Today, the wide, tree-lined street in New York’s Brooklyn Heights that Björk calls home is a hubbub of television cast and crew filming the ABC drama Georgetown. Her 280-square-metre penthouse apartment lies atop a muscular 20s redbrick block on the corner, high above the bustle. “You kind of feel like it’s a country house,” Björk says. She is wearing a cadet-grey dress with shiny mauve patches on the shoulder and waist. When the sunlight from the studio windows hits them, they sparkle. The room is airy, with tables for her kit, which includes a keyboard, speakers, computer and a mix of percussion and electronic music controlpads. Björk has spent much time here over the last 36 months working on Biophilia, trying not to feel daunted by the album’s scope.
There was a musicological ambition: she wanted each of the album’s ten songs to emphasise one key idea, such as counterpoint, arpeggios or tempo. And there’s intellectual purpose: each song’s lyrics dwell on a scientific theme that attempts to match its musical concern. In “Crystalline” Björk invokes crystals as a symbol of the track’s structural complexity; “Virus” is so called because of its multiplying phrases. “I hope to show kids that if you base musicology more on structures in nature it’s actually not that complicated,” she says. Although “a bit of a maths nerd” when she was younger, for this album she knew that she would have to learn more about the sciences if she was to unite them convincingly with music.
She worked to self-imposed deadlines, reading books and watching documentaries on everything from astrophysics to cultural theory, focusing on areas where science and sound intersect. One major influence was Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia, an exploration of the relationship between music and neurology, to which the album’s title is a nod. Björk undertook more research for this project than for any of her previous albums. One day she found herself explaining string theory to friends in a bar. “It was actually in a pretty cool way,” she says, grinning. “Like I was really good at physics or something.”
For all their chewy themes, Björk felt the songs couldn’t stand on their own. “People are getting a lot of music for free by pirating it,” she says. “But they are going to double [the amount of] shows because they want a 3D, physical experience.” Her instinct, at first, was to provide that experience through a music house, “like a museum”. Each room would be designated a different song, and contain interactive exhibits related to the track. The stairs would be working piano keys. In June 2009 she spoke to National Geographic about another way she could add to the album: working together on a 40-minute 3D IMAX movie of Biophilia. She approached her longtime collaborator, French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who agreed to direct. Björk hoped this film and the music house would not only generate revenue, but also educate — finally realising the vision she had described to her teacher, all those years ago. “This project,” she says, “is also my music-school project.”