It’s impossible to be neutral about Björk. Her critics certainly have plenty of ammunition. She eats roast puffin. She has a bonkers fashion sense and speaks in a mix of Nordic and Mockney. Spitting Image made a puppet of her. She had a very public fight at Bangkok airport with a photographer who got too close to her son (images of Björk banging the woman’s head on the floor went round the world). Director Lars Von Trier even claimed she tried to eat her dress during filming of Dancer in the Dark.
But for many people, her arrival on the late-Eighties British music scene (as part of the Icelandic punk band, the Sugarcubes ; then as a solo artist) was a breath of fresh air. We’d not seen such an exotic, counterculture figure—one who wore plaits for heaven’s sake—since the days of Lene Lovich. Broadly speaking, women in rock are ‘babes’ or ‘troubled’, but the image of Björk sprinting down the street in Spike Jonze’s 1995 video, It’s So Quiet (performing dance steps from a 1940s MGM musical) made it clear she has no time for sexual stereotypes. Neither model-thin, nor conventionally gorgeous, her stage charm rests on her sheer vitality.
Her only ‘weak’ spot seemed to be her relationships with men. Her marriage to Sugarcubes bassist Thor Eldon ended when their son was only a baby (she was a single mother at 22). There were broken engagements to bad boys, Goldie and Tricky, but no one seemed to match her intellectually. Then, four years ago, she met the American multi-media artist Matthew Barney (best known for his surreal Cremaster Cycle of films). Today, they live in Noel Coward’s old house across the Hudson from Manhattan, with their baby daughter, Isadora. It seems a marriage of true eccentrics. Barney is a master provocateur (in 2003, he filled New York’s Guggenheim with tapioca, petroleum jelly and beeswax) and he has worked as an athlete, model and medic—so one senses conversation is never dull.
The couple guard their privacy fiercely, but for the first time they are working together. Björk is writing a soundtrack for Barney’s new film, Drawing Restraint 9, to be premiered in June in Japan. ‘It’s really liberating to do a project that’s not just about me,’ she enthuses. ‘I mean I love being a very personal singer-songwriter, but I also like being a scientist or explorer.’
When I arrive for the interview, she is sprawled on the sofa, shoes off, eating tuna salad (no puffin today). She has flown in unexpectedly to talk about two new projects close to her heart. First she is releasing a DVD of videos filmed for her latest album, Medúlla, widely regarded as a return to form. It’s full of images of Björk dressed in a 50kg Alexander McQueen dress covered in tiny bells, and also as a hay bale (don’t ask). Best of all is a spoof documentary following the making of Jonze’s video for her single, Triumph of a Heart, an everyday tale of a woman and her commitment-phobic lover (played by a tabby cat called Nietzsche). The action winds up in a mad Icelandic bar with Björk’s artist friends downing vodka and yodelling. It’s the equivalent of a pub crawl with Björk.
Of course she was working with Jonze and Michel Gondry long before they became Hollywood stars. We talk about the success of Gondry’s film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. ‘Michel did a great work there. He gave Kate [Winslet] who’s obviously such a huge spirit, such a vivacious lady, so much space. Usually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged in by male energy. But she could be at her full volume without restrictions.’ A contrast, one senses with von Trier, who loves brutalising his actresses.
A true fashion radical, Björk champions designers like Rei Kawakubo and Sophia Kokosalaki (who made the ‘curtain’ she wore to the 2004 Olympics). She would never wear jeans and a T-shirt, she says, because they are ‘a symbol of white American imperialism, like drinking Coca-Cola’. Her most famous fashion faux pas was wearing a swan outfit to the 2000 Oscars (she claims it was a conceptual joke). Does she ever tire of being eccentric ? ‘It’s like music. So long as it’s a form of self-expression, I’m quite into it, but not when it becomes about power status. I do try and wear stuff by unknown designers, and I make sure I pay because if nothing else I have money.’
Today she is wearing a vintage yellow garment that is very nearly a dress, accessorised with an orange tracksuit top, silver shoes and gold handbag. A dusting of blue eyeshadow highlights her feathery eyebrows and wonderful flat cheekbones. She looks lovely. But she is also endearingly fidgety : scratching like a small child, twisting in her chair and trying to keep her dress this side of modest.
And yet one senses a new seriousness. Björk’s other project is a charity album, with all proceeds going to Unicef. It is a collection of cover versions and mixes of her 1995 song, Army of Me (the most covered Björk track ever). She posted a message on her website giving fans a week to submit tracks, then whittled 600 down to 20. With its defiant lyrics (‘And if you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me’), the song is classic Björk : brutal yet tender. And it has inspired an extraordinary mix of interpretations—from Canadian extreme metal to country.
She says it humbled her : ‘I was on the 12th floor in Manhattan listening to all the versions, and I could see into all these windows. I suddenly realised that in all the bedrooms all around the world, there are people so busy doing so many things. After that, I stopped walking past houses thinking, “Oh this is just a place where people are couch potatoes and lead mundane lives”.’
She’d been planning the charity album for several years, but the devastation of the tsunami in South East Asia proved the catalyst. Why does she think we responded so strongly when other humanitarian disasters are ignored ? ‘I think because it happened just a month after the Bush election, it made people think they really had a say in rebuilding things, that they could make a difference. For the first time since the Vietnam War there seems a universal feeling among common people that they don’t agree with the people who are ruling the world.’
A self-confessed ‘punk anarchist’, she found herself politicised by the Iraq war. ‘People like me who don’t follow the news that much, suddenly I was looking online every day, just to see what was going on. I don’t know about you, but whatever I was doing, having dinner with music people or plumbers (a lot of my family are electricians and carpenters), everyone was talking about the war and how they disagreed with it—or agreed with it, but everyone had a position. So although it has been destructive and disastrous, the good thing is that people actually want to have a say.
‘A lot of the time I get obsessed by little nerdy things in my corner that no one else is interested in. I have that nerd factor in my character. So for once I was interested in something everyone else was interested in. I’m not going to talk like I know about politics, because I’m a total amateur, but maybe I can be a spokesperson for people who aren’t normally interested in politics.’
Her last album Medúlla was certainly her most political—but in a unique way. She came up with an a capella album featuring only human voices : yodelling, beatbox, Icelandic choral music. It was, she says, a way to counter ‘stupid American racism and patriotism’ after 9/11. ‘I was saying, “What about the human soul ? What happened before we got involved in problematic things like civilisation and religion and nationhood ?”’
The other major influence on Medúlla (Latin for ‘marrow’) was Björk’s pregnancy with Isadora : the album is full of touching, visceral songs about birth. ‘I became really aware of my muscles and bones. Your body just takes over and does incredible things.’ Now 39, Björk is an example of a modern gap mother, with a three-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son (Sindri now lives with his father in Reykjavík, where Björk also spends part of the year).
‘It’s interesting for me to bring up a girl. You go to the toy store and the female characters there—Cinderella, the lady in Beauty and the Beast—their major task is to find Prince Charming. And I’m like, wait a minute— it’s 2005 ! We’ve fought so hard to have a say, and not just live through our partners, and yet you’re still seeing two-year-old girls with this message pushed at them that the only important thing is to find this amazing dress so that the guy will want you. It’s something my mum pointed out to me when I was little— so much that I almost threw up—but she’s right.’
She’s open about the problems of balancing family and work. ‘It’s incredible how nature sets females up to take care of people, and yet it is tricky for them to take care of themselves.’ Slightly to her astonishment she is becoming interested in women’s rights. Because of her mother’s own militancy—‘she wouldn’t enter the kitchen, I mean come on’—she reacted the other way, adoring housework, knitting and sewing.
But recently, ‘I have been noticing how much harder it is for me and my girlfriends to juggle things than it is for men. In the 1990s, there was a lot of optimism : we thought we’d finally sorted out equal rights for men and women ... and then suddenly it just crashed. I think this is my first time in all the hundreds of interviews I’ve done, that I’ve actually jumped on the feminist bandwagon. In the past I always wanted to change the subject. But I think now it’s time to bring up all these issues. I wish it wasn’t, but I’ll do it, I’m up for doing the dirty work !’
Will it inspire new songs ? ‘It’s definitely brewing inside me. Maybe if Medúlla was my personal, idiosyncratic statement about politics, whatever I do next is going to be my eccentric view of feminism. It’s like any major upheaval, whether it’s the revolution in France or punk for me in the 1970s, you break up all the corruption and fuck up all the bad things, so you can start really fresh. But it’s the law of nature that it all settles again, so you have to keep checking yourself. You can’t ever say, “OK, we sorted out corruption and everyone is equal.” So I might become a feminist in my old age !’
Born Björk Guðmundsdóttir in Reykjavík in 1965, she grew up in a hippy commune with her mother and stepfather, a blues musician. ‘I was brought up feeling that my mother had sacrificed herself for me. Fortunately she’s now got a little business doing homeopathy from home, but she’s almost 60. I’m still desperate to get over that sense of guilt. I don’t want my baby to feel that.’
An infant prodigy, she released her first album aged 11 and was touring the world by 18, when the Sugarcubes’ first single Birthday went global. She spent years living in London, but decamped to New York in 2000, driven out by British tabloids and a terrible incident where a 21-year-old ‘fan’ videotaped his own suicide after mailing an acid bomb to her record company.
Like fellow emigré David Bowie, she prefers the anonymity of New York, ‘where they only have one tabloid, not four all competing against each other’. She says that she resolutely avoids celebrity parties but one day might like to run a music school for children. ‘Part of me is probably more conservative than people realise. I like my old string quartets, I don’t like music that’s trippy for trippy’s sake.’ I say she seems slightly wistful about being back in London. Does she miss us ? ‘I love England. It’s no coincidence it’s the first place I moved to for a more cosmopolitan life, which is the only thing Iceland lacks. You can be a very critical, unforgiving people, you knock people down when you should be cheering. But criticism can be good. And this is a country that loves comedy. I saw a poll this week of top BBC moments, and the first five were all from comedies like The Office and Monty Python. You are very good at skimming corruption off the top and revealing the integrity inside. In Britain things have to be pure,’ she grins, ‘You just don’t get away with bullshitting.’