Two years ago, ’Debut’ took Björk from indie pixie to wine bar acceptance one easy swoop. But it has affected her little in spite of collaborations with Madonna, and being able to pull in anyone she likes to produce and remix, like Tricky, Graham Massey or, erm, Skunk Anansie. Roger Morton travels to the deepest New Forest and avoids the elf jokes. Pictures : Steve Double
"I’m going to prove the impossible really exists" - ’Cover Me’, Björk
Björk is laughing. In the oak-panelled lobby of a country hotel she sits in front of a health kick breakfast, spraying the silver tea service with pink gobs of yoghurt and convulsing with obscurely prompted laughter.
It isn’t a snickering little girl titter, the sound of Björk-laughter. It’s a sonorous, revving, hiccuping, smutty-joke laugh. The kind of gurgling, deep throat, f---ing and farting orang-u-tan laugh that middle-aged divorcees acquire after four glasses of champagne and a giant lump sum alimony cheque. It’s an escapee’s laugh, and it’s frighteningly catching.
First Björk starts to guffaw like a goose. Then her Icelandic friend, Jóga, begins rocking back and forth in her seat. Then the coffee pot starts to quiver. A neighbouring bowl of Rice Crispies cracks up completely. And finally the wave of wobbles reaches the man in the checked shirt sitting on the opposite sofa, who starts to hiss and wheeze alarmingly without any idea why he’s joining in.
What’s particularly unsettling about the steam engine noises coming from the mad-eyed dude on the sofa is that his name is Tricky and he’s been laughing like this since he went to bed last night. Lucifer ? Game for a larf ? Clearly a couple of days in the company of Her Björkness has kinked Tricky’s horns.
Can you speak any Icelandic ?
Tricky : "No. But I can laugh in Icelandic. Shhhehheheheheh..."
This morning, De Snootsford Country Manor in the New Forest experiences its first ever Bristol-Icelandic surrealist tea party. A musical posse is hanging there while Björk does vocals for Tricky’s Durban Poison side-project, and one of those pop weirdos vs country gentility clashes is talking place. The staff step round the city folk, gingerly bringing food and messages while "the lady in white" and "Mr Tricky" gibber in studio morphed code.
Last night they composed a hollering neo-cowboy clip-clop-hop song with lyrics that paired "orbit" with "Ronnie Corbett" because Tricky couldn’t think of another rhyme. And today they’re still whooping like cattle-rustlers on psilocybin because of it.
"Is laughter better for you than exercise before you go to bed ?” asks Björk, addressing the assembled musicians and madmen.
"Laughing’s good for you because it releases endorphins," says one of the lounging musos. "Dolphins ?" says Björk. “It releases dolphins in you ?"
For a moment, the possibility of microscopic sea mammals splashing about in the human brain is given serious consideration. "Naah. Not dolphins. En- dor-phins," says the muso. “Theyre painkillers.”
Björk still looks puzzled. “Penguins ? They’re penguins ?”
At this point of maximum confusion Jóga, the Queen Of Massages, inexplicably raises her arm in the air like someone making a shadow puppet of a bird. “Is that a swan ?" says Björk. “Now we’ve got the whole of the animal kingdom.”
And so it goes on.
NOBODY WHO’S ever got close to Björk‘s Ronnie Corbett... erm... orbit, would expect her to be hiding timorously in a corner as her second adult life solo album surfaces. Follow-through nerves are not exactly a Viking trait. But today’s display of insouciance is still impressive - for someone who’s just letting the world get a first glimpse of the succesor songs to the 2.5 million-selling, universally hip, globally acclaimed .et cetera ’Debut’ album.
’Army Of Me’, the variously mixed (Nellee Hooper, Beastie Boys, Graham Massey, Skunk Anansie) acid hip-hop first single is on the streets, but Björk is as concerned as an orang-u-tan.
Before she takes leave of her mate Tricky, she decides to show him something. From her bag she produces a notebook with three cut-out photos of abstract paintings glued to the cover. one is by the ’genius’ Willem De Kooning. Another is the ’genius’ Gerrard Laval. The third is painted by an orang-u-tan who got so bored in his cage that the zookeeper gave him a paint brush.
As Björk explains, when shown to art experts, the ape daubs were the ones given the highest price tag. Voila ! Tricky is chuffed. Björk is vindicated. The two fact that when it comes to art, man, the application of logic is just going to make you look a twat. An orang-u-tan ! See ! Ronnie Corbett ! See ! Human behaviour, eh ?
"These sounds are virgins/My headphones/They saved my life/Your tape it ludded me to sleep/Nothing will be the same/I like this resonance/It elevates me/I don’t recognise myself" - ’Headphones’, one of the two collaborations with Tricky on ’Post’, Björk’s new album
IT’S A chemistry thing with Tricky, right. The pair met briefly in ’93 but didn’t get properly acquainted until Christmas when it was decided that Barmy Of Bristol would do a couple of tracks on Björk’s album. The results, recorded in Iceland at the start of the year, are two of the new collections’s finest moments.
’Enjoy’ is a dark and deranged techno thing. ’Headphones’ is minimal and mindblowing and it takes Björk further out into trip vocal phonetic experimentation that she’s ever been before. In public.
"I think Polly Harvey and Tricky are probably my favourites at the moment,"she says. "Polly, Tricky... and Ren & Stimpy."
Er, they’re not strictly musicians though, are they, Ren & Stimpy. Is there a connection between Tricky and Ren & Stimpy ?
"Oh yeah. Definitely"
Yeah, definitely. As he’s driven back to the studio, Tricky leans out of the car window whooping his final whoops and, in the car in front, Björk gradually contorts her head back over her shoulders and plants an upside down kiss on the inside of the rear window. Goodbye Tricky. Hello the next stage of Björk Gudmundsdottir’s incredible joumey.
THE BJÖRKLET was nine years old when she took her first trip outside Iceland. It was a holiday to Norway with her grandparents and she remembers feeling claustrophobic because there were too many trees and not enough moss. Two years later, with encouragement from the bohemian (hippy) half of her complicated family, she released her real debut album of ’70s pop songs and scored a hit with a tune called ’Arab Boy’
That was in 1977, and Björk has been sort-of-famous ever since. Her Sugarcubes celebrity, however, was but a brittle stalactite compared to the unstoppable speed-glacier of 1993’s solo fame. One day she was a lost opportunity to make crap indie elf jokes. The next she was barging all-comers off the catwalk of ubiquity and diving headlirst into MTV’s whirlpool of heavy rotation.
Spitting Image, Gaultier, Madonna - Björk joined the league of big time bankablllty Ask her record company One Little lndian to post you her press cuttings post July ’93 (’Debut’’s release) and you’re in danger of losing the hinges on your front door. There’s a mountain of it. Too much
I now know at what age Björk lost her virginity (15), what her son Sindri was into last year (dinosaurs), what’s on the bookshelves of the Little Venice house she bought when she moved to London two years ago (Georges Bataille, Herman Hesse) and who she went out with for a while after she finished with Bristol DJ Dom T (video director Stephane Sednaoui).
The unexpected mass success of ’Debut’ has not, however, squashed the Björk out of Björk. She did not dry up into a phobic fruitcake under the scrutiny. She just got a little bored of talking about herself.
Despite appearances, ’Army Of Me’ is not a retaliatory post personality blitz war song. It’s a get-a-life song directed at an old acquaintance.
The Diva Of All Things Fierce And Capricious is therefore back with a vengeance. Her new album ’Post’ takes the wonderstruck experimentalism of ’Debut’ and improves on it. lt, well, delivers.
An enchanted world of impossible collisions, ’Post’ shifts from smouldering future hip-hop (’Army Of Me’), to hyper-sensual house (’Hyperballad’) to jazz tech silliness (’The Modern Things’) to brassy salsa (’| Miss You’). Simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, it’s all Debussy meets Disney one minute and all Black Dog meets Joni Mitchell in outer space the next. And the big band Busby Berkeley razzmatazz of ’Blow A Fuse’ could bring out the Judy Garland in Ice Cube. (Ice Sugarcube ?) It just doesn’t make (musical) sense and that’s probably why it’s so joyous.
All that slingng microphones out the window in the Bahamas (where much of it was recorded) and dragging 808 State’s Graham Masey out of bed (for two tracks) and co-producing with Nellee Hooper for the first time (string sections by Björk !) was worth it. Top Five, Albums Of The Year stuff. Precisely what it says as a postcard to Iceland is, however, an area that requies explanation.
"Most of the songs are from the last two years, since ’Debut’," says Björk. "And most of them - and this is why I call it ’Post’ - are about moving to another country and being away from all your friends and being rootless, and dealing with it. I think in most cases in a kind of humorous way.
"But it actually was quite hard. I hated England for about a year. I guess I was being a bit hard to please in a way but eventually you learn to love it. Because after you’ve lived somewhere all your life and you move you can’t expect to have similar affection for the place in just a few months."
What did you hate about England ?
"How restricted people were. How hard it was to be emotional with people. They were all very polite and understate everything. It was really frustrating, I felt almost claustrophobic because I’m really used to maximum emotion, to expressing myself like that to my friends, being very, very happy or very, very sad, or very, very mad or whatever. But then again, it was a combination of also not knowing people well enough to be relaxed with them."
Did you feel musically that you had to move on from ’Debut’ ?
"Yeah, I think last time I was very, very shy because it was the first time my songs were out in the open so I played it very safe. I had very safe pop songs, if you like, and I was quite sort of shy and humble towards the whole thing. This time around I felt more at ease and had more freedom so I think this album’s a lot more energetic. It’s like whoooooooosh ! Full on. And the last one was quite sort of polite."
’Debut’ was one of those ubiquitous records in ’93, in the same way that, say, Sade’s first album became chic music for the mainstream. It was almost like you’d become 1993’s Sade...
“Well, the good point of that was that I could listen to a record with a Brazilian string orchestra and I could get it on my next album. That’s the good point. But honest, it didn’t change anything. I sometimes get shocked when I read the paper and it describes something as being ’like Björk’ or ’not like Björk’. It surprises me every time I see it."
Wasn’t it odd for someone who was once in a punk band called Spit And Snot to find themselves with a two million-seller which was acceptable at your average polite dinner party ?
"No. When I did that album it was a complete surprise to me how many people liked it because I’ve probably never been so selfish ever and not trying to please anyone. I mean, punk was a very socially accepted thing amongst your mates. If you were into ballet you were a weirdo but if you were into punk you were normal.
"So that wasn’t being a rebel at all. A lot less than for me to quit the band that I was in, move to another country and do songs that I had written in my living room, on my own, after my little boy had gone to sleep - songs about only things that I’m interested in and not trying to please anyone, not trying to fit into any mould, just being as eccentric as I wanted to."
If you walked down the street and saw some kid wearing a T-shirt that said ’Kill Björk’ or ’F--- Off, Björk’, would you understand that ?
"Yeah. I lived with that as well. As a kid at school I was always the weirdo and going to school wearing a duvet sheet, which I actually did for a while, just cut a little hole for my head. I’ve always been not accepted by people, from day one.
"I’m not on a mission to convince the universe that everybody should listen to me. I’m not megalomaniac. I’m not a control freak. And if anything, I would rather a small group of people in the corner would really like my music than try to please everyone. There are loads of people out there who like guitar solos and they probably can’t stand me. There are loads of people that like rock singing and they probably can’t stand me, and it’s all f---ing fair enough, do you know what I mean ?”
IN THE back of the chauffeured car, Björk settles easily into self-contemplation. There is very little front with Björk. No airs and graces and few visible paranoias. It’ s a statistical fact that nine out often people who meet her for the first time go away saying, “She’s so natural, isn’t she ?" In the family of popstar royalty she is Queen Beatrice of Denmark, unaffectedly cycling her pushbike through the crowded streets. That level of visibility and openness, however, has its consequences.
Nobody can be too sure of what real life events lie behind, say, Portishead’s album. But everyone thought they knew the state of play with ’Debut’. Björk was in love. Violently happy. And the conclusion to jump to is that ’Post’ represents a kind of post-love come down.
“My friends told me that all the songs on ‘Debut’ were love songs. And I’m like, ‘What ?’ And I listened to it again after that and I realised that I’m a bit one dimensional when it comes to things. And if I like cars, if I’m writing a song about cars, it turns out to be a love song. If I’m writing a song about food, it turns out to be a love song."
A love song to food ?
"Yeah. If I like something I tend to exaggerate so it almost sounds like a love song. A lot of these songs as well are about, say, a boyfriend, they may be about a good friend of mine.
“I think it’’ more a question of ’Debut’ was quite polite and it’s kind of when you’ve met someone and you’ve just known them for a week and you don’t put your problems on the table the first week you meet somebody. Whereas I think ’Post’ is a lot braver in many ways. It’s a more gutsy aibum, the pissed off songs are more pissed off and in a way it’s more open.”
Does your job mess up relationships for you ?
“Well, there isn’t a lot of time. Time is probably the biggest problem but, then again, I think I’ve always been obsessed with my work no matter what I do. I’ve had a period when I’ve moaned and moaned and thought that me travelling was destructive, especially because there were people in my band who were male and they had girlfriends who waited back home forever and were very patient, whereas boys don’t really do that, so much.
“But then I’ve had times when I wasn’t travelling and I was in a relationship and living in one house and I was bored to death. I don’t think there’s a rule to it."
Are you in love at the moment ?
"I guess so.,. yeah, I am, actually."
Dave, the silver-haired chauffeur who’s been driving Björk about a bit recently is not much of a ’90s pop fan.
"Is that going to be top of the hit parade ?’ he asks in puzzlement when we give ’Army Of Me’ "an in-car blast.
He has, however, noticed something about Björk : she has very strong opinions. Oh yes.
She stands for something, does Björk. Every High Street has its Björk-authenticated youth. The ones with the revolutionary fabrics, kindergarten hair and defiant eye contact, whose days and nights would be just a little less certain if it wasn’t for Björk and her techno-dippy Nordic individualism. Her standards.
Zoologically speaking (you can say this in the hushed tones of her hero David Attenborough) we’re a mere two feet from a rare member of the chelonian family of pop star. Björk carries her ideology on her back. Where Björk goes, a fierce insistence that life is sweet goes, too. A panel discussion on pop star nihilism involving Björk would be a brief affair.
"I actually think suicide’s a pathetic thing to do," she says. "But |’m a bit hardcore when it comes to things like that. I come from a bit of a Viking land."
But there are drawbacks to her dedication to living-for-every-moment. New songs like ’Sweet Intuition’, with its crystallisation of ideas about instinct and anti-logic, and the sister piece which she wrote for Madonna, ’Bedtime Stories’ (“Let’s get unconscious, honey"), might form a coherent argument in favour of all things “spontaneous, raw, risky, instinctive and not brainy”. The repression-shattering compulsion that made a pregnant Björk dress provocatively for an Icelandic TV show ten years back might be quite in keeping with the current mother and businesswoman Björk who still wants to bungee jump into life. But none of that will stop people thinking she’s simply away with the fairies.
We are driving past Birdworld when we get on the flying tip.
Can you fly ?
"As in bungee jumping ?"
As in Peter Pan ?
"I tried to the other day, actually, but my friend talked me out of it. I was extremely drunk and it was in Iceland and I climbed on top of a building in a blizzard and tried to jump off. But it was in a very happy way. I was trying to convince my friend to come with me, but she wasn’t really up for it.”
Did you take a lot of acid as a kid ?
“I tried once a half, but I hated it. Because it isolates you and I hate things which do that to you. I prefer things which make you communicate. I think I was born a bit on drugs, really. A lot of the time I’m going through being outrageously happy, and then outrageously sad, outrageously everything, all in the same day, and I fly around and travel really fast, and then I drink and it all makes sense. So in a way when I drink I become normal, that’s a kind of down to earth thing.”
What are the ideas behind ’The Modern Things’ ?
“It’s about how the modern things like cars and computers and such have always existed, they’ve just been waiting in a mountain, listening to the irritating noises of dinosaurs and people babbling outside, and it’s their turn now to come out and multiply, and take over.
"I was just having a laugh on a train, sitting by the window and looking out at the mountains and I’d had a glass of wine and I just can’t stand that people are so terrified about the future. People seem really ashamed of all the modern things. I think we should be proud of them. Of course we’ve made mistakes but we need to adjust them. You can drive cars which can be run by water, all those things. Telephones are tops, aren’t they ? We’d be pretty f---ed without them."
Except for mobile phones, which emit harmful frequencies.
“I think we can deal with things like that. If we walk around and do E and drugs and alcohol, I’m pretty sure we can deal with mobile telephones. And sado-masochistic sex is probably ten times more violent than mobile waves going through your head. How can anything that comes from this planet be unnatural ? That’s my question. You know that they accidentally made plastic in the year 1503 in Switzerland when they were trying to make cheese ? Plastic is very organic.”
Edam cheese is very plastic-y.
"Yeah. That song’s just sort of taking the piss. I think people are just jealous of some of those things. All that bollocks about computer music being written by computers, I mean, give me a break."
So you are optimistic about the future ?
"Very much so, yes."
But you’re optimistic about everything...
"I don’t think I’m optimistic . I just think I’m realistic. There are problems everywhere and believe me I get no end of problems each day - you wouldn’t believe my schedule these days. I mean, half of the things go very, very wrong and horrible and I have to do them all over again and correct them and apologise and cry my heart out but you’ve just got to deal with them. And people are going to say, ’Oh, it’s easy for her to say that, she’s got all that money and all that bollocks’, but I’ve always been like that."
Did you have any contact with Madonna over ’Bedtime Stories’ ?
Weren’t you interested ?
“No, I wasn’t interested. Because someone like Madonna, I respect her very much and I think she’s a very interesting person, and it’s not her fault but she’s got this big universe around her which is just a lot of bollocks if you ask me. And it’s not her, it’s the media and everything. And I got an offer to actually write a melody and a lyric for her and I was very, very honoured by it, and I felt very lucky because that meant that I could give her a present and write words that she would sing, that I thought she should sing. And I thought that that was as intimate as I could get with her."
Does the idea of breaking down taboos still interest you ?
“I don’t believe in shocking just for the sake of shocking or being vulgar for the sake of being vulgar. And what pisses me right off is being weird for the sake of being weird. I think I haven’t changed, I think I’m the same way, except that you move to different areas and become more focussed."
Which songs on ‘Post’ are issue related ?
"All of them. But it’s about personal politics, which I guess is my job to deal with that. Nurses in hospitals, they put a Band Aid on your wound when you’re hurt, and I sing songs about personal politics. Even if I say ‘me me me me me me’ it’s just from the point of view of anyone, really. Should I manipulate the person next to me ? Or should I sympathise with him or her ? Do I love him ? Does he love me ?
“All these things are political things in your personal private world and I think if these things could be sorted out for everyone, I believe that the world would be alright. It’s just the first little stage of politics. And that’s what I deal with.
“There’s definitely a stage you go through where you say ‘F--- The System 900 times, but then you realise that there are things you can do which can be more effective. Like saying ‘F--- Logic’, for example.”
But you’re always naming scientists as your heroes. What would Einstein have thought of that ?
“But science is definitely one of those things where the more you explain something the more you realise that you know jack-shit about it. Especially when you’re being David Attenborough and you go into the middle of a forest with a torch and you try and figure out what it is that bats find erotic. You’re not exactly going to come to a scientific conclusion there. I think what drives scientists most of all is their admiration for mystery, I think they’re obsessed with mystery.”
ONE DAY, of course, science will catch up with the not really very batty at all Björk. Chaos theory will triumph over all competing positions. A Museum Of The Irrational will be built on top of the Science Museum. People who jump off high buildings will be proved to live longer and happier lives. And neurologists will locate microscopic dolphins in the brain as the source of all laughter. For sure.
In the meantime, as far as all things impossible and mysterious are concerned, we‘ll just have to rely on Björk’s intuition, For the moment, the fact that she’s survived the harsh lights of global exposure and returned with an album to put ‘Debut’ in the shadows is miracle enough.
At the end of today’s drive she sits in the photographer’s studio facing an idling camera for the zillionth time. Her specially imported laughing wig - the one that replicates the frizzy hair of Bahamas beach boys and makes her look like a troll - lies on the table, snickering silently. Instead Björk models her ‘exotic’ look, trying out faces while she waits for the shots.
It’s the first time in another busy day that nothing much is being asked of her. She looks at her shoes. She gawps at the ceiling. And then, picking up on the dubby instrumental playing on the stereo, she starts to sing and, as she does so, you can see by the laughter in her eyes that she’s escaping the gravity pull of logic and escaping from herself into a world of virgin sound.
What does it feel like to sing, Björk ?
“It’s a very physical thing. Most people that I know that really enjoy singing, they really like physical things, like really basic things, like sleep, food, sex, walking. So it’s a very physical sensation. But I think it’s the ultimate freedom, if you ask me, being able to express yourself completely without limitations. It’s as important for my function as sleeping or eating or going to the toilet. And if I don’t do it for a week I just go mad."
“I don’t think I was particularly born to write songs. I write them so I can sing. I have to write songs to turn my voice on. It’s like a turn-on thing. And when I do videos or interviews it’s the same thing, and so it all goes down to that. That’s the whole point of it all. That’s the whole point of it.”
You have said previously that one day you’d like to do something totally different. Is that likely ?
“I think so. I was just saying to my friend earlier that the weird thing about the last two years is that everything is about me, all my work is about me. It’s me-me-me-me-me-me. It took me 16 years after doing my first record to actually say, ‘OK, I’m ready now’. Because I knew it would be me-me-me-me-me-me. So I’m prepared to do that for a while but I’d love to do something completely different. Not to have it so it’s me-me-me-me all the time.”
One impossible day, no doubt.