This is unexpected because we have grown used to Björk Guðmundsdóttir looking extraordinary, both via her videos and the dramatic costumes she commissions for her public appearances, which have turned looking bizarre into performance art. At the 2001 Oscars, she wore a dress designed to make her look like a swan. The costume even concealed a number of eggs which she then proceeded to ‘lay’ on the famous red carpet. Last year at the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, she wore a costume that unravelled until it seemed the entire arena was covered in hundreds of yards of fabric with the tiny singer at its epicentre. It was, she later said, intended as an interpretation of the sea and how it surrounds the world without borders and transcends time.
Today she is wearing a simple shift dress and no make-up and the sight of her looking so ordinary and conventional is indeed slightly shocking. Now in her 40th year, she seems considerably younger and fidgets like a nervous teenager. At times the fidgeting gets so uncomfortably intense that you think she is about to jump out of her skin. She has recently returned from Japan, where she has been working with Japanese traditional musicians and recording the soundtrack for Drawing Restraint 9, her score for boyfriend Matthew Barney’s film, shot aboard a Japanese whaling ship in Nagasaki Bay and which she describes as “a tale of tea ceremonies, Vaseline, a Shinto marriage and, of course, the old classic whale-shapeshifting ending.”
The soundtrack finds Björk at her most experimental and innovative, as traditional Japanese motifs are combined with everything from harpsichords to cauldrons of electronic noise, while her own elemental vocals range from intimate whispering to a feral, distorted howl. Her soundtrack totally dominates the film, only one scene of which contains dialogue.
She also appears in the film, something that she vowed she would never do again after her appearance in Lars Von Trier’s 2001 movie Dancer in the Dark. That performance won her Best Actress at the Cannes film festival but she clashed badly with the director. It was reported — and she has never denied the story — that when she was asked in one scene to wear a blouse which she didn’t like, she ripped up the offending garment and ate shreds of it before storming off the set.
Despite her unhappy time making Dancer in the Dark, on this occasion she appears to have enjoyed the film-making process. “Film or video is more like being in a band,” she says in a voice that is a disconcerting mix of Icelandic and mockney and nothing like the unearthly sound we have grown accustomed to on her records and which once led U2’s The Edge to describe her singing as being like “an ice pick through concrete.” He meant it as a compliment.
“You’re working with other people and you have to be more flexible and open and democratic and I like that part of my character,” she says. “Visual art is not a religion for me like music is, and I find that allows me to be more open-minded.” In other words, she enjoys not being the hunter for once ?
“Exactly. With music I’m guilty of being very blinkered. If people come to me in the studio and say ‘let’s put a guitar solo all over the middle of that song’, my attitude is like ‘forget it’. I’m not even going to discuss it. But the visual thing is an unknown for me. It’s about who you work with and the joy of not controlling it and meeting new people and being passive and letting them take you somewhere and not being the boss.”
Born in Reykjavík in 1965 to parents who lived in a hippy-style commune, Björk made her first hit record at 11. By 1986 she was in a band called Kukl, before she broke away to form the Sugarcubes, which also included guitarist Thor Eldon, the father of her son Sindri, who is now 18. The band’s spiky, punk-pop swiftly became Iceland’s biggest musical export before they split up in 1992 when Björk embarked upon her solo career.
Since then she has sold some 12 million albums, an extraordinary figure for an avowedly avant-garde artist who has never courted the mainstream. Yet she was seldom out of the charts throughout the 1990s with hit singles such as ‘Hyperballad’, ‘Possibly Maybe’ and ‘Violently Happy’, a run of success that won her four Brit awards. On albums such as 1993’s Debut and Post two years later, she brilliantly mixed a somewhat manic pop edge with more left-field elements to establish herself as a true original and one of the most idiosyncratic and fascinating pop icons of our time.
Yet since then, her work has grown steadily more experimental—and some would say difficult—and today she is one of those rare artists who has carved out an enviable position outside the dictates of musical fad and fashion, creating her self-contained world of daring originality but limited commercial appeal. Her last studio album Medúlla was recorded a cappella and had her multi-layering her voice to create an audacious wall-of-sound in which the human voice took the place of all the instruments. To find a parallel, you would have to go back to some of the early vocal experiments of Yoko Ono.
“Nobody has ever told me how my records should sound. I make them and give them to the record company and that’s it,” she says. “I know from other musicians that is very rare and I’m grateful I’ve been allowed to go through a natural evolution.”
She says these days the first person she sets out to please is herself. “I make music for myself and at the time I’m making it, I’m really not thinking about commercial appeal or mass acceptance. That’s the only way to keep developing. I hate to repeat myself and the only moments in my life when I have, like on the second Sugarcubes record, have always happened because I’ve been trying to please other people. When you’re not doing it for your own satisfaction but for someone else, you go into service mode.”
These days Björk divides her time between New York and Iceland, having been forced to abandon her London home in 2000, driven out, she complained at the time, by the incompatibility of her desire for privacy and the prying instincts of our tabloid newspapers. If she wanted to keep her private life out of the limelight, then perhaps her high-profile relationships with the likes of dance music bad boys Tricky and Goldie was not the best way to go about it. But it was hardly her fault when a 21-year-old, obsessive fan mailed an acid bomb to her London address (she was fortunately not at home) and then videotaped his own suicide, claiming he had done it in order to be with her in the afterlife.
Shortly after she settled in New York with Matthew Barney, the avant-guarde visual artist responsible for the Cremaster cycle of films, and their three-year-old daughter Isadora. Then another trauma struck with 9/11. “I was as deeply affected as everyone else in the city,” she says, “but I was then equally shocked by the American reaction which felt like Nazi Germany or something.”
That experience has resulted in a politicisation, the likes of which we haven’t heard from her before. “I feel weird because I’ve been doing interviews for 20 years and this is the first time I’ve ever talked about stuff like politics,” she confesses. “I would prefer that music was abstract rather than standing on a podium pointing a finger at what’s wrong with the world. I’m an example of someone who always said they would never get involved in politics. But then situations can become too much so that even someone like me has to stand up and say ‘wait a minute.’ It reached a moment when I’d had enough.”
She begins to talk about the Iraq war, but leaves the sentence hanging unfinished in mid-air, words seemingly unable to convey her sense of exasperation. “Suddenly so many people had an opinion and didn’t agree with our rulers. People stood up and wanted to have a say but when Bush was re-elected they felt powerless,” she says.
A month after his re-election the tsunami happened and she decided it was time to stop feeling powerless and put together a charity album of remixes of her song ‘Army of Me’ that raised £250,000 for Unicef. “Maybe we can’t do anything about Bush and Bin Laden and those guys are going to play their games whatever happens,” she says, “but I thought, ‘here’s something where we can have a say’ and I wanted to be part of it and join the conversation.”
Talking about politics seems to make her uncomfortable for it’s here that the fidgeting becomes positively volcanic. “Politics is so black and white and what’s great about music is that it’s above and beyond that,” she says, folding and unfolding her legs beneath her, drawing her knees up to her chest and then rocking back and forth. “Music is so complex and it has all these organic mechanisms and life forces and flora growing inside it. It’s so unpredictable, like nature, and you can’t put it in a box. It’s belittling it to say music is left or right or pro-this or anti-that. It’s a much bigger force than that.”
Björk insists she’s not about to turn into the female Bono on a mission to save the world from itself. But she believes there come certain “zeitgeist” moments in history when artists have to speak out. “You can say ‘I’m never going to get involved in politics.’ But that’s too easy. There are times when you have to make an exception, although I think it’s more important to know when not to do it.” The last such stand- up-and-be-counted moment she suggests was at the time of the Vietnam War. Yet she’s come to believe that we are now living through even darker times.
“I’m not a politician. But perhaps I can be a spokesperson for the amateurs,” she reasons. “In the 1990s there was so much optimism. We’d worked out equal rights for women and there was progress in feeding hungry nations, and we thought there would never be wars again. We were entering a brave new age. But that optimism has now all gone.”
She’s even taken to discussing feminism, a word she freely admits she has spent her entire adulthood avoiding. “It was always a taboo subject for me. I thought, ‘We’ve done that. My mum did that and her mum did that and it’s time to move on.’ But it turns out the battles haven’t been won at all.”
Much of this seems to be a response to motherhood, seeing the stereotypes that are still forced upon young girls and thinking about the nature of the world in which her daughter will grow up. In Barney’s company she has become a highly visible part of the New York art scene and his work was recently the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim. But her Icelandic heritage remains vital to her and she’s particularly keen that their daughter should have an understanding and appreciation of her roots. “We go back there a lot and I get all the Icelandic books and videos for her. It’s important both for me and for her. I remember when I was six years old, playing outside with all the other kids until 11 o’clock at night in summer when it’s bright for 24 hours a day. In a city, your parents hold your hand until you’re 14. It’s a very different feeling. It’s not just about Iceland. It’s about being part of nature.”
Björk’s philosophy of making music is based on “putting something beautiful out into the world,” she says. “Rather than point out what’s wrong with the planet all the time, I’d rather make something new that becomes more of a positive statement about life rather than criticising. If I feel a sense of duty it’s that there are all those people out there who are forced to work in an office or whatever and they can put a record on and something more abstract happens to them. You have to protect that and keep it separate from mundane things.”
She believes that over the years she has developed into a much more rounded artist. “When I toured the ‘greatest hits’ show last year, I picked the songs I wanted to play and went for the most immediate with a bit of hooliganism thrown in there,” she says. “It was only after fans pointed it out to me that I realised I had chosen nothing from Debut and just two songs from Post. It’s hard to judge yourself but I don’t think they’re my best.”
A lot of fans would disagree and they remain her best-selling albums. “Well, Debut was the one that went the highest up there in the stratosphere in terms of what people think of as ‘Björk music’. But I think that persona I created, which was entirely accidental, is better captured on the later albums. I think I’ve become a such stronger songwriter.”
As she approaches 40 she’s also convinced her best work lies ahead of her and increasingly feels she no longer belongs in the “modern bubble” of the pop world and its obsessive cult of youth. “I’ve always thought of myself more as a folk musician because folk music is something that has been changing and growing for centuries. I was very aware of that when I was working in Japan.”
And the creative artists who are most revered in Icelandic culture, she points out, are not musicians at all but writers. “If you put a book out at 20, you’re regarded as promising. It isn’t until 40 that the serious shit really kicks in and perhaps you’ll write your masterpiece at 55. You have to collect all these experiences to write about. Then you need the work ethic to sit down for a year and cut yourself off while you put it together. As I get older and more mature, my relationship with my music is becoming like that. It’s more challenging, like a mystery. It’s exciting and scary, instead of just doing it in your sleep because you’ve done it before.”