Q Magazine

Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s Record Collection

Taoist children’s stories from Iceland. Film soundtracks from the Indian subcontinent. Anarcho-veggie punk from, er, Southeast London ? Martin Aston can have stumbled upon the private listening pleasure of only one elfin pop siren : Why, it’s. . .

Down the concrete steps, round the back and to the left, you’ll find Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s dinky new residence, on the cusp of London’s inner city border and its leafy Western suburbs. It’s here that the Icelander and her seven-year-old son Sindri decamped nine months ago, after the dissolution of the erratically inspired Sugarcubes, to record her debut solo album, cunningly titled Debut. The decision has paid off handsomely ; the record’s attractive amalgamation of pop, house, jazz and ethnic spicing from Arabia to India and beyond with that characteristically offbeat Icelandic temperament and the assistance of studio overseer Nellie Hooper (of Soul II Soul fame) has already won several longplayer-of-’93 accolades, and the geyser-voiced singer has become accustomed to being a frontcover sensation for the second time.

Inevitably, there is a price to pay. "I’m well aware of making a sacrifice by leaving Iceland, because I’m so much from there," she confides over a cup of tea, "but I’ve been on a little personal mission, which is my album. Basically, the money, studio and equipment was all here, not in Iceland.

Still, many of Björk’s possessions remain in her Reykjavík home, including her favourite albums, the reason for this early morning meet. The ubiquitous Filofax and a coffee-table tome of presumably homesickness-inducing Icelandic landscapes perch on the kitchen table while a pile of CDs and tapes sit untidily on a work surface nearby.

"When I first left home, I carried all sorts of stupid stuff around with me in boxes, but I gradually learnt to give that up," she says. "I realised that the best thing is to have, when you go somewhere, is what you’re wearing. One book and you’re laughing. Especially when you’re trying to move from one country to another. You have to start again."

THORBJORN EGNER - DE SEKSTEN BESTE

"This is what Icelandic kids get for a birthday present when they’re young. Egner is this ideologist guy who made plays for children, on the same tip as Winnie The Pooh, I’d say : the Taoist tip, if you want. The songs are full of anarchy, like fuck parents, fuck teachers, fuck policeman, I can bring myself up’. One song is about the animals who live in the forest who decide not to eat each other, and become vegetarians. It’s a bit of a heavy moral message for five-year-olds."

"Basically, it’s all about these two Icelandic trolls, Karius and Baktus, who were the first punks, so I was introduced to punks about 10 years earlier than you lot. Anyway, they live in your teeth, and if you eat sweets, they’re really hardcore punks, so they like to puke and spit like punks like to, and then they really hit your teeth, and shout. There are brilliant sound effects on this (impersonates tooth decay). It’s a bit like Igor Stravinsky for kids, with brass and string instruments. There are happy songs and sad songs, but it’s all very dramatic. It definitely made you think that authority was a bit dodgy. I think it’s a bit of the Bohemian Scandinavian over-socially aware thing, the idea that kids can sue their parents, which has gone out of date now. I must admit, I thought twice before I played it to my son. Fairy tales are cruel, aren’t they ? The wolf was eating the grandmother, after all."

SPARKS KIMONO - MY HOUSE

"I was brought up with all these hippies. Ten of them and one of me. At the age of seven, I’d really had enough of all those hippy records, that psychedelic crap, so I became like a kid who has to listen to different stuff to her parents. My dad was a bit on the case, and probably bought this Sparks album, but didn’t really like it, but I played little else for a year, and drove them all mad. It’s really for kids as well, you know, "This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, and it ain’t me who’s gonna leave" which was a pretty cool statement. They were a bit theatrical, I guess, more expressive than your average pop album, and not just about I-love-you-and-you- love-me. I loved the way Russell Mael sung like a geisha, and that they were into wearing geisha clothes, as I was really into Japanese people."

"What kids get into is very picturesque music that is really easy to imagine what’s going on. At that point, I’d got really bored of guitars and rock’n’roll, and Sparks were more interesting, more like a fairy tale. I was really into them until I read an interview with the singer a year later, when he said that the only two things in the world he didn’t like was kids and animals. That broke my heart.

"I left home first, actually, at 14. I got the feeling that time was running out, and there were all these exciting things happening out there, and you’re missing them. You wanted to rent a flat and cook really bad meals, that sort of thing. I came back a year later when I was broke."

JONI MITCHELL - HEJIRA

"When I was about 10, I was listening a lot with my dad, to what he was getting into, like Frank Zappa, who I used to think was a dirty old man, but then got to appreciate a couple of years later, stuff like Don’t You Eat That Yellow Snow (from Apostrophe) which I found hilarious, that someone peed in the snow and that someone else was meant to eat it."

"When I was 13, though, I got into Joni Mitchell with my dad, and played it to pieces. I loved Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter but Hejira was the one. It was more acoustic. I’ve always found guitars a bit difficult because my dad played since I was very little, and he was a bit of a Clapton and Hendrix kind of guitarist, and I’ve always been critical of that, but I loved her guitar sound very much, although it’s very hard to say why. With hindsight, she was one of the first women I heard who weren’t completely stupid. She had her own air of style and independence, whereas a lot of women just wanted to play men’s music. I wasn’t so much into her voice, more that she had her own world, with her own elements. You definitely knew that it was Joni the second you heard her. It was very strong, but very feminine, you know ? It was natural and earthy but modern as well."

"She was never my role model, though : I don’t think any singer was, to be honest. Instruments influenced me more than singers, like brass and stuff. You might start puking when I say it but I never had the ambition to be a singer, I always wanted to make good music. It’s like learning shorthand writing. It’s not so much that you’re into it, but it makes it easier to write anything. That’s why I sing."

ELLA FITZGERALD AND LOUIS ARMSTRONG - ELLA AND LOUIS

"At the same time as Joni, I got into Debussy at my grandparents’ house, especially his dramatic little piano pieces, and I got into jazz. I love the way Ella and Louis work together : they were opposites in how they sung, but were still completely functional together, and respectful of each other. My favourite bit of Ella is from the Jazz At The Hollywood Bowl album, the one where she forgets the lyrics. She goes, I forgot the lyrics to this song, be bop be bop, I forgot the lyrics to this song, be bop be bop’, which I thought was great."

"I’ve always liked Ella because she’s really happy. I’ve never been into all these suffering artists, I think it’s a bit pathetic. You have your problems, but you have to go one step further, and see the funny side of it. Everybody has problems, not only Morrissey. That’s why I’ve always preferred Ella to Billie, even though Billie is the singer of the century and all that shit, but I think it’s much braver to be happy than to be suffering, taking heroin and all that. Ella was strong enough not to bore the audience with her own difficult life. I saw her sing at the Montreux Jazz Festival when I was 15 : she was 60, with white hair, but exactly the same greatest sense of humour. She’s always teasing people. I guess her singing was an influence on me but not in a direct sense, more in the sense that you shouldn’t take melodies too literally. It’s a bit irrelevant what a melody is like in a song : the point is more the mood, and the emotions, and it doesn’t matter if you forget the lyrics. You can still sing the song. You can do whatever you want to."

DISCHARGE - NEVER AGAIN

"I was in a muso band at 15, playing seven-ninth rhythms, being complicated and difficult. Then I got into punk. I started by forming this punk band, called Spit And Snot, believe it or not. I was the drummer, with no hair. That was a big scene in Reykjavík : I think we hold the world record of how many people lived in Iceland, and how many punk bands there were. But it was very difficult to get English punk records : you’d get one, like a Gang Of Four record, and everyone would go to that one person’s house. So all these bands started to play, and we definitely got over the problem of not knowing how to play that was mind over matter."

"The one classic album from that time was Never Again (a double 12-inch album featuring 10 one-minute songs), though I had three or four of theirs. They had such hardcore energy. I’ve always thought this line between complete energy and getting muso should be kept very thick. I wasn’t into the new wave scene when they started to put chords to punk. What do you call the Teenage Turtles ? Mutants. It was a bit like that, not pure any more. That’s why I liked Discharge, and really respected Crass too. We’d met Crass at the time we were running this organisation in Iceland called Bad Taste, before we formed The Sugarcubes, when lots of people came over to play, including Crass. They heard our band, KUKL, play and offered us a deal. I was 18 at this point and had never been to England, so I couldn’t relate to Margaret Thatcher. It was very hard for Icelandic people who were still a bit in the middle ages."

RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK - THE INFLATED TEAR

"Roland Kirk and Sun Ra are what I’ve been most into in the last five years. Both aren’t academic jazz people, they’re totally earthy and natural, like ancient, somehow, but very modern at the same time. The sound is muddy. If I had to pick one person as my hero, I’d have to say Kirk : He plays brass, for one, which has always been a soft spot for me, and he plays in a very intuitive way as opposed to with brains. He plays songs that are like pop songs, they’re so simple, but at the same time, are mind-expanding experiences. It’s not too much of anything but has got all the extremes. He plays freejazz that a five-year-old kid would understand, that anyone could get into, which is something I always like."

"Pick five Roland Kirk and five Sun Ra albums and you’ll probably have my favourite record. But if you’re forcing me to pick one, it’s Kirk’s The Inflated Tear. It’s at the brilliant stage in his life, before he got too much into fusion, which I don’t like, when he was getting really basic, back to roots. The title track is about when he was two years old, and had some eye disease, and was living in this black ghetto. He had this white nurse who didn’t really have time to take good care of him, and gave him the wrong medicine for his eyes, which blinded him for life. The song is based on memory : he could remember the last minute he saw and the first minute he couldn’t."

BAPPI LAHRIRI - SNAKE DANCE

"I’m completely fascinated by Indian string sections, and have been for a while. The music is completely sensual, and very pretty, and again, more to do with instincts than brains. I think my love of it has a lot to do with having to deal with England. I’m eventually falling in love with England, of course, but like all flirting periods, it’s a lot to do with being hard to get. When I tried to get into English culture, I always ended up going out and buying Indian music. I’m a visitor here : I call myself an immigrant housewife. I hang out with the Indians in Southall and go to Thai takeaways. Indian culture is beautiful, more so than the English. I felt some sort of support, or sympathy there. I felt like I belonged there."

"I don’t know much about Bappi Lahriri. I just know that if I buy 10 Indian albums, and one is by Bappi, I’m safe. Snake Dance is a film soundtrack which me and Nellie really got into when we were making my album, and ended up sending two of my songs to Bombay where Indian strings were recorded. Indian soundtracks have this incredibly pure sound. They’ve tried to record string sections in England, top quality microphones, top quality Indian musicians, the lot, but it’s just not the same. Talvin Singh, who plays with my band and who works a lot in Bombay, told me that the sound engineers there are so used to working under poor conditions that their ears are incredible, and they can get that particularly earthy sound. Apparently tabla players all surround one microphone, and they can tell exactly who it is who is playing out of tune."

ABBA - ARRIVAL

"I can get lost in this. It’s pure joy, this music. It’s a bit of an escapism, from all the intellectual conversations and arguments you have in your life, and just being silly and happy and stupid, but it’s pure, as pure as pure can get. You just want to dance on the table. The Sugarcubes wanted Benny and Björn to produce our second album, but they didn’t want to. We were naturally upset."

PUBLIC ENEMY - FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET

"Around 1987, when The Sugarcubes started, I got heavily into hip hop. I was listening to Public Enemy every day, which meant a bit of a fight on the tour bus as I was trying to play it all the time and the others hated it. After Public Enemy, everything else is just like... woofty. I mean, wimpish. Yo Bum Rush The Show was the one that opened your mind but Fear Of A Black Planet is the one that, musically, is a masterpiece. They’ve been so misunderstood. They’ve mostly been taken for their politics, which is great, but if you just look at the other worlds, and there are a lot of worlds in this world, one being music, which is the leader of them all because it’s pure instinct well, musically, they just did it. No-one in hip hop, house, techno, whatever, opened up as much ground as they did. The music is so modern and so... abstract. It’s just like, fuck the rules. I would put them in a group with people like Stockhausen and Schoenberg. Forget about rock’n’roll chords, we’ve all been suffering from them all our lives, and they just rescued us from that syndrome."

CHET BAKER - LET’S GET LOST

"We argued about all music on the tour bus but the two things we could all agree on was Abba and Chet Baker. I’d say Baker is my favourite vocalist of the century. There were two albums, both with the same title, ridiculously, which were released with Bruce Weber’s film of his life, Let’s Get Lost. One was recorded when the film was being made, when he was older, and the other with all the stuff he sung when he was young, which I prefer."

"I wouldn’t say he’s an influence as I didn’t hear him until much later in my life, but he’s the only singer I’ve ever been able to identify with. I love the fact he’s so expressive, so over-emotional. It’s classic stuff ; it makes me soft in my knees. He was a bit of a heroin casualty, silly guy, but you couldn’t tell he had a habit when he was younger. He was so into it, like, fuck those notes I’m singing, and fuck those songs I’m singing, what I want is the emotion’. That’s how I feel about it too."

Martin Aston

publié dans Q Magazine - 01.10.1993

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