Focus on Björk has become an opportunity for the artist to reaffirm her status as a producer, something that she has been underrecognised for arguably her entire solo career. In an emotional, much-circulated interview with Pitchfork from March 2015, Björk garnered attention by addressing the degree of authorship that she is seen as having in her music. “I’ve sometimes thought about releasing a map of all my albums and just making it clear who did what,” she said. “But it always comes across as so defensive that, like, it’s pathetic.”
So. Given that Björk won’t do it, just how would you go about building that map? We asked Björk super-fan Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy to dig deep into past interviews and features to give it a shot.
Following the 1987 success of the Sugarcubes’ debut single “Birthday,” then-vocalist Björk was approached by major labels about cutting a solo record. Having released a platinum album in her homeland of Iceland as an eleven year old, she was skeptical about a solo career, with all the public attention and heaped artistic expectations that came with it. Meanwhile, she was writing her own music in solitary, unsure if a single note would even be pressed onto a record. Even when recording demos, she informed the musicians and engineers involved that she was uncertain of the music’s future, promising to pay them if anything were to come of it.
After sending One Little Indian’s Derek Birkett three songs consisting solely of saxophone and vocals, she acquired the label’s support. Birkett wanted her to make hit records, but following sessions in LA with songwriter Franne Gold (The Commodores’ “Nightshift,” Whitney Houston’s “I Belong to You”), he told VOX Magazine that “she could do whatever she wanted.” Given carte blanche, early on it looked as though she was going to use a different producer for every track.
Björk would talk about wanting tracks to sound like the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and play Quincy Jones loops.
But then Björk found a kindred spirit in producer Nellee Hooper. Introduced to Björk by then-boyfriend Dom Thrupp, Hooper was very much a global representative of the developing sound of electronic Cool Britannia due to his work with Soul II Soul and Massive Attack. To Björk, he initially represented a safer indication of where dance music was headed, sutured of its transgressions. While Björk was behind the keyboard, responsible for ninety percent of the music (as a 1993 interview with Chaos Control zine established), Hooper and programmer Maurius De Vries were working on the album’s beats and finding a middle ground between their artist’s avant-garde preoccupations and dancefloor immediacy. Part of this process was in tempering her desires, or at least not taking them literally. As Hooper told Select in 1994, she would talk about wanting tracks to sound like the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and play Quincy Jones loops, to her desired reaction: “That’s exactly what I meant.”
The album’s best material showcases this relationship – with Björk’s vocal performances close to fully formed, Hooper assisted elsewhere in defining Björk’s production aesthetic. There are approaches that will soon become familiar throughout her discography, particularly in the mid-album suite of “One Day” and “Aeroplane,” which come complete with birds chirping, babies gurgling, blasts of big band jazz and the early ’90s surge of Asian Underground music. These are the most traditionally “Björk” sounds on the album, presenting her music’s connection to the natural world, as well as her keen world-travelled ear.
When gauged against the rest of her solo discography, Debut can sound like a mentoring experience between established producer and upstart, ambitious composer. It was a stepping stone, and the artist knew it: speaking at the close of 1993 to The Face’s Ekow Eshun, tired from months of promotion and bewildered by Debut’s success, she showed frustration with the limits set by the collaboration: “This record was a bit of a rehearsal and it’s really not that good. I just know I can do so much better.”
Post still owes itself to Hooper’s influence – especially in the gonzo (yet still four-on-the-floor) programming of opener “Army Of Me” – but it also saw Björk diversifying her production partners. Björk’s production here is as much curation as it’s composition – taking the strongest aspects of each artist’s sound (most notably Tricky here) and applying it to her own.
“I’d like to try something where I do everything from A to Z.”
Upon hitting a brick wall with the album’s sound following sessions in the Bahamas, Björk re-recorded the album with an entirely new team of engineers in London. Without Hooper’s presence, she had become more exacting with the sonic details, finding ways to thread the separate parts into a uniform whole, a hell of a task given the album’s musical variety: more “electronic” than the previous album but also more easily distracted, Post has turntablist-esque vocal experiments (“The Modern Things”), nods to Busby Berkley-era musicals (“It’s Oh So Quiet”), and atmospheric orchestral pieces (“You’ve Been Flirting Again,” “Cover Me”).
While on tour in 1995, she lost her voice and wrote the following note in a silent interview with i-D: “I’m teasing myself about doing an album completely independently, just in a room alone. It’s not that I don’t love the process of working with exceptional, artistic people, but I’d like to try something where I do everything from A to Z.”
On reflection, the Post-era sounds like the work of a producer wanting to prove their sonic identity, but still figuring exactly what that identity was. In a panicked emotional and mental state – following a publicised assault in Bangkok, an ugly romantic dissolution, and a death threat from a mentally disturbed fan – she seemed to take stock of her career and eventually emerged with her first full-length masterpiece.
In interviews around the time of Homogenic’s release, Björk seemed preoccupied with electronic music and its relationship to nature. She told Q that “techno and nature” were “the same thing” and, in Ray Gun, she claimed that the album would fit best with the Icelandic mountain ranges, suggesting listeners take a ghetto blaster when camping for the full experience. For many publications, these statements were used to hold up the image of the impish eccentric that has followed Björk her entire career. On reflection, they define her production aesthetic.
“When you’ve got a bassline, everything else falls asleep, like creativity.”
Björk didn’t have many collaborators (bar the late Mark Bell) on Homogenic. Left to her own devices, she created a type of Icelandic techno, taking the minimalism of her previous Tricky collaborations and stripping them further, til her once-busy melodies bloomed and burst. The melody on “Five Years” sounds ghostly, chiming into an empty space, each glowing note darkening, collapsing into an echo. Elsewhere, Björk’s string arrangements – used on Post to indicate grandeur – are more complex, their sparseness making for a solitary, psychological sound. “I used to say that the strings are almost like your nervous system,” she said. “Like being played with a bow.”
Elsewhere, her drums become more martial, finally befitting her preference for the more intense side of electronic music. Yet there’s little cushioning below that percussive roaring. Partly, this comes from her abandonment of bass. In the aforementioned Ray Gun interview, she talks of challenging herself by removing basslines: “When you’ve got a bassline, everything else falls asleep, like creativity.” The absence of bass helps give the album its otherworldly aesthetic: an old sound suddenly made fresh by having its core taken out.
Björk’s second masterpiece found the artist in a firmer mental space than the heartache and exhaustion that marked the Homogenic era: she was a mother yet again, and living in New York with her partner Matthew Barney. Lyrically, Vespertine feels like an album of joys, of post-orgasmic nuzzling, of the artist growing into a Mother Earth figure.
Where Homogenic used the textures of techno and intense strings to evoke raw but beautiful landscapes, Vespertine favours the clean and often gentle. Björk enlisted an Icelandic woman’s choir for the first time, and used the explicitly natural for percussion, famously sampling the sound of feet pressing into snowy terrain. The continued absence of bass not only raises structural challenges for Björk – who pieced the album together on a laptop over three years before bringing in collaborators – but also keeps things from falling into mawkishness or lazy laptop-music minimalism. Without bass to ground them, the choirs and snow sound celestial.
The Vespertine tour ventured into opera house venues – instead of clubs and festivals – and was intended to, in the artist’s words, “form a kind of flux” between the world of popular music and what she called “the music of eccentrics.” In this regard, she considered herself a middleman, but a better term may be a curator, something she continued to develop on Medulla.
Medulla is Björk’s most explicit statement of intent as a capital-P Producer: fourteen tracks consisting entirely of vocals, with only the occasional synthesizer bass or gong sound (courtesy of Mike + The Mechanics’ Peter Van Hooke) appearing as instrumentation. After writing the album alongside an audio engineer, she cast a wide net of collaborators to help fill in the gaps: The Roots’ beatboxer-on-call Rahzel, Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and many more.
Her process of working with these collaborators is revealed in Ragnheidur Gestsdóttir’s The Inner or Deep Part of an Animal or Plant Structure, a documentary on the album’s creation. In one scene, she sits with Tagaq, playing a rough demo of the song “Mouth’s Cradle” and discusses where Tagaq can merge into the spaces left open or overtake the composition and lead it to another area of creation.
In Gestsdóttir’s film, this process is repeated in studios across three continents, until the album is completed alongside mixer Spike Stent in London’s Olympic Studios. Even then, the mixing process remains a fluctuating project: it is revealed that Björk leaves unfinished elements to the record until meeting Stent as their collaborative efforts usually help each song “gather momentum.” Medulla is very much a project that showcases the efforts of each collaborator; the curation of these efforts, fitting into a vision that Björk holds as a producer, is the album’s triumph.
Following the avant-gardisms of Medulla, Volta was presented as Björk’s return to pop – namely due to her long-rumoured collaborations with Timbaland finally arriving on record, but also due to manager Birkett telling Music Week that the album was “probably the most commercial thing she’s ever done.”
In a series of vodcasts intended to hype the release of the album, Björk admitted that “the studio boffin in me had become a little bored.” Apart from sessions spent refitting brass samples from her score for Barney’s film Drawing Restraint 9, there is less of the carefully considered pre-production work evident from her previous two records. Instead, it’s full of more impulsive collaborations held around the world, with the aforementioned Timbaland, bazombo troupe Kokono No 1 and chamber-pop songwriter Antony Hegarty amongst others.
The musicians present – from an Icelandic brass band to pipa player Min Xiao-Fen (ballad “I See Who You Are”) – all represent non-traditional sounds. Even the much-touted Timbaland productions share a rootiness between them, a merging of each performer’s best ideas and intentions: both are producers with an open ear to world music, finding ways to exact symbiosis between traditional sounds and the electronic.
If Medúlla is Björk’s most explicit statement of intent as a capital-P Producer, Biophilia may be her most explicit statement as a capital-A Artist. More than just ten songs on an album, it was the catalyst for a worldwide educational program, a series of science documentaries and, most famously, a collection of iPad apps that were bought by the Museum of Modern Art. With all the extra-curricular movements surrounding the album, it is easy to take for granted the ways that Björk advances as a producer on Biophilia.
Björk compared the arduous Melodyne process to “painting the cathedral ceiling.”
Björk’s production process for the album found her utilising modern, accessible technology and gradually working backwards in order to sonically capture a type of technological heritage. Most instruments were written on touchscreen computers, then tied into iPads and read as MIDI. This meant that instruments like the sharpsichord and Gravity Harp pendulum were built from Björk’s specifications, while more traditional instruments were gutted, so they could become digitally compatible for her compositions. Elsewhere, she was adapting her process of choir compositions to the digital age, using the audio software Melodyne to embroider harmonies, before altering them and building new ones. Björk compared this arduous Melodyne process to “painting the cathedral ceiling.”
The music is yet again imbued with a sense of spirituality, a factor that she touched on in a Q&A session following the Tribeca Film Festival’s screening of the concert film Biophilia Live: “It’s hard to pin it – someone like me, who’s been doing music for three hundred years… If it’s not there, something big is missing… It’s my prime motivator.”
And finally, Vulnicura – an album that feels like a consolidation of Björk The Producer’s career since 1993. A close collaboration with co-producer Arca – a long-time Björk fan – Vulnicura seems like an inversion of the tutor/apprentice relationship that was audible throughout Debut. The album continues the open-eared curative aspect of her mid-period works, building closer “Quicksand” around Irish producer Spaces’ “Apologies” and having drone maestro The Haxan Cloak mix the record. Like every album since Vespertine, it was written by Björk in minimalist vocal-led fashion before being fleshed out with collaborators.
Where Vulnicura reveals creative connections to the rest of Björk’s catalogue, it also offers a number of surprises. First and foremost is the relative immediacy of the album’s production – leaked to the internet the day after mixing finished and digitally released within a matter of days. The roll-out of the album matches the music, which is imbued with a certain emotional power and a sense of immediacy. Instead of being led by the demo compositions or an overarching concept, the album revolves around Björk’s lyrics.
It is an inversion of the Homogenic approach: Instead of taking out the bass for a structural challenge, allowing the lyrics to lead the tone became its own structural challenge. (Yet again, basslines are mostly inaudible throughout.) In a T Magazine interview with Emily Witt, Björk admitted that a careful process was out of the question, given the emotional charge of the songs, which mostly follow the dissolution of her relationship to Matthew Barney. “There’s no way I’m going to wallow in this self-pity for three years, forget it.”
It is another stage from a fascinating producer whose thematic concerns grow and fluctuate with each record. While Vulnicura is still fresh and Björk Season still blooming, there appears to be an exciting future up ahead for Björk The Producer.
Header image © Santiago Felipe