The thrill of Björk’s DJ sets
To steer her own creative output, Björk has brought together a broad constellation of collaborators from a wide range of genres, geographies and cultures.
She is perhaps the only common thread that unites artists as disparate as John Tavener and Joni Mitchell, Madonna and Mica Levi. It’s Björk’s ever-evolving taste, underlined by what music writer Alex Ross has called her “obsessive curiosity about every corner of the musical world”, that has made it so fun to follow her as she has increasingly adopted the role of DJ. While she’d created IDM-heavy mixes for radio in the 90s, it’s over the past couple of years that she’s started appearing more and more, delighting and surprising fans with set lists that encompass disparate worlds, yet are all united by some ephemeral ‘Björkness’ that glues everything together.
Her most high profile appearance behind the decks to date was ironically at a secret party, last year’s Tri Angle records fifth anniversary show. The event took place in an abandoned bank in New York’s financial district, and was run by Tri Angle’s Robert Carolan who co-produced elements of 2015’s Vulnicura album. Names from the label, including fellow Vulnicura collaborator The Haxan Cloak, stepped up, but it was Björk’s appearance, shrouded in a sequinned mask, that was the night’s centrepiece. Her choices drew from a nexus of artists with an affinity to the spirit of her deeply personal album, with female vocalists such as Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen and Portuguese Fado artist Amália Rodriguez mirroring the confessional tone of the 2015 LP. Björk had previously pointed out that in much of her favourite confessional music, she doesn’t understand the words, and the Tri Angle show was a good opportunity for her to demonstrate how affecting these songs can be simply by virtue of the direct honesty of the vocal performances. Undercut with choppy beats, she even repackaged them for the occasion, matching the murky quality of much of Tri Angle’s output.
As has been typical of Björk’s DJ sets, she closed the Tri Angle party with a series of RnB tracks from the likes of Jerimih and Brandy, cutting through the glitchy futurism with some contemporary heartfelt recordings, tracks which also resonate with Vulnicura in the sense of the stripped back clarity of their emotional lyricism. For some, like detractors who spoke out on the internet following a set in Sydney in July to mark the opening of VR exhibition Björk: Digital, this music somehow doesn’t square with what you’d expect from Björk. To say so is to misunderstand the purpose of her set, and indeed her ethos and approach to music generally, but to some extent it’s to be expected that some misguided fans would mistake Björk’s eclecticism for pretension, and expect her to play narrowly “high-brow” music when she comes to write up a set list. Appearing in a translucent green mask, white body suit and surrounded by monstera plants, the low key set was an understated expression of Björk’s place in today’s musical landscape, which is never going to please everyone – there will always be those fans who think she should remain in a perennial state of performing of Oh So Quiet in front of an orchestra, whatever the occasion.
You might wonder why an artist of Björk’s calibre chooses to step out for marathon five hour sets, or decides to perform subtly from behind decks in the corner of a room rather than on stage. First and foremost, her sets are designed to be fun, opportunities to celebrate artists she admires or has worked with. There’s a poignant sense of community as she shouts out longtime collaborator Mark Bell of LFO who sadly died in 2014, when she plays his 90s hit Love Is The Message on Rinse FM, and recurrent appearances from artists like Lotic and Rabit across various sets show her affection for the work of up and coming artists in the same loose network of like-minded producers.
Aside from a chance to listen in on unreleased Arca edits, it’s this community, network, and loose connection between wildly disparate elements that make a Björk DJ set such an unmissable affair. In their breadth of span and idiosyncrasy they’re just like anything else she does: unique.
Check out the rest of Björk: In Focus, an exploration and celebration of our September cover star