The avant-pop star talks new projects, music education, punk teendom, and tour snacks
MUSIC Can you even recall your first run-in with the mythic, boundary-less creature that is Björk? Perhaps it was bounding through the neon blue forest with tiny crystals underneath her eyes as a giant paper-mache bear chased her through Michel Gondry's video for "Human Behaviour," off 1993 solo album Debut. Or maybe it was poised for the tabloids in an elegant swan dress, holding a large egg purse and preening for the worst dressed lists at the '01 Academy Awards after her devastating performance in Dancer in the Dark (2000). Those long obsessed will likely point to first hearing '88's "Birthday" by the Sugarcubes, her early Icelandic act (post teenage punk bands), on international radio.
Whenever — and however — it went down, it left a lasting impression, the stunning shock of that otherworldly voice tends to permeate memories. Solo, Bjork has long coupled that voice with innovation, always grasping at new objects and sounds, or as she described it to me in conversation, she's "like a kid in a toy shop."
Her latest triumph was Biophilia, the '11 album that paired science, nature, iPads, Tesla coils, and tinkling church bells. Since its release, she's hopped the planet with her sonic education in tow, spreading pixie dust and learning tools at schools and museums along the way. Next up, she'll play a trio of shows at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond (Wed/22, Sat/25, and Tue/28). Also during that time, her Biophilia Education Program comes to the Exploratorium, which means interactive workshops exploring connections between music and technology, Wed/22 through Tue/28.
In her unassuming but confident way — with the most endearing accent I've ever heard — the avant-pop megastar opened up to the SF Bay Guardian about her song writing process (yes, there's a new project in the works), early punk career, natural musicology, and how to keep it all DIY:
SF Bay Guardian How did you initially come up with idea to include apps for every song on Biophillia?
Björk It started in 2008. I wanted to use touch screens...though the iPads weren't out 'till 2010 or something. But I'd been using touch screens on my Volta tour, but more just to perform on stage. When I started doing Biophillia, I was very determined that I wanted to write with [touch screens], not just perform. That's when I started to map out, to visualize. I had to decide, what did I want to hear on the touch screen when I'm writing this song. That sent me back to my own music education as a child, when I felt the way they explained scales and rhythms and those basic musicology themes, was way too academic. It was like reading a book to learn to dance.
Music is something that doesn't work that well in the written word, you know? Especially not explaining to kids. So I started making my own map...this is how I would I like to have scales and this is how I would like to have chords and this is how I would like to have arpeggios and this is how I would like to have counterpoint, and so on. This project became naturally educational. I was kind of like, repairing my own education. I was trying to cover what I thought was lacking when I was in music school. In that way, I was able to share it.
We [created] a different program for each song. For example, one song would feature arpeggios, and then I would pick an actual element that would be the simplest way for a kid to understand what an arpeggio is, to visualize it. So we took a pendulum to explain counterpoint, a little bit like how church bells swing back and forth, and that's like a bass line that swings.
I wrote 10 songs and we did different programs for each song, and it came together using natural elements. For example, one song is called is called "Crystalline" and there are crystals kind of growing as the song changes.
In 2010, when we were programming this and were kind of almost done, the iPad arrived, so we were like, 'wow!' It'd be silly just to record these songs and put them on a CD because we'd already written all these programs, we might as well share the programs, and put them with some more poetic, natural things — the moons, the tides, things like this. It was a very gradual thing.
SFBG And now it's been brought in to educate children at schools throughout Iceland, but also there are related events where you're touring, as well?
Björk It differs from city to city. So far it's been in Manchester, Iceland, New York, Buenos Aires, and Paris, and now it's going to be in California. Some places, like for example, New York Library and the Children's Museum of Manhattan, took on the curriculum for a few months, and the middle school of Reykjavik, the 10 to 12-year-olds, they have it now in their curriculum for the next three years. It's looking like it's going to go to more countries. It sort of keeps growing.
SFBG It seems like you've long been ahead of the curve, as far as creating music with new technology, is that something you grew up with as well?
Björk I'm actually really bad with technology. I think that's why I'm so excited about, for example, the touch screen, because it's like I waited until technology caught up with me, for it to be simple enough. You have your imagination, and whatever helps you express yourself, I'm all for it, if it's the violin or piano or singing. Or what has been really helpful for me, since I started doing my own solo albums, the computer has made me a lot more self-sufficient. I guess that comes from being in bands for 10 years, where things are more democratic. It was always drums and bass and keyboards and guitars in every single song [laughs], which is great. But then when I started doing my own album, I was like a kid in a toy shop, I wanted to have every single noise. And this is great, using the computers to do this yourself. It's quite empowering, especially for a girl. You don't have to go through this whole hierarchy of whatever, you can just be self-sufficient.
SFBG Some of your early groups were punk bands [Tappi Tíkarrass, and KUKL, which toured with Crass], I was wondering how you discovered punk as a teen, and ended up working with Crass?
Björk I was hanging out with kids that were older than me, like the other guy who used to sing in the Sugarcubes and another guy who was friends with Crass. They played our country, and then we would go and visit them at their farm [Dial House in Essex], and for me what was most important was that one of the bands that was on Crass' label, a band called Flux of Pink Indians, had a bass player called Derek Birkett and he helped the Sugarcubes release their first album, just from his bedroom. And he's my manager still today. So I've worked with him for like, 30 years now.
It's pretty much DIY, especially now when the labels are not really functional like they used to be. It's pretty much just three of us that do most of my stuff.
SFBG Do you have any other long-term goals with Biophillia, or are you working on your next project?
Björk I think I will be doing that on the side, but when it comes to writing my own stuff, I always like the first couple of years to be kind of mysterious. It's important to play around in the dark, blind-folded, not really knowing what you're doing. Biophillia was very much like that the first two years, it was very intuitive and impulsive and having no idea what would come out of it. And I'm at that stage with my next album. I really enjoy that. As much as it's rewarding when [an album] first sees the daylight, I think I even enjoy more the first half of the process, when it's all still a mystery.
SFBG Were you living in New York during the early playing stage of Biophillia? It seems to have a real connection to natural elements, and science, so I assumed you were in Iceland?
Björk I've been living half the year in New York and half in Iceland. I think Biophillia addresses my life in Iceland and the financial crises in a direct way because it's sort of very DIY. And one of my first dreams was that Biophillia would be a music house and each room would be a song — eventually these rooms became the apps. But it might be that we would be able to go back and make a musical house in Iceland that would serves also as a children's' museum and we would use one of the buildings that got kind of half-built in the financial crises and create jobs that way.
But also Biophillia is also about urban areas, because you could stay connected with the moon through your iPad, or to nature and natural structures with your phone.
SFBG My time is almost up but may I ask a few of your favorite things? Like your favorite songs currently, or music that's helping inspire you creatively now?
Björk At the moment I've been listening to the new James Blake album a lot. These things change all the time!
SFBG Favorite mythological story or creature?
Björk I like Icelandic mythology, there's a lot of amazing tales there.
SFBG And a favorite tour snack?
Björk Um, I like berries.
SFBG Any kind in particular?
Björk Mmmm, no, I like all of them.
Wed/22, Sat/25, Tue/28, 8:30pm, $75
1414 Harbour Way, Richmond