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Who’s the strong and nutty one ?

Iceland’s best-known musical export explains herself... sort of

The Republic of Iceland is a place of volcanoes, glaciers and modern-day Vikings. There is no other comparable country in the world. It has a magical appeal. Its people, bound to its soil since the ninth century, share in that appeal. Because of, rather than despite, the connection they have to their island in the North Atlantic Ocean, Icelanders are both blue-eyed poets and blond-haired fishermen.

Why does Iceland seem so drenched in magic and myth ?

Canada doesn’t seem too bad either, the north half of your country looks incredible.

She’s one of modern music’s most incredible voices. Utterly unique. A shapeshifter, often reinventing her sound with every new album - like Madonna, but sensual rather than sexual, boldly adventurous rather than baldly opportunistic. Though she is Iceland’s most recognizable face, hers is not one framed with blond hair and pierced with blue eyes. Indeed, today just as 10 years ago, she looks ever the pixie or slightly naughty forest sprite. She wore a swan to the Oscars and is known to eat roast puffin. She does justice to the word "eccentric," though always and equally projecting a truth and honesty to the oddities. She’s also sold more than 15 million records to date and that number continues to climb.

This is why I was shocked to learn that Björk was doing interviews before her upcoming show in Montreal. I learned that journalists were to email a list of questions and she would pick those she liked. As daunting a task
as that was, and regardless how inane the following may seem, my first thought was : Björk has email ?

What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician ?

I feel I will always be doing something associated with music, but it is a surprise to me that I ended up a "pop star." That was definitely not on the top of my list. I, for example, have a childhood dream of starting a music school for young children.

Though she released her first album at age 11, for the most part the world outside of Iceland initially heard of Björk because of her involvement in The Sugarcubes. Their music was not unlike the drug many thought their band name was in reference to, a psychedelic punk rock experiment anchored by her whimsically ethereal vocals. They released several successful albums then parted ways.

What was the real reason that The Sugarcubes disbanded ?

We were a bunch of poets, not musicians. We formed as a joke, so it did have a clock attached to it.

If The Sugarcubes introduced her, then her first solo album after leaving the band, Debut, began to explain her. Released in 1993, it added a warmth and personality to dance music that the genre had not seen before. Working with producer Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack), she created songs like Human Behaviour and Big Time Sensuality that sound as good today as they did then. The accompanying videos, directed by Michel Gondry and Stephane Sednaoui, showed the world what could be done with a music video.

Post was next, done with the help of Hooper, Tricky, Graham Massey and Howie B. Like the previous, it was drenched with trip-hop, techno and dance beats that wormed their way into her darkly positive poetic narratives that managed to be both personal and otherworldly. It also had some departures from form, like the remarkable big-band pop of It’s Oh So Quiet, a cover of a Betty Hutton song that hinted that predicting what Björk would do next would be a fool’s endeavour.

Did you see Debut and Post as being immediately accessible to the mainstream, or were they simply where you found yourself musically at the time ?

My record company warned me. They felt Debut was so weird it would only sell a third of what Sugarcubes sold. At the time it was the only album I could have made. Probably the same story with all my other albums as well...

The story of Homogenic was about the past and the future meeting in the middle, a story of what happens when warm acoustic instruments meet the cold steel of electronic music. The story even contained a couple laughs : On Hunter she says, "I thought I could organize freedom/ How Scandinavian of me !" More than one critic called it the greatest electronic music album ever made.

Vespertine was Björk in 2001, an album that featured a chamber orchestra, an Inuit choir and an experimental harpist, all of whom accompanied her on a world tour of opera houses and theatres. Quiet, tiny and subtle, it seemed to live half a world away from the bombastic bigness of what had come before it.

You do not seem like someone who thinks about record sales, and yet that must play a part in your being able to do some of your more ambitious projects.

Yes. I was very aware on Vespertine, for example, that might be the first and last time I could afford to tour a string orchestra and a choir and fireworks. You sort of make the most of it. Then you can do ukulele albums later...

The "ukulele album" that came next was Medúlla, an album composed entirely of vocals, incorporating the talents of beatboxers Rahzel and Dokaka, Inuit throat-singer Tagaq, and Mike Patton, to name a few. As undeniably odd as it was interesting, even without a supporting tour, it did something that her albums, no matter what mood they found her in, always seem to do - it sold well. While clearly her concerns are more artistic than commercial, there is a truth about her hidden somewhere in that notion. Perhaps it says something about her honesty. Because honestly, who else in the world could chart an album like Medúlla ?

Tanya Tagaq is an old roommate of mine - was part of the reason that you clicked musically because you’re both strong and slightly nutty women ? Is it true that you would occasionally hit the treadmill in the swan dress ?

You’ll have to credit Tanya with the making of that story. Perhaps you are the strong and nutty one ?

Which, save for some remixes, reissues and the composition of the soundtrack for boyfriend Matthew Barney’s experimental film, The Music From Drawing Restraint 9, brings us to the feet of Volta, her latest album. In some ways it’s a step in from the left field, and hip-hop producer Timbaland lends a helping hand. In an interview with the website Pitchfork, she explained the creation of Volta : "But with this one, it was different because I knew more emotionally what I wanted. And because I’d done two or three projects in a row that were quite serious, maybe I just needed to get that out of my system or something. So all I wanted to do for this album was just to have fun and do something that was full-bodied and really up."

What should people expect from your show here in Montreal ?

To be surprised.

Brendan Murphy

publié dans hour.ca - 20.09.2007

 

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