Sydney Morning Herald

Beyond Björk

From obscure popster cum fringe poet to award-winning MTV favourite in two years, Björk’s star has moved fast. Stephanie Bunbury meets Iceland’s favourite daughter.

How can a Viking be so small ? Björk is tiny, a lithe creature with thick black hair cut square around a pale, scrubbed face. She is wearing a furry orange and black flying suit under a red hooded jacket, but that face is the brightest thing about her, open to all comers and ready to play. Iceland’s little genius looks about 14.

And the talk ! Bjork erupts like Mount Hekla, full of impatience with a sluggish world. “It is up to people what they do with their lives !” she exclaims fervently. “You could go out and change the world. It’s not a question of money or power, to change the world.”

She gives me that wide-open stare. Definitely 14.

Björk is too fiery to be quite grown up. Too enthusiastic. Too much.

Two years ago, Björk was fringe, a piece of indie-pop exotica. Her strange little poems of everyday life set to achingly experimental music, full of atonalities and electronic whizzery, made her of cult interest to Triple J listeners but much too difficult for the general public. At least, that’s what Triple J listeners like to think.

But Björk surprised everyone. Two hit albums ( Debut and Post ) down the track, she has been voted best female artist by the very GP viewers of MTV. Last week’s Brit Awards named her best international female artist. She has become a star : a guiding star.

For the very young she is inspiringly unconventional ; for adult rock fans, she is agreeably complex, a tonic to the mature ear, weary of rock by numbers. The GP loves her for being defiantly, elusively herself. She is simply not bothered about making herself model-beautiful, Madonna-raunchy or Kylie-popular. While the rest of us are weighed down by care at the end of an exhausting millenium, she is mercurial.

Björk released her first record in Iceland in 1977 when she was just 11. A mixture of covers and standard Icelandic pop tunes, it sold 7000 copies—platinum status in Iceland. Her teenage years were spent listening to Schoenberg and Stockhausen, playing in a succession of punk bands and helping publish books by very young Icelanders who couldn’t get a guernsey with the island’s narrow mainstream. The spirit of the Pistols was abroad.

In 1986, Björk and a few of her musical, literary mates wanted to record a song as a lark. They did it, the song was a hit and suddenly the Sugarcubes were the hottest band on the British indie scene, fending off offers from the major labels and playing with fame.

“We went abroad several times a year, got a lot of money and free air tickets and free hotels and free food. We could take our friends along ; all we had to do was pretend we were a rock and roll band,” Björk said later.

Now Björk is a real contender.

Endearingly, the Sugarcube who never wanted to sell out to the record companies is guilelessly enthralled by winning a gong from MTV.

“I thought I didn’t care about award ceremonies, but when I knew I’d won ... I just lost the plot, to be honest. I think I passed out.”

And why not ? There is no room in Bjork’s life for cynicism, only for more amazement. She is amazed, for example, that people like her weird, loop-the-loop music.

It is in this music that you hear the mind of a complex 30-year-old woman at work. In the soaring, scraping voice with its bursts of sheer noise, perilous whispers and slitherings across octaves ; in the esoteric combinations of instruments, from a dulcimer to a black box to an entire string orchestra. In the lyrics, made all the more telling by their slightly awkward English.

“I am obsessed with being stimulated,” she says. “If I wake up in the morning and everything happens like I planned it the day before, I become really upset and feel like life has let me down.”

Björk speaks of what it means to be alive with blunt matter-of-factness, her accent a giddying seesaw between the neatly rolled Scandinavian “r” and flat, raucous London vowels worthy of a Soho spruiker.

She has lived in London for three years. Her relationship with her host country is uneasy : she is frustrated daily by the English stiff upper lip, but still gets excited looking out of car windows. “You can be just sitting in a taxi going the way you’ve always gone and it’s the most stimulating thing ever.”

Now, now, now. She keeps returning to it : the need to live the moment. “My greatest challenge has always been trying to experience now. And having courage. Because I truly think that is the most difficult thing.

“It’s so easy to say : ‘Oh, it was so great 10 years ago, we rented a car between a group of us and had a holiday,’ or whatever. Or it’s going to be so great 10 years from now, when we live in a castle with our loved ones and the children are all around us. But to say ‘now is great’ takes a lot of guts. And the thing is, if you have the guts to stand up and say ‘now is great’, everything else falls into place.”

That morning, she says, she woke up in a furious mood that stayed with her through six phone interviews. Now she feels fine. “I don’t know why I get angry. And I don’t know why when I walked out I got all happy. I just don’t know.” These things just are. These things are now.

But it isn’t hard to guess what might have made Björk wake up cranky. Björk finds interviews a grind. They are part of what she calls “the clever s—t”, the record business and media and having to say things that sound sensible but have nothing to do with music, which she believes is a matter of pure instinct. She once told me music was “the biggest opposite of pure logic, which is why it’s so brilliant”.

People still think Björk is an oddball, a stray elf sprung from a rock. She is so used to that now it hardly touches her. She faces a new horror : the discomfiting sight of people trying to imitate her. London clubs are sprinkled with pixie wannabes, growling and swooping in Björkesque vocal gymnastics.

“They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” she says brightly. “But I think it’s crap, really. It misses the whole point of why I’m doing this.”

And the point is always the same, Viking quest : to be yourself, and to be true to yourself. “I still can’t get my head around the fact that you can go to the USA and listen to the radio for two hours and every single song sounds like the same person is singing,” she says. “That just doesn’t make sense to me, just like we don’t have the same finger prints. I just think that’s people lying.”

Instinct, always instinct. A thousand daily passions. “I don’t know,” Bjork shrugs. “I’m pretending I know it all, but the same time I don’t. Here I am saying go out, change the world, but I’m aware there are many elements in people’s lives. Please..." she puts a small hand on my arm, trustingly ; “don’t take me too literally.”

Stephanie Bunbury

publié dans Sydney Morning Herald - 01.03.1996

 

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