"My accent’s pretty fucked," says Bjork, plunging her teaspoon into a foot-long glass of Chinese iced tea. "I know a lot of Scottish people, so you can hear that. A lot of people from Bristol too, so there’s a lot of that too."
What you hear most of all, however, is random cockney. When Bjork says ’house’, it comes out as ’airse’. ’Distorted’ is pronounced ’Dis-taw-id’, with a glottal stop located somewhere between Bethnal Green and the Eastern end of the Central Line. What makes it most curious is the fact that the words are surrounded by others that come with Nordic vowels and consonants. All told, it’s un-mimickable (Q has tried, but it came out like a white South African, which isn’t right at all).
One word, meanwhile, betrays the latest chapter of her ongoing wander around the earth. ’Painter’ is pronounced ’Peen-der’, a la the kind of people who gather in Manhattan lofts to plot the future artistic direction of the industrial world. And such is Bjork’s new social milieu, as Q discovers when we are invited to a teatime ’do’ at a gorgeous apartment in the Chelsea area of New York.
It’s some token of the city’s endless sea of possibilities that, whenever pop stars visit the place, they go to places and meet people that provide the perfect reflection of who they are. Thus, The Clash did an 18-night residency at a scuzzy Times Square nightclub and hung out with Robert De Niro. Bob Dylan glued himself to Greenwich Village and invented ’60s bohemia. The Beatles were billeted to the Plaza hotel and made secret midnight forays to the Playboy Club. And the ever-hapless Sid Vicious ended up in Riker’s Island, dejectedly wondering exactly how he’d managed to murder his own girlfriend.
When Bjork premieres a handful of songs from her new album on the first afternoon of our stay, yet another side of the city rears its head. She takes the stage - or rather, her bit of floor - surrounded by a crowd of about 30 people. Most are hovering somewhere between 25 and 40, although Lee Ranaldo from NY grandees Sonic Youth is probably slightly older. They represent the ethnicities of the world, and most of them are wearing very nice clothes. It is all very Urban Outfitters/Purdey’s Health Drink/Yakult/Lucrative job in web design. Indeed, if someone from the Gap marketing department walked in, they would say something like "Charlie ! We need to get one of these !"
All is fizzy water and furrow-browed artistic respect. On the stage, meanwhile, some very beguiling things are going on. The group is made up of a harpist, a sound engineer and two fellas splitting their time between computers and slightly stranger bits of apparatus. The latter two, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt, are the two-man membership of Matmos, an avant-garde electronic duo who are much lauded in the world of LaBradford, Mouse On Mars, Stockhausen et al. When they play a new song called Aurora, Schmidt clambers into a cat litter tray full of rock salt and begins stomping up and down, percussively. His clenched-buttock posture, along with the fact that he spends three minutes staring at the ceiling, suggests he is not entirely comfortable with the job.
Bjork, meanwhile, is positioned just in front of the band. Attired in a white lace dress and impossibly delicate high heels, she adopts the behavioural patterns of the child prodigy in the school play, all fidgeting hands and embarrassed smiling during the applause. She begins singing into a microphone, but soon dispenses with it - which means that the lucky people gathered here are treated to quite the most intimate performance imaginable. It is very thrilling indeed.
At the show’s end, Bjork eases her way around the assembled funsters, pausing for a very involved conversation with four people standing around the breakfast bar. They turn out to be As4, a New York design "collective" who are the brains behind much of her latest look. Their clothes betray a common theme - kind Blake’s Seven-esque military functionality meets contemporary flamboyance. Thus, although they are wearing khaki trousers, the belt loops are threaded with pom-poms and metal accessories that make them look like they are going on a dadaist camping trip.
The most rum-looking of the four spends at least half his conversation with his head balanced on the edge of the breakfast bar, in a noticeably ’I’m a bit weird’ kind of way. From his belt loops, there dangles a pretty sizeable metal construction that takes a few seconds to positively identify.
Eventually, everything falls into place. It is a vegetable steamer. Well, you’ve got to, haven’t you ?
After eight years of a solo career that began with Debut, rose to the commercial peak represented by 1995’s Post, and then - as of 1997’s accomplished-but-difficult Homogenic - saw Bjork settle into the enviable life of the critically respected (i)artiste(i) (Radiohead, one suspects, may have got a few ideas from her), Bjork is about to release her fourth album.
Now 34, she has been in New York for the best part of a year. She has an apartment in the increasingly vogeuish meat-packing district, a close social circle, and a new boyfriend - one Matthew Barney, a bearded sculptor-cum-video artist who, in 1999, was described by the New York Times as "the most important artist of his generation". In an art guide Q finds in New York, the jury seems to be out : "Barney’s detractors characterize him as a sensationalist or Johnny-come-lately Surrealist," it says. "Barney calls himself an abstract artist. His supporters call him a man of expansive imagination, who turns the materials of his own experience into a metaphor for artistic creation." So now you know.
Thus far, the couple have escaped the kind of flashbulb-plagued existence that characterised her time in the UK : the hassle-heavy period during which she dated Goldie, Nellee Hooper and Howie B, and - contrary to her art-based modus operandi - crash-landed in the UK’s gossip pages. Avoidance of all that, it turns out, was the whole point of her move to New York. "There’s no paparazzi," she says, mid-way through tea at a tres chic oriental cafe. "That kind of tabloid mentality - that people who make music are supposed to sacrifice their personal lives - you don’t find that here.
"I had people camping outside my house in London," she sighs. "I would go away for months at a time, and I’d arrive from the airport, go to my house, and half an hour later they’d be Paparazzi following me around. It’s a very English thing, a little bit in France too, but not here. PJ Harvey moved over here because of that. Same thing."
One rather doubts whether Dominic Mohan has even heard of the author of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, but anyway : Bjork’s exasperation with the London circus had a very rational root. There came a point, somewhere around 1996, when she feared that all the attention was about to impact on her art (and this, let us not forget, was also the rather grisly career chapter that saw one Ricardo Lopez mailing her a video of his own suicide, along with her legendarily stressed-out assault of a TV reporter at Bangkok Airport).
"You can’t write a song if everybody knows what colour socks you wear," she muses. "I think I would probably have started to write songs about how difficult it is being famous, which I think is the grossest kind of music you ever hear - because it (i)isn’t(i). I think people in Vietnam and, you know, people who are really suffering should feel sorry for themselves, but celebrities feeling sorry for themselves, being victims...that’s just crap. Because they should be responsible for their lives, and they have a choice, which a lot of people don’t have.
"I have a choice, whether to be a celebrity or not, and I choose not to. So to stay leading a life like that, and then write songs about how terrible it is - it’s pathetic. I’m too proud. And I’m too much of a music lover : I’ve bought too many records that are about that and cringed. You know, Get a life !"
For one reason and another, Q decides to mention Geri Halliwell. After all, There’s a song on her new album called It’s Heaven And Hell (Being Geri Halliwell).
"About how difficult it is to be a star ?" marvels Bjork. "It’s pretty pathetic, innit ? "But I shouldn’t slag anyone off, really." Since her move from London, in between the nomadic life of the touring performer, Bjork has spent time in Spain and her native Iceland - indeed, much of the new album was written and recorded in unspeakably remote Icelandic locations, where she could get back to the artistic methods that characterised her adolescence,"When I was a teenager," she says, "one of my favourite things was to go off with my tent, and just be alone for two weeks, and just walk and sing at the top of my lungs. There’s nothing better in the world ; you can’t be any happier than that. It’s the best. I guess that’s sort of my temple."
One would imagine that indulging in such behaviour in New York is a little difficult. But apparently not. "I like the bridges," says Bjork. "Especially walking across them. You can sing at the top of your lungs there and no-one hears you." You’ve done that in New York ? "Mmm-mm. All the time." But not in rush hour, I take it. "It’s actually better in rush hour," she says, with an equal mixture of glee and mystery. "It’s like a big ocean."
In between serenading the traffic, Bjork’s New York life takes in some equally unexpected habits - like the evenings she spends watching videos specially sent over from the UK. "The only thing I would watch when I lived in London," she explains, "was Steve Coogan and Have I Got News For You. And now my mates send me Ali G and League Of Gentlemen. I’m (i)so(i) happy they exist. I show it to some of my American mates and they don’t get it. You have to live there for a bit to get it. That’s the cream of the British. Comedy, right ? You can’t top English comedy."
There is but one drawback to life in her new home. Sindri, her teenage son, is back in Iceland. "This is the first winter he’s not living with me," she explains, regretfully. That must be hard.
"Mm-mmm. [Pause] But I moved out when (i)I(i) was 14. My mum was hysterical about it. I decided I would never do that to him : I would never be that desperate about it. We’ve always been like Siamese Twins, me and my boy. He toured with me - we were together, 24/7, for 14 years. He’s having an excellent time. He’s living with his father in Iceland - they’re bonding and shaving and talking about girls, which I think is excellent. He’s partying and socialising and doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re 15. He’s in a band."
And he is fulfilling his generation destiny and playing nu-metal ? "Oh sure, yeah," says the mother who was once in Icelandic punk bands called Spit And Snot and Cork The Bitch’s Ass. "He likes rock. Which I don’t." So he’s rebelling. "Oh yeah. Thank God !"
Bjork’s new album is called Vespertine, as in "like vespers", the evening prayers beloved of monks - which reflects the sense of faith and devotion that runs through the lion’s share of the songs (which, according to those in the know, is mostly down to the aforementioned Matthew Barney). There is another theme to the record, however - which almost resulted in it being titled Domestica.
As against 1997’s crunching, confrontation Al Homogenic, Bjork wanted to make a record that was both created in the home, and aimed at soundtracking domestic life - "an album that sounded like it was made while someone was cooking pasta," as she recently put it.
"I wanted to create a new audio world for this album that’s kind of more like chamber music," she explains. "Modern chamber music. Not amplified, kinda steroid, Marshall stack, if I stand here I hope someone in China can hear me. It’s the opposite of that. Homogenic was as steroid as I will ever get [smiles]."
You’ve used the word ’macho’ about that record.
"Yeah, the beats were distorted, and kinda...unforgiving. And I guess this one is very forgiving..[pause]...it’s very internal, whereas Homogenic was extrovert. On Homogenic, everything was on eleven. This is more quiet, and white. It’s like it’s snowing outside and you’re drinking hot cocoa on the inside. So it’s very [decisively] Cosy."
One track on Vespertine sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s called Pagan Poetry : a shimmering, harp-based song that climaxes with Bjork singing "I love him/ I love him/I love him" in a voice that suggests she is about to collapse with the terrible emotion of it all. "That’s probably the only song that’s full-bodied, with blood and muscle," she offers, by way of explanation.
There’s something rather uncomfortable about the experience of that song. It feels like an invasion of your privacy. "Yeah. Hmmmm. [Huge pause] I don’t know. When I hear that sort of stuff in other people’s work, I usually find it quite rewarding, so I wouldn’t look at it as uncomfortable. I would say that’s generous. But it’s about wanting to communicate, for sure. It’s less cocoon-ish than the rest of the songs. It’s definitely wanting to tell someone something." An obvious question, then. Who are you referring to ?" "[Coquettishly] It’s so obvious, innit ?" Matthew Barney, right ? "[Smiling]I didn’t say a word."
The fact that Vespertine is such a poised, delicate record is all the more striking given the circumstances in which some of it was initially written. Bjork did her first spurt of demos while she was on the set of Dancer In The Dark, the movie that earned her the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival but - according to director Lars Von Trier and her co-stars - almost finished her off.
By way of a reminder, she played Selma, a poverty-stricken Czech emigre who is losing her sight while desperately trying to save her son from the same fate, brought on by a genetic disorder. Her travails are punctuated by the musical set-pieces collected on the Selmasongs album - but good tunes cannot save her from a truly grisly fate. Cheerily, she ends the film being wrongly hanged for the murder of her scumbag landlord.
In the wake of the film, the extent to which Bjork had been traumatised by the role began to leak out. "It has been terrible," said Von Trier, "but the results are incredible. Bjork is not an actor. She is not acting in this film but feeling everything, which is extremely hard on her and on everyone else, too. It was like being with a dying person." Adding to the impression of near-breakdown, her co-star Catherine Deneuve speculated that Bjork might not be able to talk about her role for another decade
And so it proves today, kind of. "The fact that the film was so brutal and full of big emotional strokes made me want to do little pretty things even more, she says of the link between the movie and Verspertine. "Kind of do an album that you can come home to after a really tough day at work, and put it on, and it’s gentle and sweet and nourishing and lullabies and prayers, and you go to bed and you wake up with a smile."
Would you act again ? "[Wanting to move on] Ah, it was enjoyable. I’d rather be in the studio. It’s just a question of what you’re born to do. Acting, for me, is like a muslim pretending he’s a Catholic or something. It just doesn’t work. I’m getting a lot of outrageous offers, but...I was always so sure that I’d do music. It’s my love. I think I should leave acting to other people. I think there’s something not very solid about dabbling in something that you haven’t given your heart to."
Did you have as hellish a time as Lars Von Trier made out ? "Er.. I think [Pause]....All the working relationships I’ve had have always been positive. I’ve worked with people it’s supposed to have been impossible to work with, and it’s always gone really well. It was kind of funny : it was the first time I’ve dealt with something negative happening. But I think maybe the media took some of the negative things that happened and made them a bit bigger than they were." But were you as anguished as your character ? If you were, you’d have had a pretty rough time.
"Yeah. Erm.....mm-mmm. I don’t know. I don’t think about it so much any more. [Distractedly] I’m a bit bored with it now. Whatever." It’s a very bleak film.
"What does bleak mean ?" she shoots back, suddenly interested. "I’m still learning English, you see." Q thinks for a minute before opting to define the word in the context of the film. The thing is, what Dancer In The Dark says about humanity is that we’re really beyond redemption.
"What does redemption mean ?" In the end, we’ll be proved good. Whereas what happens to Selma proves that we’re ultimately at the mercy of very bad people. "Yeah. Yeah. "[Brightening] But she gets the tunes, doesn’t she ? They don’t."
Q next catches up with Bjork the following morning, when she is cloistered in a photographic studio, having her picture taken by one Warren Du Preez, a South African fashion photographer of some repute. "I love the new record," he says, "’cos it sounds like she’s in love. I mean, who needs all that ’I’m so fucked up stuff, right ? Not me." Q can only nod in silent agreement.
Vegetable steamer-man is also here, along with the other three members of As4. Today is the day that they unveil their sartorial coup de grace : a body-covering construction, somewhere between a dress and a figure-hugging tracksuit, encrusted with 10,000 crystals, worth $4 a throw, donated by the world-famous Swarlovski company. It comes with a matching balaclava helmet, which makes it look like something that would suit one of the glam-but-strange female aliens that Williams Shatner used to occasionally have a snog with on Star Trek. Bjork was going to wear it to the Oscars, but it wasn’t finished in time - so she settled for the swan-in-dress-form number instead. It’s some token of how out-there the crystal outfit is that it would have probably have created even more of a stir.
If her body can take the weight, Bjork will be slipping into it a little later on. In the meantime, she has a red dress to pose in, and a philosophical parting shot to throw in the direction of the tape recorder.
"My Grandmother’s always been my idol," she says, "and I used to watch her and my mum when I was a kid. My mum was may be 25 or 30, over-emotional, going through all that ’What am I going to do with my life ? Who do I love ?’... all these dramas that you have at that age. My Grandmother was 45, a full-on housewife, but she’s also an abstract painter.
"She’s 76 now, and every time I go home she’s done something new. That’s very inspiring. So I guess I’ve always known that if I’m a really, really good girl and i work really hard and acquire a lot of experiences, if I’m lucky, when I’m 55 I might write a good tune."
Seconds later, Warren Du Preez marshals his assistants, Vegetable steamer-man gets back to his crystals, and Bjork takes her place under the lights. As ever, it all rather suits her.