If, in the winter of 2021, you had been wandering through downtown Reykjavík, you might have registered the thud-thud-thud-thud of a lockdown house party. Squeezing her “Christmas bubble” of friends into her living room, Iceland’s most famous citizen was throwing another of her “crazy DJ nights, where 20 people could come and I always ended up DJing just gabber”.
According to Björk, the nails-hard 90s Dutch techno style is the perfect soundtrack to Covid life. “There’s always a BPM in our bodies, you know? And I think through Covid we were all pretty lazy, just sitting home reading books, so when we got drunk or partied it was like we went a little bit mental, then we just fell asleep before midnight. Slow energy, but then it goes double.” And that, she realised, is “a little bit gabber”.
Iceland’s hardline response to Covid protected its tiny population from the worst of the pandemic. “Please don’t let this come out like a brag, because we felt for you guys, but we actually didn’t have that much of a life change,” she says. Besides, being confined to Iceland is Björk’s idea of a good time. Despite having spread herself around the world for almost four decades, Björk still claims to be “such a homebody”. For her, the nadir of the pandemic was the day the local swimming pool shut.
In person – today in a fragrant hotel in east London – Björk is always in motion. There is a fidgety energy to the 56-year-old that seems innate and unchanging, as if her fame as a child singer gave her the confidence not to bother growing up. Maybe it is something to do with the bottom-line feminism of a country where grownup women can be drinkers, shaggers and prime ministers (more on her later) without much controversy. Intermittently jumping out of her seat, Björk is dressed down in a crayon-red asymmetrical dress by Kiko Kostadinov (she obligingly yanks out the label to check), a jacket covered in scales of shimmering blue silk and clompy lace-up platform shoes, with streaks of bronze on her eyelids.
Covid delivered Björk back to her homeland at a transitional time. Her nest was emptying. Her daughter, Ísadóra (who also goes by Doa), was all grown up, studying, acting and making films and music of her own. Björk’s mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, the hippy homeopath who nudged her on to the stage as child, had died in 2018 after a long illness. After two albums made in the maelstrom of heartbreak and divorce, Björk fell back to earth with a soft thud, thinking about her ancestors, her descendants and the land of fire and ice that binds them.
Her new album is called Fossora, the feminine version of the Latin word for digger. On the cover, she is a glowing forest sprite, her fingertips fusing with the fantastic fungi under her hooves. Compared with the cloudy electronics of 2017’s Utopia, it is organic and spacious, earthbound rather than dreamy, and filled with warmth and breath. It is also a world of contrasts: the album’s two lodestones are bass clarinet and violent outbursts of gabber. There are moments of astonishing virtuosity and bewildering complexity and, like much of her recent music, a resistance to easy melody. Björk’s journey from 90s dance-pop to something more like surreal opera has more in common with Scott Walker’s graceful trajectory than those of 90s peers such as PJ Harvey.
Like all Björk albums, Fossora is a reaction to its predecessor. Soft and light as candyfloss, Utopia was a “survival mechanism out of the heartbreak story” she had told on 2015’s Vulnicura, which diarised her split from the artist Matthew Barney in blow-by-blow bleakness. What she calls the “emergency” album and “the rescue album” popped out like airbags, with barely two years between them, despite the technical challenges Björk set herself (such as the four months it took to figure out the reverb on Utopia’s flutes).
This time, she decided to take as long as she needed and “allow myself the luxury of not having any willpower”. Lockdown made that easier. “I don’t think I’ve been that much home since I was 16. Guilty to admit it, but I was eating chocolate pudding every day,” she says with a grin. Usually, on trips back to Reykjavík, she wouldn’t even bother to unpack. This time, her empty suitcase went up on the shelf. “I got really grounded and I really, really loved it.”
Between the gabber eruptions, Fossora offers tender songs written for Björk’s mother, a poem by the 18th-century fisherwoman and drifter Látra-Björg, the buttery voice of Serpentwithfeet and backing vocals from Sindri, her son, and Doa, who lends a pristine, folky tone to Her Mother’s House. “I asked her to write about saying goodbye to the nest and [said] she didn’t have to just be nice,” she says, clearly proud. “It’s me making fun of myself for being a bit clingy.” (They also appeared together in Robert Eggers’ Viking saga The Northman, with Doa playing an enslaved Irish person snatched away to Iceland and Björk playing the Seeress, her eyes hidden under sea-snail shells while prophesying a violent death for Alexander Skarsgård.)
Despite hyping Fossora as an album for “people who are making clubs in their living room”, rumours of Björk’s rave album have been greatly exaggerated. “I was trying to take the mickey out of myself,” she says with a sigh, her accent still a jolly mixture of Nordic rolled Rs and cockney slang. “Here I am, this lady stuck in my living room in lockdown, and it’s a really serious song for four and a half minutes. And then it’s one minute of” – she bolts up from her chair and starts pumping her arms to a silent beat – “WOO!”
She gives me a visual description of Fossora. If Utopia was a magical retreat from the black lake of misery she plunged into on Vulnicura (“pull all the teeth out, no violence – like a pacifist, idealistic album with flutes and synths and birds”), then Fossora shows life in this dreamland. “Let’s see what it’s like when you walk into this fantasy and, you know, have a lunch and farrrrt” – another gleefully rolled R – “and do normal things, like meet your friends.”
This earthiness is trowelled by the album’s sextet of bass clarinets, an instrument chosen not for its gloominess, as in Mahler’s 6th Symphony, nor its smoky luxury, like Bennie Maupin’s playing on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, but for its potential as percussive artillery. Björk wanted them to sound “like Public Enemy, like duh-duh-duh-duh, like boxing”, she chirps, before squatting in demonstration of the metre-long instrument’s heavyweight attack.
Then there is the hard techno. On heavy rotation at Björk’s living room parties were Gabber Modus Operandi, two Indonesian punks who alloy folk styles such as Balinese gamelan with abrasive western gabber, footwork and noise. “They’re taking tradition into the 21st century, which I really respect. They do it like nobody else,” Björk says.
She had a feeling they would be on the same wavelength. When Ican Harem and DJ Kasimyn first spoke to her over a video call, she explained she was making her “mushroom album. It’s like digging a hole in the ground. This time around, I’m living with moles and really grounding myself. I don’t know if that’s too far-fetched for you guys, but I have to speak in this sort of music lingo,’” she told them. “And they were like: ‘Oh, it’s funny you say that, but last week we took some gamelan drums and dug them in the ground and played them there and recorded it. So, yes, we know what you mean.’” She laughs. “Literally! I was just talking metaphorically!” The duo emailed her beats, which she painstakingly edited into Fossora’s fiddly time signatures, resulting in blasts of what the trio call “biological techno” (also the name of their WhatsApp group chat).
Two songs, Sorrowful Soil and Ancestress, are tributes to Björk’s mother, who divorced her husband, an electrician and trade unionist, when Björk was a baby and went to live in a commune of Hendrix-loving hippies. Having trained in alternative medicine, she wasn’t happy to be surrounded by white coats when she got ill towards the end of her life. “She didn’t agree with all that,” says Björk. “She was in the hospital a lot and it was really difficult on her. It was quite a struggle.”
Björk is steely as she recounts those distressing couple of years in and out of hospital. Her lyrics, too, are stark in their grief: “The machine of her breathed all night while she rested / Revealed her resilience / And then it didn’t,” she sings over leaping strings and gongs on Ancestress. Hildur Rúna was 72 when she died. “That’s quite early. I think me and my brother were not ready to … we thought she had 10 years left. So we were like: ‘Come on,’ and getting her to fight and … and it was like she had an inner clock in her and she was just ready to go.”
In 2002, at the same age Björk is now, Hildur Rúna went on hunger strike to protest against the US company Alcoa building an aluminium smelter and 11 dams for a hydroelectric plant in the Icelandic highlands. She said: “I have a famous daughter, and I’ve never used her name ever before, but in this case it was needed.” Björk was supportive of her mum’s activism, but no doubt relieved when, after 23 days, frail and delirious from surviving on herbal tonics, Hildur Rúna ended her fast.
The smelter and the dams were eventually built. Since then, Björk has dedicated much of her time to raising the alarm about environmental devastation. She once ditched a performance at Iceland Airwaves festival to protest against plans to build more than 50 dams and power plants. She interviewed David Attenborough for a TV documentary about music and the natural world. Her 2019 Cornucopia tour featured a video message from the climate activist Greta Thunberg. The Biophilia Educational Project, which bloomed from her 2011 app/album, has become a functioning school syllabus designed to get kids exploring music and science.
In 2019, Björk and Thunberg allied with Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, to declare a climate emergency, a move they hoped would force an official response from the government. But when the time came to make the announcement, Jakobsdóttir backed out. “I kind of trusted her, maybe because she was a woman – and then she went and did a speech and she didn’t say a word. She didn’t even mention it. And I was so pissed off,” Björk recounts, practically spitting. “Because I’d been planning that for months.”
A few years ago, she might have kept quiet and held the line. Now, her disappointment has spilled over into exasperation – and perhaps a touch of activist burnout. She says: “I wanted to be backing her up. It’s hard to be a female prime minister; she’s got all the rednecks on her back. But she hasn’t done anything for the environment.”
In her own world, Björk remains in control, leading orchestras and choirs of increasing size (52 singers at last count) and collaborating with her pick of musicians and designers. Yet, at heart, she is still a freewheeling romantic, a “fountain of blood in the shape of a girl”, as she sang 25 years ago on Bachelorette. “I feel, as a singer-songwriter, my role is to express the journey of my body or my soul or whatever, and hopefully I will do that till I’m 85, or however long I live. I try to keep the antennas up and read where my body is at.”
As is obvious from the songs Atopos and Fungal City (“His vitality repolarises me / My north/south shifts to east/west”) Fossora is an “in love” album – but there are two different love objects at play, she winks, refusing to say more. I suggest that her relationship songs often read like confrontations, punctuated by the sort of difficult questions one regrets asking too late at night. On Atopos, she quizzes: “Are these not just excuses to not connect?” No, she says after a moment’s thought – it is the other way around. “Sometimes, when I really love someone, I will have an interrogation lyric and it’s disguised as my doubts, because I want to be nice – but it’s actually their doubts.”
Björk’s homecoming marks a new cycle. The dust has settled. “I’m just really happy to be back home and I’m such a homebody and I’m really Icelandic,” she gushes. The swimming pool is open again. She is closer than ever to her fellow local musicians, many of whom joined her for last year’s Björk Orkestral concert series at Harpa hall in Reykjavík, a madly ambitious project that she worked on through repeated pandemic postponements.
At her manager’s suggestion, she has been digging into the archives to make a podcast series about her discography; it is due in autumn. Watching her old TV interviews in preparation, she found herself thinking: “Wow, she’s cocky! But basically I’m saying the same things. I’m in London and I’m just like: ‘Can I go home now?’”
• Fossora will be released this autumn on One Little Independent Records