Anatomy of.. Björk’s ‘Utopia’

Words by: Susan Howard
Posted: 8/12/17 13:58

For the first in our new series of features where we dissect the essential ingredients of our favourite artists, releases and parties, we cast the Ibiza Voice microscope on one of the year's best albums.

Björk’s ninth studio album is already being hailed as one of 2017’s finest. As with all her albums, 'Utopia' is a complex world intensely entwined with her personal life and driven by the panoramic intensity of a film director. Much like the artist herself, Björk’s albums always catch a listener off guard. Each one is a sidestep off the current currently fashionable music gravy train into Björk’s own uniquely alternate world. To make sense of it, we scoured her interviews and reviews to bring you a dissection of the elements that make it one of the year’s most unique, electronic albums.

 

Experimental Cover Art

Before the first strains of Utopia take effect, the album’s artwork is already twisting your mind into the Björkiverse. The cover art for Utopia was a collaboration between Björk, Berlin-based drag queen and makeup artist Hungry and close friends: visual artist Jesse Kanda and embroidery artist James Merry. “Me and James Merry started talking about it a year or so ago and I was talking about how it was kinda sci-fi,”  Björk told Creative Review. “Arriving on an island after some sort of apocalypse and starting anew. So like an optimistic, moist, rainforest mood.”

“There would be some sort of mutation, like birds that become flutes that become synths that become human. I wanted to reveal my face but have some sort of orchid or floral shapes. James bought silicone and casts and in a hotel room, taught himself from YouTube how to make casts and silicone pieces."

"I felt [the photo] needed something on the neck and suggested a newborn bird to strengthen the matriarch, fertility angle and James suggested blowholes on the neck to encourage the air theme which goes sonically through the whole album.”

The ‘Over You’ Relationship Record

Many of Björk’s albums start as a reaction to the previous one. 2015’s Vulnicura was a raw, dissection of the breakup of her long time relationship with Matthew Barney, the father of her daughter Isadora. She performed the final shows for 'Vulnicura' in New York’s Carnegie Hall. “They were so tragic,” Björk told The Observer. “Everybody who ever had a broken heart ever was there, and they were all telling me their stories. It was really sweet and, genuine but I almost felt guilty because the whole room was crying and I was not.”

“Me and Alejandro [Ghersi, AKA Arca, who co-produced Vulnicura] were guiltily drinking champagne in the back going: ‘Next time we’re going to have fun, OK?’ I wanted this album to go towards the light. You indulge in the grief to a certain point, but then you have to be a little bit Pollyanna.”

The album opens with ‘Arisen My Senses’ and Blissing Me’ which lyrically enthuse over a romantic encounter. Debate over her relationship with Barney is still ongoing in Utopia, albeit with more of a positive viewpoint in Tabular Rasa. “He took it from his father/Who took it from his father/Who took it from his father...“Let’s break this curse/So it won’t fall on our daughter.”

And continuing on from her recent Facebook #metoo post, in which she revealed she was sexual harrassed by Lars Von Trier (a claim the director denies), there are defiant feministic themes and statements throughout. “It is time: For us women to rise and not just take it lying down,” she sings on Tabula Rasa. “It is time: The world is listening.”


 

A Positive Reaction to Trump

The orange-awful U.S. president was elected two years into the making of Utopia. “Hope has never been as important,” she told BBC Radio 6. “Just to close your eyes and imagine that we’re going to make it alive is tough.” She researched previous utopian themed albums and set about imagining an island created after an environmental disaster, in which animals and humans have mutated and women arrive to create a new society.

Rave Roots

The conservative music press slammed Björk when she she dropped the indie sound cultivated during her time with Icelandic indie band, The Sugacubes, for a more electronic approach on 1993’s ‘Debut.’ The album was produced by Massive Attack’s Nellee Hooper and from then onwards Björk was entwined with dance music. She moved to the UK and worked with Aphex Twin, 808 State, Howie B, Tricky, LFO’s Mark Bell and went out with Goldie, much to the delight of UK tabloid newspapers. Aphex Twin toured with her and she counts Manchester as being a major musical, as well as style influence, during her rave honeymoon days.

“I remember going to raves in Manchester,” she told the Guardian, “just me and my mates going out clubbing – and especially in the early 90s, it was important to be asexual. As long as you could sweat for five hours in your baggy clothes, you were fine.”

Björk Flexes Her Producer Muscles Once Again

Although she has worked with some of electronic music’s best producers, Björk has often shied away from discussing her involvement in the production process of an album. In the last few years however she has begun to open up about her methods of working and has revealed herself to be a consummate producer, engaged in all aspects of the process, from sound design to arrangement and mixing.

“Eighty per cent of my music is me sitting by my laptop, editing. Weeks and weeks on each song.” She writes one song per month on average, often beginning the process at home in Brooklyn, or her Cabin in Iceland, by recording into software DAW, Pro Tools. She records a variety of sources, from her own voice to field recordings made in nature or even minute sounds from her own house, like on Vulnicura. “I wrote most of the melodies walking outside, hiking I do that a lot,”she told Sound On Sound in 2015. “The melodies whirl in my head, and build up momentum, and then I slowly figure out what kind of shape, structure and mood they need.”

She uses classical composition software Sibelius to write the orchestral parts and thanks obtaining a laptop in 1999 for liberating her from the studio. “I could do 90% of my music in my bedroom," she told RBMA in 2016. "I could basically make up the dream [and] make the dream real.”

In 2013, she began working with Venezualan Londoner Alejandro Ghersi, aka XL/Mute artist Arca. The pair became friends while Ghersi helped program the beats for Vulnicura. “With some songs we would sit next to each other, and she might have a very precise way of solving it in mind and she would give me a prompt about the feeling,” Ghersi told Sound On Sound. “I might program drums, textures, pads, all based on her instructions, and we would work from there.”  Ghersi returns on co-production duties on Utopia.

XL/Mute's Arca, Björk's friend and collaborator on 'Utopia' and 'Vulnicara.'

Björk’s Childhood Flute Lessons Pay Off 

Björk has been playing the flute since she was six so it’s unsurprising that Utopia has been described as an album of breath and wind. Flutes are all over the album, courtesy of Friday Flute Club. An ensemble of 12 flautists gathered at her cabin every Friday to rehearse material for the album for almost 60 days. “I did all the arrangements and the conducting, everything. It was the same for the choir and the brass," she told the Guardian, “but people… it’s like they think it happened by magic and fell from the sky.” 

 

She Likes to Take the Piss Out Of Herself

Don’t be fooled by the often serious tone of her lyrics. “Sometimes I feel people misunderstand the lyrics,” she said. “People miss the jokes. A lot of it is me taking the piss out of myself and being self-deprecating.”

Bitcoin

Bitcoin has been described as the future of music. Unsurprisingly, like many other technological trends in her recording history, Björk is on it like a car bonnet, and has made her album available to purchase via three different types of bitcoin.

Want to ask Björk a question? Click here.


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