Volcanic Action Singer

Pulse, juillet 1995

As a particularly chilly afternoon wind whips along the perimeter of Hyde Park, most sensible Londoners draw their coats and jackets tighter against the nasty weather as the shuffle home from work. But not Björk Guðmundsdóttir . As her ankle-length black crinoline dress buffets around her frame like kite paper, this rugged Icelander—whose resided in London for two years, even though it’s made her feel “like I’ve been inside, like I’ve been in a building”— comes tripping down the street, smiling into the gale as if it were nothing more than a pesky window draft. In her island country—a lava-hewn land peppered with fjords, geysers and active volcanoes—kids get their kicks by plowing four-wheel-drive vehicles straight up the roadless slopes of uncharted glaciers or by zipping snowmobiles across slushy half-frozen rivers, knowing full well that if the machine stops, they’ll sink, probably to a watery hypothermic grave. What’s a little wind by comparison ?

Besides, Björk (she dropped her tongue-twisting surname during her tenure with defunct critical darlings the Sugarcubes) seems happiest outdoors, dealing one-on-one with the elements. Put her inside, in a comfortable, tastefully appointed drawing room of a posh hotel, and she initially seems to shrink from the warmth and convenience, practically withers on the vine. But like a captive animal accustomed to getting occasional treats from its master, she readily indulges in the small pleasures of the place—a gold dishfull of shelled pistachio nuts and a libation in a fluted-glass they call Kir Royale, a mixture of champagne and crème de cassis. Soon Björk, 29, feels right at home. She kicks off her clunky heeled patent leather pumps to reveal bare feet and toes a-glitter with pink powder, the result, she explains, of an earlier photo shoot, where her body was apparently sprinkled with fluorescent dust ; both her face and fingers are streaked with the substance as well. Ergo, her lightly freckled complexion is—with not a little irony—looking wind-smacked and ruddy even after she’s indoors.

“I think that people who come from a place that can actually kill you can get that sort of relationship with nature,” she says, in a soft, chirrupy accent that still echoes with heavy vowels of her native Icelandic, a language unchanged over centuries from its genesis in Old Norse. “Say, people who live in Alaska, or even just in Los Angeles—I was there for the last earthquake, and I got this big relief feeling when it happened, because man can just be so fucking arrogant. I mean, the statement that man can destroy nature is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, because man does this much,” and she holds up her finger and thumb less than an inch apart to demonstrate, “and nature could just shake her shoulders a little bit and they’d all fall off and die. I love nature, and I trust nature to do the right thing.”

Perhaps that’s why ‘Post’ (Elektra), Björk’s sophomore solo foray, sounds so remarkably verdant and primal. Especially contrasted with 1993’s ‘Debut’ (Elektra), her first post-Sugarcubes outing that whirred, clicked and clanked with all the urban technology available to her and producer Nellee (Soul II Soul) Hooper in her then-new hometown of London. Picture, if you can, the twin cities of Fritz Lang’s expressionist film masterpiece ‘Metropolis’—a line could be drawn from the mechanized, gadget-crazed surface society straight through to the thoroughly modern ‘Debut’ ; correspondingly, ‘Post’ would represent the hearty, ecologically conscious earth dwellers who toil mightily in deep, dank catacombs, forgotten by those above. While ‘Debut’ was penned in Iceland but recorded in London, Bombay and Los Angeles, ‘Post’ was conceived in London and committed to tape in the exotic Bahamas, where Björk could skip out of Compass Point Studios with a long microphone cord and sing under the stars, or with her feet kicking through the ocean. The vocals for one song, “Cover Me,” were actually taped inside a cave, and—if you listen closely—you can still hear scores of bats pinging by in the mix.

But don’t call ‘Post’ a “back to nature” album, warns Björk. “I don’t ever have to go ‘back’ to nature, because I’m in nature, it’s always there—the sun, the weather, the planet. Not all the world is in the same situation, civilizationwise, as the U.S.A. You’ve got Jamaica, Africa, India, China—you’ve got at least 90 percent of the human race who don’t live under the conditions that the U.S.A. is used to—90 percent of the people on this planet have lived under the same situations as me, but Americans are the odd ones out. Go to the Bahamas, go to Thailand or Turkey—the people have their heads in the trees, their toes in the ocean, all of nature is right next to them, rumbling and shaking, and then they’ve got a mobile telephone in one hand. That’s reality.”

But Björk’s reality doesn’t always apply to everyone else. Thanks to her zany, often brutally frank comments in the music press over the years, as well as her propensity for sporting outrageous clothes and eccentric hairstyles (today her shoulder-length locks are a re-dyed jet black, with countless just-untied tassels tipped in flaming scarlet), this specimen was quickly tagged and filed away under “N” for “nutcake.” “You mean Björk the dork ?” snickers an English taxi driver, after inquiring about this American’s mission in town ; he hasn’t heard her music, but was familiar with the artist from the ‘Spitting Image’ TV show, where she’s regularly spoofed by a life-size absurdly caricatured Björk puppet that howls instead of sings. Yes, Björk’s kind of wacky—rather than remind herself to call someone in her data-overloaded PowerBook, she’s stenciled the name “Kenny” across her forearm in felt-pen ink—but that’s only a small part of the truth. You can get all the reality you need directly from her truly otherworldly voice.

From the beginning—namely, ‘Life’s Too Good (Elektra), the Sugarcubes’ glass-shattering art-pop debut in 1988—there was no frame of reference for an arresting new talent like Björk. On record and in concert, her gutsy shrieks, guttural growls and helium hisses easily eclipsed the more pedestrian barks and woofs of co-vocalist Einar Örn. Two albums later the group folded, but Björk continued to mutate, take chances, plunge off stylistic cliffs with no parachute ; the techno‘n’tape-loop structure of ‘Debut’ cyberditties like “Human Behaviour,” “Violently Happy” and “Big Time Sensuality” could barely contain her personable yelps, yodels and meanderings. On ‘Post,’ she’s completely untethered : There’s a latticework of trip-hop buttressing the songs “Army of Me” (a staggering juggernaut of a track, cowritten by Björk and 808 State’s Graham Massey, coproduced by Björk, Massey, and Nellee Hooper), “Enjoy” (a sonic deluge written by Björk, and her new boyfriend, Bristol Sound braniac Tricky), and the caravanish “Isobel” (which combines Hooper’s processional loops with strings by veteran jazz arranger Eumir Deodato, whom Björk tracked down in his native Brazil). But for the rest of this mostly self-produced disc, she swings from an acrobatic upper register (“Hyperballad”) to deep-throated, jazzy ruminations (“Cover Me,” “Possibly Maybe,” “I Miss You”) to the remarkably straightforward big-band swing of “Blow a Fuse,” and old Betty Hutton song Björk discovered on an anthology tape dubbed, quite aptly, ‘Divas’. She sings more foresty than concrete-urban, more, well, ‘Icelandic’, for want of a better term. Pick up French conceptualist Hector Zazou’s new ‘Songs From the Cold Seas’ (Columbia), and you can hear Björk really cut loose, incanting in her native tongue “Visur Vatnsenda-Rosu,” a 100-year-old Icelandic traditional. Her voice resonates like cathedral bells and sends a shiver down your spine.

Ask Björk to put a finger on her unique brand of earthiness, and she’s suddenly at a loss. “I’ve always been very aware that I’m, uh I’m, um ... ‘different’, I guess,” she stammers, twitching her freckled nose, a gesture she repeats several times. “And this is probably the first time in my life when me being different is an advantage, because until now, I’ve been treated as a bit of a ... not ‘freak’, but an eccentric. And I haven’t really minded that so much, because I decided very long ago that I prefer to be who I am rather than obey morality or narrow-minded, small-town mentality and become what I’m ‘supposed’ to be instead of what I am.”

“So when it comes to my voice, I just always sang the only way I can sing, and that’s it, really. I’ve never really compared myself to other people, not because I’m too big-headed or I’ve got a minority complex, but because I know I just can’t sing like anyone else, and I still haven’t found a singer who I can say is my hero or who has influenced me. I ...” and she stresses the word by leaning forward and tapping a fist on the table “...admire a lot of singers and how larger than life, how big they are, but I haven’t got anything in common with them. Just the sound of my voice, to begin with, or what I’ve experienced, just my life in general—there’s no way I could compare myself to someone like Edith Piaf, or Maria Callas or Ella Fitzgerald, because they’re just too distant from me, and I can’t really learn from them either.”

What Björk has experienced—a fascinating topic that could keep you enraptured at her feet for hours. Sure, there’s the common, everyday stuff : She’s raising a son, Sindri, now 8, who’s learned to surf the Internet to find info on his favorite subjects, soccer and insects. She’s made many friends since she came to London, mostly musicians ; during our chat, one even drops by Björk’s table to say hello—ex-Einstürzende Neubauten noisemaker Mark Chun, who’s now working for A&R for a European record company and is decked out in the requisite Saville Row suit. Madonna reportedly enjoyed ‘Debut’ so much that she commissioned a full album of material from Björk and Hooper ; instead she received one song (her current hit, “Bedtime Story”) and a turndown from the Divine Miss B. last year to appear alongside her at England’s BRIT Awards. And a lot of Björk’s early influences were books (George Bataille’s ‘Story of the Eye’, Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’) and films (‘Tampopo’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Tin Drum’) available internationally. (“I just think there are certain emotions in your body that not even your best friend can sympathize with, but you will find the right film or the right book, and it will understand you,” she reasons.) But talk about Iceland and you’re getting to the heart of the matter, the source of her spirited outlook on life.

Iceland is a country of remarkable contrasts. Dogs are illegal in Reykjavík, the capital—they’re meant to run free in the countryside, says the law. The University of Iceland is free to all citizens, and the nation claims an astounding literacy rate of 100 percent. There’s a strong sense of oral history there, and sagas like the Völsunga—which tells the tale of a god-descended race of superhumans that walk among us—are part of typical grade-school curriculum. Despite the “Army of Me” CD single’s mock-Japanese-animation artwork—an AstroBjörk send-up of AstroBoy, with an army of muscle-y atomic polar bears (“When she needs help, she calls for the polar bears,” explains Björk, who scripted the concept as “kind of a silly game, really”)—there are no polar bears in Iceland. In fact, only the hardiest handful of animal species can survive there. On June 21, natives frolic under 22 hours of sunlight ; come Dec. 21, however, the land is bathed—and spirits dampened—by 22 hours of darkness.

Björk has hiked across several of Iceland’s 7,000-foot volcanoes ; she’s marveled at its iridescent geyser pools, hot springs alive with with the colors of freshly melted minerals ; she has, like just about all her friends, taken off in a four-wheel-drive to “go play Indiana Jones and be the coolest guy, drive straight into the glacier river and be very survivalist.” Her family still hunts roughly half the food it eats—fish and birds, mostly—and Björk herself used to reel in a supper or two as a kid. Can’t imagine what that’s like ?“That’s because you come from a city,” Björk says, sighing and rolling her eyes. “It’s natural for you to go out to a shop and buy fish, or go to a restaurant and order it, but it’s not a natural thing for you to go hunt it. Iceland is such a small island, if you hunt too much of something, everything just falls out of place. You are very aware of it, and we were always very aware of the fish around the island, that we wouldn’t fish too much, because if we did, we were the first ones who wouldn’t get fish. You have to take care of your surroundings and respect them and realize that they are 5,000 times stronger than you are—just respect them and be humble. We fought a war with the British called the Cod War [1972-1976]—they wanted to come into Iceland and fish, even though there had been a blizzard and there was not enough fish. So we said, “Go away !” and we would go out in our little boats—because we don’t have an army, you see—and attack these massive tankers. And there would be these comic drawings in the newspapers of this little boat attacking this huge ship, but we won in the end. We won over British imperialism, or imperialism in general—they couldn’t just go wherever they wanted and take whatever they wanted. Iceland’s just not like that at all.”

Björk is a bit jumpy. She constantly shifts positions in her chair, suddenly yanking her dress up to her knees and pulling her feet up under her one minute and slouching deep into the cushion the next, sliding back into her shiny shoes and pushing her legs far underneath the table. She also fiddles with a plastic- rose-adorned hairband, stretching it this way and that, then gently placing it by her Kir glass. A few minutes later, she’s absentmindedly playing with it again. Logically, all this nervous energy has to have an outlet somewhere, and a song like “Isobel”—although it has the lazy, unassuming pace of a camel making its way across the desert, courtesy of a somber Hooper tape loop—is practically bursting at the seams with story plots and subplots, all penned by Björk in a stream-of-consciousness style that could give James Thurber vertigo.

Here’s the “Isobel” scenario in her own words, and—believe it or not—in a nutshell : “It’s about a girl who was born in a forest, and she was not born from a mother and father, she was born from a spark. And she grows up and becomes a woman, and as she grows she realizes that the little pebbles and rocks on the forest floor are actually baby skyscrapers. So as she grew up, the rocks grew up and became skyscrapers, until she finds herself in the middle of a city as a fully grown woman. She’s not a real person, she’s more like a myth—like Atlas represents strength and Neptune is the god of the ocean, she represents intuition. So she clashes all the time with people all around her who function with their heads and are quite clever —she gets into a lot of trouble, because she doesn’t understand morality. She falls in with the wrong people and things go really badly, until she decides to isolate herself.” “So she withdraws, but she still decides that she was right, that people should function more with intuition that with their brain. So she collects all these moths and sends them outside her window, and they fly all over the world, and they go inside the houses of all the people who are pretending or trying to be clever and they stop them from being clever by flying straight in their faces and going,” Björk waggles her index finger back and forth reprimandingly and raises her voice, startling an elderly gentlemen seated nearby, “Na-na ! Na-na, na-na, na-na, naaa !” She’s so into the wrist movement she knocks over the tape recorder. “Oh, sorry !” she apologizes with a sheepish grin, then continues, unfazed : “So the people get confused, but finally they say ‘Oh, OK’ and start to function with their intuition again.”

If these folks were so clever to begin with, why didn’t they just swat the moths dead when they chattered in their faces ? Björk folds her arms, an exasperated you-just-don’t-get-it-do-you scowl creasing her face. “Well, if they do that, they would miss out on a lot, you know ?” she says condescendingly, entirely missing the American humor of a floorfull of squashed cecropia messengers. Musically, “Isobel” was born as a melody Björk hummed on a Christmas visit to her homeland. She worked it out on her portable Casio keyboard, took it to Hooper’s house, where a snare and what she calls it “jungle-istic” sound effects were added, then she tacked on Deodato’s lush strings. Finally, the lyrics were set into place ; an odd way of working, but nonetheless effective.

“Army of Me” is featured on the soundtrack to the futuristic black comedy, ‘Tank Girl’ (Elektra), a role that might have suited Björk to a “T”. In the video clip for the song, Björk is the driver of a tanker truck that’s carrying a man in cryonic slumber. She does many things in the surreal little film—blows up a museum, zips up to change the truck’s oil on elastic, rubbery legs, and drops by the office of a white- smocked gorilla, who pries a gemstone from her mouth. In both the song and the video, Björk says she wanted to capture that “tanker-truck” feeling, the sense of a big machine grinding unstoppably through town. “The track is about telling someone who is full of self-pity and doesn’t have anything together to get a life and stand up,” says Björk, then paraphrases its lyrics : “And if you complain once more/You’ll meet an army of ME !” So I thought I should be driving a very, very big truck to try to wake this person who’s asleep, so I get the biggest truck in the world, and I’m so mad I’ve got metallic teeth, because when you’re really angry, you grind your teeth. So I have to go to the dentist, who tries to steal away from me a diamond I don’t know I have.”

Well, what did she expect ? The dentist is, after all, a gorilla. Björk opens her mouth to speak, but suddenly her eyes light up. She likes the gorilla joke. Loves it, in fact. Laughter sweeps through her and across her face like that wind that’s still creeping around outside, rattling the windowpanes. For several minutes, she can’t stop laughing, perhaps amused that her own ideas have worked so well, have taken on a life of their own and communicated with someone on the other side of the Atlantic. “The communication thing is so important to me—that’s my kick in life, that’s what keeps me alive,” she says, wiping her laughter- teared eyes. “That’s why when I write songs with people, I work ‘with’ people—I don’t work for them and they don’t work for me. Even my lawyer, my manager, my baby sitter or whoever it is—if you’ve got honesty in your relationships with people, that sincerity, then it’s gonna be human no matter what. There’s no way anybody’s gonna fuck anybody over.”

‘Debut’ has sold nearly three million copies worldwide. Hasn’t this changed Björk’s life to some degree ? Maybe brought the sharks swimming close to shore ? She shakes her head no. “I think things have mostly changed in the sense that I am now responsible for a lot of people’s work in life—I’m an umbrella over a lot of things, a lot of people work for me, so I’m like a mother now to all of them. And if I make a wrong move, I’m not the only one who’s gonna suffer. All these other people are gonna suffer as well. It’s more responsibility, but I like it, because I felt I was ready for it.”

A couple of years ago, Björk sensed the first of those responsibilities calling. It was time to leave the Sugarcubes, leave Iceland and settle down in the music-biz hub of London as a solo artist. The decision wasn’t easy. Björk had made her first record at 11—it was an Icelandic hit. By 14, she had her own jazz- punk combo, Kukl, also popular. Then came the ‘Cubes, launched from a beatnik-cool artistic collective that not only made music, but exhibited paintings, read poetry and put on indie film festivals, all on the cheap.

On creativity, Björk recalls, “I tried almost everything as a teenager, and in a way, I think it’s good to try everything, because I realized very quickly where my heart belongs. My heart belongs to singing. And I think the world is full of dentists who want to be race-car drivers, and race-car drivers who want to be dentists. I am a singer, and I want to be a singer, so I’m gonna stick to that and be quite grateful. If I get more greedy than that, something will just go wrong.”

Folks might say something went wrong with the Sugarcubes. Not so, avers Björk. “We had worked together as a unit since we were 14, 15 years old—we’d done all these different things together and always stuck by each other no matter what. We set up a pirate radio station—we broke into Radio One for the 200-year birthday of Reykjavík and made all these announcements and played songs that we considered more realistic. So we’ve been arrested, been thrown in jail together.”

When writers and record-company people began to subtly hint that Björk was a better singer than Einar Örn, that maybe she should consider a solo career outside of the Sugarcubes, Björk says her response was always the same. “We’d just laugh at them—it was just wrong, because they didn’t know, they weren’t there. It was such a fight we went through in Iceland, such sticking together, it was like the Vietnam veterans coming back.”

Two of the ‘Cubes including Björk’s ex-boyfriend Thor Eldon, Sindri’s father—were considered to be among Iceland’s most promising young poets. “They hadn’t been able to write for five years, because they were doing soundchecks in Texas, doing guitar solos in Oklahoma,” she says. “So when I decided to leave, everybody had other things to do and it wasn’t just my decision.” And—like all her favorite authors and film directors—Björk understood that she had to give up a few things to get something back. As she puts it, “I never wanted to be famous—that was never my goal. The reason I did ‘Debut’ was, I realized everybody can do something really well, you know ? And at some point in life, everyone’s got to try to do what they are best at the best they can. That’s when I realized I had to do this album.”

“I made sacrifices like moving away from Iceland to where it’s very convenient—in London I can meet all these engineers, all these musicians, and do my albums. Then I can life with a clear conscience when I’m old and say to my grandchildren, ‘Well, I don’t know if I succeeded, but I gave it a try and I did my best.’” Björk leans forward, whispering confidentially. “You might find this completely sickening and pathetic, and you’re probably thinking I’m just about to sing ‘We Are the World’ or ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ but that’s truly why I did it.” On the contrary. Björk—despite, or maybe due to all her peculiar proclivities—comes across as childlike, innocent and altogether genuine. And although her quaint accent often lapses into a polite British, and her speech is liberally sprinkled with English phrases like “lovely” and “brilliant,” she still stares longingly out the window when she recalls the typical sight she’d see in Iceland when she pulled open her drapes each morning. “You’d look out the window and you can’t see your car because it’s covered with snow. All the people in our block of flats would have to go out and literally look for their cars with a shovel, and there would be blizzards and we’d have no electricity.” She pauses, looking puzzled. “I’m never threatened by nature in England, and I feel like I’m missing something.” This reminds her of another story.

“That’s why when they had that earthquake in Los Angeles, I woke up a moment before and I knew something brilliant was going to happen,” says Björk, suddenly animated again. “And my bed was going from wall to wall like a bumper car and it was such a relief ! Nature was just putting her finger on the arrogance of humankind, going, ‘Listen, you shut the fuck up and just stay there because you don’t now jack shit [which Björk cutely pronounces as a-jah-yuk sheet] and if you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me ! So just”—and her pink-etched fingers start making that slapping gesture once more— “‘chut, chut, chut, chut, chut !’ Everything fell into place then, because when human beings think they can do everything in the world, they just get into trouble. And when you realize that you are just .000001 percent of it all, then you should just be humble and grateful.”

Björk smoothes out her dress and prepares to leave. Others are bundling up against the weather. She’s not even wearing a jacket. “Of course, you have to fight and do your best in life,” she stops to finish. “But just realize that you are only one piece of the whole big fucking puzzle. And that fact just makes me so happy !”

publié dans Pulse


  • Jill Furmanovsky