Her new role is perfect for an artist who’s always treated abstract ideas and visceral emotions as if they’re the same thing. All through Björk’s catalogue, you find her turning animals, nature, and science into vivid metaphors for human feelings. “Oceania,” the song she wrote for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, was sung from the point of view of the ocean itself, hugging the continents and watching humanity with motherly pride. On Biophilia, she sings about proteins, viruses, and the two tectonic plates yawning apart beneath Iceland—but every song’s clearly about love and family structure, the “equilibrium and harmony” between people who have tied themselves to one another. The continents grow apart like a couple. The virus is dependent on its host, and the host is changed by that dependency. For an album that can seem a bit academic, it’s also pretty emotionally raw.
Björk has brought this Biophilia tour package three places thus far for long residencies like the one currently under way in New York. The first two were in Manchester and Reykjavík, though she doesn’t entirely count those as normal stops: One was part of the Manchester International Festival, and the other was just home. New York is the first big city for which she’s had to independently arrange all of the project’s parts: a museum to host small shows; a partner to run the educational component; and larger shows, like the ones at Roseland, to help pay for it all. “This has become a bit of a beast to tour with,” she acknowledges in the same calm, optimistic way a city bureaucrat might talk about budget projections. “We just about manage to come out on zero, financially.” Next up are Buenos Aires and San Francisco, assuming she can find the right partners to work with. “It’s a little bit like I’m 18 again, in a band. Everything was DIY: We made the posters ourselves, glued them up ourselves. Biophilia is a bit like this for me. It’s an exchange that feels equal. With the science museums, we give them the educational album for free, if they teach the kids for free. This project has to be sort of like that.”
The whole project seems like an alarming amount of work to do, and fund, and organize, for someone who could just as easily hire a couple of producers, spend a month in a studio singing over oddball house beats, record a marvelous pop album, sell insanely expensive special editions of it to obsessive superfans, and get loads of frothing press (plus, surely, higher album sales) for the effort. Why all the extra work—why does each of her albums seem to involve reinventing her entire working method, or purchasing a boat, or dissecting musicology? “Most of it is because I get bored,” she says. “Also, I was in bands for fifteen years. My first solo album came out when I was 27, and I’d been doing shows since I was 13. It’s always the same lineup, the same venues. Every song, all the instruments are playing, from the beginning of the song to the end of the song. I loved that, I really enjoyed it, but when it was finished, I was kind of like a kid in a toy shop. Like, I’ve been in indie bands for years, now I’m gonna have Bollywood orchestras and saxophones. It’s like the ADHD of instruments. But the ADHD in Biophilia is in the structure.”
And in between these grand musical expeditions, there are important small things for Björk to attend to as well. For instance, her daughter has just arrived back home and found an exciting piece of egg in her lunch that is the same shape as Africa—so Björk has to go take a look at that, too.