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EPISODE 6

Over the years Björk has done collaborations with well-known (and obscure) musicians. What’s worth exploring about these collaborations is her approach. She obviously has a clear vision of what she wants, but she’s skilled at balancing it with artists who have equally strong ideas. In an interview with Jefferson Hack in 2017, he asked Björk if her collaborative spirit stems from her punk rock origins. She said that it might, but she’s also found that the key to successful collaborations is taking care of your individual creative goals. Because once you feel secure about your own vision, you can feel open to another artist’s perspective.  She described this idea as "1 + 1 = 3" — basically if both artists find common ground, they can create something greater than their two halves.  So in this episode we’re going to explore that equation through a few of my favorite collaborations Björk has done. Ones that I think will appeal to all kinds of listeners.

 
 

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.


Over the years Björk has done collaborations with well-known (and obscure) musicians. 


Some are kind of bizarre, like her cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” with PJ Harvey.


[“Satisfaction” clip]


Some that are sweeping and majestic, like her collaboration with James Bond composer David Arnold.


[“Play Dead”]


And some that are unmistakably… Björk.


[“Ancestors” from Medulla]


That, by the way, was a duet with Canadian Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq on Björk’s album Medulla. (The only Björk album I’m not covering in this series because honestly… I haven’t clicked with it yet.)


What’s worth exploring about these collaborations is Björk’s approach. She obviously has a clear vision of what she wants, but she’s skilled at balancing it with artists who have equally strong visions. 


In an interview with Jefferson Hack in 2017, he asked Björk if her collaborative spirit stems from her punk rock origins. She said that it might, but she’s also found that the key to successful collaborations is taking care of your individual creative goals. Because once you feel secure about your own vision, you can feel open to another artist’s perspective. 


[Nowness interview 28:50 - 29:36] 

Björk: You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. Maybe they can coexist. And that chamber of yourself that writes the script or writes the poetry or walks alone outside and writes melodies or writes that novel, you know that sort of solitaire side of you. You can feed that and then you can go and be very collaborative. And then if it works very well to be collaborative, I mean you drop your ego and you are very sort of. You heal and you make a flow and it’s something, 1 + 1 is 3. You know it’s more than what you would have done on your own. Then you can go back in the other’s space, you know. So I would say you don’t have to choose, if I had to say anything. You can do both.


Savannah Wright: I really like this idea of 1 + 1 = 3. I feel like there’s all these horror stories of two artists, whatever the medium, trying to collaborate and just butting heads because they don’t want to compromise. The equation for that collaboration would be 1 + 1 = 0.5. 


Instead, Björk argues that if both artists find common ground, they can create something greater than their two halves. 


So in this episode we’re going to explore that equation of 1 + 1 = 3 through a few of my favorite collaborations she’s done. Ones that I think will appeal to all kinds of listeners. And to be fair, she collaborated with a lot of brilliant musicians — not to mention visual artists for her music videos — but I’m only going to talk about three of them here: Timbaland, Arca, and serpentwithfeet.


[MUSIC TRANSITION]


Let’s start in 2007 with a collab she did with Timbaland called “Earth Intruders.” It’s the opening song off her album Volta, and it’s actually Björk’s highest charting single in the U.S. to date. So if you haven’t liked a single song I’ve explored so far, maybe this will be the one.


[“Earth Intruders” intro]


“Earth Intruders” was co-produced by Timbaland and his protégé Danja. If you listened to the radio at all between the years 2006 and 2010, you know who Timabland is. He produced a ton of hit singles during this period like “Promiscuous” by Nelly Furtado 


[“Promiscuous” clip]


as well as Justin Timberlake’s iconic album Future Sex/Love Sounds. 


[“SexyBack” clip]


Timbaland met Björk back in the ‘90s when he sampled “Joga” for Missy Elliott’s “Hit 'Em Wit' Da Hee.” 


When Timbaland announced he was working with Björk on Volta, some critics speculated that this would be her hip hop album, her most commercial yet. After all, everything Timbaland touched in the 2000’s seemed to hit the Billboard 100. 


But Björk put those rumors to bed. She said she wasn’t working with Timbaland as a “hitmaker” or because of his affiliation with R&B or hip hop. She wanted to work with him as a musician in his own right. As with any other collaboration, she wanted to find common ground so they could make something greater than the sum of their musical parts.


[Volta podcast, part 2 3:06 - 3:51]

Björk: I think afterwards looking back on what we did together I think maybe after sort of having mutual admiration over a period, over ten years. By the time we actually got into the studio together we sort of. Maybe we sort of knew a little bit what area. Even though we’re really really different, opposite musicians. Like what area we actually share, which is very very very very small but there actually is an area though. And maybe it’s speculation that it’s our love for the Silk Road, you know? Of North African rhythms and Pakistan and India. And he’s obviously sampled a lot of music from that area.


Savannah Wright: Even though they shared only a narrow overlap of musical interests, they made it work. Let’s look at which elements of the song bear the stamp of Björk, Timbaland… or both.


First, quick disclaimer: there were other collaborators on this track — including Timbaland’s protege Danja, Congolese ensemble Konono N°1, and experimental American percussionist Chris Corsano. They obviously brought their own musical styles and perspectives to the table. But I’m keeping it simple by focusing just on Timbaland and Björk.


I want to see this equation of 1 + 1 = 3 in action, so I’m going to examine some features of the song to show how they create “something greater” than Björk and Timbaland do on their own.


Number one. The song starts with this rhythmic, marching loop. It sounds like people stomping through mud. 


[“Earth Intruders” 0:00 - 0:10] 


This one feels like Björk, and I’ll tell you why: there are actually two Björk songs that start the same way: “Aurora” from Vespertine. 


[“Aurora” 0:00 - 0:08]


and “107 steps” from Selmasongs.


[“107 steps” 0:00 - 0:08]


Now let’s talk about the breakbeat that enters next.


[“Earth Intruders” 0:15 - 0:20]


You might think this was Timbaland’s, but here I think we’re entering that Björk/Timbaland overlap.


If you didn’t know, breakbeats are a repeated sample of a drumbeat. They became the foundation of hip hop music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but they’ve also been used in EDM and pop songs. 


Timbaland is known for his danceable beats and for experimenting with world instruments. While most breakbeats are samples from snare and hi hat drum solos, Timbaland’s beats often draw on more robust sounds. 


Here’s an example in the song “Give it to Me” from his album Shock Value: 


[“Give it to Me” 0:08 - 0:20]


And Björk also uses breakbeats. While most of the beats we’ve looked at so far are from synths, she has used drum breaks like the one in “Earth Intruders.” Here’s an example in “I Miss You” from Post:


[“I Miss You” 0:47 - 0:55]


Ok, number three. There’s this glitchy sound that comes in on the off beat around the 1 minute 30 second mark. 


[“Earth Intruders” 1:26 - 1:34]


This sounds like Timbaland to me. When I heard this sound, I immediately thought of the “yeah” in “SexyBack.”


[“SexyBack” 0:15 - 0:22]


That one comes in between the 3rd and 4th beat. 1 and 2 and 3 “yeah” 4 and. 


With “Earth Intruders,” it comes in after the 4th beat. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 “whoa”.


So, as you hear, there are parts that sound distinctly Timbaland or Björk, but there are also features that both artists share. Which brings this song to a new sound that neither would have achieved on their own.


I’m not going to talk about the rest of Volta here simply because it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others we’ve discussed so far. But I do think it’s a solid entry point if you want to start with an entire album. 


After all, Volta became Björk’s first and only album to crack the top ten on America's Billboard 200, peaking at number nine. A lot of critics hailed it as a return to the art pop sound of Post and Debut — though Björk maintained that it wasn’t any more commercial than her previous work. But come on, Medulla?


[“Ancestors” clip]


Ok, I want to jump forward in time about 10 years. We’re now in 2017 and Björk is releasing her ninth studio album: Utopia. 


Björk called Utopia her Tinder album — which makes it sound a lot juicer than it actually is. Really she said that because she was opening herself back up to love after a bitter divorce, which she sang about in her previous record Vulnicura. 


Remember that transition from celestial strings on Vespertine to dirty strings and brass on Volta? In Utopia, Björk is playing with yet another section of the orchestra: woodwinds.


[Nowness interview 20:54 - 21:09] 

Björk: So the whole album is a little bit about air because it’s sort of. We decided to have synths that have a lot of air sounds in them and flutes that sound synthy, so it’s that sort of crossover there. 


Savannah Wright: To create this airy atmosphere, she created an ensemble of Icelandic flute players and also did some field recordings of bird calls. And what’s sweet about Björk using all these flutes is that the flute was Björk’s first instrument as a child. So it’s like she’s returning to her core self after the heartbreak and fragmentation of Vulnicura.


[“Utopia” 0:30 - 0:45]


Björk has worked with acclaimed producers on all of her albums, but Utopia was most collaborative of all. Instead of having someone come in at the end to add the “sparkle,” Björk asked Arca to create the record with her in equal partnership. 


Arca is an accomplished electronic producer from Venezuela who has also worked with Kanye West on Yeezus and FKA Twigs on EP2. 


[“Time” by Arca 1:15 - 1:30]


When Björk was wrapping up Vulnicura, she asked Arca to work her magic on the songs Björk had already written. But for Utopia, Björk wanted Arca to complete the entire production process with her.


I’m going to play a clip from an interview she did with Jefferson Hack, but before I do I want to note that Arca came out as non-binary in 2018 —  which is after this interview took place. So when Björk uses the he/him pronouns and calls Arca Alejandro, that’s why. Arca has said that she identifies as a trans woman, and goes by she/her and it/its pronouns, so I’ll be using those.


Here’s a clip of Björk describing how she and Arca started working on Utopia:


[Nowness interview 19:19 - 20:02] 

Björk: I also felt as a musician, I obviously saw a gigantic musician in him and I felt that he had gone into my world and with such elegance and dignity and interpreted it, helped me with what was there, that I wanted to meet like. Let’s meet on a more equal basis. And of course it’s my album for sure. And he makes his albums and they have his name on it, but as just as a pure musician we decided to enter this other world and this other island which is the sort of Arca/Björk overlap.


Savannah Wright: In the liner notes of Utopia, Björk is credited for vocals, digital flute, flute arrangements, vocal arrangements, choir arrangements, and cello arrangements. Arca, meanwhile, is credited for electronics, synth melodies, and beats. 


But instead of trying to match features to artists like before, I want to examine how their two perspectives complement and enhance one another. I want to find that “Björk/Arca” overlap that she mentioned. So let’s take a listen to the opening track of Utopia: “Arisen My Senses.”


[“Arisen My Senses” 0:29 - 0:45]


Björk explained the story behind “Arisen My Senses” in an interview with Factmag:


“Because it was such dark subject matter with Vulnicura, we were definitely keen on lightness. I guess we’d just been listening non-stop for two years to really grim lyrics and rough string arrangements. And when you’ve been at the bottom of the lake for so long… eventually you’re going to float up to the surface. It’s like physics. So I was really excited by things really fluffy and airy and floating and, like, fireworks!


“I actually found a loop of a mixtape or a SoundCloud thing that [Arca] had done three years prior. I just thought it was the most happiest firework that he’d ever done.” 


[“Little Now A Lot” 0:00 - 0:10]


“I didn’t tell him about it – I just sampled it, sang it to him and he just exploded, you know? I wasn’t really conscious of what I was doing. I was reaching for the most euphoric, antigravity moment that he’d done, and then I exaggerated that by looping it and writing a harp arrangement around it and singing on top of it these ecstatic lyrics. After we’d taken the saddest coordinates of each other and combined them into Vulnicura, we were doing the opposite now. And that was kinda the starting point.”


[“Arisen My Senses” 1:05 - 1:20] 


So she started with Arca’s firework of sound idea and then made it her own — by transposing it to the harp. She’s taking a moment of lightness from Arca’s work and using it here to express the internal explosion you feel when you’re falling in love.


This song has such a beautiful build. She keeps adding more vocal layers, and Arca keeps adding those hi-hats that you usually hear in trap music. It epitomizes that overwhelming sensation of a first kiss with someone you’re enamored with. Your thoughts are racing, which Björk’s vocals capture, but there are also feelings you can’t put into words, which the harps capture. And even the stuttering of your heart, which the hi-hats reflect.


[“Arisen My Senses” 1:31 - 1:45]


I also love the juxtaposition between the soft harp and the gritty hi-hats. I would have never put them in the same song, but the way Björk and Arca use them here evoke that feeling of airiness Björk wanted.


[“Arisen My Senses” 3:40 - 3:50]


What sets this collaboration apart from Björk’s work with Timbaland is not only the roles Arca and Björk played as equal partners, but also that they found common ground in a feeling —and  not just a musical style. Of course, Björk and Arca share a love of beats; Björk has made them a part of nearly every record. But the goal was to explore where and how they find joy, and to translate that together into music.


There’s another unusual aspect of the Björk and Arca collaboration that’s worth mentioning: Arca is actually 24 years her junior. Of course Arca is undeniably talented, but she also grew up as a fan of Björk.


So when Björk gave Arca the opportunity to co-produce this record, she didn’t just collaborate with Arca; she elevated her. As her equal.


I try to imagine some other big artist collaborating with a younger producer, and I can’t help but think a lot of them would be slightly patronizing. Like, they would make it about themselves and how they were so generous to bring on a fan. But that’s not Björk. She’s never been that way.


In fact, Björk has a notable track record of mentoring and elevating younger artists. In 1998 she founded her own record label called Ear Records. Though it was short-lived, it allowed Björk to promote the music of her long-time friend Magga Stina.


And remember the Inuit throat singer Tagaq, who I mentioned at the top of the episode? That song they did together was later featured on Tagaq’s solo album.


Another example is Leila Arab, an electronic producer from Iran. 


[Leila Arab song clip]


Björk recruited her to play keyboards while on tour promoting Debut. Leila was hesitant to join because she had never played for huge crowds before. But Björk insisted and even gave her the opportunity to experiment with live output mixing in her next tour for Post. 


That experience became the basis for Leila’s solo music career, where she integrated live mixing into her own songs and performances. She ended up releasing three international solo albums.


And it was Leila who introduced Björk to the next collaborator I’ll talk about: serpentwithfeet.


[“Blissing Me” remix 1:20]


In an interview with The Guardian Guide, Björk shared the story of her meeting Josiah Wise, the man behind serpentwithfeet.


“We hung out a lot in Brooklyn and he took me to a gospel church, and stood in the audience with me. I was gonna be really cool and standoffish, being the agnostic person I am when it comes to religion, but in three minutes I was singing along with him to songs I’d never heard before at the top of my lungs. He’s so talented and so warm and flowing, there’s no stifled or stagnant energy in him.” 


Little did she know, but Josiah was actually a huge fan of hers. In an interview with Dazed & confused, he addressed her influence on him:


“Your work has been a relentless compass for me through the years. Your words have given so many of us the real estate to be piercingly honest. ‘Unravel’, ‘Hyperballad’ and ‘Lionsong‘ are just a few Björk monuments in my life.” 


serpentwithfeet is known for his experimental gospel style. He often sings confessional lyrics over soft beats and loops. He had just barely released his first EP in 2016 when Björk asked him to remix the second track off Utopia, “Blissing Me.”


[“Blissing Me” original intro]


This collaboration is different in that Björk and serpentwithfeet didn’t meet in the studio to work together. Rather, she gave Josiah full permission to take her song and make it theirs.


Let’s talk about this song in more detail now. One genre Björk hasn’t really explored is R&B and gospel, so serpentwithfeet’s remix is bringing her music to new territory.


I talked about how “Arisen My Senses” captures that giddy feeling when you’re falling in love with someone. But “Blissing Me” is like that peculiar state of fear and excitement once you realize you’re in love with someone. Because the future of this love is uncharted. 


[“Blissing Me” remix 0:00 - 0:16]


I think the common ground between serpentwithfeet and Björk in this song is not necessarily the music, though they have used similar sounds. I think the overlap here is, again, rooted in a feeling. It’s a feeling of vulnerability expressed in the lyrics: that push and pull between wanting something to last but fearing that it might not.


In Björk’s version, the lyrics describe intimate moments shared between two people falling in love: kissing, texting, missing each other when they’re apart. As well as the longing, fear, and doubt that go into any new relationship. Here are some of my favorite lines:


[“Blissing Me” original 0:36 - 0:52]

Björk: “He reminds me of the love in me / I'm celebrating on a vibrancy”


Savannah Wright: When she sings that he “reminds [her] of the love in [her],” it feels like a resurrection. Her new lover reminds her of what she thought she had lost — that head-over-heels feeling of falling for someone. 


And in his remix, serpentwithfeet adds his own lyrics to bring that feeling to the surface.


[“Blissing Me” remix 0:36 - 0:52]

serpentwithfeet: “Now my heart has gone rogue, it prefers longing / So, I'll sit here and pretend that you're close to me.”


Savannah Wright: I wish I heard more layered vocals here because both of their voices are incredibly beautiful. But serpentwithfeet does layer his own vocals — just like Björk does throughout the rest of the album.


[“Blissing Me” remix 1:12 - 1:30]


For comparison, here’s from the original version.


[“Blissing Me” original 1:57 - 2:15]


It shows that even though this is a remix, he wanted to honor Björk’s original vision of an off-center narrator for this record. Björk said that after Vulnicura she had emotionally “OD’d on the self-importance of the narrator. So a lot of the melodies have like five vocals and none of them are lead vocals. They’re like musical statements.”


Thankfully, the collaboration between Björk and serpentwithfeet did not end there. She invited him to open for her at her Cornucopia residency at The Shed in 2019. 


Unfortunately I couldn’t go, and I can’t find any recordings from the two singing together — which apparently they did for a few songs. But I love that she wanted to share his artistry with her audience.


Here’s what serpentwithfeet said about the experience in an interview with Dazed and confused:


“She’s really great at giving space for people to be the best version of themselves. I think an artist of her size, an artist who has done such legendary work as she has, could flex a certain way, and could ask their collaborators to be less dynamic, or to follow this specific rubric. She never made me feel that way, there was no prescribed path for me, she gave me lots of room to do what I wanted to do. It’s really humbling, and terrifying.”


That room that she gives fellow artists is not only the hallmark of a musical great — it’s the secret sauce for the incredible collaborations she’s done her entire career.


1 + 1 = 3. 


[MUSIC]


So far we’ve talked about how Björk has forged her own path in production and performance. But she’s also a pioneer in the third prong of the music industry — consumption. In the next episode, we’ll explore the Biophilia app and Vulnicura VR experience to learn how Björk uses technology to reinvent the way we consume music.


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.