Björk—Ice Queen or Imp ?

Arena, mars 1995

She may be small, but Bjork is absolutely unmistakable, even with her back to you and her thick black mane hidden under maroon Kangol ski-cap. Straight off the plane from Iceland, she wears a baggy terry-towel tracksuit, of a hue that can only be described as Industrial Tangerine, festooned with appliquid brown branches. Bobbing around the photographic studio hired for the ARENA cover shoot, she looks like a character that just escaped from a Sega Megadrive. Suddenly, we’re down to business. No formalities, no ritual reminder of hierarchy, none of the PR courtship routines that normally precede celebrity interviews. The conversation begins while her make-up is applied, and ends over lunch the next day.

First question, where did you get the tracksuit ?

A drag queen friend of mine gave it to me for Christmas. It’s perfect for travelling, so comfortable. He found it in New York, It’s a camouflage suit for hunters, that’s why it has branches on it.

Yeah ? What about the colour ? What can it possibly blend with ?

Apparently it has to be orange, because when they go hunting for ducks and things they keep shooting each other.

Accidentally ?

Who knows ?

You’ve just come back from Iceland, I suppose it must have a kind of unspoilt beauty since there are so few people living there.

Yeah, it’s very fierce, Over dramatic, like fierce beauty, that sort of thing. It’s very barren, no trees at all, a lot of molten lava and hot springs. it’s a country still in the making, I saw all my friends and we ran around in the blizzards, drank a lot of vodka, and had a great party and a lot of dancing. Jungle is really big in Iceland at the moment. Iceland can relate to it. They don’t like fashion that much, but they like things like Rage Against The Machine. They really pick up on that, Beastie Boys ! Jungle ! Anything that’s got that same energy

Hard and fierce.

..but happy ! They don’t like that sort of sophisticated bollocks, you know ?

So how does your music go down there ? Surely one of its greatest strengths is its subtlety.

I think it’s different for me. Iceland is so small that everybody knows each other. Everybody knows me. They buy the record more because someone went to school with someone who knows me. I don’t think they buy it purely for the music, all people who do well abroad, they consider almost national heroes, like, I was voted Woman Of The Year in a magazine. Not because of me, but because of recognition abroad. It’s that inferiority complex, because it’s such a small country.

When did you move to England, and why ?

About two years ago, when the Sugarcubes were just breaking up. I decided I was going to do my own project, and doing that, every little fucking detail has to be perfect. Because I manage myself and everything had to be done under my name, it just became ridiculous doing it from Iceland. I was just constantly on the phone or the fax machine. And also, coming over here, it gives you so much space. I’m not for professionalism, but to have professional people to take care of things, it just takes a lot of the burden off your shoulders. People who know exactly what to do. Very, very good printers, bass players, engineers, you can find them all here.

I heard you’re going out with Stephane [Sednaoui, celebrity photographer].

I was.

Oh. What happened ?

It’s a secret.

Was it just a logistical problem, with him living in America ?

No, I can deal with things like that quite easily, Both of us can. Travelling, all that, being close to someone in another country, No, it just wasn’t right, that’s all.

Is it possible to work with for someone after you’ve had a sexual relationship with them ?

On a day-to-day basis ? I think not. I’ve worked with two of my boyfriends for a long time afterwards. Thor, from the Sugarcubes, for example. If a person is precious to you, there’s no way you’ll sacrifice that relationship. I split up with Thor when I was 21, after going out with him for five years, and we’re still working together, on our label and publishing company,

Have you ever had that problem where you just can’t make someone see the obvious because of their sex ? Where you think, “I know he can’t understand this, and I can’t explain it clearly because he’s male and I’m not.” Have you had that with men ?

I don’t think so, because I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, I started in bands when I was 11, and I couldn’t stand boys, because they were just stupid, At that age, they’re not as emotionally developed. So I just thought, well, boys are not good for anything except to get them to play drums, or do bass lines, or have sex with occasionally, but otherwise they’re not very interesting creatures, But what’s most important for me is working relationships, I’ve always had at least one intimate working relationship. And when you have one it’s so precious, almost more than a friendship. And the sex thing doesn’t matter, you end up finding boys making the most feminine drumbeats there are, and being very emotional and delicate when they create, although they’re bastards in real life. And when that happens, it’s really warm, the most satisfying thing in the world, and it’s beyond sexuality or gender. So I think I trained myself to ignore it since I was 11, because the most important thing for me was to make the best song in the world.

Even then ?

Yeah, and I’ll probably still be writing it when I’m 70. Still trying, And just to make that situation possible, you don’t notice things that don’t matter. Like sexism.

You say you wanted to write the best song in the world since you were 11 ? Were you some kind of wunderkind, or what ?

I don’t think I was conscious of it, but I definitely had the drive towards that, and all my decisions were aimed at that. I’ve got a feeling that I’ve got at least 50 years to go, until that song comes. I feel that all the attention I’m getting now is just superficial, that it’s like a little party game or something, and I’ll end up writing it on my kitchen table when I’m a great-granny.

How old are you now ?


Do you still believe that pop music can change people’s lives, or even affect the way they think ?

Definitely, you’ll probably start puking any second, because I feel very very very strongly about that. I think it’s the most effective thing in the world. More than politics and religion. In what way ? Pop is the modern folk music.
And just a tune that’s about some situation now and sympathises with people’s emotions, can be really important, more than even your best friend can. (pause) I’m trying not to think about the avalanche that happened in Iceland yesterday, A lot of people were killed. In the last 24 hours I cried about ten times. It does my head in.

You still cry over things you see in the news ?

Yeah, it’s definitely the most emotional programme there is, isn’t it, the news ?

Well, yes, but I think people see it more as a branch of the entertainment industry these days.

Well, even in Iceland, when the avalanche happened, all the media people there hired a ship and headed for the danger zone to get some live coverage. So, it’s just outrageous. I mean, can you imagine, live coverage ? One woman was asleep with her three children when the snow smashed through their house. She went back in the house and found her two-year-old son, took him to the hospital, where he died, and still went back to help the other parents look for their children. Do you want live coverage of that ? That’s exactly what I’m saying. Well, you don’t need a lot of common sense to see through that.

You have this image of being a small, vulnerable, pixie-like person. You have played up that image, haven’t you ?

Yeah, but I don’t know how many times I’ve had this conversation with people where, they’ve met me four or five times, got to know me a bit, they say, you know, I thought you were this sort of pixie-type person, but you’re actually one of the toughest people I’ve ever met and I’m yawning at that point. It’s not like playing innocent, it’s just the way I am. It seems to be that when people know me for a while, they realise I’m very tough. But not in a sort of bollocks way, breaking things and shouting. In a more quiet way. My older friends in Iceland, they complain that I’m too hard, too tough. Working hard, dealing with things. And they’re always telling me to relax.

Was that because of your parents ? Were you brought up in an environment where you had to fend for yourself ?

I was very lucky because I was brought up in a very big family, I could take buses and visit my relations at the age of five or six, so I had all the security in the world. At the same time, my mum was a hardcore hippy, so she was too busy to bring me up in the sense of meals three times a day, get me dressed, so I had to do that stuff myself

What do you mean, “hardcore hippy” ?

She had really long hair, wore all those Moroccan things, and I was the only child, and there were seven people living in the house. They all had long hair and listened to Jimi Hendrix all day long, and everything was painted purple, so I’ ve got a purple allergy now. And it was all these dreams, and concepts, you know let’s all live in an aeroplane, which is brilliant for a kid. Can you imagine, being brought up by seven grown-ups who all hate work, and all they want to do is play games with you all day long, and tell you four-hour-long stories, and make kites. But I was about seven when I said, “OK, enough of all this bollocks. What about all these dreams ? Let’s get them done,” you know ? I’d had enough of it. So I became the opposite. All kids are like that. So I became very self sufficient. Left home when I was 14, got a flat, got into bands. But it’s an Icelandic thing, you get a summer job when you’re 11 in Iceland, and the summer holidays last three months. You learn early about work, about survival.

What class were you ?

Well, we don’t really have a class system like England. I suppose I was brought up kind of working-class, in the suburbs, but that was mainly because my mum wasn’t really into material things. She was more into attending yoga meetings, leaving her body meditating, doing aikido.

So you rejected all that ?

Well, I became a bit of a David Attenborough, a bit scientific. Sort of wait a minute... a bit over-analytical, over-clever. Because I needed something solid to grab on to. But at the same time I’ve been breast fed on all those things, which is very good. Like, I know that acupuncture works. And I know for sure that the body has seven energy centres. But 90 per cent of all that hippy stuff is just bullshit, you know ? And all the escapism is what I hate most. Like, “Oh, I can’t be a tennis teacher because I’ve got my Mars in Libra.” all those excuses. It’s all that... (huge soppy sigh) I’ve seen so much of that. It makes me so angry.

What part of it do you believe in then ?

I think that your mind can create almost anything, and that is true for you. Your mind and imagination is fact, I’m very spiritual, and I truly believe in emotions. If you are in love, you walk differently from when you’re not. How can you explain that ? The power of your mind is vast, but I use a very common sense approach. But with all those occult things, you can use them either way. Some people use them to make excuses for themselves. But you can use them another way, because there’s more to things than we can see.

There’s more to life than this...

Oh, fucking...


I believe we only have one life, and I look at being 85 as if it’s tomorrow. There’s so many things to do, and if I don’t get them done I’ve lost, If I do, I’ve won. I mean, I was a bit of a slacker for a few years, living in Reykjavík, taking it easy, really. And I think, even if I say so myself just in terms of delivering, being generous emotionally, I think I did pretty well the last two years. So I think now I’m sort of at Point Zero. So it means that I have to do pretty good on the generosity front. If I don’t do anything for a week now I’ll be in debt.

You really see life like that ? You have to have commitment and put part of yourself back into your work, otherwise you’re in debt ?

Definitely, yeah.


If you’re just a consumer, it gets to a point where you don’t get a kick out of it any more, Oh, another glass of champagne. So fucking what ?

You talked about love’s power to transform. Are you in love at the moment ?

Yeah, but I think I’m just in love in general. Nobody specific. I’m quite enjoying it at the moment, just being in love, full stop. Because the minute I try to direct it on someone particular, because of the way he moves his head, or the things he says, whatever, it seems to break the spell. So I’m trying to undo those thoughts. I’m not saying I’ll be that way forever. just at the moment, I’m quite obsessed with zero.

Zero as a condition ?

Yeah, with not taking a direction. Not having to have continuity. Just now I’m just trying it, because I split up with my boyfriend about two months ago, and it just seems so natural for me to fall in Love with almost the next person I meet. But I’m not doing that this time. I’ve been in relationships for 13 years.

Thirteen years. Wow.

With four people.

Fairly long relationships then. Any of them English ?

You’re spying now.

No, it’s just that when you told me you tore your toenails off, rather than cutting them, and I cringed, you said I was “too English”. So I just wondered if you know what you’re talking about.

My boyfriend number three was English. If you want to get very cold and rational about it.

Well, look, ARENA readers will want to know—what do you think of British men ?

Generalisations about nationalities are a bit dodgy but if we’re going to play that game. Their forte is their eccentricity, their delicate emotions, and sophistication. You have to earn intimacy with them, you have to work for it, and it irritates you very much at first, that you can shake and shake these men and get nothing out of them. And then you realise that you’ve got to go the back way, and then you get somewhere.

Is it worthwhile when you get there ?

Yeah, because it’s very delicate, and very nurturing in a subtle manner. It’s not... what do you call this ?

Arm wrestling.

It’s not arm-wrestling. That’s my generalisation.

English is your second language, but your use of it is incredibly effective on an emotional level.

Well, that’s my little role. That’s it, really. Things that are important to you, putting them into words that’s my job. I just know that how many times I’ve been fucked up, and screwed up, and... I’ve talked to my best friends, and there’s been something inside me that, you know nothing can sympathise with it, really and then I’m sitting there and a funny song comes on the radio and you just click, you just get it, the whole thing, it’s just abstract emotion, and you just think, “Yeah, this is what I feel”. And it’s that song on the radio. It’s the only thing that understands me. I think that’s very important.

You’ve been involved in publishing several poets in Iceland. Has that affected the way you write ?

Music, for me, is the most important thing. But to make people empathise with it even more, language is like a signpost. Sort of saying, OK, if you turn right here, you’ll meet a happy feeling. And if you turn second left there, you’ll get a bit melancholic and start reminiscing. That’s what language is about. So, I’ve always thought of it as David Attenborough, going to the fucking Congo. And he’s in front of the camera, but the point of it is that the people enjoy the animals. So he’s just saying well, here on the right we can see a couple mating, and in a few months we’ll have some baby cubs. And that’s what my job is, in a way...

You had that in mind when you wrote “Human Behaviour” ?

Yeah, he was always my hero as a kid... all scientists, Albert Einstein, the boy in the back of the class with thick glasses who was into mathematics and had an insect collection. That was always my turn-on as a kid. I was brought up in such a literate place.

Iceland ?

Yeah, we hold the world record for the population with the highest literacy rate. No art, no painting, no dance, no history of anything but literature. Viking sagas. If teenagers in Iceland are young and angry they don’t form punk bands, they write poetry. And then they get drunk and shout it at each other. Not because they’re so intelligent, as English people seem to imagine you must be if you’re connected with books, it’s just a cultural thing. I’ve heard it’s a lot like that in Ireland. As well as that, I got involved with literate groups— the Sugarcubes and others—when I was 16. They always put me in touch with the books I needed. And I was the one who could do the same for them with music.

Did you have formal music training ?

I was at music school for ten years. I did piano, and flute... but my voice was the main thing.

You did music theory, harmony, counterpoint, all that ?

Everything. But it mostly taught me that all these things I can live without. I was always interested in the structure of music, and my favourite subject at school was mathematics—which is closely related to music. People who get one usually get the other.

Do you practice or train your voice ?

No, I never train. I hate rehearsing. You can only do each thing once. If my voice isn’t good I’d rather go out running in the mountains, or read a story to my kid, do something that’s for real, and then go and sing. If you rehearse for the sake of it it’s like rehearsing sex, before you have sex. You don’t go to your partner and say, “Let’s rehearse a bit and then we’ll fuck after one hour.” It doesn’t make any sense.

Actually, some people do that. That’s what sex therapists are for.

That sounds horrible.

Maybe, but we don’t know how bad they were before they practised, right ?

Well, my biggest strength and my greatest weakness is that I can’t do the same thing twice. It has to be spontaneous. That’s why I’m doing pop, not some contemporary modern minimalist shit. I have to click people into now. What are you feeling now ? That’s what I’m about. Sometimes I get bored. Like I’ve had a lot of marimbas for a year, so let’s get rid of that shit now.

Are you hard to work with ?

I don’t get a lot of complaints.

Well, you wouldn’t, would you ? You’re the boss.

Let’s put it this way I never have arguments. I have an argument every five years.

Not in any part of your life ?

No. It’s not like I agree with everything, you just work at it.

This talk about putting people into the “now” , and some other things you said, made me think of Zen. Are you into that ?

I was obsessed with it as a teenager, and Chinese philosophy and Taoism. But it was always just a curiosity. Not a religious thing.

Do you have a religious outlook of any kind ?

Well, I think no two people have the same religion, and a lot of people would call that being un-religious. But I’m actually very religious. The way I’d sum it up is... the United Nations did a world-wide survey, asking 100 standard questions. And they got two really freak answers from Iceland. The first question was, “What do you believe in ?” And everybody around the world said Buddha, God, Allah, whatever. And the Icelanders said “Myself” I think that’s because it’s such a tough place, that when you get into trouble you better be able to sort it out yourself you know ?

What was the other ?

They asked everyone if they were happy, and everybody said no, not really. But the Icelanders said “Yes !” .

scans : Grace King

par Alix Sharkey publié dans Arena