What do you when you’re forced to spend time at home for three years? When your social circle shrinks to ten of your closest family and friends and you spend your time shifting from your makeshift at-home office to your kitchen, before closing the night out in your living room. Some people hated it. Others relished in the release from bourgeoisie constraints. International pop star, musical wunderkind, rare mononymic celebrity, and Iceland’s proudest export Björk? She loved it.
“I felt lucky really, that I could spend some time at home,” Björk says, looking out at the ocean view by Grótta lighthouse. “I haven’t been this much at home since I was sixteen.” Björk has always kept one foot in Reykjavík. “Even the years I spent in London, I still spent like 60% of the time in Iceland. The same for New York. I was only there for like 40% of the time. I’ve always been an Icelandic citizen and spent most of my time here.” The difference this time was that a few years ago, she had packed up her home in New York and shipped all her belongings to Iceland, gathering herself in one place. “These past few years have been about coming home and staying at home, due to COVID but also taking all my boxes of stuff home. Everything I own is in Iceland right now.” This isn’t really new to her, though, Iceland has always been home. “Whenever I talk to a taxi driver or someone at the swimming pool, they assume that I’m always somewhere abroad. It’s because when I’m at home, I don’t really go out to exhibition openings or have my photo in the gossip magazines. I stay undercover. People don’t really know I’m here. And I’m glad. It means I can just walk to the store and live my life.”
This is the environment that inspired her latest album, Fossora. She calls it her mushroom album, a visualshorthand representing the thematic and musical feel, a physical, grounded sound that feels, somehow, biological. “It’s hard for me to describe my records, what makes them different and what makes them the same. I’m blind to my own music,” Björk says in the way of explanation. “Take my last album, Utopia. That was my science fiction album, my island in the sky. It wasn’t just a personal utopia for me. It had a grander scale. When we performed it live, we had a manifesto from Greta Thunberg attached to it, outlining our dreams for the environment. Musically speaking, I used a lot of flutes. Even the synthesisers sounded flute-like.” Five years later, her new album is the exact opposite. “It’s about coming down from the cloud and landing on the ground. Both in terms of the soundscape – we have bass and clarinets and sounds coming from down in the ground – but also in terms of the lyrics. All the songs I’ve written for the past five years have been about leaving this digital dream and landing on the ground, trying to realise the dream, carry out the manifesto and put it into action.” It’s this feeling of groundedness that makes Fossora fungal.
“I’ve noticed this pattern before,” Björk adds, explaining that the three albums she made around the turn of the century followed a similar pattern as her three latest. “In 1997, I made
Homogenic, which was all about heartbreak and the end of an era, not just in love, but also a certain chapter in my life.” In 2001, she made Vespertine, which represented a new beginning. “Every time you start something new, you set yourself some ethereal goals. ‘This time everything is going to be perfect. I’ll do it this way and never do the other thing again.’ So, these albums are about Paradise. I’m conscious of the fact that I’m talking about the way I want my life to be, not the way it is.” The albums that close each trilogy represent reality in a way the others don’t. “With records like Medulla and this new one, they take the manifesto from the previous album and live that life. You know, staying at home, doing normal things. Going to the store, going for a walk, meeting some friends.” Each album is connected to a chapter in her life, a span of a few years, and Fossora is the album Björk made at home. “For that time, your home was where everything happened. Both literally, but also in terms of the soundscape. I started listening to more music that was grounded and solid.”
“Most of us,
to at some point
deal with loosing
For Björk, this was overall a happy time. But in the course of five years there are always ups and downs, and during this period Björk lost her mother. “These years were great, but you know how life is. Things happen, and we need to deal with them. Most of us, unfortunately, have to at some point deal with losing a parent.” Two of the songs on Fossora are written for her mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir. She wrote her both an epitaph and a eulogy. “I have one song I wrote about a year before she passed away. It was when my brother and I were starting to understand that this would be the last chapter. Still, we didn’t know how long it would be.” For Björk, the song she wrote while her mother was still living was the one containing more sadness. “I’m grieving this realisation.”
Looking back, Björk says she was influenced by Grafskrift, an 18th-century elegy to the life and death of Sæmundur Klemensson, noting biographical details such as his birth, marriage, and god-fearing actions. “It’s one of those old songs some people still know and might start singing after a drink or two. Most such songs are dramatic and romantic, but this one is such a simple list of biographical details. It feels like information from Statistics Iceland. Born this year, named this, got married, passed away. I thought: wow, this is such an expression of the patriarchy.” In her epitaph to her mother, Björk wanted to write the exact opposite. “It’s her story in biological terms, not cold statistics, and it’s emotional. So, in Sorrowful Soil, I say: All women are born with 400 eggs, but each woman will only make 2 or 3 nests. So, it’s a biological epitaph of a woman. And to me, that’s more important than detailing her career or listing her birth and death dates.”
The eulogy is written after she passed away, containing a narrative of her and Björk’s relationship. “After writing this song, I understand better when people say that a funeral is about celebrating people’s lives. There’s more joy there. There’s sorrow, of course, but it’s a time to reminisce and remember the person’s good qualities. It’s a chronological story starting with my childhood, and each of the seven stanzas tells a story before I say goodbye to her in the end.”
While working on the album, Björk was also experimenting with Icelandic folk songs, something she is considering exploring further. Following the songs about her mother is an arrangement of a 17th-century poem by Látra-Björg, a female poet known for her wit and intellect, extolling the virtues of a place in Iceland when the sun is shining, ending on a line denouncing that very same place once the weather turns. “When I was deciding the order of the songs on the album, I thought it was important for this song to follow the songs about my mother, sort of as a palette cleanser. It’s a joke as well as a consideration of optimism and pessimism. That was sort of a theme in our relationship, me and my mom, so I thought it was very fitting.”
Initially, Björk wasn’t sure she would include the songs about her mother at all, pondering whether she should release them separately. “I didn’t want it to look like I was dining out on this for my record. I felt very defensive about them for the four years since her death. I didn’t know where to put them. I wanted to find them a good place and at the same time be respectful to my brother and everyone who cared about her.” In the end, it made sense to her to include them on the record. “The songs reflect who I am, what kind of musician I am. Each record represents a chapter in my life and being of my age, being a musician, this is part of life: saying goodbye to a parent. It would be weird if I tried to compartmentalise that and push it aside.”
When asked if the experience and the creative process changed her view on her relationship with her mother, she paused. “That’s a good question. You know what happens when people say it’s a good question? It means they don’t have an answer.” She went on: “Look, it’s not the music I made that changed me. I’ve been making music since I was a kid, that’s where I feel the most at home. I make all kinds of songs, I make sad songs, happy songs, party songs, and hopefully funny songs. Every emotion is represented in my music. When it comes to having to deal with the death of a parent, writing a song about it is my comfort zone.” For her, rediscovering her mother came not in the big moments, but in the little ones along the way. “A tiny thing might happen on a random Tuesday, and you think: ‘Oh, that’s why my mom did it this way when I was a kid. And the following Sunday, I’ll have another tiny epiphany.” That isn’t limited to this period in her life either. “It will keep happening when I reach her age, I think. I’ll have another perspective by then. So it’s a whole lifetime of rediscovery.”
I’ve never voted.
not ever. I think
that helps me.”
In an interview with Iceland Review from two decades ago, she mentioned that she was beginning to find an interest in politics. “I remember I hadn’t been very interested until then. I preferred putting all my effort into making more music. I would leave the politics to the politicians. But I’ve always cared about the environment, that’s what got me to start talking about it.” Björk realised that she had a voice people were willing to listen to, and that she had to use it. “For the past 25 years, I’ve tried to regularly bring a fresh perspective, looking at things from a different angle than others might. I try to get people thinking about what we can change.”
Björk doesn’t have any allegiance to a political party, not on the left or the right. “You know, I’ve never voted, not ever. I think that helps me.” From her neutral position, she found she could engage both avid environmentalists and industry leaders, challenging them to find new solutions. “At the time, they were planning to build more and more aluminium smelters, damming rivers for hydroelectric power across the highlands, until there would be no untouched nature left.” There was a national awakening, where Björk and several others fought against further development in Iceland’s wilderness. “There were all sorts of things that we couldn’t stop, but there were plenty of things that we managed to. What has happened since then is a new appreciation for what the land has to offer. It’s hard to imagine now, but fifteen years ago, the only thing you could buy in smaller towns was a burger in the local gas station. There were no hot spring baths in every town, fresh trout, or local craft beer. Not for the tourists or the rest of us. We were lucky that the tourists came, in that regard. There are disadvantages too, maybe, but it had the effect of halting the heavy industrialisation that was happening. The tourism industry was more lucrative than the aluminium smelters.”
Björk travelled all over the country with other artists and environmentalists, engaging locals in discussion of the future of the land. “We invited them to talk, from the left as well as the right side, tech people, green people. Everyone was invited because we wanted more ideas. Ninety per cent of the towns thought that the only thing that could save them was an aluminium smelter. Either we get one, or we all have to move to Reykjavík. Now, that’s no longer the case.” Globally speaking, Björk also feels a shift in people’s mindset. “We used to be in such a denial. Fifteen years ago, it felt like 90% of people were in denial and 10% were seen as crazy hippies. At this point, 90% of people realise that global warming is happening and 10% are in denial. You don’t have to convince people anymore; we can talk about what we can do to react.” As for the solution, it may be on its way, but the way is excruciatingly slow. “It’s not just one thing, we all have to change in a million different ways. And it is happening. Every day, there’s some positive change in the news. I have extremely high hopes for the next generation. But it’s happening way too slowly, of course.”
Despite her interest in politics, Björk’s main focus is her music. She has always presented her sonic creations in interesting visual ways: pioneering music videos, VR exhibitions, and imaginative artwork and stage performances. “You know, I was in bands for about ten years, and I love collaboration and teamwork. I was pretty late to the game as a solo artist. I made my first solo album at 27,” she says, by way of explaining her philosophy of visual expression. “What I would do is take full control of the music on my albums. There’s no teamwork there; I call the shots. There’s collaboration, of course, but it’s my album. For the visual aspect, I do teamwork.” She presents her ideas and her vision for the music, “because it’s my responsibility to make sure there’s a bridge between the music and the visual aspect.” Björk says she got burnt a few times during her first years with the Sugarcubes when there wasn’t any connection between the music and the visuals: “Back in the days when I was in a band with Einar Örn [Benediktsson] and Sigtryggur [Baldursson], they handled the communication with the outside world and booked the gigs. At that time, you know, we couldn’t do it online or through email. Sigtryggur sat there writing letters to Berlin and some punk bands abroad. ‘Dear punk band, may we please come play in your basement.’ And we’d get a reply a month later. That was their department. I was the one in contact with photographers and the ones making the videos. I learned by doing. Sometimes, I’d see that yes, this is what I imagined that song would look like. And at other times, I’d see a photo and think, no, that’s not it.”
After a decade of learning by doing, Björk was well versed in connecting the musical to the visual. “I realised what it was that connects them. It’s colours, it’s texture, it’s a feeling. But I still think I’ll spend the next 30 years on trying to solve that riddle.” These days, when Björk makes an album, she has a strict plan. “I say, ‘These are the colours; this is the texture.’ That’s why I refer to the album directly in visual shorthand. ‘This is my mushroom album.’ And then everyone around me starts to think I’ve lost the plot,” she says with a grin. “But what I’m saying is that’s what ties it all together. The fourteen songs are very different, but they all have that in common: the underground feeling and the fungal theme.”
On her new album, Björk features artwork by a young Icelandic photographer and the voices of the Hamrahlíð Choir. “I’m very thankful to the Hamrahlíð Choir for doing this with me,” she interjects. “The conductor told me this was one of the hardest songs they had ever rehearsed. Most choir pieces have four parts, but this song had nine. I think they held something like sixteen rehearsals. They spent their summer working on this song. They had plenty of other things to do, you know.” For Icelandic artists, Björk is in a league of her own, and collaborating with her is an honour. When it comes to the opportunities she affords young artists, Björk is humble. “I decided that I belong on the edge. And I attract musicians and visual artists that are interested in that kind of work. What’s beautiful about reaching this age is that we inadvertently become teachers. People seek you out for your knowledge and experience.” While she appreciates her opportunity to share her experiences, she firmly maintains that it’s very much a two-way street. “You may say that I teach them, but I have to say, no one is as generous in collaboration as people that are just starting out. It’s so much fun, that energy and that high.”