“I’m trying to forgive myself for everything.”
Nothing is more threatening for an established artist as the danger of change. Once they stand still, they rarely ever move again with that initial grace. But the Icelandic musician Björk is well known for successfully running away from those kinda ghosts.
This time right into the Museum of Modern Art New York, where this sunday, 8th or march, her first big exhibition starts and showcase (till 7th of June) the full spectre of her artistic vision, including of course the new album “Vulnicura” and the brand new videoclip to the song “Black-Lake”.
“Vulnicura” is, as we know by now, a classic break up record, covering the way down of her relationship with artist Mathew Barney – but when you read our “Kaput – Revisited” piece, originally from 2004, the „Medúlla“” era (the mindblowing experimental record, entirely based on the human voice), you will see Björk was already then a deep-thinker of relationship issues.
Thomas Venker met her in Berlin for a little chat.
Hello Björk. I saw your son playing at the Airwaves Festival when I was last in Iceland. What does it feel like to see your child also doing music? Is it something that you feel honoured by, after seeing you and travelling with you for all this time, that he’s also taken the decision to go in that direction?
Yeah, I guess I’m honoured. He’s gonna be an exchange student now. I was like ‘wow’. The fact that he’s still interested in travelling is good, you know. At least I know I didn’t overdo it. And he’s actually coming here today to hang out with me.
It’s like what I realised with my own parents. For a long time you are always with them and then suddenly it’s changing. You are really happy when you are coming back and you have time and stuff like that.
Yeah, it’s a peculiar thing. I would have never thought of stuff like that. Because when I was 14 I left home. And I was just like “No more of this. I wanna do my own thing”. And my mother really didn’t want me to leave and was really possessive of me. When I was renting an apartment she would go and get me and bring me back with force. And it was all this drama thing. So I always promised that with my baby I was not gonna be possessive, you know. I was just gonna let him go. But now it’s happening to me and it’s like… it’s scary, you know. I don’t know if you have a baby, or when you have a baby, I think it’s a nice surprise when the baby is like 15 or 16 and doesn’t need you anymore. But suddenly you want to have your baby forever. Nature doesn’t say “Let your baby go.” You have to do it yourself. You have to go like “Okay, this is the time. Let your baby go”. And the fact that the baby, all grown up, still wants to hang out with you. It’s amazing.
But you have another child. So what I always wondered, as someone who has no children, is it really like the cliché? That it changes your thinking and it marks a special point in your life? And then also in your artistic work?
I don’t really feel like this. But then again in Iceland I think it’s different. I think we’re more ‘old school’ in Iceland. Like I’ve got such big family and there’s always kids everywhere: I’ve got 3 brothers and 3 sisters and I’m the oldest. When I had a baby it was like, no big deal. We would always go camping and take all the kids with us and still do our work. Women are pretty strong in Iceland. So it’s not like “Oh, you have a baby, you have to stop working.” Why?
Does it concentrate your thinking somehow? Because having a child makes you look at things from another perspective?
Mmmmh, I am not sure if I think like what you are saying. Because I had a baby when I was 20, so I’ve… and he was just kind of starting to let go when he’s 14 maybe. And then 16 years later I have my next baby. It seems like a continuity of that. But what it does change? I feel a big difference physically. It really reminds you about your body. And it’s great, you know. Suddenly out of the blue your muscles changes. When you’re 20 you just go “Oh, okay. Whatever”, but now as I am older, my muscles… and it’s just like 57 miracles happening every day and suddenly you’ve got this huge thing on you. And then you give birth. And then you just look at your muscles and you go “Wow”. You can’t believe it. It’s kinda nice and humbling because maybe as a singer you believe that you invented your singing style. And then suddenly you go “No, no, it’s the body did it, not you. It’s not your idea.”
You think that’s why the album [Medulla] took a nature topic this time? The way I read the lyrics there are two themes: one is nature and the other is the role model that a girl plays in the whole constellation.
Yeah, I think so very much. I did question things like generosity and motherhood – how it’s easy when you are a mother, because everybody goes “Oh men are so cruel and they are so territorial and they kill everybody and women are not like that. They are so sweet and nice and everything.” And I’m like “Wait a minute. Maybe that’s not all true.” Because I could picture myself wanting to be possessive over my son. It is pretty easy to get pregnant and just give up all your dreams and all your fantasies and just be home with the baby. It´s not generosity. It’s ego. It’s power and control. That´s how a lot of mothers are with their children. They sort of don’t want their children to like other people. They want to be the only one in their lives – it’s a different type of being territorial.
I see, but in songs on the album, it seems you emphasise a development. For example “Sonnets/Unrealities XI”, in this song it looks to me like the woman is giving a lot and not taking as much back – until she reaches a certain moment, reflected in a song like “Where is the line” in which she is questioning this process. She is even ready to let her partner go.
“Where is the Line?” is actually about a male in my life. A relative, not my boyfriend. So that’s written to a male. With “Pleasure is all Mine” I think I was saying, especially in the second verse, that woman like me are getting more and more strengthful the more children we have to feed – it is this thing that the more you can give, the stronger you get. So it is quite territorial. And I think it’s a good thing. I’m not critizing it. I am just realizing that women are like that. if you go walking in the street right now and you see a woman who’s not happy, it’s because she has nobody to give anything. I think generosity is a good thing. Actually funnily you refer to “Sonnets/Unrealities XI”, a song which words are by E.E. Cummings. That specific lyric is written in the other sex. It is written from a man singing to a woman and I changed it.
Oh. Exactly that’s where my question was heading. In these lyrics he is losing her. Or more accurately, you are giving a partner away to another man and I thought like “Oh…”
No, I think the lyrics are about the state when you meet someone that you love so much, he´s the love of your life, and cause of that this weird thing starts in your brain. Everything is perfect and you should enjoy it as this is something you wanted for a long time – but then you keep thinking “When will it end?” It’s like your first thing and it’s so stupid. You should just enjoy what you have. I think it’s very common that you start imagining “Okay, everything is great now, but maybe in 10 year’s time he will meet someone else and then I have to prepare myself to be graceful.”
I think it’s as E.E. Cumming’s said, because of the so called ‘unrealities’. He starts with a poem that everything is perfect, they are both in love: He loves him, she loves him, they both love each other. And then his head just starts to make up these horror things up that don’t exist. So I always feel like I have to walk across a motorway with a big Chinese vase, you know. And I’m sure I’m gonna drop it. It’s too good to be true. I’m gonna drop it.
As if hoping for the pessimism to become true…
I was starting to get obsessed with this and then I wrote this song and lyrics and suddenly it stopped in my brain. I didn’t think like this anymore.
Is the private Björk like this too?
No, it’s not in my nature. So I recommend this song to be like a treatment when you are making stupid stuff in your head. You should worry about the real problems, not invent new problems that don’t exist. You know, there are enough problems as it is. You should think about those.
To whom are you talking in “Show Me Forgiveness”? Is it you talking?
Yeah I’m talking to myself in that song.
So you forgive yourself in the end?
I’m trying to forgive myself for everything.
You just had your second child. Did this lead to an album obviously very different to the preceding one. It’s a big artistic move, very arty, very dynamic. I personaly think that a lot of your fans will not have it easy with this one. What do you think?
That’s what I thought. But weirdly when i did “Vespertine” it was the same – 90 percent of my time working on “Vespertine” i created little micro beats and in every song there would be forty micro beats and it would be like mosaic. ”Vespertine“ was insane. I thought back then that only the electronic nerds would get “Vespertine”, which I thought was great. You know, I am proud that especially the electronic nerds are interested in what I do. That said, with this album, I thought the same. And again the reactions so far are that the people who listen to really normal stuff, they like this one. Because of the human voices. Because it’s something that everybody understands.
You are right, instead lots of electronic effects and gimmicks, this time the human voices are speaking to the listeners. What works perfectly with nature as the main theme of the album.
I didn’t figure out until January that this gonna be a vocal-only album. It was not like I made a decision, it appeared more as a sudden solution. I was working with a lot of instruments and started to record the choir on Christmas – and then I would just mute all the buttons with the instruments cause i was bored with them like a teenager. Maybe the “Vespertine” tour with 17 musicians on stage was too much for me. And you know what my first thought has been after realizing i gonna do a vocal-only album? Everybody would expect something really experimental, avant-garde from me, like a Yoko Ono Album…
I expected you to work again with Matmos as it looked so harmious on stage with them and yet was still so sonically ambitious…
They were working with me in like September and October of last year, and it was actually Drew who discovered the new direction before I did. He looked at me and said “Björk, you are gonna do a vocal only album, you know.” And then he made me two compilation CDs with only vocal stuff and encourage me to go all the way. It just seemed right. When I was getting drunk in bars within the last two years, I would be so bored with electronic music everywhere. I always encouraged my friends to turn off the ghettoblaster and sing with me. And I would go “you do the beat, you do the baseline”. Especially when you are drunk together and you are singing like old rave music or something, like techno songs, and you go “tchck uh tchck….”, like really white trash versions of some euro trance music. This was so great.
You also worked with Robert Wyatt for this album. It´s so great to see him in this context.
Yeah, he actually was the last one who came into the picture, when I had most of the tracks finished in May. At that stage i was missing something in the puzzle, someone who is narrative, soulful, a folk singer. So I called him up and he said yes. The next day I sent him some ideas and 3 days later I was in his bedroom with my laptop and microphone and we just did it in one day. We got drunk that night and….He’s incredible and I feel so lucky that I went to his home and did it in his home and his environment with his incredible Polish wife. They’re just amazing people.
You are in a relationship with the artist Matthew Barney. I don’t wanna go into gossip talk here, but i’m really interested whether you discuss your artistic moves with him or not?
Well, we discuss stuff but not so much. I think they we are both naturally quite secretive, especially about the process of art while it’s in the making. It’s like when you get a new idea, if you say it straight away, it’s gone. Its just has to grow inside you. But we talk about the process itself as we both have a lot of people working with us, it can be sometimes complicated. What’s great about me and Matthew is, most of all we are boyfriend-girlfriend. We don’t talk so much about our work together. And maybe the biggest influence we have had on each other is just that we are in a relationship that’s positive. It makes you a stronger and more confident person – so you are able to give much more in your work.
Is “Submarine” a song about those people working with you and putting their own ambitions in the background?
Uh, “Submarine” is about when your whole body is possessed by pregnancy and things like breastfeeding – which is a lovely feeling. I recommend it. It’s the best feeling in the world.
I doubt i will be able to experience it.
But there’s a point when the baby goes from demanding me 24 hours a day to 23 to 22. Actually the baby wants a break from you too, because there are other things to experience. I wrote this song when my baby was around 6 months old, it reflects the moment of me getting back into writting songs. It´s not about the baby’s universe, it’s about my universe. Because my unconscious felt like a submarine that was really deep down underneath the baby and then I would start to have a babysitter for maybe like 2 hours a day and be able to get back to work. But I was still in the same house, the same room and i was kinda like „Where do I start?”. Nature has its way to programme your brain and emotions, always saying you that the baby is the most important. But when the baby does not need you anymore, nature is not reprogramming you. You have to exercise your muscle again by yourself.
But are you sometimes afraid of taking too much from the people you work with?
Yeah, I think so. I’m really lucky. I know a lot of people that write music and create things, more talented than me, that are not in my position. So I have to be responsible to give back.
Is it a pressure that at the same time so many people depend on you?
I feel more maternal, you know, like a mother. Not like a mother, that’s terrible, it’s such a cliché. If you stop giving back everything goes dry and stops, so you have to create the flow. I think it’s my responsibility. Does that make sense?
Yes. And those seem like the perfect last words.