On my way to meet Björk in Lower Manhattan, my cab is held up by around 1,000 protesters who are snaking their way along Lafayette Street. A woman with a loudhailer leads a chant of “Free Tibet now !” and the marchers carry the province’s yellow, red and blue flags. It’s a serendipitous reminder, were it needed, that I should ask Björk about the gig she played in Shanghai, China on 2 March. A widely reported furore ensued when the chanteuse mentioned Tibet during her anti-imperialist set-closer Declare Independence, a vibrant protest song whose lyrics include the lines “Don’t let them do that to you !” and “Raise your flag !”
“I think it was more about China’s sensitivity than my rebelliousness”, says Björk matter- of-factly. “When I was in Denmark I mentioned Greenland and The Faroe Islands and there wasn’t one complaint. In Shanghai I was just documenting an emotion that most people can relate to. I feel sorry for China, actually. The Olympics are coming and how will they deal with the protests there ?”
Were reports of what happened at her Shanghai gig accurate ? “Some newspapers said I screamed ‘Tibet ! Tibet !’” says Iceland’s greatest export, “but if you watch it on YouTube you’ll see I just said it in a normal voice. There was no reaction in the room whatsoever ; it was only later that people started to complain. I think it was the Chinese government going on to teen websites. They were trying to speak the kids’ lingo and writing, ‘She’s not cool’, or whatever – I mean how sad is that ?”
Björk is sitting before me munching chocolate. She’s wearing a second-hand purple silk dress accessorised with pillar-box red shoes and a pendant that’s been fashioned from a recycled bullet. She’s on a month’s break from the Volta tour that reaches the UK mid- April, and she’s journeyed to meet me from her home on the other side of the Hudson. The house once belonged to Noël Coward, and Björk shares it with multimedia artist Matthew Barney, her 21-yearold son Sindri, and she and Barney’s daughter Isadora, 5.
“It’s an amazing time for me right now,” the singer gushes. “I can feel my subconscious working at 5,000 miles-an-hour to take in all this new stuff.” Björk radiates energy and looks impossibly youthful for 42, the child-like enthusiasm that has long animated her still intact. Her raven-black hair sets off a flawless complexion. Frequent jetting through time zones starts to crumple most of us, but not, it seems, Björk Gudmundsdóttir.
It’s not like she doesn’t travel much, either. As a new video for Wanderlust, from Björk’s current album Volta, underlines, she has long had a touch of the Michael Palin about her. Ayear in the making, set in the Himalayas, Wanderlust’s video is a magical, typically innovative animation that sees Björk journeying downstream on the backs of huge brightly coloured yaks singing, “I am leaving this harbour / Giving urban a farewell.” Surreal it may be, but it is also a skewed allusion to a lifestyle that she and Matthew Barney have periodically enjoyed since acquiring their 90ft motorboat. “Yeah, travel –I could write a book on it,” she says with a grin. “If Vespertine and Medullawere albums that romanticised domesticity, Volta is more of a travel-worship thing. It’s been about one-and-a-half years since we got the boat, and we’ve already been to Malta, Tunisia and Gibraltar. We sailed down to Mexico and Guatemala, too.”
Björk says Isadora travels with them, and that “some juggling goes on with the babysitting. She does have a dad, after all,” she adds with a laugh, but her usual guardedness is kicking in, and it’s clear that I’m not about to get a detailed snapshot of her home life. What about the legal side of sailing here, there and everywhere, then ? Is there a lot of red tape to negotiate ? “You have to let the shipping traffic people know,” she says, “but it’s easier than you think. The hardest thing is the marinas, but you don’t want to drop anchor there anyway – it’s all yachts and bright white clothes.
“It’s nice to stop in little fishing villages in the middle of nowhere,” Björk continues. “Or sometimes we just anchor offshore. We didn’t know until we got there, but Malta has all these incredible carpenters. It’s been on the trade route for thousands of years, and people would come there to get their ships mended. I got them to change this little bunkroom where we had our washing machine into a recording studio, and they adapted it all with this beautiful wood. Quite a lot of Volta was recorded at sea.”
If you count Björk, the surprisingly decent but long-deleted Seventies pop album she recorded at the age of 11, La Gudmundsdóttir has been making records for over 30 years now. Her adult solo career, beginning with1993’s Debut, documents a musical life less ordinary, Björk tackling innovative electronica, Inuit choral music, big band jazz, film soundtracks and much more besides. Her videos have also been small wars against cliché. 2001’s Pagan Poetry even saw Björk sew pearls into her own skin. People expect the unexpected from her then – but that must create pressure ?
“It’s difficult not to repeat yourself,” she says, “but for me it’s about meeting new people who have very creative minds and seeing what we can get from the collaboration in terms of stimulation. It’s not about me looking great in a performance video, changing my clothes 20 times in the space of three minutes.”
But this innovation business is expensive, isn’t it ? There must be times when her label, One Little Indian, baulks at her production budgets ?
“I can honestly say I’ve never had that from [One Little Indian MD] Derek Birkett. In fact he’s more likely to ring me up and say, ‘Okay, send me your dream list of dream directors.’”
But artists everywhere are selling fewer records than ever, and Björk’s spectacular live shows can’t be cheap to stage. Won’t there come a time when she has to forgo her left-field approach for a more commercial modus operandi ? Volta was billed as a bankable hip-hop record, but it’s still pretty out there…
“Well I didn’t describe it as hip-hop,” Björk says with a laugh. “That was just people online getting carried away online when they read that I was going to be working with Timbaland. I’ve been signed to an independent label since I was 14, and I’ve never worried much about being commercial. It wouldn’t scare me to have no money. And it wouldn’t scare me to record a song and just put out 100 copies that only your friends and family buy.
“Now, while we have the money, me and Derek think, ‘Okay, let’s spend it on a 70-piece orchestra !’ And that’s because we know that we might not be able to afford one in 10 years’ time. I’ve done choirs. I’ve done the flashy stuff. But when I’m old and groggy and maybe I have to do an album with two banjo players in a bedroom I’ll be just as happy.”
If Björk has a religion, she says, it is nature. Given that she hails from Iceland – Western Europe’s last near-pristine wilderness, and a place where Christianity and other faiths still meet resistance from Paganism – this figures. She has often said that she likes to compose her melodies al fresco, and one can imagine how a terrain boasting volcanoes, glacial rivers, belching geysers and lunar-like lava fields would inspire her. Not for nothing did Jöga, from 1997’s Homogenic, attempt to realise Iceland’s physical geography in sound, its “volcanic” beats a response to Björk’s homeland being situated above the intersection of two tectonic plates.
“When I’m in nature everything falls into place,” she says. “I’m just one tiny piece of a big jigsaw puzzle, and I like that. For me religion isn’t intellectual ; it’s more related to physics. It’s about things exploding and planets moving in synchronisation and where we are in all of that. When you consider that stuff, some book in the Bible seems ridiculous to me.
“Religion isn’t about speaking and it’s not about people,” she goes on, “it’s a cosmic thing about your place in nature and space. When people spend too long in cities they get neurotic and paranoid, but if you put them in the mountains for two weeks all those small worries drop down like dead flies.”
So paganism and an affinity with the land work best for us humans, and NYC might be problematic for her in the long term ? “Well I think we forget that we are animals, and I’ve been reading quite a lot about Christianity and how it tried to make us forget that we’re part of nature. There’s quite a lot about that in the lyrics on Volta. I wanted to celebrate nature and our bodies ; that’s why a lot of the rhythms on there are quite tribal.”
When not in New York, on tour, or at sea, Björk says she still spends “about half” of her time in Iceland. Being the country’s inadvertent cultural figurehead has its downside, however. “When I go home it’s only so long before I start getting calls from the newspapers asking, ‘What’s your favourite recipe ?” she says, smiling.
She can, however, go about her life there without paparazzi at her heels, and as her January 2008 attack on a snapper at Auckland airport underlined (the incident echoed her biffing of a journo who got too close to her son in Bangkok back in 1996), Björk detests being papped more than most.
The notion of Iceland as sanctuary as well as home makes sense, then, and it also part informed Björk’s one-off reunion gig with her former band The Sugarcubes in Reykjavík in November 2006. Foreign journalists were not encouraged, and subsequent, potentially lucrative shows outside of the country were not considered. It was an Icelandic thing to be shared with other Icelanders.
As our interview continues Björk and I talk more about her homeland. Economically and environmentally speaking, Iceland is undergoing a series of seismic shifts right now. Naturally, this animates the singer as we discuss a place that’s currently torn between rapid industrialisation and the preservation of its natural wonders.
In 2006, much of the attendant debate centred upon an event that many environmentalists called “the drowning”. In essence, this involved flooding some wilderness territory in East Iceland to create a dam for an aluminium smelter financed by the country’s national power company and the US aluminium giant, Alcoa. Pros included jobs, while cons included the displacement of reindeer herds and the desiccation of a stunning aquatic canyon.
“Yeah, Iceland is definitely at a crossroads”, says Björk, who opposed the building of the dam and headlined a protest concert. “Financially it’s a greedy time – a bit like what happened in Britain in the 1980s. The entrepreneurs and politicians want the industrial revolution we missed out on because we were a colony for 600 years, but I think it’s too late.
“My generation and other people younger than me are hoping we can go straight to the green revolution instead, but the 70-year-olds who run the country think its utopian euphoria, hippy stuff. The sad thing is that they’ve already built a dam that’s as controversial as the [Three Gorges] dam in China, and they have plans for four or five more. It’s crazy.”
Is the demographic of the country changing in the light of the economic changes ? “It is, I think. For the first time we’re getting a lot of illegal immigrant workers. I don’t have a problem with it, and I think they should let more people in. The problem is how they are treated when they get there. At the moment you’ve got 10 people living in one room. My father is a union leader, and he’s fighting to get Icelandic companies to pay immigrant workers from Poland the same as they pay Icelandic people.”
Before we part company, I present Björk with a theory. Part of the reason people seem so surprised when she mentions Tibet, or when she strikes out at a paparazzo, I suggest, is that there is a huge gulf between her feisty prankster-punk roots and the dippy-but-harmless troll caricature that Spitting Image fashioned in latex.
“You could be right. I haven’t changed one bit. I just do what I do and I’m not too bothered what people think of me.”
Hasn’t Björk’s mind-set changed at all since she entered her forties ? “The things that I used to panic about, I don’t panic about any more, and that’s a good feeling. Life is still the same struggle, but I have a sense of joy and peace. For me, that wisdom thing will probably take about another 50 years to kick in, though. I’m still quite good at getting into trouble !”
‘Volta’ is out on One Little Indian. Björk plays the Manchester Apollo tonight, and tours the UK until 4 May. Her only UK festival appearance this year is at Wild in the Country, on 5 July. See www.renaissance.com.