Spirit of Invention Defines Björk's 'Volta'

The Icelandic singer Björk has a new CD out called Volta. Reviewer Will Hermes describes it as highly energetic and creative. He speaks to Björk about her work, which includes African harp music and collaborations with pop producer Timbaland.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It would be something of an understatement to label pop singer Bjork idiosyncratic. Her music, her outfits and her off-stage activities go far beyond that. Musically, she's recorded screaming punk-rock, flamboyant dance tracks and hushed electronic ballads. Her latest CD comes out today. It's called "Volta." And our critic, Will Hermes, sat down to talk with the singer. He says the project is filled with unexpected artistry.

(Soundbite of music)

WILL HERMES: Back in the '90s, after fronting the oddball New Wave group The Sugarcubes, Bjork began releasing solo records. The earliest ones, "Debut" and "Post" and "Homogenic," were sexy, rambunctious and elegantly weird. But they were still clearly pop music, largely designed with dance clubs in mind.

Her more recent records, "Vespertine" and "Medulla," were something else. They were quieter and more intimate affairs, which clearly had something to do with the birth of Bjork's daughter and her relationship with the baby's father, conceptual artist Matthew Barney.

(Soundbite of music)

HERMES: Well, it's fascinating and moving music - on both "Vespertine" and "Medulla" - but I miss that ecstatic, noisy, bacchanalian Bjork of earlier stuff. On her new record, "Volta," that Bjork has returned somewhat, and I got to speak with her about it in New York City when she was previewing her record. The big news was that she'd collaborated on a few songs with Timbaland, the super producer behind recent monster hits like Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back" and Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous."

But Bjork is a producer herself, so I wonder how she and Timbaland worked together.

BJORK (Musician): I don't know so much how he usually works, but I know - I can tell you how he did this, is that we went into the same room and I decided not to prepare anything because I just wanted to enjoy the merge of me and him, because I've listened to his music for so many years that I didn't want to come, like, with a list, you know, in my head, this is what we're doing or whatever.

And in a space of two hours, we had, like, four songs. And it was very improvised and very quick, and everything's done real-life(ph). And then afterwards, I mean, he sort of trusted me to pick all the files, and I noodled(ph) with him for a year.

(Soundbite of music)

HERMES: That year of noodling is evidently why Bjork's collaborations don't sound much like Timbaland's radio hits. But commercial pop is just one style Bjork noodles with on "Volta." Another is the virtuoso West African harp music of Toumani Diabate, which Bjork made into collages with a computer. That was after recording Diabate in Bamako, the capital city of Mali - certainly a different experience than working in London or New York.

BJORK: We're just experimenting. We did a lot of stuff together. The first day, for example, the electricity of the studio went, so we were sitting in a yard for eight hours, and he was just playing, and - when do you think the electricity's going to go back on? And he was like, I don't know. The last time it went for eight weeks. And we were just sitting in the yard with, like, candles, and I was just seeing him, talk about whatever he was doing.

HERMES: Eventually, a track came together which included beats from the producer Timbaland, and Bjork needed to put words to it.

BJORK: And I had, like, three lyrics that I've sort of been noodling with in my diary. And then this one lyrics, it was just like, the syllables matched. And in first thinking, it was like, no, no, it's totally in the wrong song because it's about a pregnant suicide bomber; this song is like a beautiful ballad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BJORK: And doesn't - he sort of expected it to be a brutal techno track to go with suicide bombers, you know.

HERMES: It's brave territory to tread into as a songwriter. Did you approach it with any trepidation?

BJORK: Yes, for sure. I mean, I read the news, and I'm just, like - it's just gets exhausting. And I mean, I felt kind of - I felt almost peaceful, I mean, that's probably why I ended up putting it on the record. Because it's not taking any sides or it's not judging anyone. It's just kind of, like, it's something reflecting on how complicated the whole thing is.

(Soundbite of song, "Hope")

BJORK: (Singing) What's the lesser of two evils: if the bomb was fake or of it was real? Here's my version of it, eternal whirlwind, I have fostered since childhood. Well, I don't care. Love is all...

HERMES: The title of Bjork's new record, "Volta," is inspired by both the River Volta in Ghana and by Alessandro Volta - the Italian physicist who invented the battery at the end of the 1700s. You can tease various meanings from the title. There's a definite African tinge to the music. The Congolese group Konono No. 1 appear on the record along with Toumani Diabate. And you could certainly call much of the music high voltage.

But it's the spirit of invention that defines "Volta," artistic if not scientific. There's a lavish impulsiveness in its mix of electronic dance beats: an Icelandic brass section, Diabate's ancient Kora music, a Chinese pipa, free-jazz drumming, and the flamboyant vocals of the British-American singer Anthony. Sounds rub together, elbow each other aside, and sparks fly.

Bjork leaves room for magic to happen between the planned and the improvised, the rational and the intuitive, the left hemisphere of the brain and the right. And often, magic does happen.

(Soundbite of music)

BJORK: It was unusual even for me because usually - I mean, especially a lot of the albums have been more part of - it's coming from me, built up from the ground, but in this album, I played, sort of an - there was an interesting road(ph) to involve all these people so early in songwriting. And then I ended up - a lot of the time - playing this kind of role of some sort of, like a catalyst. I'm thinking little tunnels between people, because the theme of this album is so much about celebrating the right hemisphere where there is sort of a holistic view on everything, where there's flow between all the sections, but I was maybe a baby-sitter of that idea.

(Soundbite of music and drumbeats)

HERMES: The international flavor of "Volta" isn't exactly new territory for Bjork, who has a global following and who comes from a country so tiny that an international outlook would seem essential. But what is fairly new is the way it grapples with modern cultural divisions. On "Volta," Bjork has brought together some of the most unique international voices from widely dissimilar backgrounds - not to cram them into her vision, but to create a collective vision. As a political metaphor and as a pop CD, it's a pretty impressive accomplishment.

NORRIS: That's music critique Will Hermes talking about he new CD from Islamic pop singer Bjork. You can hear an entire concern by Bjork at our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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Bjork And Konono No. 1 in Concert

Volta CD Cover

hide captionBjörk's latest CD is Volta

Konono No. 1 performs live at the United Palace in New York City.

hide captionKonono No. 1 performs live at the United Palace in New York City.

Stephanie Berger

Set List

"Cover Me"

"Earth Intruders"

"Hunter"

"Immature"

"Dull Flame of Desire"

"Oceania"

"I See Who You Are"

"Pleasure is All Mine"

"Pagan Poetry"

"Bachelorette"

"Army of Me"

"Innocence"

"Wanderlust"

"Hyperballad"

"Pluto"

"Declare Independence" (encore)

Wildly imaginative, exuberant and always unpredictable, Bjork has built an iconic career by consistently breaking new creative ground. Her latest CD, Volta, is a high-energy, tribal romp across cultures, with rhythms from Africa, horns from Iceland and strings from China. Bjork performed live on NPR.org, in a full concert from New York's United Palace. The May 5 concert is a co-production from NPR Music and WNYC.

Bjork performs live at the United Palace in New York City.

hide captionBjork performs live at the United Palace in New York City.

See a Slideshow of the Concert
Stephanie Berger

Volta is more political and international than her previous albums, though not overtly. It's a sonic essay on the state of the world, particularly war and the human impact on the environment, both of which can be heard in the opening track and first single, "Earth Intruders."

Though Volta is driven by strong, polyrhythmic beats, Bjork says it was the last thing she thought of for the album. "We had done a lot of experiments with rhythms, but I just threw them all away because it was like every time we did something really clever with drum programming beats, it was just too pretentious for this album. It just didn't stick. For me, it was maybe a little bit nostalgic going back to 1992, where you had really simple 808 and 909 really lo-fi drum machines, not doing anything fancy but really basic ... I had recorded all the brass, I'd recorded everything else, and everything was actually starting to mix ... And I said, what I need is an acoustic drummer, and who sort of has that almost pagan, trance-like wildness."

Bjork got help on the rhythms from the African collective Konono No. 1 and hip-hop producer Timbaland. She also collaborated with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, and a 10-piece, all female, all Icelandic brass section.

Bjork says she hopes Volta inspires listeners to reexamine their place in the world. "It's about being exhausted with the self-importance of religion and thinking, 'Okay, wait a minute, maybe we are one tribe, and we're actually part of nature,' and trying to suggest some kind of patent for that."

Bjork has been turning heads with an unimaginable mix of sounds since the mid-'70s, when she released her first album: an eponymous collection of children's songs that went platinum in Iceland. At 14, she played drums in an all-girl punk band called Spit and Snot. She first achieved international success in the late '80s as the lead singer for the band the Sugarcubes, with the hit song "Birthday." When the Sugarcubes disbanded in 1992, Bjork launched a solo career. In 1993, she released the appropriately titled Debut to vast critical acclaim, and she's since released a total of six solo albums. In 2000, she won a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her lead role in the film Dancer in the Dark.

This live concert webcast is co-hosted by All Songs Considered's Bob Boilen and Jad Abumrad of WNYC's Radio Lab, and is a co-production of NPR Music and WNYC in New York, as part of NPR Music's live online concert series. Previous shows are listed above right.

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  • Album: Volta
  • Artist: Björk
  • Label: Rhino
  • Released: 2007
 

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