This article was originally published in RS 957, September, 16th, 2004.
“If there’s one thing that I could probably say I’m a professional at, it’s singing,” says Björk, speaking on the phone from her home in Iceland. “Because it’s my job, I’m really picky about my vocals.”
For her new album, Medúlla, the 38-year-old built the songs out of vocals: her ethereal keen; Gregorian chants; human beatbox; layers of oohs, ahs, squeals and chirps. It’s a challenging and often breathtaking listen that she calls a valentine to the music she listened to as a teenager.
“Stuff like Meredith Monk, who is a vocalist and performance artist from New York,” she says. “I was obsessed with her when I was eighteen. And then [1940s comedian and bandleader] Spike Jones, who could do Olympics with voices. And Robert Wyatt, who sings on my album. This record is like a thank-you letter to all the vocalists that influenced me. It’s almost as good as when a friend makes you a mix tape with your favorite songs: It’s not about you or about them but where you two meet.”
What music do you consider quintessentially Icelandic?
I would say that Icelandic choral music is pretty typically Icelandic. First of all, we didn’t get modernized until fifty years ago. We were a colony, and we were really, really poor. Iceland was, like, medieval until 1944. Concert houses, or even just pianos or guitars or violins, were sort of unheard-of here. We would have harmoniums in the churches, and that would be about it. And the other thing that probably comes across in our choral music is that in Iceland there was no hierarchy. No aristocrat, middle class, lower class — everyone was just sort of poor. So the voices are not trained; anyone can sing those songs. It’s really down-to-earth and honest and unpretentious.
Medúlla is a mainly vocal album. What inspired you to do that?
I got pregnant. I had been pregnant once before, and it had the same effect on me. I became really physical and really aware of my muscles and bones. My body just takes over and does incredible things, and it has got nothing to do with me. Also, I had to put together a live box set, which I thought would be the most boring thing on earth. Basically it was me, for one and a half years, being an archivist — which is really, really weird when it’s about yourself. The minute it was over, I couldn’t wait to make new stuff. I was like, “That’s it for old times!”
What do you listen to when you’re trying to catch positive energy?
Part of me just wants to have fun and dance around and listen to Justin Timberlake. And then I seem to have totally the opposite — like the scientist who is searching for a secret. I like to go into secondhand shops and look over all the piles of records and CDs and find the one thing that you just know is going to save your week. You need to have loads of time, and you just go in the shop and let go.
Did you put headphones on your belly when you were pregnant?
I didn’t, actually. I was worried because I was pregnant and gave birth during that period when I was doing the archive stuff. I kept thinking, “Here comes a little girl who doesn’t know anything about me — which is good — and all she has ever heard is my whole career.” Poor baby. Sometimes it’s just good to kind of get to know somebody before you listen to all their records, right?
What’s the first musical sound you remember hearing?
I used to stay with my grandparents. And my granddad used to take care of me on Sunday morning, because that was the morning that my grandmom could sleep in. So he would first make me porridge, and then he would take me down to the harbor and we would look at the boats and eat ice cream. I was, like, five years old, and I remember hearing the horns of the ships and thinking that it sounded gorgeous. That was one of the first times when I felt everything was music and everything was wonderful.
Do you have an iPod?
Yeah, but I don’t use it that much. I’m so clumsy. I keep dropping things on the floor, and iPods are really fragile. When I’m DJ’ing at my friend’s bar, I take my iBook and DJ from that.
What do you play when you’re DJ’ing to really get people moving?
You can’t go wrong with Peaches. And Michael Jackson is bulletproof. I’ve been playing a song from his last album called “Butterflies.” It’s got gorgeous vocals. His ballads are, like, I mean, how cheesy can you get? But it’s so good, you know?
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Maybe Foreigner? I’m thinking something like “Hot Blooded,” maybe. But that’s not a guilty pleasure, that’s just a good tune. Put that one on, and everybody just starts dancing. I was really drunk the other day when I was DJ’ing, and I accidentally played “Hot Blooded” twice in an hour. Nobody complained — everyone was like, “Yeah! I’m back on the dance floor.”