The Sunday Times

Björk

Björk, the pixie-faced singer from Iceland, has bewitched Britain.

For a single parent who insists that she is “first and last a housewife and a mother”, Björk Guðmundsdóttir has an unusually appointed kitchen. Though her six-year-old son Sindri can be seen and heard, bustling in and out, prattling away in Icelandic, evidence of conventional home-making is scarce in Björk’s cosy- to-overflowing house near Little Venice, west London. Anybody planning to cook here would save themselves some trouble by sending out for a takeaway : a ghetto- blaster, playing what sounds like Piaf, sits where most people keep the food blender ; a yard-and-a-half-long audio cassette-holder stands in for the herb rack, and the books which fight for space with a pile of washing on the kitchen table contain few, if any, recipes. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, a collection of short stories by the French surrealist Georges Bataille, or a Faber biography of the German electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen are not what most of us pick up while waiting for the kettle to boil.

Nor is the person serving herb tea in wooden cups and offering dried dates dressed for housewifely chores. At home on a bright spring afternoon in the garden house she bought a year ago, Björk looks as though she has just left the tour bus and is about to go on stage for a soundcheck. Her satin miniskirt, lacey patterned cling top, woollen tights and suede platform shoes proclaim stylistic collisions way beyond the Oxfam mix-and-match favoured by other left-field pop stars. This is car-wreck retro. The only clue that Björk’s ensemble was not pulled out of a suitcase and put on in the dark is that all the items are red. Different, clashing shades of red, it is true, but red all the same.

The sense is of an overgrown child in fancy dress rather than a 28-year-old pop star making an oblique fashion statement, an effect heightened by her fidgety manner. As she talks Björk shifts about on her chair, scratches and pokes herself in places that most adult public figures tend not to touch in interviews : her nose, for example, and her upper thigh. She seems quite unaware that she is doing it, which is strange considering the importance she says she attaches to her appearance.

“I’ve always been very stubborn about the way I look,” she explains, in an accent that veers between the breathy singsong of Reykjavík and the harsher vowels of the Old Kent Road. “As a kid in school I was wearing sheets I nicked from my mum, and orange hair. The more no one could look like me the better I felt. I’m much more relaxed about that nowadays.”

Not so relaxed as to deviate today, or on any other day in 1994, from a self-imposed dress code. This year Björk will only be wearing red. Why ? “It’s no use pretending you aren’t expressing yourself with clothes, because you are. The visual side really matters. If I look the way I sound, that helps me, because people are much more trained visually than they are audio-wise. This is to show that I’m an extremist, that I take things to the top.”

Perhaps the oddest thing about Björk is the extent to which her brand of extremism has caught on. Before last summer she enjoyed limited recognition among rock cognoscenti as the pixieish yodeller fronting The Sugarcubes, a group whose unique selling point was that they were the first internationally known rock act to emerge from Iceland.

The Sugarcubes did sneak into the lower reaches of the charts from time to time, made the front pages of the pop weeklies and achieved the status of oddball cult band, but nobody backed the singer as a candidate for mainstream celebrity when the band called it quits in 1992. Björk’s voice, while distinctive enough in its strident way, was too eccentric. Likewise her image was anything but glamorous : the oriental eyes, snub nose, hair sprouting from the sides of her head in schoolgirlish bunches, a pair of serious mountaineering boots, all combined to limit her appeal to that of a weird, exotic urchin. Björk had none of the svelte sophistication and little of the conventional sex appeal associated with big-time successful women in pop. She looked like what she was : an indie kid with a genuinely independent streak, strong on what the rock world likes to call Attitude.

In less than a year Björk has become a star. Not just a pop-rock star, either, although her solo album Debut has stayed high in the UK albums chart for nine months, out-selling recent releases by Phil Collins and U2 and earning extravagant compliments from the likes of Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello and Elton John. Björk is now the sort of star who is invited to open trendy clothes shops. Her muddled appearance has been admired, puzzled over and deconstructed by British fashion writers—a bemusing turn-up since, as she points out, she’s been wearing odd combinations and outsize boots since she was 14, “when I started going to second-hand shops in Iceland. It was just pure luck it became fashionable last year. It fitted in.” Tellingly, her music has just been selected to launch a new high-profile television advertising campaign for Levis jeans.

That face has been everywhere, too. Björk, wild-haired in a furry jumper, praying hands raised to her lips and small shiny baubles positioned on her cheeks like tear-drops—the image suggests some mischievous pagan deity from bedsitland—can still be seen gazing from hoardings, walls and record store displays. It might not have been exactly the female face of grunge, but Björk has certainly embodied the 1990s retreat from smartness and couture more strikingly than any other woman in pop. In short, she has become an icon in everybody’s eyes but her own.

“A hundred years ago if you were a singer that was a crap job. It just happens that today if you’re on stage and you’ve got a microphone in your hand you become a spokesperson for a lot of people. That has nothing to do with what I do.”

At the British record industry’s annual awards ceremony in February Björk’s new-found fame was made official and televised across the world. In her distressed red frock, matching tights and non-matching mountain boots, she carried off two Brit awards, for Best International Newcomer and Best International Female Artist. That Björk should have won twice, on a night when other highly touted newcomers such as Suede went home empty-handed, wasn’t all that surprising, given the level of Debut’s commercial success : it has sold 2m copies worldwide and it is still selling. What is truly remarkable, though, is that an album which rigorously avoids the obvious—lyrics that rhyme, for instance—and that flirts with notoriously unpopular genres like modem jazz should ever have sold a quarter of this many in the first place.

When Debut appeared, last July, it was expected to fare little better than a Sugarcubes album. Björk’s label, One Little Indian, knew they needed to shift 50,000 copies to get back recording and packaging costs, but a small west London independent company, whose total staff numbers 120, was in no position to buy success. The response at Radio 1, initially anyway, was pretty frosty. The reviews were good, but nowadays good reviews don’t sell records. There was no big marketing budget, no big tour planned and, with the autumn looming, when the usual crop of blockbusters is held back by major labels greedily eyeing the Christmas market, the future for Björk’s album looked at best uncertain.

By the new year it was still in the top 10. As far as anybody could tell, it had sold simply on word of mouth, and because of its stew of idioms—dance, pop, jazz, touches of ethnic world music, with a few nods to contemporary classical—it proved contagiously likeable. Here was a thoroughly post-modem pop album presented without the usual sheen of knowing self-consciousness. It had strong beats but strong songs as well. Though she sounded as comfortable doing the crooner on old-time schmaltzy ballads as she did yodelling away at the modern dance, Björk wasn’t singing in quotation marks, or knowledgeably referring us back to her record collection. All the routine complaints about pop music neurotically looking over its shoulder or reversing into the future were irrelevant. To a British record industry beside itself with worry at its inability to produce and export music of style and originality, performed by people under 30 who didn’t sound too clever by half, Björk’s Debut came as exceptionally good news.

Back at her table at the Brits, a posse of dignitaries from the Icelandic Embassy were ecstatic. Not drunk exactly, just brimming over with a sentiment they and their fellow countrymen are seldom in a position to express : intense national pride. Not since an Icedandic scientist won the Nobel Prize back in the 1950s, they explained, had a citizen of their tiny country won such international renown. In an island community with a total population the size of Wolverhampton, Björk was now a living legend.

Her mother, flown in specially for the occasion from Reykjavík, seemed rather dazed. Hildur Hauksdóttir claimed that she had always known that the child of her short-lived first marriage possessed a great musical talent. Ever since she was little she had known. But she didn’t actually want to discuss it at the moment because there was another person there that night, also an award-winner, whom she was very anxious to meet. She had always loved the music of Van Morrison ; did anybody please know where he was ? As the small blonde woman with the watery blue eyes wandered off towards the backstage area clutching a laminated VIP pass, the daughter who in no way physically resembles her sat quietly with her boyfriend, two bronze statuettes beside her at the table.

As Icelandic hippie households went, the one in which Björk grew up in the early 1970s was, she believes, fairly typical. There were about eight other adults living with her, her mother and her stepfather in the apartment, which meant that it housed about a fifth of the active members of Iceland’s hippie underground at the time. This was not, however, a commune, “because everybody was doing proper jobs”. Mum was a cabinet-maker ; her stepfather was a working blues musician. Music was coming at her from every direction.

“At home they were all really into that hippie music, like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and it was going non- stop, 24 hours a day,” she says. “People sat on the floor and you basically had to queue for the record player. By the age of seven I was completely bored with guitars and drums, which are still not my favourite instruments. They were too available.”

Luckily for Björk this “wild blues music” and other parental favourites she describes as “psychedelic crap” were not the only sounds on offer. Her grandparents introduced her to jazz and choral music. Meanwhile the specialist music school she was sent to aged five plied her with the classical repertoire. “I grew up with a lot of peopIe who thought that their music was the only right one, and that the others were not so good. Kids can quite easily be voyeurs and I realised early that a good song is a good song if it’s got the right intention, if it has true emotion and originality. It doesn’t matter if it’s by Abba or Stockhausen.”

Another thing she realised early on was that she really didn’t like playing music by dead people. “The school was obsessed with the past, which I found very limiting. I didn’t see any point in learning music which had nothing to do with our lives today. What I was interested in was writing music with kids my age, kind of what you’d call pop music, I guess.”

She wanted to study the oboe but since her parents could not afford to buy her one she took up the flute instead. (The breath control she acquired playing the flute is what gives her vocal delivery much of its distinctive breathiness.) As a child she enjoyed singing, “because you didn’t have to learn lots of phrases and techniques”, but she claims she didn’t start to think of herself as a singer until very recently.

With the dawn of punk in 1976 Björk made her first album. It was her mother Hildur’s idea to gather material from the best songwriters in Iceland and send her 11-year- old daughter into a recording studio. While Björk wasn’t wild about the music—“The people I was working with were all about 35, and past their peak creatively”—she loved studio procedures and recording gadgetry. “I was so excited by all the things you could do. That’s always been my angle.”

The album, titled simply Björk, went double platinum in Iceland with sales of over 6000. Today it is a prized collector’s item, changing hands for more than £100. At the time it turned her into “a public prop- erty”. Everywhere she went in Iceland people talked to her, knew who she was. She says she didn’t care for all the attention : “After that hit album I tried to step out of the limelight, and that worked quite well until foreigners started noticing what I was doing.” The Björk who now treats her celebrity with the carelessness of a precocious child has, you realise, had 17 years’ practice.

She began playing in rock bands at the age of 12. Before that she would sing at her stepfathers gigs “at the beginning of the evening before the people got too drunk” and, mindful perhaps of all that hippie self- indulgence, she went out of her way to make music that would confuse the headbangers. “We never wrote a song in 4/4, it was always like 7/9. Something really challenging.”

There were dozens of bands during her teenage years : electronic experimental, punk, mutant disco, big band jazz, a brass quartet “I didn’t care about the style,” she says before fluently describing her band Kukl, the prototype for The Sugarcubes, as “hardcore existential jazz punk”. Björk toured Europe with Kukl and, along the way, met Crass, an English punk group, some of whose personnel now run her London label, One Little Indian.

At this point in her late teens music was her love but it wasn’t her life : she worked in a fish factory, a Coca- Cola bottling plant and a record shop. “I’ve always had two or three jobs. Being a workaholic, that’s how Icelandic people are. Even when I go on holiday I can’t just sit in a chair, I have to do something. Like the French are said to be lovers, Icelanders are workaholics. There’s a pinch of truth in that.”

In 1986 Kukl fell in with a radical arts collective which ran a record store-cum-bookshop and called itself Bad Taste, because this was the only way that the solid citizens of Reykjavík could come to terms with their rude poems, radio shows, art works and fanzines. Björk’s boyfriend at the time, Thor Eldon, was a guitarist. With him and a few other musically minded poets from Bad Taste aboard, Kukl grew into The Sugarcubes, though the intention this time was not to hit the European trail but merely to get together for their own amusement at weekends. “It was a hobby, a joke band really. We’d get drunk and write bad pop songs about making love to cats, things like this. We were 100% honest about it but The Sugarcubes was always a laugh.”

Sceptics might note that Björk’s and Thor’s son, Sindri, was born in 1987, the year this part-time arty prank began. And so it might have gone on, with Björk steadily turning into a chip off the old block—a punked-up version of her hippie parents, living a Nordic boho life—had it not been for a journalist on the British pop weekly Melody Maker. Chris Roberts came across a copy of a single by The Sugarcubes, produced by themselves for limited local consumption only, and made it record of the week. “Then the paper started writing things about us, making things up. At first we flew over here to correct the impression, but then we decided if they wanted us to be surrealist Eskimos or whatever, fair enough, we’d just sit back and have a laugh.”

The joke lasted for five years and three albums. One of the reasons why so few people got it was because the group steadfastly refused to move away from Reykjavík, or ditch the Bad Taste connection. “We would go on holiday and be The Sugarcubes. The rest of the time we’d be at home doing other things, because there were three poets in the group, and as you know the guitars and drums are not my favourite instruments, so I was off making jazz and film music. Our point of view was that we were a group of friends getting an opportunity to travel all over the world. Waiting around in Alabama for four hours for a soundcheck, taking guitar solos, doing that whole rock’n’roll thing—it was always just a question of how long will this joke be funny ?”

The end of The Sugarcubes in 1992 marked the end of the larky, dilettante approach for Björk, and a final farewell to the guitars and drums. Years of travelling from city to city had put her off gigs and opened her ears to the newer music of the clubs, particularly hip-hop and house. The most important development in the prelude to Debut, though, concerned her attitude to herself. “A lot of what I was doing before was to please other people. It had been my biggest fear since I was 11 to be in the spotlight. In the bands I was in in Iceland I even tried to look as ugly as possible so that people would listen to the music but not look at me. With the Sugarcubes I was always going to stand at the back of the stage. But finally I knew that I had to do an album which had my face on the front and where I wrote all the songs. Something I could sit down with at 70 and be proud of.

These songs, which she’d been writing since the mid-1980s, were “pieces from my diary, or from my photograph album, sort of like greatest hits that are not too revealing”. They were mostly composed on a Casio keyboard, with Icelandic lyrics translated into English. The track called Human Behaviour deals with “my very complex family. My son has eight grandfathers and eight grandmothers, and it’s all about the love and the complications of that.” Venus As A Boy is “about my boyfriend at the time”. Who’s he ? “It’s a secret.” Some tracks, she explains, refer to less intimate bits of her past : Anchor Song is “from my brass band period”. Elsewhere there are allusions to her interest in Indian film music, and her love of all- night disco dancing.

The arrangements were worked out by Björk with her English producer Nellee Hooper, formerly the musical brains behind the slinky dance act Soul II Soul. Initially she had misgivings about Hooper’s past : “From my point of view it was a bit too good taste, too expensive-sounding music.” The relationship, though, was completely successful. Aside from their complementary interests—she’s good at exotic settings, he’s a rhythm king—the pair of them work fast together. Debut was recorded, mixed and deli- vered within one month last spring : about as long at it takes most rock bands to sort out their drum sound.

Even before its success became apparent, Björk’s life underwent a sea change. The move to London, resisted for so long, finally became inevitable. She still keeps a flat in Reykjavík, but is hardly ever in it.

“I had to swallow a lot of pride to move here from Iceland, but realised that this album was the most important thing for me apart from having my baby. I was prepared to fight for it. With my album it’s like with my child, you don’t just give birth to it and tell it I’ll see you later. I just couldn’t do everything that needed to be done on the telephone or by fax.”

She misses her friends and hasn’t really found a social circle here to replace them, “because where I come from you don’t say you’re friends with someone until you’ve known them for 10 years, delivered their babies and stuff.” And because she says that she “can’t owe things, it’s not in my blood”, the mortgage she had to take out to buy her London house makes her feel rather uncomfortable : as soon as the royalty cheques arrive she plans to pay it off in full.

In most other respects Björk seems quite unfazed by her celebrity and is robustly confident that it won’t compromise her integrity. “I would commit suicide if I though I were stuck in this as an establishment figure. I still believe in pop music as one of the stongest forces in the world. A lot of people have lost faith in it. I haven’t. With this album I wanted to convince other people that it is still the real thing, one of the necessities of life, up there with religion and food.”

Does she mind being regarded as eccentric ? “No, not at all. I like the weirdo tag I’ve got. It’s quite flattering because it makes me more interesting than I think I am. I look at myself as a down-to-earth person who happens to be obsessed with music.

She has a few weak points, but then again, “my best points are my worst points. I think quickly, so the hardest part of me is how easily I get bored. Like when I work with somebody, the minute it’s not working for me I have to change the situation.” And is she equally ruthless in her private life ? “People and friends are different, they are not disposable. They are very precious.”

Maybe they are ; but the boyfriends she is so reluctant to name seem to come and go faster than they do with many “housewifes and mothers”. Thor, the father of Sindri, is long gone. “Dom”, the DJ she was with at the Brit awards and whom she specially thanked, along with her son, on the sleeve of Debut, has recently been replaced by a French video director, Stephane Sednaoui. A mystery phone call, which she rushes off to take in mid-interview, occasions a fit of breathy squeaking and girlish giggles in the room next door. Upon her return, though, she denies all knowledge of any sexual appeal. “Being a woman gets in the way. It’s like people who explain my music in terms of my coming from Iceland, or having oriental eyes. If I was from Newcastle making exactly the same music I wouldn’t get all this elfin bullshit.” And, unaware to the last, Björk sniffs and fiddles with her tights.

Robert Sandall
Photography by Stephane Sednaoui

publié dans The Sunday Times - 15.05.1994

 

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