As intriguing as Björk’s Biophilia project is, there’s something about it that makes me feel slightly uneasy. I think it’s to do with the number of times the names ‘iPad’ and ‘iPhone’ appear on my press release and particularly with the fact that the Biophilia apps will not be made available on any other format. For someone as fiercely independent as Björk, who has spent her entire career on indie labels, this seems out of character. I hate to think of Björk as a corporate shill, but as we all know deep down in the depths of our iSouls, Apple have now unquestionably become The Man.
So this is what I ask her: 'You’ve talked about the iPad feeling like a return to a punk ethos, where anyone can use it to make their own music. At the same time, iPads are expensive and elitist gadgets. Do you think there is a discord between the technology and the spirit of what you’re trying to do?'
“Yeah, for sure, there’s definitely another polarity there, a conflict," she replies. "The only solution for me was to somehow be some sort of a ‘Kofi Annan’ and try and make these two worlds speak to each other.”
She pauses and coyly drums her fingers on the table.
“I’m not supposed to say this, probably, but I’m trusting that the pirates out there won’t tie their hands behind their back.”
'So you’d quite like to see Biophilia end up on other operating systems?'
“Yeah. I mean, I’ve been in Africa in the last few years, and Indonesia. There are people there who have cardboard houses but they have mobile phones. Everybody’s texting. It’s just a question of time before touch screens are cheap. That’s why we really made sure when we wrote all the programs that they will transfer to other systems. I mean, I don’t totally understand technologically what it is that makes that possible.”
Björk, as she mentioned, should probably not have said that. It seemed to me at the time that she was being disarmingly honest, and also perhaps a little knowingly provocative, so I quoted her in the news story we ran when the interview took place in July. The story was quickly picked up by Wired, then Pitchfork and NME and then pretty much every other music magazine with a net connection. Unfortunately but inevitably the time-worn journalistic credo of “simplify and exaggerate” kicked in a little more with each new article, with the result that by the time her thoughts had made it to, say, Billboard, they had become simply a reductive instruction: ‘Björk: Hack My Apps!’
In the interests of clarity then, here’s the message that appeared on Björk’s Facebook page the following day: “been doing scrillions of interviews , most has gone well except, i noticed a misunderstanding online when asked in an interview if i thought hackers would get into the app box i answered something along the lines that that was to be expected . that you could trust that they wouldnt have their hands tied behind their backs . i have seen this then juxtaposed against other things i said later to make it look like i am encouraging them. this is not how i feel.”
Interestingly, that message itself disappeared a day after it was posted without explanation. It’s understandable, of course, that she does not want to see a project she’s invested so much time and energy in being bootlegged. This is without mentioning the huge amount of her own money that she's poured into Biophilia, of which more later. Ultimately it’s likely that the point is moot anyway: transferring an iPhone app to another operating system presents significantly more technological hurdles than pirating an MP3.
The subtext here is the broader question of how musicians are going to get paid for the work they do, now that we have apparently decided, as a society, that we're cool with getting our music for free, either through streaming services like Spotify or through illegal means. The result is that making a great album is no longer enough: musicians are having to find new ways to persuade us to actually part with our cash. There have been missteps. Indeed, Björk herself started to get a reputation for unnecessarily repackaging and reissuing her music around the time of 2006’s Surrounded box set, and she’s currently selling something called Biophilia: The Ultimate Edition from her website which will set you back a cool £500. There doesn't seem to be room for egalitarianism in the brave new world that the internet has created, but at least with the apps she has created something original and of real value.
However, I get the impression from talking to Björk that her work on Biophilia is not born out of a desire to sell a gimmick, but out of a genuine desire to create something innovative despite the baffled state of the music industry. Unfortunately for her, and for her fans, being in the technological vanguard tends to come with an accompanying high startup cost. Hence her involvement with Apple and the grim shop-front reality that as influential as Björk is, she couldn't have even dreamed of getting something like this off the ground without being certain that she could count on the support of the iTunes Store. What her comments really tell us is that Björk is still struggling with the same dilemma being faced by countless contemporary artists across a whole range of mediums: do you want your art to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, or do you want to earn a living?
For Björk, it was her work with cutting-edge app developers which really recalled her punk days: “I guess when I was talking about ‘punk’ I was more talking about the way the app team worked together. By then we had no money, we’d run out of budget. It’s like two years since we ran out of budget. The app team said ‘We wanna do this so much that we’ll do it for free, but then we’ll split the profit 50/50. That’s kinda how we used to do things, the indie companies back in the punk days. Everyone makes the posters and glues them up and hand-makes the covers and then if there’s profit you just split it 50/50. That’s kinda what I meant by ‘punk’.”
The flexibility offered by the apps opens up the possibility of releasing further songs into the Biophilia universe: “I’m hoping I can do that. I’m at least thinking ‘double album’. We’ve got ten songs, maybe I can keep adding another ten. I don’t know, I’m just going to improvise. The good thing about the internet, or should be, is that it’s more spontaneous. I feel like if we’re making a new model it should be more flexible. But I mean, I wrote almost all of the songs on this album on touch-screens. That was a really new thing to me. The first time I’m not writing songs by walking outside and singing, because I had it in my lap and could faff about and improvise. A couple of songs were written on Nintendo games controllers. The chords we made on the touch-screens I would put on so that we could control the chords and the speeds and the time-signatures like a computer game. Both because I was trying to think of something that kids know, and also after programming with a mouse for ten years… it’s not really helpful for making quick decisions. I haven’t even tried it because I know it’s not a turn-on for me, to be singing like ‘dner-dner-d-ner-ner’ and then going on the mouse,” she mimes clicking and dragging, “clicking and opening up new boxes. It’s just not… it’s good for… is it the left-side of your brain? The more sort-of essay-writing side… but if you’re writing a song it needs to be more tactile. So far, with computers or electronic stuff, this is the most… you can grab it…” she mimes moulding clay, “or act really quickly and be more impulsive, so that’s kinda why we’ve be doing stuff with that.”
Björk believes children will respond instinctively to this tactile world: “I’ve wanted to do a music school since I was a kid, and so I was thinking well maybe it wasn’t that literal. I always imagined myself on some farm in Iceland, an elderly lady, and all the kids with recorders or whatever coming for a few weeks. I was always thinking about those few years, between five and seven, when it was more of an introduction to music, and for this to be an inspiring and enabling thing. For me to see the touch-screens and realise how everybody’s downloading the ocarina, so that this could mean that a kid in India could learn the difference between scales or time signatures, and not by reading this thick book but just through feeling, just by playing with it for a bit. I saw my own daughter, who’s eight now, playing with an app called ‘The Elements’ which is basically the element table. There’s also another one called ‘Solar System’. The teams that made those two apps actually did a couple of things for me. But with ‘Solar System’, she’d just been playing and scrolling with the solar system, and I think she gets more what the solar system is from that than I did from five years of lessons! I think these things are meant to be known more like that. They’re not like Latin or something, where you have to spend years and years over details and grammar. It’s more of a feeling.”
So you want to teach the world to sing? “I don’t know. I think everybody, once in their lifetime, wants to have a go at sharing what helped you… I was laughing about it with my friends. ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ This project is about the universe and everything! It’s vast! But I think it’s something I’ve noticed with people my age, because obviously I take care of my kids, but now I’m just about getting to that age where I’m starting to take care of my parents as well. It’s sort of a debate. ‘When will I start having the Christmas parties?’ It’s not yet kicked in, but give it five years. It’s a really strange feeling, because I’ve always thought of myself as the one who attends the Christmas parties. It’s interesting that age, about 50 or something, that you are in the middle, so you take care of both sides.”
The album also seems to reflect an almost spiritual awe that comes from contemplating the intricacies of our universe, recalling the work of the cosmologist Carl Sagan. Is she becoming more spiritual as she gets older? “I think so! I never thought I would… When I was a teenager, or in my twenties, I thought stuff like that was really pretentious, but now if I can teach you something…” She laughs. “Now that I’m not twenty any more, I think it’s natural for each individual, at least once in their life, to want to put out their version of how they see the world and how it could function. For me, obviously, I’m obsessed with music, so my musicology… nature is my religion, in a way, and I see sound as celebration of that. It’s a bit…” She pauses as she searches for the right phrase, “a bit ‘over-the-top’ to say that!” She smiles indulgently, “But I do! I do. I think everybody has their own private religion. I guess what bothers me is when millions have the same one. It just can’t be true. It’s just…” she screws her face up incredulously, “…what?”