One of the most common complaints I hear about Björk’s music is her voice.
And these complaints aren’t unfounded. Sometimes she grinds her vocal cords together. Sometimes she wails. And yes, sometimes she shrieks. But if you suspend your discomfort, you might realize how rich and true-to-life it is because it evokes the full sonic and emotional spectrum. If you've ever wondered, "Why is she screaming in her songs?" then you might ask yourself, "Why are there cymbals in an orchestra?"
In this episode I’ll explore how Björk’s vocals add texture and depth to her songs — specifically in her third studio album, Homogenic. I’ll discuss three songs from that album with my sister Marisa (who introduced me to Björk's work) to understand how her unusual vocals are integral to her music.
Savannah Wright: You’re listening to Björk Unravelled — a series that demystifies Björk’s music one piece at a time. I’m your host, Savannah Wright.
One of the most common complaints I hear about Björk’s music is her voice.
And these complaints aren’t unfounded. Sometimes she grinds her vocal cords together. Sometimes she wails. And yes, sometimes she shrieks.
Her vocal quirks even became the subject of SNL jokes. Here’s Kristin Wiig playing Björk in a skit from 2012.
Abby Elliot: Björk, how do you live such a quirky life?
Kristin Wiig: It’s easy. Take things you like and make them different. If you like swans, make them a dress. If you like screaming, make it music.
Savannah Wright: It’s not just the vocal techniques that throw you; she also breaks up words in unusual ways and puts the emphasis on whichever syllable suits her purpose. So a word like “coordinates” becomes “co-or-din-ayts.”
[“Stonemilker” 0:32 - 0:41]
And that makes her voice even more foreign to English listeners.
So I get why people take issue with her voice. It’s unusual and it takes some getting used to.
But if you suspend your discomfort, you might realize how rich and true-to-life it is because it evokes the full spectrum of emotion.
Marisa Canova: People get frustrated with her and they're like, why is she screaming her songs? And it's like, why are there cymbals in an orchestra?
Savannah Wright: That’s my sister, Marisa. She introduced me to Björk’s music.
Marisa Canova: Yeah, because it's like, why not? You know, like, because it's a sound because that sound is necessary. Like the strings are necessary. The beautiful sustained vibrato, but so is the loud crashes and bangs. And so is the really forceful push of the trumpets.
And I feel like she gets all of those qualities. Yeah, it's okay to use the full orchestra. It's okay to listen to the full orchestra, not just you know the piano. The guitar.
Savannah Wright: So in this episode I’m going to explore how Björk’s vocals add texture and depth to her songs — specifically in her third studio album, Homogenic. I’ll discuss a few songs from that album with my sister Marisa to understand why Björk’s unusual vocals are integral to her music.
Marisa Canova: I feel like her music isn't really meant to be beautiful. It is, but that's not the goal. Like the goal is to be raw and unfiltered and honest.
Savannah Wright: And through it we’ll learn why music isn’t just an aesthetic experience. It’s a visceral experience.
Homogenic, released in 1997, eschews the heterogenous mixtures of Debut and Post for a more cohesive sound.
When Björk was working on the album, she described it this way:
[South Bank Show 1:48 - 2:30]
When I did Debut and Post, they were very much like greatest hits of my musical passions for all my life. And I knew it would take two albums to do that. That’s why I called them Debut and Post: before and after. Of getting rid of the back catalogue almost, you know. Gracefully, you know. Because you can only move on if you do that, you know? So this is like a fresh start for me. And that’s why I want to call this album Homogenic or genous or geneous or whatever. I’m still working on that. Because it’s all one flavor. It’s just me now, you know here, and it’s gonna be, instead of like all these different instruments, it’s just gonna be beats, strings, and voice.
Savannah Wright: Björk wrote Homogenic after returning from London to Iceland and falling in love all over again with her home country.
Here’s what she said about the album’s inspiration in an interview for Oor: "In Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers... Very elementary and uncontrollable. But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern; everything is hi-tech. The number of people owning a computer is as high as nowhere else in the world. That contradiction is also on Homogenic. The electronic beats are the rhythm, the heartbeat. The violins create the old-fashioned atmosphere, the colouring."
[“Hunter” 1:10 - 1:30]
Homogenic is one of a handful of records to get a perfect 10 on Pitchfork. In the review Philip Sherburne suggests that this album is perfect because of Björk’s voice — not in spite of it — and that’s why I wanted to use Homogenic to discuss her vocals.
Here’s what he said: “Björk’s voice is, without question, the life force of this music... A diligent student could try to transcribe her vocals the way jazz obsessives used to notate Charlie Parker’s solos, and you’d still come up short; the physical heft and malleability of her voice outstrips language.”
[“Hunter” 1:42 - 2:00]
Björk was actually a jazz fan growing up. In fact, before Debut she recorded an album called Gling-glo with Icelandic covers of jazz standards.
As you’ve probably heard, improvisation is a key component of jazz. So when jazz vocalists improvise, it’s called scat singing. The singer improvises melodies and rhythms with wordless vocals. They use their voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium.
I actually love that Philip Sherburne brought up Charlie Parker here because you can hear that freewheeling style in one of the songs on Gling-glo. It’s called “Kata Rokkar.” Listen to this clip:
[“Kata Rokkar” 1:47 - 2:05]
It honestly reminds me of the shrieks of Parker’s alto sax in some of his solos. Like in “Constellation.”
So this may explain why Björk’s jazz vocal techniques might feel unusual for a pop song. It also might explain the way she breaks up words in unusual ways. She cares more about playing with the phonemes themselves than nailing the pronunciation.
There’s actually a funny story that her father shares in the book Björk: Wow and Flutter by Mark Pytlik that supports this idea.
[FADE IN MUSIC]
One day when Björk was a teenager, she stormed into the house looking for an English book because she needed words for some lyrics. Her dad asked, “‘Why do you need some English book — doesn’t it matter what the words are?’ And she countered, ‘I’ll take every fifth word from page 20!’”
He goes on to say: “And she did that, opened the book and took every fifth word. She said that words didn’t matter, it was the sounds. I went and heard what she was doing and she was not singing, ‘I love you,’ she was just making sounds following the instruments that were playing.’”
Björk’s musical wordplay is also one of the reasons my sister Marisa fell in love with her work.
Marisa Canova: I love words and language in general, so I love that she was appreciating the word just for its sound and not necessarily for its meaning. There wasn't a right way to say it. It was like more about the overall sound than about, let me just sing these lyrics on a page. I thought it was fun how she manipulated it.
Savannah Wright: I wanted to talk to Marisa for this series because she introduced me to Björk’s music. I remember driving around with her and listening to Homogenic. I thought it was very theatrical, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first. But as a younger sister, I decided that whatever my older sisters liked must be good.
Funny enough, that’s exactly how Marisa discovered Björk, too. Through our oldest sister: Natalie.
Marisa Canova: Because she was the one who drove the car and she chose the music. And so I listened to Björk because she put it in the CD player and loved it. I would say instantly.
[“Bachelorette” 3:35 - 3:50]
Marisa Canova: What impressed me so deeply was the sound she achieved with her vocals because it was so different from anything that I had heard. I feel like it was very raw and unrefined, but still incredible and beautiful and powerful. I was really impressed by the power behind her voice, and reflecting on it now, I, I liked that it was more of like a raw power instead of. I've heard a lot of quote unquote, powerful voices because I'm interested in musical theater and more like classically trained type singing, but it wasn't like an operatic part of power. It was just like a, just the deep unrefined, unfinished quality of power in her voice.
So, so when I think of ref like a refined power to it, I'm, I'm thinking of singers who are singing from their diaphragm and they're belting. They have this really loud sound. If you were to compare instruments, it's like, their sound is more like a string sound.
And her sound is more like a brass sound where it's pushing out the air.
[“5 Years” 2:13 - 2:31]
Marisa Canova: And I also love that I could hear not just singing in her voice, but like yelling, you know, when she's angry, yelling, screaming, kind of a growl sound to it, but also that straight non vibrato sound when she's having those big, what other people might vote, might call like a belting moment, but it sounded so different from another other kinds of singing that I had heard.
The lack of vibrato also, I think strips away, any pretense of showmanship in her voice, you know, like, Ooh, look at me. I have a nice voice, you know, and it's less about that and more about the emotional message.
Savannah Wright: Some artists sing about being fed up.
Björk grinds her vocal cords in a snarl.
Some artists sing about being sad.
Some artists sing about being frustrated.
It’s very show not tell. It can throw people off. Not Marisa.
Marisa Canova: I felt so liberated by the fact that she was going there in her emotional representation in the piece. Like, I feel like who does that? You know what I mean? Nobody does that, but that's, what's so special.
It's like, if you're. I feel like maybe people who don't like it, maybe they haven't gotten in touch with their feelings, you know, like I feel like you have to get in touch with your feelings and be okay experiencing all those feelings. And I love that. She lets you get those feelings out instead of just sticking with the normal five that I feel like you find in conventional songs. Like we are happy. We are joyful. We are sad. We are angry, but it's all like they seem a lot more controlled and she's not afraid to lose control in conveying that emotion, which is so liberating if you're experiencing it because we experience those things anyway. So you might as well let it out instead of running away from it, hiding it or calling it unacceptable.
Savannah Wright: Well everyone, it’s time to get in touch with our feelings. Let’s talk about three Homogenic songs that capture three different emotional landscapes: “Alarm Call,” “Joga,” and “Unravel.”
We’re going to start with a moment of passion and excitement: “Alarm Call.”
[“Alarm Call” 0:15 - 0:30]
I imagine Björk singing this song at the top of a mountain. She has been liberated by music and wants to share that magic with the world. I mean, listen to these lyrics:
[“Alarm Call” 0:59 - 1:24]
Björk: “I want to go on a mountain-top / With a radio and good batteries / And play a joyous tune and / Free the human race / From suffering.”
In its demo stage, this song was called “Jacko,” a supposed tribute to the anthemic songs of Michael Jackson.
In an interview with Spin after Homogenic’s release, Björk said: “I love Michael Jackson so much. He’s got a ridiculous, outrageous, stubborn faith that magic is still with us.”
So this song is offering hope, magic, and liberation. How does Björk’s voice reinforce that message?
Marisa Canova: The thing I love about "Alarm Call" is that she uses her voice in so many different ways. I feel like it's almost like an orchestra of Björk because it has the muffled Ooo sounds. And then the alarm beep beep beep beep. And then the grinding sounds and then her normal singing. So I feel like it's almost like a Björk quartet going on. So you know speaking of using her voice as an instrument, I feel like that song highlights it rather well.
Savannah Wright: We heard that grinding sound when she sang “Free the human race from suffering.”
[“Alarm Call” 1:14 - 1:24]
That sound mirrors the grit she has to overcome any obstacles in her way.
So there’s that, and her onomatopoeic background vocals. But I also love how Björk uses her voice in this song to express the inexpressible.
[“Alarm Call” 1:44 - 2:00]
Marisa Canova: And that's, what's so great about instrumental music is that it's like capturing what words can't capture. And so I feel like she kind of walks the line between those two, because she's using it. She's using her voice in both ways.
Savannah Wright: Honestly, this song makes me feel like I can take on the world, no matter how hopeless it might seem. Björk reminds us: “You can’t say no to hope / Can’t say no to happiness.”
[“Alarm Call” 1:54 - 2:02]
That line feels like a radical answer to the doom and gloom we encounter on the news every day. It reminds us that if you give in to despair, then you can’t create meaningful change. And Björk delivers this message in a radically fresh and urgent way through her vocal performance.
Ok, let’s move on to another emotional landscape. This is the song that brought us that phrase. It’s “Joga.”
[“Joga” 0:27 - 0:44]
Björk wrote this song while meandering alone through the Icelandic wilderness. It’s a tribute to her best friend (whom the song is named for) and her homeland.
Björk said: “With this song, I really had a sort of Icelandic national anthem in mind,’ she said. ‘Not the national anthem but certain classic Icelandic songs — very romantic, very proud, very patriotic. Mountains, glaciers, that kind of thing.’”
There’s this idea in Romantic literature — you know, the English literature of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Burke — called the sublime. Every writer had a different definition of what it was, but the way I understand it is that the sublime is a feeling of both pleasure and terror when you encounter a natural force much larger than yourself. Think: imposing mountains or cliffs that drop straight into the ocean.
For me, it’s fitting that she drew inspiration from mountains and glaciers for this song because here she’s emoting the awe and fear of the sublime.
You hear her fear in the opening verse. Her vocals sound breathy and rushed — like she can’t get the words out fast enough.
[“Joga” 0:25 - 0:32]
Marisa Canova: She has this little quiver in her voice when she's saying "feel," and it almost sounded to me. I felt like the quiver sounded like two things. It was almost like, because it wasn't just "feel," but it drew out the sound. It almost felt like goosebumps in the way she was singing it like the feeling, you know, how you gradually get it on your arm.
I also felt like that hesitation and, and stretching out the quiver and feel, um, reminded me of taking a deep breath when you're kind of overwhelmed by your feelings.
Savannah Wright: That fear becomes cathartic in the chorus as she sings about being in a beautiful state of emergency.
[“Joga” 0:44 - 1:00]
Marisa Canova: And the way she pushes without the sound on “state of emergency.” Um, because it really sounds like a push to me the way she gets it out. It's so cool because it's like, you, it's almost like an emotional flood bursting a dam. But it also, because the sound keeps rising and it's so sustained. It reminded me of a siren. And so that reflects back to the emergency.
Uh, and by the way, I just love how she's like “e-mergency” instead of “emergency.” I have a huge crush on that, but…
Savannah Wright: To me, the way she sings “state of emergency” sounds urgent and ascendent. And, bear with me here, the way she goes up and then down the scale on “emergency” kind of mirrors the peak of a mountain. “e-MER-gen-cy.” She goes up and then down on “see.”
[“Joga” 0:50 - 1:00]
If we just focus on the dynamics, that “emergency” line is also louder than the one after it — “is where I want to be.” It’s like taking a breath after a steep climb uphill. The way she sings these lines reinforces the message and mood of the lyrics.
[“Joga” 1:00 - 1:08]
Marisa Canova: She goes from that sustained sound. But then when she goes down on how beautiful to be and is where I want to be, you can hear this, especially on “is where I want to be.” You can kind of hear this like curl of her lips when she says it. Um, and that. In her print out the way she pronounces it. And it's almost like you can hear her smiling. It shifts the mood. It's pleasant.
[replay “Joga” 1:00 - 1:08]
Marisa Canova: I don't know how conscious any of these are, but at the same time, because she's willing to try different things as she performs the vocal, those, those differences make it make a difference. Differences, um, allow for these interpretations that I have, and I'm sure other people have many other interpretations, but it's so different from them just being like “state of emergency,” you know, just a standard singing of the song.
Savannah Wright: So in “Joga” Björk straddles two emotions: uncertainty and awe. The next song we’re going to talk about also wrestles with two extremes: despair and hope. Björk puts the irrational and rational sides of her brain in conversation with each other. The song is “Unravel.”
[“Unravel” 0:10 - 0:25]
Marisa Canova: So the first thing that I love about "Unravel" is all of the stuttering that happens in her vocals throughout the piece. Especially every time she sings “unravel.” And it's like, the stuttering is almost like that unraveling. It's like, you can feel the pull of the yarn, if that makes sense.
[Unravel 0:48 - 0:58]
Marisa Canova: I think all of her stuttering is really beautiful too, because it really highlights that vulnerability that she's experiencing.
Savannah Wright: Björk also creates tension through her breathing. She has these sharp intakes of breath like she’s trying to control her emotions even as they’re rising to the surface. You can feel the tension between sadness and composure.
[“Unravel” 0:28 - 0:48]
The song is basically one big loop. It starts with Björk singing about how her heart unravels when her beloved is away. The fear and anguish builds in the pre-chorus when she sings about the devil taking away their love. It crests in the chorus when Björk simultaneously mourns their lost love and assures herself that it can be recreated. And then it goes back to the verse again.
Unravel [1:12 - 1:32]
Marisa Canova: It's almost illustrating a conflict between her heart and her mind where her heart is the “he'll never return it.” That really forceful, frustrated, desperate part of her. And then her mind is like. The rational thought is like calming her down. Like we'll have to, he'll have to come back. We'll have to make new love if that makes sense. And then at the end, you end on that note. And so it's like, she finally won the battle over her, her negative emotions and that struggle she was experiencing.
Savannah Wright: Anyone who has been in a long-distance relationship has felt this — whether they admit it or not. Being with the person reassures you that what you have is real. But every time that person leaves, the uncertainty creeps back. Your mind might turn to worst-case scenarios like Björk’s mournful cry: “He’ll never return it.”
[“Unravel” 2:36 - 2:55]
While Björk does end on the line “We’ll have to make new love,” the song doesn’t have a definitive ending. It just fades out. So this is a process she will undergo over and over again every time her beloved is gone.
Now, I actually have one more song I wanted to mention. It’s not one I was originally going to cover, but Marisa brought it up and I think it’s a good example of a Björk deep cut. I don’t expect you all to be there now, but it’s where I hope you’ll be at the end of this series. The song is “Pluto.”
[“Pluto” 0:40 - 0:55]
Marisa Canova: I love it because it's capturing those hard emotions. Like I talked about at the beginning, I seriously feel each and every ooh in that song. There's like hardly any lyrics, but there's so much like, Ooh, like kind of a groaning quality. It's just like all the pain and frustration in life that makes you want to scream. It's like those moments in life where you're just like, Ahh! But she does it in a song! It's so brilliant.
And so it's really cathartic to sing along with her. I also just really like the harshness in her vocal sound, because it almost reminds me. I feel like it almost mimics when you have a string instrument and you take the bow and you play too close to the bridge. It has that gritty rough kind of painful sound to it.
It's really uncomfortable to listen to, but that's what's so brilliant about it is that it reflects that discomfort she feels in her own skin.
And I love the fact that it ends with a scream.
[“Pluto” 2:20 - 2:30]
It's just like finally we’re like beyond words. We're just like, Ah! So I guess that, yeah. That's not something that, uh, you would start with, but once you've gotten into Björk more, you can appreciate it a little more.
Once you actually, uh, feel comfortable exploring all of your feelings instead of, you know, instead of the acceptable five
Savannah Wright: I know I’m asking a lot of you. I’m asking you to listen to an artist whose music can be jarring and unpleasant. I’m asking you to do this when you have the entire library of recorded music available at your fingertips. You could be listening to the soothing balm of Ella Fitzgerald or the dulcet tones of Harry Styles.
Why should you take the time to explore and appreciate a vocalist who wails and groans and even screams?
Marisa Canova: I feel like her music, it can be intense and brooding, obviously with some of the ones we've talked about. I feel like her music is also very playful. And instead of being like, that's so weird the way she said that, I'm like, that is so interesting and delightful, you know, or that cracks me up. Whether or not she meant to make it funny. Probably some of the things I think are funny or not funny to her, but at the same time, it's, it's funny for me because it's entertaining and because it's different, so yeah, allow yourself to have fun.
I always think of what's “It's Oh So Quiet.”
[“It’s Oh So Quiet” 0:42 - 0:57]
I feel like that's the one where I think it's so delightful and playful, but then I played it for other people and they're like, why is she screaming?
I'm like, because she's in love! And she has an excess of emotion of excitement. Like, why not scream if you're in love? What's the problem? What's the real problem with screaming If you're in love? Have you ever been in love? You know, like it's okay to feel a lot and and to be silly and kind of loud about it.
[“It’s Oh So Quiet” final line]
I feel a very deep physical reaction to her music. And I think if you take the time to feel, instead of just having a moment where your ears are enjoying the music, it's like your whole body can enjoy the music. You can feel it. Throughout your whole body. I have a very, it has like a very visceral quality to it. And I don't think I've ever listened to anybody else who achieves that like full body kind of experience of music the way I feel when I listen to her music.
Savannah Wright: So far we’ve talked a lot about how Björk conveys messages in her music, but we haven’t spent enough time examining what she’s saying. In the next episode, we’ll dive into the soundtrack Björk wrote for the film Dancer in the Dark and uncover her brilliance as a storyteller.
You’ve been listening to Björk Unravelled, a series that demystifies Björk’s music — one piece at a time. Björk Unravelled is produced independently by me, Savannah Wright. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend and submit a review on whatever podcast app you’re using. Share your thoughts with me on Facebook and Instagram at Björk Unravelled.
You’ll find a new episode in your feeds every other Thursday. Thanks for listening.