In Reykjavík last month, farmers laid out dead fish on the steps of Iceland’s parliamentary headquarters and doused them in insecticide, the latest action in a growing public outcry about the state of fish farms operating in the country’s waters. Among the crowd of supporters was one of Iceland’s most important voices: Björk, whose advocacy for the environment in her home country has encompassed geothermal energy, public lands, and, now, wild salmon.
On Thursday (November 9), Björk releases “Oral,” a Sega Bodega–produced single with Rosalía that dates back two decades. She wrote the song between 1997’s Homogeneic and 2001’s Vespertine, but she felt like the track wasn’t a good fit for an album. In the years that followed, she’d occasionally remember the song’s melody, but not the title, and she couldn’t ever find it in her tape archives.
In March, however, the title came back to Björk when she saw the word “oral” in a CNN news chyron while she was on tour in Australia. The same month, a report arrived about the devastating impact of poorly regulated, Norwegian-owned commercial salmon farming operations on Iceland’s native ecosystems. Full of parasite-ridden fish that are genetically different from Icelandic salmon, the open-net pens located near Iceland’s fjords have been a particularly grave environmental threat. The fjords are among the country’s most prized natural treasures, salty safe havens for a vast array of flora and fauna that support a larger marine ecosystem encompassing whales, birds, foxes, and seals. Björk’s connection to the cause clicked with immediate serendipity, and, in September, her sense of urgency worsened when one company discovered that 3,500 fish had made their way out of its pens and into the fjords.
Proceeds from “Oral” will be used to support a legal case against the fisheries, brought forth by residents of the town of Seyðisfjörður on the eastern side of Iceland. For her part, Björk has a fierce determination that Iceland’s wildlife is not forever doomed to collapse under the demands of industrial enterprise, and that “Oral” can be a beacon for the environmental cause. “When we win it—we’re gonna win, we just decided it—we are hoping that that could be some sort of exemplary case that other fjords in Iceland could use, and hopefully for all the world,” she says. Below, find a lightly edited transcript of Björk’s conversation with Pitchfork about “Oral” and her commitment to the natural world.
How did you get drawn into the pushback against these fish farms?
It was a report that came out that revealed all the horrors, that everything was not as bad as we thought it was, but, like, 10 times worse. We pride ourselves as being the biggest untouched area in Europe. I guess we missed out on the Industrial Revolution because we were a colony for 600 years. And the upside of that was we could just go from, like, 17th century, straight into the 21st century and bypass all the factories, pollution, and all that nonsense. For us to discover that secretly there’d been basically factory farming in our fjords, it was a huge shock.
They both brought in Norwegian salmon who’ve been genetically changed, and they’re basically like mutants. They’re swimming around in their own—what’s a nice word for shit and pee? There was a pandemic of lice, and they would dump so much insect poison on them, and antibiotics. In the space of five years, all the other life in the fjords would just get killed.
I think at the moment our strongest argument legally is biodiversity, because this erases not only seaweed and plants, but also all animals in the fjords. All the mutant salmon that escape—there is always a certain percentage—go up into rivers and fuck up the wild salmon that’s there.
What made you want to revive this particular song for the cause?
It’s sort of a long story because I wrote it between Homogenic and Vespertine and it was just too poppy. It just didn’t fit into either of those albums. I just put it on salt. I programmed the original beat, and I guess I was sort of going for some sort of a dancehall mood. When I was listening to the track, I was like, Hmm, Rosalía, her last album was sort of experimental reggaeton. I can really imagine her voice inside this. Maybe that’s a better way to get a guest vocalist, who sort of represents now, and there’s this tunnel into the past, us having this kind of conversation.
I’ve known her for a few years, so I just texted her, and she immediately said yes, before even having heard the song. I think she was also wanting to support the cause. I told her about the fish farming, and we’ve been chatting about it. We translated the press release into Spanish, because it’s a huge problem in Argentina and Chile. I’m hoping it will somehow encourage people in all these other countries to do something.
The way you said when we win makes me think of the line in the song, “The dream and the real, get them acquainted”—you weren’t necessarily thinking of applying that to environmental causes when you wrote it so many years ago. How does that idea fit into your advocacy angle for the song’s release?
You’re right, obviously, I was not thinking about salmon then. There are other songs, for example—“Declare Independence,” I wrote for the Faroe Islands and Greenland. I wanted to challenge this kind idea of what a protest song is. So I was like, “Let’s do a punk rave song that is a protest song.”
But this song is not like that at all. I like the fact that it’s happy. We are focusing on the solutions, to give people a voice. If we get more money than ust for this court case, we are also going to go into all the legislation, and more into the infrastructure of Iceland’s legal system [about] how we can have strict regulations here. We also understand that this is not a sprint, this is like a marathon. This might take five years, so who knows? One of the reasons why I picked this case is because it is still possible to stop the mutant Norwegian salmon. It is still possible to get our fjords back.
You’ve always held a sense of being connected to the natural world close to your heart. How do you feel like what you’re doing with “Oral” fits in with that and your ideas about bringing protest music forward?
With each album, obviously I have had different priorities when it comes to aesthetics and emotional issues or themes. Volta was sort of my pre-#MeToo feminist album, you know, like they, they are, most of them in some ways. I do personal politics. I don’t do party politics. I’ve never voted for a party in my life. But I think this is a very important weapon, or tool, of the singer-songwriter.
I was lucky enough, in the early ’90s when I was in London a lot, to be offered a lot of “support children with cancer” galas, dinner [events]—all kinds of things like this. I decided very quickly to back out of it, because I didn’t see where the money went. It wasn’t transparent enough for me. What I’ve done since then, is I went back to Iceland and said, “OK, think globally, act locally.” I’ve always picked maybe one battle a year, or every other year, that I can see I can win, and I can take it all the way till the end and actually change something.
I’ve tried to choose different things at different times. What is the situation in Iceland? Like what, what’s most urgent at this moment? I’ve gone through fighting aluminum factories, and against privatizing ownership of the Highlands. I think it’s good, every time we unite, that we take another angle on it, just to keep it fresh and to be as effective as possible. At this moment, fish farming is the one, but it taps into so many other things. It’s a small island, so it affects farmers, it affects villages—affects everyone.