Björk’s schedule is so hectic that you can only pin her down for a chat mere hours before the conversation happens. Once you do, though, it’s like channelling an oracle. This is Björk, after all: over the course of four decades the Icelandic artist has changed our understanding of what music can be. Her nine solo albums have translated into tours of extraordinary multi-sensory, multimedia wonder. Meanwhile, her cultural reference points are so broad that she’s collaborated with everyone from Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq to David Attenborough. Even Steve Coogan.
When I speak to her on the phone from Iceland in early April, the 52-year-old is deep in rehearsals for the tour she’s conceiving off the back of her 2017 album ‘Utopia’. After debuting the show in Reykjavík, she’s bringing it to the inaugural All Points East festival in Hackney’s Victoria Park later this month. London holds a special place in Björk’s heart. She lived here during her nascent solo career in the ’90s and was often spotted at clubs such as Trade in Clerkenwell. ‘I have many friends there,’ she says. ‘I always look forward to coming.’
It’s six months since you released ‘Utopia’. Do you feel differently about the album now?
‘It hasn’t changed that much, because of the nature of the album. My last album [‘Vulnicura’] was about heartbreak. Every month I would feel differently about the songs. “Utopia” is zooming out as much as possible. The theme is asking how to build a utopia. We all have this dream of what we would like our lives to be. The reality of it is different. Humans are really clumsy but once in a while they get it right. “Utopia” is about that tension, almost in a slapstick way.’
What drew you to the idea of utopia?
‘For me, “Utopia” is an emergency. It was a reaction to Trump’s election. I was paralysed, mostly because of the environmental issues he wasn’t going to do anything about. If there was ever an urgency to define what it is that we want it’s now. Every time humankind gets in serious trouble that’s when we shift into a higher gear. We are living in times where we need to react quickly. We need to define what our plan is.’
What initiatives give you hope? Did you feel moved by the March for Our Lives?
‘Yeah, that’s one of them for sure. When I was living in New York, my daughter went to school 45 minutes away from Sandy Hook where people got killed [in 2012]. In Iceland we have no army, no violence, almost no murders, so that was terrifying for me. When I would talk to people about it they would shake their heads and go: “Boys will be boys: there’s nothing you can do about it.” I didn’t understand it! It’s satisfying for me on so many levels that these kids have a voice. Now it’s like, “No! We are not gonna live with this, we’re gonna change it.” That’s amazing and I think it can become reality.’
Do you think that music has increasing power to change attitudes and create communities?
‘I started touring young in a punk band in West Berlin before the Wall came down. The band I was in had to save up money for years to be able to buy a really bad secondhand car and drive between squats in Europe, sleeping on people’s floors. I came from that sort of DIY background where every show you think: This is special. For us, it was never about world fame. It was about meeting other like-minded people, travelling the world, having that connection. I still feel the same way.’
Has unveiling ‘Utopia’ been as scary as the release of ‘Vulnicura’?
‘“Vulnicura” was tapping into territory that I’d felt pressure in since I was a teenager: the tortured Edith Piaf/Joan of Arc woman with strings and beats. Western civilisation wants this chanteuse archetype who sings and sings, then she sets on fire, big smoke comes and she dies. I have a lot of characters in me, like every woman [does] – at least 50. That’s just one of them. “Utopia” was an attempt to try to invent a new texture. It’s a more creative album for me as a producer and a braver statement. It’s me in my element as a music nerd.’
The lyrics on ‘Blissing Me’ are about sending someone MP3s and falling in loveto a song. How often do you send people MP3s?
‘The people I care for? I will make an effort to find the right song they’ll love. I’ll get it wrong a few times, then I’ll hit it right on the head. I find that such an exciting riddle to solve. I send a lot of songs to friends. All the emails they get from me will be a song and an exclamation mark and a title. That’s it. Sometimes words just wind me up. My favourite thing is when I get a little song from my friend with no words. Especially when I’m waking up. I put the song on and I’m like, “Yes!” ’
A few years ago you revealed that you often haven’t been credited as a producer during your career. It’s surprising that you still have to deal with that.
‘It’s the same with the gun laws and the #MeToo movement: it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s gonna take maybe a whole generation to change it. I was blunt. It’s the first time I’ve moaned as a woman. Two days ago somebody sent me an article from one of the biggest music websites which credited the silences on “Black Lake” on “Vulnicura” to Arca, the producer I work with. He did the beat for that song but I had written it months before he came on the project. Those silences were already there. They were mine. The website said that he had produced the whole song, not co-produced. I’m not gonna get upset every time I see something like that. That’s a waste of energy. It’s hard to know what to do to be a good feminist. Is it to keep moaning? Is it to send the website an email? That feels ridiculous.’
Do you ever feel that being defined as a ‘female’ musician is limiting?
‘I watched my mum and all the women in the ’70s fight a lot fights, win a lot of them, lose a lot of them. They did a lot of work for my generation. It was my role to be that liberated person. I had been enabled. Even though I was a woman I did all the stuff the boys did. I didn’t moan. I did that for 30 years and that’s really important. There isn’t one answer to this question. We are gonna have to do it for another generation, take every occasion for what it is and always use our judgment. I have to remember that I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing it for all the women.’
Björk plays All Points East on May 27.