Bjork Takes Over Red Bull Music Academy With Virtual Reality, Banging DJ Sets and Candor
Across a 48-hour period last week in Montreal's charming historic quarter, a peripatetic Bjork seemed to be, maybe was, everywhere at once. Alongside the fall-foliage-lined banks of the St. Lawrence River where this year's Red Bul Music Academy put down stakes, Iceland's most famous export premiered a stunning new virtual reality video for "Family," the fifth piece of a VR song cycle behind 2015's heart-wrenching Vulnicura. She also played two banging three-plus-hour DJ sets at the sold-out Cirque Éloizete, building from dark minimalist techno and electronic music to maximalist R&B jams by the likes of Jeremih, Kelela, and even Ariana Grande. And then she gave an extensive, two-hour interview before 35 riveted Academy students.Tthen the usually press-averse singer sat down with journalists.
"Being a punk, I've always been really skeptical of big brands, it's kind of in my blood," Bjork says from a suite within the renovated historic building RBMA has transformed into its 2016 music Shangri-la. "I've repeatedly gone to amazing gigs Red Bull Music Academy has organized [including performances by Le1f, Tri Angle Records, Dizzee Rascal, NON Records and N.A.A.F.I,] and they really have their heart in the right place. They just seem to be giving so much to that community especially to electronic music. I think they really mean it. So I decided to drop my brand-snob thing and embrace it."
Say what you will about the merits of the high-octane club land energy drink, but it's impossible to argue with the quality of the music RBMA curates. Annually for the past 18 years, RBMA has created a pop-up music academic institution complete with lectures, recording facilities and an exquisitely programmed quasi-music festival. Though it's all backed financially by the deep pockets of the global beverage manufacturer, which for the fiscal year ending 2015 had global sales of over $6.6 billion dollars, according to Forbes, the RBMA is fueled by something more than just profits from beverage sales: stone-cold music legends.
Who among music fans can argue with RBMA's past choices? Any complaints with Giorgio Moroder, Brian Eno, George Clinton, Pharaoh Sanders, Nile Rodgers, Lee Scratch Perry, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Rakim, D'Angelo, and Afrika Bambaataa? They've all strode through RBMA's pop-up halls partaking in lectures (i.e. interviews) discussing their inspirations and muses in depth and/or performing. That's all in addition to RBMA's 20 quick hit base camps it sets up across the globe, the annual month-long New York City RBMA in May and its recently re-launched digital radio platform which now streams 24/7.
While Red Bull, a privately held company, declines to discuss its financials, Billboard estimates the yearly confab with flights, room and board for 70 students, renovating buildings, building studios with recording equipment and instruments, setting up a radio station and bringing in talent and lecturers and staffing costs the company roughly between $3-4 million dollars. While it's hard to quantify the return on what is ostensibly a marketing investment, the press, goodwill and buzz the event generates is palpable.
There's good reason why running into any of the 70 globally-culled students during the RBMA's two, two-week academic sessions is like running into a Price Is Right contestant who has just won the showcase showdown. Kids from Bangalore to Amsterdam to Angola are universally elated to be here, whether sitting in studio pods creating beats at 2:00 a.m. or eating excellently-catered meals or attending lectures and performances. In Montreal they are treated to appearances by Iggy Pop, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Win Butler, Dev Hines, Tune Yards, Alexander Robotnik, Thundercat, Just Blaze, DAM-Funk, Theo Parrish, Fucked-Up, Sampha, Kaytranada and Chilly Gonzales among others.
Though she politely declines to discuss the new album she is working on, saying it takes her years of hindsight to fully understand her work, Bjork now, at least, seems to have a handle on Vulnicura, which chronicled the dissolution of her longtime relationship with artist Matthew Barney. "It feels very different if the mountain is ahead of you and you feel paralyzed and you think, 'There is no way I will ever get over this mountain. There is like absolutely zero possibility of it. I have no legs, I have no arms, I have no energy.' That's what it felt like."
Now past the summit of heartache, Bjork has the luxury of time and perspective. "There's always a moment, maybe a year or two later, where I sit down and listen to it all back-to-back and try to make sense of it," she says. "It was literally like, 'Oh my God, I had no idea. I have actually documented the undoing of a relationship.' If I would have planned that it would have never worked. It would have just felt forced or strange or manipulative or self-indulgent or whatever but I was just writing songs and not really thinking about it."
Vulnicura's meaning may still be unfolding for Bjork, as it was for those inside the virtual reality vortex at the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, where all five videos are on display, delivering something like repeated body blows to the emotional solar plexus ("Stonemilker"), a fantastical cosmic wonderland ("Family," "Quicksand") or a bad trip inside's Bjork's teeth ("Mouth Mantra"). Nondescript rooms with generic black curtains, swiveling bar stools, goggles and headphone are transformed into three-dimensional vistas of Iceland's stunning coastline, an interstellar journey, a lysergic-acid surgical experience. When the visuals are paired just right with Vulnicura's cri de coeurs, like for "Stonemilker," which features the singer in a 360 degree shoot set astride the exact lighthouse where she composed the song while singing directly into your VR-enhanced eyes, heart and sou, any repression on the part of the viewer melts away quickly.
Red Bull Music Academy co-commissioned "Family," the VR cycle's newest and most interactive video, directed by Andrew Huang (who also directed "Black Lake" and "Stonemilker") -- it is clearly what helped bring the singer to RBMA's Montreal residency. Bjork calls "Family" the album's "mother core" and as such, has viewers help sew up the female-shaped wound along with a gorgeously animated Bjork and the help of joysticks, which in VR are rendered as stitching hands, until she grows into a large deity-like figure.
The genesis of "Family" stemmed from a video "album cover," Huang and Bjork shot in Iceland. "We were shooting the album cover and we were like, 'Why don't' we just keep rolling and we just ended up shooting Bjork doing this stitching work and stitching herself back together," Huang explains. "James [Merry, one of Bjork's muses and a kaleidoscopic embroider who makes the gorgeous and intricate masks she wears] was like "I made this amazing mask" and we were like, 'Okay, put it on.' We were just playing and ended up filming the story of Vulnicura. That shoot formed the bias for 'Family.'"
There are two more VR videos in the pipeline: one by a former collaborator Chris Cunningham who worked on 1997's astonishing "All is Full of Love" video and "Notget" by fashion photographers Warren Du Preez and Nick Thorton Jones. Bjork' is also in the homestretch of a book of scores from her vast catalog she's been working on for the past eight years that should be out before the end of the year.
In a backstage suite after her second sold-out night of DJing, Bjork is surrounded by an entourage of flamboyant Montrealers, RMBA staff and collaborators. James Merry is there jamming more pop R&B hits by the likes of Kelis, Amerie, and Brandy on a stereo, Andrew Huang is dancing, Olivier Alary, another of Bjork's music collaborators, in in conversation as is her longtime manager Derek Birkett (who earlier in the evening was speaking with WME's Samantha Kirby Yoh). The scene soon becomes what is arguably the best impromptu dance party ever--at least for us who don't reguarly roll with Bjork.
When asked about her penchant for R&B and the possibility of a little Kelela or Ariana showing up on her next album, Bjork is adamant. "I don't think it's me," she says. "I really love the sugar, when I was a teenager I always listened to Chaka Khan and always liked R&B, obsessively—SWV, Mary J. Bilge, Destiny's Child, Kelela, Brandy -- that's always been there for me and I just think it's amazing. But It would be like me doing Bollywood music or something, I'd be an imposter"—which is something Bjork, despite all her renderings in virtual reality and fanciful masks, is resolutely not.