When Björk came home to Iceland after her 2007-2008 world tour, she found herself at a career crossroads. For the first time in years, she had no immediate obligations to any record label. "That was really exciting," she tells Rolling Stone. "It's sort of where Radiohead were a few years ago [before they self-released In Rainbows]. I could do whatever I wanted."
Three years later, the singer is gearing up to unveil Biophilia – an ambitious cross-platform project including her seventh studio album (due this fall), high-tech live performances, a revamped website, a documentary and a line of interactive iPad apps (one for each new song) that she will roll out later this year. She sees Biophilia as an experiment that just might change the way music is consumed. "I think I'm probably semi-autistic or something – I'm just obsessed with riddles," Björk says. "It felt like the music industry was off the grid, and I wanted to solve the riddle."
She explored several alternatives to the traditional album format before hitting on the iPad plan. At first, moved by the financial crisis that hit Iceland in late 2008, she envisioned Biophilia as a physical structure dedicated to the study of music and nature. "Suddenly there were all these half-built huge buildings and unemployment and chaos and people rebelling," she says. "I was thinking I could get one of these buildings and change it into some sort of music museum-slash-school." She imagined young children wandering from room to room, hearing new sounds and learning all the way.
Björk began writing songs for Biophilia around this time, thinking of them as a curriculum of sorts. A favorite topic was natural science; the album has lyrics about crystal formation, plate tectonics and DNA replication. "I've always been interested in science," she adds. "My favorite subject in school was math, so I was quite often alone in classes with boys and chess nerds. When I was a kid, my rock star was [British naturalist] David Attenborough."
As she continued writing and began to record, engineer Damian Taylor helped her build or buy all manner of studio toys, like early pre-iPad touchscreens; a digitally programmable hybrid between a gamelan and a celesta; and a hotwired Nintendo controller hooked up to a pipe organ. Playing with the new instruments gave her songwriting a welcome shot in the arm. "I had been using similar methods for a while [before this album]," she adds. "Maybe I had gotten lazy. I really had to break out of old habits."
Meanwhile, Björk still wasn't quite sure how she was going to deliver her new music to the public. After the museum/school dream proved impractical, she weighed an offer from National Geographic to score a 3-D nature film. "I was like, ‘Wow, that would be the coolest thing ever,'" she says. "I would be labelmates with sharks and lemurs!" She began writing a script with longtime collaborator Michel Gondry, but this plan fizzled in turn when he had to devote more time to directing The Green Hornet. (Gondry ultimately directed a forthcoming video for Biophilia's first single, "Crystalline.")
She found a solution last spring, when Apple released the first-generation iPad. The tablet computer, she realized, offered a way to pack all the educational and entertainment value of a museum or a movie into an affordable form that would be available around the world. "I felt like technology had finally caught up with us," she says. "I got pretty over-excited."
She flew a crew of top app developers out to Iceland last summer, convincing them to work for free in exchange for half the profits from their creations. Together they devised a clever iPad game for each of Biophilia's 10 songs, every one reflecting some aspect of music theory as well as a lesson drawn from nature. Users will be able to build a basic drum machine from DNA bases in "Hollow," fight off an army of mutating rhythms in "Virus" (pictured) or arrange geological layers to form chords in "Mutual Core."
Björk performed songs from Biophilia for the first time this week at Britain's Manchester International Festival, where a 24-woman Icelandic choir backed her as she manipulated sounds using an iPad and assorted bespoke instruments. She plans to take the expensive production to six-week residencies in seven more cities over the next three years. "The thing we're struggling with now is how to do the tour," she says. "The way we're doing it, it'll be lucky if we earn zero."