Björk at the O2 Arena is a concept that might have made more sense in the Nineties, if only the venue had existed. That was when the Icelandic musician was making platinum-selling albums, her startling, vaulting voice front and centre in pop culture. Today the mainstream is a distant memory as the 53-year-old, together with her recent close collaborator, the Venezuelan producer Alejandro “Arca” Ghersi, experiments with sound and song structure in ever more elaborate ways. Her most recent album, Utopia from 2017, is dazzlingly beautiful, borne aloft on massed flutes and birdsong – but low on daytime radio hits, shall we say.
Yet there she is on the O2’s schedule for next week, just before McFly and Little Mix and just after some tennis. What’s going on?
“I obviously swore an oath in my teens to never play an arena in my life,” she says. As a teenager she was performing in an all-female punk band called Spit and Snot, then supporting British anarchists Crass on tour in the band KUKL. “But Eighties arenas are different from the recently built ones, and in a way the 18th Century theatre has just as much baggage. But of course this is an experiment, as is everything I do. I guess it doesn’t feel worth doing unless I am doing something that I haven’t done before?”
Performing her biggest ever London show in 2019 positions her alongside Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and Radiohead as an artist whose concert appeal has grown while the music gets ever more challenging. The difference with the new tour, which she’s calling Cornucopia, is everything she’s bringing along: a 50-person choir, seven female flautists, 14 screens, 360-degree speakers, costumes by Iris van Herpen and Balmain’s creative director Olivier Rousteing, a circular flute played by four people, and a huge “reverb chamber” that is meant to mimic the sound of her singing without amplification on the long nature walks where she commonly composes her music. “I had originally hoped that a traditional theatre could welcome us, but 21st Century arenas are actually the only place that can welcome the amount of stuff we’ve got.”
It’s not cheap, mind. Standing tickets are £90, which is considerably more than her fans will be used to. But she has put far more into the spectacle than at her last UK shows in the summer of 2018, which were outdoor performances in Hackney’s Victoria Park and at the Eden Project in Cornwall. “I wasn’t involved in [the pricing] but yes, it has been quite a juggle,” she explains. “I guess from my point of view it is my most theatrical show yet and probably ever. I have done my amount of punk shows, DJing, festivals and so on, so in my heart I think diversity is important for a musician. I try.”
Like trying to capture a rare butterfly, it’s been quite the journey trying to get her to talk about her arrival in London. Her people first indicated that she would like to do an interview in early August, when the O2 show was announced. Ideas suggested and revoked since then have included a short notice meet-up in London on a Sunday, a possible trip to Iceland, and a phone conversation, until, after weeks of silence on the matter, she decides that she will answer some questions but only by email, as she is on “voice rest”.
Even then she keeps me hanging nail-bitingly beyond my deadline, but when she does finally respond she’s thorough and thoughtful, typing in a very Björky way with no capitals, lots of ellipses and a space before her full stops . She describes her concept for her show with great colour, calling it “kinda visual ASMR on steroids” and goes on to elaborate on what she meant by the name of the album on which the concert is largely based: “Utopia, as the title says, is a place. We are trying to imagine an island in the future where plants, humans and birds have merged and we are living in harmony with nature and technology. So it is an attempt to do a sci-fi tale.”
The album feels like an airy, optimistic collection after its tortured 2015 predecessor, Vulnicura, which wallowed in her break-up with the artist Matthew Barney, with whom she has a daughter. Björk has jokingly called Utopia her “Tinder album”. Over the abstract flutes and fluttering beats of Courtship, she sings: “He turned me down/I then downturned another/Who then downturned her.” But Utopia also explores our relationship with nature and our environment, revisiting some of the themes she developed on her science-inspired 2011 album, Biophilia.
“I think in hindsight it had something to do with the gravity and the visceral content of the previous album,” she says. “I was done with flesh, bones and pain. I wanted to mould out of air and fly, make utopian plans, start all over. Write a manifesto.”
She does feel optimistic about the future, she says, despite the political prominence of some who would dismiss climate change. “But I think there is a LOT we have to do and change. It is not too late, but we have to totally switch lifestyles. We have done that so many times before. London banned coal and you guys could see the sky again. Let’s do this!”
Near the end of her show she plays a video message from the teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Björk sounds thrilled to have her involvement. “She is extraordinary! I can’t believe she recorded this message for me back in April,” she says. “Strangely, in the US legal system, where the most resistance to the idea of global warming is, the only angle that could survive through the whole bureaucracy is children suing the government for having robbed them of their future. With Greta this point of view got a voice, a person. Obviously I also think she is outrageously strong and incorruptible.”
This being Björk, while the tour continues other projects are on the go as well, keeping her at the forefront of technological advances in music. Her touring immersive exhibition, Björk Digital, is currently in Brazil. In September the Vulnicura album, which had already been released as a live recording and in an acoustic version with strings, arrived in virtual reality form, to be experienced in a motion-tracking VR headset.
Given its bleak personal content, isn’t Vulnicura an album she would rather have left behind by now? “Yes, emotionally I have left it a long time ago,” she says. “But working with seven different VR teams on seven different songs, we met a lot of obstacles and they weren’t all solved until this autumn. I guess I’m just not a quitter.”
Songs composed on hikes through the isolated Icelandic landscape, delivered in a way that stretches out towards the future: she’s closer than ever to her stated desire to “express the spiritual in the digital”.
“I spend some time outdoors every day. The digital is always the element that enables, allows, once my ‘acoustic’ work is done,” she explains. “I hate normal music studios for example – no windows, everything brown and foamy. How can we bring the recording process to the mountain? I guess I am just extremely excited to leave the industrial age. The weight of iron machines and rock and roll is too much for me sometimes…”
Nov 19, O2 Arena, SE10 (the02.co.uk)