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Exclusive interview with Björk: "The pain was a journey"

By Staff

  • Björk Guðmundsdóttir In an exclusive interview with Fréttablaðið and Iceland Magazine, Björk opens up about the grief and pain which inspired her latest work, Vulnicura, the artistic process and the responsibility of punk. Photo/Nick Thornton and Warren du Prez.

Björk is wearing a light pink Kimono and pink shoes. She has a gold comb in her hair and jewellery which remind us of the ocean, an octopus necklace and a ring which resembles a coral. She wraps her dress around herself as she sits down. There is an air of lightness around her.

"This is a little like an interrogation room," she says jokingly, referring to the meeting room in Harpa, with its powerful illumination. She turns down the lights, so that they fit more comfortably with the dark winter sky outside. It is three in the afternoon, and the days are getting shorter in Iceland. 

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Family print, red By Andrew Thomas Huang

Björk is grateful to the operators of Harpa who worked with Iceland Airwaves to have Björk Digital, her experimental VR project and exhibition, set up in Iceland. The exhibition has previously been set up in Sidney, Tokyo and most recently at Somerset House in London.

"I am very grateful that the idea actually came from here. I always have this pride, I want always to bring my exhibitions and my concerts here. And preferably when I have perfected them. In reality, the exhibition is now better than it was when it was put up in London, we have for example added a new video, Family, which I think is the best video in the exhibition, and a new version of the song Notget."

Grief is a journey
Björk explains the show to us: Guests get to know her musical universe by enjoying the works Björk has created in collaboration with some of the best Virtual Reality directors and programmers. The exhibition is based on her album Vulnicura. It is Björk‘s most personal project yet. She unveils herself and explores the pain that came with her break-up with Matthew Barney.

Until now, she has been reluctant to agree to interviews about the inspiration of the project, as it is too personal for her. The song Notget was written eleven months after the break up and describes a lot of pain. Björk compares the loss and the pain which followed the break up to a journey, split into different chapters.

"This jorney has taught me a lot. I have a far greater respect for the biology of the body, the brain and the nervous system after my experience. The grieving process that followed the separation was like a book you read through, chapter by chapter." Björk says she thought she would walk through the typical grieving process, described as a procession of stages.

"Grief is an individual feeling and no grief and no personal trauma is alike. So, I thought I was different from everyone else, that I would not go through this typical process. That I would be able to power through. But I nevertheless realized that the journey of grief is similar for everyone. Also for me. It was a wakeup call. I looked back and I saw that I had finished a chapter in my life, and that I had begun a new chapter. This is a natural process, and there is a certain common human experience which I went through," says Björk, adding that she had this beautiful feeling after the journey.

Feels a deep sense of compassion
"I feel compassion. I might be walking down Laugavegur street, in Reykjavík, or down a street in some major city, surrounded by throngs of people. And then this feeling comes over me, which most people have dealt with loss, grief and trauma, big or small. I feel a stronger connection to myself and others, and I'm really fond of the feeling.

I also put this in context. I know that I am lucky not to have experienced difficult shocks and situations before this. I have experienced success. I come from a good and peaceful society. And when I had felt pain like this before, I was in a position to handle it. I could express it, which is perhaps something not everyone is able to do. To be a singer, and to sing about love, well, that is simply normal."

It is also a certain realization for Björk to observe younger generations look ahead. "We are living at a time of change. The young people live as if they would be 120 years old, and they see their lives as composed of several chapters and periods. I come from a generation which believed that that each person would only have one life partner, one career. The younger generations see this more realistically, both love and careers, they see them as constantly changing, evolving. I think my generation is the last to believe in those restrictions."

Don’t remove my pain
It is my chance to heal

This comes from the lyrics of Notget. Is she stronger after the breakup and having dealt with the grief through her art? Did the pain give her an opportunity to become whole again?  

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Björk's VR exhibition in Harpa Photo/Santiago Felipe

 

"I think so, but it‘s still relative. I have learned a lot and I think I was able to come out of this without any baggage, a heavier burden. I think that‘s what I was aiming for. I'm the same person and that‘s an achievement," says Björk.

Wants to build a bridge
It is obvious for visitors to Björk‘s exhibition that she wants to breathe life into technology. The exhibition is an individual experience and the closeness to the melodies, Björk‘s music and her philosophy is powerful.

You have said that the role of the artist is endow technology with a soul? "Yes, because it has a soul. Because technology is part of the artistic process, crafts, our expression. The word techno comes from Greek and actually means crafts. We created a spear, carved, stitched, constructed, painted. And before we know it, we have an IPhone in our hand. I don‘t know why we are trying to separate technology from other things we create. It is like trying to cut off your arm. Saying we are good and that we live here, and that technology is evil and cold, and over there; that isn‘t realistic. I want to build a bridge between the two. Technology is part of us,” Björk says, and says she has a need to use technology in her creation.

"Yes, I speak only for myself, but to be honest, I feel I need to use the technology that we are developing today. We watch videos, Netflix, we use our telephones and we stay in touch with our loved ones. I don‘t want to overlook this technological world, which is just our everyday experience. I want to create with it. We are all emotional beings and we need to find a path for this in our everyday lives. With whatever tools we have. At least I think it‘s extremely important for us to record at least a part of what is important to us with these tools."

A more responsible philosophy of punk
She says the philosophy of punk still applies: "This is the soil that I grew from and it was all about not relying on othe rpeople. This philosophy was extremely important during the Bad Taste Record era and the time during the Sugarcubes. To do things yourself. To take responsibility. Not to wait for things happening by themselves, but to make things happen yourself. As I get older this feeling of responsibility, which actually grows from the philosophy of punk, only gets stronger. I understand better that you are responsible to bring out in society those things you want to be part of. If you can‘t do that, nobody can. In ancient times, this meant that you couldn‘t rely Skífan or Steinar [the big record companies in Iceland in the 80‘s]. If you weren’t happy with the music which was being released, then you just made your own music."

"The lesson is that you can‘t point at others and blame others. You can only create something new, and that is my attitude to the projects I am working on today," says Björk, referring to the development of virtual reality, programming and music.

"I'd rather try to be engaged. Be a participant. Try new things and ask questions: What if? What if we go this way? "

A powerful closeness
Visitors to Björk‘s exhibition get virtual reality glasses and headphones and get to follow Björk in a 360° vision walk along the black beach in Grótta nature reserve in a video to the song Stonemilker. The closeness in the video is powerful. Björk dances around the viewer right there on the beach. The song deals with someone who is trying to elicit emotions from another person. And it covers the need for clarity and answers. 

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Stonemilker Photo/Andrew Thomas Huang

What is it that I have
That makes me feel your pain?
Like milking a stone
to get you to say it

Can you tell us more about the lyrics of the song? And is it true that you actually composed this song walking on the beach?

"I wrote the song as I was walking in Grótta, where the song was later recorded. It is a beautiful healing, after having travelled to Australia, Asia, America and Europe, that the song has come back home. You can see the beach from the window of Harpa! We borrowed a camera, one of the first high grade 360 degree cameras, and when we were here to film Black Lake, this was a kind of snap decision Andy and I made the night before. I think this is reflected in the recording and its freshness."

In the song, Black Lake, which was written two months after the break-up, a lot of anger is described.

Did I love you too much
Devotion bent me broken
So I rebelled
destroyed the icon

You have said that it is most difficult to talk about this song. Why?

"I put a lot of work into the lyrics, and I think there is a reason why the written word and the poetic form allow us to express things we can‘t express during our everyday lives or in conversation. These few times you manage to arrange the words in the correct order you create this tension, and this energy, which flows between the lines, and the most powerful thing is often the thing which lies slumbering in the silence.  So, to explain too much can easily draw the energy from the experience.”

A creative biography and luggage
On Vulnicura there are also songs which are written before the breakup. One song deals with Björk‘s mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir. Björk wrote this song after her mother‘s difficult illness, and she says the lyrics are a certain settlement and introspection. 

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Black Lake Photo/Andrew Thomas Huang

 

”When I'm broken, I am whole
And when I'm whole, I'm broken
Our mother's philosophy
It feels like quicksand
And if she sinks
I'm going down with her”

"Quicksand is one of the oldest song on the album and it‘s about my relationship with my mother and her relationship to her mother. Which is rather complicated. We all carry this charged history around with us. There is all this luggage we receive at birth. Things I must resolve to relieve the luggage passed to my daughter. There is a chain, from mother to mother."

"I have to face old negativity and unresolved family issues. It is so easy for younger generations to point and judge, it is so human. And perhaps it‘s one of nature‘s funny tricks, because it ensures we are always looking ourselves in the eye and then perhaps lighten the luggage of our children. But, I‘m also making a little fun of myself: Who is, at the end of the day complete? And who is broken? When I look back, I might considered myself having lived a good time, but maybe I was most broken during that time. And vice versa. We are always seeing our lives over and over again, from new perspectives."

Risk and success
The show has received great reviews and a great reception from fans. Björk says the show was very risky, since it was a certain experiment. "There is no one in the world putting on this experiment, on the scale that we are doing. It is the first of its kind. The exhibition was great in Sidney, one and a half million people went through the show. It was really like a major arts festival here in Iceland. The whole set-up was bigger. I just decided to take a shot and see what came out of this whole thing. It worked out great, and then I tried taking the exhibition to Tokyo, the Mecca of technology. There the exhibition was held at a museum of technology, which is now twenty years old. It was pretty amazing to see the twenty-year history of robots in a museum, because you have this feeling that this is something which has just begun.” 

Björk Guðmundsdóttir, quicksand

Quicksand Photo/Björk Guðmundsdóttir

 

The London exhibition was held at Somerset House. "There the underlying tone was more respectable, more serious, the context was different. But we got very good reviews and the show was sold out the whole time."

The physical intimacy of virtual reality
What are the possibilities of virtual reality and music? "I have been involved in creating videos for a long time. Since I don‘t know when. I think, 1982. So, I have a lot of experience in this industry which has gone through a number of different periods. I have always tried to do something new, wishing that I could create something spectacular. That I could shatter the frame of the medium. I have always found TV great, but just as a kind of transit point. When virtual reality became a possibility in music I was immediately impressed, and curious. In there you can enter this limited world where you can completely let go. It fascinated me and we are just beginning, now we are developing the sound, allowing it to move with the viewer. You need to write the song with this in mind, you must take into account the complete experience of all of our senses.

There are pros and cons, but the most powerful cons are these effects: The close physical experience. Virtual Reality goes directly to the brain. The viewer, watching and listening is right there in the middle. That's why this is so exciting," says Björk, adding that the world of science is no less fascinating than the world of art.

Always cast a blank vote in every election
Björk says she isn‘t politically active, and that she has always cast an empty ballot in all elections. "I have always cast a blank vote in politics, and I have never supported a specific political party, even when my friends ran for the Best Party, I didn‘t support them politically. Except as a friend, just as they have supported me as friends. But never publicly, or through financial means.

My politics are environmental issues. I've spent the last sixteen years trying to remind my fellow countrymen that we own this amazing untouched wilderness, and it won‘t get protected on its own. And people need to take a stand on this issue." However, Björk also fears that her activism might be discouraging others from being active.

"I regularly get these anxiety attacks: Perhaps people are just thinking Björk‘s on is this, so I don‘t really need to do anything. Because it‘s so extremely important that everyone takes a stand and take responsibility for our environment. Not least because of the changes to our climate. Once we thought we had half a century to change our energy sources, but we really only have eight years. If we want our grandchildren to have a chance to live here on earth, we must all become active and fight for the environment."

The irresponsibility of government
Björk is very critical of what she feels is the irresponsibility of the Icelandic government. She feels it is extremely hard to watch the developments in Helguvík [one of the sites for heavy industry in Iceland, and a site of a silicon plant, on the Reykjanes peninsula], and she is fearful for the future of Hvalfjörður fjord [another site of heavy industry, north of Reykjavík, the home of one of the Icelandic aluminium smelters]. 

Björk Notget-capture

Notget Photo/Björk Guðmundsdóttir

 

"I find it really tough to follow the developments of things in Helguvík, and an industry I have fought for all these years. The plant is ruining at a quarter of its capacity, and the pollution from the plant is already all over the region. And Hvalfjörður is at risk, and we have these high density urban areas nearby. There is a major catastrophe unfolding right before our eyes and it must be stopped. This is an example of the irresponsibility of those in power. I am currently following news on the negotiations to form a new government in Iceland and I hope that we will get a strong minister of the environment. Someone who won‘t authorize countless new Helguvík‘s, but someone who will take responsibility."

Good life in the Vesturbærinn neighbourhood
Björk lives in Iceland most of the year.

"Usually when I'm here in Iceland I enjoy just staying at home in Vesturbærinn. Go to the Vesturbæjarlaugin swimming pool and the local grocery shop, Melabúðin. I think it's a good life. I don‘t approve too many interviews, because then people think I‘m constantly on the go. I just like to keep to myself."

What happened to the island in the middle of Breiðafjörður fjord you once said you were going to move to? "I was once searching for an island, but it became this huge story in the media so I backed out of it. But I have a retreat, a cottage in Þingvellir, where I spend a lot of time. It suits me better. I don‘t know how I would convince my teenager to join me on a remote island or some abandoned fjord,” she says laughing: „Well, kids, now you must join mommy and daddy on a deserted island for two weeks! But, I‘ll reconsider when the kids are done with their school. Maybe then I‘ll do something completely crazy,” Björk says, smiling at the idea.

There is room for feminism
Björk told Pitchfork magazine that she understood women in the music industry who have experienced discrimination. Is it the case? Is there a lot of gender discrimination in the music industry?

"My mother was a very active feminist and she raised me thinking that we had complained enough, and it was time to start doing things. So, I went out and did things. Made sure that I wasn‘t complaining. But, then I realized that the younger generations maybe don‘t have the same experience as I did. There had also been a backlash, and I felt that I had to support them by saying that they were not alone and that I supported them. That this was hard, and that‘s true.

There is always space in society for a certain zeitgeist. I think that in the past years more and more space has become available for feminism. But this changes over time, and when the space becomes available it is important that we bring out all the problems and solve them. Then we go back to the zeitgeist where we didn‘t believe in the problems, but just doing.” 

 

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Björk Digital Poster Photo/Björk Guðmundsdóttir

 

Doing everything ourselves
She is intimately involved in all aspects of her work, and does a lot of the work herself, including marketing, design, costumes and all the messages associated with her music and her art. “Me and my immediate staff James Merry, Rosemary Llagorstera, Derek Birkett and more, we do everything ourselves. We post things on the internet, Facebook, we produce and direct the promotional material and the music videos. I feel like I'm watering my garden. It‘s not just me being controlling, in a bad way, instead, it is me protecting my music. The same way I ensure my daughter goes to the right school. I care about these things."

But how does she feel when she is writing? Does she write a lot?

"To compose a song has many aspects. I think I compose at least one song each full moon. That is perhaps the greatest flight. Sometimes I am surprised when I listen to them later. But there are many sides to making music, and I respect each side just as much. For example when I am writing string arrangements or cutting together rhythm. It is perhaps more like making embroidery or knitting. Calmer, but just as magical and calm, and if it succeeds, just as much of a gift. A different speed, more like praying. Then you mix and master the sounds. These are all different aspects, differently streamlined approaches to the same thing: to prepare a gift you want to give.

To choose with great care which of your inner conversations you are willing to share, which you feel will make some sense and connect or find harmony out there.”

Interview by Kristjana Björg Guðbrandsdóttir 
translated by Magnús Sveinn Helgason

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