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jörk’s a rare type: successful, well-known, well-distributed, and totally un-commercial. Which is to say she does whatever she wants and gets away with it and puts her head down on a nice pillow. It’s an admirable position, but she didn’t just waltz into it: it’s been 13 years since her solo debut and she’s still finding ways to reinvent herself. Volta, which comes out on May 8th, abandons the microcosmic, domestic glitch of Vespertine and the a capella Medulla for big drums, swaths of noise, and a weird cross-section of collaborators ranging from Malian kora player Toumani Diabate to Brian Chippendale (the drummer from Providence shock-prog cult Lightning Bolt). Even as someone not intimately invested in her work, I could sense a shift in her perspective. I wanted to ask her some of what transpired on Volta, what was in her head, and what was up with the whole Earth Mother routine.
It was interesting for me to read that you wanted to work with Timbaland in part because of his sense of humor. I didn’t really get a light-hearted vibe from your collaborations with him, and I don’t think of you as an artist with a sense of humor, a few songs aside—not necessarily a good or bad thing—but I wonder what impact you feel like humor has in your music, both in lyric and in sound. I mean, are you a puns person? Slapstick?
Well , you’re going to have to ask my friends about that one but I feel overall people that haven’t met me take me a bit too seriously. There is a lot of self-parody in my music. But maybe it is more obvious in how I dress or in my lyrics. And I can hear a lot of physical comedy in Timbaland’s beats—he isn’t doing gangsta, he’s doing pranksta! You sort of notice it when you are in a bar and they put on “Get Ur Freak On” or something—how everybody dances kinda different to his stuff.
There’s a lot of personal sentiment on Volta—I’m thinking of “Dull Flame of Desire” or “Wanderlust”—but there’s also a lot of politically oriented stuff, like “Declare Independence” (personal/political) and “Earth Intruders,” where you try to assert a kind of pre-civilized state. I’m curious what—besides the tsunami in Southeast Asia, which you mentioned in another interview—helped you return to this sentiment, which reminds me more of something like “Human Behavior” than anything else.
Perhaps I am one of incredibly many that became a little pissed off with the Iraq war. And, especially since I am only spending half of my time in this country, it was pretty mind-blowing when Bush got reelected. On another note, I think that it is important to feel positive about globalism—it isn’t necessarily only an evil thing. I remember reading as a child, in music school, a quote from Stockhausen that in the next century (now) we will have killed all the animals and become only one nation, but it is going to be amazing, everybody communicating telepathically and floating into space between the stars. I don’t agree with him completely but I feel it is important to move on and stop clinging to old stuff. By moving forward and letting go, so much other stuff is going to come back to us like unite as one tribe and hopefully we’ll manage to get rid of organized religion.
Did you feel like this idea of a united tribe played out in the recording of Volta? Like, were there any cultural gaps between you and the international musicians on the album that made it difficult to pull off? And don’t you think that maybe there’s more universality in something like music, which isn’t barred by language (and only lightly by custom), than politics?
Of course has music always been a main unifier, above and beyond nationalities and politics . But also I find it kinda funny thinking of everyone at Times Square, for example, as a tribe—all that evolving, civilizing, and we’re still just one of the animal species. But it’s all pretty relevant anyway. I have seen my records in the “world” section because I’m from Iceland. “World music,” what is that? Everything except the US and Britain? The majority of the planet but kinda second class? Like naïve music? I have had to deal with the elfin naïve nonsense stamp all my life and I have never seen an elf and I don’t think I’m naïve. (If i was from Boston making the same music, I wouldn’t be called naïve.) Anyway, no hard feelings, but I’m just trying to point out how silly those categories are. Music is music.
Is “Earth Intruders” really an attempt to pull people together? Is it one of the reasons you tried to pull in people as disparate as Timbaland and Konono [the Congolese dance band that contributes thumb piano]? Just curious. I mean, I’m wondering if you actually envision it as a song being played, say, on the radio.
I’m really rubbish in knowing what could go on radio, because I never listen to it. And I never listen to it because…??!???!??? (it is less than good). I do wish it would be a wee bit more exciting and adventurous. But to be honest, I wasn’t thinking of radio at all, I was just being a bit indulgent and mixing together my favorite things. And is there such a gap between them anyway? Electronic tribal rhythms? Emotionally—that’s what’s most important at the end of the day—“Earth Intruders” for me is a tsunami of noise that washes over and rebuilds what has been destroyed and attempts to bring justice. It is very much a justice song.
Is there going to be more acting in your future? Have you ever given a thought to directing?
No, I’m very happy with music. There is so little time.
You’ve done a lot of collaborations at this point, and they’ve always been fairly eyebrow-raising (in a good way). I wonder if you ever consider doing more cross-medium collaborations, like you did with Matthew Barney [her partner, who directed the Björk-starring Drawing Restraint 9] .
Don’t know; these things are usually not planned far ahead, more improvised and fuelled by whatever I’m going through at each given moment. So it is hard to say. But more and more, the better I get in the studio, I’m becoming quite self-sufficient, and 90% of my record-making is spent in front of a computer editing, so there is so much solitude there already (which I love!). Collaborations are always like the sweet reward at the end of the people. If you’re good with yourself you get to merge with others.
You’re clearly an “artist” as much as a musician—what are some of the more affecting pieces of artwork or film or design or theater you’ve seen in the past few years that might’ve given Volta some of its shading?
I was really impressed with [Darren Aronofsky’s film] The Fountain. It was refreshing to see someone expressing visually their inner spirituality without it being full of organized religion. There was more personal spirituality, which is how I feel we are all on the inside. There’s loads of stuff. A book called The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Schlain was the right book at the right time. About newly discovered neuroscience, the brain hemispheres, and their impact on history. Also when I did the research on the soundtrack to Matthew’s film, I found tons of fun south Japanese pop songs from the sixties, kinda oceanic . They probably inspired the kora [from Malian virtuoso Toumani Diabate] / pipa [China’s Min Xiao-Fen], and clavichord passages on Volta.