The Guardian

‘In England they think I’m one of the Teletubbies’

Björk looks back on two decades of music, fame and scrapping with the media

You would never guess that the woman sitting quietly in the corner of an air-conditioned Japanese restaurant in New Jersey has spent the last quarter-century in the public eye, being provocative in the name of pop. Today, the star is in demure pregnant mode, dabbing her cheeks and prodding her nose like a nervous child. The remarkable swan outfit—complete with matching egg !—that she wore to gasps of amazement at the 2001 Academy awards ceremony has been put away, as have her pink papier-mache suit and giant red balloon dress.

Instead, for reasons of comfort, the 36-year-old Icelandic singer-songwriter with the extraordinary voice has opted to slip on a black gauze-effect chiffon number with an elasticated waist stretched over her considerable bump—her second child is due just weeks after this interview. Only the thigh-length, brown and white goatskin boots with cloven toes offer any indication that here sits the most outlandish, controversial female musician of her generation.

Björk, for it is she, has travelled two miles from her house on the far side of the Washington bridge to promote two career-spanning collections : the single-CD Greatest Hits and six-CD box set Family Tree. Although the mum-to-be avoids nostalgia like the plague (“Never look back,” she says), there are moments worth rescuing from her past, like her long forgotten first band, Kukl. “I would say it was pretty extreme,"”says Björk of her early days with the post-punk outfit whose name means “sorcerer” in Icelandic.

You can hear what Kukl were about on Family Tree, on a staccato burst of noise with her freeform vocals called Seagull. Kukl predate Björk’s stint with the acclaimed Sugarcubes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kukl were the band with which Björk feels she “took the biggest musical bungee jumps”. “They had a huge impact on my life,” she says, her small, wide face breaking into a smile. “It was like being a happy, jolly, carefree teenager, then suddenly joining a religious cult, where people are ready to die and you’d do literally anything for a good show.

“People would come and see us and they’d either think it was the best thing they’d ever seen, or the worst,” she recalls through sips of Perrier. “There was nothing in between. I remember Einar Örn [the band’s frontman], during every show, used to put a microphone cord around his neck and pull it until he fainted.

“Was it dangerous ?” she asks herself, her accent equal parts Reykjavík, London and New York, reflecting the fact that, after 10m album sales, she now owns homes in all three cities. “I think it was. It was very hard for me to not go and check if he was all right. Which I did once—he was furious ! He was very pissed off at me for ruining his cool by asking, ‘Are you OK ?’ in the middle of what he was doing. I was supposed to just leave him there. Yeah, those were pretty intense times.”

“Extreme” and “intense” sum up fairly succinctly the past 25 years of Björk’s life. Ever since Björk Guðmundsdóttir released her debut album, called simply Björk, aged 11 in 1977, she has taken the opportunity to indulge her every musical whim and explore uncharted areas while having to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fame, at local or international level. As a result, there has been a pattern of success followed by retreat. When a single from that first record, Arab Boy, became a hit in Iceland, Björk was teased for being different. She sought refuge in the harsh experimentalism of Kukl and other indie-thrash combos with names like Tappi Tíkarrass (which roughly translates as Cork the Bitch’s Arse). When it looked as though the Sugarcubes, the avant-pop group she fronted between 1986 and 1992, were about to “go global”, Björk flew the coop. As she puts it : “I left home pretty late, you know, when I was 26.”

Björk became the toast of clubland, a chart star, not to mention an influential cultural icon to rival Madonna (for whom she wrote the track Bedtime Stories) with the release of her debut solo album proper, Debut, in 1993, a record full of accessible pop with dance beats. And then, almost as if in violent reaction to being the It Girl of the period, she recorded the harder, darker Post (1995) and Homogenic (1997).

If she thought she had fled to the margins for good, she was mistaken : her version of a 1948 Betty Hutton song, It’s Oh So Quiet, and its attendant MGM musical-pastiching video, made this idiosyncratic artist famous in virtually every country on Earth. A woman known for being fiercely protective of her private life found attempts to forge relationships with the likes of Tricky and Goldie being dissected by national newspapers. It all came to a head in 1996, her annus horribilis. First, there was the notorious Bangkok incident, as featured in VH1’s 100 Greatest Shocking Moments in Rock & Roll, when the singer, with her young son Sindri in tow, was caught fighting with the TV reporter Julie Kaufman on the floor of Don Muang airport. The story made headlines around the world.

Even more disturbing was the news in September that a 21-year-old, Ricardo Lopez, had videotaped his own suicide in his Florida apartment, after mailing an acid bomb to Björk’s Brave Management in England. Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad intercepted the package at Tooting’s mail sorting office. Chillingly, the singer was only two blocks away from Lopez when he decided to blow his brains out with a .38 calibre handgun.

“It just got a bit much,” she says, uncomfortable about discussing anything that isn’t her music. Having had journalists camping outside her west London flat and harassing her for most of the late 1990s, this is perhaps understandable. At least on the outskirts of New York City, where she spends a lot of time these days with her artist boyfriend Matthew Barney—the father of her second child—she is guaranteed a greater degree of anonymity.

“I met David Bowie the other day at dinner,” she says, evidently keen to get this off her chest, “and, I mean, he’s obviously 10 times more famous than I am, but it was just good to hear someone else say it : that there are just nutters for paparazzi [in the UK] where they’ve got four tabloids competing against each other, whereas there’s only one in New York. Nobody bothers him [Bowie] in New York, he can walk around there all day, and in London they’ll be sleeping outside his house.” It seems that, even more than the events of 1996, it was the subsequent media circus that caused Björk most grief. “I may not be much of a heartbreak because I’m from Iceland anyway, but you’re actually throwing away a lot of your favourite people out of your country. John Lennon did it, too, right ? He moved to New York because of this.”

Björk has a theory. “I was wondering the other day whether it’s because of the royals. Maybe nobody has any sympathy for them because they don’t ever have to work, they just get born and they have money, right ? So everybody thinks we have unlimited access to their private lives, because they’re on this ‘dole’ from us. Well, they have a similar attitude to celebrities—kinda like, ‘We made you this rich, so we’ve got unlimited access to you... to your life.’”

In Britain, where her fame is arguably greatest, Björk is regarded as that strange little Icelandic pixie-girl. Spitting Image even had a Björk puppet, but her reputation changes wherever she goes. “It’s so funny. This whole myth—it has nothing to do with me. It has taken off in different directions depending on what country it is,” she says, bemused. “In Italy and Spain they relate to the passion, I guess. Over there, I’ll get these women journalists asking me all these questions like I’m a sort of Joan of Arc—very romantic and poetic. In England, the press think I joined the Teletubbies or something ; like I’m a comic-strip or a cartoon character. It’s fun,” she concedes, “but it’s sort of limited. Unless you’re in a slapstick mood.”

How would Björk rather be seen : as a celebrity, an artist, an actress, a musician, or a 36-year-old woman from Iceland ? “As much as I would like to only say yes to your last suggestion, I guess I have to admit to most of those,” she winces. “The first one seems most horrid, and then they kind of get more bearable and exciting until ‘a 36-year-old woman from Iceland’. That’s definitely my favourite.”

Considering the turbulent nature of the past few years, it’s no surprise to learn that Björk feels at her safest and most secure “surrounded by microphones and equipment and all the things I love” in the sanctuary that is her recording studio. In 2001, she released Vespertine, her furthest withdrawal yet from celebrity and a celebration of domesticity (its original title was Domestica) and sexual intimacy. With its gentle yet complex melodies and rhythms, it was hailed as her finest work to date.

The year before, however, Björk did make another foray into the outside world, when she starred in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Her portrayal of a single mother with a congenital eye disease who is mercilessly led to the gallows won her the best actress award at Cannes. Nevertheless, her attempt to assume the character of Selma in the movie proved so emotionally gruelling that Björk vowed never to make another film. There were conflicts with von Trier even over her soundtrack music, issued separately as Selmasongs.

Björk would receive final proof of the dark side of fame a month after this interview took place, when, in the latest in a series of celebrity burglaries, it was reported that her Maida Vale apartment had been ransacked while she and her partner were asleep. “I just wish everyone would leave me alone,” she told reporters.

“How many parties or premieres can you go to before you start strangling yourself ?” she sighs, when asked if there was a deliberate scaling down of her success after It’s Oh So Quiet. After all, she could have been everyone’s favourite arthouse pop diva—the alternative Kylie—forever. “But it’s hard work being a Kylie,” she says. “It’s a service to the nation. You have to smile and do handshakes—it’s like being a diplomat, or the Queen. It’s a hard job, and it’s not a lot of fun. I happened to do it for a couple of years, but it was an accident. I was relieved to get out of that situation, because it just wasn’t me. I was never the cheerleader at school. I was always the kid at the back of the class with the spiders in her pockets.”

Paul Lester

publié dans The Guardian - 25.10.2002

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