Oor

Björk Guðmundsdóttir Speaks

“My music is just as whimsical as I am” The nail on the head : Post, the new album by Björk, flutters from industrial to ambient and from technopop to big-band swing. And the 29-year-old Icelandic phenomenon herself ? Well, during previous meetings, we usually encountered a capricious and reticent being ; this time we hardly got a word in edgewise.

“You know what the greatest merit of Debut’s success was ? The money it made me. So I could travel all the way to the Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas for Post and I could finally sing like I learned when I was just a little girl. I took a microphone and walked onto the beach and stood with my feet in the ocean in the middle of the night. That’s where I sang most vocals.

“I love nature, I love being outside. In Iceland I used to walk outside singing all the time as a child. I wasn’t used to anything else. I must have sung that way for ten, fifteen years before I first saw a microphone. From that moment on, singing only became more difficult for me. For one thing, I really had to get used to standing still during recording. It just felt completely unnatural.

“In many ways, Debut was still much in the sign of conflicts. Conflicts with myself and with the outside world. I was wondering whether I had the right to fill an album with nothing but my own songs. Could I be so selfish ? And did I have the right to tell others what to do ? I didn’t think so. That was a little bit my problem : I really wanted to work with other people, but I didn’t want to dominate them. I wanted those people to surprise and stimulate me. If I knew exactly what they were going to do, I was no longer interested. I had to get something in return. But that has changed a lot by now ; I learned what is necessary, the past two years. I mean, I grew up with the punk state of mind : I really believed in anarchy and thought that one person shouldn’t be controlled by another. But it’s not that simple. True, it is a beautiful philosophy and I still believe in it for a part, but if too many people work on the same thing, it loses its identity. Like if a large number of people build one house and everyone puts in some ideas of their own, then it’s no longer a house ; then it’s a compromise.

“I for one don’t have any problems respecting other people’s ideas or visions. I’ve made film music in the past and I tried to completely enter into the state of mind of the filmmaker. I tried to make the music that was necessary for his film. But I did, within the confines of the film and the ideas behind it, go my own way. Because of that I learned to trust that others, when they work on my albums, will do the same thing. I’ve learned to respect them and give them the freedom they need. But I set the limits.

“I’ve shaken two more inheritances from the punk ideology : firstly, the conviction that musical ineptitude also means musical freedom. Those punk bands can say what they want, but that is absolute bullshit. If you don’t have any technique, if you don’t know what you’re doing with your instrument, then you don’t have a lot of freedom ; no, then you are very limited : your horizon is very small. The more knowledge and technique, the more space and freedom. The same goes for discipline. I used to think that discipline stood in the way of any form of free expression. But the contrary is true. If you can, like I now can, gather enough discipline to, for instance, do interviews for twelve days and talk about nothing but yourself all that time, you create an enormous freedom for yourself : you can say what you want.

“Secondly, there was the stubborn clinging to the do-it-yourself principle ; I got rid of that as well. The annoying things, the dirty jobs, I still do myself because I think I’m responsible for that, but creatively I work with as many people as possible. Over the last few years I learned that one and one isn’t necessarily two : the result of your input and that of someone else usually has a little extra. So one and one is often three. And since I know that, I’m capable of doing 900 interviews without getting suicidal tendencies, or playing the same song five times a week when I’m on tour without getting bored with it. I know that the sum of time, place, things and people always has a different result. Things like that make my job something exciting, something precious.

“Luckily, my punk roots have never led to a political position. I know it’s a cliché, but I don’t think I have the right to tell other people what to do or how to think. My political conviction is inside of me. It’s about choices like : do I control you or should you control me ? I love him ; do I have to make him love me as well ? This girl wants to kill herself ; should I try to get her to change her mind, or is it her own choice ? Should I give or take ? That’s what it’s all about with me. That is, as far as I’m concerned, what pop music is all about : helping people with their personal politics, their emotional problems and how they have to sympathise with that. Not by forcing things on them, but by showing them how I feel about certain things. Then they can do what they want with that. I prefer doing that over offering ready-made solutions.

“On Debut I looked back on what had happened to me the 10 years before and on Post I look back on the last two years ; the period after Debut. Just to conclude that nothing’s really changed. Because that is the biggest misunderstanding there is about me : people think that my life has changed enormously since Debut’s success. But I’ve been accustomed to attention and success all my life. On a small scale, true, but still : at eleven I was already a celebrity in my village of birth. Singing in the local pub, you know. I’m used to being watched, analysed and criticised. At an early age I learned to be a public figure and act like one. I then made the decision to do what I want for the rest of my life. After all, I’m the only one who knows what’s right for me. The drawback is : normal people can still just go to the hairdresser to have their hair cut. If I do that, people will immediately say : ‘Oh look, she’s changing her image !’ you know.

“Still I managed to keep a very naive, childish view on life. A lot of people either attack me on that, or think it’s cute, but I see it in the first place as a compliment. Without that childish side of me, a song like “Modern Things” could never have come about. In that song I propose that all new things, all modern inventions already existed for a very long time, but that they were just locked away in a mountain somewhere, waiting for the right moment. I wrote that just to pester a few friends of mine. They’re terrified of modern technology. They feel guilty about using computers and driving cars. Because it’s not natural. I’m just as tired of views like that as of statements like ‘Computer music doesn’t have soul’. Of course it hasn’t got soul, because nobody put it in there ! You can’t expect a computer to put soul into music ? I mean, you can’t expect a guitar to write a song ? They’re instruments, tools. And you should be proud of that. But those friends of mine think it’s all very spooky ; they think technology is going to replace all human actions and that pretty soon they won’t have to be creative, because the computer will take that away from them. But a hundred years ago, when the telephone was invented, people thought that people would no longer talk to each other in the flesh. Inventions don’t take anything away from you ; they just increase the number of options.

“For my own music I use all available means. And I don’t draw the line anywhere, no. It can go in any musical direction, as long as I recognise it as something I did and as long as I have fun making that music. I see both Debut and Post as an account of a week of my life. A week where many different things happen, just like in real life. I want my music to be just as restless and whimsical as I am. Otherwise it would get very boring, wouldn’t it ? I mean, nobody’s aggressive all the time ? Or cool all the time ? Or vulnerable ? That’s not possible ; and it isn’t possible in music either. That’s why I don’t limit myself to a single style, like many people would like me to. Because I don’t think that way. Furthermore, I get bored easily. And I still have the certainty that my voice, my emotions and my lyrics are still very recognisable.

“That musical capriciousness has always been there : I’ve had classical music lessons, I’ve been in a punk band, I’ve played drums, produced a heavy metal band, made film music... Just one thing isn’t enough. I want to try it all. I found my equal when it comes to those things in someone like Tricky ; I worked with him for a couple of songs on Post. Actually, he’s worse than I am. He’s completely obsessed by anything that’s unpredictable. If you tell him to go left, he’ll go right. If you tell him to go see a dentist, he’ll take it as : whatever you do, DON’T go see a dentist ! I love that.

“I did “Headphones” with Tricky, sort of a thank-you to a friend who always sent me tapes with his favourite music. I saw that as one of the most beautiful and valuable gifts someone can give you. Such a tape says so much about someone’s personality and about what that person wants to tell you. I always saved a tape like that until it was evening, all the work had been done, I was all alone and had taken a bath. Then I’d lie on my bed, with my headphones on, to slowly fall asleep, listening to that tape. That’s what that song is about. There’s little sounds in there to amplify the effect of rest, solitude and dreaminess.

“Maybe my whimsicality is typically Icelandic. Just like my energy. Compared to other Europeans, the Icelanders are pretty extreme. When they’re happy, they’re extremely happy ; when they’re angry or introvert, they’re angry or introvert in a big way. There’s no middle of the road. Slightly talkative, that’s impossible. The Icelandic climate helps too, it’s just as fickle. The country is in the middle of the ocean, there’s always wind, there’s volcanoes, hotwater springs, mountains, lava, blizzards... The weather is very important over there. Compared to Iceland, Amsterdam is like being inside all the time. That’s the beauty of Reykjavík, for instance : One one hand, you’re surrounded by nature in all its raw unpredictability and on the other hand technological developments are very advanced. Furthermore, Iceland is, measured with respect to population density, the fourth richest country in the world. The modern and the primitive balance each other perfectly. I love contrasts like that and that probably shows in my music.

“My moving to London probably only affected the practical side of my work. It’s a cosmopolitan city, with all the provisions and people I need. Reykjavík doesn’t. For the rest, the move meant at most the start of a new phase in my life : in the time before it—the Sugarcubes era—it always felt very safe and comfortable to make music with other people and not have to many responsibilities. But I’ve thrown all that overboard. I realised : It’s now or never. I make that solo album now, or else I never will. I’m glad I did, because now I know I can never go back : it feels as safe and comfortable as the time with the Sugarcubes.

“People often ask me if I know why I only became really famous after I traded the Sugarcubes for a solo career. But I don’t really understand that myself. Even though I do have a suspicion. There’s a strange kind of law that says : the more selfish you do something, the stronger the result will eventually be. I started on Debut with that idea. I made that record from a completely egoistic point of view : I was only pleasing myself and making a record I would buy. Because if I’d concentrated on other people’s tastes and on the question whether other people would appreciate what I did, a sort of compromise-album would have emerged. And you can hear something like that right away : an album like that just radiates insecurity and doubt. Because of that too, a lot of people thought that Debut was a very strong, very powerful album, I think. But you know, maybe Post is another story and nobody likes it.

“In the time of the Sugarcubes, things were done completely different. We didn’t really have a heart for what we did. It was one big joke. Yes, you can write that down : The Sugarcubes were a joke. I don’t mean we were bad or fake, but we were people who would meet each other in the pub on weekends and then suddenly decided to make some stupid pop songs. While half of us weren’t even musicians ; we were really poets. Our heart wasn’t in music.

“After a while, the joke became a job, a profession. And then it went wrong. At least where I’m concerned. Before the Sugarcubes I was in KUKL, a punk band, and that was much more important to me. The KUKLperiod taught me a lot of valuable lessons in a quick and violent way. That band really changed me. But the Sugarcubes....Maybe you should put it in a timeframe : the group was founded in a very lively, fertile time. Of course Iceland is very small and we were bored to death, so we wanted some action. We started developing lots of activities, which eventually led to one big commune of artists. We supported each other, started a little company to publish poetry and literature, we ran a radio station, we had a coffeeshop that doubled as bookstore... And everyone helped each other. It was a hot-bed, a breeding pit. All very exciting. And the poets who were used to getting drunk together every weekend, decided to start a pop band. That was the Sugarcubes.

“From that moment on, something changed : the Sugarcubes suddenly became very interesting and everybody wanted them to become world famous. And the strange thing is that we actually started striving for that, even though everybody had other occupations as well. But we knew that we would regret it forever if we did NOT do it. In the end it was another two years before we signed a contract with a record company, because even though everybody wanted us, we were always very stubborn and pig-headed ; for instance, we refused for a long time to sing in English. Eventually it went awry because the group didn’t have enough priority for some members. They thought that other things were more important. I hated the fact that we were splitting up. I cried several nights. Later, I was glad we had made that decision : you shouldn’t milk out a joke for too long.

“At the moment I try to take my career a bit more seriously. I have to, because I carry the responsibility for a lot of people ; they live off my music. I’ve finally accepted that singing is my calling in life. I don’t know how to do anything else and I’ve never known anything else. At least, not that well. Furthermore, singing is one of my primary needs, just like sleeping, eating and sex. And getting really drunk sometimes. If I don’t do those things, I go crazy. Or get ill. And whether I sing once a week in my home town in Iceland for 50 people in a pub, or do what I do now, I still look at it in the same way. Singing is singing.

“Where that urge for self-expression comes from, I don’t know. Everyone has something like that, but it’s more extreme with me. I was born with the need to sing. Even worse ; I was one of those kids from that famous cliché : I could sing before I could talk.”

Tim van Holder

publié dans Oor - 31.05.1995

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