Vox

New Björk, New Björk

After the bizarre madness of The Sugarcubes, Björk’s coolly sophisticated solo album was the most inspiring début of the year. The term Class Of ’93 could not have been more pertinently applied.

November 1989 : The Sugarcubes have reached Portugal on their European tour and are about to embark on a wild night on the town. Later, the band and crew will be found strewn across Lisbon in various states of consciousness ; Björk will drink, dance, cavort with a lecherous male stripper old enough to be her dad and finally crash out in the middle of a nightclub.

However, before this bout of escapism, Björk grabs the chance to take her son Sindri to the harbour. Sitting by the water, she stares at the lights of a small passenger ferry as it moves silently through the darkness. As the boat sends a small swell to shore, her thoughts drift out to her new dream home in Reykjavík, a thousand miles away.

November 1993 : Björk is in the kitchen of her small flat in Maida Vale, struggling to make a cup of hot chocolate.

“In Iceland it takes several days to prepare,” she says, as usual making her homeland seem arcane and mysterious. To the bewilderment of her boyfriend Dom, she decides on a small blackened frying pan to boil the milk.

Upstairs, VOX’s photographer is preparing to take her picture. The room, which she describes as a replica of her home in Iceland, is bare, except for one of Sindri’s stray plastic dinosaurs, a box covered in shells and a collection of toy boats.

“Some people collect stamps. Some people collect Snoopies,” she says in her charming Nordic Cockernee accent. “I collect boats.”

It seems an appropriate hobby for a woman who never envisaged leaving Iceland, yet now only manages to visit the country a couple of times a year. At the moment, there’s even less opportunity for creative work.

“It’s crazy” she says. “If you make a good album, you get to make another one. But if it is successful, you have to spend a whole year doing interviews.”

She apologises lest any offence be taken, but her frustration is as understandable as her popularity Björk’s sublime solo album, unpretentiously entitled Debut, has racked up over 100,000 sales in the UK this year and currently occupies a comfortable position in the Top 30 some four months after its release. It is about to get a further push thanks to the release of ‘Play Dead’, a new song recorded with David Arnold for the soundtrack of The Young Americans the latest film to feature Harvey Keitel’s ubiquitous mug.

Björk says that although Reservoir Dogs (in which Keitel starred) was one of the best films she’s seen in years, it wasn’t the reason she became involved with the movie. What impressed her was young British film-maker Danny Cannon’s “enthusiasm to make a film about London today” and “his ambition to make a film without being arrty farrty”—her “r”s ricochet around the room.

“Here were people my age writing a film about young people in England today and I was shouting ‘Hip, hip, hooray’. It’s really difficult for me to say because you live here, but having moved from Iceland and now trying to get into the English vibe, I found everybody in England hooked on Victorian times. It’s like English people are ashamed of England today. They are upset that it’s not 1901 and all the films they make are about these times. There’s a lot of turn-of-the-century imagery in the pop videos.

“I really respect England, it has a lot of good qualities, yet so much about it is the opposite to what I am. And I’m just basically a proud bastard. I can work a lot here and all my dreams can come true and I’m grateful for that. But I’m just a visitor. After all this has finished I’ll go back to Iceland.”

Like her solo album, ‘Play Dead’ seems incredibly sophisticated after the eclectic drama of The Sugarcubes, but for Björk it was more a case of returning to her roots.

“It was actually what I’m most used to, that format,” she explains. “The Sugarcubes was such an exception to me, because I’d previously done film music in Iceland, music for theatre, produced stuff and also played drums and clarinet. I like to do stuff like that. I never really looked at myself as a singer.

“When I met David Arnold he’d already written the score—like a three minute greatest hits of what’s in the film—and Jah Wobble had written the bass part. My rôle was basically to write a melody and a lyric that would make it into a pop song.”

Björk persuaded the director to write a whole page comprising phrases that represented the emotions of the characters in the film.

“At the end of the day I only used the title and one line : “Sometimes, it’s just like sinking.” For the rest, I used my words, because I could see what point of view I was supposed to be singing from. It was very difficult for me because at that time I was very happy and all the lyrics I’ve done lately have been happy and hilarious. To do something so painful I had to get help from Danny.”

A few days later, we meet Björk at one of her haunts, Ray’s Jazz Shop in Covent Garden. She cruises the racks until she happens upon an album by the World Saxophone Quartet, whose leader Oliver Lake is credited with musical arrangements on Debut.

“I’ve always been a big fan of the World Saxophone Quartet,” Björk explains. “Two-and-a-half years ago in Iceland, I recorded some brass songs with three saxophones and a voice with Icelandic brass players. I sensed they needed something ; musically, they were right and it was the form I wanted them to be, but they needed arrangement. I sent Oliver the score and tape, and he kind of rewrote the bits for saxophone and made it come alive. He put attitude in it that I was incapable of.”

Björk’s Debut has proven to be packed with successful attitude, yet has defied categorisation. Some people have called it a jazz album.

“I’m not so into jazz at all,” says Björk, naturally confounding any attempt to pigeonhole her. But she adds : “I am and I’m not,” thinking of Lake’s forte.

“There’s nothing I hate more than saxophones. Eighty per cent of it I can’t stand, like rock ‘n’ roll sax, but Oliver’s attitude is very modern. It’s fresh. Saxophones tend to romanticise a lot, I like them being quite pranksterish, sounding rude. I don’t like it when it’s red-wine bar and dinner music. The stuff Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry did together is my favourite. It doesn’t take anything for granted and has a sense of humour which is so imponant. So many people forget about humour.”

When Björk was co-lead singer with The Sugarcubes, humour was a plain ingredient of the band’s appeal. Often, it barely concealed their almost bizarre contempt for pop stardom, which manifested itself in their insistence on performing in their native tongue, spending more money publishing books than they could be sold for as part of their Bad Taste art collective, and remaining resident in Iceland.

“Fame has never really been my thing. I have always been a bit bothered by it,” the singer says, hesitantly. “In Iceland when I was 11, I did a record and people started recognising me in the street and kids in school started talking about me, in a nice way, but I just couldn’t deal with the attention. It was a platinum seller in Iceland and they wanted me to do another one and I said ‘no’. Half of me is completely fine and very very happy about it, flabbergasted, you know ? But the other half of me is : ‘Alright, is it over now, then ?’ Because, in Iceland, I guess it’s so easy to be famous.”

So easy in fact, that Björk and her friends looked elsewhere for their youthful heroes, she says. “Our heroes in Iceland weren’t the Cilla Blacks and The Eurythmics, but the chemistry experimentalist in the back room in a small village you could sneak in and watch and be completely obsessed with his ideas. Or the guy who was really into making synthesizers out of old televisions. We thought they were sincere and it was almost a rule in Iceland that if you were doing anything that was worth anything, you didn’t get famous. I guess our attitudes in The Sugarcubes come from that. So in our heads, if we get famous, we are selling out.”

She pauses for a second, considering the amount of attention she is now receiving because of Debut.

“It makes me think : ‘Oh shit, is the fun over ? Am I getting old ?’ Which I guess is a bit anti-snob-which is worse than being a snob.” She laughs.

Although unwittingly Björk has possibly hit upon an important element of her current level of success. The audience at her début live appearance at London’s Forum consisted of a number of thirtysomething types all dressed in shades of black, the kind of ageing hipsters who were a part of the early ‘8Os counterculture that gave birth to independent record labels such as the one to which Björk is signed, One Little Indian.

Such people, now past their youthful days of idealism and insurrection, are joined in a belief that the mainstream is not for them. Ten years ago, they might have been squatting activists marching to bring down Thatcher, listening to Berlin punk bands and refusing to eat things with a face, but today they are living lives of suppressed desperation, believing that there’s nothing new in the world to surprise themexcept perhaps Björk. Exactly the attitude that Björk finds so hard to comprehend.

The audience wasn’t disappointed, but Björk is the first to admit that the gig wasn’t as successful as the record suggested it might have been.

“The first show was a rehearsal and it was 10 per cent. And it’s gone so obviously like 20 per cent, 30 per cent...The show in Manchester I’m really proud of, and in many ways it was better than the record. I’ve always been a big fan of live things. Then again, I’m a big fan of synthesizers.”

Björk still bears scars from the hounding that followed the release of The Sugarcubes’ début single, so was reluctant to give away many clues about the change of direction she planned to make for Debut. “I started recording my album secretly, because I had pressure since ‘Birthday’ to do an album on my own and I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea,” she explains, recalling how as soon as ‘Birthday’ became popular, major record labels had tried to sign Björk as a solo artist. “We had that bullshit since Day One and it was ridiculous.”

She refused even to entertain the idea then, and five years later, she was still reticent about doing anything she didn’t want to.

“When I started doing these recordings, I did it all on my own, and with all the people who got involved, like the engineers, brass students and Oliver Lake, I was like : ‘Listen, there’s no budget yet, if you’re interested, you have to be interested for yourself and if it goes on record you will get paid.’

“Oliver was interested and he arranged it, sent it back. I then got Derek Birkett (One Little Indian’s chief) on a good day and said : ‘Listen Derek, I want to do an album, but it’s not going to be what you think it’s going to be, because I am in no mood to please anyone, and it’s not going to be your chanteuse, easy-tosell album.’”

Birkett, a former founder member of anarcho-agit punk band Flux Of Pink Indians, remembers that “Björk had recorded some songs in Los Angeles with Franny Gold, which I thought were the most commercial things she’d ever written”. They were not to appear on the album, though.

“I played him the three songs so far with saxophone and voice,” continues Björk. “He liked it and said : ‘Fair enough, I’ll put money into it,’ and had complete faith. It was very surprising to me. I thought he’d want me to do hit songs, go commercial.”

“I did want her to do that,” Birkett confirms. “She played me ‘Violently Happy’, which I hated, and still do. I told her she could do whatever she wanted, because that’s the way I work, but I didn’t think the album would do as well as The Sugarcubes’ first album, which did a million [worldwide]. I was wrong. It looks as if Debut will sell a million.”

Birkett is, Björk insists, “a strange guy. He thinks that all the people on his label should have the best, and he thought I would be better off on a big label than with him”.

Interest in the singer among the major labels had always been high, and as the build-up to the release of Debut gathered pace, that interest started to increase.

“I went to a lot of meetings, met a lot of people,” Björk recalls. “Derek’s met thousands of people because there was a slight possibility that he would be my manager and I wouldn’t be on One Little Indian. But on most major labels, too many cooks spoil the soup. The A&R man has a say, the marketing man has a say, and the whole lot of them can make a real mess. Because my album is doing quite well now, the same record companies who would have messed it all up want a piece of the cake. But it was Derek’s work, his trust let me do it. There was one company I almost signed to for the rest of the world, that said : ‘Yes, it’s so great, I love how Derek let you do anything you wanted to, let vou have artistic control. You can make all the choices, but by the way, can we change everything ? Can we hire this person to fuck it all up’ ?”

Björk has an obvious respect for Birkett who, rather than being her boss, seems to be more of a business partner. As in the most seemingly harmonious partnerships, of course, there can be problems. At the moment, the matter of a proposed forthcoming album of remixes of Debut is causing some friction between the singer and her record company. The record company calls it Björk’s Affairs. Björk currently prefers to call it All The Remixes From The Same Album For Those People Who Are Not Into White Labels.

“I don’t really want to put them out,” she shrugs. “We did a lot of remixes because I like it, there’s a lot of remixers I really respect. I like different points of view, I love the thrill of being in control of one song and then giving it to someone else to get their view of it. But I don’t really want to put it out, not yet. It’s a bit early. Maybe next year.”

And, as Birkett says : “What Björk wants, she gets. The album release is being put back, but not because of Björk’s reasons alone, whatever they were, probably emotive I guess. It’s been put back because of record company bullshit reasons.”

Those being that ‘Venus As A Boy’ was a hit and put the singer on Top Of The Pops. “I was wrong again,” laughs Birkett. “I didn’t think it would do anything because Radio 1 wouldn’t play it. Capital and Virgin played the Mick Hucknall remix and gave it a boost.”

The Hucknall remix came about because, Birkett says : “I fucking hate Simply Red, but heard Mick talking on the radio about not singing and wanting to produce other people, so I sent him a tape of the unfinished album. He called and said he loved it. So he got most of Simply Red into the studio to re-record the music, gave the bass a bit of a reggae lilt and pushed Björk’s voice up front. I love it. Of course, Björk wanted to take her mix to the radio first, which we did, and they didn’t bite. But they bit at the Hucknall mix.” ‘Venus’ being a hit pushed back the release of ‘Play Dead’ from the soundtrack of Young Americans, which in turn pushed back the release of the next single, ‘Big Time Sensuality’, which was to be the lead release from Björk’s Affairs.

“I think ‘Play Dead’ is one of the best things Björk’s ever done,” says Birkett, “as good as the ones she’s recorded which weren’t put on Debut.” He sighs. “She has complete control.”

Which is the way both of them want it to be.

“I think one of the reasons my album is the way I wanted it to be,” states Björk firmly, “is because I could do it in my own corner without anyone poking at me and Derek let me do anything I wanted. I’m probably not going to get the same peace next time around unless I do it totally on my own and don’t let anybody hear it for a year. So that will change me into more of an eccentric than I am already...”

Mal Pearchey

publié dans Vox - 01.12.1993

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