Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork is sitting in the middle of her sparsely decorated hotel room: an aluminum igloo in Ilulissat, a town on Greenland’s west coast.
Looking around, Bjork can’t hide the fact that such an environment fills her with joy. Situated atop a hill by the ocean, the igloo overlooks a large bay, replete with icebergs and a cathedral. Although frigid, this geography offers daylight around the clock.
Bjork — who hails from nearby Reykjavik, Iceland — warms to such conditions. “I was raised with 22 hours of sun each day,” she notes. “But certain elements of Iceland do seem exaggerated here, more intense. It’s just perfect for what I need to accomplish here.”
What the singer is accomplishing in Greenland is auditioning “Eskimo girls” for the backing choir on her upcoming tour — an intercontintental jaunt in support of her new album, “Vespertine.” The disc is due Aug. 27 internationally — in the U.K. on One Little Indian (the label to which she is directly signed) and in most other territories through Polydor/Universal. In the U.S., “Vespertine” comes out a day later via Elektra.
“Vespertine” is the latest in a sequence of breathtaking Bjork albums, following 1993’s “Debut”; “Post” and its remixed follow-up, “Telegram”; “Homogenic”; and “Selmasongs,” last year’s soundtrack to “Dancer in the Dark.”
In addition to holding auditions, Bjork is enjoying some much-needed downtime in her northern environs, with the relaxation including listening to her current favorite CDs — Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” Missy Elliott’s “Miss E … So Addictive,” and Matthew Herbert’s “Bodily Functions.” Herbert helped produce the lead single from “Vespertine,” the cinematic, electro-inflected “Hidden Place.”
Unlike the extroverted aural landscapes of “Hidden Place” — or much of Bjork’s past recordings, which have variously embraced dancefloor beats, big-band overtures, and avant-garde gestures — “Vespertine” is decidedly introverted; focused yet fragile, it is chamber music in electronic guise.
“From the beginning, I knew I wanted this album to be the exact opposite of ‘Homogenic,'” Bjork explains. “That album was so extreme and confrontational. I needed this album to explore what we sound like on the inside. You know, that ecstasy, that euphoric state that happens while whispering.”
Knowing this, it should come as no surprise to learn that, for Bjork, the title of her new album refers to evening prayer and worship, as well as those “beautiful and happy things” that open, bloom, or become active in the dark. “Things like flowers and owls,” she says, a smile in her voice.
According to Bjork, the bulk of “Vespertine” was recorded not in a studio but on her laptop computer — which explains its strangely homespun, diary-like air. Also, Bjork confirms that most of the album’s beats aren’t from drum machines but from objects found around the house, “like a deck of playing cards.” The set’s first single, “Hidden Place,” even features what she terms “poker-style card-shuffling.”
Emphasizing the domestic nature of her new record, the former lead singer of the Sugarcubes says “Vespertine” is about “worshipping the home and finding that paradise underneath the kitchen table.”
Bjork did a lot of the songwriting and recording for “Vespertine” during the filming of Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” for which she was nominated for two Golden Globes (for best actress and for best original song for “I’ve Seen It All”) and an Oscar (for best original song for “I’ve Seen It All”). She took home best actress honors at the 53rd Cannes film festival.
Because she could only work part time on the album — “almost like a hobby” — during the course of the film, Bjork says that she couldn’t commit to outside producers. So, unlike past releases, she produced the album herself (except for three songs she co-produced). Yet that’s not to say that “Vespertine” is the vision of just one artist.
“It was more like friends would visit, add their ideas to a track, then leave,” Bjork says, referring to such abettors as Matmos, Matthew Herbert, Zeena Parkins, and Harmony Korine — as well as longtime cohorts Mark Bell, Guy Sigsworth, and Marius de Vries. Lyrically, though, “Vespertine” is more personal, with Bjork wearing her heart on her sleeve. One track in particular, “Cocoon,” finds Bjork at her most erotic — and vulnerable. Elsewhere there are songs of unrequited love (“Pagan Poetry”), coping (“It’s Not Up to You”), and hope (“Unison”).
For Bjork, songwriting and production go hand in hand. “Obviously, if a song has good genes, it’ll survive outrageous treatments,” she says. “But it’s best if it’s a good, solid song from the beginning.
“Once you’ve written a song,” she adds, “you have a baby and you have to make sure it becomes 15 years old. So, you must make sure it has the right education, the right food, the right doctor, and all the other right stuff. You let it flourish without forcing — don’t give it a conveyor-belt treatment but the treatment it deserves.”
Such words please Elektra’s VP of marketing and artist development Dana Brandwein. “She writes music from her heart, what she’s feeling on a very personal level,” Brandwein notes. “She is the true essence of an artist.”
According to Elektra, combined worldwide sales of Bjork’s solo albums exceed 10 million units. In the U.S., SoundScan reports sales of 820,000 for “Debut,” 676,000 for “Post” and 212,000 for “Telegram,” 424,000 for “Homogenic,” and 183,000 for “Selmasongs.”
Brandwein insists that while “Vespertine” is a very different album for Bjork, it’s one that her core audience “will love and be excited about.” That excitement is spreading across the Internet, something the artist is comfortable with it, Brandwein says. “Bjork has no fear of the Internet — she utilizes it.”
Together, Elektra and York-based independent marketing firm Drill Team created the Bjork Vespertine Syndicate (BVS), a group of 30-plus Web sites that have access to exclusive Bjork content, including videoclips, photos, concert/rehearsal footage, and MP3s of non-album tracks. As the album’s release approaches, the BVS — which includes AOL, Yahoo!, Launch, Bestbuy.com, MTVi, and CDnow — will link to an audio player that streams “Vespertine” in its entirety.
First single “Hidden Place” is scheduled to precede “Vespertine” by two weeks in the form of a special DVD Audio release, which will include the Inez van Lamsweerde/ Vinoode Matadin-directed video and two non-album tracks (“Generous Palmstroke” and “Verandi”). In September, Bloomsbury Press will issue “Bjork,” a coffee-table-style artbook.
On Aug. 18, Bjork kicks off a tour in support of “Vespertine” at the Grand Rex Theater in Paris, with other European dates to follow. As part of her North American visit, she is scheduled to play New York’s Radio City Music Hall Oct. 4 and 5. (A Sept. 4 appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” is also planned.)
Last May, Bjork gave two surprise performances at New York’s Riverside Church, a setting that she says “perfectly complemented the [new material’s] acoustic, chamber, and electronic feelings.”
Bjork is the first person to admit that the upcoming tour may be more difficult. “Vespertine is a strange one,” she explains, “because it’s so much about that mood you create in your house with your friends and loved ones. It’s about hibernation, making hot chocolate, and reading your favorite book. It’s not easy to capture this in a big room, which is why I’m looking to play smaller, more intimate venues.”
From her vantage point in the igloo, Bjork contemplates where she fits in the world of contemporary pop. “Wherever I am, it feels right,” she insists. “This is something I don’t think about too much, probably because where I come from most of the people most of the time never understood what I was doing.” But she doesn’t blame them, “because I don’t even know sometimes,” she adds, laughing.
“I’ve gone through so many periods where people understand me, where they don’t understand me — but I always feel like I’m doing the same thing,” Bjork continues. “Nothing really changes for me, and I like it like that. It lets me live in peace. Just like when I was a shy schoolgirl standing in the corner alone. In a way, I guess I’m still like that.”