Once in a while, we catch a glimpse of Björk in New York—maybe strolling along the street or just chatting with her teenaged son, Sindri. Even during these random moments, she radiates an otherworldly electricity, some special harmony with everything around her. You can feel it from a mile away. And if you happen to hear her voice as she’s passing by, you’ll never forget the sound. Of course, Björk is a genius—everybody knows that. Although she is best known as a musician, last year she stunned the world with her performance in the lead role for Lars von Trier’s musical tragedy, Dancer in the Dark. She also wrote and performed the haunting soundtrack. This September, Björk will release Vespertine, her most captivating album yet.
Juergen Teller has photographed Björk many times since they met in 1992, and his pictures have always revealed something mysterious and deep between them. We wanted very much to capture that same intimacy in conversation, so we asked Juergen to do both the portraits and the interview for Index. The result was an unobstructed look inside.
Juergen : When I took these pictures of you, I remember thinking we were both nervous. Did you feel the same ?
Björk : It had been a while since I’d done a photo shoot, and I didn’t want to repeat anything from the past. I’m terrified of that—I never want to recapture things, but to move on. So I guess I was a little insecure about that.
Juergen : I felt we might go to uncertain places—because we have so much trust in each other. And there was no self-censorship from you. Do you know what I mean ?
Björk : It sort of felt like we crossed a line in this shoot, in a good way. I always look at pictures from an emotional angle—I want to be sure that they’re in tune with where I’m at right now. At the moment I have this new album inside me, which is somehow more vulnerable than the others that came before it. It’s a lot more emotionally brave and fragile, and I want to make sure that the pictures are like that too. The reason I do photographs is to help people understand my music, so it’s very important that I am the same, emotionally, in the photographs as in the music.
Juergen : I can see that. In a way you become a representative of the songs.
Björk : Most people’s eyes are much better developed than their ears. If they see a certain emotion in the photograph, they’ll understand the music. So instead of having to listen to my album ten times, they’ll get it the first time.
Juergen : Did you know that over the years you always put your tongue out when we were doing pictures ? You always started to lick the walls, or toys, or something.
Björk : I don’t know why. [laughs] You probably know more about that than me.
Juergen : These new photos are vulnerable, but there also seems to be ... I don’t know whether it’s both of us or ... well, they’re quite sexual.
Björk : [laughs] Hmm, I’m getting shy ! When I work with you, I feel that there’s room for a certain passion in me that I usually have to hide. It’s graceful and beautiful, but often when I show that side of me, photographers make it into something aggressive, which I don’t think it is. I think it may scare some people, whereas you seem comfortable with it. You give me a freedom to express that passion.
Juergen : You once mentioned that, in your work, you always want the end result to give off a positive energy.
Björk : Yes. I’ll go to dark places, but I do feel responsible to bring people out on an up-note. I guess that’s one of the problems I had with Dancer in the Dark.
Juergen : I was wondering about that.
Björk : When I read the script, I hoped that my character would soar. But Lars didn’t see her that way. He didn’t feel guilty about making people walk out of the cinema feeling bad.
Juergen : Oh man, I was crying.
Björk : I believe that you can go to the roughest, most emotional place ever, but you can still come out healthy on the other end. I guess I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, in that I believe in happy endings.
Juergen : I can see that in you. So are you attracted to people who lift you up ?
Björk : I’m attracted to truthful people.
Juergen : Right. You’ve been spending some time with the artist Matthew Barney. Do you understand his work ?
Björk : Yeah. The first time I saw it, I thought Matthew’s work was the closest I’d ever come to seeing my dreams. It’s incredibly similar to the inside of myself, the things that I can’t put into words, maybe a side of me that’s hidden. And you can’t really talk about those things with people if they have a different interior from yours. You know ?
Juergen : That’s a really interesting answer.
Björk : To me, Matthew’s work feels very natural, organic, and healthy. I guess he proved to me that you can go to the most decadent, deepest places, far-far-far into the subconscious, without being destructive. That’s important for me, especially after the film.
Juergen : I know you like Noboyushi Araki’s pictures too. What attracts you ?
Björk : Every image is so alive. He takes photos of pretty dark stuff, and yet there’s outrageous vitality in them.
They’re not destructive. His work makes me think about enjoying life, screaming from a mountaintop because the world is wonderful.
Juergen : That’s another good answer. So how is your son ?
Björk : Oh, he’s great.
Juergen : Do you often make music together ?
Björk : No, the area where we meet seems to be humor. We’ve always worn costumes, enjoyed comedy videos, and read scripts—he’s really into analyzing scripts.
Juergen : What kind ?
Björk : Well, he went through a period where he learned by heart all the scripts for everything John Cleese did, like Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. And he’s definitely into science fiction. We must have watched Alien together five thousand times. Of course, I’ll be admiring Sigourney Weaver—kind of female power—and he’ll be admiring the aliens. [laughs]
Juergen : Right. Do you find it difficult to move around so much, having a kid ?
Björk : Well, Sindri started traveling with me when he was one year old. I guess I was very young and very stupid, and nobody told me that it was difficult, and so it wasn’t. Also, I come from a family where there were always lots of kids around, and everybody could do what they wanted. There wasn’t a separate, children’s world. As an adult, I felt I could still do my job, be pretty hard core ...
Juergen : ... and have your son with you.
Björk : Yeah. And when I was in the Sugarcubes, I wasn’t the only one with a kid. There were always a lot of Icelandic people traveling with us, sort of like a family. When I think about it now, I can’t believe it. I had one suitcase with winter clothes, one with summer clothes, and another full of toys. But it was quite magical to discover the world with a child.
Juergen : Yeah, I feel the same about my daughter, Lola. I want to always be around for her, sort of be her mate.
Björk : I always saw traveling with Sindri as a luxury. We kind of had a schedule—he’d wake up at about 7:00 a.m., and just gently shake me. And while the other people in the band were maybe partying quite hard, fair enough, and waking up in the tour bus around noon, he and I would be off to three amusement parks and four gardens, and we’d be drawing maps and making up games. For a while we toured with a bicycle that had a little kid’s seat attached. We’d just throw it in with all the equipment. Outside of the bus we’d ride around, and he’d wear his little helmet. We wouldn’t know where we were, so we’d just have to find our way together.
Juergen : Actually, that sounds quite exciting.
Björk : And then after the concerts, I would climb all sweaty into bed with him. So I always felt like I was the lucky one, to have a partner who would do it all with me. I guess we’re like sister and brother in a lot of ways.
Juergen : The last time we spoke, you were practicing karate. Are you still doing it ?
Björk : I’m doing kung fu at the moment.
Juergen : What’s the difference ?
Björk : For me the distinction between martial arts isn’t so much in the style as it is in the teacher. Maybe that’s because I always pick up on the emotional side of things. But I’d say kung fu is similar to dancing. It’s very flowing, with soft, filigreed, gorgeous movements. When sixty people are in the room, all doing it, kung fu feels almost like ballroom dancing. Whereas karate is very brutal and explosive—in a good way.
Juergen : You once mentioned to me that you and Thom Yorke decided that you both hated yoga and meditation. What was that all about ?
Björk : [laughs] Well, I’d always resisted meditation with a full-on defense mechanism, but I’d never understood why. I wouldn’t meditate—no way, ever—and Thom felt the same way. He got angry just talking about it. We ended up laughing about the whole thing, but we figured that singing is a form of meditation, where you kind of go to an imaginary place that you’ve built over many years. It’s like a state of trance. So to go to a meditation class where somebody tells you, “Do this, feel this,” like they’ve got an instruction manual on how to get to this place—it’s offensive. It’s like reading a sex guide before you are with the one you love, and then asking whether they wouldn’t mind moving their thigh, like, twenty centimeters to the left—and then measuring it with a stick.
Juergen : Right, right.
Björk : Everybody has a different method of getting to that place, because everybody needs it. Some people play golf, some people get drunk—one method isn’t better than another. But if I ever sat down and listened to a guru tell me how to meditate, I would feel like I was having an affair. I would feel disloyal to my own temple.
Juergen : You have a background in classical music, don’t you ?
Björk : I went to music school for ten years, but I rebelled against it. I felt the school was too controlling, and I didn’t understand what a ten-year-old Icelandic girl had to do with all these three- hundred-year-old German guys. Quite a few times the schoolmaster called me to his office, where we would have these three-hour debates where we’d both cry, because I didn’t agree with the direction the school was taking. I thought we should think more about this century, and more about composers that were closer to us. I ended up playing stuff by twentieth-century Finnish composers, for instance.
Juergen : You once said that you missed out on people like Neil Young and Bob Dylan when you were growing up.
Björk : Yeah, there were only two or three record shops in town when I was young, and what got to Iceland and what didn’t was quite accidental. So we often completely misunderstand what was going on in Europe and the States. Neil Young is one musician, and Bob Dylan another, that I just don’t know about. I keep waiting for that moment when I’ll drink a few bottles of wine with an expert, and he’ll know the lyrics, and he’ll explain what they’re about.
Juergen : I think he’s excellent, Neil Young. So when you left school, did you sort of turn your back on all that classical stuff ?
Björk : Actually, back in the early days, I toured together with an [experimental] string octet—eight kids who’d gone to that same school in Iceland. Since I could have gone the classical path too, it was very interesting to come together that way. We toured for one-and-a-half years, and we’d get drunk in all the cities and have long, healthy debates about music. And luckily enough, we had nine different points of view.
Juergen : That sounds great.
Björk : But afterwards, I basically ignored that side of me until 1996, when I made Homogenic. I decided I had to confront it. I also worked through a lot of craftsmanship issues by doing the soundtrack to Dancer in the Dark—all that orchestral stuff. I caught up with myself, but it took three albums.
Juergen : You know, when we were doing these new pictures, things were going along on one level. And then Dick Page, the makeup artist, put on the soundtrack to Vertigo, and all of a sudden it was very clear that something new came along through the music. You were very much in tune with it, and it helped you.
Björk : I’m very flattered you noticed. To be honest, most of the time, even when I’m talking, I feel a bit like a fish out of water. I feel a lot more natural with music—I just forget about my head, and I unite with the sound.
Juergen : I feel that with certain music too, but it was so extreme to see it with you. Suddenly there was this incredible harmony between you, the music, the place, the other people who were there, and myself. It became extremely powerful to watch and to be a part of it. Do you know what I mean ?
Björk : I guess I am quite romantic. You are too, for sure.
Juergen : Definitely.
Björk : I’m quite romantic about teamwork. During the shoot, there was a moment where the whole room gelled, when the mutual trust was created, everybody dropped their egos, and everything just worked. It was like a lubricated machine. It seems there’s always a point like that. You put several people in a room, and it’s like everybody’s working barefoot in lava. Then there’s that moment where something sort of flicks, and suddenly everybody is flying.
Juergen : It’s amazing when that happens.
Björk : One of my favorite things is to be with people who’ve worked together for many years. They give off this feeling that is not about the ego. I saw that when I was visiting Pina Bausch. Her company has been together for twenty-seven years or something, through thick and thin.
Juergen : That is pretty incredible. So I was wondering, would you say that you are an exhibitionist ?
Björk : In my most natural state, I’ll be introverted for say, six days in a row, and then on the seventh day I’ll become very extroverted, completely inside-out. Then I’ll have to go back inside myself. Sometimes the change can be quite forceful—it’s something I can’t really control. It’s a bit like the ocean and the tides.
Juergen : Yeah, I know what you mean. Do you ever try to fight it ?
Björk : It’s quite interesting. If you always go by how you feel, life can end up quite a lonely affair. But if you go against that sometimes—say you’re in the middle of an introverted stage and a friend comes for a visit, and you make an effort to get out of yourself, to communicate—I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a sacrifice of your own emotional state for someone else.
Juergen : Right.
Björk : That was one of the most painful things about doing the film. The cast and crew only saw me when I was being extroverted. We’d film, and then we’d have lunch, where I felt compelled to be outgoing, and then we’d go back to filming, and then I would go to bed, and then I’d wake up the next morning, and I’d have to be extroverted again !
Juergen : For months and months ...
Björk : I experienced that time as very violent, because I’m not like that. I’m far more secretive. There are sides of myself that I don’t show to anyone—I’m actually quite a loner. So when I had to be extroverted every day for the film, the pressure built up like a volcano. I think certain people are born to be actors, and they’re naturally extroverted when they wake up every day.
Juergen : That doesn’t apply to you at all.
Björk : But I am quite attracted to people who are like that, because I’m not.
Juergen : Since the film, you seem to be much more grown-up, deeper, more aware of what’s around you.
Björk : For sure. I’ll be learning from it for years. But I think I was going in this direction anyway. A lot of the songs I recorded in London were written when I was still a child or a teenager. So that was my mentality when I lived there in the early ‘90s—very youthful. Then when I moved to Spain to do Homogenic, I sort of made a new beginning. I gave myself the chance to catch up with myself, and to kind of be the age I am.
Juergen : And Dancer in the Dark came right after that.
Björk : Yeah. And I do think the film forced me to take a stand on a lot of things, especially when I didn’t agree with Lars. I had to think about all of these big questions in life that I usually feel embarrassed to talk about because they just sound too pretentious. In that sense, I guess the film was healthy for me.
Juergen : What sort of things did you disagree about ?
Björk : Lars doesn’t consider it his responsibility to make sure people are psychologically stable after he’s worked with them in such an intense way. As far as he’s concerned, they can be ruined emotionally, but that’s just not his responsibility.
Juergen : Right. Hmm.
Björk : Also, I wasn’t comfortable with the way he worked with his group. My father was a union leader, and very working class, so I definitely didn’t agree with the kind of hierarchy that I witnessed in Denmark. Lars has a team of people he’s worked with since he was a teenager, and so do I. Of course, I left my team behind to do the film, so when I came back, it was as if I had a big mirror to see how I was communicating.
Juergen : I know you are really devoted to your friends, and I bet you fall in love quite deeply.
Björk : Yeah, for sure. My friends actually laugh at me — I’m the most loyal person ever. I’m definitely extreme.