YOU Magazine

Success And The Solo Mother

She may not be most people’s idea of a conventional mother, but offbeat Icelandic superstar Björk takes her maternal
role very seriously.

The knobbly hairdos and bag-lady dress sense render Björk a singer whose image is as unforgettable as her voice. She came out of nowhere—well, Iceland—comparatively recently, but now other singers rave over her and kids emulate her. She initially had some success with an Icelandic group called the Sugarcubes ; when they split up in 1992, she moved permanently to London to start a solo career. She won two Brit awards for her first album, and this summer her second, Post, went straight to number one. She is blessed with a gamine face which should belong to a character from Tolkien, but she is actually 30-ish and as Nordic a hausfrau as you could hope to meet, and the single mother of a nine year old son, Sindri. It cannot be easy for either of them, with Björk away on tours and so on, but mother and son seem to muddle through quite cheerfully. At their Maida Vale house, Sindri demanded that I play with him. Even after his mother and I had settled down to talk, he expressed himself by blowing a whistle, loudly and monotonously. Eventually Björk spoke to him—in Icelandic, but the tone was unmistakably that of maternal reasoning—and he melted away. ‘He needs a bit of attention, ‘ she said. The house has a relaxed feel, the debris of family life piled all over the Scandinavian interior design—dust on the skirting boards, football stickers posted on the inside of the lavatory lid.

Björk Guðmundsdóttir is a post-feminist. There was a gulf in experience between us as we talked, not wholly explained by her being a foreigner, but more probably by her not having to fight any battles to achieve what she has. She is, literally and emotionally a child of the 60s : her mother set no rules, provided no discipline. ‘My mother had a strong father who was really sexist, who beat her down. Her solution was to give me all the freedom she couldn’t have. She let me do whatever I wanted—probably more so because I was a girl. It’s a classic, isn’t it ?’ she sighs. Perhaps aware that sing-song Scandinavian accents sound nerdy to our ears, Björk has diluted hers with a trendy estuary whine, lots of glottal stops and swearing. Her gestures are so unselfconscious they seem artificially childlike. She has flu and sniffs and scrubs at her nose with her bare hand. These are the manners of someone who has never been taught manners, whose mum never rapped out, ‘Use a handkerchief’, who was never read the riot act on ladylike conduct.

Björk (pronounced Beyerk) doesn’t remember her parents as a couple. Her mother, Hildur, then in her late teens, stood just one year of the domestic chores synonymous with marriage and motherhood— ‘shopping, doing the washing, which basically meant jail for a character like her’—before dumping the husband to become ‘the most extreme hippie in Iceland, working in nightclubs and living adventurously’. This hippie behaviour seems to have been rather half-hearted. Hildur, her new husband and several friends shared a large flat in Reykjavík, each holding down a job rather than dropping out : they established their credentials mainly by painting the walls purple and substituting bean bags for chairs. Hildur left her daughter to take care of herself. Björk’s tales of childhood remind me of a Roald Dahl story, with their quirky adults—including a hidden cache of grannies—and her own smart self-sufficiency : ‘I had a key around my neck and I walked around a lot, doing what I pleased. I got a kick going to houses where everything was clean and and you’d sit to eat and use knives and forks.’ Did she ever wish her mother was like other mothers ? ‘Not in the practical sense, because if I wanted that I could go to my grannies.

‘One granny used to put me in a chair and comb my hair, because it was down to here’—she gestures to her waist—‘and it used to get, like, dreadlocks. Another granny, my stepfather’s mother, used to take my socks off and darn the holes. I was not very tidy because I just took care of myself. ‘My mum was like a kid. When I was three my relatives saw me look left and right and take her across the street. Don’t get me wrong. She is a lovable person, a gorgeous creature,’ she said, though while saying it she looked, and sounded, sad. ‘I admire her a lot for her freedom. The practical things, like having a meal ready, I don’t mind. Her not ironing my clothes or changing my sheet ? I don’t mind. But emotionally not being there ? I would be lying if I said that. It does **** me off.’ This remoteness on her mother’s part seems to have been pretty far-reaching. When I asked her if Hildur behaved differently with Sindri, Björk replied, without a trace of irony, ‘Definitely. They talk together.’ Later, discussing how she manages as a single parent— she had Sindri at the age of 20, during a short-lived marriage—she said, ‘He’s probably been brought up in the same chaos I was. But I try to be emotionally always there for him.’

However, the other adults in her faux commune took a sporadic interest in her. In that sense, she was ‘spoilt, and got all the attention in the world. I would wake up in the morning and three grown-ups were ready to make a kite with me, run bare-foot in the park all day. I was never dealt with as a stupid child. At kindergarten, I would refuse to be one of the kids. I would help the nurses.’ Later, at the school specialising in classical music to which she was sent, she established her position as the outlandish outsider, wearing pink sheets (with a hole cut for the head), her grandfather’s jumper and a silly hat. ‘When I visited my father and stepmother and their children, I was the odd one out, the freaky one. At the commune, I was the straight, organised one. When I want to the classical music school, I was the jazz freak, and I enjoyed that.’ She likens her growing singularity to having ‘a place for myself, out there in corner. Not a nasty or lonely place. But on my own. ‘A lot of children I just wasn’t interested in. But I always had three or four really close friends ; we’re talking mental love affairs. They were always the odd ones out : the tall girl who got tits when she was eight ; the guy who collected insects and couldn’t talk to anyone.’

Today, Björk is in unrelenting in her buoyancy. She writes bracing lyrics such as ‘Stand up, you’ve got to manage ... and if you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me.’ She learned as a child that she could be different provided she was blithe about it. Unlike her friends she wasn’t teased. ‘I was quite respected—because I was happy, there was nothing to attack.’ Perhaps this identity was further reinforced by her mother. I asked her if she had a sense of her mother needing her, as children need to feel they’re needed. There was a long pause. ‘Yeah. I don’t know ... My role in the family was definitely being the happy one who’d jump up in a situation ; bit of a scruffy, over-emotional clown. I think in that sense she needed me.’ It is no surprise that today her image is an exaggeration of her jolly oddness.

Björk left home at 14 for her father’s, returned to her mother for a spell, at 15 shared a flat with two brothers and, at 17, rented a flat of her own, ‘which basically became the party place’. She was financially independent because from a very early age she played in a sucession of popular punkinsh bands in Iceland. Did she lose her virginity young ? ‘Pretty normal, about 14, 15, she says, turning a little sniffy. Her emotional temperature seems to be endearingly stuck at that of the teenager. She cannot distinguish between romantic and erotic passion, she says. She yearns for a supreme relationship that will never cool. Not surprisingly, she has, like her mother before her, settled into serial monogamy. ‘It’s scary, if you put it that way. I want to be with a person I don’t get bored with. But I wouldn’t ask of anyone too be with me for 50 years without getting bored. It’s asking a lot of a person isn’t it ? A lot of people, I exhaust them. Because I’m too emotional. I’ve got barrels full of emotion and I need to pour them over people and make them, I hope, happy. Sometimes, though, I drown them.’ This must be quite a feat given that she sees her current boyfriend, rumoured to be rap artist Tricky, ‘only five times a month’ because of her schedule. If she has a role model it is her paternal grandmother, who she feels struck a better balance in her life—‘good at being unselfish and at being selfish’—than her mother. It was the grandmother to whom she went for ‘a cuddle and pancakes’ as a child : ‘She took the role of a mum for me.’ This grandmother appears to have been the only relative to ever to admit to worrying about Björk. Is Björk like her ? ‘I think, without wanting it, I’ve got a lot of my mum in me—very restless and searching. And I’ve got a lot of my dad in me, which is probably what I’m more proud of—powerful, energetic, organised, a sort of fighter for righteousness. [He is head of Iceland’s electricians’ union.] ‘My mum is about to becone one of the first homoeopathic doctors in Iceland. A few years ago, she fell in love with the chief of a tribe of American Indians and she was living in tepees in the mountains of California. I still feel maternal towards her. I’m the one to tell her off.’

One of the most interesting things about Björk, especially as she is a symbol to young women, is her general rejection of feminism partly caused by her mixed emotions towards her mother. ‘She wouldn’t even go into the kitchen, silly things like that. But I do appreciate that the cage has been opened for my generation and all we’ve got to do is be active. It’s quite easy for us. I don’t have to be negative and paranoid’—she adopts a moaning tone— “ ‘I’m in a cage. People are suppressing me.” For my generation to hear women say that, it’s like, “Please ! Get a life.” That’s what I used to think about my mum.’

Women in the popular music industry, like women in any predominantly male workforce, have adopted strategies. They’ve become fake men, imitating male excesses and sometimes ending as victims, like Janis Joplin. They’ve hidden behind strong male managers. But Björk, without stridency or fluttering, has won control over her product. She is a perfectionist, but doesn’t seem to put people’s backs up. She ‘co-manages’ herself. She doesn’t describe her goals in conventional, male terms—as ambition—but in feminine terms. ‘I think every person has capabilities and your only target before you die is to make the most of them, pull them out. You must learn to be the midwife.’ She has said that she thinks women ‘have a lot of macho’ in them. When questioned about this, along with the predictable pop-star blather about us all being bisexual, she adds, ‘Now women are allowed to be open about both sides of themselves, whereas they had to repress the male for a long time. If being macho means getting things done, being the one who has the ideas I’m definitely macho.’ ‘I am a typical example of valuing what my mother did to me, and how she did it, more and more as I got older,’ she says. ‘You seem to paint it all black when you’re 14, and then it grows lighter the older you get.’ Björk’s new single, ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, is released tomorrow by One Little Indian.

THE WORLD OF BJÖRK
Clothes
Not your usual labels : ‘I read about my style in the papers, but I don’t have a clue.’ Went from Martine Margiela to Hussein Chalayan, available from Browns, 23-29 South Molton Street, London Wl ; loves to wear Chalayan’s green ‘Belgian envelope paper’ dress fastened at the shoulder with a safety pin.
Comme des Garcons, 59 Brook St, London Wl : ‘Really posh, but I live in it.’ New designer : Stepher Fuller. Björk makes a lot of her own clothes—an hour before her Reading festival appearance she was cutting out the pattern of a dress and sticking it together with tape.

Favourite home-styled looks
Traditional Scandinavian cardigan. Fink cheongsam. Orange, as in bras and ‘an orange towelling tracksuit with applique brown branches that a friend gave me as a Christmas present.’ Indian sari material from Southall market.
‘I was wearing my grandfather’s clothes from when I was nine. I think it was just an accident when people started photographing me that they liked my style.’

T-shirts
T-shirt size : age nine to ten. Ren and Stimpy T-shirt ... so famously that Björk’s merchandising company now makes the cult cartoon character T-shirts. Moomins ; butterfly print.

Shoes
Reebok pumps.
Ninja Nikes with matching socks, bought in Boston.
Anything by Patrick Cox.

Food—The spice of life
‘I like extremes—very hot food, such as vindabo, and very sweet desserts ; very healthy things and very unhealthy things, and a lot of them, not a little.’

Drink—‘Anything as long as it’s alcoholic’
Tequila slammers with champagne, particularly in Icelandic blizzards.
Grandmother’s recipe for a hot alcoholic honey drink to sooth the throat.
Vodka—‘Drink a litre once a week.’
Champagne ; cognac ; kir royale.

Places
Jungle club Speed and Ray’s Jazz Shop in London.
The Bali Restaurant, 101 Edgeware Road, London W2, tel : 0171-723 3303
‘I’m obsessed with boats. It’s freedom ... after this little job is over, I’m living by the ocean.’

Lone motherhood
‘I could write a book on where to find second-hand baby clothes’—there’s Cheeky Monkeys, 202 Kensington Park Road, London Wll, tel : 0171-792 9022.
‘Sindri and I watch cartoons and eat popcorn together.’

THE WORLD OF BJÖRK—little details
Biscuits and tea in a little room with synthesisers
Pyjama bottoms under dresses
Football boots complete with studs
TEQUILA on its own
Quaglino’s or Marco Pierre White’s restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel for special occasions
Guests are asked, ‘Apple juice or champagne ?’
Lollipops are tops
Microwaved popcorn—in fact, any popcorn

Louette Harding

publié dans YOU Magazine - 12.11.1995

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