For Women

Ice Ice Baby

Björk Guðmundsdóttir has a sensual voice, a child-like allure and a style that’s all her own. Stuart Dade profiles the enchanting singer who is proving to be more than just a weird one-hit wonder.

If there’s a script somewhere of Björk’s life, now in its 28th year, she hasn’t bothered reading it. The Icelandic singer, whose musical career only began in earnest as the vocalist for a small-time independent band, The Sugarcubes, has this year found herself on a nation’s coffee tables. Her first solo album, the fittingly titled Debut, is the most staple background music for middle class CD owners since Brothers In Arms. Not only that, but earlier this year her transition from cult status to mainstream, ‘serious’ artist was completed when she was awarded the 1994 Brit Award for Best International Female Solo Artist.

Yet Björk grew up in Iceland in what can fairly accurately be described as a hippy household, “a big house painted purple.” Here, living with about eight adults—as well as her mother and stepfather—the seeds for her unique sound were sown. “At home they were all really into that hippy music, like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and it was going non-stop, 24 hours a day,” she recalls. “From the minute people would wake up, there was music on. There was always a racket.”

Björk quickly bored of the kinds of music her parents preferred. “By the age of seven I was completely bored with guitars and drums, which are still not my favourite instruments. They were too available.” Her musical tastebuds were given a fresh tang when her grandparents introduced her to jazz. At such an early age she was already displaying an extraordinary maturity of beliefs : “I grew up with a lot of people who thought that their music was the only right one, and that the others were not so good... I realised that a good song is a good song if it’s got the right intention, if it has true emotion and originality. It doesn’t matter if it’s by Abba or Stockhausen.” By the age of eleven, Björk had already undertaken two ventures that would greatly influence her musical advancement. In 1976 she made her first album with a collection of thirtysomething musicians. The record, entitled Björk, is now a collector’s item. Icelandic- wide fame ensued, and her love affair with the endless possibilities offered by recording studios began : “I was so excited by all the things you could do. That’s always been my angle.” Perhaps more importantly— although insignificant at the time—she learned to play the flute. As a side effect of this new talent, she subsequently acquired a breath control to which her unique vocal style can be attributed. In 1986, Björk formed the Sugarcubes, with whom she achieved, in her words, “a little taste of stardom.” Among the highlights of the band’s three albums were the shocking, distinctive Birthday, which remains as striking a debut single as any band have ever released, and the band’s biggest hit, cornily called Hit. As with the rest of her career, The Sugarcubes were no ordinary rock band : “We would go on holiday and be The Sugarcubes. The rest of the time we’d be at home doing other things, because there were three three poets in the group, and as you know the guitars and drums are not my favourite instruments, so I was off making jazz and film music,” she remembers. “Our point of view was that we were a group of friends getting an opportunity to travel all over the world. Waiting around in Alabama for four hours for a soundcheck, taking guitar solos, doing that whole rock’n’roll thing—it was always just a question of how long will this joke be funny ?”

Inevitably, in 1992 the band dispersed. The split came as a shock to many, precisely because Björk and her fellow musicians had carried off the pretence of being a normal band so successfully. In reality, Björk felt stifled by years of hiding her light under a bushel. “A lot of what I was doing before was to please other people. It had been my biggest fear since I was eleven to be in the spotlight. In the bands I was in in Iceland I even tried to look as ugly as possible so that people would listen to the music but not look at me. With The Sugarcubes I was always going to stand at the back of the stage.” Now she felt ready to emerge from the shadows : “Finally I knew that I had to do an album which had my face on the front and where I wrote all the songs. Something I could sit down with at 70 and be proud of... I realised that at least once in your life you have to go out of your way to do what you’re best at.” The songs, which formed Debut, had been kept hidden for years. “I had to share the songs and take the risks that come with that,” she bravely asserts. Björk describes them as “pieces from my diary, or from my photograph album, sort of like greatest hits that are not too revealing,” and this is what gives Debut its intimate, personal feel.

Björk’s personal life has not been without upheaval. She married at the age of 20 and fell pregnant around the time The Sugarcubes released Birthday. An abortion was out of the question : “with things like that you don’t use logic, you follow your intuition.” She is now divorced and Sindri, her son, is eight. She’s had a string of boyfriends and has the dubious pleasure of boasting a legion of adoring male fans.

She refuses to recognise the possession of any such sex appeal, however. “Being a woman gets in the way,” she complains. “I always think if people see me as a sex object, it’s their problem.” Her look, she says, is as “Icelandic as could be. I can trace my family tree back hundreds of years. I’ve inherited all the greatest bits of my ancestors’ looks.”

One of the most courageous—and essential—moves of Björk’s career was from Iceland to London, a move she refused to make while with The Sugarcubes. “I had to swallow a lot of pride to move here from Iceland,” she admits, but at the time, while Debut was in the making, it was vital. “I was prepared to fight for it. With my album it’s like with my child, you don’t just give birth to it and tell it I’ll see you later.”

Since the move, and the somewhat unexpected success of Debut, Björk’s music has occasionally been overshadowed by her reputation as an eccentric. Hardly surprising, bearing in mind her unusual upbringing, that this wild, diminutive figure with a voice that has all the force of an articulated lorry, has caught on. Record buyers have always been attracted to the bizarre. Far from insisting that she’s just an ordinary Joanne, Björk feels at home with this image. “I like the weirdo tag I’ve got. It’s quite flattering because it makes me more interesting than I think I am. I look at myself as a down-to-earth person who happens to be obsessed with music.” Watch her recently released live video, Vessel, and witness the funny- peculiar links between songs, in which Björk hops, skips and jumps around the streets of London talking animated gibberish about herself, and you’ll understand that she is at ease with acting strangely.

This does not mean she takes kindly to another, less charitable perception of her image. When described as an ‘elf-child woman’ by a fellow musician, she denied that she deliberately portrays such an image. Rather, she has said, with all the kooky style we’ve come to expect, “I insist to be happy, mad, sad, stupid, brilliant, genius, imbecile, horrible, mean, happy. I’m going to be all. I make an effort not to forget all these different colours—to get hilariously drunk sometimes, and to pay all my electricity bills, and to forget what time it is, and miss aeroplanes and run a band without a fault...” Similarly she claims to have in no way sought to encourage the explosion of interest in Björk, the commodity. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful but it wasn’t my intention to create this press hullabaloo,” she points out. “I was being quite introverted. I had made a conscious decision to take a step backwards and do my own private little things.” Conversely, Debut became “the most extroverted thing that I’ve done.”

Anyone who might accuse Björk of putting on her Icelandic voice to promote her appeal as an oddity can also consider themselves misguided. At a recent press conference to publicize Vessel, she was asked why her accent seemed to veer between Icelandic and South London. Her honest reply was that she picks up local dialects all too easily. Comically, she went on to explain how she had recently visited Scotland and had managed to pick up a Scots accent. As she told her captive audience this, her voice, with impressive timing, lapsed into subconscious Glaswegian...

Another subject touched upon at the Vessel press conference was Björk’s distinctive look. She has been described, not inaccurately, as looking like “an overgrown child in fancy dress,” but does she cultivate her style intentionally ? “I’ve always been very stubborn about the way I look,” she says. It seems that her dress sense, like her musical tastes, have always been somewhat deviant.
“As a kid in school I was wearing sheets I nicked from my mum, and orange hair. The more no one could look like me the better I felt. I’m much more relaxed about that nowadays.” She firmly believes that looks mean a great deal : “It’s no use pretending you aren’t expressing yourself with clothes, because you are,” she says. “The visual side really matters. If I look the way I sound, that helps me, because people are much more trained visually than they are audio-wise.” That Björk look—in particular the hair, is currently being copied by young women all over Britain. When asked whether she minds this copy-catting, she says no. In fact, she admits, she actually stole that particular knotted hairstyle from a friend.
Fame has not and will not faze Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who is currently recording the follow up to Debut. “In the Sugarcubes, we thought fame was very boring. No one’s a star in Iceland because it’s too local. You see stars buying toilet roll in the supermarket.” As she astutely recognises, “anyone can be famous—just walk down the street naked once.”
Or make remarkable, uncompromising records with the voice of an angel and an imagination that’s busier than an Icelandic fishing expedition...

publié dans For Women - 01.12.1994

 

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