Katie Buckley featured in Björk’s newest album
Singer-songwriter Björk recently released the album Utopia, which Spin calls “stunning” and NPR hails as “peace amidst the chaos.” Harp Column caught up with harpist Katie Buckley, who recorded the prominent harp line in the album. We wanted to hear more about her experiences working on Utopia and her life in Iceland.
Let’s dive right in – I know you play with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and that Björk is Icelandic, but I’d love to know how you two got connected!
First, I must say, Iceland is really very small. Total population is around 330,000. I was contacted by one of her managers to send over my resume. She works with a lot of Icelandic musicians (or, in my case, residents of Iceland!) so, I really think it was just my luck of being here.
There is so much harp on this album – the song “Blissing Me” is essentially a marriage between harp and singer. What was your role in crafting the harp line? How much input did you have (or wish you had!) over your part?
Björk was definitely the composer. My role, besides playing, was a bit of editing. This is in my comfort zone because I work with composers writing new music so often. The part is comprised of several harp parts. Originally it was a harp trio, but, because of the difficulty of some of the parts, we felt it worked much better as a quartet of harps. We all know how composers struggle with writing for the harp, so really, I just made everything playable. I also suggested a few edits to make passages more “harp-like.” Then we recorded each harp part separately. Both “Blissing Me” and “Arisen” were recorded over two years ago, so I actually had no idea if they would even show up on the album. It is always possible that things go in a different direction. The final harp part on “Loss” was recorded this past summer and was just one harp line to go along with the flute choir.
So you recorded some parts for this album over two years ago, but didn’t get to hear it until recently? Can you talk a little bit about how hearing it for the first time made you feel? Is it different than what you were expecting?
It was weird. I knew the album was coming out, and that at the very least, there was harp on “Loss.” One morning, I woke up very early and suddenly she had released “Blissing Me.” I had only heard the song from my harp parts, so I had no idea what it would be like. I was completely surprised and quite excited by how exposed the harp was! I’ve recorded albums with other artists and I’m always completely shocked by either how little or how much harp there is. When you’re just recording with click track, you really just have no idea. I have done a lot of wonderful things here in Iceland, but this is one of the coolest!
Playing with a professional symphony and coming from a classical background, having received degrees from Eastman School of Music, how did your training and professional experiences prepare you for this kind of musical work?
I think classical training helped in a lot of aspects. I can’t stress enough the importance of metronome work. When you record an album like this, you are ONLY recording with a click track, which is just a metronome. My training at Eastman with Kathleen Bride gave me the technical foundation to play anything, really. We recorded “Arisen” first, and Björk’s instruction to me was,” This really needs to be the happiest, most wonderful thing you have ever felt and played.” Obviously, a classical training helps to take specific emotions and change them [to create]sounds and colors that express those feelings.
I love that so much. Before I let you go, I’d love to hear a little bit about life in Iceland, both musical and otherwise. It seems like an incredible place in which to make your career and build a life!
Iceland is my little miracle. I never could have imagined that hopping on a plane to take an audition in a strange little country would have been everything I ever wanted in music. I get to play with the orchestra, I have a percussion and harp duo called Duo Harpverk (we have commissioned over 170 pieces since we started 10 years ago!), and I have been so lucky to play on albums for members of the Bedroom Community label, loads of Icelandic pop artists, and movie soundtracks. I continue to grow musically from all of these experiences, and I am just so thankful that I took the chance on this audition. Basically, it is everything I could possibly want to do musically wrapped in a tiny package.