Björk has had it with the “rednecks” running Iceland. The singer is at her home, where it is midafternoon yet below freezing, and her daughter has just returned home from school and is practicing piano in the background. As bassy scales ring out behind her, the singer tells Rolling Stone that with today’s conclusion of the COP21 conference in Paris – where representatives from countries around the world are attempting to solve climate change – it’s time to raise attention to the way the “rednecks,” her term for Iceland’s prime minister and minister of finance, want to industrialize Iceland’s highlands. “The term is a bit harsh,” she admits, but she will use it repeatedly.
“They have been really eager to catch up with the middle of Europe really quickly,” the singer says, carefully choosing her words. “They think of every square kilometer as not harnessed, as opportunity wasted. And they look at beautiful waterfalls and they think, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of dollars flowing there without being used.'”
The problem, she explains, is that because Iceland was a colony until 1944 and did not modernize with the rest of the world in the centuries leading up to its independence, its recently appointed leaders are acting hastily. “We are still [environmentally] green,” she says. “And we should try to head into the 21st century with more green technologies, rather than building dams, electric lines and factories everywhere.” She’s seen surveys saying that 80 percent of Icelanders do not agree with its government’s push for industry and would rather see the highlands preserved as a park. “That’s why I feel I should stand up and talk,” she says. “I’m not just talking for myself and forcing my own opinion, I feel more like a spokesperson for people who are not really heard.”
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“If any problem was universal, it’s this one. The whole world should care about this.”
She’s speaking up now because as COP21 concludes, she wants the world to realize that Iceland’s highlands are the “biggest untouched area” on the continent. “I feel it’s a responsibility not just for Icelanders, but for Europeans,” she says. “If any problem was universal, it’s this one. It’s really the whole world that should care about this.”
With Donald Trump declaring global warming “bullshit” and a hoax invented by China, Björk believes the United States should be particularly wary of how climate change affects the world. The businessman-turned-GOP-candidate, she says, is one of the “last roaring dinosaurs of that generation.” From her perspective, the industrialists of the 1800s through the 20th century invented “miraculous things” for mankind but “as a species,” it’s now time to refocus. “We should have switched gears 50 years ago,” she says. “This is our last, last, last chance to do it now. I’m an optimist. I think we can still do it. … Trump’s style is obviously not going to get us anywhere. But I really think we can change this and if we act now on a massive scale, we can do stuff.”
She worries that since Iceland is a small island – less than 40,000 square miles – the government could enact changes within the next five years. It’s currently considering some 50 measures that would affect the highlands. “Even if half of them passed,” she says, “it would mean an intrusion on the sacredness of the island.” Also, she adds that the government would be sacrificing money made from tourism, which she says accounts for more than industry and the island’s fishing business combined.
The highlands have meant a lot to Björk throughout her life. Icelanders take advantage of the outdoors en masse in the summertime through hiking and four-wheeling. “My family doesn’t feel like it had a good summer unless we’ve slept at least half of the nights in a tent,” she says.
Since climate change is a broad subject, the singer has decided to focus on Iceland because that’s where she feels she can make the most difference. “I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert in other fields,” she says. “But I know for sure if I would ask my fans to put pressure on the Icelandic government to keep the Icelandic highlands as they are, it would make a big difference. International pressure has proven be good to the Icelandic rednecks. It’s done wonders when people like Obama have taken green stances on big issues. It has a domino effect on rednecks globally.” She laughs. “Sometimes they listen harder to people abroad, rather than a local mud fight.” Ideally, she’d like her fans to peruse a Facebook page dedicated to preserving the Icelandic highlands and to petition her government.
“My family doesn’t feel like it had a good summer unless we’ve slept at least half of the nights in a tent.”
It’s something that matters deeply to her since she’s now working on new music in a cabin “in the nature” about 40 minutes from Reykjavik. “It’s a very good place to be,” she says. “I have a few songs, but the way I work, I’m slow. I allow myself time. I cannot promise when this one will be ready. But it’s kind of lulling, it’s going to its own little tempo. It’s pretty similar to the tempos my previous albums have been written in.”
Speaking of her previous albums, Björk is happy that her latest record, this year’s Vulnicura, was nominated for the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy. “I think I’ve been nominated 17 times or something,” she says. [Editor’s note: The singer had 13 nominations.] “You keep on writing, no matter what, with or without these acknowledgements. But when they happen, it’s definitely a bonus. And I definitely feel blessed that people are still interested in what I’m doing. I don’t take it for granted.”
As the singer begins work on her next project, she feels good about saying goodbye to Vulnicura, one of her most personal and painful albums that served as an epitaph to her marriage to artist Matthew Barney. “It was a big risk, and I just had to go from my gut feeling that it was a good thing to put it out,” she says. “It was a lot of contrasts. It needed to be graceful and delicate and sensitive, a contradiction to the subject matter. I’m happy the world perceived it as that. It could have gotten turned into something nasty, and it didn’t get that. … It’s not just a disaster; it’s also coming out of disaster and growing.”