bjork-2001-st-john-smith-square-03.jpg

EPISODE 5

The past few years have been big for women in the entertainment industry. One sector that remains fairly stagnant, though, is music production. It’s still very much a boys’ club. In fact, a 2018 USC Annenberg study revealed that only 2 percent of music producers and 3 percent of audio engineers are women.
But if you think it’s tough now, imagine what it was like 20 or 30 years ago — when Björk was making music. Although she took a very active role in producing her records, she often didn't receive full credit for her work.
That’s why I want to spend some time with a record that shows Björk's painstaking attention to detail as a producer: Vespertine. My sister Natalie and I will examine it in detail to show why Björk isn’t just a talented vocalist or composer, but a pioneer in music production.

 
 

TRANSCRIPT

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.


The past few years have been big for women in the entertainment industry.


One sector that remains fairly stagnant, though, is music production. It’s still very much a boys’ club. In fact, a 2018 USC Annenberg study revealed that only 2 percent of music producers and 3 percent of audio engineers are women. 


But if you think it’s tough now, imagine what it was like 20 or 30 years ago — when Björk was making music.


Well, even then Björk took a very active role in producing her records. In fact, she is listed as a producer for every studio album she’s made — including Debut. And she had to fight for her role. Here’s what she said about it in a 2015 interview with Pitchfork:


“It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times... I’ve been guilty of one thing: After being the only girl in bands for 10 years, I learned—the hard way—that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they—men—had the ideas.”


The downside to playing that game, though, was that Björk didn’t always get recognition for her work. Critics praised her producers for the sounds on her albums, when it was Björk who did the heavy lifting. Here’s what she said about that:


“I have nothing against Kanye West. Help me with this—I’m not dissing him—this is about how people talk about him. With the last album he did, [Yeezus], he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second. If whatever I’m saying to you now helps women, I’m up for saying it. For example, I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats—it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. 


“Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album. [Matmos’] Drew [Daniel] is a close friend of mine, and in every single interview he did, he corrected it. And they don’t even listen to him. It really is strange.”


Natalie Scheuller: I can see how frustrating that would be for her because. I also think upon repeat listens of this album. It's so clear how personal the content is to her. 


Savannah Wright: That’s my sister, Natalie. She introduced Björk’s music to Marisa, who in turn shared it with me. Here Natalie is talking about Vespertine.


Natalie Scheuller: There's such a strong, um, like feminine theme throughout the album. I mean, she really it's so personal. It's so intimate, but also it's really just like celebrating her own feelings, even, you know, certain tracks her own sexuality as well.


Savannah Wright: In the past, Björk didn’t receive full credit for the production she did on her albums. That’s why I want to spend some time with the record Björk mentioned: Vespertine. Natalie and I will examine it in detail to show why Björk isn’t just a talented vocalist or composer, but a pioneer in music production. 


[MUSIC TRANSITION]


Before we dive in, it’s worth getting clear on what I mean when I say “producer” and how it’s different from songwriting or performance. Some artists, like Björk, write and produce their own songs. Other artists come to the studio with a few ideas and work with a producer who helps the artist bring those ideas to life. 


A useful comparison is with film. Think of the songwriter as the screenwriter and the music producer as the film director. Some directors write and direct their own films, but most work with screenwriters to bring a story to the big screen.


Just like a film director, the music producer directs the overall creative process. They make key technical and aesthetic decisions that make the work what it is. So if we want to analyze Björk’s role as a producer, we should look at everything from the vocal arrangements to the instrumentation and even the way the song is mixed. Because she played a role in all of it.


So, let’s talk about Vespertine.


[“Cocoon” 0:00 - 0:20]


Björk started writing the album while she was filming Dancer in the Dark. Because filming demanded her to be extroverted, Björk found relief making music in solitude. The music she wrote was peaceful and subdued, as if to counteract the drama on set. 


During this period, Björk also fell in love. She met American artist Matthew Barney, whom she would later marry and have a daughter with. So the idea of building a home where she could escape with her lover became a central theme of the album. 


[“Cocoon” 1:45 - 2:10]


In fact, one of the working titles of this record was “Domestika” to reflect that sense of making magic within the home. She later changed it to Vespertine to evoke the creation of magic through powerful forces that come out at night.


In a documentary about the album, Björk explained that Vespertine is the exact opposite of Homogenic. While the character of Homogenic is out in nature and extroverted, Vespertine’s character is a homebody, an introvert. 


And the sounds used in Vespertine reflect this domestic setting.


[Miniscule documentary 1 8:07 - 8:55]
Björk: When I did Homogenic, it was all about boosting things up and be extra extra extra large and extra attention seeking. We ended up finding almost always one beat per song. So just one big beat. That’s all you need. And in Vespertine it was sort of the opposite. You had the tiniest beat in the world, and then you couldn’t stop there. You had to sort of make a microcosmos of 30 or 40 beats interacting…


Savannah Wright: These microbeats are subtle repetitive noises that underlay a track. So instead of the big thumping beat you heard in Homogenic—


[“Hunter” intro]


You hear small beats layered on top of each other.


[“It’s Not Up To You” intro]


Björk’s microbeats were made by recording everyday noises you’d find or make around the house. Ice cracking. Wood tapping. Even the sound of shuffling cards.


She composed the bones of these songs in her home studio with her laptop. And she mixed the beats using her headphones, so she could hear the tiniest sounds. It’s really an album that’s meant to be enjoyed with headphones. In solitude.


And because this was 2001, she also made a point to choose instruments that retained their richness when downloaded over the Internet. She said:


“I use micro-beats, a lot of whispery vocals, which I think sound amazing when they're downloaded because of the secrecy of the medium. The only acoustic instruments I would use would be those that sound good after they've been downloaded, so the harp, the music box, celeste and clavichord. They're plucky sounds. [...] And the strings [...] ended up being more panoramic textures in the background.” 


[“Undo” 0:00 - 0:20]


Once Björk had completed about 80% of the album, she brought on the electronic duo Matmos to add what she calls “acrobatics.” This was her first time composing on a laptop, and she felt like some of the songs sounded too wooden. So Matmos added their stamp to the album after that. But it’s important to note that half of the songs on Vespertine were written and produced solely by Björk — “Hidden Place,” “It’s Not Up To You,” “Pagan Poetry,” “Frosti,” “Aurora,” and “Unison.” 


That’s remarkable considering how collaborative electronic and pop music typically is. I mean if you look at any pop song on the top 100 today, you’ll see a list of five to ten songwriters (including producers) behind every hit. I actually looked it up and the average number of songwriters for the top 10 streaming hits of 2018 in the U.S. was 9.1, according to Music Business Weekly. And that 9.1 figure is a little misleading because there are some songs on the high end, like Drake’s “In My Feelings” with 16 credited songwriters. When you take out that song, and a few other outliers, the average is actually 5.6. But still, that’s a lot.


I could say a lot about each of the tracks on this album, but we’re going to focus instead on three of the songs Björk produced by herself — “Hidden Place,” “Aurora,” and “Pagan Poetry.”


Let’s start with the first track on Vespertine: “Hidden Place.”


[“Hidden Place” 0:10 - 0:30]


On her website, Björk wrote: “'Hidden Place' is sort of about how two people can create a paradise just by uniting. You've got an emotional location that's mutual. And it's unbreakable. And obviously it's make-believe. So, you could argue that it doesn't exist because it's invisible, but of course it does.”


Natalie Scheuller: So this song for me is all about contrast. 


Savannah Wright: Here’s my sister Natalie again.


Natalie Scheuller: I really love how you have these like pulsating microbeats, right from the beginning that gives you this sense of urgency in the track, and then combined with these choral voices and they're female voices. And that's what through the album itself, not just on this track, but so much female energy in like a really beautiful way.


[“Hidden Place” 0:47 - 1:03]


Savannah Wright: That female choir Natalie mentions plays a big role throughout the record. For the live performance of the Vespertine tour, Björk actually assembled a choir of Inuit women from Greenland. The live set was sparse: just music boxes, harp, electronic mixing boards, and the choir. So that shows just how integral the choir was to performing these songs.


But Natalie also mentions the female energy of the album, and that’s something Björk explores in the lyrics of Vespertine. They foreground Björk’s perspective of her sexual experiences with a new lover. And hearing those experiences sung by a woman, even at the turn of the 21st century, was pretty radical.


You’ll notice that eroticism most in the song “Cocoon,” but you still find hints of it in “Hidden Place” when Björk sings about wanting to “hide in the air” of her lover. 


[Hidden Place 3:50 - 4:05]


Her vocal performance on this track, like most songs on Vespertine, is more subdued. She sings in whispers to complement the intimacy and secrecy of the song’s message. But as Natalie points out, Björk’s soft vocals also give greater room for other parts of the music to shine.


Natalie Scheuller: I mean, she doesn't really even have like a major vocal climax on this track the way she typically does, but you hear these soaring climaxes in the choral background voices, and you hear it in the urgency of the microbeats.


[Hidden Place 2:21 - 2:40]


Savannah Wright: Like Natalie said, the climax is off-centered. That’s another 180 from Homogenic, where Björk belts and growls and screams. In the Miniscule documentary, Björk said that this tone shift was intentional.


[Miniscule documentary 5:40 - 6:15

Björk: I was for the first time in my life very interested in emotional peaks that are very very quiet because I guess I’m the sort of character that always was fascinated by very volcanic explosive kind of emotional range and sharp peaks. That more is better. Suddenly, the complete opposite became very curious to me.


Savannah Wright: Björk is using the same juxtaposition of classical and electronic music as she did in Homogenic — but to very different effect. The beats are softer, and in place of the strings we have celestial voices. 


For me, that mismatch of the classical with the electronic, and the celestial choir with the worldly microbeats, feels like crossing a threshold into a new world. It makes sense because this is a make-believe world Björk is singing about.


Natalie Scheuller: It feels like she's very protective of this hidden place.

And that's how I feel like when we were talking earlier about self production and how this project was so monumental for her in doing so much of it herself. I mean, I feel that in the tracks, like she's really protecting herself, protecting this love, protecting this relationship and. You feel that as you're listening to the song, I remember I would just be walking on campus, listening to the song and it was almost like I was walking and I felt like I had this secret as I was walking. Cause it's just so evocative in that way. It was really, really cool. 


[“Hidden Place” 1:18 - 1:40] 


Savannah Wright: That feeling of secrecy? Completely intentional. Here’s Björk talking about her guiding principle for creating the microbeats.


[Miniscule documentary 9:14 - 9:52]

Björk: Sort of the key to what we were looking for was taking something very very tiny and magnifying it up to big. And it sort of gave you a sensation that you’d been told a secret. The same way as if you see a picture of a cell in the body magnified very big. You sort of. You get this feeling that you’re being trusted with some inside information.


Savannah Wright: One of my favorite microbeats on the album is actually in the next song I want to discuss: “Aurora.”


[“Frosti” transition to “Aurora”]


Natalie Scheuller: I mean, It begins with those bells coming off the previous track. So the previous track is just like a short, instrumental track called “Frosti.” And it's just this chorus of bells and it's such a beautiful melody. 


[“Aurora” 0:07 - 0:17]


Savannah Wright: Behind those bells you hear this glitchy, crunching noise. 


Can you guess what that is?


[“Aurora” 0:15 - 0:27]


So, this beat is actually Matmos’s doing. It’s a sample of Björk’s footprints in freshly fallen snow. It’s the literal element of the winter soundscape she sought to create with Vespertine.


But I love that she uses it in this track because when I think of Aurora, I think of the goddess of dawn, yes, but I also think of the Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights. It comes out in the winter — at night. Which is perfect because of the album’s name, Vespertine, meaning “that which comes out at night.”


And then on top of that, she sings about snow in the last verse:


[“Aurora” final verse 2:48 - 3:06]
I tumble down on my knees / Fill the mouth with snow…


Savannah Wright: So you have the sound of crunching snow, the wintry title, and the lyrics about snow all layered together. Ugh, so much symbolism. I love it. 


And the heavenly imagery doesn’t stop there. Let’s talk about the chorus.


[“Aurora” 1:46 - 2:04]


Natalie Scheuller: And it's not even so much about the lyrics in the chorus. It's just about like that ascending series of ah's, which is so, so beautiful. Um, and I love that it's slower and it's quieter. Um, I love how it's less driven by beats this track, but it's accented by them in a really um, powerful way, but I like that it's a little more melodic. And I think it sounds heavenly this track. And it's a really unique track in terms of her whole discography as well.

I think it’s unique to a lot of her tracks because her, her tracks have these moments of intense beauty, but then it's like sometimes this harshness as well. And she, she juxtaposes like so many different emotions on her tracks, but this one I love just for the pure beauty of it. 


[“Aurora” 2:04 - 2:18]


Savannah Wright: “Aurora” occurs in the latter half of the album. It’s right after “Frosti” which I think of as the intermission.


The track before “Frosti” is “Pagan Poetry.” I think of it as the climax of the first act. 


I saved it for last because I kind of want to go out on a bang, you know?


Anyway, “Pagan Poetry” features one of the other key musical components of this album. So far we’ve talked about the choir, the microbeats, and the harp. This song features the music box.


[“Pagan Poetry” 0:00 - 0:10]


Because Björk is a picky producer, she commissioned a custom instrument for Vespertine. According to her, the music box company was not very excited in the beginning. She said:


"They'd made wooden boxes for eons and I wanted see-through plexiglass. They couldn't get their head round it - they were like 'Why?' They wanted to make the plonky sound softer with wood but I wanted it as hard as possible, like it was frozen. In the end, they said it was the best thing they'd ever done". 


The perfect addition to her winter soundscape.


Here’s Natalie again:


Natalie Scheuller: I love the kind of lyrical theme of “Pagan Poetry” as well. Like just the secrecy. Again, she says like “on the surface simplicity,” but then just like her music, you, you get into it and there's all these different layers to look at, even though it may appear simple on the surface. 


Savannah Wright: Let’s see how Björk’s production complements that message of complexity.


“Pagan Poetry” begins with a flourish from the music box and then launches into this lurching bass line and insistent harp melody. 


[“Pagan Poetry” 0:00 - 0:18]


After that, it builds layer by layer, adding new sounds with each movement.


The music box returns, along with Björk’s background vocals.


[“Pagan Poetry” 0:45 - 0:55]


And here’s something I didn’t even notice, but Natalie pointed it out.


Natalie Scheuller: There's a part in the song where she talks about morse coded signals and you hear these subtle little beeps,


[“Pagan Poetry” 2:28 - 2:40]


Natalie Scheuller: Um, and it doesn't distract you from the melody, but it's just so, um, careful the way that she really evokes that lyric by adding those little beeps of morse code.


Savannah Wright: Amazing. That verse is a brief break in the tension, but then she sings about being woken up from her hibernating. And, right on cue, Björk’s vocals become more... Homogenic-like.


[“Pagan Poetry” 3:20 - 3:34]


This building tension finally releases at the song’s climax — when the instruments completely drop out and you only hear Björk’s whispery vocals.


[“Pagan Poetry” 3:50 - 4:10]


Natalie Scheuller: I've grown to love this track a lot more over time. I was almost embarrassed by it the way she would say I love him over and over again at the end. I was like, okay, Björk, I get it. Um, but now I really like that because I think the contrast from the end of this track till kind of the climax in the middle is it really helps to kind of center it and balance it. Um, cause it does start quiet and so, you know, it kind of builds and then it recedes. 


Um, but it's interesting because I feel like it's this internal struggle she's having throughout this track. Like struggling with her emotions and like trying to figure out, you know, what she wants and trying to really maximize that feeling of what she wants.


And then she just acknowledges, like, “I love him” and “but this time, I'm going to keep it to myself.” And then the music imitates that it becomes more secret after that line and it becomes more subdued and it kind of shrinks. 


[“Pagan Poetry” 4:56 - 5:09]


Savannah Wright: For me, this is the most powerful emotional peak on the track. And the fact that it’s completely a cappella speaks to how masterfully Björk accomplished that “quiet emotional peak” objective she set for this album. She shows us that she can express herself in a multitude of ways. Not just in loud anthems like with Post or Homogenic. She really can do it all.


And for people who can’t handle the fiery intensity of her earlier albums, Vespertine provides a cooler, more accessible door into the Björk universe.


Natalie Scheuller: I suggested to a lot of my friends to start with the Vespertine album, um, because it's not as dramatic and you know, it has these dramatic moments, but it also has these softer moments. And I think it was less off putting to some people. I mean, I know some people specifically her delivery to them is just like so out there.


And I think there's less of that on this album. So I think that, and I don't think it's a sacrifice. I don't think that Björk and I don't mean to imply that she's like toning it down. I think she's just simply showing us a different side of herself. Um, so I do think this album, if you're going to start somewhere, I personally consider it to be one of the most accessible, because it's not as out there and in your face and making such a bold statement with every single track.


[MUSIC TRANSITION]


Re-listening to and learning about Vespertine helped me appreciate Björk’s production on another level. When I first heard the record, I wasn’t that into it. I wanted to like it because I had heard rave reviews from both Natalie and Marisa, but I only connected with a few songs.


Reflecting on it now, I know I didn’t give it the attention it deserves.


Natalie mentioned that this is a softer album for Björk, and she told me that she often recommended it to friends as study music. There’s of course nothing wrong with listening to this album while doing something else, whether it’s studying or cooking or driving... 


But at some point, you need to give it the time and attention it deserves. You need to listen to this album at least once through by yourself with a good pair of headphones.


That’s the only way you can break through that surface of simplicity, that veneer of “oh these songs could make good study beats,” and appreciate every detail. 


Björk compared the production of Vespertine to an embroidery piece. The attention she gave to each sound was painstaking — and it’s all her own.


So when you listen to Vespertine, go the extra mile. Grab your headphones, close your eyes, and really pay attention. 


There’s a world of beauty in the smallest details.


[MUSIC]


So far we’ve talked about how Björk’s work is purely her own. And because she writes and produces most of her songs, that’s a reasonable lens. But to understand Björk’s full discography, we have to consider the work she’s done with other producers and artists. In the next episode, we’ll explore two collaborations she did with two very different artists: Timbaland and serpentwithfeet.


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.