At Home Again in the Unknown

The New York Times, 29 avril 2007

« I read on the Internet that I was doing a hip-hop album with Timbaland », Björk said, and giggled. Timbaland, the producer whose splintered beats have propelled some of the best current hip-hop, collaborated with Björk for three songs on Volta (Elektra), her first album of more-or-less pop songs since Medulla in 2004. But Björk being Bjork, Volta is no hip-hop album.

Bjork, 41, describes Volta as « techno voodoo », « pagan », « tribal » and « extroverted. » Those words barely sum up an album that mingles programmed beats, free-jazz drumming, somber brass ensembles, African music, a Chinese lute and Bjork’s ever-volatile voice. It’s a 21st-century assemblage of the computerized and the handmade, the personal and the global. « This relentless restlessness liberates me », Björk sings in Wanderlust, which she calls the album’s manifesto. « I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me. »

She was on more familiar ground a few weeks ago, giving an interview in the recording studio at her house in Rockland County, N.Y. It’s an odd-angled room with fuzzy pink walls and a view of trees leading to a glimpse of the Hudson River far below. Dressed all in red, with her hair up in puffs on each side of her head, she looked like an Icelandic cartoon elf. She was adding some final mixing touches and sound-effects transitions to the album, and there was a song left to finish. The next day she would visit a New York City studio to record some French horns, seeking a sound for Pneumonia that would be « creamy with a blue emotion. »

The music on Volta is earthier than Medulla, her almost entirely vocal album, and Vespertine, her 2001 album full of ethereal harps and string sections. It’s bound together by the brass instruments she deployed in her 2005 score for Drawing Restraint 9, a film by her husband, the multimedia artist Matthew Barney ; she said she heard more possibilities than she could use in the film. Volta also rejoins her, in some songs, with a big beat. « It’s like I’ve got my body back, all the muscles and all the blood and all the bones », she said. « It is definitely in your face, but I feel it overall as being quite happy. »

Volta doesn’t aim for any known format. While some songs touch down with drumbeats and synthesizer hooks, others are rhapsodic and strange. Björk sings about travel, passion, nature, self-reliance, motherhood, religion and a suicide bomber. For this album, she said, she was determined to be « impulsive. »

« I didn’t start off with a musical rule », she said. « It was more emotion. » She said she asked herself : « Are you playing it safe here ? Are you actually being impulsive or are you totally subconsciously planning every moment ? Are you really allowing enough space for accidents to happen ? »

In her native Iceland, Björk sang everything from children’s songs to punk before reaching an international audience as a member of the Sugarcubes in the late 1980s. She knew early on what she wanted to do with her voice. « I was quite conscious that I wanted permission to be able to be sad and funny, and human and crazy and silly, and childish and wise », she said, « because I think everybody is like that. »

Like much of Bjork’s music since she started her solo career with Debut in 1993, Volta harnesses technology to sheer willfulness. No other songwriter can sound so naïve and so instinctual while building such elaborate structures. And few musicians have managed to sustain her unlikely combination of avant-gardism and pop visibility.

Even those who ignore her music can’t forget her fashion statements, like the swan-shaped dress she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards. She also set down ostrich eggs along the red carpet. « People didn’t find it very funny », she said. « They wrote about it like I was trying to wear a black Armani and got it wrong, like I was trying to fit in. Of course I wasn’t trying to fit in ! »

Björk has three New York City shows scheduled : Wednesday at Radio City Music Hall, Saturday at the United Palace Theater and next Tuesday at the Apollo Theater. She will probably be the only headliner ever to perform at those places backed by a 10-woman Icelandic brass band along with laptop, keyboards and a rhythm section.

Björk is suspicious of the word pop, and doesn’t sell her songs to advertisers or accept sponsors for her tours. « I don’t want to be the conqueror of the world or be the most famous person on earth », she said. « I’ve got no ambitions in that direction. Otherwise I would have done things very differently, I think. »

But she appreciates reaching a large audience. « It would be too easy to walk away and say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to do these ornate objects that only a few people, blah blah blah,’  » she said. « That’s just pretentious and snobbish. »

« I believe in that place where you plug into the zeitgeist, the collective consciousness or whatever », she continued. « It’s very folk. Soulful. Not materialistic. I believe in being a fighter for that soulful place. »

Björk made Medulla and Vespertine largely at home while nurturing her daughter, Isadora, now 4. « I had a baby, and I was breast-feeding and organizing my work around that », she said. « Even though I had a lot of collaborators, they would come for one afternoon for a cup of tea and leave. They would be visiting my universe, my world. When I started doing this album, I had a bit of a cabin fever of being too much in the protection of my own world, so it was time to be brave and get out. »

Björk recorded Volta at studios in the three places she lives - New York, London and Reykjavik - and traveled to San Francisco, Jamaica, Malta, Mali and Tunisia. Now she was willing to show a visitor some of the inner workings of her songs.

A computer sat open on her recording console. It showed a screen for the recording and editing program Pro Tools - a familiar sight to musicians - with the multitrack mix of Earth Intruders, the first song on « Volta . » « Is music getting too visual ? » she asked. « We could open a bottle of wine and talk about that for five hours. »

Stripes of color, each one a sound or an instrument, crossed the screen, starting and stopping. « It’s like doing embroidery, like when I used to knit a lot as a teenager », she said. « You just sit and noodle all day and have a cup of tea and make pretty patterns. »

She hit the play button, and the tramp of marching feet began, soon topped by percussion, swooping synthesizers and Bjork’s voice, wailing, « Turmoil ! Carnage ! » New blocks of color announced new instruments : in this song, the sound of Konono No. 1, a Congolese group that plays electrified thumb pianos amplified (and distorted) through car-horn speakers. (She recorded with the members of the band in Belgium, and they will be joining her on some tour dates.)

The beat came from Timbaland, a longtime fan who had sampled Bjork’s song Joga and finally got around to collaborating with her last year. « I walked into the studio with Timbaland with no preparations », she said. « Usually I would have already written the song and there would just be a small little space for the visitor. But now I just wanted some challenge. We improvised for one day, and I just sang on top of whatever he did. »

« You just walk in the room and it’s just » - she made an explosive sound - « pfff !, and I just went pfff !, and we did seven tracks, just p-p-p-p-p-p. You get really smitten by his energy. It’s like, why doubt ? Who needs the luxury of doubt ? »

Timbaland’s beats made their way into Earth Intruders, Hope and the song that sounds closest to other Timbaland tracks, Innocence, which has sucker-punch syncopations from, among other things, a sample of a grunting man. After their recording session, Timbaland got wrapped up in producing albums and touring with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, leaving Björk to edit and augment the tracks.

« I was a bit confused first, because I got a lot of stuff of his and was maybe expecting him to arrange his noises », Björk said. « It ended up being quite a good thing for me, because apparently he never gives other people stuff and lets them complete it for him. So he actually trusted me to do that. »

For Hope, a song that ponders the story of a pregnant suicide bomber, Björk went to Mali to meet Toumani Diabate, a djeli (or griot) who plays the harplike kora. They could have exchanged musical ideas electronically. But « I wanted to sing it with him at the same moment, because it’s always different when you do that », Björk said.

« She wanted everything to work naturally », Mr. Diabate said backstage after a recent concert with his Symmetric Orchestra at Zankel Hall. In Mali, he played and she sang, trying lyrics she had brought until the syllables fit and they had a few songs. She chose Hope and handed another one to him. « She said, ‘Take this and use it any way you like,’  » Mr. Diabate said. « I couldn’t imagine a superstar doing that. »

Hope ended up using a Timbaland beat and multiple, overlapping, tangled tracks of kora, traditionally a solo instrument. Mr. Diabate tweaked the results until he was satisfied. « She opened a new door for the kora », he said.

Other new songs have their own convoluted stories. Björk visited Jamaica with Antony Hegarty, the brooding-voiced lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, to record a lovers’ duet with lyrics from a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, The Dull Flame of Desire. They sang together, improvising back and forth, for a full day ; then Björk edited their duet into a smoldering seven-minute drama, worked up a brass arrangement and decided to set the whole thing to an electronic beat.

It didn’t work. Eventually she brought in Brian Chippendale, the drummer from the rock duo Lightning Bolt. She told him : « I’ve tried so many beats on this song, but I think it should start with silence, and I think it should build up and then you should sort of take over. And it should be a beat that’s not a normal drumbeat but more like a heartbeat or something that you feel. » He improvised it in one take.

Some of the lyrics on Volta obliquely address topics like politics, feminism and religion. Declare Independence uses a stomping, distorted, ravelike ’80s beat from her longtime collaborator Mark Bell while she exhorts : « Start your own currency ! Make your own stamp ! Protect your language ! » She was thinking, she said, about Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, which are still part of Denmark, as Iceland was until 1944. « But also I just thought it was kind of hilarious to say it to a person », she said. « It’s just so extreme ! »

Other songs, she acknowledged, are messages to herself. The elegiac Pneumonia uses only French horns, building up slow-motion chords behind Bjork’s voice, as she reflects on a bout of pneumonia she had in January and on whether she had made herself too isolated : « All the moments you should have embraced/All the moments you should have not locked up. »

She also sings to her two children : her daughter and her son, Sindri, who is 20. In My Juvenile, a ballad accompanied by sparse clusters on a clavichord, she chides herself for the way she treated Sindri - « Perhaps I set you too free too fast too young » - while Antony sings « The intentions were pure » by way of reassurance. « You sort of let go too much when they’re 14 », Björk said. « And then suddenly when they’re 16, you behave again like they’re 8. And then when they’re 18, you think they can fly across the world on their own. And then when they’re 20, you tell them off because they’re wearing a dirty jacket. It’s clumsy. »

I See Who You Are speaks gently to her daughter, imagining her entire life span and beyond, « when you and I have become corpses. » It’s set to lightly plinking electronic tones, the Icelandic brass ensemble and the fluttering, surging notes of a Chinese lute called a pipa. The song is simultaneously a lullaby and an international concoction, an improbable mix and a cozy sonic fabric.

While making the album, Björk said, she read Leonard Shlain’s book « The Alphabet Versus the Goddess », which propounds a theory of history shifting between dominant brain hemispheres : right and left, image and word, intuition and logic, natural and manmade. « It doesn’t have to be right ; it’s just an interesting speculation », she said. As the embroidery of her songs moved across the computer screen, and as her voice sang the lyrics of Wanderlust - « Peel off the layers until you get to the core » - it sounded as if the alphabet and the goddess were, for the moment, in harmony.

par Jon Pareles publié dans The New York Times