A week before our interview, Björk and I came face to face in the New Wing of London’s Somerset House, a former Inland Revenue headquarters reclaimed for culture. In typical Björk fashion, she arrived not as a human but a surreal shadow figure, shrouded in a sparkling frenzy of kaleidoscopic matter. The colours, she’d tell me, illustrate the emotional palette of her latest album, 2015’s exhaustingly brilliant Vulnicura. “Neon yellow,” she explained, “for the danger and emergency of the heartbreak saga, and lilac for the cure, with a hint of red for the wound.”
At the time, the symbolism had slipped my mind, because Björk was transforming before my eyes: her insectile mask sparkled golden, her aura fluoresced and her marionette hands made an odd paddling motion, bombarding me with cosmic confetti particles. As she stamped out a rogue, vicious beat, she grew and grew, until the monolith of her body was all I could see. When the music stopped, everything went black, and I removed the VR headset.
The harrowing experience, based around Vulnicura track Notget, forms part of the new Björk Digital exhibition, which has arrived in London this month after early runs in Tokyo and Sydney. The project began three years ago, when Björk and her crew began to send “drone-based terrain capture technology” into Iceland’s volcanic wilderness. The preposterously gorgeous scenery they captured forms the virtual arena for Björk Digital, which headset-clad viewers can navigate by staring at an icon and getting sucked into the corresponding experience. Among those completed so far are Vulnicura tracks Mouth Mantra (recorded – yes – inside Björk’s mouth), Black Lake – shot in a lava tunnel half an hour from her home – and Stonemilker, in which you hover over a black beach, wait until Björk appears in emergency yellow, and allow her to spend seven minutes making art of obscenely penetrating eye contact. Although it took staggering effort to create, the acceleration of VR technology means the project exists in a constant state of renovation. “We got fucking carried away,” one organiser said, chuckling to hide his grimace.
To illuminate the exhibition, Björk has arranged to meet one afternoon at an upscale East London hotel, not far from the V&A Museum of Childhood. Along its corridors scuttle waiters with silver trays and serious waistcoats. Inside an ornate first-floor room sit presidential chairs, a table with coffee options and, turned to the window, a regal figure in an engulfing black dress, with padded shoulders and thick purple veins. Inside the dress is Björk. She turns, with a young-old smile, and apologises. “I’m very happy,” she says, “but real scruffy.” Throughout the chat, her exquisite manners and sporadic giddiness put me in mind of a lyric from her song Pluto: “Excuse me, but I just have to explode.”
Although it’s 4pm on a Monday, Björk is still nursing a punishing hangover. Last night, on a whim, she travelled the breadth of the country to party with an old friend in a field. (“DJing for cows,” she recalls fondly.) She perks up when describing the exhibition’s response from Vulnicura fans, whose visible distress appears to indicate a resounding success. “In Sydney, I actually had the luxury of seeing all the people watch the video – people holding hands and crying, people who never tried VR before,” she marvels. Of the extraordinary Notget experience, she adds, “It had to be a larger than life character, like a giantess – but it’s not me. I’m trying to tap into the myth of all wounded women.” How so? “Notget is a song that starts as a very wounded and defeated person,” she continues. “But by her discovery halfway through the song, and with her mantra, ‘love will save us from death’, she grows and becomes unbeatable. This is not, for a second, trying to show me as this person with no doubt. On the contrary, it’s about me overcoming the doubt.” She smiles. “And emphasising that we all go from the state of not believing in love to believing in it.”
Björk Gudmundsdottir lived with her parents, a feminist hippy mother and struggling electrician father, until she was two. When they divorced, her mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, fled to a Jimi Hendrix-worshipping commune, where Björk would join her aged five. In the meantime, she stayed home with her father, Guðmundur Gunnarsson, inventing songs and listening to her grandfather’s prehistoric stories of the first power lines to arrive in the old Icelandic countryside. From a young age, her comfort with electricity and technology converged with the melodramatic landscapes around her. Lonely half-hour walks to school, past black volcanoes she believed might erupt any moment, were an excuse to compose epic walking songs.
Given her radically liberal upbringing, nobody was surprised when Björk styled herself as a precocious, anti-corporate renegade. Even so, the intensity was alarming. Her punk ethic was fomented, along with her collaborative impulse, in Smekkleysa, aka Bad Taste, in her early teens. The record shop, label and book publisher doubled as a DIY collective at the heart of Reykjavík’s mid-80s bohemian punk scene, a coterie of absinthe-brewing artists, surrealists and “photocopy poets” who launched an empire from their low-rent print-room.
When times were hard, they made a quick buck on handmade Christmas cards. Embedding herself at Bad Taste was a daring move for Björk, who, after releasing a record aged 11, had refused a novelty second-album deal to perfect her original songwriting. She cut her teeth in punk girl group Spit & Snot, dabbled as flautist for Exodus, and helmed punk terrors Tappi Tíkarrass, which translates as “Cork the Bitch’s Arsehole”. In 1983, aged 17, she co-founded the supergroup KUKL, who shunned outside labels, major chords, Anglicised lyrics and 4/4 beats as if they carried the same contagious disease. When they scored their first major TV appearance, Björk – seven months pregnant with her first child – shaved her eyebrows and wore a Madonna-style half-shirt, emphasising her bump. Upon its airing in Iceland, Björk has claimed, a 90-year-old viewer had a heart attack on her settee.
If anarchic energy was in the national character – a symptom of the previous six centuries’ oppressive Danish rule – anarchic joy defined the local indie scene. The Sugarcubes broke out with Birthday, a pop delicacy so ineffable it was hard to believe their claim the band was all an out-of control joke. (Then again, Iceland is the sort of country where a good satire is never far from fruition: former Reykjavík mayor Jon Gnarr, a friend of Björk’s, began life as a political comedian. His most successful gag was standing for office; the anti- copyright Pirate Party are leading polls on the post-Panama Papers general election.) Either way, Björk’s novel way with words had the ring of genius – as unique and unpindownable as Joni Mitchell, Morrissey or Rakim, with a philosophy all her own. After a few international tours, The Sugarcubes split; half the band had poetry to be getting on with.
In the summer of 1990, Björk embarked on a cycling journey around the churches of Iceland, improvising songs on the organs. Along the way, she became seduced by electronic pioneers like 808 State and LFO. By the time she moved to England, in 1992, she was proudly declaring live rock bands “just crap” and assembling a new, multinational outfit to record her first album. “The whole Britpop thing, the whole Oasis thing, the whole guitar thing,” she told the BBC in 1997, “is a sort of British ‘scared of losing Britishness’ and ‘the immigrants taking over’ [mindset]. They’re trying to hold the Victorian flag alive, but it’s just dead.”
Despite the supernova success of her first proper solo albums, Debut and Post, Björk remained a source of puzzlement to many, particularly men. Journalists were prone to casting her as a gifted sprite, rather than a single mother who’d dropped into the world’s leading music scene, triangulated its hive of working-class futurists into hybrid avant-garde pop and sold three million copies of her debut album. In Inside Björk, a BBC documentary, Sean Penn rhapsodises over her “woman-baby face” and “uncorruptedness”; Beck adds, “I think of her voice as not quite human,” which is understandable – nothing about Björk conforms to masculine ideas of authenticity. But it’s more rewarding to invert it, I think. To say Björk sounds so alive with humanity, the rest of us must’ve been doing it wrong.
In September 1996, an obsessive fan who disapproved of Björk’s engagement to Goldie, mailed her a letter bomb, before filming his suicide to the soundtrack of I Remember When. (Scotland Yard intercepted the package at a post office.) Björk retreated from London to Spain, where, after recording Homogenic, her worldview shifted. “I got interested in the idea that instead of the exciting people being the loud, flamboyant ones, maybe it’s the people who don’t say anything for a week and then whisper three words,” she told the New York Times in 2001. The following year, she bought a home in New York with her new husband, the artist Matthew Barney.
Björk’s relationship with Barney, as well as the birth of their daughter, Isadora, shone through in 2001’s Vespertine, a cocoon of introvert micro beats and lullaby ambience. Originally called Domestika, the shy, self-produced record swapped studios for laptops, stages for bedrooms; instead of making the first move, the songs peeled back icy layers to reveal a warm, fuzzy centre. It crystallised the concept emergent in Homogenic, where her contrasting sonics – sub-bass thumps against elegant strings, glockenspiel taps over trembling synth warps – represented a wider, utopian bid to harmonise nature and technology.
In Iceland, there’s no shortage of belief in a digital tomorrow, partly due to the country’s late industrialisation. Björk suggests that, because of this, Iceland could leapfrog the industrial phase and press on with digital entrepreneurship. “The self importance of the first world can sometimes be a bit patronising to us second and third world countries,” she tells me. “They think any interest in living a harmonious way with nature is naive and idiotic. Their route through the industrial age is not the only one. There is another narrative possible which is more hopeful.”
In 2004, Björk followed the beat-intensive Vespertine with Medulla, an album of “heart, blood and meat” recorded with choirs, beatboxers and other vocal contortionists. It was, she said at the time, a return to primitivism in the uneasy era of George Bush, 9/11 and rapidly advancing technology. She updated the themes with follow-up Volta, her most explicitly political album, which led to her being banned from China after a show where she turned “Declare Independence” into a rallying cry for Tibet. But it was the animist anthem The Modern Things, a digital ballad from Post that places human-made tools within the wilderness, that best illuminated her radical new philosophy going forward: “All the modern things, like cars and such, have always existed/ They’ve just been waiting in a mountain, for the right moment, listening to the irritating noises of dinosaurs and people/ Dabbling outside.”
Although she’d never bought into the Kid A model of tech-paranoid alienation, the app album Biophilia announced a deeper phase of scientific enchantment for Björk. She rejoiced in the magical aliveness of chemistry, musicology and the planets, all rendered with pixels on touch-screens. She struck up a friendship with the radical ecological philosopher Timothy Morton, who argues that nature – instead of existing “over there” with the forests and fields – is a master network in which humans are totally intertwined, along with our tools and technologies. Björk concurs: “Western civilisation countries have this expression ‘going back to nature’, which I’ve never understood. I’m rather keen on going forwards to nature!”
This new clarity freed her to intertwine technology and science more explicitly with her art. “Part of Biophilia, for me, was being confident enough as a woman not to have to make a singer-songwriter album about my relationships,” she says, looking forlornly at her coffee. “I could go on about science and about education; it’s a subject matter a guy could totally get away with covering. And I was, like, I wanna be able to do that. Not always be the sort of person with a heart on my sleeve.” She sighs. “It just happened to be in a time in my life that I had this kinda, quite dramatic divorce happening to me. Suddenly I was just – swoosh – pulled back.”
Vulnicura was, if you like, the stock market crash of Björk’s kingdom. She had stayed loyal to art, gambled in love, made a home in the floes of sorrow and cores of joy. Early on, she had the fireburst glow of an exploding star; on Vulnicura, she became a black hole. It’s said that when a solipsist dies, the world dies with them. As solipsists occupy their inner universes, Björk inhabited family: intently, with devotion and faith, its own kind of immortality. When her marriage ended, the world died with it.
Björk released the album last January, and the world kept spinning, as if it were perfectly normal for music like that to exist. Journalists congregated, hypnotised by the splashy divorce narrative and Björk’s “open-chested” sincerity. In a devastating interview with Pitchfork, Björk explained, through tears, how her divorce had forced her into a feminist reawakening. “When I did this album – it all just collapsed,” she explained. “I didn’t have anything. It was the most painful thing I ever experienced in my life.” Billboard published a story headlined, “Björk’s New Album Has a 10-Minute Diss Track About Matthew Barney.” Slate argued Björk’s empowered, anguished expressionism was unfair to men. All over, Vulnicura prompted naked discussion, exultant praise and zealous think pieces; in December, it placed well on year-end lists. It was a strange, multiplex outpouring for such a personal album, and one turbocharged in our opinion-busy social-media era.
Like most people, I tend to celebrate great music by listening to it repeatedly. Vulnicura, which I played three times (and a fourth for this piece), presented a new problem: its sorrow was invasive. When the Stonemilker chorus swoops in – “I have/ Em-oooooooo- tional needs…” – lots of things happen without my permission. My breath shortens, my stomach jumps, something tells me I’m about to vomit. A small patch of tissue, somewhere in my brain’s right hemisphere, tingles and tightens with pleasure. Then I’m paralysed, then my temples burn, then I’m crying. After that, I usually feel serene and happy. In the end, the songs were such a rollercoaster I stopped listening to them.
Needless to say, I wasn’t over the moon about experiencing Stonemilker in hyper-immersive virtual reality while sitting in an old tax office with some English bloke called Andrew. Nonetheless, here at Somerset House was Andrew, explaining the thinking behind the project’s virtual landscapes; Timothy Morton’s Hyperobject theory, a development of the idea that all things are connected and equal, had somehow informed the VR navigation. It might sound a bit much, but close listeners are already attuned to the record’s astrophysical romanticism: atoms dance, souls are fine-tuned “to the universal wavelength” and, on Quicksand, “choreographed oxygen embroiders the air”. With its forensic account of heartbreak, the LP ought to play like melodrama, and in a way it does. But it’s melodramatic realism, with a canvas enormous enough to reflect the pan-sensory rupture of a heartbreak.
As Björk intrigued the MTV generation with her videos in the 90s, she aims, with VR, to pursue a credo of soulful innovation in tech. What singles out the Notget experience is its refusal to treat the new form like immersive cinema. Stonemilker, which you can watch at home with a special headset, is brilliant – an intimate treat, immeasurably richer and prettier than video. You’re on an Icelandic beach with Björk, watching her dance around, demanding your “emotional respect”. The moment you enter the world of Notget – which, unlike Stonemilker and Black Lake, is interactive, meaning you can walk around in it – a new form emerges. Instead of watching Björk perform, the two of you share a space, and that space represents a compartment of her mind. If the Stonemilker video is, as one exhibition-goer said, “like FaceTiming Björk”, Notget teleports you into her dreams.
Björk’s dreams are, on a grand scale, unaffected by the setbacks in her personal life, she assures me. She is planning a new, career-spanning scorebook, meticulously designed over the past six years. A full Vulnicura VR album is on track, constantly readjusting to revolutions in the tech. And at home, she is in a healing state. Last week, her grandfather, with his memories of pure, pre-power line Iceland, passed away. “He was literally brought up in a hut made out of rocks and grass that was, like, medieval,” she marvels. “So that’s just a picture of that coordinate I’ve always got. You have nature in one hand, technology in the other, and”—she claps her hands—“they can work together.” Today, she covets her “matriarch energy” despite immersion in “pretty macho” tech circles. “I definitely am still in that matriarch world, especially socially,” she says. “And it’s interesting, with VR coming up now, that it is gonna be more equal. There are just as many girls in the studio of facial capture” where Notget is being finalised—“as there were guys. VR seems like a stage where there can be this direct connection between the musician and the listener. Also, weirdly, a stage for a woman outside the patriarchy. At least for now.”
As her music career enters its 40th year, the singer, composer, electronic producer, visual avant-gardist, DJ and pop star finds herself in an artistic field of her own. “One of my favourite things is that feeling of going into the unknown,” she reflects, suddenly animated. “Be a little trooper, put on my rucksack, and march into some unknown terrain.” She dons an imaginary backpack. “You make a lot of mistakes, then you find the little bits that shine. But what’s really interesting is being my age and finding that my biggest terrain, now, is actually just to have a voice.
“There are not that many women to look up to. There’s Louise Bourgeois, or Joni Mitchell,” she continues, a distant smile darting across her lips. “There’s not that many who say something different when they’re 40 or 50, and when they’re 60 it’s something else, and when they’re 70 it’s something completely different. So it’s a territory that’s really unmapped. And it’s kind of scary, but it’s also very exciting. And it is surprising, the energy from the patriarchy, feeling the pressure of the difference between men and women. That when you hit a certain age, you’re meant to just go home and be quiet. It’s a rebellion to continue to do what you do.”
Björk Digital runs at Somerset House, London, until 23 October. Björk performs at Royal Albert Hall, 21 September, and at Hammersmith Eventim Apollo, 24 September
For more on Björk head to Björk: In Focus, an exploration and celebration of our September cover star