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Throwback Thursday: Björk Interview from 2007

Declared Independence

Jun 19, 2014 Björk Bookmark and Share

For Throwback Thursdays we are posting classic interviews from the Under the Radar print archives to our website. Under the Radar used to keep its print articles exclusive to the print magazine and so there are a lot of older articles that aren’t to be found on our website. For this Throwback Thursday we revisit our 2007 article on Björk. Read on as the iconic Icelandic musician discusses her seventh studio album, Volta, sexism in the music industry, reading her own press, and the missed humor in her work.

Stylistic reinvention, the mark of true artists stretching from Miles Davis to Beck, will win over critics but alienate fair-weather fans. For those working in the pop medium, it’s simply hard to generate long-term interest if people don’t know what to expect from release to release. Somehow, against the odds, Björk has become that rarest of all pop stars who has not only maintained her audience through years of increasingly ambitious releases but has become more celebrated for it. When rumors began circulating that she would be working with Top 40 hit-making producer Timbaland, expectations surged. Would Björk make a hip-hop album? Would she make a straightforward modern pop record? What would she turn herself into this time?

“There were some misunderstandings created by the press that I was going to do a hip-hop album, and then when that was not the case, some disappointment,” she says of the response to Volta, an album that is neither a hip-hop release nor a return to her pop roots. “But once that got cleared outby the way, that was never, never my intentioneverything has been good.”

Her first album to crack the Billboard Top 10 in the United States, Volta captured the now 41-year-old songwriter doing a bit of everything that she has done since leaving The Sugarcubes in 1992. Inspired in part by her journey to post-tsunami Indonesia, the spirit of the album wanders through tribal marches (“Earth Intruders”) to austere ballads (“Dull Flame of Desire”) and spastic electro-punk anthems (“Declare Independence”). There were songs with Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), experimental Congolese band Konono N°1, and a 14-member brass band. And for many listeners, it sounded like her most overtly political album, tackling themes of feminism and political oppression with some of her most vivid imagery. But to hear her tell it, the album had no grand political design.

“Not political, not as I understand that word,” she explains. “It is an emotional album: it is about justice. ‘Declare Independence’ could just as well be written to a girl in a bad relationship. It is not about party politics. I’m not sure if ‘Hope’ is about feminism. It is trying to understand how a pregnant suicide bomber feels, more than about the cause she is fighting for. I don’t take a stand politically. I write about emotion.”

Another point of misconception comes courtesy of those who saw Volta as the album where, aside from three Timbaland-produced tracks, she finally took over the reins of production for herself. Though she has been co-producing her albums since Homogenic, only now is she getting credit, and she sees an insidious implication in that omission. “Well, it is my music, why should others produce it?” Björk asks, when questioned why she decided to produce the majority of the album herself. “I feel that is a little sexist question…. Guys never get asked that question.”

In her opinion, that sexism infects the entire business in which she works. “I have felt prejudicesit’s true,” she continues. “The pop industry is sexist, end of story. Why? Too many reasons. One, perhaps CD buyers are not interested in a female point of view? I found in a couple of reviews on Kate Bush [where] she was ridiculed in quite ‘intellectual papers’ for writing a song that included her washing machine. It was like they were trying to say that music written by women about household items doesn’t count, but songs written on guitars about driving cars or drinking beer is rock solid. It’s silly really.”

Of course, Björk has never been the type of songwriter to spend much time writing about household appliances, and it’s possible that her ability to transcend all stereotypes through her creative eccentricities has helped her stay relevant when other female artists have struggled to be taken seriously. In that struggle, the press has been an unlikely ally. But as an artist who has never taken the next logical step, whether making the icebound soundscapes of 1997’s Homogenic in an era of bubbly pop music or taking a turn as an award-winning actress in 1999’s Dancer in the Dark, Björk does not appear to be someone who pays attention to her own press. But, in fact, the opposite is true.

“I do,” she admits. “I don’t change my ways, aiming to be liked, though. I more look at it as a bonus if they do. But overall my music seems to inspire a reaction and I feel lucky with that. It’s not like everyone loves it; the reactions have been very diverse and I like it that way. If I can feel conflict in the reception, it seems that people think I do so many different types of musicVespertine-style’ or ‘Homogenic-style’ or ‘Debut-style’ or so onand they get very opinionated on which style I should only do and skip all the other ones. So they argue between themselves about it. ‘Vespertine was the best one, why wasn’t Volta like that?’ Or ‘Debut is the best one, all the other ones are rubbish’ and so on. I find it very interesting because the ‘styles’ seem to be very equally liked. It just amazes me how differently to me they see it. It has sort of taken a life of its own. I do not think in those terms when I make music. At any given time I can only do the album I do. I cannot repeat myself. I cannot force a ‘style.’ But I do find it flattering that people feel so strongly about it all, though.”

A lasting testament to her perpetually restless creative spirit, Björk, the persona, continues to remain just beyond comprehension, always somewhat mysterious despite her extensive body of work. “People seem to miss out on the humor,” she says, addressing the most common misconception placed on her music. “They take me way too seriously. Like 80% of my lyrics are self-parody.”

That said, it’s difficult to not take seriously someone whose art seems so resolutely focused and ambitious, thoroughly unified in image and sound. No doubt, her outlandishly ingenious visual presence contributes greatly to keeping us at arm’s length. “Through my experience, I have found that if I don’t bring the visual counterpart of my work, someone else will,” she explains. “So through the years, out of necessity, I have more and more gotten involved. This time around I was into some tribal neon stuff. To try to unite modern and tribal, put importance in freedom.”

At the end of the day, despite her prolific imagination, the fact remains that Björk is entering a dangerous period for musicians. As masters of reinvention Neil Young and David Bowie have learned, even iconoclasts struggle to stay perched on their creative peaks after two decades of erosion from time and touring. Nonetheless, Björk shows no signs of running out of ideas any time soon, and she offers a simple credo when asked how she’ll remain inspired when most artists are running on fumes: “If it bores you, don’t do it,” she says. “If it excites you, do it.”


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