Your new album, Vulnicura, is an account of breaking up with your longtime partner. How does working on such emotional material affect your process?
This has probably been the most impulsive album I’ve done. I just had to listen to my gut, what felt right. What threw me a lot was just how difficult it was. Every time I would want to skip it and just do a disco album I [couldn’t], because it was this big lump of songs I just had to deal with. Most people who go through a period of grief, it’s a process. It’s like chapters in a book: You do the first chapter and then you have to do the next chapter. In that sense it was a process that I wasn’t in control of.
Speaking of not being in control, the album leaked two months ahead of schedule, forcing you to release it early. That must have been particularly upsetting.
At that point I had had two years of things happening to me that I didn’t want to happen to me, so my Buddhist muscle had been well exercised. "Okay, another thing has happened to me that I didn’t want to happen to me! I have no choice but to deal with it." So in a strange way it was in the spirit of the album in that you don’t have a choice. And I was dying to get this album out and over and done with. So I think in a way it was a strange kind of blessing.
Vulnicura is not currently available on Spotify. Why not?
We’re all making it up as it goes, to be honest. I would like to say there’s some master plan going on [with the album release], but there isn’t. But a few months ago I emailed my manager and said, "Guess what? This streaming thing just does not feel right. I don’t know why, but it just seems insane."
Why is it insane?
To work on something for two or three years and then just, Oh, here it is for free. It’s not about the money; it’s about respect, you know? Respect for the craft and the amount of work you put into it. But maybe Netflix is a good model. You go first to the cinema and after a while it will come on Netflix. Maybe that’s the way to go with streaming. It’s first physical and then maybe you can stream it later.
You have a long history of fruitful artistic collaborations. What have you learned about working with other people—while keeping your own creative vision intact?
You can’t really control it. If it’s fertile, it’s fertile, and if it isn’t, it isn’t. It’s similar to friendships. You know in your heart of hearts with a new friend if you’d still have something to talk about in three weeks or if you’d be bored shitless with each other. It’s also important to be truthful with each other. Every few weeks you have to check if everybody is still up for doing this or not. But I love the handshake, you know? I really like to collaborate with people.
Your post-Sugarcubes solo career—which began in 1993—has closely matched the rise of the modern digital age. How has that affected the way you create and also what your music sounds like?
A lot. It’s kind of funny, because I’m actually not that good with technology. Usually people help me out. But I grasp pretty quickly the potential of it, even though I don’t end up reading the manual myself. Technology just gave me so much freedom to do things that I couldn’t have done before. When the laptop first came out, it gave me a lot of freedom, in that I didn’t have to work with a group of musicians. I could be a tyrant. [Laughs] I mean, don’t get me wrong: I loved being in bands. But you make all these democratic decisions all of the time. That is really exciting and healthy when you’re a teenager and maybe into your 20s, but when you get a bit older you know more what your individuality is as an artist. I kind of wanted to discover what is my music.
Twenty years ago you released the song "The Modern Things," about machines that "multiply and take over" the world. Clearly, technology can have a downside too.
It’s like anything: It’s how we use it. There was an article in an Icelandic newspaper in 1905 or something when the telephone came up. They were like, "Oh, now people will never speak face to face." And obviously that never went away. There’s always that fear of the tools taking over. You have to define the morality of it: Are you going to destroy with it or are you going to be creative with it? It’s a choice. I’m not saying I always succeed. Definitely not. I’m as guilty as anyone of collapsing in front of Netflix after a long week. [Laughs] My daughter and I watch Adventure Time a lot.
Your last album was available as an app, which uses your music to teach kids about sound, science, and nature. It recently became the first app acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
I was really chuffed with how many people got into it. It’s now being taught in Scandinavian schools.
Does this mean you’re getting tired of the old-fashioned album? Is that format, which is now more than 50 years old, going to disappear?
It depends what sort of story you want to tell. I think there’s a reason why [albums are] 45 minutes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that movies are the length they are. It’s a certain storytelling-by-the-fire, cavemen, DNA instinct that feels really natural. But there’s all kinds of music. A lot of the songs I listen to, I don’t want to hear them as albums. They’re pop songs or whatever. And then there are other ones where I want to sit down and listen to a story.
You and director Andrew Thomas Huang recently shot a video in Iceland for "Stonemilker" that will be available for Oculus Rift.
It’s easy to get really intimate [with virtual reality]. It’s almost more intimate than real life. It also has this crazy panoramic quality. I think it’s really exciting.
Can you see releasing an album for Oculus Rift? Maybe people could play along on virtual instruments.
Yes and no. Andrew and I have had some conversations. When I did the app album, it was all based on touch screens and the fact that I knew I could [create a virtual] music school, a dream since my childhood. I only did that album because I felt like I had content that made sense, that could relate to the technology. It can’t just be working with the gadget for the sake of the gadget. But also it’s about budgets. You can do apps cheaply. Apps was kind of punk, actually. It was like starting a punk band again. Filming for Oculus Rift is not.
Another Oculus Rift video will be shown as part of a MoMA retrospective of your career, opening on March 8. The curator, Klaus Biesenbach, apparently approached you 15 years ago, and you said no.
I can’t remember. He might have asked me and I just thought it was a joke. How do you hang songs on the wall?
Why say yes now?
He kept asking. He wouldn’t give up. He said we could do what he called a "midcareer retrospective," which to me sounded hilarious. I mean, I’m very flattered too. I just don’t think about my work in that way. I’m usually trying to work out how I’m going to do the next thing. What got me interested was that MoMA commissioned a new piece.
So it was the chance to do something new, then, not just look back.
Yeah, that was the main reason. Also I had a conversation with my friend Antony [Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons]. I was 50-50 about it, and he was like, "Do it for women! Do it for sound!" I’ve been feeling like the daughter of my father, who is a union leader who fights for the lowest paid in Iceland. I became the union leader for sound in a visual environment. I don’t know exactly who the MoMA audience is, to be honest, but I’ve been having an imaginary audience, which is sort of the average person who doesn’t listen to music that much. She goes on a weekend trip with her family to MoMA and discovers sound a little bit, and she thinks, Oh, I actually love this. Sound waves going through my body: It feels nice! I’m going to listen to some more music.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.