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The Woman Who Fell to Earth

In the three decades between her solo debut and this year's <em>Fossora</em>, Björk has turned her singular singing voice toward a more egalitarian ideal.
Gabriella Trujillo for NPR
In the three decades between her solo debut and this year's Fossora, Björk has turned her singular singing voice toward a more egalitarian ideal.

In a 1997 documentary about Björk, U2 frontman Bono spoke of the Icelandic pop star's voice as a weapon. "The girl has a voice like an ice pick. Such a pure sound," he gushed. "When The Sugarcubes played with U2, I would be preparing in the dressing room, and even if I couldn't hear the band ... I could always seem to hear that voice. It seemed to travel through metal and concrete and glass."

By then, Björk was four years into her solo career, having parted ways with her Reykjavík alternative band at the start of the '90s. She snowballed the momentum she'd gathered with The Sugarcubes and, in 1993, broke from rock into a mix of big-band balladeering and rave-inflected Europop with Debut, the album that laid the groundwork for her to become an international star and Iceland's most visible cultural export. When asked herself, the artist described her own singing as something that came naturally, a form of expression learned in childhood and preserved since then, as automatic as speech. "When I was small, my mother couldn't take a bus because I was always singing on the buses. I would stand up on the seats and shout out my favorite songs," she said during a 1988 magazine interview. "I've never learned to sing. I just sang. It's very easy, just like I can talk."

Yet as it rang across global airwaves, that voice thrilled listeners with its specialness — its unique pronunciations, distinct syntaxes, unselfconscious reveries and abundant power. Music writers splashed bewildered language over the sound: Björk's voice was "a heavenly hiccuping thing that almost defies terrestrial description," "this dazzling, pure instrument that can put the fear of God into you when she lets fly." It came part and parcel with the uninhibited persona, once summarized as "eccentric Icelandic techno elf," that manifested in the distinctive look and choreography of her performances and music videos.

As a solo artist in the '90s, Björk came up amid a generation of women eccentrics that included PJ Harvey, Lauryn Hill, Fiona Apple and Tori Amos — all daring songwriters who inspired as much discomfort as devotion in a patriarchal pop culture. Still, she stood apart. Her face and accent denoted her otherness, her belonging to a volcanic island at the northern tip of the world. Journalists picked apart the "kooky" ways she moved and dressed ad absurdum. And she sang with a fearlessness that many read as childlike — a little too raw and earnest for the world of adults, too prone tospurts of glossolalia, as if she were still serenading commuters on that bus.

"You've got to understand that all the interviews that journalists do to me, they always just ask me for an hour what it's like being strange," Björk said while promoting her second album, Post. At the same time as she was beginning to bristle at its limitations, her stardom took a painful turn: In 1996, she briefly became tabloid fodder after attacking a reporter at a Bangkok airport who had tried to interview her young son. The same year, an obsessed American fan sent her a letter bomb before filming his own suicide. As spectacular as that voice was, as much as it struck awe into whoever heard it, it vaulted her up to a bizarre and lonely place. To critics, it amplified an intractable weirdness, evidence of individuality so excessive it couldn't help but result in celebrity. To fans, it held her aloft from the world of other people. Sound became synonymous with personhood: Björk was the voice that leapt out of her.

She would soon tire of that isolated vantage. Her early years in the public imagination had made her rare and in high demand, but she was interested in more than singularity. She wanted to connect.

"Everything's geared toward self-sufficiency. F*** that,"Björk told Interview in 1995. "For me, the target is to learn how to communicate with other people, which is the hardest thing, after all. What you should be doing is learning how to live with other human beings." In the three decades since her solo debut, the artist has worked steadily toward that ideal: a place where her voice can flow into the ears of her listeners and the throats of her collaborators, flexing together with them as a single muscle rather than bowling them over from on high.

To get there, she had to prove she wasn't just a voice. With her third album, 1997's Homogenic, she took on the role of producer as well as performer, swirling together orchestral arrangements with harsh industrial beats. Those electronic sounds originated organically, in her own throat: When drum patterns came to mind while she was out touring Post, she'd translate them vocally, calling her engineer and simulating beats into the phone. "Because I'm not a drum programmer I'd call him up and go, 'I'd like this: pssht ... shtsss ... crsht.' And by the time I got home he had built up a library of more than 100 beats. Then I used those to start building a kind of mosaic."

The resulting album had a newly holistic tenderness: For the first time, her voice sent roots down into its accompaniment rather than soaring above it. When Björk sang of the "emotional landscapes" of a powerful friendship on ‎"Jóga," she created them as much as she described them. She cracked and faltered in time with the drums on "Unravel," swelled when the strings did for "Bachelorette." Her voice was no longer an alien beam striking earth from an outer world, but a gateway to that new realm: a warm, enveloping welcome into unbounded space.

Other voices joined her there. On 2001's Vespertine, she explored the ego-dissolving mutuality of good sex with help from a full choir. While living in New York after Sept. 11, an era when the dominant culture flattened anything considered un-American into an enemy, she conceived of her next record as a way to play at relationality without borders. "I had to use ingredients that I trusted, like my voice, my muscles, my bones. I couldn't really use all the other stuff,"she said of 2004's Medúlla, on which her voice tangles with those of other idiosyncratic vocalists — Faith No More's Mike Patton, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Roots beatboxer Rahzel. The album largely dispenses with other instruments, letting the collaged voices propel and support each other.

Inside Medúlla's playful, interwoven world of voice, Björk's lost its singularity. The sound of the album paralleled a shift in how the singer conceived of her own image, and she went so far as to declare the persona of her early career, the coy pixie dream woman with the astounding voice, dead and gone. "To a certain extent, the creature that the media collaborated on, she was mass-murdered,"she said in 2003. "You could argue that. She died a tragic death somewhere."

By burning her own idol, Björk became malleable, a substance to be shaped — and charted a course through ambitious, changeable work full of experiments and collaborations. The maximalist Volta, from 2007, saw her teaming up with Timbaland and Danja (whose boldly staccato production on Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" was still pouring out of car radios) on brash, colorful beatwork. With 2011's multimedia project Biophilia, she dipped into '90s drum-and-bass to stage a scientific exploration of the natural world. That affinity with the planet itself has spilled into her most recent work, as she's pulled back from her more abstract, theoretical tendencies and returned to powerful emotionality. Her 2015 album Vulnicura found kinship in Iceland's volcanoes as it plumbed the pain of her split from her longtime partner, the artist Matthew Barney. On 2017's Utopia, a celebration of new love and feminist hope, she sampled South American birdsong, drawing lines among the vibrant vocal expressions of other species, the air whistling through flutes and the sound of her own voice.

Throughout these releases, she has mutated her look as much as her sound. From Volta onward, she's appeared on her album covers in outré costumes and avant-garde makeup, distorting her unmistakable image. Through her repeatedly mutated morphologies, she has supplanted the idea of Björk the celebrity — an object fixed in place — with a generative force that never sits still. In her 21st century work, she flows out from herself until her original shape disappears.

Björk's 10th solo LP, Fossora, continues excavating the questions of connection across difference that have intrigued her since the early years of her career. The seams between the human being and its neighboring species have inspired her since her debut single, "Human Behaviour," which scrutinizes the world from the perspective of an alien anthropologist. Nearly 30 years later, she organizes Fossora around the theme of fungus. The title is an invented word, a feminized version of the Latin fossor, or digger. After Utopia's skyward gaze, Björk now opts to plunge into the dirt, to look into what the world does under the feet of those who walk on it.

Beneath the mushrooms they sprout, fungi grow vast networks of threaded cells, mycelia, through the soil. These serve as plant communication systems; trees send nutrients back and forth through them while repaying the fungi in sugar. By studying these networks, scientists have discovered that trees recognize their own kin: "Mother" trees speak to their children, the sprouting seeds that dropped from their own branches, encouraging them in particular to take root and grow. (Or maybe what they do is more like singing, lullabies made of electrolytes instead of sound waves.) The 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi, which Björk took as partial inspiration for this album, illustrates these interactions as webs of flickering light — not so different, it suggests, from the neurological structure of the human brain.

Fossora delights in the idea that mushrooms and people might collaborate to solve the problem of connecting with others. Björk populates the album with a vast array of voices, both her own and those of her friends and children. The muddy, teeming undergrowth of her production, which blends woodwind arrangements and gabber beats, evokes those electrochemical whispers carried along invisible chains in the ground. With nature as a guide, she sketches a model of voice as network: not the imprint of a rarified celebrity, but a web of far-flung filaments that group individuals together. The early interlude "Mycelia" makes the proposition explicit, as Björk chops up wordless segments of her own singing into a simulation of mushrooms chattering away.

The concept has appeared in her music before. "Heirloom," from Vespertine, paints voice as a fluid that drains over time, but can be refilled by other people: "I have a recurring dream / Every time I lose my voice / I swallow little glowing lights / My mother and son baked for me," she sings. "While I'm asleep / My mother and son pour into me / Warm glowing oil / Into my wide open throat." That striking image established, she then multitracks herself into an army of Björks, who repeat the same lyrics in the plural — each "me" and "my" swapped for "us" and "our." When one voice dries up, the love of a mother and son revives a host of voices, their elusive rituals with luminous oil multiplying the artist until she's no longer just one self, but a mysterious, plentiful "we."

Björk's son, Sindri, and daughter, Ísadóra, both sing on Fossora. Indirectly, so does her mother, the environmental activist Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, who died in 2018. On "Ancestress," Björk recalls the sound of her mother's voice feeding and carrying her through childhood: "When I was a girl she sang for me in falsetto / Lullabies with sincerity / I thank her for her integrity." Sindri accompanies her, completing "Heirloom"'s intergenerational triad, as does the famous Hamrahlid Choir, an Icelandic institution, whose conductor Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir "absolutely insists that every single person in the room, emotionally, goes to the light," Björk said in arecent Atlantic feature.

Fungi don't only mimic human communication; occasionally, they facilitate it. Fantastic Fungi touches on the curiosity of psychedelic mushrooms — fruiting bodies that plug right into our neuroreceptors, causing profound hallucinations and, for some, feelings of universal benevolence and connectedness. The documentary highlights the stories of palliative care patients who have found tremendous solace in their late-life trips; in some cases, the mushrooms help them shed their fear of death and find meaning in its approach. In an interview, celebrity mycologist Paul Stamets recounts his own transformation in the grip of psilocybin: After years of feeling embarrassed by a youthful stutter that didn't respond to speech therapy, Stamets climbed a tree while tripping and focused on his voice as a thunderstorm rolled in. The next day, he says, he could speak without the stutter, and said his first confident "good morning" to the woman he had a crush on. By digging deep into their own head, the psilocybin user can sometimes find a way to get out of it.

Fossora finds its own loosened mode of conversation by enmeshing Björk's voice with those of her featured guests. "Allow" draws the electropop singer Emilie Nicolas into a fluttering web of syllables, their edges so soft it's hard to make out which voice comes from whom. On "Fungal City," she duets with the experimental R&B artist serpentwithfeet, their voices tracing lyrics that map the "celebrational intelligence" of a romantic partnership onto the subterranean pulses of fungi in conversation.

On the closing track, "Her Mother's House," Björk ruminates on the ways voice can spill through familial and social fields. "A moist voice comes from abundance," she and Ísadóra sing together. "A balloon painted with red clay / With lubrication will not crack / But will inflate evenly / And float higher." A voice fed by the voices of others returns the nourishment supplied; a generous voice begets more voices until a whole ecosystem sings.

The word "voice," in the context of artistic creation, tends to stand in for "self." A person's voice is their brand, a siloed essence that denotes their value. In shared cultural stories about work and merit, exceptional voices earn exceptional rewards. Celebrity is one of these, a story about how some people are so special they can't be touched, can't mingle with the rabble, can't communicate except with their own kind. The story of celebrity mirrors the larger-scale narrative of human exceptionalism, the idea that our species alone has the power, and the right, to manipulate its environment — that humanity is separate from and above nature.

In the time since her vaunted breakthrough years, Björk's work has aimed to unstitch both myths, an unraveling beautifully embodied by her latest obsession. Fungi can nourish us, and they can kill us, and they can carry us through previously untrod passageways in our own minds. But mostly, what they do is devour the dead. A decomposing corpse feeds legions of fungi, who digest it back into nutrient-rich soil. This macabre transformation might be the most intimate point of union between the mammal and the fungal, and Fossora does not neglect to amaze at it.

"Into sorrowful soil our roots are dug," Björk sings on "Sorrowful Soil," a eulogy to her mother. The voices of the Hamrahlid Choir echo hers, chasing her words, giving credence to the first-person plural pronoun. No instruments accompany them, save for muted synthesizer bass, and even that carries a warmth that suggests it could have sprung from a human throat. If Björk's voice, creased and earthy, can be teased out from the rest of them at the start of the song, it loses itself in the mix by the finish. It dips among the nine other voices, which crest and dissipate like waves, processed so as to sound even more numerous. Lyrics repeat, curling back on themselves. "You did well," Björk tells her dead mother, and so does everyone else. "You did your best. You did well."

She could have taken those lines on her own. What could be more singular, more personal, more siloed than assuring your mother, in her recent death, that she did a good job raising you? Who else could speak to such a claim? But that's what Björk's best music does: It enters the vanishing point of the self and comes out the other side, where everyone else is. Mothers die constantly. People grieve as we speak. It can be isolating, to move through such thick loss, but it's never actually isolated, or we wouldn't have words for it. So Björk pours her lament into a choir, lets them sing to the same mother that once replenished her voice in a recurring dream. Her childhood becomes their childhood. Her grief becomes their grief. Her voice melts itself until it doesn't belong to anyone, and then it belongs to everyone, open and formless as the air it stirs to reach you.

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Sasha Geffen