Innerviews, music without borders

Channeling Thunderstorms
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad.

For Björk, pop music’s boundaries are infinitely elastic. Even as one of the music world’s most popular and iconic figures, the Icelandic singer-songwriter and aural provocateur remains unafraid of challenging the status quo. Her 2004 album Medulla provided ample evidence of her resolve to continue nurturing her creative impulses.

Medulla, built almost exclusively from human voices without resorting to a cappella clichés, is among the more intriguing albums to emerge from the pop sphere. But it proved a difficult record to birth. While certain of her desire to abandon conventional instrumentation for it, Björk wasn’t entirely sure how that idea would manifest itself until the album was in its final stages. She searched for inspiration across 18 different recording locations, including New York, Iceland, Venice, and the Canary Islands. During each stop, Björk explored a multitude of moods and voices via contributors such as Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, veteran U.K. singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, human beatbox Rahzel, and the Icelandic and London Choirs. Epic production and sonic manipulation followed, resulting in an atmospheric, minimalist and fascinating effort.

Loosely speaking, the word “medulla” refers to the inner part of an animal or plant structure. It’s a word Björk uses to portray the idea that the album represents her creative essence in its purest form. That essence first revealed itself when she sang and studied classical piano during her elementary school years in Reykjavik. One of her teachers was so impressed with her prodigious talent that she submitted a cassette of her crooning Tina Charles’ “I Love to Love” to Iceland’s Radio One. After hearing the track, a local label came calling and Björk went on to record and release her 1977 self-titled first album at the age of 11. The record included covers of pop songs by artists such as The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. It became a major hit in Iceland and helped cement Björk’s desire to pursue music as a full-time endeavor.

During the late '70s to mid-'80s, Björk delved into punk and post-punk territory with a variety of Icelandic bands before hitting the international stage in 1987 as one of the lead vocalists of The Sugarcubes. The appealingly eccentric avant-pop act remains the biggest group to ever emerge from Iceland. Internal band tensions contributed to The Sugarcubes’ demise in 1992, but its international profile helped propel Björk’s solo career when she released Debut, her edgy, playful dance-oriented effort in 1993.

Instead of following trends for her next records, Björk chose to follow her muse. Her 1995 album Post refined Debut’s sound with a more adventurous electronica approach that also incorporated orchestral arrangements. Homogenic, released in 1997, was a wildly experimental disc that offered a swirling mix of dark, electronic textures and string quartet arrangements. Taking a step back from Homogenic’s confrontational sound, Björk situated her eclectic songs within more lush, intimate and introspective arrangements for 2001’s Vespertine. Clearly, predictability and linearity are not Björk’s strong suits. Her fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

How did knowing you were going to attempt an all-vocal album affect how you wrote material for it?

I used different methods for every song. A few years ago, I started getting really obsessed with anything vocal and began losing interest in instruments. I started hoping I could do a vocals-only album, but I wasn’t sure that was even possible until right at the very end of making the album when it all came together. Pretty early on, I realized that if I was going to do a whole album of vocals, the songs would have to be very different from each other in order for the album not to be flat. There were some songs where I wrote the structure and everything else on keyboards and then replaced those parts with vocals. A lot of the songs were written with just my vocals or with the voice of a particular singer in mind. The idea was to use different textures so you could feel that each song was living in a different place. I didn’t want it to sound like a computer program was sort of lulling throughout the whole album. I really went out of my way to pursue a different work ethic for each song.

You threw out a lot of your lyric-writing conventions when putting Medulla together. Tell me how you went about crafting lyrics for it.

This album in a lot of ways goes back to a place I was in when I was 18 or 19 years old. I was in a band and was being quite intuitive and singing along with things without analyzing what I was doing. I was maybe saying a lot of words that didn’t naturally make sense to me, but represented a sort of flow of consciousness that was just kind of improvised. For my last album, Vespertine, I took things as far as I could in that the lyric-writing was almost scientific. I wanted that album to be about being introverted and anti-social and capturing that feeling of being underneath your duvet in your bed and creating a magical world under your pillow. I was asking myself “How can I write songs about that?” back then. I was really excited to not be that scientific when it came to Medulla. I just wanted to sing, sing, sing and be quite physical. I just let whatever came out come out and then afterwards I sat down with my librarian hat on and kind of analyzed things.

The record includes some commentary about lack of hope in the world and post-9/11 angst.

There’s a little bit of that in the album. I would say about five or 10 percent of the album is about that and the other 90 percent is about other stuff. That’s almost the point of the album. The album is about celebrating all of the other stuff that isn’t politics. I think life is pretty much about the other things. One moment you’re driving a car. The next moment, your friend tells you that a family member has died and you’re crying. Then you’ve missed your bus and got caught in the rain. Then you go dancing in a discotheque and are euphoric. People are out there starving, losing their jobs and winning the lotto. Life is just quite a thing, you know? [laughs] There are a lot of things going on and I think politics is maybe really not that important. I hope so.

Early in your career, you said “writing a song is like organizing an accident.” Does that still hold true?

I think so. I still feel that way especially when it comes to recording music, especially on this album where there were mostly just singers. What’s so great about the human voice is that you can’t hide anything. If a singer is feeling shy, cold, distant or not in the mood to sing, it’s better to wait and just find the right moment. Sometimes we would spend time doing other stuff that wasn’t about singing at all. We’d just get drunk, go for a walk or tell a joke or do whatever stupid stuff that came to mind. Then, all of a sudden, you’re ready to press the record button and do it. In that sense it’s still like organizing an accident by trying to find the right moments. That’s the luxury of making albums. You can’t do those sorts of things when you’re performing live.

How do you know when a song you’ve written is complete?

Usually, you can totally feel it while you’re doing it. There’s a really thin line between being self-indulgent and being generous. You can catch yourself singing old stuff you’ve sung before which can feel like repetition or not fresh. For me, the music has to have a little speck of intrigue or the unknown. I guess I’m also probably an old school romantic in the sense that even though sometimes you write songs about dark stuff that may start at the bottom, the root of the song should be about going through the tunnel and coming out on the other side with a happy ending. I’m not too into songs that are just about self-pity or self-indulgence. I usually look at songs as little trips that show you going on your way to some other place or towards the next step.

Tell me how you go about channeling inspiration into songwriting.

It’s like a thunderstorm building up inside me. Songwriting is a natural function for me. It’s almost like a survival mechanism. I’m the sort of person that if I don’t write a song, I get all bottled up. Say for example that tomorrow I said I’m just not going to write any more songs for some reason. Even though I said that, I would still have to write songs because if I don’t, I just don’t feel good. I’m not sure if I really go consciously looking for that inspiration, but believe me, I have gone out of my way over the years to try and figure out how to get that thunderstorm out of my head in a reasonably pleasant manner, if you know what I mean. [laughs]

Is there a spiritual element to that creative thunderstorm for you?

I would say so. I think there’s a spiritual element in everything really. Walking down the street can be spiritual or it can be silly. It’s up to the person. I don’t think music is a religious thing. I think it’s generalizing too much to say that. But I can definitely say that I feel making and listening to music are spiritual experiences for me. There are a lot of other things in music for me too. It’s fun. It’s sad. It’s silly. I like music because it has such a real, direct connection to the whole emotional spectrum.

What does spirituality mean to you?

Overall, I disagree a lot with any organized religion. I think religion can suffocate one’s own voice. I would like to think that each person has his or her own spirituality. I think we all have our own little corner where I think it’s important to discover your own methods for exploring that, whether it’s waking up in the middle of the night and staring out the window, mountain climbing, being silent, getting drunk, or having crazy sex. [laughs] I think spirituality should be something people define for themselves through whatever suits them.

How have you evolved as a songwriter over the course of your career?

Songwriting was never my first thought as a musician. I always knew I would do something in music, but I didn’t know if that meant running a radio station or a music school or playing the drums—which was my first real idea of what I thought I would do. What ended up happening is that my sense of self-sufficiency took hold. It became the idea of “Well, if somebody else isn’t doing it, I’ll do it.” That idea has had quite a strong impact in my job, I guess you could call it. [laughs] I was in a punk band and nobody would sing, so I ended up doing it. I was in another band where we were all writing songs together, but then nobody would come up with ideas for individual sections, so I would come up with those sections. Then the band ran out of ideas and I ended up doing my own album using my own ideas. So, overall, it was all done out of necessity. I guess it isn’t that hard to write songs. You just have to roll up your sleeves and do it. We all have songs inside us. The hard part is figuring out how to get it out of yourself and document it.

As I get older, maybe my songwriting has become more mature. I’m not as restless as I used to be. Now, I can really sit down in a chair for a few hours and songwriting can be more like I’m doing embroidery with the same attention span required. But I don’t think getting older necessarily means you become a better musician or songwriter, but you become better at documenting your work. I’d like to think I’ve become better at it. You can more easily figure out what the best part of the next two months will be for you to document your work, what situation will make you sing the best, what sort of equipment you need and what sort of arrangements will have to be made to make it happen. Experience helps you as the one who documents what you do. I think that’s very important.

Tell me about the first bursts of creativity you experienced.

They took place when I was walking to school as a child. I had to walk a half-hour to school through nature in all sorts of weather. It could be snowy, windy or sunny. Singing became my way of getting from point A to point B. I would write songs on the way and I think those have been my sharpest peaks. I probably didn’t realize until 20 years later what I was actually doing. I was just a kid, but there were a lot of musical peaks there. I would sing at the top of my lungs. As a vocalist, I would start up with really quiet stuff and slowly build up to a chorus which would strain my voice. Then I’d go back to the second verse which would be a lot more calm. Then the second chorus would be like a double-peak. Melodies naturally warm up the voice. In a way, I was working with my voice without knowing what I was doing. So, when I started the song from the top and got to the end, I had really warm vocal chords. It felt very natural. The songs I was singing were about people I didn’t understand, like grown-ups. I thought they were quite awkward creatures. “Human Behaviour,” my first single in 1993, was probably one of those melodies I was singing in which I was wondering about humans and thinking about how peculiar they are. But I would also sing silly songs like “The Happy Song” or “The Angry Song.”

Given the diversity of your output, it’s clear you have an innate need to keep learning and evolving as a musician.

I think that’s mostly true. I just get easily bored. [laughs] I’ve got a short attention span. It’s terrible. I’ll have a favorite record and play it every day and then one morning I’ll wake up and I’m over it. I’m not particularly proud of this. It’s really the teenager in me coming out. It’s also because I was in bands for 10 years where no matter what sort of song we wrote, it was always arranged for drums, guitar and bass. That got really boring. So, maybe now I’m making up for that and trying everything else I can. In another sense, I can defend my approach because I’m a vocalist. That means I will always have the same vocal chords. They are not going to change. It will also always be me writing the songs and the lyrics. So many things are already a given in that they won’t be different. Because of that, half of me is pretty conservative in that way and half of me is like a kid in a toy store. I’m easily excited about new stuff. I just want to keep going to new places.