Bjork plays well with others.
For her sixth studio album, “Volta” (which arrived May 8 via Elektra/Atlantic, one day earlier internationally), the Icelandic artist collaborated with longtime partner-in-music Mark Bell, Congolese outfit Konono No. 1, Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), Malian musician Toumani Diabate, hip-hip guru Timbaland, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and others.
“Since I was a child, singing and writing melodies have always been quite a solitary process,” Bjork says. “More and more, since I’ve become savvier on the computer, I spend perhaps 90% of the time working on the album alone. So, collaborations are the treat at the end of the stick.
“With every collaborator, there is a completely different method,” she continues. “It is probably part of my philosophy, a little romantic, I know, that one of the main targets is to communicate, to merge. Then magic happens-when one plus one becomes three. It is easy to do solo albums where you play absolutely every noise, but merging is tricky. It takes courage to let go like that.”
Yet no matter who Bjork works with, she still enjoys following the beats and rhythms of her own beautifully off-kilter drum. The array of musical instruments on “Volta” encompasses a Chinese lute, French horns, a brass band and, Bjork being Bjork, major slabs of electronic programming. Aggressive instrumentation intertwines with suspenseful cinematic rushes, but there are also quiet and meditative moments like “Pneumonia,” which builds and builds with no release. Bjork says she wrote the song at the piano in one take, after seeing the film “Pan’s Labyrinth” — and after having pneumonia for two weeks.
“There is a physical sadness to wheezing away with that disease,” she says. That, coupled with “the determination of the little girl in that film to believe in her imagination, whatever it took, even though no one believed her,” struck a chord with the singer. A few days later, the song was recorded with seven horn players.
While lyrics on “Volta” frequently veer toward motherhood and religion, other tracks could very well have been ripped from today’s headlines. One of the latter — the war-themed “Earth Intruders” — recently made headlines of its own. One of three Timbaland collaborations on “Volta,” it became the first Bjork track to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 in 13 years, since “Big Time Sensuality” in 1994. Though its chart visit was fleeting (one week, attributed to 16,000 download sales), “Earth Intruders” is being spun by 31 modern rock stations.
But whether exposure for the single translates into sales for “Volta” and helps turn around the downward slide of each of Bjork’s past solo studio albums, remains to be seen. Her solo debut, 1993’s “Debut,” sold 918,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Post,” issued in 1995, has sold 810,000 units. “Homogenic” (1997) stands at 501,000 sold, “Vespertine” (2001) at 402,000 and “Medulla” (2004) at 235,000.
Still, Bjork’s label is optimistic that this trend can be reversed-and for good reason. Her head-turning performances on “Saturday Night Live” (April 21) and at Coachella (April 28) have been widely covered. She has just commenced a yearlong global tour, and her online activity is up.
As of April 27, for instance, the video for “Earth Intruders” was in the top 10 of downloaded videos at iTunes, while pre-orders for “Volta” were in the top 15. Bjork also supplied iTunes with an exclusive six-part podcast series.
Dane Venable, senior VP of pop/rock marketing at Atlantic Records, says, in fact, that all marketing for “Volta” has been initially launched online. In March, for example, 10 15-second webisodes covertly introducing snippets of the album’s music were seeded to various sites to get fans talking. Expect the label to explore other Web opportunities with the July release of second single “Declare Independence,” with an accompanying video lensed by Michel Gondry.
And for the first time, Bjork has agreed to license her catalog for ringtone and video ringer use. “This offers additional ways for us to get her music out there,” Venable says.
While the label execs focus on extending Bjork’s reach, the singer herself remains focused on her music. “One of the reasons I have headspace on this album to take on issues like the Earth, suicide bombers and so on is possibly because all things are pretty good at home right now — as good as it gets.”