Björk’s Volta turned 10 on May 1. To mark the album’s anniversary, we’ve reproduced our interview with Björk about the album, which ran in our June 2007 print issue.
If Björk ever gets irritated by the frequency with which she’s referred to as “elfin,” she won’t admit it. “How do I feel about being called adorable? I find it kind of ridiculous, but it doesn’t upset me. That would be like taking the weather personally—I can’t control it.” Nor can she successfully conceal her preciousness during lunch in Manhattan. Wearing a hot-pink baby-doll dress, her right elbow peeking out through a threadbare patch on the sleeve, she wiggles in her seat like a fidgety child, making it easy to forget that the 41-year-old multiplatinum singer is one of the most respected musicians in the world. And though she’s at that age when even controversy-courting pop stars like Madonna are anxious to reveal their boring, domestic sides, Björk remains unapologetically eccentric and even dangerous—she can two you to the ground if you get in her way, like she did a Thai reporter in 1996. Björk is here to talk about Volta, an album that is just as genre-bending as the five that preceded it, but more aggressive. In fact, this collection of politicized, up-tempo, beat-heavy songs may be her least adorable yet.
Why did you decide to work with Timbaland on this record?
Because I really wanted visceral, physical, strong music. And he is definitely a guy who has headspace for a strong woman—like Missy Elliott. He lets her be who she is. It’s not like she’s there with huge tits, keeping her mouth shut and being sexy. When you go into the studio with him, it’s like, “Drop everything and do it in the name of music.”
Did you want him to help make Volta more accessible than your previous album, Medúlla, which was essentially a cappella?
I didn’t contact him because I was desperate for a No. 1 hit—probably the contrary. I like his little quirky tracks that never become singles. Then he had quite a year with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, and then I started reading online that he’s working with people like Coldplay. It worried me—”Is he working with everybody?” Not that I was being possessive, but it was important for me that our little thing would be precious. I’m not trying to go mainstream. This is about music, not jumping on bandwagons.
As someone who takes risks with music, would it bother you if you were accused of jumping on a bandwagon?
No. But I am very protective about my records. I don’t want it to look like I just went shopping. What I’m most concerned about is that the collaboration comes from a genuine place. That it’s organic. It’s like if you started working someplace and you bump into somebody, and for some weird reason, you click, and before you know it, you’re going to movies together. You can’t control it. I’m quite old-fashioned that way. In music, I think you can hear it when things are just added together without any chemistry.
Then do you object to television shows like American Idol that commercialize and sensationalize the process of becoming a musician?
I don’t know. I don’t have a TV. Not that I’m against television—I think it’s great. It’s just that I’ve got so many things to do that sorting out the TV thing is like number 47 on my list. But reality TV—I think it’s a good thing.
That’s surprising. Why?
I get annoyed much less by people in the street. Twenty years ago the idea of celebrity was somebody like me. It was assumed that if you got into the limelight, you were easy access, 24/7. It was sort of like being a heart surgeon and going to the cinema, and having people say, “Can I show you my heart?” You always had to say yes. But with reality shows and characters like Paris Hilton, it’s becoming more complex. I happen to go onstage and I happen to sing, but that doesn’t mean I want people to film me when I go to the bathroom. But some people do want that. Certain people want to be celebrities, and certain people will watch them. Reality shows wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a need.
Did your wariness of fame begin after a deranged fan sent you a mail bomb in 1996 and later killed himself?
It was a combination of things. At that time, I had lived in England for three years, and I was an A-list celebrity there. It was me and five other people. It sounds really bigheaded, but it’s just a fact. As a foreigner, I was kind of flattered. It was like I was being offered a role in their society: “Will you be the person we watch and look at?” But I didn’t like it. I felt if I breathed in [inhales deeply], that 100,000 people were synchronizing their breathing with me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that everybody leaves England: John Lennon, David Bowie, Becks and Posh. People can’t handle it over there. So I said, “Thanks for the honor, but I’m not interested,” and I moved to Spain for six months, made [1997’s] Homogenic, and stepped out of the whole thing.
You started recording and performing when you were 11. Did you ever have a moment where you almost broke down and shaved your head like Britney Spears?
I definitely have sympathy for her, but I don’t identify with her so much, because I had a choice. I could move away. And she can’t. I mean, even though she can move to Hong Kong or Africa or wherever, she wouldn’t escape it. And that’s scary. It was scary to look at the headlines when she was photographed without her knickers. There were obviously hundreds of paparazzi forced in her face, and the headline was ATTENTION-SEEKING BRITNEY. [Pauses] I’m embarrassed because this actually shows how much I’ve been following it!
What’s your least favorite trend in music?
I’m not crazy about rock, but I’ve said that for a long, long time. My stepdad listens to rock, my brother listens to rock, my son listens to rock. It’s a white, male thing for me. It’s square-shaped and Christian. It’s very much about not having mystery. I can’t get into it.
But you were once in a rock band.
It was in a lot of bands, and several times I went through this thing where you start a band, do an album, and it gets labeled. My first was “pop-punk” and the next one was “experimental post-punk,” and then you get stuck in that box. I was so determined when I was 27 and did my first solo record that that was one hole I wasn’t going to fall into.
Were there any hard feelings between you and the rest of the Sugarcubes when you left the band and made Debut?
Not really. I mean, not compared to what you hear from other bands. When the Sugarcubes were formed, it was a joke. we got drunk and decided to start a pop band. We were actually surprised that it lasted as long as it did.
Was it weird to reunite with the band last November?
No, we’ve always been friends. When I am in Iceland, we meet on Tuesday for lunch and soup. Bad Taste [the Icelandic label that released the Sugarcubes’ albums] was our baby and it was on the verge of bankruptcy, so we decided to do this gig for free and put all the money into it.
Volta sounds remarkably different from your last few albums, which are much quieter.
I always try to be true to how I feel. I like my album to have the same mood as it was written in. Most of my favorite albums are introverted affairs, where it’s not Friday night after four or five cocktails. It’s more like when you are alone in your home reading a book. My last couple albums were written in that sort of situation. But I have a natural cycle that I’m going through. It can’t be summer all the time. You have to go through autumn and plant seeds and wait—and then it’s out of your hands, and you become an extrovert again. I went through an extroverted period from 1993 to 1997, and this album is a bit like those [albums].
By extroverted, do you mean that while recording Debut and Post, you did a lot of partying?
I wasn’t out clubbing every night. But I guess you could say I was more social.
Ecstasy was such a big part of the electronic dance music scene. What was your attitude toward drugs at the time?
I wasn’t against it and I wasn’t fore it. It’s not the point. When I was going to clubs in England in ’88—before [Ecstasy] became a huge thing—it wasn’t so much about drugs. You would stay up until 6 A.M., but you would forget to go to the bar and just be high on music. I’m very into getting high on nature and not with assistance.
Iceland is a country where people drink heavily. Can you hold your liquor?
Yeah. I think it’s a Nordic thing. People in cold countries tend to just go for it, but only on the weekends. When I was a teenager, you wouldn’t drink in the middle of the week. You wouldn’t have a glass of wine with your meal, because you’d be an alcoholic. But if you drank a liter of vodka on a Friday night, you were cool. It’s more about having an out-of-body experience and getting into a trance and getting rid of everything on your back. Then you wake up the next morning, and you’ve left all the luggage behind.
Your mother is so active in politics that she once went on a hunger strike to protect the Icelandic wilderness form a power plant. When you were young, did she ever try to enlist your help in her causes?
She has, but she always put me off because she’s so extreme. It’s not realistic. It’s just making it easier to ridicule. I was a bit of an anti-activist for a long time because of that.
What about your new sing, “Earth Intruders,” which has a very martial feel? Was it intended as a commentary on the Iraq War?
That was written on an airplane when I flew back from Indonesia. I had been in the area of the tsunami, and I flew straight to a session with Timbaland. I was trying to sleep in this uncomfortable seat, and I had a dream about a tsunami of people—millions and millions of ill and poverty-stricken people without a home—flying across the Atlantic and marching over to the White House and putting things right, equalizing a little bit the power structure on this planet. The marching was the feet of all those people. It’s pretty naive, but it was a dream. That’s my excuse.
Would you be scared to record an album completely alone?
The majority of the beats on my records I do myself. Most people don’t realize that. As an exception I will get a collaborator, but 90 percent of my albums are very solitary. I’m editing away on the computer alone. I love collaborations, because then I can drop the ego. I don’t look at it as this neurotic clinging to others. I mean, everybody says about Prince, “Oh, he’s so amazing; he plays all the instruments himself.” I don’t think of that as a virtue. I’m not dissing Prince—I think he’s great—but the gorgeous thing about music is that it is such a great form of communication. That’s something us humans are quite clumsy with a lot of the time.
Does the destructive potential of technology ever worry you?
I think it’s just the way things are. I think bad things are going to happened because of it, but so will fantastic things, and we’re going to edit out what we don’t like. Like nuclear energy. We made mistakes with it, and we figured out it’s not a good idea to bomb people, but maybe it’s a good idea to give homes energy. We learn. It’s nature.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
I don’t know. I’m used to being misunderstood. It’s not important for me to be understood. I think it’s actually quite arrogant to expect people to understand you. Maybe there’s a side of me that my friends know about that people don’t see—the fact that I’m the oldest of my brothers and sisters, and I’m actually a pretty sensible person.
Do you think people have the impression that you are not a sensible person? After you wore that swan dress to the Oscars in 2001, a lot of people who’d never heard of you before just thought you were a kook.
I can’t believe people are still talking about the swan dress six years later! It was a joke. I find Hollywood dress sense very alienating. Obviously, I was sticking my tongue out at it. One thing nobody mentions is that I had six eggs with me and I distributed them around the red carpet. And all the lifeguards for the stars were like, “Sorry, ma’am, you dropped this.” It was hilarious. The weirdest thing is everybody actually thought I was trying to fit in but that I somehow got it wrong. Does it look like I am trying to fit in with you? No. I didn’t realize how sacred Hollywood is It’s like a religion, and I had shit on the church floor.
Both you and your partner, Matthew Barney, are famous for being challenging, avant-garde artists. What is your daily life at home like with him and your daughter, Isadora?
I think it’s more regular than people thing; let’s just say that. There’s definitely a lot more cooking happening. People are not going to believe it, I know, but I’ve always been a bit of a homebody. I had a child at the age of 20 [son, Sindri], and just when he was getting big, I got a new one. They’re the best companions. I can’t imagine anything better than having a conversation about giraffes and why they are not blue.