Björk has sold millions of records around the world, but in North America she’s still an acquired taste. The reason isn’t exactly a mystery. Long before “electronica” became a pop flavor to be exploited by the major labels, the Icelandic singer was working with cutting-edge deejays such as Nellee Hooper, Talvin Singh, Howie B and Tricky on avant-pop albums such as “Debut” (1993) and “Post” (1995) and the remix collection “Telegram” (1996).
Her latest release, “Homogenic” (Elektra), again stakes out new ground, with rapturous classical strings and distorted hip-hop beats sandwiching a voice that has deepened and darkened to suit the emotional landscape. The album’s loss-of-innocence theme is amplified by the cover image, with the singer sporting talons, in the wake of a tumultuous year in which she was the target of a stalker’s letter bomb (it was intercepted before it could do any harm).
Play On caught up with the 32-year-old singer as she prepared to begin a tour that will bring her Monday to the House of Blues with an eight-piece string section and deejay-coproducer Mark Bell.
So what’s with the scary Björk-as-Samurai image on your album cover ?
When I went to (designer) Alexander McQueen, I explained to him the person who wrote these songs— someone who was put into an impossible situation, so impossible that she had to become a warrior. A warrior who had to fight not with weapons, but with love. I had 10 kilos of hair on my head, and special contact lenses and a manicure that prevented me from eating with my fingers, and gaffer tape around my waist and high clogs so I couldn’t walk easily. I wanted to put all the emotion of the album into that image.
A large part of your appeal, and also why you’re misunderstood, is that your music is so eclectic. I hear South American rhythms on this record, heavy beats from the Bronx, European classical music. . . .
If you wear Italian shoes and listen to a band from Texas on a tape player made in Hong Kong while going to get Japanese takeout, you can’t go home and say, “I’m so Icelandic.” I’m reacting as a person from this planet. In the last 30 years we are defining who we are differently.
“Homogenic” is a very personal take on a relationship or a series of relationships. Do you look back on some of the lyrics and wonder if you’ve revealed too much ?
I write all the time—since I was a kid. And you can believe me that 90 percent of the songs will only be for myself. Writing for an audience is like talking to your mother—there are certain things you leave out. These songs are quite angry, and I’m not particularly proud I got people around me into that state, but I think these are things I can share because they have something in common with people.
Did making the record help you resolve some of that anger ?
Yeah, but I don’t believe in making music for therapeutic reasons. You turn songwriting into a crutch if you use it that way. You write songs as a reaction to life.
The tension in the lyrics between love and hate is also in the music, with the beautiful strings playing over the distorted beats. How did you arrive at that combination ?
I think I have been heading there ever since “Venus Is a Boy” on “Debut.” I’m obsessed with beauty, not in the physical sense but of the mind and heart, and so the strings bring that out. On the beat front, I have this earthy side to me. Which is why I always wear big shoes, almost clumsy shoes. The hippies wore soft shoes and the punks wore massive shoes. I’m closer to that side. So my beats are all, “Smash, smash.”
How would you describe yourself as a producer ?
For me it’s very much a question of getting into the studio and getting it done. I try to become the other half of the person I’m working with. Sometimes that means doing everything myself and my friend sits in the chair all day, but in a way my friend did the album, because he sat in the chair, which on that day was what was needed to get it done. And sometimes I come into the room and the magic is happening and I can see I’m not needed, so I just make the coffee (laughs).
This is your most unified album, both sonically and lyrically. Was that by design ?
I had a really clear idea of what I wanted to do since I was a kid. It’s a question of learning how to get there. I’ve got 50 more years of trying to learn. I learn from other people all the time, but it’s not about ripping them off. It’s about learning how your self functions. And how to get what’s inside you out. It’s like learning to become your own midwife.
What did you learn about yourself after making this record ?
(Long pause) I learned that fine line between discipline and freedom. It’s so thin and it’s so easy to get caught up on one side or the other. But the magic doesn’t happen unless you’re in the middle. I’m not pretending I mastered it. But I got close enough to smell it.