On a recent afternoon at a publicity firm in New York, Björk sits primly at a table laden with grapes and cheese. For months now she has been doing something very unusual for her: talking in a round-about way about her personal life. Not out of some sudden, urgent need to share, but to promote her ninth solo album, Vulnicura, which chronicles her separation from Matthew Barney – American sculptor, filmmaker, and the father of her 13-year-old daughter, Ísadóra.
Like many performers, Björk is comfortable baring her soul on stage through her art, but doing the same one-on-one with a stranger makes her guarded and uneasy. So her replies are metaphorical, or like riddles, and she shifts back and forth in her seat, looking off into the distance and fidgeting with her hair or her fingers. Later, at the end of our conversation, she will shake my hand a bit stiffly and do what I think is a little curtsey.
She is at once confusing, and impossibly charming. “I think as you get older it’s natural to include all your different aspects in one thing,” she says, on her progress as an artist, then adds – gesturing widely to the grapes before her: “The music nerd that is stuck in the Asian techno section in the CD shop for three hours can actually collaborate with the part of you that’s crying in a theatre, watching something. Maybe part of you is obsessed with berries!”
Today, the Icelandic superstar – variously mocked and praised for her eccentric sense of style over the years (who could forget her Oscars swan tutu?) – wears a high-collared white apron dress on top of another dress, which is ribbed and brown, the sleeves reaching all the way down to her palms. Her raven-black hair hangs in solid chunks around her face. She pushes it back and forth over her head, over and over again.
As we shake hands in a businesslike approximation of friendliness, I suddenly imagine I know how a doctor must feel when he arrives to examine a mildly nervous patient. What seems to be the trouble, I feel I should ask. But then, in a way, that’s sort of all we talk about.
“I’ve kind of developed this stance on press and my private life,” Björk says, her beguiling mix of Icelandic and British inflections out in full force, “that actually there’s a point in the middle where you share just enough, or just little enough that it’s helpful but doesn’t get in the way.
“It’s similar to when you make new friends. You know, if the third time you meet a person you’ve said too much, and the other person is like: ‘Whoa, I don’t want to know that.’ Or if you’ve met a person 50 times but you’ve never said anything. There is this kind of mutual emotional coordinate that is right, you know?”
Björk is comfortable baring her soul on stage through her art.
Björk is comfortable baring her soul on stage through her art.
Before she even began working on Vulnicura in earnest, there was a problem: not only had Björk never made a confessional album – she hated them. She still does. “I have issues with self-pity, you know?” she says, not meaning that she’s prone to self-pity but that she can’t stomach it musically. “Lyrics that you write when you’re, like, divorced, or separating, they’re so teenage, and they’re really banal.”
Further, she doesn’t consider the self-recriminating mental state induced by breakup grief a solid writing platform. “Music for me is kind of the opposite of that. It’s an abstract space – not intellectual or mental. It’s more impulsive physical energy, where you fall in love and everything’s possible and all the space in the world exists.”
Ultimately, though, it was her very hatred of breakup albums that drove her to make one. She likens the challenge to another of her records, Medulla, which was largely a cappella. What appealed to her about making that record “was how much I hate a cappella music. It’s like the musical fascist in me thinks it’s kind of rubbish. It was like a game I was playing with myself, to try and confront this taboo in myself and just stick my tongue at it.”
That same impulse sparked Vulnicura: “Here’s this thing that I haven’t done;” she says, “the classical singer-songwriter self-pity album… ‘Can you do it, can you get away with it?’ The fact that I can’t stand a lot of albums like this kind of turned me on, and I find it quite an exciting challenge.”
If anyone can rise to the challenge, it is 49-year-old Björk (pronounced ‘be-yerk’, with a Scottish ‘r’) Guðmundsdóttir (‘Gweuth-moonds-dot-ear’). She has been making music one way or another since the tender age of 11, when a recording of her singing at a school recital resulted in a contract for a solo, self-titled album and immediate child-star status. The album is not a happy memory – “I hated it! I was too young,” she told the Guardian in 2007 – and she ducked out of the industry for years following its release.
Fame found her again in the 80s, when she gained recognition as the vocalist for Icelandic rock group The Sugarcubes. (She later married and had a son with the group’s bassist, Þór Eldon. Sindri is now 28.) Their first English single, ‘Birthday’, was released in 1987, and immediately much of what would turn Björk Guðmundsdóttir into Björk – the mononymous worldwide pop star loved for her impish eccentricities and intriguing, joyous vocals – was fully formed.
The lyrics in ‘Birthday’ are relatively simple: “It’s your birthday, and they’re smoking cigars,” goes the chorus. It’s Björk that stunned the world: exuberant, preternaturally childish and otherworldly, she yelps, growls and giggles, adding wholly alien inflection to words or drawing them out in ways never heard before in the pop canon.
It set the groundwork for her career: Since she launched herself as a solo artist in 1993 with a critically acclaimed dance album, Debut, the world has remained entranced, largely thanks to her focus on unique sounds as well as lyrics.
Björk has spoken about her love of music in other languages – specifically, Portuguese Fado songs – where she can’t understand the words. This idea, that how something is sung is more important than its actual lyrics, is easy to spot in her music, starting with Debut and running through seven more records and one musical (Lars Von Trier’s darkly beautiful Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk also stars).
But it’s what she says this time around that has the press in a frenzy. A breakup album will do that, whether you’re Taylor Swift or an altogether more unusual brand of star.
While gossip blogs have speculated Barney had an affair with a fellow artist, neither party has ever divulged the cause of their breakup. And, while they never spoke in detail about their relationship, either, it appeared from the outside to be a fascinating, creative partnership between two entirely original artists.
Which is perhaps why its end was so crushing. “Obviously, I’ve gone through breakups before,” she says, “but this was times a thousand. You’re just stuck in this kind of psychological debate with yourself, and it’s so conversational. It’s really like nanana-NAWNAWNAW-nanana. And the only way you can handle it is to find it ridiculous.”
For most of 2011 and right through to 2013, Björk was touring her 2011 record, Biophilia. At the same time, she says, her home life was in turmoil, her relationship with Barney rapidly disintegrating. She would perform energetically on stage, then afterwards write about her life falling apart. “I just sort of wrote the songs, and I couldn’t help myself.”
Tour over, the singer realised she had a full year’s worth of material. “I was like, whooops! What am I gonna do with this? And I think maybe that’s when another side of me kind of kicks in, the musicologist, or the anthropologist, who sort of goes, ‘Okay, I think this is what you’ve got here, and let’s just give it what it needs. It needs string arrangements, that’s pretty obvious.’
“And then I started making some crass jokes about making a black and white Ingmar Bergman album, which probably only I understand,” she says, meaning that her new songs’ reliance on internal monologue and general moroseness make them akin to the famous Swedish director’s notoriously glum films.
Like a film, Vulnicura is constructed along a chronological and a narrative arc, starting just before the breakup and ending just after. On the album’s opener, ‘Stonemilker’, Björk sounds like a relatively contented partner, with just a few everyday complaints: “It’s like milking a stone,” she sings, on struggling to get Barney to open up. More concerned on the next track, she tells herself, “Maybe he’ll come out of this loving me.”
In ‘Mouth Mantra’, she’s afraid to say anything, walking on eggshells with an increasingly moody partner. On the album’s centerpiece, the 10-minute song titled ‘Black Lake’, she is filled with despair, an “enormous lake / black with potion”.
The rest of the album is filled with concern for her children, anger, and the fight to gain some sort of acceptance. “When we’re whole, we’re broken,” she sings on the final track, “and when we’re broken, we’re whole.”
In a parallel twist of fate, Vulnicura only came into being thanks to a new kind of relationship. Björk was contacted by a Venezuelan producer by the name of Alejandro Ghersi – or Arca – who wanted to work with her, and the two clicked immediately.
“He’s just such an incredible talent,” she says, “and so emotionally wise, a very spiritually deep person and kind of graceful. I think that I also got a lot braver because he was there. It was almost like falling in love, in a musical, platonic kind of way. There’s a lot of positive energy in that.”
The pair plugged away in Björk’s home, which overlooks a beach in Reykjavík. In the same house all those hurtful things had happened, Björk and Arca created something beautiful.
As it happened, a music festival was going on in town during part of their collaboration. “We’d just sit and overlook the beach, and arrange, and then go in the evenings to see Kraftwerk or Mykki Blanco or Total Freedom,” she says. “Then the next day, we’d go back and write some music.”
Sometimes they’d wake up first thing in the morning, drive about 40 minutes to her cabin in the mountains of Iceland, work all day, and drive home again.
“Because the whole album is about someone, that duality – to work on it with just one person – made a weird kind of sense, because it had that duality again.”
So what was it about that someone, I ask – not for the first time – that made this particular separation so traumatic?
Learning too much about what inspired a work of art, she says by way of reply, can be limiting. You stop experiencing it on your own terms, which puts the art at arm’s length and makes it less vital. “Like, I don’t want to know, when I watch a movie, what the director eats for breakfast. I actually like the fact that I don’t know.
“If somebody’s trying to write a book, to create this other universe that elevates and [transports] you into a fully functioning world,” she adds, making a swirling orb with her hands, “that’s when it works. I’m not saying it always works. But the ties to the ground, certain personal information, it’s not going to help you. In some cases, it could even hinder you.”
Besides, if you really want to hear her inner-most thoughts, she’s already spent a year making beautiful art out of them. It’s called Vulnicura, and now it’s time to see how it fares: “To see the kid to school,” she says, “to see how it will do with the bullies, and will it be scared of the teacher? You know, like, just to see.”