AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2022, Björk speaks with vulnerability and candour to the acclaimed author, poet and ardent fan Ocean Vuong
Björk: Ocean, I read your wonderful book about your mother, Time Is a Mother. It’s so mind-blowing. I was crying over it.
Ocean Vuong: Oh, thank you so much. I’ve been really enjoying immersing myself in your new album, Fossora. It’s also a pleasure to talk to you again after our serendipitous meeting in New York in 2019. I’ll never forget it – it was this 90F day in October. My mother was sick and it was one month before she passed and you were so generous with me – so mothering. What I realised with your music – and this album especially – is that we all have a mother, but we also have people, friends, family who mother us. Mothering is also an act without gender as well as a biological reality – it’s both. When we met, you had just lost your own mother. It was wonderful to have two artists see each other so clearly, so I just want to thank you again for that.
B: Thank you. Did you know that I was in Mexico City two years ago and I listened to the audiobook of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I had food poisoning and I was stuck in this beautiful house, delirious among all these cacti and had you reading your book to me. So now I always connect the story of your mother in Vietnam with …
OV: Food poisoning. [Laughter.]
B: It’s all in a beautiful mix for me, the cacti inside the Vietnam jungle – thank you for holding my hand through that. It gave the experience a gorgeous purpose.
OV: I finished that book, coincidentally, in The Perlan in Iceland, in Reykjavík. And you told me that was where your mother used to go to have meat soup.
B: Yes, she always had a macchiato and Icelandic meat soup. We all went there for her wake and had macchiato and meat soup in her honour.
B: Yes, you get the 360-degree view, you see all the mountain range and you’re really connected with the weather, whatever the weather. It’s a good spot.
OV: The mother haunts this new album in a very beautiful way. And there’s a lot of her and you, there’s a direct address, which I really relate to. And in one of the songs, you say, ‘I am her hope-keeper.’ It’s such an incredible line. It just sums up everything that I think, at my best, I hope to do with my own mother. Can you talk about what that line means to you? It’s such an incredible act of agency.
B: Well, we just filmed the video for Ancestress with Andy Huang, in this valley outside Jórukleif where she used to pick herbs to dry. By accident, a few years ago, I bought a cabin in the same valley. My family and I spread her ashes here just recently, too, because there was a three-year delay thanks to Covid. It’s an interesting thing when a parent passes away and you lose that sort of visceral physical connection, because the spiritual connection becomes stronger. It’s three, four years now since she passed, and everything becomes lighter. All this conflict that you might have had in real life evaporates. And of course, as the years go by, you better understand the other’s point of view, why they did certain things. Eventually, the two spirits live together in harmony.
To go back to your question, I think my mum and I had the polarisation of me as an optimist and her as the pessimist. There’s another song on the album where I joke about her being a nihilist. But I think it also makes you understand that being the optimist, or the hope-keeper – saying, ‘I’m the light and you are the dark,’ – you end up stuck in these roles. After my mum passed away, I went through a lot of self-reflection, asking myself if I’m also stuck in this role with other people in my life – and the light can be violent. This Pollyanna stance has a shadow.
OV: Yes, the chiaroscuro between two people. What I love about that phrase ‘hope-keeper’ is the sense that you’re guarding the hope from the world, but also keeping it for when they want to use it, like, ‘I’m keeping this hope for you until you want to have it, and I’ll hold it for a while.’ You’re almost a guardian of hope. I really love that idea – that the difference between mother and daughter was so stark, and yet it’s the bridging of those differences that got you to talk and to know each other better. It was similar with my own mother. My mother was also more of a nihilist than I was. Was your mother an artist as well?
B: No, but she was quite creative. In her lifestyle, especially, she broke out of a traditional Sixties marriage, where she was supposed to be a proper housewife, and then she married a guitarist with very long hair and went straight into the hippy life. So she has two marriage photos, three years between them, and they are literally the opposite in fashion. She wasn’t an artist in the sense of creating things, but she rented a house out of town where me and my step dad and my brother and her stayed. It was a tiny house and it leaked when it rained. We had to get up in the middle of the night and empty a bucket, but it was very happy.
And it’s not until I got a lot older that I understood what she was really doing – she was getting us out of the patriarchy. A lot of outlaws lived in this part of Reykjavík where I grew up, by the river. I didn’t have a bossy father figure. There were downsides to it, of course … I was a grown-up way before my time. But I’m really anti-authority, so if I’d had a lot of discipline at home and lived inside the patriarchy, I would have been trouble.
OV: I feel the same way. I look back and I think being raised by a single mother taught me how to be creative because my mother didn’t know any of the rules and she didn’t care for any of the rules the patriarchal society put on her. Every day she had to make it all up on her own. I think it was difficult and stressful for her, but in retrospect it gave me so much permission when I became an artist. And I wonder about optimism and art-making – I think the innovation that powerful art demands is tied to optimism. The pessimist has no stake in innovation. I think on the one hand it’s very powerful and we can push the boundaries, and on the other hand we live in la-la land. And often my mother was the realist. I’m like a kite she had to wheel down. Do you think that being overly optimistic is tied to being an artist?
B: That’s a beautiful question.
OV: Because sometimes I lie at night in the dark and I can be so depressed. Everytime I release a book I get a mixture of strange relief and depression. I’m like, ‘Oh, thank goodness.’ And then there’s an emptiness and a sadness that comes in its wake. I could be lying in the dark at night, just staring at the ceiling, and then an idea would come to me. And I would jump out of bed, run to the desk, turn on the lamp, write it and say, ‘Oh my God, this is it. This will solve everything.’ And then tomorrow I look at it and it’s horrible. But that optimism gets you forward, and it’s always the dream – the vision is always ahead, like the dangling carrot.
B: Yeah, I think so. It’s a little dangerous to generalise – this is such a beautiful question, I could think about it for a week – but if I just answer very impulsively, yes, I think of course it’s the way out.
“I’m really anti-authority, so if I’d had a lot of discipline at home and lived inside the patriarchy, I would have been trouble” – Björk
It is said that when cooking, musicians make great sauces – if you have guests over and you open the fridge and just cook whatever’s there, you can grab a musician, and they can usually make a sauce that will marry five very diverse ingredients and it makes sense. So I guess that is like the poet too – using poetic licence to bring a fluidity between two things, so that things are not stagnant, so they can rotate.
Connection is important – and it’s so beautiful in your work. You are a lot braver than I am in including everything. You include not only the optimistic, hopeful things, but you include a lot of dark stuff. And by creating this current around all of it, so it’s inclusive of all the dark and the light, it’s so inviting to the reader because it’s truthful and sincere. I love that about your work. That’s why I’m a little shy of the word ‘optimist’, because yes, it gets you out of the stagnation – but my favourite artists are inclusive of both pessimism and optimism.
OV: That makes perfect sense. I think you said it better than I could even think it because I don’t feel courageous when I write, I feel that it’s more like a gravitational pull. I love the phenomena of black holes in space because they just swallow the dark and the light indiscriminately. I know it’s a phenomena of destruction, it’s also a phenomena of time travel, but I love black holes because there’s a democratic absorption of the universe. And I think that some of my favourite artists are like black holes, they just take everything on without judgement. And what you’re talking about is this wonderful moment in creativity when strange and disparate ideas and objects coalesce via a vision. Strangeness collaborating in order to make sense and make meaning, that is absolutely idiosyncratic.
And I always felt that, for me, poetry and literature is like the DNA of a selfhood made evident with language, that the page is the thumbprint of ourselves pressed down, and I think this is also true with music. There has rarely been an artist as idiosyncratic and unique as you. I’m curious, what has surprised you the most in such a rich journey, which to me you’re still beginning? It feels like every time I listen to your work I say, ‘Wow, she’s almost starting over again.’ And that’s what I feel. Every time I write something it’s like my hands are absolutely empty and I have to start all over again.
B: Oh, thank you very much. I’m blushing. During the pandemic I ended up doing this podcast in conversation with my friend Oddný Eir, who’s a philosopher and a writer, where I tried to explain the difference between my albums and it took me a long time to put it into words, it was pretty hard. But the visuals on the album covers helped. Sometimes they look quite clumsy, but they are my attempt to give the sound visuals. For example, if you have a flute album, there will be something fluffy, and if there’s no bass on the album, you have pastel colours, and if it’s elemental, you will have some physics patterns or something.
The good thing about getting older, which I know you will enjoy, is you get better at explaining those things. And I feel that I was trying to describe my album covers as sonic tarot cards. Tarot is something humankind has been using for thousands of years – symbols that everybody agrees on. Like, ‘Yes, I sometimes feel like I’m holding a cup, sometimes I feel like I’m holding an axe.’
But to describe that to people using sound is quite hard because we are used to symbolism in visuals. I came up with a name to try to explain all this – sonic symbolism. It is based on the idea that we go through changes roughly every three years, sometimes seven, where our colour palette changes and how we feel changes and our loved ones around us, their position changes, and the aroma or the textures or the lightness or darkness around us shifts.
Looking back at my album covers I can say, ‘Oh, that was a period of peach and mint, and the air element and no bass.” And this new album, Fossora, is dark, dark, dark green and dark, dark, dark red. It’s not gold – it’s silver. It’s like solving a riddle, but I always start with the music and sometimes the first year is very, very impulsive – I have no idea what I’m doing. And then usually there’s a moment after I’ve been writing for about a year and a half, where I’ve tried not to listen to anything, that I will listen to all of it, hopefully in one day. I pretend that I am not me and get an outside point of view.
And that’s when I start getting information about this sonic symbolism. Like when I made Vulnicura [released in 2015], I was like, ‘What? I have a Greek tragedy?’ I had no idea. And that’s when the colours come. Vulnicura was neon yellow because of a sense of emergency. There’s trauma, a sort of sainthood of the victim, so there’s this idea of a halo …
It’s a homemade language, but it’s also just the accumulation of doing the same thing for 30 years. I am sure the same thing will happen to you, even though you are a brave editor of your work and are spartan in your output. Over the next 20 years you will still end up accumulating several suitcases of this kind of stuff.
OV: It sounds like what you’re describing is actually very, very close to my relationship with language, because the word is a symbol in which the meaning has to be agreed upon by society. So red, for example, r-e-d, doesn’t really mean the colour red, we have to all collectively decide that it translates to red. Otherwise it’s arbitrary. I could say tomorrow that it’s ‘chair’ – we can all agree that the word chair actually means red and then we will just move on. The symbols change according to meaning, a fluctuation, so what you’re describing sounds very much like the making of language – here’s the colour, here’s the image, here’s the symbol, and how does the sound coalesce with that? How does the sound add meaning to that? I feel great kinship in that, it’s such a struggle.
We look at this, even in the word ‘queer’. It started as a word that means strange, odd, and then it became a derogatory term used as a violence, and now it’s been reclaimed to describe a community. And so that word shifted within 100 years, it has so many different life forms and it’s not fixed. The way you’re describing your career is very similar to how language naturally progresses. I’ve always had a connection to music. And what I really love about your music is that one experiences it very much like weather – you go in and the weather comes on. And I think that’s what I feel like when I listen to a lot of music, but especially your music, because I don’t feel like I’m charged with having to pin down a meaning. I have a significant emotional response to it simply by being in it in the same way I’m inside a storm or a windstorm.
And I tell people who struggle with poetry that’s how you should experience poetry too, the way you experience weather. You shouldn’t go into it saying, ‘What is the code? What is the meaning? How do I solve this riddle?’ It’s not a riddle, it’s an atmosphere. And I think that the more I talk to you, the more I feel that you’re a weather-maker as well as a hope-keeper. I think that’s ultimately what we do – we create atmospheres people can embody.
And speaking of careers, you were so generous. The first time we met, we were basically strangers having lunch in Brooklyn in your lovely home. And you said something that was so helpful to me. I think I asked you, ‘How do you negotiate fame?’ Because as a writer, fame is very unexpected to me, you’re not told to expect it. I always thought that I could write my books and then my books would go into the world and I could still hide, but that’s not the case in the modern age. But you said something so important, you said, ‘Go out and experience everything now, when you’re young – learn from everybody, and then you can be a recluse later. Now is the time to take advantage of all the doors opening. Go into all of the rooms now and see what’s in them.’
And it reminded me of the lyric in this album, in one of the later songs, where you said, ‘A mother’s house has a room for every child.’ So, so beautiful. But I also see that now as your work in mothering, even mothering me in that moment, mentoring me in that moment. How did you negotiate that? How did you go into the rooms? Were there rooms that you didn’t go into? And at what point in your career did you decide, ‘That is enough of that exploration. Now it’s time for me to only go into the rooms that I choose’?
B: If what I said was of any help, that’s amazing – I am sure you will know impulsively when to retreat. I think as an extreme introvert, which is maybe something we both share, my extroversion was learnt, which doesn’t mean that it’s not sincere but it’s something I learnt later in my life. I have albums where I was very extroverted. The most extroverted album I made was probably Post , which I made around the same time as maybe you are now, if you want to count books or count albums. But that’s what complicates things with opening doors.
With Homogenic , my third album, I went to a studio in Spain and I just withdrew, having been the biggest extrovert ever for more than three years. And it was like somebody who’s truly loyal in nature who goes and has an orgy one night with 20 people, but really means it sincerely and then just wants to go back home and be loyal again.
That’s what it felt like for me, but I meant every single thing while I was extrovert. But then I had a couple of albums where I was allowed to be in my little cave. After I had my daughter, three albums later, I made Volta , where I basically got a boat and went back out into the world as a different extrovert. Of course the world was different, it was after 9/11. It was a very feminist, pre-#MeToo album. Having had my daughter I wanted to defend girls.
So every three years, you have a different chapter – it’s not just one thing, it’s ten things. But the short answer to your question is that it’s like the tide, isn’t it? Overall I’m more introverted than extroverted, but if I get enough time at home and I can prepare myself – I do lots of kundalini yoga and reading – and I live in the same neighbourhood and have the same friends I had since childhood, I’m in a very safe bubble, then I can go and be genuinely extroverted. Like I did three days ago when I sang at a concert in Montreux and literally looked into the eyes of all the people in the first row and was genuinely communicating with them. But then I knew I would change into a pumpkin at midnight or into a recluse.
OV: I’m absolutely the same. Something I see in relation to both our works is performance. That performance is not fake. It’s just a concentrated, focused extroversion that is very sincere. And I think the difference between introverts and extroverts is that when we give, when we’re in public and we’re being extroverted, we give and we lose energy. Whereas extroverts get energy from that feeling. And there are so many times where I’ve given readings and lectures and I’ve looked into the eyes of the crowd, spoken to them at length, and I would go home to the hotel, turn off all the lights and then just lay flat in the hotel room until morning.
B: Part of being a singer is strangely introverted because when your body is your instrument, there is a lot of warming up your voice, doing kundalini, eating the right things. It’s a relationship you have with yourself that is not that different from a writer, it is very one on one. And I really enjoy it, I love going on hikes on my own. It is said that marathon runners use 70 per cent of their lungs and singers use, like, 90 per cent of their lungs. If you’re on stage for two hours using 90 per cent of your lungs, you’re taking your body to the extreme. And I happen to love that part of my job, of performance, of, ‘How far can I push this race car?’ Of course, it’s crashed a million times and then I have to go and rest.
But then you’re also asking about the emotional side of live gigs and that’s where the line between intro- and extrovert becomes a bit blurry. Sometimes you can have a concert that is going OK but perhaps the last song is actually the best version you’ve ever done, extremely extroverted. And then straight after that you maybe have three minutes where you flip into complete introversion, and if you’re lucky everybody’s also with you at that moment, thousands of people, inside your cave. That’s like magic and it doesn’t happen often. That contradicts everything I just said, but they’re the moments we live for.
And then sometimes I can be hiking on my own on top of a mountain and have the most sort of communal, cosmic experience I’ve had all that year, absolutely on my own, where I’m really almost crying because I care so much for the planet. Sometimes that part of me that cares for others is more active when I’m alone. So it’s all topsy-turvy as well, as much as I like it to be black and white.
One thing I realised recently, which could be a poor pearl of wisdom to the young ones out there, is that one very beautiful thing happens when you get to my age, middle age: not only do you stop seeing your life in a linear way, it’s like something pulls you up above a bird’s-eye view and your mind starts throwing away all the shit that doesn’t matter. And you start experiencing time as if everything is happening in the same moment. And actually, when you’re not fighting it, it’s an extremely beautiful thing.
OV: It’s so beautiful.
“We have a version of ourselves we express to our family, our friends, our audience, our publisher, our parents, and then a version of ourselves that we perform when we’re alone” – Ocean Vuong
B: When I was in my twenties, I read The Diary of Anaïs Nin so much that I probably should have been arrested for it. It was ridiculous. I just reread it over and over. And some of my friends would say to me, ‘Listen, come on, she was great but she’s not that great. There are other people.’
And I think as I get older, I better understand why I was so impressed with it. I don’t know another female artist who documented her life – if she was a kid, teenager, twenties, thirties, middle-aged, older – as if all the periods were equally important. And there’s something about that – I think when I was in my twenties I subconsciously decided, ‘Wow, that’s what I’m going to do. I want to document all the stages of a life.’ I want a song I write to be just as important when I’m 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, however long I live, that there’s a democracy of ages.
OV: Yes. That’s such a beautiful thing to say, because I think with Anaïs’s work, what stands out to me is the dignity that is consistent from start to finish. Regardless if she’s writing erotica, she’s talking about mental health or her own struggles, the daily life, there’s so much dignity in it. And I see that, in your work, as varied as it is, the most constant through line is a ferocious dignity, not only to the self but to the art and the vocation at hand. And I think that’s so inspiring.
I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I’ve often been told – maybe because I’m queer, maybe because I’m Asian American, I don’t know – that I should be grateful for where I am. Like, ‘Don’t be too ambitious, don’t ask for too much, don’t believe that you can have that dignity, or that seriousness, taking yourself and your work seriously from start to finish.’ But I think, meanwhile, the people who make weapons never tell themselves to be humble. The people who destroy our world, who milk capital from people and products – the people who design Amazon and atom bombs – they don’t say, ‘Let’s lower the blast radius.’ People who make automatic weapons don’t say, ‘Let’s have this gun shoot fewer bullets.’ Their ambition is always unquestioned and ever increasing. Meanwhile we keep telling our artists to, ‘Tone it down, don’t take your work so seriously.’ And I think it’s so refreshing, as a younger writer, to hear you say, ‘I’ve been taking this absolutely seriously from the beginning.’ It’s a powerful thing. To see the body of work reflect that as evidence, that to give yourself dignity in your craft is actually the most respect you can give to your field.
B: Thank you. I do hope that could be inspiring for people. And I do find it just as interesting telling my story at any age. I was prepared for just three people to listen to me – it didn’t matter if there were 100 or thousands, whatever – I was in it for the long run. And that was some sort of a quiet feminism that I didn’t understand in my twenties, that was what I wanted to do, that documentation.
OV: Some people grow older and they learn and some people grow older and they get more and more bitter and difficult, and they suffer a lot more too. And so I started to think that age is not necessarily a moniker of wisdom, but perhaps loss – that the older we get the more we lose, and that it’s the loss that amplifies how much we understand and how precious the world is. In Buddhism we have this thing called death meditation, every morning I do it myself. And I think that’s what you described when you talked about your mother. You described earlier that when she passed you started to really understand your relationship better. All the little fights become so petty, they fall away. They become so small. And that’s how it is with my mother too, I don’t remember our fights. We had a lot of them, but I don’t remember them. When I think of her I just remember us sitting together, often just drinking tea and talking.
With death meditation, you imagine the people you love dying and you imagine yourself dying, you imagine yourself in a coffin and you do this, and it sounds very morbid. But in fact, after 20 minutes of it you wake up and all of a sudden you realise all the little fights you had with your friends or your partner or your family fell away, because death was so near that you just want to run and hug them. And actually, I think that’s what wisdom really is. It’s not so much moving through time but moving through loss. Do you feel the same way? Has loss taught you anything?
B: Yes. For sure. I think maybe still the biggest loss I experienced was my divorce eight years ago, which had a traumatic effect and I was very open and I thought, ‘Should I just keep that to myself? Or should I share it?’ And then I thought, ‘I’m just going to share it. I’m not going to be poker-faced about that for 50 years. That doesn’t make any sense.’ It gave me a lot, and getting on the subway and looking at people around me, I had more empathy with people in their loss for sure. And I think it was extremely healthy for me.
But maybe it’s part of the kundalini I do, or just being a singer, the structures you build inside you with all the breathing – you become better at hyperventilating every week you do it. When warming up your voice, it’s almost like you’re building a cathedral inside your skull. And it’s a sensation, that the spiritual part of us becomes larger. I’m sure it’s the same with your Buddhist practice, but it is one of the few things that actually grows as you get older. When I walked on stage a few days ago, it was so easy to walk straight into that spiritual place, to close my eyes and share it. I was tearful through the whole show and I could feel that the first few rows of people were emotional too.
Each album is always different, too. I like voices that sound older and deeper, you lose some notes, but you gain some notes too. In each album I tried to work with what I had in that moment, not with what I had ten years ago.
And there is a balance, but also a lot of things that are given to you, you’re building a spiritual cathedral inside you. And being able to rely on that structure, I like to think loss is not as traumatic. I mean, in my twenties, if some boyfriend didn’t kiss me it was like world war three. I don’t go through that any more.
OV: I think our work is kind of the architecture that updates what we felt in those three or seven years. Our work is almost the presentation of what loss and gain has done, the gifts that we’ve had. And I think in a way it’s kind of this update of who we are. The best work, I think, showcases all of life’s contradictions together, it’s all fluid. And you’re right, I do love it when a singer’s voice gains texture. I think of Etta James, I think of some of my favourite singers – Gladys Knight, even Whitney Houston. Towards the end of her life she was struggling – many people criticised her for her voice but I think it was such a natural part of somebody going through their lives and going through the wear and then the recuperation. I found it so profound to hear that, so thank you for saying that. And again, giving dignity to the various instruments that we’re afforded as artists.
I’m a teacher as well, and I always end my classes by asking my students this one question – it’s a very simple one and I’ve been aching to ask you this – recently, what have you been most proud of?
B: Oh, wow. Maybe equilibrium – I’ve been in Iceland for two years now with my family living close by. Can you be proud of equilibrium?
OV: Yes. Coming home, knowing your family and yourself – that’s hard work. That’s not a natural state that everybody gets, so you should be really proud of that.
B: Then of course there’s this album, just saying goodbye to a mother, and also having a teenage daughter who is becoming a grown-up, leaving home. And so there have been several crossroads in my life and I feel like we’ve done it all with equilibrium and dignity and no arguments, so I’m pretty proud of that.
OV: That’s so beautiful. And when you just said that I realised it expanded the ‘her’ in that line – ‘I am her hope-keeper.’ Now I imagine that it’s for the daughter as well, that you’re holding the hope for someone who’s gone and the hope for someone who’s here, who continues to open.
B: Oh, she’s very hopeful, my daughter. She’s a sassy optimist.
OV: May we all be sassy optimists.
Björk is wearing a pleated organza harness and dress embellished with crystalline edging and sequin fringing and latex bodysuit custom-made by ALESSANDRO MICHELE for GUCCI.
Hair: Eugene Souleiman at Streeters. Make-up: Andrew Gallimore at Agency of Substance using MAC. Set design: Andrew Tomlinson at Streeters. Manicure: Adam Slee at Streeters using ESSIE. Digital tech: Joe Colley. Photographic assistants: Grace Hodgson, George Read, Shane Ryan, Madison Blair and Otto Masters. Technical supervisor: Michael Gossage. Studio assistant: Anita Boamah. Studio Intern: Olive Gilson. Hair assistants: Claire Moore and Massimo Di Stefano. Make-up assistant: Rocio Cuenca. Set-design assistants: Alfie McHugh and Phoebe Swiderska. Set-design build: Magna Set Building. Production: Liberte Productions. Executive producer: Kat Davey. Production coordinator: Jared Pasamar. Production assistants: Kitty Lyons, Jonny Faulkner and Sonny Casson. Post-production: Epilogue Imaging.
This story features in the Autumn/Winter 2022 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale internationally now. Buy a copy here.