In her 14-year solo career, quirky Icelandic singer Björk has produced everything from chart-topping pop hits such as "Army of Me" to harder-to-swallow experiments such as Medulla, an album that consists entirely of vocal tracks.
She combines the two approaches on her sixth studio record Volta, an eclectic album featuring dance tunes by Timbaland as well as daring songs with instruments seldom encountered in pop songs, such as kora, pipa and even a foghorn. But if you ask Björk, nothing about her work is avant-garde.
"I don't think Medulla was that experimental," she says. "It was all vocal, but so are Manhattan Transfer and Bobby McFerrin. With Volta, I was up for an adventure. I had a bit of cabin fever after having a child, so I was up for some fun. I traveled to Mali and some of the songs were recorded on a boat [off the coast of] Tunisia."
The diminutive Björk remains a dynamo on stage and will bring along a 10-piece all-female brass band from her native Iceland when she plays at the Fox Theatre Sept. 17. During the tour, she takes to the stage wearing a headdress that flows over her shoulders into a robe befitting the Egyptian sun god Ra. She starts the set with Timbaland's beat-heavy "Earth Intruders," the first single off Volta, and proceeds to dance and sing her way across the stage like a possessed shaman.
Her quirky sense of style and outlandish costumes are nothing new for the 41-year-old, who wore a fake swan dress and scattered huge eggs at the Oscars in 2001.
"I don't set out to push boundaries," she says. "That would be a bit silly. But I have a pretty low boredom tolerance, so I try to keep things exciting for myself. It probably would make life easier for me to do two albums the same way, but I would be bored stiff, and that is no good."
To keep the boredom away, she produced the album herself, leaving the beats to be recorded last. "We had done a lot of experiments with rhythms, but I just threw them all away because every time we did something clever with drum programming it was just too pretentious for this album," she says. Realizing she needed an acoustic drummer, she enlisted the trance-inducing percussion of underground jazz men Chris Corsano (Sonic Youth, Cold Bleak Heat) and Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt).
Then, of course, there was Timbaland.
"Timbaland is someone that has before expressed interest in my music," Björk says. "He sampled a song of mine, 'Joga,' like 10 years ago, and for a long time there had been talks of perhaps working together. So when I stuck my nose out of my cabin fever I was up for some action and he was, too."
While hit-maker Timbaland was an obvious choice, other collaborators were not. Volta counts among its contributors Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, Congolese group Konono No1, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, a 10-piece Icelandic brass band, and Antony from Antony and the Johnsons.
"I decided to have a collection of bendy, dirty-sounding string instruments on this album," Björk says. "It was the opposite to Vespertine, where I had clean plucked instruments like celeste, harp, music box and glockenspiels – the sort of music played in heaven. But now it was time to get a bit grittier. So kora [African harp], pipa [Chinese lute] and clavichord [the ancestor of the harpsichord] ended up on the album. It was amazing to work with both Timbaland and Toumani. Even though they are very different, they have similarities – an air of confidence and positivity, and they sort of have similar faces, too. And similar height as well!"
Lyrically, Björk remains razor-sharp and world-conscious, although her words are at times harshly enunciated in heavily accented English. On "Earth Intruders," she imagines a tsunami of people marching for justice, while on "Pneumonia" and "I See Who You Are" she muses on feminism and motherhood. She is a rebellious punk on the electro-tinged "Declare Independence," a song she dedicates to Greenland and the Faroe Islands in her live shows, and in which she urges people to "Start your own currency/Make your own stamp/Protect your language ... declare independence ... raise your flag."
Her sense of fashion, her attitude and her music enwrap Björk in a world all her own, yet she creates with the realization that she is part of something cosmic in scope.
"I feel Volta is an extrovert[ed], dynamic album, a global, tribal kind of thing," Björk says. "I think quiet music that you listen to by yourself [or] with a few friends is just as important as Friday-night music. We all go through both emotions in the space of a week, and both emotional locations need a song to go with it."
With her young daughter in tow on this tour, Björk is reluctant to look too far into the future. "I have to keep things a bit spontaneous, so we'll see where I'm at [when the tour ends] and who I'll bump into until then," she says.
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