The Face

Björk free

It’s hard to avoid Björk Guðmundsdóttir recently, but then
she has made one of the year’s most exciting albums. Back
in Iceland for the first time since recording “Debut”, she says
she really doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.

A few weeks ago, Björk received a call at home in London from the foreign minister of Iceland. He was phoning to congratulate her on the success of Debut, her gold album. Before they spoke, the elderly Icelandic operator connecting the call put in a word of her own. “I’m a big fan of your music,” she told Björk. “And by the way, would you like me to pass on a message to your granddad ? I see him every morning at the swimming pool.”

“That’s how it is in Iceland,” says the singer. “They’re not sure how to treat me. When I do interviews, they ask questions like, ‘Are you famous ?’ ‘How much money have you made ?’ ‘Have you met Michael Jackson ?’”

Those of her fellow Icelanders too old to recognise Björk from her former band, the Sugarcubes, know her for an album called Gling-Gló : a jazz reworking of traditional folk songs, sung in Icelandic, that sent the white-haired and the frail of limb into dewy-eyed bliss. Released in Iceland a couple of years ago, it has sold more copies than Debut, ensuring that for a particular generation, Björk will always be the singer who put the heart back into the old songs. International acclaim aside, she seems, for the most part, too close to home, too familiar, to be a real star. “Everyone is proud of her here,” Björk’s best friend Jóga tells me. “But to them she is like a little girl.”

Although Björk may insist that she is “actually quite ordinary”, it would be difficult to find many who’d agree. She is strikingly attractive, small and dark where most Icelanders are blond and hardy ; her face is heart-shaped, and she wears an expression of wide-eyed, perpetual wonder.

Nine months ago, work and love drew her to London with her seven-year-old son Sindri. The two of them are returning to their birthplace of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, for the first time since then, for some long-overdue catching up with Björk’s endlessly complicated and extended family.

In the gap between going and coming back, Björk has quit fighting for elbow room among the six conflicting personalities of the Sugarcubes. Debut has brought her celebrity status in her own right, even if much of that new audience is still grappling with some tricky pronunciation. (Björk is pronounced Byerk, her surname Guðmundsdóttir, Goodmunsdoter.)

Yet the album, which reached number three in Britain, is an unlikely mainstream hit. From her pairing with 80-yearold harpist Corky Hale, to the track apparently recorded “live” in the toilets of London’s Milk Bar, it is determinedly experimental and occasionally off-kilter. Björk’s own assessment is blunt. “This record was a bit of a rehearsal and it’s really not that good. I can do much better.”

But in a way the singer herself hasn’t fully grasped, Björk is the face of the moment. At a time when the charts are full of manufactured pop, when supermodels and celebrities are prized for their skill at games of artifice and glamour, hers is a singular voice of honesty. And Debut is the sound of an artist, sometimes winning, sometimes failing, but always struggling to be herself.

“When I first heard her album I was so surprised,” says her mother whom I meet fleetingly in Reykjavík. “Because for anyone who knows Björk, it is so very much her. It is a bit to do with being here, to do with the light and dark, the dramatic contrasts. It is very honest and I love to listen to it.”

The night we arrive in the city, I find myself staring up into the glistening polar sky, watching the Northern Lights—the aurora borealis. Green and purple stripes of astonishing luminescence shiver above my head, changing form and oscillating in, then out of focus.

When I tell this, with some excitement, to Björk the following morning, she is disarmingly blasé. Natural phenomena are a way of life in Iceland, a volcanic island where hot springs, fjords, summer snow flurries and midnight sunshine are all commonplace. Indeed, almost to prove the point, Björk, Sindri and I take off on a tour of the jagged, windswept terrain outside Reykjavík. Her friend Hubert, a painter of dark, brooding still lifes, drives us in a heavy-duty army personnel carrier that has somehow found its way into private hands. Hubert tells me that Icelanders have a “natural immunity” to their long winter of almost perpetual darkness : instead of sinking into depression, they turn to art, with the result that almost everyone on the island is a painter, a poet or a musician. Iceland, says Hubert gravely, has nine chess grand masters to Britain’s two. It has produced three Nobel prize winners from a population of only 250,000.

Björk made her first record at the age of 11 : an album of adolescent pop songs, called, she admits, embarrassment flickering in her eyes, “Björk”. The record sold 7,000 copies—enough to go platinum in Iceland.

But she was too impatient, too anxious to do something real, to play the child star. “When you’re 11, you’re not listening to Sesame Street any more. I wanted to write music about walking down the street, having visits, laughing, having a swim, the things you do every day.” Her band consisted of “losers in their thirties, past the hottest moment in their life”. Unwilling to provide them with a renewed lease of life at the expense of her youth, she resisted their entreaties for a follow-up.

Björk grew up an only child in an extended family of doting hippies. “When I was one, my mother became a feminist, a rebel, and left her husband to become a hippy and lead a very free lifestyle. It was the Sixties,” she says with a sigh of apology, “and everyone was doing it. She started hanging out with the wildest lot in Reykjavík and they all rented a flat together. They were always singing and drawing, going wild and barefoot—you know what hippies are like. There were ten of them, and I was the only kid. Being hippies, their favourite people were children, so it was like a ‘let me read you a four-hour-long story’ kinda thing.”

But at the music school Björk, the child prodigy, attended, she was bored and restless ; fed up with the strict curriculum of classical music and maddened by the disposability of the pop songs she heard outside classes. Much of the time, she didn’t bother to turn up.

“They kept telling me I had a lot of talent and all I needed was discipline, so they wouldn’t throw me out. Which turned out to be a privilege ‘cause it meant I could do whatever I wanted.”

She’d probably have wandered away for good if a new, young teacher hadn’t “completely opened my mind”, by introducing her to Schoenberg, Stockhausen and the whole canon of contemporary modernism. It was only through their challenging structure that she came to understand, and finally love, the clarity and simplicity of pop. “I think it’s important that there’s pop music,” she says earnestly. “Because people need songs that are fresh, spontaneous, just about everyday life and having a laugh.”

We ride out of Reykjavík into a scene from prehistory. A volcanic hinterland of dark, porous laval rock, that’s bubbled out of the earth and set hard on contact with the air. There are no trees, no shrubs, only mountains in the distance and a harsh north wind. But flourishing doggedly, even in such barren conditions, is a carpet of thick, spongy, mint-green moss that covers the rocks ; softening their contours until the moors are as soft and comforting as a mattress. As a teenager, Björk would go camping here during the summer. She’d thumb the first convenient lift and pitch her tent wherever it left her.

“There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning in the middle of nowhere. You can do whatever you want, just shout at the top of your voice and be absolutely free.”

What’s so important to you about having freedom, I ask. “I dunno,” she shrugs. “I guess it’s just being able to do what you want to do. It doesn’t really take explaining, does it ? It’s like looking at a menu. Why do you want a piece of cake and not an apple ? Who knows ? But the point is you want it.”

She’d ask herself questions about what she wanted, what she could do, how to be herself, all the way through adolescence. Eventually, she realised that all she wanted was to live a little.

“There were so many things I wanted. To be a singer, a skateboard champion, to experience meditating in a Buddhist temple,” she remembers, gazing out of the window. “I’ve always been very aware that you only have one life, and you have to try as many things as possible.”

One summer, she worked at Iceland’s Coca-Cola bottling plant. “I had pink hair at the time, and I was supposed to sit in a chair, watching the bottles as they passed to see if they were clean. Mostly, I just used to fall asleep. I never made the employees’ hall of fame.”

Last year, Coca-Cola held a party, which the Sugarcubes were invited to. Among the employees were contemporaries of Björk who’d intended to leave after three months, like her. “They were still saying, ‘I’ll be gone by September,’” she shudders.

The last thing on her mind was growing up or even pausing for breath lest the world turned without her. “And then,” she says with a wry smile, “I got pregnant. I was 20 and the most obvious thing was to have an abortion, but it was just against all my instincts. It just felt wrong.” Seven years on, her son Sindri shares many of his mother’s features, including bottomlessly inquisitive eyes that are a mirror of her own. Bright, garrulous and obsessed with dinosaurs, he plays with a Jurassic Park toy brontosaurus and makes up jokes as we roll across the moors.

When Sindri was born, Björk and the baby’s father, Thor, moved into a tiny flat together. “All our friends started to hang out there beause it was clean and organised and there were no parents around.” They were painters, poets, musicians, “surrealists”—Reykjavík’s alternative artists. As a joke, Björk, Thor and four others formed a band.

They called themselves the Sugarcubes and refused to take things seriously, even when they suddenly became Iceland’s first viable pop group. Instead, they rolled round the world, getting shamefully drunk, recording intermittently brilliant songs and turning into a family. Björk split from Thor, he married keyboardist Magga, male group members Einar and Braggi announced a brief Platonic marriage of their own, and Björk took Sindri on tour from the age of six months. With the result that his early vocabulary included phrases like, “Gimme five”, “Rock‘n’roll” and, perhaps inevitably, “Fuck off”.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to leave him at home ? I suggest.

“No, not at all,” she insists. “When you have a baby it’s like the purest love there is, so you don’t ever, ever think about things like that. It’s instinctive and reassuring to have him with you. And it means you’re always trying to do something brilliant, for his sake almost more than yours.”

Later, we have dinner at Björk’s house in Reykjavík, which overlooks a harbour crammed with fishing boats. There are wooden floors, primary coloured walls, and disparate items of furniture and objects clamouring for attention ; like the heavy stone table with inlaid marble surface, a stuffed iguana, the framed photos of Boney M on a sideboard and the room’s centrepiece, an enormous star-like chandelier that holds perhaps two dozen candles. We eat a traditional Icelandic meal of smoked lamb and potatoes in cream, cooked by Björk and her friend Jóga. Playing in the background is the record that’s beaten Debut to number one in Iceland—an album of mambo songs by Siggi, the Sugarcubes’ drummer, who’s recreated himself as a latin percussionist and singer, a sort of Kid Creole of the Arctic Circle. But Björk is tired. Nine months ago, she moved to London and recorded Debut with Nellee Hooper. It was the last time she can remember enjoying herself. Consciously self-indulgent and experimental, the record was intended as a brief yell of freedom, after years in the creative scrum of the Sugarcubes. She imagined it would slip unobtrusively into record store bargain baskets while she got down to some serious work.

But Debut turned out to be the private party everyone wanted an invitation to, and in the eight months after its release, almost half a million copies have been sold worldwide. Much to Björk’s embarrassment.

“It’s as if you started cooking at this restaurant and everybody heard about it and started coming,” she says, shifting in her seat. “But you’d still only learned how to fry eggs. You’re doing your best and everyone’s happy, but it’s not exactly what you wanted to do with your life.”

Promoting an album she doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in for most of the year has brought her to the edge of exhaustion. “It was all right the first six months ; seven months was a bit tricky ; eight months was when I started hitting people. I’ve been telling this hideously pathetic, stupid joke that the Bible in England is different. God created the world in one day and then he talked about it for eight days.”

Despite her reservations, Debut is one of the boldest and most striking releases of the year. Discordant minor chords, rumbling bass notes, Björk’s idiosyncratic, sometimes heart-stopping voice—the joy of the album is listening to its disparate elements swim together and finally merge into a fragile harmony. Like droplets of water slowly freezing until they flash and sparkle like ice crystals.

“It’s very hard to say just what it’s about,” muses Björk, tossing her head from side to side. “I’d like it to be a statement of individuality. But I’ve still got a long way to go, so I’m a bit confused, because I just know I can do so much better than this record.” She pauses for thought... “If you went out somewhere and had a really good time, you don’t wake up the next morning and try to figure out why you did. It’s not because of anything. It’s just the atmosphere, the people, the chemistry of friends, your mood, what happened before, what will happen after. And you can’t explain it, and I don’t understand why you should. And it’s the same with songs.”

Björk was lost for words when she fell “hopelessly, hilariously in love” for the first time. “Literally. I kept asking my friends, ‘What is it ? What is it ? What is it ?’, because it’d never happened before.” Having watched her mother fall in and out of relationships, and seen her friends “forget all their plans and sort of drift off into a black hole because of it”, she was wary of love. “So when it got me there was no mercy.”

She lives with Sindri and her boyfriend, a London DJ called Dom Thrupp, in a converted dancing school in Little Venice. They met two years ago in LA, just after the Sugarcubes, exhausted by “six different ideas of how to make a record”, had recorded their third and probably final album, “Stick Around For Joy”.

“There’s something very delicate and tender about him,” she says. And then as if catching herself sounding like those love-struck friends she used to despise, she hurriedly adds : “But not in a sickly sort of woofty way.” Still, it’s Thrupp who provides the inspiration for one of the most poignant moments of Debut. The sigh of desire called “Venus As A Boy”, whose lyrics, “He’s exploring the taste of her, arousal so accurate”, seem all the more sensual, for being made public as a single.

“Extremes are the pure joys of life,” Björk says, watching the candles glow in her chandelier. “Like, you can spend one day being entirely healthy and spiritual, and the next going to a hardcore club, getting out of it and jumping on car boots. Both of those are highs, ‘cause they’re about being free.” The last time she was “totally decadent”, was a couple of years ago. She’d been drinking, dancing and taking “unhealthy things” for 48 hours straight. “On the third night I ended up taking all my clothes off outside although there was a blizzard and threatening to jump off the roof. I had a great time.”

“Extremes of anything” make her cry. But particularly when she hears music that’s so abstracted from the ordinary it has taken on a singular, transcendent beauty of its own—“Like pure, pure, pure singing or pure, pure, pure hardcore noise.”

Touring in Belgium one time, she happened across a cavernous industrial music club, playing new beat. “The sound was so simple and in a way, totally boring. But just seeing everybody tranced up and getting into it was a revelation. I realised how modern it was, but at the same time, how it was about going back centuries, thousands of years even, back to basics, back to the original trance dances.”

The club opened her ears to dance music, leading her to the Chicago house sound of Larry House and the Detroit techno of Derrick May—“I still haven’t heard anything better than that.”

Then towards collaborations with 808 State on their Ex:El album, and eventually, with Nellee Hooper on Debut.

“Like going treasure hunting,” she’d search out the clubs in every city the Sugarcubes would visit, looking for the perfect beat. “You’d go to 50 clubs, and maybe at the 51st, if you waited for four and a half hours, the DJ would play one song and it would be brilliant.”

“I look at myself very much as a David Attenborough when it comes to music,” Björk tells me. For a moment, it crosses my mind that she’s joking. But only fleetingly. David Attenborough is her idol. Like him, Björk believes herself to be an anthropologist ; albeit one who explores emotional landscapes and attempts to capture them in music. “I walk around saying, ‘Listen, there’s love in the air, the lights are dim, look...’” she whispers, mimicking his hushed tones. “And I try to make music from that which excites people, which inspires them and gives them joy.”

How frustrating then, to end up in a country where she herself is often treated like a strange, exotic creature. Because while the plaudits for Debut have been generous, the British media has largely subsumed her identity under a welter of cultural clichés. Terms like “ethereal”, “elfin”, “exotic” follow her with an awful, lumbering insistence. This despite the fact that, in reality, she is no more of an otherworldly “Ice Princess” than Siggi is actually the mambo king of Iceland. “If I’d delivered exactly the same album and I came from Nottingham, I’d have got completely different reviews, normal, down-to-earth ones.” She shakes her head.

“If you know me, you realise I’m pretty much a common-sense, no-bullshit kind of person. Very simple, very direct.” At heart, insists the singer, she is “a bore”.

“I’m not an artist or a poet. A poet is someone who can create something with words that can stand on their own on paper, that become a world of their own you can enter. My words are very dependent on their music. I try to make the music into a world in its own right. But really, beyond that, I haven’t got a lot to say.”

I think about this for a while, as clear night falls over the harbour. Perhaps Björk really is as mundane as she suggests. A dexterous weaver of mood music that sounds good, but signifies little. In which case, Debut may have cast a spell over her current audience in the same way Gling-Gló enraptured an older one.

But pop is about making music that chimes with a particular moment. And if she has captured a mood, it’s not simply the appropriate tone for a dinner party. The eagerness with which many have seized Debut may puzzle her. Yet its success has occurred within a broader shift of cultural values, that’s also been played out in other fields such as fashion and photography. A move away from gloss and sheen, towards aesthetic honesty. Under such circumstances, Björk’s music may well be “ordinary”. But that will do just fine.

Ekow Eshun
photo :Juergen Teller

publié dans The Face - 01.11.1993

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