I didn’t like being a celebrity. It’s a service job. Like washing toilets

The Observer, 8 juillet 2007

A child star, quirky as her music, Björk has spent 30 eccentric years making records. She tells Polly Vernon about egg-laying, a fearless love life and binge drinking

Björk ambles around the chintzy suite of a west London hotel, smearing moisturiser into her face in an inexpert manner. She paws at her cheeks and her forehead, she rubs her upper eyelids aggressively, she drags at her skin. She’s wearing a long, embroidered kaftan over metallic-silver leggings, a look she’s accessorised with a long necklace, which seems to be made of discarded Barbie-doll limbs. A pair of cracked-silver Vivienne Westwood dolly shoes lie a little to one side ; Björk is barefoot. The overall effect is deranged - but cool, and not un-chic.

She’s tired, she says ; her skin’s tired, which is why she’s slapping on the cream. She flew into the country from New York a day or so earlier. ’But I’m good. I’m OK,’ she says, in her peculiar accent, which is one-part comic cockney (’innit !... What you call it ? Speaking for meself...’), one-part drawling American rhetoric (’I got, what you call it ? Creative control...’), and one-part Icelandic (she says ’my dotter’ instead of ’my daughter’, and rolls and rasps her Rs). Her excited inflections and unpredictable conversational segues make her sound like a 12-year-old boy. ’I been talking all day, so I’m a bit fried. I will try to squeeze it out though, but I am a bit... you know... woo-hoo !’ she says. I laugh ; she looks back at me, earnestly.

I didn’t expect Björk to be eccentric in the flesh, although oddness is an integral part of her public persona, of course. Björk’s been making records for 30 years ; she’s been an internationally recognised artist for the last 21. Through all of that, her relentless eccentricity has been her celebrity shtick. Oddness, kookiness and quirkiness have been as much a part of Björk’s brand as her off-kilter, jarring, powerful sound. Björk, who wore a swan costume up the red carpet at the Oscars in 2001. Björk, who sewed pearls into her own skin for the video to 2001’s ’Pagan Poetry’. Björk, who battered a television reporter at Don Muang airport in Bangkok, when she tried to talk to her son Sindri, then 10. Björk, who was rumoured to have been so unhappy while filming a role in Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark that she ate her own cardigan. Björk, who’s just set Glastonbury 2007 on fire with her hugely theatrical extravaganza of a show, her outlandish headgear, her silver-sprayed forehead, her harpsichord and her crazy dancing.

Still, I’d assumed that Björk’s eccentricities had been exaggerated in press coverage somewhat ; or that they were an act. Even if they’d once been entirely genuine - she’s now 41 years old, the mother of two children. Her boyfriend is Matthew Barney, leading light in New York’s contemporary-art scene ; they share a New York house once owned by Noël Coward. How eccentric can anyone with such adult credentials actually be ?

Well : very, apparently. In the flesh, Björk is brilliantly odd. Her oddness is exacerbated by the accent, the styling, but also by her constant movement, her fidgety, twisty body, her gratuitous nose twitches. And then there’s her logic. For example, she’ll say, on the subject of her creative process : ’Music for me is like fact. Like algebra.’ And she’ll expect you to understand what she means.

But we’re not getting on very well. We’re having a bit of a row. She’s objecting to one of my questions - which I thought was mild enough. I asked her at what point in her career she first felt famous ; and she’s reacted badly. Really badly.

’What a question !’ she says. She laughs, angrily. She looks at me. No one speaks.

Then : ’That’s a bit Hello ! magazine, isn’t it ?’

Er, is it ?

’Yeah,’ she says. She is very frosty indeed.

We started off OK. I asked her if she wanted to talk to me about feminism, because there’s some evidence of a feminist awakening in the lyrics of her latest album, Volta ; and also because her press officer told me that she would. She laughed and said : ’That didn’t come from me ! I never had a press officer before, but I like it, actually ! And I’m sure he’s right. I probably should talk about feminism...’

She talked about fame instead - willingly, at first. She’s endured it for a long time. Björk - born Björk Gudmundsdóttir in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1965 - recorded her first album aged 11. ’There was a radio show where everybody who did something well, did something. One did magic tricks and one did, er, what you call it ? Flick flacks ? And I sang. Because that is what I did. On the school bus I would sing. All the time. And some guy contacted my mum and wanted to make a lot of money and do a child record, and my mum said : "Yes." I can’t even remember being asked.’

The album sold well, and Björk became a star.

Was that fun ?

’No ! I hated it ! I didn’t really like it. I think children should pick for themselves. They shouldn’t be pushed. I was too young.’

Does she resent her mother for allowing it ?

’Little bit. She should have known better.’

Björk, child star, refused to make a second album, and ducked out of the whole business for several years. She formed a punk band called Spit and Snot when she was 14 - ’just at school, with four girls. It was fun. I played drums’ - but didn’t release any more records until the mid-1980s. It was then that she gained international recognition as vocalist for the Sugarcubes, a post-punky, electro-ish Icelandic outfit, which sat well among the jangly guitars and whimsy of the UK’s indie music scene. (I remember watching her prance around in the video for the 1987 hit ’Birthday’, an Icelandic extravaganza of ice floes and lava and dark, soaring birds. I was wildly impressed by her unhinged impishness, and her sticky-out hair.)

She married her Sugarcubes bassist, Thor Eldon, and gave birth to their son Sindri in 1986, aged 20. Which seems incredibly young to be a mother. ’Not in Iceland ! Most people have ’em when they’re about 16. It’s rural out there.’

Björk and Eldo split before Sindri was two - and their band split in 1992. Björk launched herself as a solo artist with the critically acclaimed dance album Debut, in 1993, aged 27. At which point, she became truly famous, on a grander scale. How was it that time around ?

’Well, it was fun to try it. If you had a paper in front of you, and like, you could pick things, before birth, that you would like to try, before you fall down and die ; and that was one of the bubbles : A-list celebrity, try that out for a couple of months ... you’d probably go : yes. Tick it. Just for the experience. And to be honest, I didn’t really like it. It’s pretty rubbish. It feels like a service job, a bit like washing toilets or something. It feels like you are somebody else’s servant. But I can tick that one off, and move to, to ... to Spain, for a few months, and they forgot about me !’

Really ? It was that easy to duck out ?

’Yep !’ she says, with absolute satisfaction. ’For me anyway !’

Then I ask her what, it transpires, is the wrong question about fame, and Björk gets mad. Maybe I should have anticipated it. In 1996, celebrity turned nasty for Björk, when Ricardo Lopez, an obsessed fan, videoed himself making and mailing an acid bomb to the singer, before committing suicide. The police intercepted the device before Björk opened it, but still ; it must have been grim, and maybe my focusing on Björk’s fame triggered some associations. Or maybe she’s just bored.

I move on, ask questions designed to engage her as a musician. But it’s too late. For 20 minutes of our precious hour together, Björk is abrupt, cold, and hard :

How does she write her songs ?

’I mostly write on my own, walking, outside.’

Does she do this in London (where she still owns a house, just across the road from the hotel where we’re sitting) ? In New York (where she, Matthew Barney, Sindri, and four-year-old Isadora - her daughter with Barney - are based) ? In Iceland (where she still spends half her time) ?

’Wherever I am.’

You wake up, you get up, you go out, with writing as an end goal ?

’Mmm hmmmm.’

Do you take a notebook ? Or a Dictaphone ? Do you write while you walk, or on park benches ?

’It isn’t really like that. You can’t plan it.’

Then there’s a long, uncomfortable pause.

I ask Björk about fashion. She’s got strong associations with the industry ; Alexander McQueen made her a frock for one of her videos, she’s often championed the more challenging designs of people like Rei Kawakubo and Sophia Kokosolaki.

Does she love fashion ?

’Not really. I don’t really like it.’

I look pointedly at the Westwood shoes, and Björk relents a little.

’I like the creative angle. Where people express them-self. But I don’t like it when it’s too much of people being told what to do, and too much like ... fascism, of magazines telling women to starve them-self, and they obey ! Or they’re like "out of fashion", which is the worst crime you could ever commit ! So they get executed for it, publicly ! It makes women very unhappy.’

Björk’s said in the past that she was surprised no one realised that the Oscar swan outfit was a joke - even though she periodically ’laid’ eggs on the red carpet (at which point security guards would tap her on the arm and say : ’Excuse me ma’am. You’ve dropped something’). Now, she says : ’I think in Hollywood, if you don’t wear black Armani, you get executed immediately. But mostly er, I’m surprised it’s still a big deal. I’m surprised journalists are still talking about it.’

We don’t have much imagination, I explain. Björk laughs. She warms up a little ; then I spoil it all and ask : how does she reconcile motherhood, with pop stardom ?

’Ha ! You asking me again what it’s like being famous, right ?’

No ! I’m asking you what it’s like to have a very domesticated facet to your lifestyle, and also one that is traditionally associated with excess, high living, emotional volatility, drugs and groupies.

’Oh. Being a musician is very easy. My house is full of musical instruments. There’s a lot of music, always. But... I don’t really go to premieres and hang out with Puff Daddy.’

(I refrain from saying that I didn’t for one moment think that she did, and that, furthermore, he’s called P Diddy.)

It isn’t until Björk has some room-service soup that things start to look up. She mellows considerably. ’It’s my blood sugar,’ she explains. ’It goes a bit ... haywire.’

I ask her some more searching questions ; and she responds well. Björk’s been with Matthew Barney for six years ; before that, she’d had a series of relationships, some of which were high-profile. She dated UK Nineties music institutions Tricky (of Massive Attack) and Goldie, for a start. The two were supposed to have fought over her.

Does she fall in love easily ?

’Erm. Hmmm.’ She giggles. ’I mean, there’s been many different periods in my life ... there’s definitely been places where I fell really easily in love. And, erm, all the different colours ... I think I’m the sort of person who - I wouldn’t play it safe. Again, if you have the ticky boxes in front of you, and you have all the different emotional feelings, to do with love ... then I think I wanted to taste all of them, at least once. I also wanted to taste rejection, I wanted to taste being heartbroken, being obsessed, I wanted to feel being superior, I wanted to feel being equal, I wanted to, erm, experience, being ecstatic, the joy, the freedom, the recklessness, the conservative side ... the domestic life ...’

And has she experienced all these things ?

’All of these colours ! Yeah !’

She seems fearless, romantically. Is she scared of anything ?

’Yeah ! Tons ! Tons of stuff, but that’s part of the fun, though, isn’t it ? And it’s not like I said : OK, I decide, 17 March, I will be heartbroken ... it’s not like that. And I look at my friends, and there are some people who play it safe, and they don’t want to take risks.’

I’m one of those, I tell her.

’But that’s not bad, either ! It is also brave to keep things together. That takes guts too.’

Björk likes me in the end. We talk about shopping : ’I like it ! But it really exhaust me. I get highs, to be totally honest, in second-hand shops. My hunting instinct, I expect, really kicks in.’ We talk about ageing. There’s something very childlike about her, there’s the 12-year-old boy in her spoken inflections, and the high-voltage eccentricities. She’s also got the posture of someone much younger ; and the skin. But still - she is 41.

’I’m pretty comfortable with it when it comes to experience, maturity, er, wisdom ; but I’d be lying if I said that it don’t piss me off that I don’t have the same energy I used to have when I was 20.’

Where does she stand on the ravages of time ?

’Right now, I feel like I look exhausted, because I’m tired. I’m not vain, like : I want to look pretty. That’s never bothered me. But if I see a photograph of me and I look tired, then I’d be more worried than if I looked ugly.’

She has a nice life ; a sociable life, with her kids, her friends, and regular house parties, which she enjoys ’because you can be really picky about the music and only play what you like’. She’s about to tour Volta, which she thinks will be fine because she’s negotiated a month-on, month-off deal with her label, so that she can spend time with Isadora. She likes a drink.

’I don’t like drinking with food, I think Iceland people are a bit old-school like that - we think if you drink with food then you’re an alcoholic ... but if you drink lots, on a Friday night ...’

Then you’re fine ?

’Yes. I think it’s called "binge drinking". I don’t see the point of drinking unless you end up dancing and letting go. I actually read somewhere that, if you look over a 40-year period, it’s better for your body because then you get rid of so much stress. Two glasses of wine, good for your heart ? Yeah, whatever. I just wake up next day and I’m a bit like, black and white, not in colour. But lots of drink, bit of dancing, bit of slapstick... is good ! Thing is, you can’t do that, that often. Twice a month would be good... but I can’t wait, I think, fuck it !’

Is Björk happy ?

’I’m just like anybody,’ she says, ’I have my ups and downs.’ She kicks her bare feet out a bit. ’It’s not like bliss, 24/7 or anything.’ She sniffs. ’Shame about that, innit ?’ Then she laughs, and boots me out of her hotel room.

· Björk’s next single, Innocence, is released on July 23

publié dans The Observer