Björk Takes Us Inside Her Creative Process and Explains How She Writes a Song

Some songs are so straight­for­ward there’s no need to debate their mean­ings with friends and Red­dit users. Oth­ers remain opaque, despite fans’ best attempts to crack lyri­cal codes.

“Stone­milk­er,” the first track on Björk’s self-described “com­plete heart­break album” Vul­ni­cu­ra, seems to fall into the for­mer cat­e­go­ry:

Show me emo­tion­al respect, oh respect, oh respect

And I have emo­tion­al needs, oh needs, oh ooh

I wish to syn­chro­nize our feel­ings, our feel­ings, oh ooh

“Prob­a­bly the most obvi­ous lyrics I’ve ever writ­ten” she remarks in her above appear­ance on Hrishikesh Hir­way’s Song Exploder, a pod­cast where­in musi­cians decon­struct a song’s mean­ing, ori­gin, and record­ing process.

Björk was walk­ing on a beach when the sim­ple lyrics of “Stone­milk­er” popped into her head. She quick­ly real­ized that she should steer clear of the impulse to make them more clever, and chose the pri­mal over the poet­ic.

As to its inspi­ra­tion, she diplo­mat­i­cal­ly refrains from nam­ing her ex-hus­band, film­mak­er Matthew Bar­ney, on the pod­cast, say­ing only that “Stonemilker”’s nar­ra­tor has achieved emo­tion­al clar­i­ty, unlike “the per­son” to whom she is singing, some­one who prefers for things to stay fog­gy and com­plex.

She strove for arrange­ments that would sup­port that feel­ing of clar­i­ty, wait­ing for the right micro­phone, ham­mer­ing out every beat with pro­duc­er Ale­jan­dro “Arca” Gher­si, and releas­ing a sec­ond, strings only ver­sion.

“I decid­ed to become a vio­lin nerd,” she told Pitch­fork:

 I had like twen­ty tech­no­log­i­cal threads of things I could have done, but the album couldn’t be futur­is­tic. It had to be singer/songwriter. Old-school. It had to be blunt. I was sort of going into the Bergman movies with Liv Ull­mann when it gets real­ly self-pity­ing and psy­cho­log­i­cal, where you’re kind of per­form­ing surgery on your­self, like, What went wrong? 

The accom­pa­ny­ing 360-degree vir­tu­al real­i­ty music video, above, can now be viewed online as well as with Ocu­lus Rift. Every instru­ment was miked and if you can’t get clear on an Ice­landic beach, well then…

As for those plain­tive, crys­talline vocals, Björk inten­tion­al­ly held off, wait­ing for the sort of day when impul­sive­ness reigns. (I know she’s a clas­si­cal­ly trained musi­cian, but isn’t that pret­ty much every day when you’re Björk?)

Hav­ing some insights into what the artist was aim­ing for can guide lis­ten­ers toward deep­er appre­ci­a­tion. Björk oblig­ing­ly offers Song Exploder lis­ten­ers a vast buf­fet. Sure­ly some­thing will res­onate:

A tow­er of equi­lib­ri­um…

Smooth cream-like per­fec­tion…

A net…

A cra­dle…

Com­pare those sim­ple goals to Fla­vor­wires Moze Halperin’s analy­sis of  what he calls “Vulnicura’s most trag­ic track — and per­haps the sad­dest Björk has ever writ­ten”:

“Stone­milk­er” has the grandiose sound of hav­ing been sung in a cathe­dral, but like one tiny per­son con­front­ed by the large­ness of ideas of God or the archi­tec­tur­al com­plex­i­ty of one such struc­ture, Björk’s voice sounds dis­tant, echo­ing, fight­ing not to get sucked in by the threat of a vast abyss. When, in the com­ing songs, she actu­al­ly con­fronts the abyss, her voice becomes stronger. The crush­ing sad­ness of this song is that it’s the begin­ning of the end, and in lis­ten­ing to it, we feel at once clos­est to the love that was recent­ly lost, while also being aware of the tur­moil ahead.

The song’s near-non­cha­lant melan­choly — its false impres­sion that it can afford non­cha­lance because the lovers’ dis­con­nect is just a bump in the road — makes it more unbear­ably sad than the rest of the album. In this song, she car­ries all of her pre­vi­ous work on her back like arrows in a quiver, pulling ref­er­ences out one by one and shoot­ing them at lis­ten­ers to remind them of the man­i­fold ways she once doc­u­ment­ed the com­plex­i­ties of her love. For now, she’s about to doc­u­ment the com­plex­i­ties of its dis­ap­pear­ance. 

Basi­cal­ly, if you wind up feel­ing like you’re “lying at home in the moss look­ing at the sky,” Björk’s mis­sion has been accom­plished.

Want more? You can unpack oth­er artists’ defin­i­tive mean­ings and song mid­wifery by sub­scrib­ing to Song Exploder.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Album Björk Record­ed as an 11-Year-Old: Fea­tures Cov­er Art Pro­vid­ed By Her Mom (1977)

A Young Björk Decon­structs (Phys­i­cal­ly & The­o­ret­i­cal­ly) a Tele­vi­sion in a Delight­ful Retro Video

Watch Björk’s 6 Favorite TED Talks, From the Mush­room Death Suit to the Vir­tu­al Choir

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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