It’s hard to imagine Björk doing the mundane things the rest of us do. But like many people, the artist spent portions of the last two years working on a podcast with two longtime friends—a pandemic project, you might say.
This being Björk though, the pandemic project is a little more ambitious than most. Titled Sonic Symbolism, the series is a career-spanning journey that takes listeners from the heady club nights of Björk’s London youth (she would attend A-list parties for “anthropology”) to the “organic” and “earthbound” Fossora, her forthcoming 10th studio album. For this daunting task, Björk tapped longtime friends Oddný Eir, a philosopher and writer who won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2014, and Ásmundur Jónsson, a musicologist, longtime Björk collaborator (he worked on her live box set and 2011’s Biophilia album) and a pioneer of the Icelandic music scene. The series finds the trio attempting to capture the “moods, timbres, tempos that were vibrating” when she made each of her albums.
While not the first time she has chosen to look back—she’s done everything from a MoMa retrospective to a more conventional greatest hits album—Sonic Symbolism is more than a career overview for die-hard fans. Instead, it functions as a road map to the creative life, from an artist who has managed to keep her process pure despite the highs and lows that characterize a career in pop.
“I’ve always thought of her as being superhuman,” says Ian Wheeler, founder of Talkhouse Creative Studio, which co-produced Sonic Symbolism with Björk and Mailchimp Presents. “But in hearing her talk about these albums, we realized that most of them have these very human themes like motherhood, nationalism, youth, etc. And I think we also realized how prescient or maybe just universal so much of her work is—so rather than feeling like we were looking back on it, it started to feel like Björk had been looking into the future all these years.”
Days before the release of the Fossora single “Ovule” (the music video for which finds her reunited with Nick Knight), GQ talked to Oddný Eir and Ásmundur Jónsson—via video call from Reykjavik—about Sonic Symbolism, growing up in Iceland and the magic of old friendship.
GQ: The series starts with Björk telling this story about being eight years old, walking to school in harsh weather and learning to sing against the elements. It’s such a great story, and I think says so much about her as a singer and an artist. I’m curious, growing up in Reykjavík, did you have a similar experience?
Ásmundur: I did always walk to school, yes. I think most kids did. But I was not singing. [Laughs] But yes, I remember the weather and the circumstances that she was describing in the interview.
Oddný: Yeah, me too. We allow our children to go alone very early. They go quite a long distance alone or in groups of just children. The changes of the weather are so sudden here in Reykjavík. So you can have like 10 different weathers every day. But yeah, I was not singing. I think what she’s describing, her going alone, is singing as a survival mechanism.
You met Björk in quite different ways, right? Oddný, I know you met while working on nature conservation projects, while, Ásmundur, you met her at a record store. Can you tell me about the first time you met her?
Ásmundur: We met during the time when I, with several other people, had created this record label called Gramm Records in the early ’80s. Björk was in several bands then, and we were starting to release [music that] was happening in Reykjavik at that time. Some kids that were actually in bands just came to hang out at the store and she started to work at the store. She was doing all kinds of different things that were needed to run the store—like washing floors—and I think she really enjoyed participating in this. So I’ve worked with her for 35 years or something like that.
Oddný: Actually, what Ásmundur cannot say himself is that he’s actually the pioneer. He made the Icelandic music scene—not singlehandedly, but because it’s a young, small community, you have to do a lot of it yourself. He really had the only shop that would sell something progressive. Somehow, Björk and others, they somehow grouped around him. As I saw it, they were together somehow, a group of people making—not only working on—the scene. The scene had not existed.
Ásmundur: We eventually started to work closer together. I was running this radio show for 10 years with a friend of mine from ’73 to ’83. For the last show, we asked some of the musicians that we had been working with to form a group and perform on this program. At that point, they decided to call it Kukl. From there, we were working very closely together for the next three years until the band split up and they formed the Sugarcubes.
Ásmundur: And then they decided to continue to work together. I have great memories with the music of Kukl.
Oddný, you guys met on nature conservations. What was that like, meeting her in that way? And how did that develop into a friendship?
Oddný: We knew each other—I lived in New York once when she was living there. So we knew each other like that. I have known her music since I was a child or teenager.
But then we had this discussion about a specific nature conservation project. And it was funny, we skipped over the philosophical and abstract—as we can delve into so many directions in our discussions—and in that moment [talking about nature conservation], we were both so practical somehow. It was like this synergy between us. That was so amazing for me. We didn’t even have to discuss so much. We just got organized automatically. It was like how people have described for me when they are sailing together a boat or something—either you can sail together or not. I imagine we could sail a boat.
So that was really pleasant because fighting for nature, especially at the time, tends to become a little bit heavy. It’s so difficult and you get so exhausted. If you are fighting for justice, for minority groups and you are dealing with a system, it’s tricky to maintain the joy and to keep up the spirit. So for me, to meet her was like, I understood how genius she was in keeping up the spirit or keeping it a real and very intense [thing]. I mean, she’s really hardworking and focused but at the same time, somehow joyful and light.
I had just moved back [to Iceland] when we met, when we decided to go into that fight. We were thinking that it would be so nice to build a sanatorium in the north instead of building one more aluminium smelter… When we had just started, we gathered people from all around the city and all of the country in one room—people from the financial level and the philosophical, all kinds. We were making coffee and…. I don’t remember. My brother had made some flatbread and we were [feeding people] that and we were very stressed. And that very evening, actually the [financial] crisis hit and the prime minister came on the television saying, “God bless Iceland because we are collapsed. We are bankrupt.” There was an intensity and an urgency.
I also come from a smaller community, from the Philippines, and I find stories like this interesting—how when you do come from a place where the community is tighter knit, collaboration flows so easily and naturally, and people really band together and can unite easily when needed.
Oddný: Yeah, it’s true. A smaller community, or a little bit marginalized.
Which reminds me, there’s a great line that Björk says on the series about how during the Post era, she wanted people to understand that she’s from another part of the world, one that wasn’t always represented, that it was her way of saying, “I’m part of this community, these underrepresented nations.”
Oddný: Yeah, like when you go into record stores. You go into a big store abroad and see that there’s just one section called “world music” that everything is just grouped together under. It was like this reduction. That’s very frustrating. I think we need to really fight against that. This also happens in literature [and other fields], where there is one way of telling a story.
So that was our challenge also [with this podcast], to not necessarily start by going from one subject going to the next, [in this] very linear way of talking about things, but somehow just dive into this point and somehow go from one place to another where the connections can be not so logical.
Ásmundur: For me, there were a lot of unexpected matters and issues in terms of Björk’s art that I learned about during this process of going through the visual side, for instance, like what she said about the covers of her albums being like tarot cards. It was revealing.
That’s like a sign of good friendship also, an old friendship, when you really give yourself time to express yourself in sincerity and you ask [questions]. You always realize something new about the other, even though you know each other well.
As someone who follows her work, I know that she’s not really one for nostalgia. But obviously, this is quite a nostalgic project. How did she ask you to be part of it? How did she explain it to you?
Oddný: That’s very unique about her work process—she’s so trusting.We talked about technical things like the work process but somehow through that, we would discover her interior [themes]—but through the technical, instead of just pointing to them.
Ásmundur: I remember when we were working on the live box set together [in the early 2000s], I did several interviews that were, in a way, just [contextualizing] those recordings. Those discussions were really, really interesting because we were kind of just focusing on one aspect of the creativity—the songs from that perspective, taking them from the studio to live performances.
I learned during that time when going through the first four albums—Debut, Post, Homogenic and Vespertine—each one is a new world that you are kind of dealing with. There were so many things that came out in the open during these sessions. It’s really interesting to dive into it, project by project, and have the opportunity to discuss things in detail, and try to find a new angle on projects that maybe already have 1,000 articles written about them.
Oddný: I felt actually like we did not exhaust [things on the podcast]. I felt more like we were just beginning. I thought I had 3,000 questions more. But it was also more important to continue this spirit of the conversation of friends—when you meet a friend after a long time and you just have so much to say, and then you actually need to meet again to discuss in more detail.
Sometimes there are aspects of our friends we don’t really get to know until we work with them, or when we have certain opportunities to ask other kinds of questions. So, I was curious—in doing these interviews for this podcast series, is there anything you learned about her as a friend?
Oddný: Every time we get into an intimate conversation, I learn something new. That’s the gift of a good friendship. You are not in stagnation. You are allowing yourself to develop together somehow and you never take for granted some aspects of the other… It’s like the process of making a good perfume somehow. It takes time.
But since that was pretty intense, of course there were many aspects [of her] that I felt, wow, yeah. They were not surprising but joyful to discover somehow, to see them more clearly. But also because I got to know her later, when we were discussing this earlier [time in her life], that was so nice to get that insight.
What’s your personal favorite Björk album?
Oddný: I cannot answer. I see them so much as somehow related to each other, going from one to another. It’s been really interesting, to see how this and that one relates.
Ásmundur: It’s a difficult question to answer because all of them have kind of a long life with me. I still like to play records that were 20, 25 years ago. It’s like you are still living with each other. You are still kind of finding new angles to the music. It’s still alive.
In the series, Björk defines a phase of life as around three years, which is also typically how long it takes to make a film, an album, a book, et cetera. I was curious, do you agree? Has that manifested in your own lives?
Ásmundur: I haven’t thought of my life in periods in that way. I don’t write books, but I can fully understand what she is she saying. I’ve seen that through her work. But yeah, for me personally, I don’t think of my life in periods.
Oddný: And not in tarot cards, either. [Laughs]