During the height of her pop-star era, back in the first half of the ‘90s, there were days when Björk would do interview after interview. “Sometimes it was, like, insane,” she recalls on the podcast she just launched, Sonic Symbolism. She felt a “genuine merge” with each journalist, she explains, and put her heart into each discussion. “It was kinda like, oh, now I’m gonna be like the extroverts, but kind of knowing that I was pushing an introvert machine to 11,” she says. “And then I had to, like, withdraw straight after, but it was somehow like, I don’t know, proving to myself that I could do it. Or maybe you have to try everything once, kind of like [when] normal people go backpacking...in the Himalayas. That’s like their way of testing themselves.”
The Icelandic iconoclast may have slowed down her media machine, but she has retained her overachiever’s approach to fielding questions that is partly responsible for her quirky reputation. She shows that flair for vivid metaphors and surprising connections on Sonic Symbolism, which examines her solo career, with each episode devoted to a different album in her catalog. It’s such a joy to just hear her describe things. Her melodies are “like crooked trees...they’re kind of a little bit wild, you know, and also with a lot of space.” Post is her “promiscuous” album on account of its many collaborators and ensuing sounds. The beats on her 1997 masterpiece Homogenic are “volcanic.” When standing in front of a room of admires onstage, she reflects, “There’s a lot of electricity there and a lot of voltage—a lot, a lot of voltage.”
Flair or no flair, the Björk on Sonic Symbolism is for the most part subdued, clear, and adept at articulating the rationale behind her most alien of sounds. The podcast, a collaboration with Mailchimp Presents and Talkhouse, largely presents album-specific conversations between Björk and her friends Oddný Eir, a philosopher and writer, and musicologist Ásmundur Jónsson. In some ways, the podcast is the perfect medium for Björk’s brand of public speaking—here she isn’t edited down to just the funny parts, and in fact those funny parts (while often hilarious) seem less outlandish in the greater context in which they’re used to illustrate more grounded points. On the multivalent nature of 1993's Debut, whose production Bjork describes as a “smorgasbord,” she says:
I remember reading my diaries at this time, and I was writing a lot over and over again that I have the right to be one day silly, the next day clever, and then humorous and happy and sad and angry and dressed like a clown and dressed like a mother and dressed, you know, sexy if I wanted to, and like a techno person next day. So it was very much about that statement too, to have access to this diversity as a woman, to not be pinpoint into one row, to be able to be, you know, like—you have all the Smurfs but you just have one female, Smurfette, but to say, “Okay, I want to be all the Smurfs.” You know, like, that’s my rebellion.
Because Björk’s albums were reflections of where she was in life, the podcast doubles as a memoir, but one with limitations. She stays mostly in the creative realm, shedding no light on, for example, her brief relationship with Tricky, with whom she collaborated on two songs for Post, or some of the unpleasant events (an attempt on her life via mail bomb, a physical altercation with a journalist the star initiated in an airport in 1996) that led to her self-imposed exile in Málaga, Spain, where she recorded Homogenic. Those looking for dirt may come away disappointed, but there’s an overall richness to these conversations—at least in the first three episodes, which all dropped Thursday—that is repeatedly rewarding.
Two repeated themes of note are the humor in Björk’s music and her feminism. Both Post’s “Isobel” and Homogenic’s “Bachelorette” were written alongside Björk’s friend, beloved Icelandic writer Sjón, and are conscious self-parody, roughly tracing Björk’s move to the big city and then a fantasy of nature’s takeover. “Bachelorette” is particularly melodramatic in its bombast and lyrical content—its first line is “I’m a fountain of blood, in the shape of a girl.” On the podcast, she calls the song “beautiful but kind of ridiculous.”
“It’s Oh So Quiet,” the ‘50s big band cover on Post that went Top 5 in the U.K., was “almost a kind of a joke,” recalls Björk, coming after a string of electronic songs in a variety of moods on Post. But there was a method to her seeming randomness, she reveals:
I think it was like, the sort of element of surprise maybe, because it was like the last thing you would expect on that album. But I think it was also maybe like an experiment to embrace all the music in the world, you know, like to be that inclusive, to love music so much that you can have all those different genres and make it cohesive, because what is gluing it all together is your love of music.
Post, it should be noted, predicted the all-over-the-place pop star albums of the mid-‘00s, like Gwen Stefani’s Love.Angel.Music.Baby, which seemed invested less in a unified sound and more in offering an iTunes Store-friendly plethora of singles.
Björk looks back on the work she did on Debut with clarity: “There were not so many lyrics like that, at that time, about the lives of women or girls, you know, just doing normal things.” In Symbolism’s second episode, regarding the mixed reviews she received for Debut in the U.S. (Rolling Stone gave it two stars and even that seemed generous for Tom Graves’ accompanying assessment; he called it “utterly disappointing.”) “The everyday life of a woman was a lesser area somehow or a lesser art form,” she says on how her solo debut was received by some. “And I think I was just used to it. I didn’t expect more, you know?”
But that had no bearing on her vision, which she said necessarily involved expanding the notion of what women could offer musically:
I think after being for 10 years in bands, and serving another vision—even though it’s the vision of the group, it’s not my vision. I didn’t want to serve the vision of any other composer or any other conductor or just to be the performer. I wanted to try as a woman. I felt that the way I could change the world most for other women and girls was to try to make an album where I would give myself the string quartet context, I would give myself techno beats, I would give myself...I would be the author. You know, and I could do it all myself.
Throughout her career, Björk has evinced a repeated interest in undoing expectations. These came from without, as in the case of the societal and artistic limitations she perceived. The stunning alien geisha figure she strikes on the cover of Homogenic, an album musically rooted in Icelandic tradition, was in response to the elfish persona the press tried to impose on her. But she also pushed back against herself, with each album responding to and moving away from the last one. She made a career of, in the words of Homogenic’s “Pluto,” exploding this body off of her. It has made for a public arc like no other in modern music, and given its serialized nature, one hell of a podcast.