Tugging at the fingers on her right hand, Björk counts off some recent, traumatic events in her life: a 2012 throat operation; a devastating breakup with her longtime partner, artist Matthew Barney; her mother’s heart attack (she has recovered); and the death last year of studio collaborator Mark Bell. “It’s been quite a dramatic time,” the Icelandic singer admits, “but also very happy.” Her new album, Vulnicura — a candid chronicle in strings and electronics of her split with Barney — hit the Top 40 in more than a dozen countries. In March, Björk, who shot to fame with the Icelandic post-punk band the Sugarcubes, will be the subject of a major audio-visual retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “It was a coincidence when this album came down in the middle of it,” she says, but notes, “I get claustrophobic when it’s too much of the past.”
Has the album cured your heartbreak?
I can’t begin to describe how much better I feel, just physically. Obviously, life is not that black and white. Something will happen to me in five years, and it might come back to life. But I am out of that emergency stage, when you feel like a space alien, just possessed.
What did you get out of writing about the breakup? You even date the songs, so we know what you felt when.
It was a survival mechanism. I thought, all the way to the last day [of the relationship], that everything would be fine. Maybe that’s why it was such a shock to me. At first, I was just going to put the songs together and not say anything. But putting the months on — it felt right. It would justify being that full of self-pity [laughs]. When people listen to these lyrics, I can go, “It was only two months after the breakup. I was a teenage mess!”
Did you sing love songs in the Sugarcubes?
There were all these poets in the band. It was more about word jokes. “Deus” [on 1988’s Life’s Too Good] was sugary pop about God, which was ridiculous. There were personal songs. [The 1987 hit] “Birthday” is about being in that magic world with a newborn. We loved turning the lyrics on their head. But when I started my solo albums, it was fresh terrain for me.
Did music and art run in your family?
My grandmother was quite artistic. When her children left home, she went to art school and learned how to be an abstract painter. At Christmas, she would have a party. People played bingo. The person who won got a painting. She passed away, but we still do it. I won this year’s painting!
You were 12 when you released your first album in Iceland. Did you sense that you were on a path?
I was a little pushed by my mom. I’m not sure she was aware of what psychological work it is to be a public figure at 12. The magic of the studio was the best bit. I kind of wished it would never have to come out, that I’d just make album after album. The guys who recorded me wanted to do another one, but I said, “No, I want to start bands with kids my age.”
Did any female singer-songwriters from the Seventies inspire you as a teenager?
I loved Joni Mitchell. I never heard her folk records. But I learned [1976’s] Hejira and [1977’s] Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter by heart when I was 15. She was creating her own universe; she wasn’t a guest in a man’s world. And it was her chord progressions. I liked music that was modal, more chromatic. There is more room for the singer to improvise.
When you had the throat operation, were you afraid you might lose your voice for good?
I couldn’t speak for three weeks. My daughter and I made notes for each other — it became like a game. But the album was a new beginning. The chorus in “Lionsong” — I was in this forest outside Reykjavík, warming up, opening my throat like a bird. It was cathartic — you realize the tension that built up, because you were protecting that part of you.
Are you prepared to relive your breakup when you perform the new songs live?
I know I have to do it. If I could have skipped these heartbreak feelings, just go to the next bus stop, I would have been like, “Yes, please!” But there were no two ways about it.