I’ve always wondered, for Björk’s own sake, if the pop world was ever really the right habitat for her. Whether that voice, that once-heard-never-forgotten great big swollen rain cloud of a voice, was a curse or a blessing. The truth is, Iceland’s most famous daughter is, has always been, paralysingly shy. Not faux shy in the usual way of pop stars, who collapse with the vapours every time you stray from the subject of how fascinating they are, but authentically, incontestably, no-exit shy.
Indeed, despite her gigantic successes in both music (Debut, Post, Homogenic) and film (the award-winning turn in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark), the mad gowns, and wailing kinder-banshee videos, it could be that Björk Guðmundsdóttir is one of the shyest, if not the shyest, public person one could possibly hope to meet. The theatrical (some might say insane) dress sense and mugging in videos seem if anything to prove the point (something for her to hide behind). Strangely, it’s not stage fright that Björk seems to suffer from (live performance is where she seems to feel safest, most comfortable). This is off-stage fright. Life fright, if you like. Whatever it is, Björk has fought hard not to succumb to it.
Certainly, when she first settled in London, in the early 90s, around the time of Debut, Björk’s main objective was to ‘get out there’. To, as she puts it to me when we meet : ‘Embark on a mission to communicate, to stop being so shy, so introvert. It was almost an experiment in being extrovert.’ It instantly occurs to me that this sounds like sheer torture for an essentially private animal such as Björk. What possible motive could she have had ? Björk pauses for a long moment before answering : ‘Maybe I just wanted to see what would happen. What it would feel like to be inside out.’
In the late 80s, before she turned herself inside out, I met Björk for the first time, touring America with her then-band The Sugarcubes. On that tour, I’d see Björk sitting by motel pools, playing with Sindri, her infant son by fellow Sugarcube Thor. Either that or mutely smiling at the antics of her lively bandmates, or bopping her head about to the hip-hop played on the tour bus. That was the point, really : I saw a lot of Björk, but rarely heard her. The ‘mission to communicate’ evidently not having kicked in yet.
A few years on, I met up with Björk again, in Reykjavík, to report on her solo project with Mancunian dance outfit 808 State. Again, Björk was as haltingly communicative as an oyster determined not to give up its pearl. All of which explains why I was so intrigued to interview Björk again when the opportunity popped up. Thirteen years on, three interviews in, it would be interesting to finally get the measure of her.
We hook up in St John’s Wood, where finishing touches are being put to some adverts for Björk’s new album, Vespertine. When I get there, several people are musing over video images of Björk with some kind of sci-fi maggot slithering out of her nose and into her mouth. Björk sits before the screens, as quiet (natch) as her gorgeous stripy coat is loud. Her hair is longer, more rock’n’roll, than usual, tapering down her back in Ronnie Wood tendrils. When the time comes for us to retire upstairs and talk, she turns to smile ‘Hello’. Not for the first time, her gothic prism of a face, with its up-turned nose and Slavic cheekbones, seems like something half-seen, half-sensed, lurking in the woods of a Grimm’s fairy tale. If nothing else, Björk is the undisputed Blair witch of pop.
The maggot imagery in the video having been so repulsive, I can’t help but wonder what Vespertine could possibly be about. I expect Björk to say ‘death’ or ‘decay’, something cheerful along those lines. However, she tells me that the new album is dedicated to ‘worshipping the home, hibernation, finding paradise in your kitchen, magical moments on your own, that kind of thing’. Following this theme, Björk almost called the album Domestica but changed her mind. (‘It was too much.’) Then she found Vespertine in a dictionary. ‘It means : “Things that come out of the night”, like an owl or the northern lights,’ she says. It’s certainly gentler-sounding than previous material.
‘Well, yes, my other albums, especially Homogenic, have been very extroverted, very bullet-proof. But that side of me has been captured so many times.’ So is Vespertine the private Björk—Björk unmasked ? She rubs her face nervously and considers. ‘It is one side of me,’ she says. ‘A side of me that can’t be captured by going out and being sociable. Something quite quiet and unexpected. Hidden things, just to do with the things that we dream about at night, the more Nijinksy sides of us.’ Now Björk is warming to her theme, smiling sweetly. ‘Sometimes they are subdued, but they are always there.’
If you’re sitting at home reading this and thinking ‘Crikey’, then I can confirm that this is the way Björk speaks and thinks. Her private conversations with her friend Thom Yorke, from Radiohead, must be frightening to behold. On the other hand, it does lead to some interesting discussions that you just wouldn’t have with Atomic Kitten.
Famously raised by her progressive hippy mother in a commune-style environment just outside Reykjavík (her estranged father, now a trade union activist, saw her almost on a daily basis), Björk was classically trained in music from the age of five, which stood her in good stead for later work with the likes of The Brodsky Quartet and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. At 11, Björk became a national child star after recording some traditional folk songs. Björk happily admits to banging on and on about Iceland in interviews as a mask for shyness, and denies that she is irritated by her homeland’s current ultra-fashionable state. ‘It is probably my fault. I’ve talked about it the most.’ Like many young people in Iceland, as a teenager, Björk bounced for a few years between jobs to pay the rent and her creative pursuits. The early success of The Sugarcubes paved the way to a solo career, which is when Björk decided to move to London.
‘When I moved to London in 1993, I was having the most happy life,’ says Björk. ‘I was regularly on tours with The Sugarcubes, seeing the world, but always having a safe nest to go home to. And that suited me, because I was so introvert. As a kid, I had this fantasy that I would end up living alone on an island, writing symphonies and just walking around in nature, tripping, singing at the top of my lungs in the blizzards, bumping into horses, whatever. But because I was so safe, there was a side to me, certain aspects of my character, that nobody had ever seen and nobody ever would. I knew I had to make a sacrifice, become more extrovert, push myself to the limit.’
Isn’t sacrifice a big word ? ‘Not at all,’ she says, surprised. ‘To me, communication is all about making a sacrifice. A very beautiful sacrifice. That’s the whole point. It’s like love. For two people to synchronise so extremely, they both have to sacrifice their personal needs, they both have to celebrate each other’s different sides, the different colours we have in all of us.’ By now, it should be obvious what Goldie, one of Björk’s exes, was going on about when he called her ‘intense’. Mind you, in the same interview, Goldie gloated about the time he bedded Naomi Campbell, so Björk seems to be well out of that one.
Björk has never seemed particularly lucky in love. Her relationship with Thor ended perfectly amicably. Since then, Björk has had relationships, notably with photographer Stephane Sednaoui, producer Howie Bernstein, and Tricky, the maverick trip hopper, who probably gave her an ‘intense’ run for her money.
If things are happier, less tortured, now, Björk prefers not to comment. ‘I try not to talk about these things, I’m sorry,’ she says, quietly, when I ask if she is currently in a relationship. The same intensity that evidently comes so naturally to Björk could account for her triumph as the blind mute Selma in Dancer in the Dark, not to mention the fraught relationship she had with von Trier. During the making of Dancer in the Dark, the on-set rows between director and star were legendary. What happened ?
‘I am used to the creative process,’ says Björk. ‘I work with a lot of people who are as strong, if not stronger than me. So I am used to disagreeing and working things out. But, with everybody except him, it would always stay creative and positive. Whereas with him, maybe it wasn’t, it was quite destructive.’ Is she saying that von Trier tried to destroy her ? For the first time, Björk’s face clouds over. ‘I don’t know,’ she says wearily. ‘It’s, like, almost three years since I’ve been shooting this film, and I’m really bored talking about it, I’m sorry.’
There’s the same muted, weary reaction when I ask about Ricardo Lopez, the obsessed fan (of whom Björk seems to have more than her fair share) who, in 1996, sent a letter bomb to her home, then filmed himself with a video blowing his brains out with a pistol. This upset Björk badly, prompting her to leave London, first to Spain to record Homogenic, then back to Iceland.
‘It wasn’t just the letter bomb,’ she explains. ‘Things were happening all around me, and I realised that I’d come to the end of the extrovert thing. I had to go home and search for myself again. My job is essentially about generosity and when I went to London, I had a lot to give, and it turned out I had given it all. If I’d tried to give any more, it would have become bad energy. So I left at just the right time. I’m not saying that I was responsible for the letter bomb, or that I saw it coming, but it didn’t surprise me either, because something definitely wasn’t right. I am much much happier now.’ And she seems it. As an artist and a person, Björk no longer seems inside out. As the world’s leftfield chanteuse of choice, Björk’s albums routinely sell a healthy few million internationally. Meanwhile, Björk the human being is at her happiest talking about Sindri, the son she adores. Back in 1997, she famously attacked a journalist at Bangkok airport for harassing him. ‘I just flipped. She was pushing my boy, trying to get an emotional reaction out of him. I take the bullshit that comes with my job, but when it starts affecting the people I love, that’s different.’
Would she have another child ? ‘I don’t know. That’s not something you can plan, it just happens.’ She smiles. ‘I’ll probably become a grandmother before I become a mother again !’ At this point, Björk catches herself, obviously not comfortable giving such specific personal details. However, while still nervous and shy in interviews—constantly touching her face for comfort, and hyperventilating at the slightest provocation—Björk seems to be handling her fame better now than when it first hit her.
‘Being famous is like 9 billion volts of electricity going through you,’ she says earnestly. ‘You feel it like that. That’s what it feels like. There are people who are born to do it—the Lady Dianas and Mother Theresas of this world—who really have that level of communication, that talent to communicate 24 hours a day, and let all these people live through them. And it’s actually a very positive, not a negative, thing—a self- sacrificial thing they are doing.’ Hmmm, I say, carefully, maybe that is true sometimes. But what about the people who only want attention and glory ? Björk shakes her head emphatically. ‘Most people who have been in the limelight for a long time do it in a good way. They enjoy it and it’s also a generous act, very self-sacrificial. I really believe that.’
This debate rages pointlessly on for a couple more minutes, until it finally dawns on me that Björk and I are just going to have to differ on the self-sacrificial qualities of modern celebrity. To be fair to Björk, it could be that she is thinking of Mother Theresa and I am thinking of Westlife. To be even fairer to her, fame never seemed to be the point for her anyway. ‘You can’t write a lot of songs when you’ve got to do all that,’ she shrugs. ‘And I guess if you were going to ask what I wanted to do with my life, a big question like that, I would say that I wanted to write songs, and keep writing songs until I die. I’m an explorer. I want to see how far I can go, and what I can do.
‘The very best thing about music,’ she continues, her eyes gleaming, ‘is that you can express all this kind of abstract stuff that everybody lives every day. So I think most of the time I would consider myself “happy”, if that is the word. But I’ve always been happy, silly, sad, boring, furious, ecstatic, in love, the whole scale, all at the same time. So if I’m not happy all the time, it doesn’t make me unhappy, if you see what I mean.’ And now Björk touches her face for the last time. ‘If I’m unhappy, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.’