Dressed in yesterday’s clothing, Björk is still the epitome of style. Her wispy black hair is tied in a hurried knot which, while mimicking my own chosen coif of the day, manages to look artful rather than atrocious. She glances down at her shirt, a tight red cotton tee imprinted with a picture of a young boy holding a magnifying glass to his teeth. “It’s my son,” Björk says, referring to 9-year-old Sindri with quiet pride.
But being highly successful and a busy working mom doesn’t bother her as much as it seems to trouble others. “I don’t know why people always try to make a martyr out of me. Parenthood gives you a whole lot more than it takes out of you. Here’s someone you can be completely honest with, be silly with, or just eat popcorn and watch Ren & Stimpy with.”
Björk’s arrival in Los Angeles does not go unnoticed. Sightings at everything from strip-mall Japanese vegetarian restaurants to local techno concerts are gleefully announced around town. One local internet site’s traffic becomes so consumed with her visit that someone posts the suggestion it be renamed “alt.fan.sightings.bjork.”
My own initial encounter came on a surreal Sunday evening at Bossa Nova, a regular weekend wind-down at a frightfully upscale bar in Santa Monica. Resident DJ Jason Bentley stepped aside to give sonic control to Björk’s new best friend Tricky, who bombarded the crowd with a novel mix of hip-hop, hard techno and guitar rock in a wildly impetuous half-hour set. The members of the English trio Massive Attack frolicked at the bar and watched their old collaborator rock the house, while Perry Farrell swayed to the deliciously dirty beat of Jane’s Addiction, a gal-pal’s eager arms locked around him in admiration. The center of attention thus occupied, it was left to Björk to slink around the perimeters, swathed in black rubber and trailed by nudges and whispers. Even out of the spotlight, she garnered an unusual amount of attention.
What’s all the fuss ? For the uninitiated, we speak of a most mythical creature in the world of pop music. The primed know Björk Guðmundsdóttir—or simply Björk—as a woman who emerged from youthful stints in Icelandic punk bands like Kukl to lead the Sugarcubes, a band which has done more to put its native land on the map than anything since the Reagan-Gorbachev peace summit in Reykjavík. On second thought, it’s fairly certain that in the Sugarcubes’ ’80s heyday, more eyes and ears were glued to the band’s charismatic frontwoman, watching each wrinkle of her button nose and twist of hair in its crazy knots, hearing the sweet shrillness of every note she sang.
After the ‘cubes spilt, Björk overcame the tricky hurdle of emerging as a credible solo act with the elegant Debut in 1993. Her latest CD, this year’s Post, is a daring venture into many musical realms, from a big band cover (“It’s Oh So Quiet”) and aggressive pop (“Army of Me”) to hallucinatory love songs (“Hyperballad”) and haunting odes of seduction (“Enjoy”). At 29, Björk is a seasoned and successful artist, as well as one with enormous critical respect.
“That doesn’t mean I sing brilliantly or anything,” she observes modestly. “Singing is one of those things that you can put anything into. Any experience that I have in my life I can put into my singing, and I still have only tried so little and I’ve still got so far to go. I’m not saying what I’m doing at the moment is perfect, not at all, but that is the field that I should put all my energy into.”
Though praise for Björk’s voice—a truly distinct cache of guttural emotion, plaintive melody, and brash ballsiness—has always been loud and forthcoming, she has been both aided and trapped by her outward style and beauty. The media’s enchantment with her otherworldly looks have caused many to stop short of recognizing the intellect behind the allure of pigtails and maribou fur gowns, bowing to the pin-up doll mentality that plagues women in music. Instead of searching for brainpower, writers ask whether flannel is her favorite sleepwear, editors beg for her sexual accounts, and curious parties seek confirmation of rumors of an eccentric libido. When talking with Björk, such things become trivial and unimportant.
Today Is the last day that I’m using words
They’ve gone out
Lost their meaning
Don’t function anymore
Let’s get unconscious honey...
Madonna sang these words in her single “Bedtime Story,” yet the pen which authored them rested in Björk’s tiny hand.
Kicked back with her bare feet up on a table, quietly devouring chocolate ice cream from a paper cup, Björk explains how she casually outdid pop music’s greatest manipulator. “When I was offered to write a song for her, I couldn’t really picture me doing a song that would suit her. But on second thought,” she says nonchalantly and with the barest hint of mischief, “I decided to do this to write the things I’ve always wanted to hear her say that she’s never said.”
With this admission, sneaking suspicions are confirmed. Björk is not really the woman so often dismissed as the trippy, vapid, eroticized elf from another planet. All style and no substance ? Not here. Her style lies not in her whimsical paper dresses or baggy trousers, but in her substance.
Björk is a woman in control. Post is a milestone in that she produced much of it on her own, allowing longtime friend Nellee Hooper, whose credits include Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and Madonna, to join in at times. “My biggest challenge is to create a song on my own and that’s kind of where I’m going to be headed at,” explains Björk. “I think the next album is going to be when I’ve learned all the things that I can do all on my own now.”
Björk’s interest in her own work—in her art—is audible in the enthusiasm and tone of her voice, a charming blend of Icelandic gusto and British politeness. She begins at the beginning, with a discussion of whether she believes she’s actually found her true calling.
“I admit it’s simple to be a singer because it’s sort of obvious what your mission is,” she says. “For a lot of people it’s more abstract what it is they’re best at. Sometimes it’s quite hard to figure out where to channel all that energy. I think sometimes the world is full of race car drivers who want to be dentists and dentists who want to be race car drivers. I want to be a singer and I am a singer. I’m very lucky and that makes me humble.”
Though suggestions of Björk being a sex-crazed nymphet have hopefully been cast aside, there is nonetheless an undeniable connection between her singing and her sexuality, evinced at times by her own analogies. “I don’t think you can rehearse singing. It’s like rehearsing sex, like going to your boyfriend and saying, ‘OK, let’s first rehearse for half an hour and then have some sex,” she explains matter-offactly. “I went to a singing teacher a few years ago and what she was trying to teach me was to sing standing still. That makes absolutely no sense to me, it’s like having sex while standing still !”
Watch Björk perform and you’ll see that standing still is not on the agenda. Swimming, karate and kungfu training keep up her amazing stamina. But the artistry of her singing still takes precedence over stage gimmicks or mere entertainment. “It’s a question of priorities, isn’t it ?” she asks. “The great thing about pop music is that people can do it for 900 different reasons. Some people can do it just to bring a political message across, some people do it because they want everyone to love each other, some people do it because they want to look sexy, everyone can do it for different reasons. People who do dance routines, they probably do it a bit more for entertainment.
“I admire multi-talented acts like Janet Jackson and that lot, but I just don’t see how she’s got time to do all this,” she goes on. “It’s the old-style American way, which is definitely a culture that I don’t come from. You can really see it on MTV and all the pop musicians from the U.S.A. They keep dancing in the videos like idiots from beginning to end where in Europe, they don’t. it’s just not in the culture.
“I’m too busy singing, you see. It’s not that one thing is wrong or right, just that different things make different people happy.
“But then again,” she beams, “I’m just learning to tap-dance tomorrow for my new video.” It seems that video director Spike Jonze has convinced her to take a poke at herself in a new video for “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a voracious ’40s-era swing number. “I’m really chuffed, like, ‘Whoa ! What a challenge !’ But that’s kind of stupid enough, really. It’s definitely not to look sexy or be sort of ’80s-grab-my-cunt. No way.”