Paper Magazine

Björk’s Second Act

Contrary to her image, Björk isn’t pixieish, waifish or fairy godmother-like. She sits across from me stylishly adorned in a flow of colorful silks and chiffons with soft sprays of greens, yellows and blacks that look as if they’ve been jacked from butterfly wings. She tends to stammer when she speaks — more from trying to combine three stray thoughts into one than from any conversational anxiety. The Icelandic singer cops to sometimes turning shy during interviews, not because she’s an introvert, but because she’s from a place not so accustomed to celebrity. She is self-possessed, clear about her artistic convictions and very much present in this world.

After coming to public attention in the 80s as the lead singer of the Sugarcubes, she launched a solo career in 1993 that thus far has yielded three memorable albums. In fact, Björk Gudmundsdottir, 34, who lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, with her 14-year-old son (by Sugarcube Thor Eldon), Sindri, has become a figure of occult mystery for some and cult worship for others. In this and in the pared severity of her music, she reminds me of no one so much as the Miles Davis of the 70s, whose penetrating blend of sound, silence and electricity made him then what Björk is today — the existential soul factor in our digital sonic Zeitgeist.

Nowhere is that soul more openly on display than in her major film debut, director Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, an extraordinary performance for which she won the best actress award at Cannes this year. In Dancer, which opens stateside in October, Björk plays Selma, an Eastern European omigro working as a wage slave in a metal-stamping plant somewhere in the American South. The film, like von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, is a relentless attempt to see how far you can push a woman on the brink. It also features a soundtrack by the singer and several fantasy song-and-dance numbers in which Björk performs Björk without losing her emotional grip on her character. Preparing for her next album when we spoke, Björk meditated on music, acting and her restless creative process.

Describe how you make music.
Making music is a very one-on-one affair. Sometimes I feel like singing to the audience is like lying, because I don’t know them. It seems to me at concerts that if you look at people’s faces that the level of communication can be a little artificial. Don’t get this the wrong way, but the more selfish you get, the more you’re singing for everyone. I always felt that if people weren’t into what I was doing that it was fine. I’ve always been the eccentric one. Nobody tried to change me, so I’m not going to go and say, "If you don’t like my experimental electronic Polish impossible-to-get CDs, fuck off." I think I should do what I’m doing, and if people are truly interested, they will come. I’ve always looked at it that way.

Did you grow up in a supportive family ?
Yeah, it couldn’t have been better. [Reykjavik is a] small village, a capital in Europe, so you’ve got all the technology and modern things you want and [are] still surrounded by mountains, nature. We are still where people in Europe were 300 years ago in our relationship with nature. My family still hunts for half the food we eat.

What are your fondest memories of growing up ?
I guess it’s related to my grandparents, because my mom was a bit of a wild child and still is. She left my father when I was one. I’d spend my weekends with them. My grandmother was a painter and my grandfather would take me to see the ships, and we’d eat ice cream and porridge with raisins. And when we were really living large we would have porridge with prunes. My grandmother’s a very quiet and graceful woman. I remember spending hours with her, not saying a word but still really communicating. Because my mom was a bit of a hippie, that house was always full of people. Seven or eight people lived there. I went to music school from [age] five to 15, so I learned classical German stuff. And then at my grandmother’s house they listened to quite a bit of jazz — Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

What was the first music you embraced as your own ?
Hard to pick one. Let me think. I remember Ella Fitzgerald in Berlin, where she improvised quite a bit. I listened to that record a lot at my grandma’s house. Porgy and Bess with Ella and Louis. Like all children I reacted against my mother’s music, so anything to do with improvisation, guitars, psychedelics — I wanted structure. I think emotionally it’s natural to be very fluid. You don’t know what you’re going to feel like in 15 minutes. But that’s why I like music to be the opposite, to be something that can bring out emotion because it’s very beautifully structured. Otherwise, it’s just a big mess.

Your character, Selma, tries to fix things through music and fantasy. The fantasy elements don’t soften the tragedy of the character ; they co-exist. I’ve heard that it took about a year to persuade you to take the role.
I was just going to do the music at first. I’m, like, religious when it comes to music. I’m very loyal to it, and acting feels like an affair to me, you know ? I also think I understand the ground qualities of a person who is born an actor, and I don’t think I have those.

Such as ?
They are so selfless — well, not selfless, because I think they’ve got a lot of "self," but their self is of a type that they can become this piece they’re dealing with. They move differently and everything is different about them and when it’s over, [snaps her fingers] they snap out of it. And then you’ve got other types of people — like me when I was in school. When I was learning the flute, if they showed me a song I didn’t like, I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t obey any rules and had to make up my own songs, wear my own clothes my own way and was just very stubborn about this whole idea of identity. During the making of the film, I asked Catherine Deneuve, "How can you act ?" And she said, "Oh, it’s amazing when you become someone completely different. Don’t you think that’s exciting ?" And I’m like, "No. I have no interest in it. I feel I still haven’t become me. I’m still starting. I’ve got 50 years to open something in my head and try to get out. I’ve just done, like, five percent." Once Lars convinced me, the only way I could do the film was to sacrifice all my idiosyncrasies, and it was very painful.

You had to sacrifice all your spontaneity to become Selma ?
Well, the way he did it, probably because he knew what I was like, was that it was all improvised. Lars said I couldn’t learn the lines by heart, so... I would just know, "O.K., I’m going in this room." Sometimes I would know what would be said to me, and sometimes I wouldn’t. We’d just do it, and I’d react instinctively to all the situations. Quite often I’d do something he didn’t expect at all. The good thing was I’d been Selma for so long that it was usually right, and it was more Selma than Björk. The music scenes were shot with 100 cameras, and you’d just do your thing from camera to camera, which is very lucky for someone who does music because it means you don’t chop it all up, you just flow. I’d say to Lars, "I don’t know what’s going to happen," and he would say, "That’s O.K." So I guess it was very spontaneous. Afterward, talking to a lot of actors since, I realized it was probably the most spontaneous film ever shot.

How did you feel before and after the first screening at Cannes ?
Being a music person, I felt more like a fly on the wall. Everybody was very nice to me, and at first I was very suspicious because in Iceland we’re definitely not expressive like people in New York. We’re even more [reserved] than the British. But when I won the award, it felt very genuine. Those awards are very important to the French, they’re a big thing. Like if England were to win the World Cup. For them, giving it to an outsider who’s not only from Iceland but also isn’t even a film person was a genuine gesture on their behalf. It was very intense. I slept for two days afterward.

Let’s talk about motherhood and the murder Selma commits for her boy.
It’s shocking because it was so personal and intimate in a way that most film violence isn’t. There’s no question about it : I would die for my boy. Any parent would. Once, 40 paparazzi went for me and couldn’t get to me, so they went for him. They were asking him questions against his will. That was one of three times in my life when I’ve lost control and become physically aggressive. Fortunately, or unfortunately, because there were so many cameras going, it got [broadcast] around the world.

Were you comfortable with von Trier and his crew ?
In Denmark, I was in a situation similar to Selma’s, where I was surrounded by people who did not understand me at all. It felt like a conspiracy, because Lars only knew what I was going through when it was us two together. When other people were in the room, he acted like nothing had happened, and when I was screaming with pain he would say, "Oh, she’s just making it up." People have written quite a lot about the conflict, and the conflict was — I say this quite truthfully because I’ve got nothing to hide — the conflict was not between me and Lars. I gave him all of me and a lot more than he even asked, and he would be the first person to tell you that.

The conflict was between Selma and Björk, the person who made the music. People said I walked off the set, and I wish I was that adventurous person. But I only once walked off set, and that was after I was Selma all day and they had chopped up my music for the next scenes and taken some bars out and changed some things in it. There I was, still in costume with blood on my shoulders, and suddenly I had to be the composer saying, "You can’t do that. Let’s sit down and work this out." I’d spent everything on that music for one year, and it was being chopped to pieces by people who’d never done music in their lives.... So I wrote a manifesto about music things — nothing about Lars or Selma or the film. I said I have the right to mix my own songs. I will collaborate, but I have the final say. Lars and I had so much trust we never wrote anything down, but I fought battles for my songs all the way to the very last week, when they were putting footsteps and sheep on top of them.

The way you use sounds and noises in your music carries over to the score, where industrial sounds become beats for tracks. I’m curious about your process.
I guess it’s not a choice for me. It’s a way to survive. Yesterday I walked for four hours and a song came out. It’s like food or sleep, a way to survive. I’ve even had moments when I wished I could be without it because sometimes it’s not very social.

Miles Davis described constantly hearing music, and having to change his style accordingly all the time, as a curse.
It’s hard for me to analyze myself, but I would make my life, work and family life simple if I could just repeat what I’ve done — find a system and just do that. I think the noises I use are just about where I am. It’s the sound of the world we live in today — like right now with all the AC — so that’s why the obsession with noise-music.... Melodies are a lot different because they’re more instinctive. I stopped using dictaphones because I’d rather have five good ones I remember in my head than 5,000 so-so ideas on tape. You’ve got to trust it. Once you stop trusting, everything goes into chaos. [I was] brought up by hippies who were into astrology and numerology and sat down and worked it all out, [then] they said, "We believe in mystery." I think as the next generation I said, "No, you don’t, because you mapped it all out. If you really believed in mystery, you wouldn’t have to." I really believe that you’ve got to trust and find it exciting that you don’t know what it is you’re dealing with.

Greg Tate

publié dans Paper Magazine - 01.10.2000

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