The World According to Björk

Option, septembre 1995

The circular tattoo on Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s left arm is a compass. “So you don’t get lost,” she says. But in conversation, it’s clear that finding her way has never been a problem.

The California sun is beaming down on the West Hollywood park where Björk brought her son to play four years ago. At the time, she was in town with her band, the Sugarcubes, finishing their last album, Stick Around For Joy. Today Björk is basking in the glory of her sophomore solo effort, Post.

The album has been out for a month and she’s about to head for Seattle to kick off a four week tour. But she seems under the weather, and within a week her rundown feeling will have flared into a full-fledged throat infection, forcing her to cancel the tour after only two dates.

Earlier in the day, during a radio appearance on Los Angeles’ alternative behemoth KROQ, morning jocks Kevin and Bean amiably teased Björk about her celebrated eccentricities. She defended herself in valiant Viking fashion, insisting that she really isn’t as weird as everyone makes her out to be. But the indefatigable jocks rallied, demanding to know what music she was listening to at the moment. “Olivier Messiaen,” she replied, to exclamations of confusion and validation. Her familiarity with the avant-gardist, whose works are far beyond alternative, was conclusive proof of Björk’s strangeness. The DJs rested their case.

Taking Björk’s background into consideration, it’s perfectly natural that she should be interested in Messiaen. The French composer was obsessed with the natural world, and spent the later part of his life roaming the French countryside transcribing bird song that he would incorporate into symphonic odes to mountains, stars and God. Similarly, Björk’s musical saga is entwined with the fiery, icy legacy of her native Iceland, the most volcanic region on earth and home to Europe’s largest glacier. A natural story- teller, Björk instinctively varies the tone and pace of her tale despite jet lag, back fatigue and a jam- packed schedule. She speaks in a Scandinavian accent, with thick rolling Icelandic “r”s and the Anglo veneer of those who have learned English from the Brits.

“ln 1262 we became a Danish colony, until 1944. That’s when we got our independence” she begins. “Until then we were taxed really badly and treated like shit, as usual, from colonizers. So we were very isolated. We kept to ourselves. What kept us going was history, and all the brave stories of the Vikings. The Icelandic people memorized whole sagas by sort of chanting them—half singing, half talking. They were like the first rappers of Europe.”

Although she is only 29, Björk speaks with the authority of someone twice her age. “When I was a kid,” she continues, “there was no television on Thursdays, and no television in July, and there was only television three hours every evening. For the rest, people would read out loud for each other in families, go to pubs, scream poetry to each other. A lot of storytelling and literature.”

It’s not surprising that Björk lived in a vivid world of make-believe—one in which she enjoyed solitude. “I liked the kids at school, but it was like they didn’t really get me. I thought I sort of got them, but I didn’t find them very interesting. I was quite an introvert—but a happy introvert. I made up a lot of stories. It was gorgeous, you know, a lot of songs, a lot of walking. I remember walking between school, my granny, my mother’s house, my music school and my father’s house, and sort of singing on the way. Making up songs.”

Björk may have had music naturally welling up inside her, but she also spent 10 years in music school, starting from age five. By seven, she had overdosed on the ‘60s guitar rock—Hendrix, Joplin, Clapton— that her parents listened to. Instead she veered towards the jazz that her grandparents preferred, and the wealth of music from Beethoven to Stockhausen—offered at school. By 12, she was playing drums and screaming in an all-girl punk band.

“Spit & Snot,” she says, recalling the band’s name with a punk-rock snarl. “I got so easily bored. I was always having these secret projects all over town—with a brass section, with jazz people, people making electronic contemporary music. I made film music on my own with drum machines and synthesizers. I did music for avant-garde dance theaters. I produced a heavy metal band, did backing vocals, wrote songs, had a radio program.”

When she was 14, she and some future Sugarcubes started the only independent record shop in Reykjavík. With their combined talents, projects started to snowball, and the group began organizing film festivals and publishing a fanzine, as well as works of fiction and poetry.

“Even if I say so myself, we’ve been probably one of the major forces in young Icelandic culture,” she says. Her fingernails are fluorescent orange dots which periodically flutter up from the concrete picnic table to emphasize her points. “Because even though it’s good being brought up in a place that’s very culturally aware, it can be sort of snobbish sometimes.” She turns up her nose. “Sort of Ingmar Bergman-uppity. Everybody knows their Shakespeare by heart, but nobody wants to know about the angry 14-year-olds that have another bunch of things to fight for. We sort of came from that. We were terrorists on a mission against small-town mentality and narrow-mindedness.”

It was out of that cadre of cultural renegades that the Sugarcubes crystallized. “We were like three poets basically taking the piss out of guitar music,” Björk says. Before long, what began as a sophisticated prank wound up attracting the attention of large record companies. After resisting advances for about two years, Björk, Bragi Olafsson, Einar Örn, Siggi Baldursson and Thor Eldon gave in and signed with Elektra. Then they set off to conquer the world.

“We just packed our bags—we all had kids—took them with us, our friends, our families. But after like five years, when the most promising poet in Iceland found himself in a dressing room in Houston, Texas, worrying about the bass solo, it was sort of ungh,” she groans. “The joke had gotten a bit old. So we decided to turn to our own private missions. We still support each other and whatever each person is doing.”

Thus began Björk’s solo career. Her first post-Sugarcubes album, 1993’s Debut, found her in a more sultry sonic realm than the rockier terrain of her band. Tracks like “Human Behavior” and “Big Time Sensuality” wound around brooding dance grooves, while the Brechtian “The Anchor Song” and techno-tinged “Venus As a Boy” are 20th century folk tales. This year’s Post advances those trends, moving further into the realm of contemporary dance music (Tricky lends a production hand on several tracks) and Björk-lore. The subject of “Isobel” may be thoroughly modern, but she’s as bold a character as Brynhild hiding out behind her wall of fire. Sometimes, as in “Army of Me,” Björk even stars in her own myths.

“I’m not being precious about it, or patriotic or anything,” she says, sitting beneath the canopy of an opulent shade tree. “That’s just the way I happen to express myself. I’m not trying to repeat the sagas. I make my own stories and I’m very obsessed with not being nostalgic, because I think that 90 percent of the world is too nostalgic. They don’t have the courage to face 1995 and make stories that are relevant today, about life today and what music is about today. I want people to do more of that.”

Which is not to say that her music is devoid of familiar, even traditional reference points. Post also features a cover of the swinging “Blow a Fuse” (which she titles “It’s Oh So Quiet”), originally performed by ’40s singer and film star Betty Hutton ; “Possibly Maybe” is a true-blue torch song, electronically warped and crackling with canned surface noise. For Björk, living in the present doesn’t mean blocking out the past— it just means upgrading it.

“I think that all pop music that has ever been—because pop music has existed ever since some of the monkeys decided to become men, you know, and even before that—has been about taking the noises of your surroundings and making music out of it,” she says, evoking Messiaen again. “I mean, you could take some African tribe, and whatever music that they made was from the nature around them. And someone like Bach would structure music like the German sort of hierarchy of thought that was going on at the time.

“If you walk down a main street today in the average city—which is where most Westernized people live—you hear these quiet car noises, you hear car alarms, you hear mobile telephones. You hear people, you hear kids screaming.” She pauses, gesturing at the kids shrieking playfully in the pool behind her. “You hear the wind, you probably hear some animals, probably pigeons.

“And machine noises are everywhere,” she continues. “When you put your video in your VCR—that noise when it swallows the tape—and when your microwave oven is finished and you hear all those beeps and peeps. You should be making music out of these noises.”

Having flown through the gulf of time and space separating primeval Africa from latter-day Los Angeles, she sums up her outlook with a sentiment her Viking forebears would certainly approve

“It’s brave and real to make techno music,” she says. “I don’t think it’s pessimistic. I don’t think it’s escapist. I don’t think it’s unreal. I think it’s completely realistic. I’m not talking about being a pretentious arty git, or being like, really deep. I’m talking about being brave enough to make music that’s about today.”

par Sandy Masuo publié dans Option