"I couldn’t just write a disco song"

The Guardian, 12 mars 2015

When I meet Björk, she is eating natural yoghurt for breakfast, having been for a midnight swim in an underground pool, which is exactly what you want Björk to have done. She has flown in from New York, where she now lives in a Brooklyn Heights penthouse with her 12-year-old daughter, and is staying in an east London hotel, chosen because of its proximity to her favourite record shop. Soon she will be flying on to her native Iceland, where she also has a home, and where her 27-year-old son lives, forging his own musical career. Björk, who will turn 50 in November, occupies many different worlds nowadays, having come a long way (and 14 Grammy nominations) as a solo musician since her teenage life in the experimental post-punk band the Sugarcubes. But she has also recently entered a musical world that nobody ever expected her to conquer – that of the heartbreak record.

Vulnicura, her new album, is about the demise of her 14-year relationship with the artist Mathew Barney, father of her daughter. The songs are like beautiful, bleeding wounds, and the album liner notes even tells the listener how many months before or after the breakup they were each written. So much of pop music is about broken hearts, and loves that should have lasted for ever failing to do so, that you are almost surprised by how new this subject feels in Björk’s hands. Lyrics include : “You fear my limitless emotions/ I’m bored of your apocalyptic obsessions/ Did I love you too much ?/ Devotion bent me broken” ; “I wake you up in the night feeling/ This is our last time together/ Therefore sensing all the moments we’ve been together … every single touch we ever touch each other/ Every single fuck.”

She starts to stumble on her words a little. She says she was in “a classic process of grief. Apparently it’s pretty similar if, if … a person dies, or you lose your job, or get a divorce. Obviously they are differently – what do you say – devastating. I’m not going to compare divorce to the death of a child. There are other things that are far worse. But the stages that you go through are the same, almost like chapters in a book. At first I fought it, because I thought it was so normcore. Predictable.” She laughs at herself a bit now. “But then it was like, what are you gonna do ? And I think something in me, like a survival instinct as a songwriter, knew that I would never get to the end bit if I didn’t go through the other bits, musically. There was nothing in my subconscious that would let me fast-forward and just write a disco song.”

Of course, the other option would be to write all this music but not put it into the public realm, an option she definitely considered. “And I did feel really embarrassed about these songs in the beginning.” Then, a year later, she played them to a friend and realised they were “actually not that horrible. Because when you’re in the middle of it you just don’t know. I was like, OK, it isn’t as messy as I thought it was. It is messy, for sure, it’s just that there are different types of mess. Some you’re up for sharing and some not. And protecting my family was obviously the most important thing. That was priority number one, two and three. But then number four was maybe this sort of hunter in me, this other person who looks and evaluates. Like the musicologist who goes to Rough Trade and gets sucked into the Asian film soundtrack section and buys 10 CDs. That sort of nerd, who could run a radio show if there was time. That person [in me] looked at it and said : ‘No, if you cut out all the messy bits, it’s not going to be a document of this grief journey, it’s not going to be any use for anyone.’ If I had taken out the messy bits, they would have been arid songs. They wouldn’t even have been good songs.”

They would have been hygienic. Cleaned up.

“Yeah. But believe me, when I released the album and made those decisions to put everything like ‘nine months’ on it, it was two-and-a-half years from when the first song was written. Half a year before, I couldn’t even have done that. Each month is different, in this grief process. It’s crazy how that works.”

I ask if she had any songs that didn’t make the cut. She laughs.

“Yeah, a couple. There were three, maybe.”

When Björk first became a household name in this country in 1993, with her first solo album Debut, which contained songs such as Venus as a Boy and Human Behaviour, she had already had a lifetime of experience of music in Iceland. First as a child at music school in Reykjavik – look on YouTube for black-and-white footage of her reading aloud at a Christmas concert, aged 12 – and then volunteering in a record shop.

“I was 14, hanging out with people who were much older than me at the only indie shop in Reykjavik. Everybody volunteering, to keep the tiny shop alive. We imported really accidental things – the big Cocteau Twins album never made it, but their fourth awkward album that nobody else knew about did. We’d be like : ‘We love it !’ People who loved opera came, the poets came, and we had this DIY punk spirit where if you wanted to record an album on a cassette in your bedroom, you would find art students in the shop to help you design the cover. If somebody needed to go to a radio station, we’d all do it together. So it might sound hippy but it was more punk functionalist.”

I say that I think people forget how much punk was about a kind of socialism, a collectivism.

“Totally ! And there was no record company guy on a white horse coming to save your arse. Get real – it’s not gonna happen. We would split things 50/50. We wanted to get our hands dirty and not be this fragile, innocent artist that gets fucked over. We totally got that from you guys, in Britain. This experience really influenced me so much, I feel really lucky. When I moved to England I had already been doing this for 13 years. That’s a long time.”

Did she find the same sort of community in England or was it not such a welcoming environment ?

“I immediately tapped into the same kind of things. The first people I got to know in England were Crass – I didn’t know them that well. I had once been to visit them when I was 16, I didn’t even speak English. Just sat there, totally shy introvert in the background. They were way more radical politically than us, though. They had a huge antenna that some crazy electronics guy had made and they were literally hacking into Margaret Thatcher speeches on BBC radio and creating anarchy. And my manager Derek Birkett, head of One Little Indian, who still works with me, was in band called Flux of Pink Indians. Their biggest hit had a chorus that went : ‘Fuck off Thatcher, fuck off Thatcher, fuck off Thatcher.’ I was in a band called Kukl and we played a rally for the striking miners. The singer in my band, Einar, who was also the singer in the Sugarcubes, he was those miners’ friend, you know. We were pulled into the heart of it, crying.”
Björk, KUKL and Purrkur Pillnikk – the anarcho-punk roots of Iceland’s music scene
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It’s interesting to revisit her time in England in this light, because she became famous in the 1990s alongside Britpop, a scene that seemed intent on bringing the mainstream pleasures of birds and beeriness and singalong choruses back to art-school kids. It was almost a sitcom, and about as avant-garde as a Ginsters pasty ; its drunken machismo played out through the north-south divide of Blur and Oasis. Then there was Björk, who came from a place further north than any of them, a land that looked to us parochial Brits like the moon at midnight. I recently uncovered a YouTube video called “Björk laughing”, in which a fan had put together clips of her on TV. Except it’s a slightly disconcerting watch, because it’s full of leery chatshow hosts telling her what a freak she is – haha puffins, haha pixies – and she’s laughing through gritted teeth to show that she gets the joke. Which is her.

This year, Björk finally admitted that life as a pioneering female musician can be both hard and humiliating. She told Pitchfork : “I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them : ‘You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.’ After being the only girl in bands for 10 years, I learned – the hard way – that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they – men – had the ideas. I have to play stupid and just do everything with five times the amount of energy, and then it will come through.”

When we speak, though, she says she wants to make clear that she comes from a land of equality.

“I come from a generation in Iceland where we don’t really have misogyny, and I think maybe that’s something I haven’t talked enough about. Everybody’s kind of equal. We do have problems like lower pay for women, but only a bit. But we had the first female president, first female prime minister, these things are not a coincidence.” She attributes the egalitarian vibe to Iceland having only gained independence from Denmark in 1944. Her father was born in 1945, her mother in 1946, so she grew up with people given the job of defining their nation. “Partly it was about our myths and our nature, but we still wanted to be modern too. We don’t just want to be woollen sweaters and viking hats and icebergs in the middle of nowhere.”

And now, I say, you have this utopia where you overcame the banking crisis with people power and everything got fixed again, right ?

“Wrong. You know, when we talk about banking in Iceland, we’re talking about two guys. And you’re probably related to both of them. So when they did whatever they did, people were like : ‘Oh it was THEM who did it.’ We did send some politicians to jail, and people stood outside the parliament banging pots and pans and sacked the government, so that was good. But then the leftwing government spent four years just cleaning up the mess, and lots of people had still lost their money and their homes. Then the rightwing Farmers’ party got in because they promised to erase everyone’s debts, which of course they now can’t do. They are a crazy insane government, just doing everything horribly wrong. Going back to what it was before the bank crash, but five times worse. All the changes that the left made – and I’m not for a minute saying that I’m left, I don’t see myself as left or right – but in five minutes they’ve gone back and privatised everything.”

My heart sinks. Until Björk adds briskly : “So we’ve been hoping there’ll be another revolution to get them out.” It’s quite something to hear someone from a nearby country talk about having a revolution in the same way we might talk about running a marathon : as a difficult but feasible thing. I ask Björk how she manages to live in the US, given how much she cares about these things.

“Because I live on the very top of a tall building, overlooking the water,” she explains. “I just spend a lot of time on the roof.”
Perhaps it comes as some relief, then, to find that Björk is actually quite happy in the flesh. She gives off an air of kindness, and says it is true about time being a healer, because the events that inspired the album happened more than two years ago. I ask if she wrote the music quickly, because it came from a place of pain, and had to be released, not hung on to.

She exhales deeply. “I don’t know,” she says. “If there’s one album I don’t know much about, it’s this one.”

par Björk : ‘If I had taken out the messy bits, they would have been arid songs. They wouldn’t even have been good songs.’ Photograph : Inez & Vinoodh Sophie Heawood publié dans The Guardian