A little more than a year ago, the United Nations Children’s Fund — the international organization that provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries — invited Björk to visit the Aceh Province in Indonesia, one of the areas hit hardest by 2004’s deadly tsunami. That was because a year earlier, the Icelandic musician released an album of fan-concocted remixes of “Army of Me” (a track from 1995’s Post), with all proceeds going to support UNICEF’s relief efforts in the storm-struck region.
Björk stopped by several schools and orphanages while in Aceh Province — buildings that donated money helped to erect — and the trip, overall, had a profound impact on her, she said. The lingering devastation “hit me pretty hard,” and her journey ultimately inspired several of the songs that’ll appear on her forthcoming sixth studio LP, Volta, which is slated for a May 8 release.
“It was definitely a piece in the puzzle, to be hit by the state of things over there,” she said. “It wasn’t only the beauty and the gorgeousness of these collection of islands, [that] always kind of [have] pirates going between them, but also going to the area that was hit hardest by the tsunami. I spent a few days there, in a village where 180,000 had died, in one moment. And a year later, people were still digging up bones, and digging through muck and finding objects. They had to change this golf course into a mass grave. And the smell … that was probably the most surprising thing. You could still smell death in the air a year later.”
The song “Earth Intruders,” in particular, was sculpted soon after Björk awoke from a dream she had during a cross-Atlantic flight to New York. In the dream, the singer said a “tsunami of millions and millions of poverty-stricken people” swelled high above the airplane she was a passenger on. Eventually, the wave overtook the plane, hit land and razed the White House into oblivion. “It’s a quite chaotic song,” she said of Volta’s first single. “Lyrically, it’s a collection of all of these images” burned into her memory, from her trip to Indonesia as well as her vivid, in-flight reverie.
“Earth Intruders” is an industrial-tinged number, rife with video game-esque atmospherics and calypso tonalities — think Nine Inch Nails meets Devo. A rhythmic, marching sound runs throughout much of the track, which “portrays the emotions of impatience, urgency, and being very eager to communicate.” In it, she sings, “Here is turmoil out there/ Carnage rambling/ What is to do but dig/ Dig bones out of earth/ Mud, graves, timber/ Morbid trenches.”
Volta is Björk’s first work on which she voices some of her disdain for the state of the human race.
“I am like many people, [in that I’m] quite upset about how things are in the world now, and while I am a musician, I wanted to maybe be a spokesperson for the people in the street, who are pretty pissed off in general,” she explained. “I am just one of all these voices, and the fact that somebody like me has had enough shows you it is a pretty intense time we live in. Emotionally, I was just really, really hungry for something quite full-bloodied and visceral,” musically speaking.
The follow-up to 2004’s Medúlla was written and produced entirely by Björk. The singer enlisted an all-star cast of collaborators for Volta, including Antony and the Johnsons frontman Antony Hegarty (who duets with Björk on “My Juvenile”), Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale and producer du jour Timbaland. Björk said she and Timbaland worked on three songs together more than a year ago.
Eleven years ago, Timbaland sampled Björk’s “Jòga” for Missy Elliott’s “Hit ’Em Wit’ Da Hee,” and since then they’ve bumped into each other a couple of times. “It was a mutual admiration thing going on, and over the years we had discussed working together one day. And [for Volta] we just sort of decided to go for it. It was a bit of a coincidence that last year was such a huge year for him, because we wrote songs together more than a year ago, and I didn’t really know what was coming. It wasn’t like I was desperate for the hottest producer. I just thought for a long time that we might be really, really different, but we have this tiny little section that we have in common. I guess I was just up for a bit of action in my music, and maybe that’s why this became sort of the moment where we decided to go for it. Even though we are quite different, we have something musical in common.”