Björk feels furious when she thinks about the thousands of what she calls “Frankenstein fish” swimming through Iceland’s rivers in the past year.
Like a scene from Piranha, the foreign fish — industrially farmed salmon that companies bred in open-net pens — escaped enclosures in Iceland’s western fjords and entered the country’s rivers at various points in the past few months. These invaders threaten the country’s natural salmon population if they breed since they can carry pesticides and organic waste with them. The number of wild Atlantic salmon in the world as a whole has decreased dramatically in the past 20 years as a result of climate change and an increase in parasites like sea lice. And the wild North Atlantic salmon population of Björk’s home country is just a quarter of what it was in 1970, according to data provided by the Icelandic Wildlife Fund.
Björk, who has always been outspoken in her efforts to better the environment, especially in Iceland, wants to draw attention to the plight of her country’s salmon with a new song, which she sings alongside Rosalía — and to make her plea even more enticing, the song itself has nothing to do with fish.
Björk wrote and recorded “Oral” sometime in the late Nineties, but she never released it since she thought it was just too poppy, too mainstream to fit on albums like Homogenic or Vespertine. The tune, which will come out Nov. 9, blends sweeping orchestral strings with a light reggae beat as the women sing about uniting “the dream and the real” while they consider confessing their love to the man they’re swooning over. “Is that the right thing to do?” they ask in the chorus. “I just don’t know/I just don’t know.” The recording languished in her archive of tapes until this past March, when she listened to it again and decided to revive it.
When she learned of the dangers Iceland’s natural salmon faced — and saw how the issue intensified over the summer as Iceland employed salmon hunters to eliminate the unwelcome fish — she decided to release the track as a charity single. She brought Rosalía in to freshen it up. Proceeds from the track will benefit a legal fund to help Icelanders who live near Seyðisfjörður on Iceland’s east coast fight the arrival of another proposed industrial salmon farm. Any leftover money will go to campaigning for new legislation and raising awareness.
“The natural environment for the wild North Atlantic salmon is declining due to climate change and rising acidity of the ocean,” Jón Kaldal of the IWF tells Rolling Stone. “Because of this, we absolutely need to reduce the impacts of other threats to support the ability of the wild salmon to adapt to the changing environment. Salmon lice, genetic mixing with escaped farmed salmon, [and] infections related to salmon farming in open net pens are the greatest man-made threats to the wild salmon.”
“One of the reasons we’re going on this campaign is we can actually change this,” Björk tells Rolling Stone on a Zoom, talking about the origins of the song and the issue. “We asked all the scientists and environmental lawyers, and it is still possible to reverse the damage. It’s important in all the environmental news that you read: There could be a happy ending.”
How did the dangers of fish farming come to your attention?
Björk: In the last few years, we activists in Iceland have known about [the threat of open-pen fishing], and we haven’t really been happy about it. But in February, a big report came [from the Icelandic National Audit Office] that said not only was this issue as bad as we thought, but it’s 10 times worse. So all of Iceland, everybody, just went bonkers with fury this summer.
We are the largest untouched area of nature in Europe, and for 1,000 years, we have done our own farming. The way we farm our sheep, they’re free; they run around in the highlands for four months in the summer. We always thought of our farming to be what you call “free-range, organic” before people invented those words.
So it was a huge shock when we saw open-pen fish farms. They give the fish drugs that stimulate their growth; the fish’s skeletons were growing at double or triple speeds, so 60 percent of them are disfigured. A lot of the skin is falling off. And then, like, 20 percent of them die in the nets because the conditions are so horrid. Then they’re putting tons of insect poison on them. The condition they’re living in is so bad that doctors [in Norway] advise pregnant women and children not to eat this fish. So you can just imagine what they’re selling in the shops as “wild, north Atlantic salmon” – it’s not. It’s not. It’s basically like they’re living in Auschwitz conditions there.
[“All farmed salmon, 100 percent, have a heart problem, and the spine and skull are often deformed because they grow too fast,” Kaldal says. “And more than half suffer from the loss of hearing. A stress response due to the environment in the sea pens and delousing contributes to this. It’s a heartbreaking moment when you find out that a product that is marketed as sustainably farmed in the pristine North Atlantic, is indeed based on animal cruelty almost without comparison. The fish cannot scream; the abuse is more or less happening below the surface, out of sight. This has to stop.”]
Since doctors are telling people it’s unsafe to eat this fish, is it marked differently in stores?
No, it’s not marked. That’s one thing we should call for. It’s basically a scandal. It’s like some “wild arctic salmon.” But it’s not wild, and it’s kind of not “arctic” even [laughs]. It’s, like, mutant … It’s basically a freak. [Kaldal adds: “All of Iceland’s best restaurants only serve farmed salmon from land based facilities, and the two leading grocery store chains sell salmon farmed on land.”]
How did this situation get so bad?
It’s in the rules that the companies that run this, who are Norwegian, have to keep watch on the nets every 60 days. I think that’s very low; in my opinion, they should do it daily. But 94 days went by, and they didn’t even check the nets. So a few thousand mutants, genetically altered salmon – “Frankenstein fish” – sailed up all our rivers and met with our wild salmon. We basically had to send out scuba divers with harpoons, trying to shoot them down. So that was a disaster in September.
It’s basically like two billionaires in Norway [who run these corporations]. It’s ironic because they did this in Norway, like, 10 years ago. Most Norwegians were against it because of the horrid environmental [implications] that it had. So they changed all the regulations and made them harsher. And then they basically said, “Oh, let’s just go to Iceland. We can do everything we want there.”
That’s also why we’re really mad about this. It’s not only the cruelty to the fish; it’s two billionaire guys making a lot of money from us. Also, it’s not going to the villages where the sea farms are. Obviously, a little bit [does] because people get jobs from working on these farms. But nothing compared to all the money that’s going to those billionaires in Norway. [Kaldal says: “Those companies moved to Iceland, not because of a resistance at home but purely in search of expansion. The Norwegian fjords are ‘sold out.’”]
What do you hope to do with the money you raise from “Oral”?
Since this is all in the west fjords, the east fjords have not been attacked yet. But there’s one fjord there called Seyðisfjörður. There are these two venture capitalists who want to start [a fish farm] there and the majority of the people who live by this fjord don’t want it and have been protesting in the streets and started a legal case.
We would like the profit from the song to go to help these people win this court case. It will take two or three years, and when they win it, we can use that as an exemplary case to other fjords and hopefully the world.
When we translated my press release into Spanish, we sent it all over South America and elsewhere. In Argentina and Chile, [fish farming is] a huge problem. And I think people are just not educated or informed. They don’t know the horrid conditions the animals live in.
Are you petitioning the Icelandic government to change the regulations the way Norway did?
A scandal we have at the moment is that the prime minister, the minister of environment, and the minister of — I don’t know what it’s called in English — like, food production, they are all in a party called the Left-Green. You would think they would be trying to protect nature.
[A majority] of Icelanders agree with us; it doesn’t matter if they’re left or right. They all just think it’s a scandal. They’re going to try to put new legislation into the system. But the thing is, it’s so slow. It’s not like, “Maybe next summer it will change five percent.” That’s just not fast enough.
First, we want to pay for this court case. Then, if we get more money, we want to direct it to help with legislation in any way possible — or direct it to info bombs or whatever it takes. We’re in it for the long run.
When did you write the song “Oral,” and why are you releasing it now?
I recorded it between Homogenic and Vespertine. It was just so different; it was so poppy. It didn’t fit either album somehow. But I never forgot about it. It was always kind of rolling around in my brain.
But back in those times, we didn’t have computers, so the master tapes were all analog, physical tapes. I was asking my manager every three years, “Could you find the song?” And he could never find it. I think I fucked up; I couldn’t remember the name of it.
In March 2023, there was this aristocrat, like in the financial district, who had a sex scandal or something, and there was a court case about him and his two sons. I was touring in Australia at the time, and I was watching CNN. In the ribbon of headlines at the bottom of the screen, it said, “Oral or not oral?” Like, “Was it oral or not oral?” That was the main thing. And I was like, “Wow, that’s the name of the song: ‘Oral.’” And I texted my manager and said, “Could you look in the analog multitracks and find the song called ‘Oral,’” and he found it. Three days later, he emailed it to me.
What’s weird is that the song was exactly how I remembered it. I liked the song, but it was sort of its own little thing that doesn’t fit on any albums or anything. And then this whole open sea fish farming thing came up, and I was like, “Oh, I will just give it to activism.”
Why did you decide to make the song a duet with Rosalía?
Well, I was like, “Should I re-sing these vocals?” But that was weird because I like the vibe of the nostalgia … the mood is very specific, and that would go away if I did that. Then I was like, “Hmm, how about I get a guest who can represent 2023, and there will be some sort of a tunnel or binoculars between the two eras looking at each other?”
I did the arrangement and the beat myself, and at the time, I was very inspired by dancehall, this music that’s generated from Jamaica. So I made a dancehall beat underneath it. And then I was like, “Hmm,” because Rosalía just did sort of an experimental reggaeton album, and I was like, “Well, I guess dancehall is sort of the grandmother of reggaeton.” I’ve already been a friend of hers for a few years, so I just texted her and said, “Would you sing on this track for me? It’s for the environment.” And she just immediately said yes without having even heard it. She was just on it.
What did Rosalía tell you about the song when she finally heard it?
She loved it straight away. I think she most wanted to do this because of the environment. It would have been tricky if she didn’t like the tune, but she loved it.
It’s a song where it was easy to imagine her being in it. But we didn’t know how to do it. She asked me, “What do you want me to do?” And I just said, “Do whatever you feel like.” I wrote the lyrics and the melodies, and she re-sang half of them with her arrangement or take on it. We were using the same pattern that I did originally of the beat, but we’re producing it together, trying to figure out a way to make the beat still true to what it was but it still feels like 2023.
How did you first meet Rosalía?
I heard her first album, where she was singing flamenco, maybe five years ago. I loved it. I was obsessed with it and listened to it nonstop. And I contacted her through Pablo [Díaz-Reixa], he’s called El Guincho, and he works with her. He actually came to Brooklyn to help me with beats on two of my Biophilia albums back in 2010 or something.
So the next time I came to Barcelona, I met with them and Alejandra [Rodríguez], you know, Arca. She lives in Barcelona now. So we were hanging out, the four of us; that was quite cute. I think we talked about [recording] something, but it has to be the right time and the right song.
What did Rosalía bring to the track that you liked?
We were actually the same age when we sang this song. I was, like, I don’t know, 33 or something, and she’s 33 now, -ish. [Rosalía is 31.] So I thought, from a pure voice nerd point of view, that’s sort of interesting. At least it’s not necrophilia, but it’s close …
What do you remember about … I’m sorry, I’m speaking over you.
No, I was just going to say some bad necrophilia joke.
I’d like to hear a bad necrophilia joke.
I’ll leave it at that. At least it’s not necrophilia.
OK. What do you remember about writing “Oral”? My interpretation of the lyrics are that you’re wondering about revealing your feelings to a man, maybe crossing over from a dream state. When you listen to your 33-year-old self sing that, what do you remember about it?
Yeah, you’re spot on. It’s totally that moment when you’ve met someone, and you don’t know if it’s friendship or something more. So you become, I guess, aroused. And you become very aware of your lips. That’s maybe why I called the song “Oral.” You don’t know what the consequences are if you act. Sometimes fantasy can be amazing, and that’s enough; you don’t have to also do things.
But it’s quite playful. It’s not a painful song at all. And even though I obviously didn’t write this song for salmons, I like the fact that it’s a happy song.
One thing you do in the song vocally that I have always liked about your music is the way you shape your voice from smooth to almost a growl.
I don’t think it’s that thought-out, to be honest. And one of the growls that sounds like me is actually Rosalía. I think it was a beautiful audio reference to my voice. I’m very honored. She put a lot of work into singing this. I like the sound of our voices together.
You performed at Coachella this year. Are you planning a more extensive tour of the United States beyond your Cornucopia shows for next year?
Well, Cornucopia was a strange project because we did it for a year, and then Covid came for two years. And then we started it again. We’re finishing it now around Christmas. It’s unusual in the sense that it’s been a four-year run with a big gap in the middle.
We did New York in May 2019, and then we did California in January 2022. The thing is, it’s so difficult to travel. It’s the most ambitious project I’ve traveled with. We have, like, 24 rotating curtains. So I think this is sort of the end of this show. And then, next year, I will start writing my next album. And next year there will be a film in the cinema.
You said that you’re glad to be using a happy song for the salmon. Why is that?
I would like to offer hope in all things environmental. I’m very against the Hollywood take of having film after film, TV series after TV series, about postapocalyptic survivalists with tin cans who can’t breathe, and “we’re all gonna die” and shoot each other. I think it’s narrow-minded, cowardly, and full of self-pity. I would like to react to environmental issues with more optimism and in a solution-based way, find court cases that you can win, and change things that you can change.
I think in the 21st century, we will lose quite a lot of animal species, and we’ve lost quite a lot of things already. But I do still have a lot of faith in biology. Maybe some of us will be like mutant plants, human plants, like borderline sci-fi. But I do think it’s important to have a strong enough imagination and a creative, fertile headspace. You have to be able to imagine a future and live in it. It’s too lazy to indulge in the worst-case scenario always.