Spying the breakfast her publicist has setup in our designated meeting place, a New York record label conference room, the musician and actress Björk squeals, "Oh yay ! A picnic !" and digs her hands into the blueberries, ignoring the sofa in favor of the floor. And there she sits, crosslegged, with fruit stored in the folds of her pink-and-blackstriped dress. The 35-year-old musical innovator could pass for a child or, given the bedroom slippers she’s wearing under her cocktail gown, a confused old lady. But the deference with which the Elektra staff approaches her is a reminder that a star is a star no matter what she chooses to wear on her feet.
From the moment that Björk appeared on the cultural radar as frontwoman of the pop-punk band the Sugarcubes in 1986, music fans have reacted like diners sent a strange dish they hadn’t ordered but wanted to keep. Her subsequent solo albums Debut, Post, and Homogenic melded the best of electronica and trip- hop with that voice, an octave-trashing howl that somehow manages to sound beautiful and poetic. Over the past decade the single mother from Iceland has become an icon, a one-woman antidote to a test- marketed world. In the past year, she has also become a celebrity in another firmament.
The singer’s first foray into acting, as Selma, the doomed heroine of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, stunned critics and won her the best-actress award at the 2000 Cannes International Film Festival. At the Academy Awards last March, Björk sang “I’ve Seen It All” from the soundtrack, dressed as a glitter-flecked swan. Her dramatic preshow entrance—complete with a bejeweled egg—provoked equal parts awe and derision from spectators, but it was, in typical Björk fashion, utterly unforgettable : If she was going to “go Hollywood,” then she was going to do it 100 percent her way. Björk’s own reason for appearing at the celebfest belies a steely determination underneath the daffy facade. “I worked like a lunatic on that film for three years,” she explains. “If I have to walk down the red carpet, then I’ll do it.”
After the Oscars, the media turned to all the usual asexual terms (elf, sprite) that have become shorthand for describing the unconventional artist. But with Björk’s new album, Vespertine, it’s time for the opinion- makers to go back to the thesaurus. Because the elf is in love. The word vespertine, which conjures images of a libertine at evening prayer, means, according to Björk, “things that come out at night : owls, stars, and love.” She wrote the album in Iceland, walking by the ocean, singing to herself. The resulting music, with its chants and repetitious, sounds like sweetnatured voodoo.
Although she’s had her share of public romances, with fellow genre-benders like rapper Tricky and DJ Goldie, the affairs have never had such a blatant presence in her music. The new rumored object of her affection—cutting-edge performance artist Matthew Barney—seems to have changed all that. “He is the fragile-est, most beautiful-est : I love him, I love him, I love him !” Björk chants on the hypnotic love song “Pagan Poetry.” As excited by her new relationship as she professes to be, she is loath to talk about Barney because “the nature of erotic things is secrecy, otherwise they lose their spell.”
She pronounces it ear-rot-eek.
Björk loves “ear-rot-eek” novels like Story of O. She has also been reading a lot of e.e. cummings lately. “Even bad music interests me, but with literature, I pick fewer things,” she says. “For the last three years, it’s been cummings. Not the politics or the satire, but the love and pretty things.” I note that her lack of interest in political matters puts her somewhat at odds with her father, Gudmundsdur, an electrician turned union leader. At the mention of his name, Björk lights up. “He goes on talk shows with politicians, and the working class go, ‘Hurray !’ ” she boasts. “But I’m political too,” she notes, “in the sense that I’m dealing with individualism.”
Even Bjork’s choice of a favorite celebrity from the Oscars speaks to her staunch individualism : “Sigourney Weaver,” she exclaims. “She plays a really important role in my life !” Really ? “Of course ! There aren’t many films that my son and I can watch together,” she says. “But we love all the Aliens.”
Bjork’s seemingly bottomless grab bag of quirks leads this journalist to wonder whether she was considered eccentric as a child. With her answer, she unwittingly nails the elusive nature of her own appeal. “I think I was just so euphorically happy,” she says with a smile, “that they left me alone to get on with it.”