DONNA KARAN : This is the first interview I’ve ever done—from the interviewer’s side.
BJORK : You’ve got my sympathy. I’ve only done two myself. I did one with Karlheinz Stockhausen and another with Arvo Part. It was very curious, because here I was in a situation that was familiar, but I was on the other side. I felt like I was five. You know, it’s easy to talk about a person when the person is not there, especially when you admire them, but to do it straight in the face, it’s kind of tricky, right ? Especially when you’re also meeting them for the first time. And I could faint just out of adoration for these men, because my religion is music. There I was, this little shy pop person, with Arvo Part, who is one of the most divine composers that’s alive today, and Stockhausen, who sort of changed music, made a gorgeous link between the past and German classical music, and the future of electronic music.
DK : Do you see a difference between the lives we live—as people and as artists or performers ?
B : I’ve got a bit of a clumsy answer, but I’d like to say yes, because, to a certain degree, you’re in a very different space when you’re onstage than when you’re hanging out with a friend. But I’ve always aimed for, and it’s arguable if I’ve gotten there, to kind of erase the walls, you know ? Basically, we are very different, shopping for food, or when we’re with a lover or something, but I would like to say that the target, for me, is to unify. I’ve tried to unify the way I am with my grandmother with the way I am onstage.
INGRID SISCHY : I can’t resist jumping in here. Bjork, you seem to have this fierce belief in bringing down the walls between avantgarde and pop, in bringing them together, whether it’s with music, fashion, film or art. This is unusual, because you’re in a business which is extremely formulaic, extremely packaged—every day the music business becomes more so. Where does this drive to defend the avant-garde come from ?
B : OK. [soft giggle] I get shy attacks. Part of it is that I come from a very working-class family and from a communal household in Iceland where there never was such a thing as hierarchy. Artists are on the same level as plumbers. They’re all the same. And then, when I was 14, punk happened, and I got very involved with anarchy and the idea that nobody tells another person what to do—everybody’s equal and you can encourage people to be as much as they are. Even though it’s a capital in Europe, Reykjavik, where I grew up, is like a small village. It’s full of eccentrics, and it has that small-town thing where you know everyone. You go to the supermarket and you meet a painter and a fisherman, and then you meet the president and a taxi driver. Another way to answer the question is that my hero as a child was [the naturalist] David Attenborough because he introduced nature to the living room, you know ? He lifted up a rock and it was full of worlds you’d never seen, like ants, and he’d tell you they’re all havi ng sex or something. It looked really boring, but when he told you the story, it was amazing. So I guess I’ve always been fascinated by the kind of person who introduces one...
DK : ... world to another ?
B : Yes. I think if you ask a person on the street what they listen to, most would say, "Oh, I like everything." They hear jazz in a taxi, and then they go home and listen to heavy metal. I think all of us want to put on a pink scarf once in a while.
DK : There’s so much information that’s being given to us today ; but how do you choose the things you want to commit to ?
B : That’s a tricky one. Sometimes I’m asked to do something I’ve already done, and it doesn’t interest me. I think when I’m 80 and I look back, though, there will be a very obvious thread. It may look erratic in the middle of it, but because I follow my intuition, I think there’s a line that maybe I won’t notice until I’m 80.
DK : If somebody said to you, "Bjork, what is your purpose and drive today ?" how would you answer that ?
B : [long pause] I guess a really big factor is curiosity. There’s a very utopian dream thing I have to do with uniting things, you know, everybody holding hands, that sort of sick sentimentalism. And, of course, there’s sort of a more selfish angle that I just HAVE to write songs, almost to even the pressure out. It’s like if I create a song, then I have a replica outside me of what I’m hearing inside, and it sort of evens out the pressure. That is quite a physical, almost selfish, thing and it’s as important to me as it is to eat or sleep.
DK : Is it something you can’t control ?
B : Yeah, very much. There’s a very big factor with me to not control it.
DK : Do you see a conflict between your artistic desire and the realities of the music business and, if so, how do you handle it ?
B : They’re two different things. But you have to enjoy the resistance and respect both things. I think the music business exists for a reason. It’s a distribution thing. But I also think I have a lot of important things to say. It’s like a very good friendship when you don’t try to change your friend into something else.
DK : You just accept it.
B : Yeah. It’s very, very different from you, but the fact that you don’t agree doesn’t mean that it’s evil. I think it’s very brave to be flexible.
DK : Cowardice and bravery are a constant refrain in your music, in your life, in your interviews, everything. Have you always been interested in these two things ?
B : I guess so. It’s easy to get lazy and just let the routine work, but that can be cowardice. So it’s like every day is different—what’s brave and what isn’t. One day it’s very brave to do a tour, then two months later, it’s cowardice, you know ? It depends on how you keep yourself alert.
DK : What does it feel like when people don’t respond positively to your work ? Have you had that experience ?
B : Very much.
IS : She’s had booers. [all laugh]
B : Yeah ! I guess I’m very used to it from my childhood because I was such an eccentric, and I had to decide very early on that I either did things their way or my way. And it seemed more fun—
DK : —to do it your way.
B : Yeah. And then every 10 years or so people go, "Oh, now I get it." And then the other nine they don’t. But, at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to live with what I do. I guess there’ve been more times in my life when people didn’t understand me than when they praised me.
IS : What got you so philosophical about that, instead of defensive ?
B : I guess part of it is when I walk outside and I’m singing and I can hear all the music in my head—it’s just a very generous, joyous place to be, and there’s nothing wrong with it. As a kid I was an extreme introvert ; I sometimes wouldn’t speak to people for days, but I’d be euphoric. I was lucky because nobody told me there was anything wrong with me. Actually, I think that most people are pretty introverted—they just hide it really well.
DK : New York is full of that.
B : [laughs] It’s sort of Eccentrics United, right ?
DK : You live in New York now. Do you like it ?
B : Yes, I first came here when I was 20. I’ve never fallen as strongly in love with any place, apart from Iceland. Right then I kind of decided I would move here when I would be like 40 or 50.
DK : That old ? [laughs)
B : But I’ve come a little bit earlier than I thought. It seems to be a good place for a certain sort of maturity. There’s a lot of room for that, you know ? I really think New York is gorgeous.
DK : I imagine you’d love London, though.
B : Yes. I was very lucky when I moved there in ’93. I hooked up with a lot of people who were in my position—they were immigrants, in love with London, but people who didn’t want to let go of what they were about. People like Hussein Chalayan, who is from Cyprus, Talvin Singh who is from India. and Goldie, who’s half-Jamaican. And it was also the first time that Britain was accepting that immigrants were actually English, too. That sort of thing, the coalition of cultures was in the air—you know, drum ’n’ bass and Indian techno.
IS : It’s interesting to me that you seem to have this double thing : worldliness and otherworldliness. On your new record, Vespertine [Elektra], there’s a song called "Cocoon." You’ve said things like, "I write best hermit-style, with a beard and a pipe." Do you think creativity today is about pulling away from the world as much as it is about being in the middle of things ?
B : I think it’s always kind of been the same. [laughs] You know, when people say things today are going downhill, or ting better—I take the contrary position.
DK : You’re in the gray.
B : Yes.
DK : You’re not a Libra. [Bjork laughs] What sign are you ?
B : I’m a Scorpio.
DK : Of course ! Hello ! I should have known !
B : What are you ?
DK : Libra. Black or white. Gray doesn’t work. I look for the gray, but I haven’t found it. I have another question about all this. Do you find you’re able to turn down offers of work in order to give yourself enough space to nurture the creative process ?
B : Well, when I was in a punk band as a teenager, we used to drive in the tour bus for two days without sleeping, not eating because we had no money—and we’d play for a hundred people and get a pizza. So that’s how far you can push yourself in that direction. Obviously you must know that from your world, Donna, when people want you to do interviews, and you do hundreds, and you’re pushing it to the limit. But it’s exciting to see how far you can push yourself. I’m curious about my limitations.
DK : I find with the creative process there are no limits. You’re living in another world. It’s sort of an out-of-body experience. Then you get back into your body and you go, "What the hell did I just do ?" Bjork, tell us how collaboration is integrated into your artistic process. You’ve collaborated with so many different kinds of artists, and you have said, "My favorite is becoming the other half of someone.
B : I guess the good thing about pop songs is they’re only three minutes long. [Karan laughs] So usually, with most of the work I do, there’s never a big commitment. But actually, most people I work with are the same people I met when I was 14. When the Sugarcubes stopped, we continued to run this company, and now, for example, we put out albums by Sigur Ros, the Icelandic band. When we did the Sugarcubes, we all knew it was going to be for a short moment. Five of the Sugarcubes were actually poets or authors, so their religion in life wasn’t music, you know ? But the sound engineer, the mixing engineer, the guy who does the lights and the tour managers, all these people have been with me for years.
DK : Do you see yourself as the "mother" ?
B : Like everyone, I play a lot of roles. I feel pretty balanced. With the group I work with, I definitely get to be the quiet child sometimes, and a lot of the time I’m the responsible one, you know—carrying a lot of weight. But I feel overall that it’s healthy.
DK : Do you see it reflected in the way you mother your own child ?
B : I guess because I had my child so young. Most of all, he’s like my best friend.
DK : How old were you ?
B : I was 20.
DK : There’s something else that I want to ask you. It’s about the film you were in last year, Dancer in the Dark. It seems surprising to me that you, who believes so much in options, have subsequently said that you could never act in another film. It seems sort of contradictory to me. to make such a rule.
B : It’s a good one, that one. I guess a very big chunk of me is very loyal, and probably the place I’m most loyal to is music. It’s always been there. I definitely felt like I was having an affair. I felt dirty.
DK : Like you were cheating ?
B : Yes. I had to wear costumes and communicate with a hundred people every day. Most of my creative process happens with me on my own, and suddenly it was like one group of people inside your ear and up your nose-
DK :—telling you what to do, how to do it. Also I imagine you went through an enormous emotional process, with your part.
B : I enjoyed most that element that you mentioned earlier, becoming the other half of someone. A lot of what was good about the film was that I realized that I’ve got a lot of stronger ideas about things than I thought I had. I’ve got these sort of old school, conservative ideas about collaboration. With all the people who have done videos for me, I really enjoy being the host and making sure that there’s fluid communication going on. And I’m proud to say-I have to brag a little bit here-that a lot of people I work with come to me and say they did their best work with me. It wasn’t because I was all over it ; it was because they became more what they are. Being brought up by hippies, and becoming a punk, and my dad being sort of a union leader, I have very romantic ideas about group work. I’m getting a lump in my throat right now. [laughs] I’m very, very naive in a lot of ways, and I’m very clumsy and silly, for sure, but I won’t take away the fact that I’ve been collaborating with groups for 20 years, and 99 percent of it has been positive. Everyone has walked away saying they’ve had one of their most positive experiences.
IS : But with this movie it was written that you had a problem because you can’t collaborate.
DK : Which clearly isn’t the issue.
B : I think to a certain degree, because I had worked with so many people, and it had gone so well, that I was maybe just a little overconfident. Maybe that was one of the reasons why I agreed to do the film. Because here was a person Idirector Lars von Trier] who was notorious for being impossible to work with-so you know if I could work with him, it would unite everything. But maybe it was too much of a challenge ; it was harder than I thought it was going to be.
DK : As an actress, how did it feel to not see ?
B : Because I’m such a music person, it wasn’t that problematic for me.
DK : How did it feel to die for love ?
B : I think there’s definitely an element to me that’s quite self-sacrificial. You know, if I would be at the right time in the right place-or you could argue the wrong time and the wrong place-I would be ready to die for the cause. When you’re touring, you do concerts and you’re leaving everything you love to be at that concert. I am a fighter in that way-the song is more important than me. I have friends who come to gigs, and they say, Calm down, what’s more important to you, the show tonight or your health ?" And I’ll go, "The show tonight."
DK : When I see you perform it does not feel like a performances but like something else. It’s the same with Vaspertine, the new album-it feels like something else. What did you intend ? What did you want the album to be about ?
B : This album is slightly nostalgic in the sense that it’s basically about being an introvert. It’s sort of about hibernation and being in a cocoon. I call it a winter album, because in wintertime you cocoon yourself and prepare for next spring. On a lot of levels, the sounds are kind of frozen. Its also like a love affair with a laptop. I wanted to make modern chamber music. And it’s a love affair with two things : the home and laptops, basically saying that a hundred years ago the most ideal music situation was in the home, where people would play harps for each other, or tell each other stories. And in the middle of the century it became the opposite, the most ideal music situation was something like Woodstock, with many hundreds of thousands of people hearing the same song in the same mud pit, having the same euphoric experience, and the target, sonically, was to make a stack of amplifiers that could reach China. I think we’ve come full circle and the most ideal music situation now, through Napster and thr ough the Internet and downloading and DVD, is back to the home.
DK : One last question. People say Bjork and, because of the dress you wore to the Oscars, now they immediately think "swans."
B : I don’t really know why I’m obsessed with swans but, as I said, everything about my new album is about winter and they’re a white, sort of winter, bird. And obviously very romantic, being monogamous. It’s one of those things that maybe I’m too much in the middle of to describe. When you’re obsessed with something, you can explain it five years later, but in the moment, you don’t know exactly why. Right now, swans seem to sort of stand for a lot of things. I see a picture of a swan now and I go [takes a deep gasping breath], but two years ago it didn’t do that to me.