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Band Jury

Band Jury: Nailah Hunter Defends Bjork’s ‘Utopia’

"[It’s] so mature that it’s been dislodged from the tether”
Nailah Hunter (Photo credit: Dillon Howl) / Bjork's 'Utopia' (One Little Independent)

Welcome to Band Jury, a SPIN series in which artists defend black sheep albums they feel deserve another listen. These are projects that, for whatever reason (middling sales, negative reviews, a misunderstood stylistic shift) have fallen slightly out of fashion—or perhaps never reached it to begin with.

The Defender: Nailah Hunter
Qualifications: Singer/harpist/songwriter who released her debut album, Lovegaze, in January, and is playing a handful of festivals in 2024; human who enjoys music

Nailah Hunter (Photo credit: Dillon Howl)

The Defended: Bjork’s 2017 LP, Utopia

Overview: Positive critical reception, including an 82 on Metacritic; No. 75 ranking on the Billboard 200, her second-worst to date; second-worst score (3.29/5.0), of her internationally released studio albums, on fan-review site RateYourMusic; lots of intense Reddit debate

Bjork’s Utopia (One Little Independent)

Nailah Hunter is reflecting on “Paradisia,” a brief flute fantasia from Bjork’s 2017 album, Utopia, when she stumbles upon a lovely description. “Talk about music to walk in the forest to,” says the L.A.-based singer-harpist—and she floats that line as elite praise. “I’m currently making a big playlist of music just for that [purpose].” 

Certain moments of Hunter’s debut LP, Lovegaze, are similarly evocative and elemental: “Strange Delights,” with its cascading piano lines and mantra-like vocals, feels like sitting beneath a slow-motion waterfall; “Finding Mirrors,” full of astral harp pings and reverb-streaked crooning, immediately conjures the stars. No one would accuse Hunter of being an overt Bjork disciple, but her fascination with the art-pop innovator makes sense on many levels. 

Like a lot of casual listeners, Hunter first knew Bjork as “the lady in the swan dress,” but she became a late-to-the-game fan—first through the immortal 1997 fan-favorite “Unravel” (“I really liked [it], I think, from yoga”) and then, more crucially, Bjork’s 2022 podcast, Sonic Symbolism, full of poetic deep dives into her full discography. 

“The way her voice interacts with harp on that [2001’s] Vespertine is essentially my understanding of how a voice should interact with harp. I didn’t know the music, but I knew it in my heart.”

When you first heard Bjork, were you an immediate fan? What was your gateway album or song?

At first, it was like, “Okay, I get Bjork, but I’m not really steeped in Bjork.” Now this is going to sound nuts because I ramped up from 0 to 100, but two years ago, I was in Chicago doing some shows, and I was babysitting my sister’s dog because she was out of town. I was exploring by foot by myself, and I listened to the Bjork podcast where she details every single aspect of her albums. I felt truly transformed just listening to her talk about her own work. They’d play pieces of the songs as she talked about them. It’s embarrassing because I know it’s the most obvious one, but with Vespertine, I was like, “How did I go my whole life not knowing this?” 

Bjork has used a lot of harp in her music, including classic tracks like “Pagan Poetry,” so I assume you have that direct connection there. Was that really a gateway into the rest of her catalog? Was it inspiring to hear this really famous, successful artist using harp in such a pivotal way?

It definitely hit me like a ton of bricks, and it was right as I was starting the writing process—or, rather, the fleshing out of demos I’d done the year before. It was like, “This has to be included in the overall mood board.” I wasn’t like, “I’m going to make this sound like Bjork.” But I just remember hearing her talk about the harp and the songs and feeling seen. I’m not trying to compare myself to her, but it’s just the way that she talks about it and processes it and talks about the textures that I really identified with. I think [2015’s] Vulnicura has some harp in it, but it’s almost like Vespertine and Utopia are the closing of a circle for her sonically. They deal with similar themes, but Utopia is more mature—so mature that it’s been dislodged from the tether, if you will, and I think that’s why people dislike Utopia.

They’re like, “It’s just floating around. It’s unstructured.” It explores these liminal spaces. Obviously the visuals speak for themselves—the fairies in the golden light. Maybe people don’t like it because it’s too obvious, but that’s what I wanted from Bjork. 

When you picked Utopia, I was shocked. A lot of the reviews were really positive. But then I discovered the fan reaction, including a lot of Reddit threads where people were debating the album pretty intensely—like full dissertations. The general criticisms were “It’s too ambient; it’s too long; and there’s too much flute.” Is that what you recall seeing?

That’s what seems to be the issue. I want to shout out those flutes because I’m so attracted to that specific tone of flute. It doesn’t register like the kind of flute you see in a classical symphony—it’s like a medieval flute, a flute of fantasy. 

“Flute of fantasy”—I’m stealing that for an album title or something. 

[Laughs.] It has these baroque tendencies. I’ve always wanted to hear that music come back around in a relevant-to-now way. I feel like that’s exactly what she did. For people who are not down for the flutes, you’re not gonna like it! 

Leave it to Bjork to lead the baroque renaissance. She’s so consistently good that, in a roundabout way, it almost works against her and you take her for granted. She does these innovative things on every album, so you just expect it, like, “Oh, yeah, Bjork’s doing another crazy thing.” I wonder if that plays into the fan reaction. Switching gears: Do you have a favorite song from Utopia?

“The Gate” kind of broke my mind apart. It’s my favorite track on the album, I think, and I feel like it’s Bjork doing something exactly like you said: “Oh, cool, she’s doing another weird thing”—but it’s so cool and so weird the way she uses space in that song. There’s so much stretching out, and then these events that almost sound like Taiko drums. Again, it’s like the bridge between Vespertine and Utopia—it’s very fertile; it’s water-based, even though Vespertine is frozen and Utopia is gushing. “Blissing Me,” you can’t really go wrong with that. I love the Serpentwithfeet addition [on the remix]. “Paradisia” is the one with just the flutes. Talk about music to walk in the forest to. 

That’s a pull-quote right there. That should be someone’s ambition: to make the soundtrack to walking in a forest. 

I’m actually currently doing that. [Laughs.] I’m making a big playlist of music just for that. 

Are there specific tracks of yours where you can hear Bjork in the mood board? Do certain songs feel like they belong in the Bjork forest—or the Bjorest, if you will? 

The Bjork forest! Oh, my! I love that question. It’s funny because, just the other day, I was thinking, “What happens if I pair the songs that feel the most like they could fit in a seamless DJ set with these songs from Vespertine, these songs from Utopia?” Just for me to have a nice song listening. The songs are “Lovegaze,” “Cloudbreath”—sorry, let me look at my playlist right now—and “Garden.” Those are the ones that feel like they’re most in that world. Maybe it’s because we know when she came about, but I will always associate Bjork with this early 2000s [era]. I don’t really know what to call it, but I feel like there was this thread of fantasy-leaning, R&B-tinged pop stuff. All of that coming together. “Lovegaze,” especially the outro moments, all the parts that are just harp—I felt like I could easily go there because I’d heard examples of a version that I liked before. 

It’s interesting that Bjork’s “Alarm Call” video prominently features a crocodile, and crocodiles are all throughout your “Strange Delight” video.

That just made my whole day! I was not aware of that. Thank you so much for telling me that!

Y’all are on the same wavelength.

I love that! I feel like her immersion in nature—it’s not even an “immersion,” but it’s what her music is made of. No matter what album. That’s something I’ve always been looking to see, and again, when I listened to her podcast, I was like, “It’s been here the whole time!”