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Bjork - I was going to call the album Ink, because I wanted it to be like that black, 5,000 year-old blood that’s inside us all


Feature: Jack Foley

"With a palm full of stars,
I throw them like dice on the table,
Until the desired constellation, appears",

SO SINGS Björk on her new album, Medúlla. If you were seeking a metaphor for her extraordinary approach to music making, that lyric would serve nicely.

Long adept at fashioning new sonic universes, Björk now returns with a record which is perhaps her most daring.

"Instruments are so over," she has said with a mischievous twinkle. The vast majority of Medúlla, you see, relies solely on the myriad textures and timbres of the human voice.

Sitting in a quiet back room at a favourite restaurant, near Reykjavik’s main square, Björk explains that she hadn’t planned the album that way.

For a while, she’d known that 1997’s Homogenic was going to be an overtly extroverted record, and that 2001’s Vespertine would be its much more introverted volte-face, this album was supposed to dispense with any blueprint or rules.

Björk was continually adding exploratory live drums ("I’m awful, but drumming relieves tension!") to arrangements already laden with instruments.

But then came a crucial epiphany.

"It wasn’t working," she says, "and I was trying to figure out why; wondering, ‘Where are the songs in all this mess?’ Then I sat down at the mixing-desk and started muting the instruments, and it was like, ‘Oh! There they are.’"

Pressing-on with her light-shedding deconstructions, Björk soon hit upon an idea -could she make a part traditional, part cutting-edge album that was almost entirely a cappella?

Of course she could. "The only other rule," she says smiling, "was for it not to sound like Manhattan Transfer or Bobby McFerrin. After that, it became a very spontaneous, kind of carefree album to make. I didn’t want to spend another two years making it just a tiny bit better - fuck that."

Recorded in 18 different locations including New York, Iceland, Venice and The Canary Islands, Medúlla sees Björk collaborating with another crack-team of alchemists and fellow mavericks.

Some of them – programmer Mark Bell; mixer Mark ‘Spike’ Stent; Valgeir Sigurdsson - were already time-served Björkians.

Others – Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis; Japanese a cappella ace Dokaka; the esteemed Robert Wyatt - were not.

Erstwhile Faith No More singer, Mike Patton, and Rahzel, his buddy from The Roots, are on the album, too. The former came on-board after Björk, adrenalised post-gig, took him to one side to rave about the project.

As producer of Medúlla, Björk directed the eclectic ensemble she had cherry-picked: "I liked all of us to make any special noises we could on the new album," she says.

"Sometimes there’s a kind of weave or blend where nobody is more important than anybody else; other times I wanted each singer to have a sort of solo."

Listen out, then, for angelic and demonic sounds, for erotic, exotic and comedic sounds; for human takes on insects, birds, and drum-loops, whistling, joyous abandon and moments of sublime grace.

On Vokuro, she and a 20-piece choir reinvent a timeless-sounding composition that septuagenarian Icelandic composer Jórunn Vidar originally wrote at the piano.

"It was actually pretty easy to change," says Björk, mapping-out the octaves of a piano keyboard on the table in front of her. "The soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts were already there."

While on the volcanic island of La Gomera, one of the least touristy spots in The Canaries, Björk strolled alone, singing at the top of her voice.

Her pal, Richard ‘Aphex Twin’ James, had tipped her off about an invaluable little gizmo that she carried with her at all times:

"Basically, it enables you to record layers of vocals while walking outside," she says. Hence La Gomera’s flora and fauna witnessed an early version of The Pleasure Is All Mine.

Between the end of the Vespertine tour and starting on Medúlla, Björk had kept busy, as she emphatically does.

Her Greatest Hits and Family Tree sets were anything but perfunctory stop-gaps, the former subject to much careful deliberation, and the latter’s six, treasure-laden CDs and beautifully designed packaging knocking spots off your typical box-set.

A word now about Björk’s album title: Medúlla’s title, like that of Vespertine, is as thought provoking as it is appropriate.

Here’s Björk on the matter: "I was going to call the album Ink, because I wanted it to be like that black, 5,000 year-old blood that’s inside us all; an ancient spirit that’s passionate and dark, a spirit that survives.

"Something in me wanted to leave out civilisation, to rewind to before it all happened and work out, ‘Where is the human soul? What if we do without civilisation and religion and patriotism, without the stuff that has gone wrong?’

"When I first moved to New York there was room for immigrants and eccentrics and whoever, then suddenly it became the most scarily patriotic place on earth.

"Then, I got drunk – surprise! - with my artist friend, Gabriella, and she came up with the title Medúlla. It basically means ‘marrow’ in medical language, in Latin.

"Not just you’re bone marrow, but marrow in the kidneys and marrow in your hair, too. It’s about getting to the essence of something. And with this album being all vocals, that made sense."

Like the aforementioned Vespertine, or SelmaSongs, Björk’s soundtrack to 2000’s Dancer In The Dark, Medúlla is designed to transport the listener to another magical and unique world.

"There are lot of little things about this record that seem to fit together," concludes Björk, "and it feels good to trust nature and my subconscious.

"You start some kind of universe, and because you’re doing it from the right place, it completes itself. I definitely feel that I’m getting better at what I do, too. Not that it’s good, necessarily; just that there is an improvement.

"The best thing, maybe, is that I’m enjoying all those little nuances with people, all those micro-moments that I used to think were just pauses between real life."

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