Björk prefers exotic surroundings like the Orient-express or a remote castle for a more common luxuryhotel, when she’s being interviewed. When I meet her in a closed-down dance-school, she’s sitting in an extravagantly formed sofa, surrounded by chocolate Easter-eggs and dressed in a pale T-shirt and a futuristic orange skirt. The clothes, her nearly supernatural face and accent leaves the impression that Björk is an alien, just landed on our planet. In her physical presence Björk is everything but the elfin or ice-princess she has been described as. She’s speaking to friends and strangers with the same, childlike enthusiasm and talks to everyone without problems whenever she feels like it. She’s been living in London for the past five years, and her singing Icelandic accent reveals a pleasant touch of cockney.
It seems, as if you have found the perfect balance between sex and intellect. Some pop-artists make sexy dance-music, others pleasant pop, but you combine the best parts from these two fields.
That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. It has always irritated me when people have been trying to separate those two things : Dance is portrayed as brain-dead and simple, while the ‘serious’ pop-music is considered difficult lyrically. I’ve always believed—also before I started doing my own music—that everything should be possible, all combinations. I wanted to be all at the same time : smart, stupid, angry, cute, old-fashioned and childish, naive, experienced, happy, sad. I think It’s been my luck that I’ve had to take care of myself from when I was very small. My mum was alone in bringing us up, and from I was six years old, I had to dress myself and get something to eat by myself. This meant, that I became a very structured person : I went to school alone, went shopping alone—and stuck my nose into everything. [laughs] So I’ve always had a doubleness in me, since I was very small. I was both the spontaneous, playful child and the older, independent daughter. When I for instance decided only to eat bananas for three days, my mum let me do it : She presumably realised that I would grow tired of that anyway at some point. I was a very introverted child, living a very isolated life.
On an island—Iceland ?
Yes. Not that I was unhappy or depressed or something like that, I just liked being alone. I didn’t care what other people thought about me. I was about 18 years when I started to realise that you have to deal with other people. I bought a tent and a sleeping bag and hitchhiked away. I slept anywhere. At that time you could still do that in Scandinavia without getting mugged. It was incredible : I woke up and crawled out of the tent in an unspoiled landscape, I could sing, yell and scream as crazy as I wanted it. Freedom, total freedom. I enjoyed being alone, and I took care of myself. But then I was suddenly hit by the thought : ‘Damn, this is just too easy’. The real challenge of life is to learn to communicate with other people. And today I would describe my relation to my friends like this : they’re saving my life every day ...just like I’m saving theirs.
Children of very disciplined parents sometimes rebel by becoming very alternative and weird. Your parents were hippies, does that mean that you were very...
...Anal ? [laughs] At least it didn’t mean that I became prude, correct and businesslike. But after a while I could see the absurd in living in a commune with seven grown-ups, who were using all their time to talk, dream and fool about. For a long time I thought that this was great, that I was always around people who would spend six hours telling me stories, push my swing, or wanted to paint futuristic paintings of how we would all sail away in a big ship someday... But I reached a point—I must have been around seven or eight—when I had to tell them : ‘why don’t you stand up and do something ? All this senseless talking !’ After that I became very active. This is something many people can’t see : my willpower. In reality I’m made of steel.
Did you ever have any problems with grown-ups, who had enough of your childish side ?
Of course. All the time ! Most grown-ups hated spontaneity. They hated when you made small expressions of joy over things, that they felt were commonplace. For example, look at your tape-recorder, isn’t it fantastic ?! That something like that exists ! Often I started singing out of nowhere, just for the fun of it, and not because there were a party. Just the thought of starting to sing, because you’re happy or you want to try your voice... it’s considered madness. But I was lucky—my outbursts were accepted because I’m a woman. That made it a little more OK.
At least until you become famous.
Yes, then it’s suddenly all right. Then people are thankful or enthusiastic about hearing your voice. It’s really funny, that I get so much attention today. I’ve never asked for it, but I’ve realised that suddenly I can do a lot of things, just because I’m BJÖRK !!! [rolls her eyes and trusts her chest forwards]. Constantly I can read that I’m a phenomenon. Ha ! Those same people, writing this, would probably have hated to be seen together with me two years ago.
You spoke about communicating with other people. Have you used music as a means of communication before you started recording it ?
Yes, music has always been my compensation for my lack of ability to communicate. Many people say : ‘try listening to this record, then you’ll know exactly what I’m trying to say’ And that feeling is extremely strong in me. That’s why I’m convinced that pop-music is capable of tying together different cultures, generations, races, friends and strangers together.
Didn’t you get into problems in the music-school you went to as a child ? I mean, because of your unorthodox way of singing ?
I sang more outside of the school than in the school. To me, singing has always been something pure. It was my own very private way of dealing with all the things that went on in my head. I used my voice to think—in the same way that the buddhists use ceremonial singing. I loved singing in the wind, in the rain, in a blizzard, on a stream of lava... Me against the elements. Even on my new album I’ve used a special microphone with a very long lead on some of the songs, so I could sing on the beach instead of the studio. Where I grew up there were no cars, we always walked, and I sang all the way to my grandparents, the music-school or on the way home to my mum. That’s how the song ‘Human Behaviour’ were made : I sang about all the strange, complicated grown-ups I saw every day.
Are you still receiving music-education ?
No. And I never practice either. That is : In reality I’m always practising. I’m constantly humming to myself, I’ve done that all my life. To me, humming is like eating or sleeping. But I hate doing rehearsals. To make rehearsals in singing... You don’t make rehearsals before having sex, do you ? You don’t go to your partner saying, ‘let’s make a small rehearsal, and then tonight we can make love for real’. [giggles] Even though a lot of men could use the practice.
Old hippies, growing up with Beatles, experienced ‘Sergeant Pepper’ as a record which expanded their musical horizon. To the old punks it was ‘Remain in Light’ with Talking Heads. Was there a specific record which influenced you as a teenager ?
My mum always listened to hippie-music—Simon & Garfunkel and that kind of things. My grandparents listened mostly to jazz, Chet Baker for example. There wasn’t any particular album which influenced me. What influenced me the most, was the fact that no one ever claimed that jazz was better than pop, or opera better than jazz, and so on. I started to discover the special qualities in classical music. But what is classical music, when it comes down to it ? Most people will probably say Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. But I feel that Indian music is much more classical. It has been around for thousand of years, compared to Mozart’s two or three hundred years. Or look at something like folk-music : People have sung this kind of music everywhere for a thousand years. But folk-songs are not considered serious music, because you don’t need a specially trained voice to sing them. It is perfectly natural to sing like that—just as natural as apples and smile and sleep and water and sex and food...
Were you one of those kids who already knew what you wanted in a very early age ?
I wanted to be everything ! I wanted to sing, paint, I wanted to be a skateboard champion—I wanted to be something that no one had been before : a priestess in a mysterious buddhist temple, globetrotter, and a woman of oracles, to whom people came for advice. I wanted to be an element ! An element, you know, like air, fire, earth and water... and Björk, she laughs. I had a couple of idols, but they weren’t popstars. My idols were eccentric scientists like Albert Einstein. I wanted to become all these kind of things, and this is actually my ideal : That everyone can become whatever they want. That you as a woman can be mother and sportsstar and philosopher at the same time.
‘Debut’ was actually not your debut-album, because you already recorded an album when you were 11 years old. What kind of music was that ?
Very happy, carefree pop. Equal parts of bubblegum and madness. Mostly children-songs, but also some I had written myself. It was sold in seven thousand copies, and in Iceland that was enough for a platinumrecord. And then I made another album, which was only released in Iceland, ‘Gling-Glo’, a record with jazzy cover-versions of old Icelandic folksongs. It was a bigger hit in Iceland than ‘Debut’ and all the Sugarcubes’ records. I used the money from the first album for a piano. It was shortly after my grandmother died. For her funeral I played my first self-composed song, it was about her death. That was the first time I felt really proud of myself. I’ve been told, that some of your fellow countrymen once sued you. Why ? Yes, but that’s a long time ago. I was very pregnant, I removed my eyebrows and showed my bare belly in a TV-program, when I performed with a punk-band. That combination was evidently too much for some of the viewers. A woman got a heartattack while watching the program, and she sued me.
Your music is very visual. The song ‘Army of Me’ is included in the soundtrack for the recent movie ‘Tank Girl’. Have you ever considered doing a whole movie soundtrack ?
I was very impressed by Jane Campion’s ‘An Angel at my Table’. She also directed ‘The Piano’. Everyone who likes my music ought to see that film. I wrote a very polite letter to her saying, that if she ever needed someone to write a soundtrack for one of her films, then I would accept immediately. She does with film, what I do with music : She takes elements from some person’s life—without using science fiction or unbelievable plots—and gives them a magical glow. Like, if the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez should write the script for a film—he’s also seing the fantastic in the ordinary. I think it’s fascinating, that I might have developed some of the same sensitivity as him—who’s grown up in the exotic, tropical South America. The Icelandic sensibility for magic comes from our past : The Icelanders still lived in the middleages until 50 years ago—they still do in a way. Today the ordinary Icelander maybe has a mobile telephone and satellite-TV, but his soul still belongs to Icelandic peasant-community of the 1750s.
Your lyrics suggests that you’ve been through big ups and downs. Pop- rtists usually only show one side : They’re either euphoric or depressed.
I’m both. But I’m an optimist after all, because I’ve always had a strong sense of wonder about everything. I still feel : ‘Hello, this is interesting, why do I feel like this ?’ or ‘Hmmm, maybe there’s a song hiding here somewhere’. We Icelanders are more depressed than other people, because we get so little light up north. In the winter it’s dark nearly all day, and in the summer it isn’t much better. But we have developed a special immunity towards this. That’s why there’s so many artists in Iceland. Art is a natural way to conquer depressions. We also love parties, we use any excuse to throw parties. My friends and I, for example, threw a party on July 12th, just because it happened to be the 12th and not the 13th. When you die there’s only one thing you really can regret : All the time you’ve spent regretting. I’ve never been able to identify with glorification of depression and destruction. I also hate when pop-artists exploits their own negative sides. I would never want to do that. I wouldn’t be able to defend such a behaviour towards Sindri. In many ways pop-artists has closer contact to their fans than to their parents or friends. Therefore you need to have a positive influence, you have to create the possibility of a two-way communication. It’s too cheap to think that you have to create drama or suffering to be fascinating.
What kind of effect do you then want your music to have to your listeners ?
I want to prove that music can be happy fascinating at the same time. That there’s just as intense feelings in ‘I’m feeling wonderful’ as in ‘Oh, I’m such a martyr’ I want to tell people that they shouldn’t be afraid of being different, and that they shouldn’t be scared of other people’s expectations. Create your own views/ attitudes. And... yes, that’s enough. I’m not going to preach.
The lyrics for ‘Modern Things’ are very beautiful. How did that come about ?
It was a mixture of half-finished impressions and ideas. After ‘Jurassic Park’ everyone talked about dinosaurs. Someone told me that some modern things looks old. And then I thought : What if all modern things like cars, blenders and computergames have always existed, but were forced to wait in an underground storage-room, until it was their time to be ‘invented’ ? What if they were already here when there were still dinosaurs, and a computer could sit around sighing ‘argh, listen how that Tyrannosaurus Rex is complaining, while I have to sit here waiting for still 30000 years’. [laughs] In Iceland you grow up with myths and mythology, everything in the nature has some meaning. For example you say that the mountains are actually trolls, and things like that stays with you for the rest of your life.
Doesn’t the song ‘Isobel’ describe the duality between reason and emotions, between intuition and intellect, that we discussed earlier ?
Yes, exactly, and it’s Isobel not Isabel, because it’s about a girl who lives a very isolated life. Isobel is a mythological character, who were born out of a burning tree in the forest. She symbolises intuition and instinct. One day she arrives to the big city, where everyone acts rational, and everything she does there are wrong : She goes naked to a party, she falls in love with a married man... She only has good intentions, but all she does is wrong, because she’s different. Then she retreats into herself and finally she marries herself. The keyword in my life is ‘why’. I can’t live without knowing why X do one thing, and Y something different, and why everyone suddenly wants to talk with me, when I’ve made a record—why, why, why, WHY, WHY, WHY ??!!
[The waiter, who’s just about to serve our drinks, takes a quick step backwards, worried that he might be in the middle of a ‘marital’ scene.]
Can you give an example of an impulsive decision you’ve made recently ?
My recordcompany was against that ‘Isobel’ should come out as the second single, but I felt intuitively that this was the right choice, so I insisted. Another example is the song I wrote for Madonna. She had asked for ‘something Björk’ and she also wanted me to sing on the recording. I had written the song especially for her. But my intuition told me that it would be wrong for me to sing on it. I also refused meeting her officially. When I eventually meet her, it should be a coincidence, when we’re both drunk in a bar or something like that.
Madonna wanted ‘something Björk’, but what is that precisely ?
I make Björk-music, and Björk-music is very flexible, very intense and very rich, but also eccentric and inconstant. I’m very easily bored.