Björk is undoubtedly one of music’s great mercurial talents. Soon after the breakup of her band the Sugarcubes in 1992, she had a blueprint to selling lots of records thanks to her Debut (1993) and Post (1995) albums, right in front of her. But, much like similarly minded adventurers Radiohead and, famously, Bowie, she has made a career out of shunning the easy route and choosing to journey into denser, more unknown but usually more rewarding waters. She’s a true pioneer, and while listeners might not adore every single little thing that she puts her name to, she’s a far more interesting artist because we have no idea what to expect from her. Again like Bowie, she’s always worth the extra effort.
That said, COVID and the resulting lockdown has forced Björk to remain in one place, sort of. When the pandemic hit, she was partway through the Cornucopia tour – a theatrical show based on her most recent album, 2017’s Utopia. The last date was December 8, 2019, in Stockholm, Sweden. The tour picks up again in Los Angeles for three nights starting January 26.
“Yes, this has never happened before,” Björk says. “I’m kinda excited about it. Usually, once you commit to a tour, it seems to lock into a grid which is most often fun but at worst can become conveyor-belty. So to put something on pause for two years and write a whole album and then come back to it is going to be interesting. There is both an environmental manifesto by me and Greta Thunberg woven into the show but if [anything], they have become even more relevant now. So I might just keep them as is, and hopefully it will make the matter feel even more urgent.”
The world has been in chaos, but the environmental issues that run through Utopia remain closest to Björk’s heart. She says that, looking ahead, she hopes that the world can react with the same level of urgency to the environment as it has to COVID.
“The subject matter of Utopia and Cornucopia was very much about the environment, and also on a personal level, and hopefully a universal level,” she says. “But it was trying not to focus on aggression and destruction, which in my case was Vulnicura, the album I did before. How do you build again a new world, and how do you keep the hope up? The songs approach the subject matter from very different angles, but obviously when you do an album you always write it first and then afterwards say that the songs are very different. But if there’s something that unites all of them, you usually don’t figure it out until they’re all finished.”
The pause in touring has only seen environmental issues exacerbate.
“When you see the Paris Climate Accords, or the world leaders meeting in Scotland a couple of months ago to discuss this, I find it so hard to imagine turning this planet around into a hospitable place for the next generation,” Björk says. “People just give up, and would rather build a space shuttle and find another planet. As a musician I’m most interested in emotions. The album is about hope in impossible situations. You have to write a manifesto of what I want the world to be. It’s interesting to sing them live, because some of them are very hopeful. But there are also moments, which is very satisfying, four or five songs into the set, where I don’t believe in any of it and just give up. It gives you something to push against. The album is very Pollyanna, but then it has dark moments.”
The artist says that her lifestyle didn’t change too much in Iceland, despite the tour grinding to a halt.
“Well, the lifestyle changes in COVID were not that huge in Iceland,” she says. “I live on a beach in Reykjavík, the capital, and even in the tightest lockdowns I could walk up and down it. Then of course, hikes in the mountains… we spend a lot of time in nature here. And even in town, most things stayed open. I managed to write a whole album without traveling breaks, which felt absolutely delicious! I haven’t stayed so much home since I was 16 – loved it!”
The news of that forthcoming album is very exciting. More on that later. But considering the fact that she has been working on new material, as one would expect from her, it must be weird to still be touring Utopia.
“I think because it is such an unusual show for me, the longer timespan will actually add to it,” she says. “It is the most theatrical thing I have ever made and in some ways goes vertical on my song catalog, connecting things to it from different times. So in that sense, I think it can take it.”
While she’s anything but a nostalgia fiend, Björk will always pull out a couple of oldies on tour. Prior to the break, those were “Venus as a Boy” and “Isobel.”
“Once I have been working on a new album tour for a while, it becomes very easily readable, which old tunes resonate with it. All things plantlike, forests, orchids and such got a second chance this time.”
Cornucopia was directed by Björk and Lucrecia Martel, and the musician says that the collaboration worked beautifully.
“Well, I had worked on the Cornucopia show for two years nonstop, and Lucrecia was graceful enough to come into the picture when we had only five months to go to the premiere,” Björk says. “She was amazing. She really added to the curtain layers and asked us to consider more of an oil painting feeling on the digital screens…. which we took head on.”
The lockdown didn’t stop her from performing entirely, going out for some intimate Björk orchestral dates backed by members of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
“It has been the biggest treat to stay in Iceland for two years where COVID restrictions have been almost none,” she says. “And then to walk to a gig and walk back. I absolutely love it! And work, directly with acoustic musicians who a lot of them are your friends, has been very visceral, present and rewarding.”
That said, she’s looking forward to this stay in Los Angeles.
“The weather is amazing,” she says. “I have learned how to get an angle on that tricksy town through the years… and I have so many incredible friends there. Almost all of my USA friends have moved there. Seems to be an exodus from New York City.”
With an album due out in the summer, Björk is as forward-thinking as ever. It will certainly be another fascinating year from the artist. For now though, she’s keeping her aims modest.
“Swimming in a warm ocean perhaps,” she says. “I’m finishing [the new album] now, and it should probably come out in the summer. It’s always really hard for me to describe the album while I’m still making it. It isn’t until a few months later that I can look in the mirror and pretend there was a logic to it the whole time.”
Björk performs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 26, Saturday, January 29 and Tuesday, February 1 at the Shrine Auditorium.