Call of the Child

Vox, octobre 1995

Björk hasn’t let two years of critical kudos and VIP bullshit
go to her head. As she heads out on a major world tour,
VOX tags along with the army of she...

Dublin’s Jury’s Hotel is a bustling complex of gift shops, water fountains, restaurants and bars, a scene of relentless normality. Until, that is, Björk—in a brightly patterned T-shirt and a long, swirling skirt of blazing, burnished orange—steps in and strides across the reception area, seemingly oblivious to the excited stares that follow her into the bar. Björk is in Ireland to perform the opening dates of her massive European/US tour and to kill several journalists with one stone by way of an international press conference. Rarely one to miss an opportunity to let loose, she will also find time to drink, dance and be hugged by the attendant glitterati of Hollywood and Eire. For now, though, she is focused on the task at hand, greeting VOX’s questions with expectant eyes.

Björk is a perplexing mixture. On one level, there’s her music : strong, bold and striking. On another, there’s the coy, little-girl image and the relentless portrayal of her as the eccentric Icelandic techno elf. “I ignore it but it pisses me off,” she says. “People don’t like kids to know what they want. Especially not girl-kids.”

In person, Björk is not cute nor pixie-like. Most pop stars appear smaller in the flesh, whereas Björk seems taller. She’s almost willowy, exuding a tough, hippy-girl self-sufficiency.

The child-woman pop persona is at odds with the Björk of daily life, who has a hands-on attitude towards her career, overseeing everything from production of records to visuals, videos, touring and marketing. But, she explains in her discursive, circuitous way : “Everybody has some time in their life, a year when it all clicks, when they are aware of their situation in the world, seeing where their place is, what their role is. That happened to me when I was seven. My mum was understanding enough to let me do my own thing. I would go to school at five o’clock with a key round my neck, and run my life. I remember standing on this hill and feeling really capable, like, freedom... I’m just a tiny atom in this whole universe, yet it would be different without me.

“Because I got that picture then, and could organise my day then, in an awful lot of ways I didn’t have to grow up more.”

As Björk has lived her whole life with that sense of responsibility, releasing her first record at 11, earning more than her mother at 13 and having a baby of her own at 20, it’s through her music that the singer’s childlike self comes out. Pop is about imagination and play, and Björk is its prime ambassador. “The grown-up part is so natural for me that I don’t have to make an effort to show it,” she shrugs. “I don’t have to put on a suit and Dior make-up to get a bank loan.’

Doesn’t the girlish sensuality in her pictures and videos, though, raise the issue of under-age sex and perhaps encourage paedophilia ?

“Children can’t be blamed for paedophiles,” she replies. “That’s the paedophile’s fault. It’s the same argument as saying that women shouldn’t wear sexy clothes because they’ll get raped. Women have got the right to feel and look sexy for their own sake. Because I leamed to be a complete kid and organise my life, I can be both things at once, without either being pretend.”

She admits, though, with a sly smile, that the child self can be a useful shield.

“I’ve done all my bits and then, not to threaten people, pretended I was really stupid. It’s a good little game to play.”

She learned the feisty, independent side from her father, a “passionate fighter’ who is head of the Electrician’s Union in Iceland. The softer surface comes from her mother, Hildur. “She’s still a kid in many ways. She decided to become a hippy and a feminist, the whole lot, and is still refusing to give in, doing akido, studying homeopathy and trolling round the world. She might be swept away by situations but she’s survived all those years without changing her plans, when all her mates have forgotten their dreams.”

Björk’s irrepressible optimism is typical of Icelanders. A nation that was colonised by the Danish for 700 years, they have gutsy individuality in their genes. “When you had a house that you couldn’t see cos of the blizzards and avalanches, and all the sheep were dead, and the Danish would come and tax you on top of that, you couldn’t rely on God to turn up and sort you out, you just had to rely on yourself. It’s in our blood to say [grimacing] : “I’m happy. Everything’s OK. There are only a few of us on this fucking icicle in the middle of the ocean. That’s fine. We don’t need anyone. Fuck off.”

Despite her enormous patriotism, Björk had to swallow a lot of pride to admit that she couldn’t realise her pop vision living on a rough little iceberg bordering the Arctic Circle. Hence her decision to move to London two years ago to record her solo album, Debut. Until then, she had been singing with cover bands, doing pop thrash with Tappi Tikarrass, punk-goth with Kukl and beautiful, anarcho-punk warblings with The Sugarcubes.

She and her friends were trying with Dada-esque energy to do in Iceland what Crass had done to Britain. It was deliberately chaotic “anti-materialism, anti-artificialness, anti-consumerism”, with the emphasis on fun and freedom. After a while, she began to get dissatisfied, craving “the right record, the right book, the right film”, looking at other artists’ work in search of her own creative source.

“I realised I could have an easy life in Iceland, just have a glass of Cognac and good books and two jobs and do my songs in the evening, but I would be such a consumer, taking it all in and not giving anything back. I thought : OK, I’m 27. If I don’t go on a mission now and make some sacrifices, as these people did, I will never forgive myself.”

With Debut she came close to her target, making strong pop music that would register with “everyday people”. Her label, One Little Indian, budgeted for modest sales of 25,000. When the record sold three million worldwide, it was overwhelmed. Björk had certainly captured the zeitgeist. “It’s about sympathy for what people are going through, focusing on what’s sorted me out in my past. Like when I’m freaking out and hear a tune in a taxi and everything falls slowly and beautifully into place...”

With the follow-up, Post, Björk has taken that canny intimacy a step further. Less immediately accessible, the record builds slowly, yet assuredly weaves the listener in, encompassing the smash-grab jazz of ‘It’s Oh So Quiet (Blow A Fuse)’ and the dark lullaby of ‘Isobel’. Her crowd will stay with her. This much is evident when she arrives at a record signing at Dublin’s Tower Records. “She hasn’t caught on so much in Ireland, for some reason,” her PR Kristina Kyriacou had said in the taxi on the way there. When we arrived, though, the shop was mobbed, with indie kids lined up round the block and, once they’d got her signature, screaming with delight.

Eight hours later she’s on-stage at the SFX, a dry venue, tonight packed and sweltering. She has a firstrate band-drummer Trevor Morais, keyboardist Guy Sigsworth, Leila Arab (a mad US mixer and DJ), and the Japanese Coba on accordion—yet the gig is slow to take off. The crowd are poised to rave, but her songs are less about dance than old-fashioned swoony swing. From the brooding defiance of ‘Army Of Me’ to a languid, saucy ‘Big Time Sensuality’ she croons like a female Tony Bennett, and it becomes clear that Björk’s phrasing is rooted more in jazz than pop. Apart from a few characteristic arm flutters, her presentation is more minimalist, making her voice do the work of charming and engaging the crowd.

By the end of the set, they’re stomping for an encore, and it seems to have been a success. But later, backstage, she is dancing wildly in her dressing room to Michael Jackson, her ghetto blaster cranked up loud. Gone is the composed creature of the morning—now she is a frustrated, angry human dynamo.

So how did she find the gig ?

“It was shit !” she shouts. “Shit ! Everything went wrong.”

At this point, no one can get near her, and most make a discreet exit, deciding that it’s wiser not to try. One of the few to stay is Björk’s best friend from Iceland, Jóga, a tall aromatherapist with cropped blonde hair. She is a constant calm presence amid the mayhem, there to give massages and reflexology healing to the band throughout the tour. “I can’t party while everyone else is partying,” she says, “because then I would be no good for them the next day.”

By midnight, we have regrouped at The Kitchen, U2’s nightclub in the centre of Dublin. A sleek, designer affair of chrome and pine, it has several bars tucked down winding passageways and a generous dancefloor. We are ushered into a section that has been cordoned off with black curtains. Guarded by bouncers, it is obviously tonight’s VIP room. At first, everyone—local musicians, friends, a few record company reps— sits there quietly drinking when suddenly there is a huge crash, a ghetto blaster comes sliding across the floor and a voice behind me screams. “I love ya, Howie ! I love ya.” It’s Björk in a red dress. She runs up to her pal, DJ Howie B, and flings her arms round him. The party has started.

One by one, the celebs turn up to the ball. Tonight this is definitely The Place To Be. Gavin Friday walks in, unshaven and dapper, followed by Therapy’s lead man Andy Cairns, looking like a stray member of Los Lobos with his checked shirt and dark goatee beard. And there’s The Edge, giving Björk an affectionate hug. “In a funny way, the Irish remind me of how people are back in Iceland,” she says. “They’re very warm and happy-loud at the same time. I remember when I came here before, The Sugarcube boys found bars where you could drink a lot of Guinness and scream poetry at each other.”

The Edge agrees that there are similarities in the way the Irish love a riotous drink. “It’s both a curse and a blessing,” he says. “I like to think it’s a blessing. Once you know how to enjoy yourself like that, you can’t go back, can you ?”

Björk peels herself away from him to embrace Bono, who is propping up the bar, a wry smile on his face. I ask The Edge what he likes about Björk. For a while he doesn’t answer, chatting about how the band are currently holed up in the studio, collaborating with Brian Eno.

“He’s great,” he says. “I’m crap with technology, I can’t even programme my own video, but he’s got the right attitude to it. He’s irreverent with it. He know how to abuse it.” He then pauses and says pointedly : “The first time I saw Björk it was amazing. It’s her voice. It’s like an ice pick through concrete.”

By 1 am everyone is nicely drunk, but still alert enough to register that Hollywood has just walked into the room ; sat at one end of the bar are Johnny Depp and Aidan Quinn. All the girls collectively swoon. Depp is quiet, neat and a little uptight. “I’m filming in Cork,” he says tersely of his new film, Divine Rapture, an epic starring Marlon Brando and Debra Winger. Quinn, meanwhile, is relaxed, friendly and rediscovering his Dublin roots. He’s here doing the new Neil Jordan film about Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, with Liam Neeson. “It’s good to be here again,” is all he says.

They’re both fans of Björk, yet although she comes over and says hello, she is not starstruck. While everyone gravitates towards the Hollywood comer, with Bono, Gavin, Johnny et al in deep conference, she fidgets, kicks her legs and then goes to whoop it up on the dancefloor. As she has often said, Björk is easily bored. Dawn is breaking by the time we filter out, all in various stages of drunkenness from the slightly pissed to the paralytic. What’s nice about Dublin is its egalitarian nature. Andy Cairns comes up.

“Need any help ?” he says, before he and his friend Dan escort, nay carry, us back to the hotel. What gentlemen.

The next afternoon, at the international press conference at the Westbury Hotel, it’s dark glasses all round. Everyone is hungover, apart from Björk, who despite having got merrily plastered the night before and staying till the bitter end, is bright-eyed and alert in a little pink dress, silver sequinned jacket and shoes that look like pig’s trotters.

She sits at the mike and proceeds to charm the press. Today the little girl—the part that likes to rub her nose, cock her head and give slightly off-key, insouciant answers—has come out. She talks about her son, Sindri, and how it was never a problem being a single mother : “I had three brothers and three sisters and was brought up with kids everywhere. Sicily is a joke compared to Iceland.” She talks about Telegram, her forthcoming remix album that has been recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, pipe organs and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Musical style, you see, is like clothes. “A good tune is a good tune,” she says. “There are just different ways of dressing it up.”

An Italian female journalist asks her if she has a boyfriend.

“Yes,” says Björk, beaming.

“Who is he ?”

“It’s a secret.”

The day before, Björk had said that she didn’t want to talk about her relationship because “those things are too precious. It will never translate into print”. Love, in the end, is what motivates her. It’s the force running through her work.

“Being creative is basically being sexy. All my boyfriends have been creative, with that thirst for life. It might seem cold and cruel, but if I’m not 100 per cent in love, I’d rather not be with the person. But I think it’s colder and more anti-life to be madly in love with someone for three years and then only 50 per cent for the next seven. I’d rather split up and become friends—that’s more honest, warm and loving. It’s the same with my songs. I can’t do them unless I’m 100 per cent happy.”

She doesn’t subscribe to the view that once a woman gets past 28, all the decent men are gone.

“There’s a new generation of men now who want the whole scale,” she says. “They don’t just want to be macho. It’s completely unfashionable to be macho, I feel sorry for them, frankly. It’s just out. All the women have to be macho these days. I’ve got a lot of macho in me. People might not notice that unless they know me well, but I’ve got a lot of that grrr... motor in me.”

After the conference, Björk does a photo call. Like Marilyn Monroe, she knows how to turn it on, but with a sweet, self-contained knowingness. Björk is the girl who at three years old led her mother across the street, rather than the other way round.

“I don’t get a kick out of controlling others,” she admits. “I’d rather have my own plan.”

In turn, no one can really control her, and that’s the secret of her allure. That, and being determinedly, violently happy.

par Lucy O'Brien publié dans Vox