The name is pronounced “bee-yerk” with a roll of the “r”. It is Icelandic for birch tree. But in the British press, Björk translates as bonkers elfin pop diva. However, here in her hometown of Reykjavík, Björk seems, well, strangely normal. Her dress is discreet/designer, finished off by a pair of “welcro”-strapped pumps which she picked up for the conspicuously anglicised sum of “18 quid”. No silly hats, funny walks or herrings protrude from her tiny handbag. No sign of the journalist-slugging, puffineating nutter of lore. On the contrary, when Björk greets Q in a woody hotel lobby, it is easy to see how eight out of 10 rock writers fall under her spell. A girlish look, a hint of nervousness, an easy smile : it’s textbook stuff.
As she leads the way to the dockside for photos, pointing out her apartment block just beyond—oh dear— the whaling ships, she is stopped in the street by a few friends, but in general she says, the people of Reykjavík do not fuss over her. This indifference to pop stars might explain why Damon Albarn has just bought a home and a restaurant in the city. Just three hours from London, clean, cosmopolitan and uncluttered (130,000 people live here ; half the entire Icelandic population), Reykjavík is becoming quite trendy.
“It’s great, innit ?” Björk huffs in a mockney accent (acquired while chatting to her son’s Ealing-born babysitter). “As soon as I move to London, Reykjavík becomes cool.”
How unlike Björk to be out of step with fashion. From the potty indie pop of her first internationally known band the Sugarcubes to more recent collaborations with hip producers Tricky and Nellee Hooper, Björk has always had her finger on the pulse. Perhaps she’s not half as barmy as popular opinion suggests. Less the saucer-eyed Euro-kook ; more the supremely sussed opportunist.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir (literal translation : daughter of Gudmund) was born in Reykjavik on November 21, 1965, to hippyish parents who split when Björk was still very young. This, she currently insists, made her fiercely independent.
“I’m self-sufficient. I spend a lot of time on my own and I shut off quite easily. When I communicate, I communicate 900 per cent, then I shut off, which scares people sometimes.”
Björk is a single mother with one son, 10-year-old Sindri. The father is former Sugarcubes guitarist Thor Eldon ; they were married for just one year. In Iceland, getting married at an early age is a simple way of making some easy money, as Björk explains.
“The welfare system is very strong. From the age of 16 to 25, the government takes 25 per cent of your wages off you and puts it in a bank account with interest. You get the money either when you’re 25 or if you marry.
Basically, it’s to make sure you have money for a house. So if you marry, which I did at the age of 20, you get that money in cash, which is a lot of money.”
Not surprisingly, Björk’s Icelandic friends call her “the sensible one”. In a recent feature in Marie Claire, Björk hosted a homecoming party for her closest girlfriends. Amid all the girl talk and the munching of marinated herrings on rye bread, a clear picture of Björk emerged : smart, pragmatic, proud of her Icelandic roots, and hugely affectionate towards her oldest friends. Weirdo pop icon ? Not a bit of it. That’s the stuff of videos and pop mags.
“Among my friends, I’m the functional one,” she explains. “I was the first to buy a house. Quite sensible.”
So why is it that Björk is continually portrayed as the kookiest woman in pop ? She reckons the answer lies with good old British xenophobia.
“The English are very easily embarrassed, and anything that’s not exactly like them is alien and weird and strange. I can’t help myself teasing the English—especially when people stare at you, waiting for antennae to pop out of your forehead.”
So it’s an affectation of sorts. And there we were thinking the rolling eyes, the wavy arms, the daft hairdos and ker-azy clothes—the whole playground-urchin-imitates-asylum-inmate shtick—were real, if unfortunate, afflictions. When Dawn French “did” Björk on telly, getting laughs was easy. The comedienne simply copied the moves and sang a few silly words of her own. No exaggeration necessary. Björk is cartoonish enough already.
On her new album, Homogenic, Björk sings (wails, hiccups, yawps, whatever) : “I thought I could organise freedom/How Scandinavian of me ...” According to her, Icelanders are an island nation very much in the British mould. They regard Scandinavians in much the same way the British regard their “fellow” Europeans—with an air of superiority. As Björk sees it, the stereotypical Scandinavian is clear-thinking and a little cold-hearted. Then, as if to underline the culture gap between Iceland and its near neighbours, Björk says something decidedly non-Scandinavian.
“For me, techno and nature is the same thing,” she begins, strangely. “It’s just a question of the future and the past. You take a log cabin in the mountains. Ten thousand years ago, monkey-humans would have thought, That’s fucking techno. Now in 1997 you see a log cabin and go, Oh, that’s nature. There is fear of techno because it’s the unknown. I think it is a very organic thing, like electricity. But then, my father is an electrician—and my grandfather as well.”
So can she change a plug on her own ?
“Yes, I can. I used to work in my granddad’s shop when I was little.” Björk is not mad at all, then. Rather she is quite eccentric, like her schoolgirl heroine Kate Bush. “I remember being underneath my duvet at the age of 12, fantasising about Kate Bush,” she reveals, “but I don’t want to make a big thing out of it. I would love it and hate it to be compared to Kate Bush, because I’d be very honoured to be compared to such a genius, but at the same time, it’s important to me that I have my own individuality and my own voice.”
And there’s the rub. There’s no mistaking Björk’s voice (“Eeeeeyoooo oowaaah. Eeeeek, etc”—a bit like, now you mention it, Klunk out of Catch The Pigeon), but the dynamics and atmosphere of Björk records don’t appear to owe much else to Björk at all. Nellee Hooper, Tricky, Howie B, 808 State’s Graham Massey and Mark Bell : surely a Björk record is only as good as its producers.
“But I always collaborate,” she fumes, “and it always says in big letters on the record that these are Nellee Hooper’s beats, or this is a song written and produced by Björk and Tricky.”
So far, so good, then.
“I could just rent a programmer and say, Copy this. Not in a million years would I ever dream of that.”
Indeed, why do that when you can pick up instant cred points simply by having Tricky or Graham Massey on your album ?
Björk has no time for such silly talk. “It happens to be that a lot of boys do beats, and a lot of girls tend to be more Iyrical. If a boy does a record with beats, say someone like Tricky or Goldie, and they have several singers on it, that’s cool, but if a singer does a record and gets several people to do beats, they’re stealing.”
Björk’s ultra-rare first album, recorded when she was just 11, was filled with Icelandic folk standards, but since then she has dabbled in every kind of music, from punk rock (she cut two albums with the punk band Kukl for the uber-PC Crass label) to indie pop to techno to trip hop. Some call it experimentation, others say her shins are indelibly barked by her incessant bandwagon jumping. Björk is defiant.
“I’m not gonna change my voice because another sound is fashionable,” she sniffs. “The people I work with don’t look at music as a trend or a fashion—it’s their voice. If you called Tricky a tripper he’d probably hit you."
There is suddenly a smidgen of colour in Björk’s pale cheeks, a little crinkle in her upturned nose. She seems very protective of the “boys” who do her “beats”.
“The musical relationship between me and Nellee was intense,” she frowns. “It was close to marriage. My musical collaborations sometimes seem to be more intense than my love things, because it’s so deep in me. If I write a tune and somebody completes it, it’s almost more important to me than the romantic idea of who is the other half of my child or something.”
Björk stepped out a while with Nellee Hooper. “It came to an end because he and I stopped surprising each other. It was quite magical when we met, and it exploded with the same intensity, but we’re really good friends now. I like to think that I can survive on my own. I’ve got a stupid amount of that in me. But you can’t live without someone.”
Following her very public break-up with shiny-toothed jungle guru Goldie several months ago, Björk’s current special someone is another influential club music figure, Howie B, who has produced tracks on all three of Björk’s albums as well as U2’s Pop. My, what a lot of producers she’s gone out with.
“Goldie and I would play music for each other and argue about it, but really enjoy it,” she moons. “I would play him string things for 24 hours, Prokofiev and Debussy, and he would just play me drum’n’bass till I was going, Give me a break ! And so he did, ha ha ! Sorry—accidental joke there.”
The constant in Björk’s life is son Sindri, around whom she displays the maternal ferocity of a lady gannet. In an Oasis-style incident at Bangkok Airport last year, Björk felt obliged to assault a female TV reporter who, snubbed by Björk, had pushed a microphone in her son’s face. In the ensuing scuffle, she repeatedly slammed the reporter’s head on the floor. Asked if such force was strictly necessary, Björk is keen to set the record straight.
“I’m very certain in my head about what’s private and what’s professional,” she asserts. “I have only once let people take photos of my son, and that was a friend of mine who came to Iceland and I actually quite regret doing that.
“In Bangkok, 40 people turned up with massive cameras at the airport after a long flight, and this woman is doing a live broadcast for millions of people. I tried to deal with it as gracefully as I could, just saying I was sorry that I was tired. But this woman just wouldn’t give up and she said (adopts sarcastic tone), Ooh, she obviously hasn’t got any time for us because she’s got more important things to do, and we’ve come all this way because we love her music so much.
“I ignored it. I decided it was her problem. So she went for my son, who was nine years old. She goes, Oh, it must be so difficult to be the son of a lady so full of herself that she won’t give me an interview. She put the microphone on him, and I can hardly remember what I did. I was just thinking, You touch my son and you’re dead ! I’m not proud of it at all, but something snapped.”
And you beat the shit out of her. On reflection, did the reporter deserve such a battering ? “I don’t know. I don’t believe in punishment like that, but we’re both human. She jumped to the conclusion that she had a licence to behave in a certain way—and I jumped to the conclusion that I had a licence to behave in a certain way, and we clashed. We probably both figured out we were wrong. That’s it, really.”
Incredibly, within five days of the Bangkok incident, Björk fan Ricardo Lopez, a 21-year-old pest control officer from Miami, had blown his head off with a .38 after sending an acid-bomb package to Björk’s home in London. Worse still, Lopez had videotaped both the making of the bomb and his suicide. Spookily, he made the bomb to the accompaniment of Björk’s song I Miss You. Spookier still, Björk was on holiday with Goldie in Miami, mere blocks from Lopez’s home, when he pulled the trigger.
“Overall, my fans are quite sweet people,” says Björk with a weak smile. “Whatever that means, sweet. But last year was terrible. The boy died. And all these things happened in the space of five days. Looking back, it was completely mental.”
Mental ? Björk’s annus horribilis could have driven her completely bonkers, but as she says herself, Björk is not half as mad as people think. And she is anything but soft. Try asking Sindri.