The gothic tower of the Riverside Church, on the western edge of Harlem, is hidden in mist. As rain drizzles down this May evening, a throng of acolytes huddles around the doors, desperately trying to gain entrance. They are Björk fans. The previous week, two special Björk performances in the chapel were announced, the singer’s website crashed, and each show’s hundred or so tickets sold out instantly. Now pilgrims have journeyed from as far as Europe, some paying scalpers upward of $1000. The ticketless, too, have trekked to this obscure corner of New York City to participate in the ritual of longing, watching and waiting.
Inside the chapel, the audience sits on rickety chairs below a vaulted ceiling, facing an altar holding Björk’s new band : a harpist (Zeena Parkins, veteran of the New York avant-improv scene), a 12-woman choir dressed in black, and two guys with laptops who look like downsized Silicon Valley engineers, even if one has a mohawk (Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt, otherwise known as the experimental digi-duo Matmos). Carved into the pale stone above them are the words THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE.
The lights dim, and Björk walks out. She is barefoot, in a flowing white dress and feathered black hair, an angel with a stylist. Her presence is otherworldly, as though she has endured some terrible ordeal (making a movie, perhaps ?) and has now emerged to show us the way to heaven. Up the center aisle she floats, like a bride, and that enormous, furiously penetrating voice fills the chapel. “It’s not meant to be a struggle.” she sings.
But for Björk, it so often is. She is always struggling to reincarnate herself : musically, visually, emotionally. Her first foray into acting, as a shy single mom executed for murder in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, won her a best-actress award at Cannes, but the experience left her so psychologically riven she says she will never act again. Now, with her recent record, Vespertine, the 33-year-old is opening a new chapter in her evolution. This one is all about soothing, retreating, and renewing.
Not that she’s gone new-age or anything. She’s just looking for a little peace. But for this pop icon, achieving quietitude is trickier than just performing barefoot in a church.
One May afternoon, Björk sits in a rowboat in the middle of the Lake in Central Park. Her eyes are cast down at her hands, which seem to be subtly manipulating an imaginary toy. A white bird lands on the lake nearby, wings outstretched. It brings to mind the outlandish swan dress Björk wore when she performed “I’ve Seen It All,” the Oscar-nominated song from Dancer, at the Academy Awards this year. But long before the film, she had cultivated an intensely visual presence. This fall, Bloomsbury Publishing will release a book of photographs covering the span of her career, featuring the work of just about every cutting-edge photographer out there. Then there are her music videos, wild and visionary collaborations with directors like Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham.
“People always go by the eye, never the ear,” she says, as the sounds of taxi horns blend in with the honking of the geese around us. “People have to train their ears. A video helps people get the song the first couple of times, if it looks how it sounds.” She remixes John and Yoko : “Audio is the nigger of the world.”
Björk is wearing a pink dress with white stripes, pink tights, and well-worn white slippers with pom- poms on the toes, which make her look like a slightly satanic Teletubby. When I ask her where she got the dress, she parries. “A lot of fashion is about control, all those big companies telling you, ‘If you don’t spend that much money, you’re not fashionable.’ And that seems to be about the worst crime anyone can commit. I like it when people are individuals.”
This is as close to a manifesto as one is likely to get from Björk : be original. She also seems intent on separating being unique — and notable, and conspicuous — from the culture of celebrity. In fact, though she’s a force in dance music and fashion, her destination of choice these days is home. The one topic she gets excited about today, geekily enough, is computers. She composed Vespertine on a Power Macintosh G3, which, as fate would have it, was stolen from her suitcase days after she had downloaded her finished music. And she says she used ProTools software in lieu of her usual Cubase because ProTools “is more fluid, more emotional.”
I ask if she finds technology at all alienating. “If you are going to work with something, if it’s technology or a guitar or a spoon, there is no point in doing it unless you let yourself get completely involved,” she says. “Otherwise, just skip it.”
That was her feeling about movie-making ; having sunk her soul into Dancer In The Dark, she wants it back. “But I’d fly halfway around the world and drink only tea for three days just to sing one three-minute song,” she says. “Music is my religion.”
Her religious training started early. When Björk Guðmundsdóttir was 11 years old, she had a self-titled hit record in Iceland. Her rock band, the Sugarcubes, blew up in the late ’80s (abetted by the 120 minutes mainstay “Birthday”) ; she left the band in 1992 and started a solo career with 1993’s Debut, which sold 4 million records worldwide and made her an international star.
By the time her tour de force, Post, was released in 1995, she had moved to London and had been romantically linked to both Goldie and Tricky. The tabloid frenzy that developed around her led to what VH-1 ranks as No. 96 of its “100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock ‘N’ Roll” : Björk slugging a journalist who approached her son at the Bangkok International Airport in 1996. On a darker note, that same year a stalker tried to mail a bomb to her and ended up killing himself, though not before making her a videotape of his preparations for suicide. All this, obviously, has contributed to Björk’s considerable ambivalence about fame : 1997’s spare, ethereal, dance floor-rejecting Homogenic read like a deliberate withdrawal into the comforts of cult status.
When her jarring performance in Dancer made her an unlikely movie star on top of everything else, she was not overjoyed. (When she asked her costar, Catherine Deneuve, how she tolerated being an actor, Deneuve said “Well, don’t you think it’s amazing to wake up in the morning and just become someone completely different ? Don’t you find it fascinating ? Björk blinked a few times and answered simply : “No.”) So it’s not hard to see why she created Vespertine as a record about “hibernation”.
With song titles like “Hidden Place” and “Cocoon,” softly angelic choirs, and muffled beats that clatter like Mom in the kitchen, it’s a more appropriate soundtrack to drinking hot cocoa under the covers than hitting a dance floor. “It’s about not speaking for days and daydreaming it’s snowing outside.” Björk says over lunch on land in the Central Park Boathouse. “It’s about zooming in and finding heaven underneath your kitchen table. Most people think the life they lead is boring and the noises they hear every day are ugly. But if you take those same noises and make them into something magical and out of the ordinary, I think that’s brave.”
After the Riverside Church performance, a small group gathers at a Chelsea bar to celebrate. There are a lot of Icelanders and New York art-world types, including Björk’s new boyfriend, artist Matthew Barney, another medium-mixing, shape-shifting specialist. Björk is still in white, her feet now in high heels. The champagne flows, the music pumps up, and people start to dance.
Then, inexplicably, someone throws a glass against the wall. Then another. Then another. Is this some kind of Icelandic pop tradition ? After you play your first show with your new band in a church and retire to a bar to celebrate, is it customary to smash glasses against the wall ?
But no ; some guy (a notoriously obnoxious club impressario whose wife has left him, it later turns out) has simply gone nuts. After the creep is forcibly ejected, he proceeds to pelt the bar’s front window with debris, ultimately shattering it with a crowbar he has pulled from his car.
Amid the chaos of people shouting and pushing, I glimpse Björk’s face, a mixture of incredulity and cool bemusement. Her friends rush to protect her, but she remains amazingly blasé. One gets the feeling she’s seen plenty.
Then the cops come ; they pragmatically negotiate the handing-over of the guy’s credit card to the bar, and the drama is over. People start dancing again on the broken glass. And Björk, shimmying in her flowing white dress, seems to float above it all.