feel like the world, and Gen Z-ers—they’re ready for it.”

After a quick beachside photoshoot, Björk says goodbye to the cabin and hops back into the Land Rover. Among downtown Reykjavík’s backstreets, hunting for a suitably enormous parking space, she reaches what most of us would consider a dead end—a No Entry sign guarding a higgledy-piggledy one-way street. Where the road cuts off, two people hover in wary contemplation of the seven-seater rumbling towards them. Its determined driver peers past their questioning faces, her eyes aglow.

One of the pedestrians, sensing where this is going, demonstratively scowls at the No Entry sign and then back at the windscreen, eyes bulging with law-abiding outrage. A grin animates Björk’s face like a spirit seizing her from within. “He’s not Icelandic,” she assures me, twizzling the wheel. “This is what Icelandic people do.”

She flings the Land Rover into the narrow jaws of the street’s outflow. Halfway along, she pauses to consider a parking space wide enough for approximately half of her vehicle. We sit motionless as the dashboard rattles to the young UK rapper Shygirl’s gloriously filthy party-starter “BDE”—part of a seven-hour playlist that pinballs from Angolan kuduro to South African gqom to a recital by an Icelandic women’s choir. In a concession to material reality, Björk moves on from the space and swerves out of the one-way street, thunking the brakes in a nearby enclosure plastered with tow-truck signs.

Adrenaline boosted, she pounces out the door and power-walks to a nearby wine bar. She orders a bottle of champagne and hammers out a flurry of texts constituting the friends-of-Björk bat signal.

Soon enough, respondents descend, including a sweetly disheveled local trio called sideproject, who she hails as “Gen Z beat geniuses.” (On Fossora, they contributed percussion to “Ovule,” having been briefed to channel the lurid sounds of Star Wars’ Mos Eisley cantina band.) Their attention stirs something in Björk. After a few more drinks, practically vibrating, she jumps to her feet and leads a trek to her favorite record store, 12 Tónar. The plan is an impromptu DJ set, but she peers through the window to find no sign of life, no staff to schmooze, just a cardboard cutout of her younger self staring back from the shop floor.

par Jazz Monroe publié dans Pitchfork