The Siren From The Volcano-Island

Agenda, 1er septembre 1993

Once more she has aroused the enthusiasm of both reviewers and audience. We know her as the naïve and innocent girl who conquered the charts with The Sugarcubes. Since then, she’s left her friends in Iceland to discover her own music. The result is a strong, personal album, and during the festival-week Björk is performing her only concert on the continent.

A hot and hectic afternoon in the northern part of London. I’m at the Cafe LaVille together with Björk Guðmundsdóttir , age 27, and Iceland’s most well-known export article, and I’m trying to ignore the almost comically placed bowl of sugarcubes at our table. After three albums of playfull sub-pop in the Icelandic group “Sugarcubes”, Björk has gone solo and settled in London. A choice made out of necessity, because Reykjavík was no longer big enough for her ambitions. Last month the result hit the street ; the album “Debut”, which made an unanimous international press stumble over superlatives.

Below the cafe, Björk’s favourite, runs a canal which further downstream runs into “Little Venice”—or “Little Amsterdam” as Björk likes to call it, owing to the small system of canals and the many colourful houseboats anchored to the bank. In Iceland Björk lived in a house by the sea, and in London she has settled here in Little Venice. In fact, she’s so fascinated by water, that she has written an ode to the blue element called “Anchor Song”.

“I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated by water. It’s easy to see it as a kind of symbolism, but I think it’s more complex. My house in Iceland lies close by the sea, and in bad weather the waves sprays onto the windows. If I was in bad mood, I would stand by the window and look out on the water ; that would make me feel good. It was a sort of therapy.”

Björk is constantly restless. She rocks to and fro on the chair like a naughty schoolgirl at the principal’s office. She rubs her hands and alternately fingers her loose black hair or the sugarcubes on the table. The T-shirt reveals a tattoo of a Viking compass on her left arm.

It seems as if Björk has a hard time letting go of Iceland. When she left the saga-island, she refrained from selling her house ; on “Debut” she has written part of the thanks in Icelandic ; and every time the small island in the Atlantic is mentioned, it’s like listening to a lovesick schoolgirl.

“When I recorded “Debut”, I got a lot of encouragement from my friends and family in Iceland. The family are often the best critics, because they can say what is wrong with your work, without hurting your feelings. And it would seem foolish to thank these people in English. It would be false. You don’t speak English with your friends in Denmark either.” Björk moves around on the chair, putting her foot on the seat in the hope of finding a comfortable position. But before she opens her mouth again, the foot is back on the floor.

“I’m very proud of being an Icelander. Because of the country itself—the mountains, the waterfalls and the colours. As I said, I’ve still got my house up there, and as soon as my career is over, I’ll return. My friends live there now, they take care of it for me. Iceland has many extremes. As an example, the people of Iceland are very reserved, because the island is so remote. In Denmark you can take a ferry to Sweden, you can drive a car to Germany. In Iceland that’s impossible. When I was a teenager an airline ticket (to and from Iceland) cost a fortune. That’s why there’s never been especially many tourists on Iceland. This has created a certain kind of reticence, which is of course more pronounced in the older generations, because the situation has changed in the recent years.”

Björk doesn’t feel that the isolation has been negative for the Icelanders. On the contrary. It has created a feeling of gratitude and self-respect, because the Icelanders have been self-sufficient in every way.

“The English are terribly spoiled. They have the opportunity to attend any kind of club to hear all kinds of music—salsa, jazz, techno. They have all opportunities, and it’s even cheap. But if the English don’t like the wallpaper in the club, they go home and call it a terrible experience. It’s like that here. In Iceland on the contrary, you’ll get nothing served on a plate. If you want to enjoy yourself, you have to do something about it yourself. If you want french food, you’ll have to order a cookery book at the bookstore and make it yourself. You can’t just go to a French restaurant, ‘cause there isn’t any.”

“You just hit a soft spot”, Björk exclaims in broken English, as I enquire about her Scandinavian identity. Her peculiar accent sends tiny pearls of spit through the air ; a mixture of weird grammar, cockney-english and tongue-rolling Icelandic. The r’s trouble her especially.

“Iceland was a Danish colony until 1944. And you didn’t treat us well. Denmark held Iceland back in the middle ages until the Second World War. The only reason that we got to be free, was that we used the fact that Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. Danish is still being taught in Icelandic schools, but the children don’t wanna learn it. In fact, Icelanders say about an evil person, that he’s “Danish”, ‘cause the Danish treated us like shit. So I’m not so sure that we are going to talk about the relations between Iceland and Denmark.”

I give her an embarrassed smile, but she’s not showing any sign of softening. This is not the naïve, cuddly, girlish Björk we know from pictures, videos and records.

“In fact, I really don’t think my music, or me, is especially Scandinavian, ‘cause what is Scandinavian ? I don’t believe that there is a special Scandinavian style—or sound. Even if a people has the same weather, same inflation rate and the same politicians, they will never make the same music, ‘cause they’re different individuals. And yet I feel that my music is very Icelandic—exactly because I’m from Iceland.”

Björk stops for a moment. Her eyes wander around while she’s looking for an example.

“In Iceland people think my music is weird. They say it sounds foreign to them. And here in England my friends say : “Your music is strange. It must be because you’re from Iceland”. So... I’m in a place right in between and I can’t really see myself grouped with musicians from Iceland or any other Scandinavian countries.”

“The Scandinavian artists I can relate to the most are writers—not musicians. People like Tove Jansson who wrote “Mumitroldene (the Mumi-trolls)”, and Astrid Lindgren. When I was younger I read them myself, now I read them to my six year old son Sindri. I almost think that the books about the “mumitrolls” are better for adults than children, because the philosophy in the stories is quite remarkable. It’s the same thing with Astrid Lindgren. I’m not so sure that she’s so “nice” as people thinks. When she was younger she was a rebel, and all her books are about rebels. People who can’t function in the society, who rather want to live in an anarchistic society, where no one controls them. As an example, take “Brodrene Lovehjerte”, in which the two brothers revolt against the dictatorship in the country. I’m not sure how Swedish that is...”

Björk sends a smile across the table.

“When I say that I don’t feel especially Scandinavian, it’s not because I dislike being compared to people from Iceland or the rest of Scandinavia. It’s nothing like that. It’s my fight for individuality. People are quick to put other nations in cages ; like the English drinks lots of tea, the French eat flutes and the Danes eat open sandwiches. I don’t wanna be put into such a cage. It’s all clichés, that people create because of their own insecurity. And even if the clichés are very pleasant, they prevent people from being individuals.”

“I get turned on by being independent—to be different than others. And that’s a situation I find myself in very often. Why ?—that’s up to a psychiatrist to answer. As I said, in Iceland I’m treated as an outsider. Here in London I’m also an outsider, ‘cause I’m from Iceland. That gives me a reason to fight for my opinions. I’ve always preferred individualism to patriotism.”

She speaks a lot. And when she gets eager, she talks so fast that an Icelandic word suddenly drops into the sentence. At other times Björk suddenly stops, blinks her eyes, then continues with a thrust. It’s hard to tell if she has finished the sentence, or she’s just trying to find the words in English.

“In the same way, all of my friends in London are people, who, like me, question the system and people’s morals. One of my friends over here has three children, all of which were born at home in the bedroom, and they’ve never been registered. He believes that the system forces him to do things he don’t like. And he thinks that his children should have their freedom. Maybe I don’t agree with him, but I’m telling this to show that my friends maybe aren’t that English after all. You know, a lot of people tend to imagine that the English are very true to the system.”

Suddenly Björk gets very quiet for a moment. She looks fleetingly out over the water, and draws my attention to a guy, who’s paddling down the canal. Then she turn her head and chuckles to me.

Björk grew up as a daughter of, as she calls them, hippie-parents. There were no rules in her home, because—as she says—children know their own needs better. When she was 10, she had outgrown her father’s Jimi Hendrix records, and around 12 years of age she discovered the Sex Pistols. She discussed the musical skills of the Sex Pistols heavily with her dad, but “who the hell cared if they could play or not ?”. The Sex Pistols became Björk’s entrance to punk music, and when she was fourteen she became member of the all-girl punk group “Spit and Snot”.

“We had a wonderful time as teenagers. We were very positive punks. Not the kind who are bitter about everything around us. We wanted to do everything ourselves. We started our group, and arranged poetryevenings, to which we invited foreign poets to Iceland. And although we could only offer a return-ticket to Iceland, most of them surprisingly accepted our invitation.”

Through the poetry-evenings and a loan from the bank, Björk and her friends succeeded in getting enough money to take a trip to Europe. At the time Björk was 16, and the group was now called “Kukl”.

“We went to England, where we bought an old car, and drove through Europe. We were in Copenhagen several times. Among other places we played at the Roskilde festival once, I don’t remember when. But this trip through Europe was somewhat of an adventure. We were very poor, and drove from cafe to cafe, eating sugar cubes to get energy. We stole gasoline from other cars, but only a small amount from each, and just enough to get to the next place. It was like a religious sect on a mission. There never were more than 50 people at our concerts, but that wasn’t important. Fame wasn’t the most important thing to us. We wanted to get out there and meet people. When you’re young, it’s important to meet some people who think like yourself, or else you’ll think you’re insane. And that was the real purpose of our trip, ‘cause we were very isolated in Iceland.”

Loaded with energy the group returned to Iceland, where they started a record store, which later became a record company. The only one in Iceland. Later, it went bankrupt, but Björk and her friends continued working on the book publishing firm “Bad Taste”. “Kukl” was discontinued, and the friends assembled in the group “Sugarcubes”.

“In this period we learned that we could do everything ourselves. If somebody in the group wanted to publish a book, we would all help ; One would fair-copy the manuscript, another would make posters and so on. A month later someone wanted to make a short-movie, and we would use our energy on that project. We were helping each other out so that our dreams would come though. This was the real foundation for “Sugarcubes”, and when the group later got recognition from abroad, we thought that this was how it worked over there too, just in a larger way.”

“In fact I’m still working, using that philosophy, at One Little Indian (Björk’s record company). All of the associates have become my friends—one is making the record cover, another produces, a third is the driver. None of these jobs are unimportant—they are all very, very important. In fact, teamwork is the reason that “Debut” has become as successful as it is. It’s not because I’m that damn clever...”

Björk takes a short break, which gives me the opportunity to ask if that concept doesn’t collide with her need to be independent.

“Yeah, but... The reason that the music ended up exactly like I wanted it to, is that this large group of people have allowed me to do it without restrictions. I know people who are writing great pop-songs, but are unfortunate in getting a manager who spoils it all, because the music doesn’t sell as it’s supposed to. They get a stylist from the record-company, who tells them “you gotta be like this in the pictures”. The manager decides who’re gonna play on the record and so on. All these things...”

Björk smacks her hands on the table. Rocks the chair forward, the legs hitting the floor with a crash, making the customers in the cafe turn.

“You can make a hell of an interview, that gets totally crushed, because your magazine isn’t interested and therefore cuts it down. Little things, like the typeface for instance, are terribly important. I believe typefaces have symbolic meaning. If your interview gets written in gothic letters, people would read it in a completely different way. In that way, a magazine can ruin an interview. Not because they want to, but because they doesn’t communicate properly. Often it’s because they’re doing ten different things at a time. “Debut” was made by people who was concentrating about doing this one thing, and if I hadn’t gotten permission to do it exactly like I wanted it, the record might not have become that good.”

“When I worked with The Sugarcubes, it was never my music—my ideas. It was a conglomeration of a whole bunch of people’s ideas, the people who were The Sugarcubes. When I decided to make “Debut”, I told myself : “Ok. I’ve tried to satisfy all of these people and it has been tremendous fun. But it was always other people’s dreams we made alive, now, I want to realise my own little vision. Earlier, it was like babysitting another’s child. “Debut” is my own child. I’ve had the songs in my head since I was small, they’re a sort of diary. All people have their own way of dealing with everyday problems. Some go for walks, others get drunk and some get laid. I write songs. That’s why the lyrics are very personal, and for that reason I didn’t care at all about what the public thought about the music, while I made the record. I made the music I would want to hear, if I were going to put on a record. In this way it’s the most introvert thing I’ve ever done, and curiously enough it ended up being the most extrovert.”

“That’s why it surprised me a lot, that the record was so successful. My own little theory is that it’s a combination of selfishness and unselfishness. I compare it to a motherhood, because a mother’s love is the most unselfish kind of love there is. I think that any mother would sacrifice her own life for her child. That’s very unselfish. But at the same time, putting a child into the world is the most selfish thing to do ; because what you’re doing, is securing that there’ll be some part of you left, when you eventually die. You know that your child will live longer than you, and carry your genes along. It’s the same way with a record. The more selfish you are, the more unselfish you are in reality ; ‘cause you’re giving the listener a part of yourself. The moment you’re trying to satisfy others than yourself, you’re not satisfying anyone. That’s my little theory. That’s what I’ve learnt from making this record.”

Björk looks at me for a long time. Then she looks at her watch. My audience is about to end. After the release of “Debut” she’s been in great demand. For months she’s had up to twelve interviews a day, an lately she’s been rehearsing the concerts for the autumn. Tomorrow, Björk and her band of eight people are going to play support for U2 at Wembley, and after that she’s going on a small tour of England. On September 9, Björk and her band are playing in Arhus, the only concert on the continent.

“I’ve never been to Arhus”, Björk says as she gets up from the chair and prepares to leave the Cafe Laville. “On the other hand, I’ve been to Copenhagen many times, and I think it’s a lovely city. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think about the places where I’m playing. My head is filled with yesterday’s concert, and all the things I can do better. The band, the music, the sound. But I’ve got a lot of respect for Denmark...”

The Forum, London, on the previous evening : “I live by the ocean, and during the night, I dive into it, down to the bottom, underneath all currents, and drop my anchor...”. The words pours out over the audience, who’s silently watching the small singing figure who’s wandering around three large modelships on the stage. The figure’s name is Björk, and this is her first concert since her days with The Sugarcubes...

Björk is standing still, her eyes turned towards the stagefloor. Only the crispy, jazzy notes of the keyboard player escapes the loudspeakers. Without any introduction Björk starts singing in—for the audience—an incomprehensible language. The song is called “Stígðu Mig” and it’s one of the two songs in Icelandic she’s singing tonight.

One single spotlight shines on Björk. As she stands there, in her all-too-big white dress, she reminds you of a fairy. The hair is made up in tight curls. It’s hard to imagine that this fairy, who has conquered the hearts of the audience, has walked around on a small island most of her life.

A man plays a saxophone, straining the loudspeakers to the utmost. Björk stands with her eyes closed, shaking her hands, making a cross-like shadow on the wall. The lights shines yellow-green-red, reminiscent of sixties psychedelia.

The spotlights move fast over the musicians, who are placed in the background between the model ships, ending at full strength on Björk, bathing her in bright white light.

“I’m sorry”, Björk regrets, “but unfortunately I don’t have any more songs. Maybe I should have made a double-album. I’ll do that next time”. The audience applauds while the little girl in the all-too-large dress disappears behind the scenes, and the lights go on.

par Peter Engels Ryming Translation by Stig B. Nielsen publié dans Agenda