Look back in wonder : Björk takes a pause

Filter Magazine n°2, 1er septembre 2002

People crash cars into lampposts after seeing themselves on the sidewalk. Doppelgangers roam the earth looking for their other halves. Tap them on the shoulder and you’ll apologize with red-cheeked unease after they’ve turned around : “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.” That guy’s funny like Jerry Lewis, tall like a glass of water. That girl’s ageless like Sophia Loren, pale like Joan of Arc. Everything is like something else except Björk.

Björk is a genre. Sometimes you go looking for the Beatles when the Kinks will do. When you’ve lost your Serge Gainsbourg, Charles Aznavour comes closer than a croissant. When your ears are seeking Björk, only Björk will do. After disbanding her beloved Sugarcubes and over the course of Debut, Post, Homogenic and Vespertine, Björk has institutionalized a sound. Her sound. You’re tempted to use words like elfin, half-human or otherworldly, because a word like unique is not unique. You think of things like moss and rocks and rivers, hibernation and seclusion. Where is Iceland anyway ? She is a woman who wears swans and has a voice that hovers somewhere between earth and “out there.” When singers sing, they sing out and above. When Björk sings, it’s as if she’s already been away and above and is returning only briefly to share a secret.

The year, Björk is preparing the release of four live recordings : a collection entitled Family Tree, which explores her post-Sugarcubes, pre-solo work ; and a fan-picked “greatest hits” collection. If there was an artist who would seem burdened by the notion of a retrospective, it’s Björk. Restless, small, and unpredictable, sending Björk into an attic to dig through relics would be like giving a child a pair of scissors and a trampoline. But she’s emerged from the dust and the boxes and arrived with rewards from her journey backwards. With a bit of reluctance, after 10 years of playing the pioneer, Björk is looking at her feet to see where she’s standing, instead of ahead to see where she’s going.

Is there any music that you’ve made over the years that you feel uncomfortable listening to now ?
Overall, no. I knew at the time, when I did Debut, that I was a beginner and the only way to do that album was to forgive myself. I would make a lot of mistakes, but you’ve got to start somewhere. So, I haven’t been hard on myself in that way, because there’s a lot of clumsy stuff going on there. But that’s okay. I think the only sort of problematic thing has been that the business people really wanted “It’s Oh So Quiet.” They really liked that song and they thought that was the only thing I’d done and the rest was invisible. I was a bit confused because that’s a song from the ‘50s and I just don’t think it represents my work. Then, when we asked the fans to vote for their favorite songs, it wasn’t even in their top 15. So, I was really pleased [laughs]. That was a good thing. But for a couple of months, I was like, “Why the fuck did I do 10 years of entering the unknown and having this feeling of being a pioneer ?” I’m sorry. It sounds a bit big-headed, but I don’t mean that I succeeded. I’m just saying that when you go blindfolded into the unknown and you’ve been on a mission that the world needs new music and you’ve experimented with all sorts of people and have this excellent adventure—doing that for 10 years and sitting down with the record company people and they say, “Oh, forget about everything you’ve ever done. The only thing that’s worth anything is ‘It’s Oh So Quiet.’” You just go, “What ?!” I didn’t work like a lunatic and wave the flag and the trumpet, with this fierce belief for all this time, to have that song be the only result.

They were nice enough to narrow your entire career down to a cover.
Yeah, which is sort of ironic, really. But then I was so pleased when the fans voted and there were, like, 15 other songs that they thought were better. Then I was like, “Okay. You don’t have to think I’m amazing or anything, but at least that I’ve made the effort to do new stuff.” It’s nice when people actually acknowledge that.

It’s probably more rewarding anyway, when an actual fan recognizes that, rather than a record executive.
Yeah, I guess record executives are maybe more conservative musically.

Maybe ? I think “conservative” isn’t a harsh enough word…
Maybe that’s not what they’re in it for. So, I mean, you have to forgive them [laughs]. I’m please I did that song. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no regrets. I think it was very right in the context of that album, Post—it was sort of a slapstick tune. But 10 years later and that’s the only thing to survive ! That’s a bit too much for me.

I can’t imagine someone as creatively restless as you are would get any kind of fulfillment from looking backwards. Has looking back taught you anything about yourself ?
I started off feeling a little guilty because I was so eager to just move ahead. I couldn’t handle the past. I would just tell them, “The recordings are up in the attic.” And then they would just pile up there and become bigger and bigger and bigger, so it was time to start going through them. I thought that looking through all the old material and the live songs would only take a couple weeks. It’s easy. It’s just old stuff. But it actually took half a year—listening to all my old songs and getting together what we’re calling The Family Tree. [The Family Tree] is something that I wanted to do. It’s all the different songs I did before Debut. It’s like the story of how I got there. We ended up asking the fans on the Internet to choose the “greatest hits” songs, but I’ve been listening to old stuff of myself for months now and I never ever do that. It’s like the last thing I would ever do. It’s sort of been awkward. Part of it as been great. It’s been very educational. But I’m getting very, very eager to move on and do new stuff and forget that all this ever happened. It was a stronger feeling than I ever expected it to be. It’s quite liberating.

Liberating because you feel like you can finally move on from the past and put it behind you ?
Yeah. It was the right time to do this. If I didn’t do this now, I would have gotten into trouble.

In what way ?
Every 10 years or so, you sort of have to look back and think, “Okay. What have I covered and what haven’t I covered ?” Not that it’s ever that clear why you covered it in the first lace. This kind of mission you’re on is just so intuitive. It was interesting that certain things that I though I hadn’t covered, I’ve covered far too many times. Then there’s other things that I sort of took for granted that I had managed to express, but I haven’t yet. I guess it’s because you’re doing things really fast and you just go from tour to record and tour to record. It’s excellent and it’s very exciting, but sometimes it makes it accidental what you end up documenting and what you leave out.

You once referred to the Sugarcubes as a joke band—something that was never supposed to last as long as it did. If the Sugarcubes were a joke, how would you characterize your solo career up to this point ? Is this the serious drama, or is it still funny ?
Yeah, there’s definitely funny moments. That Sugarcubes were more about having a good time. It was like a teenage band. It wasn’t necessarily a question of life or death, which is excellent and very important. The people you first bond with like that, they end up molding you for the rest of your life. A lot of these people end up being your friends for life, too. Sugarcubes had that thing, for sure—that kind of gang thing. It’s a teenager’s need, you know ? What you’re doing is not so much about yourself. You’re not being self-indulgent, you’re sort of being the opposite. It’s all for one, one for all. I wouldn’t necessarily say my work is more serious, but it’s more self-indulgent. It’s more about me. I mean, I’m not necessarily all serious. I’m definitely occasionally a drama queen, for sure. But I’m occasionally very silly and I’m not afraid of it. I quite like being silly. But I couldn’t take any song of the Sugarcubes and say, “This is me.” Not because it’s not good, it’s just group work. It’s different.

For someone who is perceived as fearless, do you have a lot of fears ?
Yeah, sure !

Do you ever limit yourself when you’re making music, because you’re afraid of you own ambition ?
Yeah. I guess I’m lucky because I do so many things. For example, I’m touring and usually I don’t write very much when I’m touring, so by the time I come home and start writing, I’ve starved myself for so long I can’t wait to write. And then, it’s a different stage when you’re beginning an album—it’s like one mood. And it’s a completely different mood later on, when the songs are already there and you’re arranging stuff. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve always done on my own, where it’s self-indulgent diary-writing, going alone on trips and taking long walks and being solitary. Then there’s the complete opposite, when I write with people. You become very, very close with people when you work with them. It’s very intimate. There are definitely fears involved, in every section there. It’s a very different kind of fear. I’ve always made sure that everything isn’t bulletproof when I start a tour. I try to leave the other musicians big spaces so things can develop, so no two shows will be the same. It’s a bit of a Russian roulette whether it’s going to be a good show or not. I’m addicted to that risk. That’s the only way you can do a good tour because that means later on, the tour will become its own beast. Whereas, when I did Debut, I rehearsed everything so well, that the first show was the same as the last show—nothing had space to change or grow. Those tours become very stagnant. There’s not a lot of freedom and spontaneity. So, when I start a tour, I’ve got a lot of fears, but it’s good fear. Like, “Will tonight’s show work or not ?” Then I jump off a cliff and kind of manage somehow and halfway through the tour I solve most of the riddle.

I’m starting to write again now and I have my little fears, of course, but I think they’re good fears. Every time I start an album I think, “Okay. That’s it. I can’t. I’ll never be able to do this again.” I have to have that option, that it’s a possibility that there won’t be another album. I mean, I’m not saying it’s a big drama or something. It’s just like anything. Like friendships, or love things—you have to appreciate each day for what it is. You’re never sure that maybe in a month, it won’t be there anymore. I quite like that sort of fear. Of course, it can be too much fear and then you just don’t do anything.

It could free you or freeze you.
Yeah, but I guess it’s the same with everyone. You have to walk that tightrope and enjoy it. Or try, at least. But sure, I’m scared shitless a lot of the time.

How much of a role do your dreams play in your creative life ?
My dreams have always been very vivid. A lot of the time, they feel a lot more real than every day life. I could probably quite easily do songs that would just be my dreams, but I also think that’s too easy. I try to move on to the next level where the dream has sort of a handshake with reality. I think that’s braver—if you wake up and remember a dream and it helps you to deal with the next day. You have to make them push each other to the right place. Much of Vespertine was about being introverted and escapism. I’m not particularly fond of just the dream world, or just escapism. It’s a bit too easy, you know ? For example, I’m not really into psychedelic stuff—like when it goes too far that way. As much as I like to be aware of my dreams and my subconscious and everything, I would like to take the real world on too.

Where is your favorite place in the world ?
I guess my heart belongs somewhere out in the tundra in Iceland. But to be honest, I don’t spend that much time there. It’s more of a sanctuary that I go to if everything else fails. I try to go once a month, or every two months. Iceland is very important to me, but because I’m made of that place and I lived there until I was 27, I felt destined to leave and take the world on. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the place was isolated for 1100 years. There’s not one foreigner in my family tree for 1100 years back. Ninety-nine percent of me is Iceland. Everything about me : my nose, my thoughts, my dreams, my language…everything. I’ve heard lots of islanders say the same things. People that come from Japan or Hawaii or Jamaica, or whatever, they kind of have this urge, this lifelong, “Should I stay or should I go ?” thing. I try to keep my relationship with Iceland on edge, so that it’s productive. I stayed there for a year, like three years ago, and it sort of became stagnant. It just became stale and I ended up becoming some sort of a person in society, or a diplomat. I was figured to stand for certain things and issues, which I’m very flattered by, but it’s got nothing to do with my songs. I kind of have that sense of duty, that I have to keep writing songs. Strangely, the most romantic, patriotic songs I wrote to Iceland, I wrote in Spain. I was homesick as hell. So, it’s sort of abstract, these things about where you are.

How is your celebrity treated in Iceland ?
It seems to change. I think when I was a teenager it was one thing, then 10 years ago, it was another thing. And now, when I go back, the next generation is happening and they’ve sort of watched me for the majority of their lives. I was a little saddened by the fact that the kids, who are teenagers now, look at my work and think that what I’ve done has kind of been about fame and power and money. They think that’s really exciting. Whereas, 10 years ago, what I stood for was someone who just worked to make her dreams come true and who went on an individualistic mission. It was about the music. It’s a very small place. I mean, the capital has only 100,000 people. It’s funny when you become this kind of institution [laughs]. But, thank God, I think it also has a lot of good effects. I get tearful every time I hear a Sigur Ros track. I’m just so happy that someone like them—who are so completely original—are doing it for the music, not for fame or money or something stupid like that. Maybe, in some way, they were influenced by my celebrity thing. I wouldn’t be the right person to say how, but we’ve got mutual friends, and they’ve said how I did things made them braver in not wanting to compromise. They could just be themselves and they didn’t have to sound like Oasis. I’m not dissing Oasis, or anything like that, but they could just be an Icelandic band and they could still be okay. Overall, I’m really pleased with that. I would like to think that these things win in the end.

In the past, you’ve mentioned how you seek a certain time for self-reflection and seclusion because it helps your art. How would you characterize your relationship with loneliness now ? Do you have to seek it out more aggressively because of your fame, or is being famous lonely in and of itself ?
I’m lucky because I’ve had most of my mates before everything happened. I’ve stayed with the same people. They don’t give a shit, really. So that’s good. And the people I’ve met on the way, that I meet through my work, a lot of them I don’t become close with. You become close while you’re working with them and that’s fantastic, but it’s not like a lifelong thing. That’s okay. That’s how everybody is. I’ve been really surprised that even when I’ve had a lot of so-called “famous people” around, and you think they should be pretty artificial, but I still manage to meet gorgeous people. Every couple of years, I’ll meet a new person I didn’t even know existed before and I’m thrilled and I can’t believe it. They function in a completely different way and I didn’t even imagine that a human being could even be that way. It’s very exciting.

In a way, [my sense of loneliness] has sort of stayed the same. It’s something that hasn’t changed much. I guess the need for contact and communication is so strong that it sort of conquers everything. It’s sort of meant to be. All these other little bullshit things don’t matter, you know ? But, I see what you mean. I’ve always been surrounded by friends and family. It’s like where I am now—we’re 12 people here in the house, so it seems to always end up like that in my life [laughs]. My songwriting seems to be a lot about me sneaking off and creating my own kind of chamber and being really self-indulgent. It’s more about my relationship with myself. It’s always tricky to find that place. And if I once found something that works, but the next time it doesn’t, I have to find something else. But that’s a good riddle to solve.

As a musician, the development of your artistic life is under constant judgment and essentially defined by strangers. As a parent, your child judges you as a mother and a human being. Have you learned more about yourself through your music, or through your child ?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think I’m really hard on myself as a musician. I think I’m harder on myself than any critic could be. So, I have learned a lot about myself through my music, but a lot of it has to do with how I feel. I do read reviews occasionally. It’s not like I’m completely blind to what people think of me. But, I would say it’s equal—what my music teaches me about myself, and bring up a child. But it’s very different. I mean, you almost can’t compare it. They’re very, very, different. My boy is 16 now and he doesn’t need me that much anymore. The music always with you. You have a child for 15 or 16 years and it’s gone.

They’re off and running…
And they’re kind of their own thing. I believe children are born with certain characters and there’s not that much you can do to change them. I think it’s more about supporting them to be what they are. I could talk forever on this subject.

If one is born with a certain character already in place, what character were you born with ?
[Long pause] I guess it’s hard to say. Your family members always tell you that you were really cute, or something, but I was told I was very self-sufficient and kind of in my own little world. I guess that makes sense [laughs].

In life or in music, what has continuously caused you the most frustration ?
It’s hard to sum it up, because I’m such an emotional person. I have sort of an “all or nothing” kind of character. I would say both my best experiences, and also the more difficult ones, have been in human relations. I’ve been very lucky, though. I’m blessed to say that the majority of people that I work with say that some of their best musical experiences have been with me. So, overall, apart from a pain or two, I’ve been very lucky. I think it’s been pretty good.

par Gregg Lagambina publié dans Filter Magazine n°2