Björk - An International Word

Raygun, juin 1995

Her house is set back from the street, on a wide avenue in Maida Vale. A pair of imposing, wrought iron security gates shield it from the bustle of one of London’s more exclusive districts, but tonight they swing open freely. Björk has lived here for two years, having been pried from her beloved Iceland by the huge and unexpected success of her first solo album, Debut. She misses the mother country, she will tell you : Indeed, how could she not miss a place where the roads twist like frosted serpents, simply because planners are loathe to disturb the elves who, according to legend, live among the volcanic rocks en route ?

Inside, the decor is simple. Colors are grays and whites, floors either stripped or in neutral shades. There are very few ornaments—nothing, really, to catch the eye, save the odd print on the wall. But it’s not what you’d call minimalist either. If asked, you’d say that this is the home of someone who doesn’t like to be distracted by clutter, presumably because she spends a fair deal of time there.

The singer sits upstairs. She’s wearing a blue, long-sleeved T-shirt, an effusive net skirt that rustles around her like an over-enthusiastic pet and a pair of gaudy, laceless Adidas. You’d have to call her style practicalimpractical. Ranged across the floor in front of her are dozens of photographs, which she and French celebrity photographer (and ex-boyfriend) Stephane Sednaoui are poring over. They’re all of Björk, posing before a busy, vivid backdrop. In some, she’s pulling faces or screaming ; in others, she merely stares intensly, with those eyes that look too old for the rest of her impish face. Her features seem somehow more defined, more sure of themselves than the last time, though it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why.

Björk smiles and looks up. She doesn’t appear embarrassed at being caught, like Narcissus, gazing so intently at her own reflection. She might have been once. In the past couple of years, though, she’s appeared in most of the world’s most prestigious magazines, been photographed by everyone. She picks up an envelope of prints, which are to be used for publicity. They were done by Jean Baptiste Mondino (who also supplied the cover shot for Debut). She speaks Mondino’s name as if he were her cousin. The way celebrities do.

And yet there’s something almost eerily unaffected about Björk. She looks less girlish and alien in the flesh than she does on the page. She’s small, but not petite. There’s nothing frail about her. And her voice is lovely—reedy and melodic, characterized by a bewildering collision of accents, her sibilant Scandinavian inflections being augmented by the Manchurian she picked up from working with Manchester’s 808 State, the Bristolian street slang of collaborator Tricky and producer Nellee Hooper and, of course, the full range of London colorings.

Even so, the thing not to say to Björk in an interview is : “You know, I expected you to be this pixie-type person, but you’re actually quite tough , aren’t you ?” I know better than to pop this one, because I’ve read interviews where it’s pissed her off. But if I hadn’t read them, it would almost certainly have been my opening shot. It’s not that Björk seems tough. There’s just something incredibly compact and self-contained about her. Which makes her nervous habit of wrinkling her nose each time she’s asked a question all the more endearing. One suspects that there’s quite a lot of Björk that she is choosing not to offer up for general scrutiny. As she will later point out, her background has prepared her well for the last couple of years. And an extraordinary background it is, too.

Of course, Björk first came to the attention of a world audience through her part in the Sugarcubes, the band who sent armies of A & R people scurrying off to Iceland, only to find that the wild sextet were a spectacular one-off. In fact, their success was pretty much down to one song : The Sugarcubes never made a consistantly decent album, but Björk’s vocal performance on the languid, lusty “Birthday” was something to cherish. The rest of the time, you’d be mentally screaming at the others to shut up for a few moments so you hear more of that voice. They never did, not for long enough. What few people outside Iceland realized in the beginning was that Björk had been famous back home since she was 11.

“Would you like something to drink ? I’ve got apple juice or champagne...” Björk grins the offer, as Sednaoui prepares to leave. An interesting choice. For a moment, it seems as though the reputation for eccentricity may be true, until she adds, “We’re celebrating finishing my album.” She and the photographer have been selecting a snap for the cover.

The album’s called Post (“Because it’s an international word, which everyone understands—I like that”). Predominantly recorded in the Bahamas with Nellee Hooper (who did Debut and most of the programming on Soul to Soul’s Club Classic Volume 1), its delivery to the record company was delayed when Björk got back home, played it and “freaked out,” convincing herself that it constituted a dreadful mistake.

“I was so disappointed,” she says. “The album was supposed to be delivered the day after we returned, but I delayed and delayed. Everyone was going nuts. In the end, I decided to go and record several songs again, all over London. I went on my own, on a mission, basically taking the songs I’d done in the Bahamas and adding lots of live instruments to it.” Never one to follow the obvious path, these included bagpipes, trumpet, saxophone, dulcimers, a harpsichord, symphony orchestra and brass band. “I just wanted to bring the album alive. I still find it ten times more natural for me to deal with live instruments than programmed ones because that’s what i’ve been doing all my life. Electronic instruments are harder to grasp for me, but of course that’s the reason why I need to tackle them.”

Either way, the result is a thousand times more galvanized than Debut, which, whilst being a commendable first effort, tended to get a bit predictable after awhile. This time, Björk has stepped out with a degree of confidence, allowing her to experiment and have fun without upsetting the balance and symmetry of the whole. Björk herself, when pushed, describes Post as “open,” where Debut was “more surfacey.” It transpires that originally, fired by her new surroundings in London and the potential collaborators she was meeting on a daily basis, she had intended to produce the record herself. To do otherwise, she felt, would be cowardly.

“I was very lucky. I had all these options at my fingertips and I thought I would be a coward not to use them,” she says. “I don’t want to be a hero or anything. Generally, I find doing things on my own very boring. I find a really big difference between people who are happy and nourished and confident and people who are egoistic. Being egocentric is something that I try and avoid. It’s not a good way of being. You end up unhappy and so does everyone around you.”

At the last moment, however, she decided that she wasn’t ready for such a step, that she needed help. She approached Hooper, who told her to do it on her own, while offering to be her “safety net,” if all else failed. “That,” Björk smiles, “was the most generous offer anyone has ever made me. The lyrics of one of the songs, ‘Cover Me,’ are about that.” She did use Hooper, writing her favorite songs with him. Two more were done with current wunderkind Tricky and a further pair on her own, as originally planned. It’s a robust chemistry—and it works.

“I would like Post to be more human,” Björk beams when tentatively asked to offer some impressions of the new record. “For me, Debut was good for when it was made, but it was very much about me being terribly shy and deciding, ‘Well, it’s now or never.’ It was just about baring myself for other people to see, and I was very insecure. I wanted to make perfect, immaculate pop songs, which was a result of my shyness, really. Now, I’m focusing more on the energy. The emotions are more definitive, because I felt braver. The aim was to express myself without complications, to be more direct.”

She cocks her head to one side and asks, suddenly, “Is it too loud for you, this thing ?” She’s pointing at a portable hi-fi playing a selection of African music taped for her by a friend in Iceland. What she means is, will the tape recorder interfere with my tape recorder ? It’s a small thing, but Björk’s thoughtfulness is touching—and surprising. She gets up to turn the machine down.

“Also, Debut was my first album,” she continues. “It was like I was a virgin, musically. I’d done music since I was 11, but this was the first time that my music came out. It was almost like opening my diary and showing it to the world : It was a collection of songs taken from ten years of writing and it was the first time I’d had the guts to push it out into the world.”

Was that frightening ?

“Very frightening, yeah. But very exciting at the same time. This album is like the other half of the diary. I think of these as the two first ones, somehow. Debut wasn’t written to be seen. I never thought anyone would pay any attention to it. I know that people will see Post. It makes a difference.”

Not that this has made Björk more cautious.

“I think I find myself putting things in boxes, boxes for things that are personal and boxes for things I can imagine letting other people see. There’s a very strict line between these things.”

Björk maintains that this is how it has always been. It’s only natural, she’ll explain, that a person should communicate differently with their family and best friends to how they would with a taxi driver taking them to the airport or, for that matter, anyone with ten bucks to spend on a CD. But this aside, she’s always been self-possessed and independent, something she attributes to her childhood.

Björk’s Mom was what she is apt to call a “hardcore hippie.” The family group was large, so she had to learn to fend for herself from an early age, but she also had “all the security in the world.” It’s funny how children of hippies have so often rebelled against the woolier, more laid-back aspects of their parents’ philosophies. It’s also funny how many of them have succeeded rather conspiculously in later life.

“My mother had really long hair,” Björk says. “She wore all those Moroccan bracelets and things. I was the only child, living in a house with seven adults. They all had long hair and listened to Jimi Hendrix all day long, and everything was painted purple, so I’m allergic to purple now. They had all these dreams and wild plans—you know, “Let’s live on an airplane !” and things like that, 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 the time and tell you stories and make kites ? It took me ages as a child to learn to be interested in other people because my own head was so busy and so interesting.”

It sounds like a fun way to grow up. And yet Björk claims that by the age of seven or so, she’d had enough of it. Those grown-up dreams never seemed to amount to anything. “So I became the opposite,” Björk says. “All kids are like that. I became very self-sufficient, left home when I was 14, got a flat, got into bands. But that’s an Icelandic thing. You get a summer job when you’re there. You learn early about work and about survival.”

This accounts for something of the woman’s determination. For Björk would appear to be a peculiar amalgam of the steely pragmatist and the tree-hugging idealist. How easily these two strands of her personality co-exist only Björk can know, but on the surface, at least, she seems relatively at ease with herself.

Who would her heroes be ?

“I don’t really have any heroes as such. I admire a lot of people, mostly scientists, like Albert Einstein, but it’s not like I ever wanted to be them. It’s just that there’s nothing as mysterious as science and I admire the bravery of people who are willing to look into it, face it head on.” The words “bravery” and “courage” pop up often in the course of our conversation. These are clearly issues for her.

“Making myself do things I find difficult is my way of trying to avoid taking things for granted, mellowing out, I guess,” she says.

What does she consider her greatest fault to be ?

“My biggest fault is also the best thing about me : how easily I get bored.” As it relates to music, this has manifested itself in the fact that, while still a teenager in Reykjavík, she was playing in metal bands, punk bands, folk groups, jazz combos, experimental collectives—anything that was going on. Presumably, this training is one of the things that helped her voice develop into the outrageous instrument it is now. Certainly, the resultant eclecticism of tastes contributed to the slightly unfocused nature of Debut, whilst also lending Post a certain air of accomplished gravitas.

People, hovever, are spared her short attention span. “I’m like that with music, books, films, clothes, but when it comes to my loved ones, I’m like dreadfully conservative,” she says. “My friends are forever. I find it extremely difficult if something goes wrong in my personal life. It’s like the ground falling away under my feet. Having been brought up by hippies, which I feel very lucky about, we didn’t have meals at regular times, I never knew where we’d be or what we’d be doing in a year’s time—there was nothing reliable in my life. So things like friends become my anchor. That’s definitely what keeps me alive.”

How much of the hippie-child remains in Björk ? There’s only one true way to discover such things, which is to ask somebody what they think will happen to them after they die. “I almost refuse to think about it,” Björk replies easily. This is an original response. “It’s like it’s none of my business. There are certain things we shouldn’t think about the future. When people go to fortune tellers and all that, I think it’s rude, somehow, like a disrespect to what you are given, to life. You should appreciate all the surprises we’re given.”

“Also, I often find that people use the promise of life after death as an excuse not to get things done in this life. And I’m very obsessed with the fact that time is running out and you don’t have that much time. We have to make sure that we love the people we love 100 percent, go to the places we want to go and try all the things we want to try before we die.”

Even aging doesn’t phase her. “When I was young, I used to look at my mum, who was this madly overexcited hippie, really swallowing life. She was always a bit worried, running around trying to be sexy and trying to be in love and trying to buy a house and trying to have a job, and I just found my grandmother ten times more charming. When she was about 55 or 60, she used to travel out into the countryside and paint ; she’d take a load of red wine and go and sit up by the lava, staying for a week. She had the best time in the world. I think the climax of my life is going to be after, say, 45. But between 50 and 70’s gonna be great.”

For someone who values her “space” and claims usually to be able to tell within the first ten minutes of meeting someone whether they can be friends—and who has a rapidly growing son to fit in the equation (he’s visiting his dad in Iceland right now)—the demands on her of late must be difficult. Then there’s the “mad” factor. “Yeah, the only thing that really bothers me is the narrow-mindedness and stereotyping,” she says. “Like last time some journalists decided that I was this mad eccentric because that made their jobs easier. The way people have been treating me so far this time is different again. I’ve just done a couple of big photo shoots and something was bothering me about them. For a while I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I realized that in these peoples’ heads, I had grown into a massive monster, this gigantic celebrity creature. They had already decided even before they’d met me that I was difficult, I was fussy, I was particular, I needed special treatment !

In the end, it makes me prickly. They were so defensive, so eager to ensure that I wouldn’t get difficult, that it made me mad. I actually became difficult ! In the end, I told my press officer that there was no way I was going to do this stuff unless I can start by handing violets to these people. Because they’re just taking it far too seriously ! Every job has its dirty laundry. That’s my dirty laundry.”

Irritating though this thing may be, Björk has had good schooling for it. In Iceland, she became a child star at age 11, when she recorded an album of modern pop cover versions. In terms of population, being a star in Iceland is probably roughly equivalent to being the hottest thing in Albuquerque, but still she learned to cope with the pressures of fame.

“I lived in a very small village, where everybody has got their nose up each others’...bottoms...that’s not a very good translation, is it ?” You get the idea. “I knew from then that kids would react differently to me in school. But kids have good instincts. When a person tries to come close to you, you know what the reason is. Adults lose this intuition. You learn very quickly that, even if people want to talk to you because you are famous rather than because you are you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s fake. It’s a thin line that separates these things. Things are not always obvious. So when Debut happened to me two years ago, I sort of knew what to expect.”

Things are not always obvious. Is this the ultimate statement of Björk’s rationalism ? Or of her romanticism ? We may never know, because at this precise point, the phone rings and a friend invites Iceland’s most appealing export (well, it’s either her or cod) out to a party. Skipping out into the night, it’s time for Björk to have fun. And maybe that’s what counts most.

par Andrew Smith publié dans Raygun