Björk is ‘Tinder for technology’
Throughout her career, Björk has been a few steps ahead of technological and musical trends. She regularly collaborates with electronic music visionaries to propel her art forward, she was the first musician to shoot a 360-degree music video and with 2011’s Biophilia she made the world’s first app album, used in science classes at schools throughout Scandinavia.
When we sat down with the Icelandic icon at the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, where she presented a digital virtual reality exhibition, we wanted to find out just what it is that’s behind her affinity with technology, only to find out that it all leads back to nature. And trolls, obviously.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve performed in opera houses and small punk clubs. Where do you enjoy singing the most?
BJÖRK: I sing the best when I’m on the top of a mountain. That’s where I usually have the best ideas for songs.
Isn’t that unfortunate, as usually you don’t have an audience up there?
Usually I try to imitate the mountain-top experience when I’m back in my recording studio. But I would like to try to make a recording facility I can take with me on my hikes.
Does being outside fuel your creativity?
It just feels very natural for the body to sing in nature. When I’m indoors I feel like I’m holding my breath. It also might have to do with my childhood. Walking 40 minutes to school in any weather was normal for me. I would sing to kill time. Also, in the mornings it could be a bit scary because it was really dark. So part of it was to sing to reassure myself.
The idea of singing outside reminds us of The Sound of Music.
Have you ever ventured into the wild in Iceland?
Sadly, we haven’t.
I can understand that some urbanites associate nature with hugging trees and playing acoustic guitar by the campfire. But nature in Iceland is hardcore; there’s nothing romantic about it. We don’t have a lot of animals. We don’t really have trees either. It’s pretty empty. It’s raw and brutal.
And yet inspiring?
The emptiness is particularly inspiring. There’s a big animist tradition in Iceland. Animism is the belief that each object has a soul. So the cliffs and the rocks, they all have stories.
Where does that belief come from?
It’s because of the trolls.
Um … trolls?
Trolls are nocturnal creatures. If they don’t make it back to their cave before the sun comes up they turn into stone. So we believe that the mountains and rocks in Iceland are fossilized trolls.
And you get these rocks to tell you their stories?
Everybody makes up their own stories. One of my best friends used to make money during the summers by being a guide. He used to make up these crazy tales for tourists. He would tell them that moss on bumpy lava was a flock of sheep that got caught in a volcanic eruption. It’s the emptiness and the space in Iceland that fuels creativity. It’s like a blank canvas for your imagination.
If you don’t live in Iceland among fossilized trolls, do you still think that a strong bond with nature can fuel creativity?
Absolutely. Brain scans show that after 45 minutes of hiking, something happens to your body. There’s a certain rhythm to it that stimulates your thought process. I try to start each day with a walk, and usually after 45 minutes I feel this extreme relief.
It goes click, it’s all in sync, and all of a sudden problems don’t matter that much anymore.
What’s your advice for people who live in big cities?
It’s a problem I’ve faced a lot, traveling and being on tour. That’s why I like being in cities by the sea. It’s not actually about the water itself, but if you walk by the ocean, you have 180 degrees of emptiness. For me, in order to reach that feeling of relief, it’s a lot about having space.
It’s interesting that you’re such a fan of nature, considering that you’re always on the edge of new technology when it comes to music.
I’m actually much less of a technology buff than people think. I need to get help from my friends to clean up my laptop.
Says the artist who is dubbed pop music’s last great innovator, making app albums and shooting VR music videos.
I’m trying to build a bridge between technology and music. There are new tools constantly coming out that have an impact on your life, whether you like it or not. With my art I am trying to make sense of them. I’m like the Tinder for technology.
What do you mean?
I’m a matchmaker app. Whenever there’s new technology coming out, I instantly have an idea for it. When I got my first laptop in 1999, I knew immediately that it would replace the traditional recording studio to a certain extent. When the touchscreen came out, I realized very quickly that it would be a great pedagogic tool. I was like, “Wow, with this tool I can map out my vision of musicology.” I was a quite difficult youth in my music school. The teachers made musicology seem so academic, whereas it’s actually quite visceral.
Björk was a rebellious music student?
Yes, and I am proud of it. I think that the arrogance of youth is important. I’m paraphrasing, but Stravinsky said in his book Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons something like, it’s great to hate. When I was a teenager I couldn’t stand Bach and Beethoven. I was like, “They’re just dead German guys! Why should I care?”
Because they’re among the most important composers in history?
My point is that hate is an important tool in figuring out what you don’t want, because subsequently it will lead you to the realization of what you want in your career. So I’d encourage anybody to be furious, to hate things.
Has this “great to hate” approach worked out for you?
Definitely. I’m guilty of slagging off strings in my teenager years; now I work with orchestral instruments a lot. My teenage ignorance toward strings enabled me to approach them from a totally different angle and create something original.
Back to the earlier subject, how are nature and technology intertwined in your opinion?
I think this idea of nature as the past and technology being the future is nonsense. That’s why I’ve been saying it’s not back to nature, it’s forward to nature. In the future we will have to put the connection between the two in the focus even more. Just imagine a world where leading tech companies would properly invest in environmentalism. With the technology we have we could easily clean up the oceans.
Is that a call to arms?
Yes! With success comes responsibility. Therefore, I think we should ask 10 companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple to put one billion dollars each into cleaning the oceans. I’m sure it could be done by 2020.
In case Mark Zuckerberg reads this piece, should he reach out?
Definitely! I’ll invite all of the tech billionaires to come to my little cabin in Iceland. I’ll make them drinks. Maybe I’ll also cook for them.