Kissing to be clever

The Face, 1er juin 1995

Now she’s back with a new LP that’s even stranger and more compelling. Who is this chameleon-like, endlessly-photographed, admired-by-Madonna musician that has so bewitched us ? And why did she break our writer"s arm ?

"This wasn’t supposed to happen..." - “Hit” by The Sugarcubes

Björk broke my arm. Not deliberately or accidentally or even actually but, well, she was there. It was her that wanted to go outside and dance underneath the moonlight. It had been her idea to start drinking champagne and cherry liqueur - Kir Royale - that afternoon. It was her record company that was picking up the not-insubstantial tab. But it was me that paid.

We are an hour south-west of Paris. L’Abbaye Des Vaux De Cernay is a twelfth-century abbey that has been converted into a luxury hotel complex. The 65-hectare grounds are dotted with crumbling cloisters, supernatural fountains, eerie towers, secret tunnels and the ghostly (taped) chants of cowled monks. The heliport lurks just to the left of the abbey’s “existential mystery”, in the shade of its “timeless magic”. The sauna and Jacuzzi and tennis courts and other such crass attractions are discreetly hidden from view. This is a hotel so posh that it has another, slightly-less- posh hotel in its grounds.

Inside : spiral staircases, vaulted sandstone arches, ornamental wrought-iron door-handles, individually-carved wooden wall-panels, porcelain sinks, gold taps, crystal chandeliers, a huge fireplace just right for roasting that troublesome outsized boar. The old refectory is the restaurant, the cellars the music room, the salon gothique the smoking room. You could cut the rarefied ambience with a (solid silver) knife.

After midnight in the salon gothique, and the Björk party have partaken of five-course nouvelle cuisine and the mandatory wine, cognac and beer. Björk’s ever-present ghetto blaster is playing Money Mark, The Boo Radleys, an Indian version of “I Will Always Love You” and “Chicken In A Basket” - a compilation of Forties showtunes and cheesy-listening tack made for her by her longtime friend and collaborator, 808 State’s Graham Massey. Björk wrestles with the head of her French record company. Jóga, a masseuse and Björk’s best pal from Iceland, is talking of the therapeutic effects of essential oils. There is dancing by the ancient organ. It’s been a long day.

And so, swinging her ghetto blaster, Björk the Pie-Eyed Piper leads us outside into the abbey’s rolling acres, It’s a full moon. Ruins are explored, snaps are taken, wine is drunk from the bottle. There is tomfoolery and high-jinx, dancing and piggy-back fights. With champagne-fuelled bravado I decide it would be a good idea to rugby-tackle Michel Gondry, director of the “Human Behaviour” and “Army Of Me” videos. We go down in a heap. Something crunches. I stand up. Someone crashes into me. We go down in a heap. Something crunches again. It is only later that Björk notices that my right arm has a new bend in it.

Back inside, as everyone else goes off to bed or back to Paris, Björk and Jóga lead me to a couch in the salon gothique. A waiter is commandeered to fetch ice. We retire to Björk’s chambers - the four-roomed apartments that were formerly the private quarters of one Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild. I am lying on Björk’s bed. She is perched on one side of me, feeding me dainty chocolate Easter eggs. Jóga, on the other side, has attached what looks like a small car battery to my shoulder blades, to check my pulse points. She is dangling a pendulum over my chest, to locate the spiritual blockage that I apparently suffer from. There is ice everywhere, escaping the hastily-assembled ice-pack that is round my arm. I can’t feel a thing. Björk brings vodka and tap water. Björk and Jóga, my new big sisters, fuss and nurse. We stare at the carvings round her lavish bed. “Living large,” as Björk would say. “Glamorous ” We are all, in retrospect, violently happy.

“World domination or death” - The Sugarcubes’ motto

Björk Gudmundsdottir is in the midst of a pan-European press and promo tour. Her eight-year-old son Sindri is spending part of the Easter holidays with his dad in Iceland, so she has 12 days free of family responsibility. Twelve days to tell the world’s press about “Post”, her second album. Last time round, when she was just the slightly strange ex-singer of a lunatic Icelandic indie band, the pre-release interest in her first solo album was healthy. Not hysterical. Now, after “Debut”’s 2.5 million sales, everyone wants a piece of the action.

The emphasis of this promotional exercise has been on style, on journeys and pit-stops that would “nourish” the singer and stimulate the journalists, on making the interview marathon of these dirty dozen days that bit more bearable. “My favourite thing, still is, if people give me,” Björk asserts. “And I don’t mean compliments or bollocks like that. just another point of view.” She will be delighted when a Berlin journalist compares her to his favourite fairy-tale, wherein a tiny girl existing as a virus in a cherry blossom has her world invaded by a worm.

The trip starts with a two-day jaunt on the Orient Express, London to Venice and all points in between. Austrians, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Israelis, Japanese, all clamber on board for a taste of regal Victorian opu- lence and an audience with the, ahem, ice-queen. The Orient Express, perhaps fearful that these rock’n’roll personages will not be suitably attired (suits and frocks are compulsory, even for the German TV crew) and may frighten their traditional passengers (little old ladies with a spare grand or two), has despatched its PR doyenne to keep an eye on things. “She looks like the president of Iceland," gasps a clearly cowed Björk.

In Venice they stay in an island hotel that is “a bit film starry”. In nearby St Mark’s Square three coffees and three brandies cost the record company 78,000 lira, or £52. Björk’s hotel phone bill is 432,000 lira. Björk likes to talk. In Dresden they stay in a draughty old schloss. The menu, the German record company informs them, offers “pork and leech” and “steak with red garbage”. In a dull downtown bar (coming attractions - Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball) Björk invents the “Dresden Drink” - herb bitters, kiwi liqueur, Calvados, Johnnie Walker. In another she downs tequila, persuades the owner to play her tape of “hardcore Latin”, and is pestered by a drunk who wants to marry her. Later that night, after phoning a friend to tell them of the sculpted gold ceiling in her room, Björk “delivered some stuff into my sink”. That is, she puked. The self- proclaimed “practical housewife” feels guilty and scrubs the sink clean of regurgitated leech, garbage, cocktail and tequila.

And so to France. The designer responsible for all of Björk’s sleeves has flown in. He needs approval, and pronto, of the images, shot by Björk’s ex-boyfriend Stephane Sednaoui, to be used on the album cover. An earlier shoot, by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, has already been scrapped. “It cost £24,000” says Björk. “But now I know what I want. OK, I admit it” she throws up her,hands, suddenly aware of the extravagance. “I’m a pop star !” “The single sleeve suggested power,” says the designer of his manga-inspired creation “Astro-Björk”. “The album is awe.”

Awe is what the French journalists exude. For them, power is what Björk wields. They have seen this endlessly-photographed, chameleon-like figure staring from countless magazines and TV screens. Realise she looks cute but must be tough. Know that the 29-year-old has been performing, public property, for 17 years. Are aware of her anarchist-punk past and global-star present. Understand why Madonna is such a fan, applauded when she won two Brits in 1994 (Best International Artist, Best International Newcomer), gaped at the spine-tingling duet with PJ Harvey on “Satisfaction”. Might remember that she is a single mother.

“Because they’ve seen me millions of times in the press,” Björk says of the cloak of celebrity that clouds other people’s minds, “for them I’m already like nine feet tall. And that’s nothing to do with me really.” Earnest Eric from Rock & Folk makes a brave face at first. ‘“Post’ is not really powerful,” he says before being shown into the cellars-cum-music room for his interview. “There’s absolutely no musicianship in it. I don’t like pop. Most British music sucks.” One hour later : “I want to live by the ocean with a big organ,” Björk is telling Eric. “I asked Marius [de Vries - the programmer on ‘Post’] if he could make a synth sound like the fluffy bit on top of a coconut,” she’s adding, apropos of her being a different kind of musical visionary. She talks of being 60 and entertaining her grandchildren. “I can picture myself by the sea, alone, being happy.” Eric smiles. “I can’t wait to be invited to your island,” hebeams. “Tell her I want to marry her,” Eric says to the French PR as he leaves. One hour later : “Physically you look like a child. More like a girl than a woman,” offers Emmanuelle from French Elle. More family details are tweaked out to explain Björk’s “maverick” artistic bent : how she was brought up by hippies “who had no discipline. Let’s paint the house with purple butterflies. Let’s eat bananas for two days. I like this till I’m six. Then I hate. ” Because she had to, Björk became self-reliant aged live. She has three brothers and three sisters, and they have three mothers and three fathers between them. Sindri is older than her youngest brother. Perhaps as a compensation for this lost childhood, perhaps in recognition of the blurring of age-gaps, now “half of me is a kid, half of me is like my mother... That is why people think I am stupid, innocent, naive and a little elf.” And the music ? It’s in there too, in that jumbled-up dippy-hippy family : “As a child I was allowed to do what I want... What I’m trying to express is being alert... To make music is like organising a car-crash...”

Two hours and three Kir Royales later : Emmanuel from Les Inrockuptibles has brought Neil Hannon, the young Irish fogey who fronts baroque’n’roll band The Divine Comedy, to interview Björk for his magazine.

“Can computer-generated music ever replace people-generated music ?” asks Hannon, classicist Luddite. Answers Gudmundsdottir, “The computer is human, because it is a tool. If there isn’t soul there, nobody can put it there. Computer music is pure imagination, like a fantasy.”

On friends, colleagues and collaborators : “When I’ve met ten loud people in ten days, I’m dying to meet a fucking secretive insect-collector... I’m obsessed with making everybody happy... My boyfriends are usually my friends who I happen to have sex with. ..”

On Sindri : “He’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met. He’s never felt like an anchor on my thigh.”

On her musical past : in Tappi Tikarrass (trans : Cork The Bitch’s Arse), 14-year-old Björk “shaved my head and dyed it orange”. Playing in Montpelier in 1981 she and Einar - later of The Sugarcubes - had a furious argument. “Einar said music was a bogus reason to communicate with the world. I said music was the most precious, sincere thing in the world.” In Kukl (trans : Sorcery), it was all about “cutting your chest open and chucking your heart at people”. In The Sugarcubes (trans : Sykurmolarnir) the band had a fantasy about retiring to an island in the Canaries. Einar would be a barber, Björk would be the café-owner with the dodgy sandwiches and the dress that didn’t fit her any more, tragically singing the songs that had made her famous when she was younger.

On “Debut” and “Post” : “‘Debut’ was the most selfish thing I’ve ever done and ended up the most generous thing I’ve ever done... ‘Debut’ was a self-indulgent attempt where the creature that came from Iceland tried to grow up in one album and it didn’t work. I did a little better with ‘Post’.”

On fame : she hates it.

On football : “It’s a fertility festival. Eleven sperms trying to get into the egg. Of course I feel sorry for the goalkeeper. But I’ve not had a boyfriend since October so I’m very sex-starved.”

More Kir Royales arrive. From there the evening spirals out of control.

The next morning Björk insists that I go to l’hôpital. One of the on-hand limousines takes me there. I return to the abbey, my right arm in a cast from knuckles to armpit, my ulnar splintered. Björk breaks off a photo-shoot and rushes over, aghast and agog. She signs my cast and writes something nice in Icelandic. Jóga promises a massage next time we meet. Björk frets. We have had a cracking time. Got plastered in Paris (or near it). Broke more than the ice. Etc, etc.

I leave for the airport, and Björk goes back to the interviews. Three Belgians now. “Do you think you are a northern saga ?” one of them asks. “I’m not sure,” replies Björk.

“Who knows what’s going to happen, lottery or car-crash, or you join a cult” - “Possibly Maybe” by Björk

Who is Björk ? Abbey-dweller and homegirl. Control freak and dreamer, dancefloor diva and mum, practical housewife and Wrecker of £24,000 photo-shoots. A hippy, a punk and a clubber. A jigsaw in a hall of mirrors. A confused and confusing contradiction.

In Europe the journalists and the photographers get Björk the crowdpleasing S*T*A*R : shimmying through castle and abbey, wearing spangly frocks and tiny jerseys, stinging her hand on nettles whilst playing in the grass, singing softly to herself as she waits for cameras to be focused, for- ever toting her pet ghetto blaster, cackling uproariously in Icelandic with Jóga. In their hour-slots the profile-painters in the press see the wrinkled, freckly nose and restless, scratching lingers. The child-woman.

They hang on her every soundbite. She is endlessly entertaining. As a result of English being her second language, of her accent being a dizzying slalom between Icelandic and cockney, and of her mind’s eye being that bit more imaginative, Björk gives good copy. She doesn’t want “to kiss any toes”, but her songs are “eccentric children” that will be “raped in the arse” if she leaves the responsibility for videos and sleeves and photos to others. There are anchors on thighs and organised accidents.

In Icelandic, a skyscraper is a “cloudsplitter”, a mole an “earthbur- rower”, and to have pins and needles is to be “needlenumb”. Iceland itself is an island that plunges between extremes, from boiling lava to freezing snow, northern lights to pitch-dark days. Here even the rocks change shape. Icelandic culture, too, is about “maximum emotion” and being “violently happy”, where a “Hyperballad” can spawn an “Army Of Me”. It’s about opposites, embracing controlled chaos, exploiting your own poles of personality. All of this - psyche, language and geography - comes ilooding out of Björk in a torrent of breathless excitement, punctuation- hostile and grammatically-unfriendly. And boy does it bewitch.

But she is not out to entertain or impress. She wants only to communicate and be stimulated and, if only they knew, “make everybody happy”. Yet also, “because people find my music quite unusual and they find me quite unusual they don’t really know how to picture the whole me and I quite like that”. As Kate Moss said last month, borrowing from Jean Cocteau, “the more visible they make me the more invisible I become”.

With Björk it is hardly that wilful. Spend more than a media-moment with her and the starriness and otherworldliness - if we must, the pixieness - becomes an adjunct to the real Björk. The Björk who frets and cares and nurses and phones home to her cocoon of domesticity in west London - mum, kid, housekeeper - at every opportunity. This is the Björk who knows her thoughts and hopes look funny on the page.

Confused ? So’s Björk. And out of this melee comes some of the most head-spinning music around. “Post” is Björk’s letter home, back to the heart and the hearth she left behind when she came to London to make “Debut”. A message to her mother Hildur Hauksdottir in Reykjavik, or her best friend Jóga Iohannsdottir in Arnhem. It shows the visionary behind the image, the poet behind the remixes, the sex-starved mortal behind the poet, and the insecurities behind the ambitions. “One week in the life of a person is what I was trying to do with ‘Debut’ and ‘Post’. Up and down, up and down. If you don’t do that, you’re a coward. You need courage to be up and down.”

As she told French Elle, it’s all about being alert. Being awake to the pos- sibilities. The club-cool and programmed sheen of “Debut” wasn’t the result of Björk clocking music’s seismic shift as The Sugarcubes spluttered to a halt at the end of the Eighties, spotting the coming commercial mother- lode, popping a couple of disco biscuits, and turning into a dance disciple. It was simply that she’d tried everything else, from classical to Seventies pop to New Age to New Wave to punk to anarcho-punk to jazz to Icelandic folk to art-house indie. Not necessarily in that order, but possibly more than one at a time. Remember : she’s been (in)famous in Iceland since she was 11. The songs for “Debut”, meanwhile, were being assembled in dribs and drabs along the way, and tucked away until the time was right.

With Nellee Hooper and Marius de Vries, “Debut”’s producer and pro- grammer respectively, new musical horizons opened wide. They’d already been glimpsed. Graham Massey, thanked for his “supernatural support” on the sleeve of “Debut”, recalls how he received a call in 1990. “I’m an Icelandic singer, can I play you a tape ?” When 808 State played The Word the Icelandic singer came along. “Oh it’s her, from The Sugarcubes. ” Band and singer met up in Manchester. Björk went off for four hours and came back with “Oops”.

Professionally and platonically, Björk and Massey clicked. For the new album they co-wrote “Army Of Me” in two hours in Massey’s mate’s living room one afternoon. Björk’s restless search for new sounds threw up more collaborations. Howie B took time off from his Mo Wax and Skylab slots to co-pen the soca stutter of “I Miss You”. Tricky injects prowling dub menace into “Enjoy”’s lust for life, and shackles eerie mumbles and ambient doodles to Björk’s drowsy crie de coeur in the closing “Headphones”. Elsewhere, “Isobel” is Broadway on breakbeats, “You’ve Been Flirting Again” is devastating melodrama, thick with strings, and her cover of Forties stomper “Blow A Fuse” is, literally, a blast.

Out in the Bahamas earlier this year, Björk and Hooper corralled most of “Post” together. In bushes, on the beach, in caves, under starlight, she would record her vocals. As with all of Björk’s apparently unconventional moves, instinct won out over intellect. This was how she had started singing, as a child, by the ocean in Iceland.

“Give her some time, give her some space” - “You’ve Been Flirting Again” by Björk

Björk is at home in west London. Last night she got back from the European campaign, after a day off in Amsterdam with Jóga. Interpol had been to the house, looking for a Dutch teenager who had gone missing, telling his mum he was off to live with his girlfriend, someone called “Björk”. Today she was at Top Of The Pops all day, filming the “exclusive” for “Army Of Me”. She wore a billowing black crepe dress and a T-shirt (age 9-10) featuring her beloved Ren and Stimpy cartoon characters. Now, again, it is past midnight. Graham Massey brings in Indian food. Sindri is in bed. The TV picture is enlarged and projected on to the wall, “like in an aeroplane”. Björk flicks through the channels, looking for Nickelodeon. Nellee gave Sindri satellite TV as a present, to watch the football. There are model boats and avalanches of CDs everywhere. There is a sculpture by an Icelandic friend. It is a giant conch-shell. “It’s a cunt,” says Björk. “And because it’s got blue glitter init, it’s a disco-cunt. ”

It’s good to be home. “Yeah, especially when you’ve got a kid. Just stupid things like last night I came home and we’d been planning it. I’d been calling him every day and we met here on the couch about ten last night and we just watched football and ate popcorn and Easter eggs. Just sat here and it was tops. Just underneath the duvet. It was like yes ! Living large.”

Do you ever wish you had a more ordinary upbringing yourself ? “No. I feel quite lucky with my upbringing. It was tough because I was my own mum a lot of the time, but I think it’s really good for you. The biggest Iceland author of the century says, ‘Few things are as healthy for a kid as losing your father when you are very young, perhaps losing your mum as well. ”’

That’s a hard lesson. “It describes Iceland people quite well, actually.”

But you became self-reliant and self-confident quite early on. How did you stop yourself becoming a self-obsessed, self-centred brat ? Whatever Happened To Baby Björk ? You could have become horrible. “I’m just a sensible person - always have been... I think it’s just a very normal reaction to being brought up by people who want to break all boundaries and are obsessed with freedom. Especially for a kid five or six years old, that just wants security and safety, you become extreme that way and especially for me, having parents who didn’t supply me down-to-earth sense... I guess that with music that’s the freedom for me. I can go completely bonkers in there. Daily life, everything else has to be very clear.”

Are you insecure ? “I am actually. But then again everybody is, aren’t they ? It’s not like a problem but...”

You’re successful now - have you been taken over by the system or have you subverted the system from within ? Or, are punk ideals still important for you ? “Yeah. I’m still trying to fight in that way. But being the character I am I don’t win by knocking people out, or killing them with a pistol. I’m not a terrorist. If people give me a hard time I tease them and make them laugh. This might sound completely naive and you’re just about to puke and I’m just about to sing ‘We Are The World’ and ‘Ebony And Ivory’ - but I honestly believe that. You can change the world, and if you don’t believe that then you’re fucked, there’s nothing... ”

Can you change it through music ? “I honestly believe that, yeah. I don’t think my songs are good enough yet. I’ve got a far and long way to go but I honestly believe that and I think everyone must feel that. You know, it’s the same with fucking businessmen or tax prowlers you know. And that’s my little naive philosophy in the... like to the... what do you call it ?... to the pin or to the...”

In a nutshell ? Hit the nail on the head ? “Yeah. Like... [screws thumb into palm, makes squishy noise] All of it, yeah, like that.”

What’s your biggest Haw ? “Being terrified of being bored.”

Do you have a temper ? Do you ever throw things about in the studio ? “No. I stop things. I’m a perfectionist. But I’m trying to learn. Slowly getting somewhere in a week because you haven’t got the guts to throw a bomb in there is a waste of time. I’d rather just slam it in the face and say ‘Listen, this is shit. ’ I’m trying to learn it. ”

Do you fall in love often ? “I was born to be in love. I think it’s more important for me to love than actually to be loved. I’m obsessed with it but because I’m a bit fickle -I don’t know if it’s because I’m fickle - I think also it’s a question of when you’re... especially because I like all the different emotional range. I like being stupid, humorous, dirty, witty, I like being vulnerable and naive and ignorant, I like being really strong and wise. I like being intelligent. I like being all these different things and I want to keep them all alive but you learn more and more about that the older you get. When you’re a teenager you meet someone and you always have a laugh together and you just want to marry him and be always with him for the rest of your life. Then you meet another person and you’ve got great sex together so you just want to marry him and love him and be with him for- ever. But to get all those things in one person you have to know yourself really, really, really well. I used to jump between... OK, this guy gives me sex, let’s be with him for three years, this guy gives that but... I’m learning. It isn’t calculated. That’s one thing love isn’t. But I want to meet someone. Who doesn’t ? [drops head and drops voice] Tell me one who doesn’t. ”

“My name is Isobel, married to mysem living by myself" - “Isobel” by Björk

Pop stars look different close-up. At Top Of The Pops Deuce aren’t teen-dreamers but three chubby punters and one extra from La Luz in Brookside. Wet Wet Wet prove that bland guys finish first. At The White Room, the first opportunity Björk has to see whether the songs from “Post” work live, as was the intention in their recording, Dave Stewart is the rock star as envisaged by the magic fancy-dress shop in Mr Benn. Lou Reed is a stumpy, tubby Kevin Keegan. Shane MacGowan looks even more like death, his skin the colour and texture and vitality of cement.

And Björk. Björk is someone with the good fortune to possess a tangen- tial imagination and the misfortune to seep photogeny from every pore. In the camera’s glare the shadows and shading are obscured. Or, to put it another way, Björk is someone who wears a silk kimono and pump-action Day-Glo trainers, a ballgown and a tatty Ren and Stimpy T-shirt. What is noticed, what gets remembered ? The Madonna song, not the fragile, simple otherworldliness of “Visur Vatnsenda-Rosu”, the traditional Ice- landic song Björk sang on French composer Hector Zazou’s recent album “Songs From The Cold Seas”. Perhaps tellingly, Björk’s next project is “Telegram” : six “Post” songs, rearranged - not remixed - with the aid of the likes of the Brodsky Quartet, classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie, a 60-piece orchestra and “a marimba as big as a Chevvy”.

Who is Björk ? “That’s probably my biggest lesson of doing so many inter- views,” she sighs. “I’ll never, ever, ever understand what I’m about. I’m still really rehearsing my instinct. I started when I was five. I’m still trying to train it because at the end of the day that’s all I’ve got. My little antennas that connect me and give me the whole picture. If you close your eyes and believe in your instinct, it’s fucking Star Wars - may the force be with youl”

It’s after lam. Björk has to be up at 7am to see Sindri, before embarking on a long day and night of television rehearsals. After the album is released, two years of promotion and touring and self-analysis. And then ? And how ? And why ? Living large, living glamorous, all the way ?

Björk wrinkles her nose. “Believe me, I’m sincere when I say this : I don’t need mega-album sales. If my albums stopped selling it doesn’t mean I would stop. ’Cause I know how to make an album for a fucking grand. If someone knows it, I do. I’m not scared of work. If I had to do three jobs, I’d do it. I know you can record an album with a DAT machine and a microphone in a living room. How I’m gonna develop is to do the emotional range that is on ‘Post’ with one instrument, or just with my voice. That would be the real challenge, wouldn’t it ?”

The clock ticks on. “I don’t know to be honest,” Björk cries wearily. “That’s my last thing. I don’t know. And I don’t want to. Don’t tell me the plot of this film. And if there’s a script to it, burn itl”

“I could nick a boat and sneak of to this island, I could bring my little ghetto blaster, there’s more to We than this” - “There’s More To Life Than This” by Björk and Nellee Hooper

Saturday morning, after Friday’s White Room shoot. I go round to Björk’s house for a final chat, as per last night’s arrangements. No answer. Maybe she’s still in bed -there was talk of her going to Def Jam’s Tenth Anniversary party. Maybe she’s headed off early to today’s power lunch with the American record company. Maybe she’s out with Sindri - it’ll be her last day at home for a while. Still no answer. It starts to rain. Typical. First she breaks my arm, then she stands me up. Pop stars : they’re just like real people, only more so.

par Craig McLean publié dans The Face