Björk’s hair is tangerine, her cologne is cucumber. Her shoes are madly clacking green sandals she’s skanked from a stylist. She’s wearing hipsters in a shiny reflective fabric : Karen Millen, right ? “Uh uh,” corrects Björk and walks right up close, standing nose to nose, pressing one of her legs inbetween mine to make flesh-contact. “Someone else but similar and very fucking nice, hey ?” When we first meet, she makes this provocative gesture and comes closer than you’d expect or even want. Maybe she thinks this will make her appear more real, but it’s the kind of full-on action that only a pop star who senses the extent of her power could get away with. “I don’t analyse it much,” Björk contends. “Then I start worrying about it and I’ll go mad and they’ll have to lock me in an asylum. It’s a lot to do with the fact that I’m a singer and the fact that I’m a girl. I never set out to be famous. I look at the mission I’m on in the sort of range of Aphex Twin or Black Dog rather than the other front-cover people.”
Björk runs with the techno terrorists, the first brand-name globally-recognised pop star to parallel herself with her commercially unviable opposites. When Björk stares into the mirror of her music, her millionselling and industry award-winning career, she doesn’t understand why she’s alone. “I don’t get it. Why don’t people get into it ? I was born in 1965, and if you were born around that time and listening to all these noises in your life, you get into electronic music because there’s the most freedom there and it’s the most experimental. It’s nourishing, it’s where the risks are being taken, it’s happy, it’s life, it’s fucking living. I just think it’s gorgeous.”
Why does Björk sell more records than Black Dog ? It’s a stupid question. It’s one Vivienne Westwood answered years ago when she was judging pop videos on a TV programme and saw Björk for the first time in a Sugarcubes promo. “Who the fuck is that girl ?” she shrieked. “I’d love to have her in one of my shows !”
Björk looks and sings like she was born to be famous, to create a larger-than-life version of herself and set it loose on the planet like a cartoon character. But when she talks about fame, she describes it as if it’s an unwanted by-product of her music. Fandom, star-worship and the self-transforming energy of largescale success make her feel sick. “I think it’s crap. I never had an idol. I respect people completely and I’m so happy that they exist and they’re making all these great things for us, but I never felt like that. It’s like a sado-maso thing, innit ? You wanna like humiliate yourself and that’s the aspect of it when people come to me, like fans and stuff that I don’t like. It’s not that I’m too arrogant, more the fact that people are humiliating themselves in front of me and that is embarrassing. I feel like talking to them like my kid ; like stop it, stand up. You have to believe in some sort of human-ness, everybody’s fucking equal. Let’s communicate on that level, please.”
But even as she speaks, she’s one half of a celebrity romance that grows larger than life daily, seemingly under its own momentum. That is, the Björk and Goldie link-up which the tabloids drool over like a Charles and Di re-run with better beats. She’s made no attempt to hide their relationship. “I don’t talk about it but I’m not going out of my way to keep it private. I’d rather keep it to us because it’s precious and it’s all we’ve got. You know what love is like, you’ve got your own lingo, your own little world, so you don’t want to share it. That’s the nature of a relationship, there’s a privacy there, but I’m also not going to make mine and his life a living hell because we’re too protective. I’m not going to rent secret hotel rooms to meet him. It has to be natural.”
This balance between Björk and Björk The Pop Star snapped last year when she attacked a journalist who tried to interview her son as they arrived at Bangkok airport. She won’t admit that she’s glad she made this stand, but essentially she was fighting to control just how much of Björk and Björk’s life the world can have. And she won’t have the cameras turned on her kid. “He has to be recognised for what he is,” she says. “I think it’s terrible if he’s recognised for what I am. That’s not fair on him and he will be unhappy if he starts depending on that. I want him to be himself and be recognised for what he does. It’s tricky like this Bangkok thing where I attacked this lady, I completely lost my temper. I’m not proud of it, I’ll be ashamed of it for the rest of my life, but I was protecting him from my demons, from the silly things that have to do with my job.”
This incident crystallised what a lot of people like about Björk : her blood, energy and fire. The same lack of compromise runs through her idea of music ; rainbow-patterned, extreme colours seeping together to make songs that feel like time machines ready to depart for the future. Her favourite band is Black Dog, she loves the record Beaumont Hannant made with Lida Husik, she recently toured with former Black Dog and now Plaid artists Ed and Andy in her band. And she’s passionate about Stockhausen, Messaien and Jeff Mills. “What I like about the three of them and what I think they’ve got in common is that they’re innocent enough and open enough to tune into what was going on in the world when they were making their music.”
Stockhausen re-shaped the language of classical music with electronic and industrial noise, Messaien with bird song and early synthesisers. “Jeff Mills,” she explains, “is celebrating all the machines that we’re living with and being brave enough to find them pretty and not slagging them off all the time. It’s like all these people who say cars are so ugly, pollution’s so terrible—it’s true, but if you don’t want to live here then move into the forest. And if you are gonna live here, you might as well accept it and make the most out of it.”
Björk’s two solo LPs, Debut and Post, couldn’t have existed without Aphex Twin, Black Dog, A Guy Called Gerald, LFO and all the other producers who reshaped the language of music since 1988. Like them, she generates unknown sound, weird shapes and unexplored atmospheres. She even sings about this new music on Post in a track called Headphones ; an ambient love song not for a lover but to a set of sounds, “abstract wordless moments” that seem to awaken new cells inside her body, send her to sleep, wake her up and save her life. “I’ve got a studio in my house and I make things in my house. I like honest noises and if I hear a synth noise I’m terribly critical. I can analyse it to pieces and for me it’s just emotion, complete emotion. Every noise is different—it’s warm, it’s cold, it’s shy, it’s delicate, it’s rude, it’s pranksterish, whatever—just a synth noise, one note.”
This is the language of the ‘90s : techno, drum’n’bass, ambient and David Toop’s Ocean of Sound. She works closely with her collaborators, sharing 12-hour studio shifts with producers and engineers like Nellee Hooper, Howie B and Graham Massey. She tours without a guitarist and writes string-arrangements on her laptop. She seems the opposite of a band like Oasis who discuss songwriting in the context of the past : Bacharach, Lennon-McCartney and tunes the postman can whistle.
“I’ve got no problems with things you can whistle,” Björk contends. “I love simplicity, it’s gorgeous. A song that a two-year old and a granny can sing, that’s the tops. That’s the ultimate. If you make the most experimental song in the world but it will still be pop, completely simple ; that’s the ultimate target which I still think I haven’t reached. But Oasis just presents stagnation to me. I just don’t get it. It’s like I think it’s very important if you want to enjoy life to have excitement about it, curiosity and appetite for it, and for me to write songs that have already been written... I don’t know, it just feels sad.”
After leaving indie art-punks The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first record used house music, ambient techno and a dissonant brass band as well as sounds from a nightclub toilet and even buses and voices from the city at night. “I don’t have to say this, but if I wanted to be famous I would make completely different music. When I brought my demos of Icelandic brass players doing The Anchor Song to my record company, the boss said it was only going to sell a third of The Sugarcubes. It sounds naff to say these things, but it’s just a happy accident that people liked it. Debut was meant to be very low-budget, it’s just kind of me being selfish really.”
The picture of Björk on Debut’s cover showed her as a girl with messy hair in a soft jumper, hands clasped with Hindu humility, eyes crying glitter tears. It was a photograph designed to show feeling, pain, intensity. With a couple of exceptions, Debut’s songs fell into two types : those where Björk addressed the listener as someone in pain and told them fireworks would light their nights and all would be well. And songs where she sang about her own pain. Listening to Debut was like having a new best friend, it was give and take. “I’m obsessed with communication and my friends say I’m greedy with life. I’ve got quite a big appetite, I take a lot but I give. I’m very much about that and that’s what keeps me going. I need that like a junkie almost with my friends and people I work with.”
Some people use the word junkie casually, others know that it implies addiction, desperation and harmful need. When Björk played last year’s Reading Festival, her stage set like Alice in Wonderland in ultraviolet, the song Violently Happy hit that cold night like a firestorm. She sang it like she meant it, so happy that it was scary, knife-edge and desperate. “Violently Happy is about when you’re a junkie on exchanging emotion, not at one but at the level 200. That thing. And then the person goes away and you really miss someone. When you’re with that person you’re really peaceful because you get what you need back and you both give everything you need to give. And that person goes away and all that exchange is not there so you get your kicks elsewhere, you end up running on rooftops in blizzards, drinking 97 tequilas just to feel. You know what I mean. So it starts off really happy then the longer the person’s away from you, it starts getting self-destructive.”
This same psychology feeds the drama in songs from her Post LP ; tracks like Hyperballad where thinking about suicide by throwing herself off a mountain helps Björk or whoever she’s singing about truly appreciate being loved. This might be her best song yet ; her light-bearing voice surfing high windless waves of sound, turbulent lyrics, a fractal halo of complications that might go on forever. Can anyone really live this intensely ?
“I wish sometimes,” she replies, after a long silence and a couple of false-starts. “I wish I could do things more calmly. I feel naked sometimes, you see... I like when you ask me about the music,” she suddenly bursts. “Usually people ask me crap questions about the music but I like your questions. I like it when people talk about the music, it’s common sense, it’s like bread and butter. You can’t live without it. Usually I hate music questions, I change the subject and become the scruffy alien people want me to be.”
Björk just came close to saying too much. Sometimes she prefers to let others say it instead by performing cover versions of 1950’s show tunes like It’s Oh So Quiet. “I still don’t know how to write that kind of song and I want to. To write with that kind of lust for life about now, 1996, completely full-on life, saying on the scale of one to ten I’m gonna live life at 17. They’ve got the joy for it, that fierce love for it, and also the pain.” Those old songs, she insists, are just so intense. Back on that word again. “I’m all hyper now,” she grins. “Tell me to calm down, I haven’t slept in the last three days.”
In the last few days, Björk has been in the studio with Howie B. Writing new songs and sleeping a little, running around and living, intensely. Today’s been a long day : hours being photographed and a few more drinking red wine and doing this interview. It seems fair to take it easy, unravel her musical history again to ask how she abandoned the past to write 21st Century love-songs on the electronics that Acid House unravelled.
“I actually remember the moment. It was Mixmaster Morris and it must’ve been like 1989 in this really dodgy party somewhere in suburban London where the sweat is dripping from the ceiling and falling into your eyes. You’re completely out of it and in the morning he started doing this set, live mixing, throwing synths and stuff, and it was so alive and so creative, having the courage to face the reality you live in and making it pretty. You know what I mean ? Making you love it. Making you love today.”
Pop is supposed to keep absorbing influences, to evolve and deal with reality if it’s not going to become a stale and cynical formula to generate cash. Björk’s pop screams—just like her vocals—with as much of what she recognises as now as she can squeeze into it. She doesn’t, like many, write songs about being a pop star ; she writes about being in love, wanting to be in love, being bored at parties, what music does to her and other intense, unfathomable things. And she writes as Björk, a single mother, pagan rather than Christian, techno-lover (in the broadest sense of the word, from ambient to jungle and trip hop) and allround singular, unique creation.
“We’re living in the 20th Century where individuality is like the biggest thing. You can hear it in everything. You can hear it in a pop song on Radio 1 where the bassline is individual, the drum-beats are individual and the melody is individual. We’re obsessed with individuals and everyone has to be their own solar system, not because of arrogance or egomania but because that’s the theme of the later half of the century. The single parent is the same thing, the fact that you’ve got the mum and she is how she is, the child is who he is and the dad is who he is. And it doesn’t necessarily suit you to live under the same roof or have the same lovers and it’s scary as fuck, but that’s what we want and we won’t sacrifice that individuality for security.”
Then Björk’s mobile phone rings.
“Hello, how are you ? I’m very funny, I’m a bit slightly tipsy, I’m doing an interview. Yeah, I’m on my way. Nothing really, just pretending I know it all when I don’t sort of thing. The grand old dilemma.”