Private Dancer

WOW !, 31 août 2001

Of all the people who were surprised to see Icelandic pop pixie Bjork pick up the Best Actress award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the most gobsmacked was most probably Bjork herself. Sure she’d put her heart and soul into the part of Selma, the progressively blind, doomed young single mother at the centre of Lars Von Trier’s modern-day musical Dancer In The Dark, but the experience had been so draining, so painful, that Bjork has never even bothered to sit through the finished film.

"I never wanted to see Dancer In The Dark, because for me, it was something that was over and done," offers the elfinesque singer, looking down at her coffee (something she does quite a lot, incidentally). "It wasn’t that I wasn’t proud of Dancer In The Dark. It was more to do with the fact that it would have been difficult for me to relive those six months in Denmark in any way whatsoever. That was a very strange time."

Of course, ever since she first scored a hit at the tender age of eleven with her debut album of pop and folk standards in her native Iceland, Bjork Gudmundsdottir (imagine that on triple word score) has had plenty of strange times. And she has had to deal with many strange people.

Such as the kamikaze fan, Ricardo Lopez from Florida, who sent a letter bomb to her London home, having videotaped his own suicide to the strains of Bjork’s I Remember You. Or when, having been approached by one too many journalists that day, and having just completed a long-haul flight, Bjork lashed out at a particularly persistent female television reporter as she tried to wheel her young son, Sindri, through Bangkok Airport. Later still, a Spanish stalker broke into her mother’s home, slept in her bed and ate her food. It was hardly surprising that Bjork became somewhat withdrawn around this time. It was either that, or become a total Bjerk. If you’ll forgive the dreadful pun.

"There came a moment when I thought, this is not good for me, and it’s not good for my son," muses Bjork. "I think the culture of fame is very frightening, ultimately, because it seems to suggest to some people that they have every right to invade your life. Just because you make art, that does not mean that you are public property. I began to find being famous very, very strange."

For Bjork, the strangeness all began when, in January, 1993, she moved from her homeland, Iceland, to swinging London. Having already become a major star in her native country, the normally shy singer wanted to see what international fame tasted like.

"And I realised, after about a year of interviews, and personal appearances, and being a ’celebrity’, that fame tasted like shit," laughs Bjork. "Back in Iceland, I had always rejected the idea of going to London, because I reckoned it would be a miserable way to live. Having your photograph taken every time you stepped out of a restaurant - who would want that ? But, for some reason, back in 1993, I did want that. Or, at least, I thought I wanted that."

Of course, when you’ve got journalists sticking microphones up your child’s nose, and bombs from deranged fans coming through your letterbox, being a top international pop star can quickly lose its sheen. And that’s why, today, Bjork has gone underground once more, lying low in her New York SoHo apartment for the last year, when she’s not back in her hometown village just outside Reykjavik. Growing up in Iceland, making music was all so much easier.

Born 35 years ago to Hildur and Gudmunsdur Gudmundsdottir, the young Bjork entered the Barnamusikskoli Reykjavikur at the age of five, studying piano and flute there for ten years. By fourteen, she had abandoned classical music for punk though, forming a band called Spit And Snot. But let’s not forget Bjork’s first brush with fame.

Produced by her stepfather (her parents having separated when she was four), Bjork’s self-titled debut album - featuring a collection of Icelandic folk tunes and pop standards - came about after her rousing rendition on TV of Tina Charles’ I Love To Love sent the country’s pop fans into a tizzy. The subsequent album by the 11-year old singing sensation quickly went double platinum, although it should be pointed out that, in Iceland, such a prestigious achievement takes a mere 6,000 sales.

"I was so in love with music, and to be able to make an album was a wonderful experience," offers Bjork. "It was right for me at the time, but even then, I knew there was so much more that could be done with music. I was studying classical music, but I was more interested in making music that reached real people, music that was more in tune on a street level. I became more and more obsessed with finding a new ’folk’ music. One of my favourite composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen, has always said that music should arise from everyday sounds of the street, and he is so right."

And in the late ’70s, the music arising from the streets was punk, and Spit And Snot became Bjork’s contribution to the, eh, spiritual revolution. She may have been a cherubic child prodigy, but Bjork’s desire to find alternative methods of expression was already rearing its head, something that no doubt came from her mother. Described by her daughter as "the most extreme hippie in Iceland", after Hildur left the commune where she raised Bjork, she went to live in a teepee in California with an American Indian chief. Now back in Iceland, she is, Bjork explains, "a martial arts expert who makes meditation records by rubbing Icelandic singing bowls to produce a humming sound". Which explains a lot.

"Growing up in Iceland, the community was very, very close," Bjork elaborates. "We all trust and love each other, and that is a wonderful environment for creativity. I remember, as a child, going up alone into the woods to live for days, hunting and surviving. There was never that fear that you get living in London, or New York, or Spain, or wherever. And that kind of trust meant that you could also express yourself in whatever way you wanted, and you didn’t feel embarrassed. So many people I meet are too embarrassed to express themselves artistically, too worried about what other people will think if they take a risk. But I always take risks. It’s the only way to make art that’s truly inspired. And inspiring."

Bjork’s latest inspirational offering comes in the form of Vespertine, her fourth solo album proper since her international breakthrough with 1993’s Debut. Closer in spirit to that first offering than its two predecessors, 1995’s Post and 1997’s Homogenic, Vespertine is, Bjork has said, her attempt to make "music that’s introverted". Given that she turned her back on fame and all that nonsense back in 1996 - when she left London and "basically tried to drop off the map" - it’s perhaps unsurprising to discover that the original title for Vespertine was Domestica.

"I wanted to pull back away from the world, and find comfort in being alone, in just enjoying your own company," she explains. "I guess I was thinking of albums like Bowie’s Low, where you’re stripping away all the celebrity nonsense, and finding yourself again. It’s a reaction people can have even after partying hard for a weekend or whatever. You just want to curl up in front of the fire, read a book, watch TV, get a few friends around ; you just want to recharge your batteries basically."

Given the year that Bjork has had, recharging her batteries seems like a wise move. The shoot for Dancer In The Dark was, by all accounts, a tough one. Director Lars Von Triers, a notoriously difficult and temperamental filmmaker, didn’t always see eye to eye with his leading lady, and Bjork’s retreat from the spotlight to make music once again has resulted in perhaps her warmest, most coherent album yet. Something of a light relief after the blood, sweat and many, many tears that went into making Dancer In The Dark, Vespertine was composed largely on Bjork’s Apple Mac G3 PowerBook, before being fleshed out in a residential studio in Andalucia, in southern Spain. Amongst the guest artists on the album, the most notable addition to Bjork’s sound is a 60-piece choir and a 60-piece orchestra, conducted under the watchful eye of her longtime collaborator, Brazil’s Eumir Deodato. A natural progression from Selmasongs, the soundtrack album she composed for Dancer In The Dark, Bjork’s first album proper in four years will be followed by a tour of some of the world’s finest opera houses.

"It’s all about the acoustics," she smiles. "I want to use the choir, the orchestra, and I don’t want to have to use microphones. I’m trying to recreate the sound we made on the album, and performing in the normal ’rock’ venues wouldn’t give us that freedom. It’ll be a challenge, but one I’m really looking forward to. The fact that we’re in a very different setting is something that I think will add to the music."

Bjork’s first brush with international fame actually came through her role as lead singer with Icelandic pop terrorists The Sugarcubes, a band who secured an American deal (somewhat unprecedented for Icelandic bands) that led to four albums, huge critical acclaim, and even a hit single, in the shape of 1989’s Birthday. The thrill of having journalists fly in from all over the world for words of wisdom was, Bjork smiles, something that eventually went to her head. It’s a naiveté she’s unlikely to suffer from again.

"I’ve never felt all that comfortable giving interviews," she states, "and it’s something I still have a major problem with. I can see the necessity of it - it’s important that people know when you have something new happening - but there is so much unnecessary nonsense that goes on around it to. How do you describe a piece of music ? And if you could, should you ? Wouldn’t that take away the magic of it ?

"We all have our own ways of interpreting what we hear, and the same piece of music can mean a host of different things to different people."

The importance of music to Bjork is pretty plain. Last year, at a press conference, she stated about music, "It’s my temple, my religion - even now while I am speaking to you there’s a song in the back of my head to comfort me." So, is there a song in the back of her head right now ?

"There’s always a song in the back of my head," she smiles. "It’s the beauty of music ; it’s with you all the time. All you have to do is let it flow. Sometimes you can capture it, put it on tape, other times, it just passes through, like a fleeting kiss."

Having once thought she was going to spend the rest of her life in Iceland, being a good little housewife and mother, Bjork views herself today as "an eternal nomad". Married at 16 to Sindri’s father, Thor Eldon, largely because of an Icelandic law that freezes all young people’s savings until they are wed, Bjork has now, she states, turned into her mother.

"My mother’s spirit is inside of me, definitely," she finishes, looking up momentarily from her third cup of coffee. "I can see that now, that same desire to keep on moving, to keep seeking out new sensations, new locations. We are very close, my mother and I, and I sometimes think we are like the same person now.

"If only I could get her to do my interviews for me, that would be bliss."

par Paul Byrne publié dans WOW !