Quietly happy

The Sunday Telegraph magazine, 22 février 2002

Björk released her first hit album aged 11. Since then she’s been an anarchist, become a mother, won Best Actress at Cannes, and sold 15 million records. Emily Bearn talks to her about communing with nature, being Icelandic and her latest single

A few years ago, Björk wrote a song called ‘Human Behaviour’, which went like this : ‘Human behaviour, human/Human behaviour, human/ Human behaviour/There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic/ Human, human/Human behaviour’. There hasn’t always appeared to be much logic to the behaviour of Björk Gudmundsdóttir.

During the course of her 25-year singing career (it kicked off when she was 11) she has released videos in which she reels around a padded cell disembowelling a teddy bear ; she has composed some daft lyrics ; and she has worn some very daft clothes—last year she turned up at the Oscars in Los Angeles wearing a swan and then pretended to lay an egg. (Clothes, apparently, should be about ‘creativity and freedom of expression, not the power of a label’.)

She might be an exhibitionist or she might be a fruitcake, but either way she sells an awful lot of records (about 15 million worldwide). I have arranged to meet Björk in Manhattan’s resolutely fashionable meatpacking district, where she has lived for the past couple of years. The plan is that we will spend an hour together in a local café.

To ensure nothing goes wrong, one of her London-based assistants has flown out to join us, and is being put up at great expense in the SoHo Grand hotel. I report to a sparse-looking diner which has a pink ceiling, and, I am told, is popular with transvestites. On the afternoon I arrive it doesn’t appear to be popular with anyone much—most of the tables are empty save for those occupied by a group of rowdy women laden with shopping bags and a couple of lone men in polonecks struggling through heaps of french fries.

After a few minutes Björk’s assistant turns up and suggests that we sit at a table in the corner where we won’t be overheard. The waiter explains that we can’t, because the corner table seats six and our party will consist only of three ; we explain that our party will include Björk—yes, Björk !—and that settles it.

Björk arrives ten minutes early, and has the slightly startled look of someone who has just been woken up. She is wearing dark blue jeans which are so long you can’t see her shoes and a black jersey embellished with a sort of vast black woollen petal which is flapping around on her chest. I ask her whether it is symbolic of anything in particular (growth, perhaps ?). She smiles ethereally but doesn’t answer.

Björk does a lot of ethereal smiling—in fact she does it pretty much non-stop, which looks good but makes her seem rather remote. She is wearing no make-up and her hair, which is jet black, has been partially goaded into a hair band and looks as though it hasn’t been brushed for a week. She is flawlessly pretty and could pass for a 15-year-old—which is surprising, since she is 36.

She speaks in a soft, almost childish voice which has resonances of south London—also surprising, since she’s from Iceland and, when she lived in London, stayed north of the river. The overall impression is of something slightly unearthly (‘elfin’ is the word often used). One longs to pluck her out of Manhattan and put her on the next sleigh to Narnia. But instead we’re cooped up in a gay diner to discuss Björk’s latest single, ‘Cocoon’, which will be released next month, although no one quite knows when.

As with all her songs, she wrote the lyrics herself. It concerns a boy ‘possessed of magical sensitivity’ who inspires lines like this : ‘Who would have known/A beauty this immense... Who would have known/ Miraculous breath/To inhale a beard loaded with courage.’ It sounds better when sung, because the point about Björk is her voice. It has been described by Bono, the lead singer of U2, as being, ‘like an ice pick’, and it is a powerful one. It is clear, it is very lovely and it has been exported to just about every corner of the globe making her—as Rolling Stone magazine put it—‘the single greatest source of abiding delight to come out of Iceland since Njal’s Saga’.

‘I always think about music because it’s part of me,’ she says, her smile now haloed with a rim of cappuccino froth. ‘I am a song-writer first and foremost. You have to give it a lot. Every song is different. I would die for a song, of course I would. It is the most important thing. I’m a down-to-earth person obsessed with music.’ Her music has come a long way since her teens, when she rocked around Iceland with a Dadaist anarchist arts collective called Kukl in which she sang in noises instead of words.

‘The rest of the group were more like intellectuals,’ she explains. ‘It was my role to be a punk. I had long orange hair and no eyebrows. It was a new angle.’ Twenty years on, her ‘angle’ is more domestic. ‘Cocoon’ forms part of an album, Vespertine, which was released last year and which she says is, ‘very much about being alone in the house’ and should be listened to ‘at home with a good book’. (She nearly called the album Domestica but then decided that would be ‘a bit much’.)

‘It is a bit more mature than what I did before,’ she says, neatly replacing a teaspoon on her saucer. ‘It’s about the voice I have today which is different to when I was 15 or when I was 20. I wanted to celebrate the home and the privacy and the sanctity of the home. For me that is very important. It is very much about your own space.’ The single ‘Cocoon’, more specifically, is ‘very much about being in a cocoon’— and that is pretty much what Björk appears to be in this afternoon, moving only to sporadically punch her nose with a tiny fist.

For most of the time you feel she’s burrowed away in a land of her own lyrics (‘gazing at stars/Hearing guitars’), but then she suddenly says something sensible and you start to suspect she’s not so daft after all. When it comes to her career especially. Though she says she has ‘no interest’ in money, she manages herself well. She says she loathes people interfering with her music, and likes to be in control.

‘I do it all myself,’ she says. ‘From the moment I think of the song to its going through the studio. I see it through right to the end. I’ll mix it and watch the whole process. I hate to feel I haven’t done something myself.’ Though she left Iceland nearly ten years ago, her nationality is an indelible part of her public image. She looks like an eskimo, but is tired of being told so : ‘People are always asking me about eskimos, but there are no eskimos in Iceland. It is just an idea which people have formed.’

The idea that people have formed is that Björk is slightly odd, and the fact that she comes from Reykjavík fits the picture. (It’s said to be a weird place—deathly quiet during the week, then completely manic on Saturday nights when everyone ends up sitting round the harbour gazing into their own vomit. Björk once said her mother, grandmother and she used to kick off the weekend by drinking a bottle of vodka each, but she now prefers champagne.)

Her English is fluent, but she says that Icelandic is the language in which she best expresses herself. ‘When I am thinking about work and using technical musical terms I think in English,’ she says. ‘But when it is to do with my feelings I think in Icelandic. I visit the English language, but Icelandic is what I feel in. I usually write my songs in Icelandic, and then translate them myself into English.’ She doesn’t translate them all.

Take, for example, ‘The Modern Things’ : ‘Tahiiiiiii/Engin fylgist alveg medh/Tahiiiiiii/Solin sekkur/ Tahiiiiiii’. Björk has a 14-year-old son, Sindri, who lives in Reykjavík with his father, Thor Eldon, a rock musician with whom—according to her press notes—she engaged in ‘many antagonistic, drunken and inspiring arguments on the nature of art’. The couple divorced after their son was born but she describes herself as ‘first and last a housewife and a mother’.

‘I do not talk about my son because it not fair,’ she says. ‘I do not want him being bothered.’ She once knocked a female journalist to the ground in Bangkok airport for attempting to interview him. When it comes to her own publicity, she is more relaxed. ‘I’m lucky because I travel a lot, so if I give an interview in one city, by the time it’s published I’m probably somewhere else so I don’t see it and I don’t care about it.’ She now regularly returns to Iceland, both to see her family and to commune with nature, which she says is her main inspiration as a songwriter. (While growing up she would sometimes hitch alone to the barren lava fields of the interior and sing to herself.)

‘I need to go to the ocean often, just to be beside it,’ she says. ‘And I love mountains. For me, climbing a mountain is very renewing. I sometimes go back to Iceland to do it.’ Nature is a recurrent theme in her songs. ‘Violently Happy’ finds her making guttural noises at the sea : ‘I tip-toe down to the shore/Stand by the ocean/Make it roar at me/And I roar back’.

In ‘The Anchor Song’ she embraces it more fully : ‘I live by the ocean/And during the night/I dive into it/ Down to the bottom/This is my home’. The mountains also feature—less lyrically—in songs such as ‘Hyper- Ballad’ : ‘We live on a mountain... Every morning I walk towards the edge/And throw little things off/ Like :/Car-parts, bottles and cutlery/It’s become a habit.’ An odd habit, but Björk’s Icelandic childhood was not a conventional one.

An only child, her father was an electrician and leading trade unionist ; her mother—so the story goes— was ‘the most extreme hippie in Iceland’. (She later went to live in a teepee in California with an American Indian chief but is now back in Iceland where she is ‘a martial arts expert who makes meditation records by rubbing Icelandic singing bowls to produce a humming sound’.) The marriage did not last long, and Björk’s mother replaced the electrician with a musician in a blues band.

Björk grew up in a commune in a village near Reykjavík in which Jimi Hendrix and Cream were played non-stop. Björk’s own musical tastes are more contemporary : ‘I like music which deals with now. There are some things which are timeless, but I like to listen to new music a lot and old music just a little.’ At the age of 11 Björk released her first album—a collection of children’s songs which was produced by her stepfather and sold 5,000 copies in Iceland, making her the country’s best-known face.

Her childhood was not tainted by her fame. ‘I just took it as it was. It was difficult sometimes being recognised but Reykjavík is really just a small town so everyone recognises everyone anyway.’ By the age of 15 she had moved into her own flat : ‘I always wanted to be independent. Iceland is like that—if you want a house, you build it yourself ; if your car breaks down, you repair it. You have to be strong.’

She started singing in local groups, one of which, Tappi Tíkarrass, took her briefly to London—where she developed a compulsive hand-washing habit. ‘The whole city felt grey. It felt dirty. I cried myself to sleep every night for two weeks.’ Back in Iceland she clubbed together with some friends to form a band called the Sugarcubes which made four successful albums before splitting up in 1992—‘It was a joke band really. We’d get drunk and write songs about making love to cats’—after which Björk decided to go solo.

She moved to London in 1993. She liked it much better and, from her home in Maida Vale, swiftly lodged herself on the cultural landscape. Her first album, Debut sold four million copies and her second, Post, sold three million ; she won two Brit awards and she made friends with Alexander McQueen. She intended to stay a few months but ended up spending four years, which she devoted to ‘communicating’. ‘I had been quite isolated in Iceland—I wasn’t really into people. I thought I’d live alone in a lighthouse. But in London I was ready to come out of my shell. I was doing interviews all day. It was about communicating. It was for the music. There was a lot going on. It was a magical time. It was like going to university.’

In 1997 she decided to stop communicating and to return to Iceland : ‘Everything started feeling like a dream. I wanted to be self-sufficient again. I wanted to get back to nature.’ But she kept on singing and, a couple of years ago, uprooted to New York where she says she is happy. (She knows lots of hip people, and has attended spiritualist gatherings in Harlem.) ‘My home is where I am when I am there,’ she says. ‘I do not like the idea of having lots of things—I’ve never been a collector. If I had to leave New York I could pack up my apartment very quickly. It’s only got one bedroom.’ She also has a house in Iceland, which she says would take longer to pack up as it houses her guitars. Boyfriends have come and gone, but not all have been satisfactory.

After divorcing Eldon, with whom she remains friends, she dated a Bristol DJ called Dom Thrupp, after whom came a French photographer Stephane Sednaoui, a musician called Tricky, a DJ, Goldie (whom she said she’d marry but didn’t), then a producer called Howie B.

Along the way, she has suffered the adoration of her public, most memorably Ricardo Lopez, a fan from Florida who, in 1996, was so indignant at the prospect of her marrying Goldie that he sent a parcel bomb of sulphuric acid to her London house before shooting himself in the head. Her fan base grew bigger still last year, when she took the lead part in Dancer in the Dark, a film by the Danish director Lars von Trier. She played a partially-sighted single mother who worked in a metal-turning factory to save money for an operation for her son, whose eyesight is also failing.

Bleak stuff and not everybody liked it. It was both booed and cheered at its debut, but the word ‘masterpiece’ was bandied around and Björk was named Best Actress at Cannes. Her relationship with the director was reportedly strained—he dismissed her as ‘a madwoman’ after she tried to block the film’s screening following cuts to the score she had written—but Hollywood is now courting her assiduously. ‘I’d had offers before Dancer in the Dark,’ she says. ‘It might sound arrogant, but I’m not interested in doing another film. I’m a singer. That is what I do. I am not an actress. I’m not really an actressy person.’ That much is clear. She is extremely reserved—perhaps because she is sick of ‘communicating’ but more likely because she’s just rather shy.

After we have been talking for 57 and a half minutes Björk’s assistant, who has until now been sitting next to us reading Time Out, consults the clock on her mobile telephone and announces that we have two and a half minutes left. Björk looks palpably relieved, so I sacrifice the remaining 150 seconds and call it a day. Before she disappears, I ask what she’ll be doing this afternoon. ‘Going home,’ she says, buttoning herself into a knee-length black coat. ‘Back to my cocoon.’

par Emily Bearn publié dans The Sunday Telegraph magazine