To create a kind of art that is so new it borders on fantastical, you have to stop thinking about anything you've ever done before. And you have to stop thinking about anything you've ever read, heard or even seen before. It's impossible to avoid creating art that isn't in some way derived from something else, but as long as you do try to inform yourself of what's out there and then do your best to forget about it all, you have a better chance of creating something new. If you've ever seen any of Björk's videos, for example, you can tell that she and her video collaborators are always out to do something that hasn't been done. It might be weird or hard to grasp, but it's almost always riveting — as is Björk's music.
Björk Gudmundsdottir was born in a fantastical place, Iceland, and began her journey traveling through uncharted territory well before most Remix readers could tear themselves away from watching cartoons on TV. She released her first album, Björk (Fálkinn), on cassette and vinyl in December 1977, when she was just 11 years old. She got the deal through the radio broadcast of a music school recital, and the album comprised covers (The Beatles, Stevie Wonder) translated into Icelandic, as well as some originals, including a song that Björk wrote and played on flute. Instead of doing a follow-up album, she took the money from the sales, bought a piano and learned how to write more of her own songs. After trying out a few bands, Björk joined Tappi Tíkarass, a punk band whose name translates to “cork the bitch's ass.”
Björk has always been bold. After releasing a couple of albums in the early '80s, she moved on to Kukl — a jazz/punk/rock band — released a few more albums and published her own 16-page book of fairy tales called Um Úrnat (Bad Taste, 1984). She took her next step with The Sugarcubes, which broke out of Iceland and into global consciousness. Elektra Records snatched up the pop/rock band for its U.S. releases (as well as for Björk's later solo albums), and Life's Too Good (1988), Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week! (1989) and Stick Around for Joy (1992) made people scratch their heads while singing along. Remotely, The Sugarcubes resembled The B-52's with a similar male sing-talking vocalist, Einar Örn Benediktssoon, much like Fred Schneider. But other than the accompanying belted-out female vocals, the similarities stop there. The Sugarcubes were very much on their own wavelength.
When Björk went on her own with Debut (Elektra, 1993), she continued to take risks. She started out on an electronic trip that crept into organic string sounds with Post (Elektra, 1995) and Homogenic (Elektra, 1997). Then, she starred in the heart-wrenching, disturbing movie Dancer in the Dark, which was accompanied by the EP soundtrack Selmasongs (Elektra, 2000). With Vespertine (Elektra, 2001), the lush, broad string arrangements continued, and Björk kept trying new things musically, such as the custom music box she had made for “Pagan Poetry.” Meanwhile, she continued experimenting with more electronic programmers and organic arrangers.
Now, just when it seems that there is nothing else that Björk could do to take her audience by surprise, she is throwing the world (and herself) for another loop with Medúlla (Elektra/Atantic, 2004), her fifth full-length solo studio album.
“I was working in the studio, and I decided that everything's allowed,” Björk says from Iceland. “This time around, there were no rules. If it's something boring, just skip it. So I would start fiddling with the buttons [on the mixer] and mute what was boring. Then, I would go, ‘Okay, this is starting to sound kind of interesting. … Oh, wow. I just muted all the instruments!’ It was like a little pleasant surprise.”
When Björk first realized that the album was going to be voice-based, she replaced instruments with vocals. “I would maybe get a musician to come in, or I would play something myself, and it just wouldn't work,” she says. But because Björk has recorded for most of her life, something not working is but a hiccup in her day. “I have a little family and a lot of friends, and I'm kind of busy,” she says. “And if something doesn't work, I'll go out and do something completely different or read a book or see a film or whatever. And I'll come to it the next day and try a lot of stuff. It's fun when you're working on your own. You feel more free to experiment. It's not that big a deal if something doesn't work. It's not an emotional investment in it for other people, and you're not offending anybody if you just go, ‘Let's just drop this.’”
However, for Björk's engineer, Valgeir Sigurdsson — whose Greenhouse Studios in Iceland was one of 12 places that the album was recorded in — losing the ability to use instruments was a bit daunting at first. “Sometimes, it felt a bit weird not being able to turn to synthesized sounds or samples,” he says. “But it only meant we had to push further to get what we needed, and I believe that the results would have been entirely different if we had been ‘allowed’ to stray from the concept.”
To be fair, Medúlla does feature a couple of itty-bitty exceptions, including the piano on “Piano II” and a couple of programmed moments. But “Desired Constellation,” which has a synthesized loop sound, still fits the parameters for the vocal-only theme. “For a long time, we thought that ‘Desired Constellation’ would have to be an exception, as the programming on it — which was done by Olivier Alary of Ensemble — is very hard to replace,” Sigurdsson explains. “We recorded a version of it with the Icelandic Choir, which is very beautiful but has quite a different emotion to Olivier's version. I also took the choir and processed it to bits attempting to match the original, but there was still something missing. So it was a pleasure to find out just as the album was being mastered that it had actually been programmed using Björk's voice as the sound source. Problem solved! I guess that the big discovery for me was the range of sounds you can get from the human voice — anyone's voice, not just the voices of singers. And if you apply electronic treatment to these source sounds, there isn't really a limit to what you can do.”
CIRCUS OF SINGERS
Certain songs on the album, such as the haunting, hymnlike “Vokuro” (sung in Icelandic), are obviously 100 percent vocals, with a choir as a bed and Björk's voice floating on top. But others, such as the poppy “Who Is It,” are deceptive because of the variety of voices taking on different roles. Former Roots member Rahzel, Dokaka (from Japan) and Shlomo (from the UK) prove that beat-boxing can come in handy when you're not allowed to use drums or drum machines. And then there's classical singer and “human trombonist” Gregory Purnhagen; Inuit throat singer Tanya Gillis, aka Tagaq; Faith No More and Mr. Bungle singer Mike Patton; singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt; the Icelandic Choir; and the London Choir.
With a huge range of bass to soprano voices, Björk had plenty of room to stretch out and experiment. Sometimes, the results are bordering on scary. “Submarine” with Wyatt, for example, features many different layers of vocals repeating the following: “Do it now. Shake us out of the heavy, deep sleep. Shake us now.” Then, there's the dark track “Where Is the Line,” which repeats “Where is the line with you?” again and again until this Remix editor found the line at about 3 minutes and 23 seconds and hid under her desk.
On “Piano II,” Tagaq the throat singer brings back the hiding urge with wheezing, dying sounds and some mangy dog growls, which could be Tagaq — or an actual mangy dog. Either way, the song is perfect for a horror film. “Tagaq came to La Gomera [one of the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain], where I was working in January 2004,” Björk says. “After we had sung together for a whole week, we would listen to everything, edit it together, throw away stuff for a few weeks and make new patterns with the stuff. And then I would pick the next singer, Dokaka. And we would edit that and go, ‘How about this kind of person?’ And then a classical singer came. And after that, a heavy-metal singer came. And then after that, another beat-boxer came. So it was kind of like we just added the colors as it went. Most of these people, I didn't even know who they were before. I would just find out about them on the Web or wherever. I'd go, ‘Okay, now I think we really need a soulful folk singer. That's the element that's missing.’ It was in May when I would call Robert Wyatt, and he would say, ‘Yes, I'm totally up for it.’ Next day, I'd send him a CD of the song. And then three days later, we were in his bedroom near Leeds, England, recording his vocals. So everything was very spontaneous and one step at a time.”
When Björk started working on Medúlla, she was pregnant with her second child, Isadora (with artist Matthew Barney). “There's something really weird when you're pregnant,” she says. “I can't really sing out at the top of my lungs because, obviously, something is more important than me, which is good.” So instead of jumping right into the recording process, Björk did a lot of prep work. “I would get programmers to help me, and we would go on the Web and find every software [program] and every hardware effect,” she says. “And we'd experiment for a whole year with my voice, not thinking about any songs, just creating a library of effected vocals. When you do stuff like that, 90 percent of what you do you have to throw in the bins. And you end up with 10 percent, which was like all this filigree or decoration of effected vocals. So when I actually started full-on doing the album, I would write a song, and I would say, ‘Okay, I need something for this section.’ And it happens that sound 27 actually fits. So when I had stopped breast feeding and I'd done the Greatest Hits tour last summer, when I sat down to roll up my sleeves and do proper work, I'd already done the research and most of the effected stuff.”
When Björk really got going, the recording process sans instruments turned out to be simple. “First of all, it was a surprise to me: ‘Wow. Vocal-only album?’” she says. “And then it came as a surprise how easy it was for me to do it. Maybe that's because what I know best is vocals. I did my first string arrangement on Post, which was in '95. So I've been doing string arrangements for nine years, and, slowly, they've become more and more complex, probably most complex on Vespertine. But with Medúlla, I'm suddenly [concentrating on] something I've been doing since I was 5.”
Because Björk has been singing for more than 30 years, she knows a thing or two about getting the best performance out of a live or studio situation. And working with singers, she is in tune with what they're going through. “You know when you wake up certain days, it's just not a good day for singing,” she says. “And then other days are better. And you have to take breaks and just tell jokes and think about something else. It actually came to me as a surprise how easy and intuitive it is when you're directing someone else in the studio who is a vocalist, [because] you've been struggling with those things for so many years yourself. [Sometimes] the vocalist has to stop and have a glass of water, or we'd need to go out and get drunk and come back the next day. Or we'd need to do it over and over for four hours until it was right. Or because you had a cold four days ago, your voice is still not perfect whereas you could probably still play, say, the keyboards. You can't sing in the mornings; you can't sing at night; you have to do it in the middle of the day. It's just all those things that are very specifically vocal. But it's so obvious for vocalists to see that in other vocalists.”
Surprisingly, much of the album was recorded using Shure SM58 and Beta 58 mics. “With some of the singers, I wanted to have it really live and raw, because the voice can be very fragile and delicate. From the start, I was very sure that I wanted to prove people wrong in that sense and have it really live and raw and meaty and bloody. And to do that, you have to make sure that you create a live situation in the studio. The throat singer, for example, was most comfortable singing with a mic she could hold and run around the studio with, basically doing the same stuff she'd do onstage. So [that way] it doesn't become a cold, scientific thing.”
CUT, CUT, CUT
Some of the songs on Medúlla were locked to a grid in Digidesign Pro Tools, and others were recorded more from a “human-clock point of view,” Björk says. But whether it was a strict or loose setup, editing was the order of each day. “I would say that the work on this album, 80 percent of it was me sitting down on Pro Tools and editing things,” she says. “You'd be amazed at how time-consuming that is. People would just come in for a week and sing, like Tagaq. But some people would just come for a few hours. And it would take me, like, three weeks to go through it and edit it.”
But Björk does like the juxtaposition of opposites when it comes to vocals: “I like really, really live first takes that are not fixed afterwards. And then I also like vocals that are like embroidering, when it takes two or three weeks to edit a pattern out of all these different takes, and it's something that takes a minute to play.”
“[With so many takes], you end up with heaps of material that can sometimes be confusing,” Sigurdsson adds. “But Björk has a really good memory for this, and she would frequently go, ‘Remember that take we did for that song? Can you put that in time with this song?’ Much work went into mixing and matching parts. We frequently moved parts recorded for one song into another and time-stretched, retuned or reprogrammed to fit. So really everything we recorded had a potential to be used, even if it would end up being in a completely different context. As the anchor of all the songs was Björk's lead vocal, which in most cases went in at an early stage, so we always had a solid foundation to build around.”
PULLING THE REINS
Despite the library of effected vocals that Björk created during preproduction, she preferred everything to be dry. “I would say 80 percent of the vocals on this are untreated,” she reveals. “Like Rahzel the beat-boxer, for example: Most of his stuff on this album, people don't believe it, but it's actually with no effects. It's not even with a reverb on it.” (However, as the backbone for songs, beat-boxing rhythms were quantized using Pro Tools' Beat Detective and Ableton Live.)
“Overall, me coming from the punk ethic, I like really dry vocals,” Björk continues. “I always had battles with engineers. They always want to put reverb on me and compress me, and I have to sort of check them all the time, like, ‘Did you compress this?’ And they'd go, ‘No.’ And I go, ‘Tell me the truth.’ And they go, ‘Oh, actually, a little bit.’ And I'm like, ‘Okay, take it off now.’ [Laughs.] I think it's just some autopilot thing that engineers do. They always compress and put reverb on it. And I don't like that at all. Obviously, there are exceptions. But when you do it, I think you should go all the way with it and be really obvious with it and not do it just to fix what's wrong. I think that's not the right approach to effects. That Auto-Tune thing is a kind of classic example of when people use technology in a very humiliating way, both for humans and for technology. That incredible program is used to fix when you go wrong. It's like technology is used for some kind of slave instead of using it in a creative way where you really go for it and come out with something that hasn't been done before. That's more fun.”
“As we traveled to all these different places while making the album, we set up studios in many of them,” says Valgeir Sigurdsson, Björk's engineer. “To make the transition as fluent as possible, I tried to keep the core setup to a minimum. But we were in several [commercial] studios along the way, as well. Most of the overdubs were recorded at my place in Iceland, Greenhouse Studios; Lost Island Studios in La Gomera; and at the Magic Shop in New York. Finally, we mixed the album in London with Mark ‘Spike’ Stent at Olympic Studios.
“One of the big challenges in the final mix was how to get the beats to sound as big as we needed without overriding the lead vocal and destroying the overall balance,” Sigurdsson continues. “We worked very hard with Spike to get this right, and the solution we found was to use compression and reverbs sparingly but be quite surgical when it came to EQing things.”
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G4, G5 computers
Digidesign 888|24 I/O HD, Digi 002 w/Pro Tools LE, Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system
Neve 80 series
SSL 4000 G series
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Ableton Live software
Bomb Factory plug-ins
Korg microKontrol keyboard controller
Native Instruments Absynth, B4, FM7, Intakt, Kontakt, Pro53, Reaktor soft synths and samplers
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Brüel & Kjær 4006 mic
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer effects unit
Focusrite ISA 215, Red 7 preamps
Neve 1073, 1081 preamps
Lexicon 480L effects unit
Neumann M 149 Tube, U47 FET, U 87 mics
Shure SM58, Beta 58 mics
TC Electronic FireworX, M3000, System 6000 effects units
Telefunken U47 mic
Tube-Tech LCA2B compressor/limiter
Universal Audio 1176LN limiting amplifier, LA-2A leveling amplifier