Sulphur and Spice

The Wire, 1er août 1993

When Björk was a member of The Sugarcubes, she was treated as an ingredient. Now, with the release of her solo album Debut, she’s stepping out on her own, back to her avant garde Icelandic roots. Avril Mair talks to her, and ponders a year of innovation and achievement for women in inde pop.
Photograph by Gino Sprio. Make up by Lindsay Crisp.

So the pixie from hell is back this time on her own. Perched on a stool in the perfectly white surroundings of a photographers studio in Kings Cross, she looks like an angel ; a small, serene vision, unadorned, dramatic in her simplicity. As the camera clicks, Björk whistles along to her recently released CD Debut, which just happens to be playing in the background. Draped in the subversive austerity of Martin Margiela’s clothes, she looks a high fashion world away from her previous incarnation as indie music’s biggest player. "I sampled stardom a little bit with The Sugarcubes, enough to know it’s not so brilliant. A lot of stardom is doing things that aren’t good for you. The Sugarcubes were just individuals with no one in control over us, we were always about doing different things never wanting to be pop stars but then . . . it happened. This time is different". The surprise outcome of an isolated and inbred Icelandic music scene, The Sugarcubes were a situationist prank that bred a phenomenon way past their original intent. By turns serenaded and slagged by the music papers, The Sugarcubes never again matched the uneasy beauty of their en- during first hit, “Birthday”, but suffered from a fickle press as much as their own stubbornness. Three albums down the road, Björk had had enough. "I’ve done a lot of things musically to make other people happy. Now I wanted to be really selfish and do something for me.” No longer in competition with the ranting of fellow ‘Cube Einar, Björk has produced one of the year’s great albums, an inspired and coolly innovative record pleasingly at odds with the corporate imprint of most 93 releases. Progressive, but with a commercial pop sense, it is characterized by the eerie splendour of that voice, a voice which echoes the alien environment of her native country ; all misshapen landscape, strange sulphuric eruptions and unnatural beauty. With its simple title, the record is a catharsis of sorts. "It was about privacy as opposed to going solo," she says. "It’s more a step backwards than a step forwards for me. Sort of being more private rather than exposing myself. It’s more about hiding.”

Björk is a strange, strong one—off, a woman who doesn’t fit neatly into any sociologist’s landscape. But it’s worth noting that one of the most striking things about her recent work is its vocalisation of sexual need and desire and womanhood. Gender is an issue again. Traditionally, the musical auteur has been male. Women have been allowed to sing but not to play, to be employed but never truly to participate, to be inspirations, but only passively, the muses to a male agenda. In rock, last year, things began to change. Women artists may continue to complain when identified and classified in terms of gender, but these days rock’s women are increasingly conscious that being women makes a difference, opening possibilities rather than shutting them down, Infused with righteous anger and revolutionary zeal, the Riot Grrrl underground band/fanzine network in particular encouraged girls to find their own outlets for expression, to put “women in music” back on the agenda again, It’s true to say that in terms of their sound, Riot Grrrls are so far merely an amateur revolution in the independent charts : no matter how inspirational their litanies to liberty, the music itself is resolutely mundane. Yet they’ve helped create a new climate : the growing willingness (perhaps we should say, the diminishing reluctance) of the music industry to accept strong women artists on their own terms owes more than a little to these sonic guerrillas. They haven’t just changed the rules, they’ve stopped the game Polly Harvey refuses for the moment to associate herself with feminism, but she is nonetheless an intelligent and empowering force, with her songs of poetry rubbed raw or else her wild guitar, calling up the ghosts of Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell and all the other strong women who picked up microphones and screamed their hoarse alienation, hurt desire and femaleness. Rid Of Me, her recent, critically—acclaimed album, all ambiguous sexuality and camp humour ("got my girl and she’s a wow, mainsize got my leather boots on”), is an awkward, demanding record, but beautiful and brave, as Polly spits her lines over sensual, bluesy music. Indie-girl “supergroup” The Breeders lout of The Pixies and Throwing Muses) are fierce and graceful, combining sonic ambition with troubled songs about physical fantasy and social destruction. Tanya Donnelly’s Belly, with rain-washed guitar and her jarringly fragile voice, evoking terror and childhood innocence, tortured seriousness and obsessive emotions offset by Donnelly’s own warmth. Then there’s those American anarchists Babes in Toyland ; rock-chick uniformity turned inside out, given a nerveshredding metallic charge. And L7. And Hole. Actions speak louder than words. By addressing women’s desire in their music, by reinstating sex as something real woman enjoy on their own terms — a dangerous, liberating and all-consuming primal force — these groups are creating a new kind of feminist rock, or else making rock into a new terrain for feminism to develop. And then there’s Björk. As with the others, she’s uncategorizable ; her ties with everyone so far mentioned are only loosely ideological, not at all musical. Whatever you want to call it, in an unprecedented year for female experimentation, Björk stands apart.

Debut is actually her third solo album. Her first was a standard pop offering back in 1977 when she was just 12 years old. The second came out three years ago and featured her interpretation of ancient odd Icelandic jazz. In between there was the curiously named Tappi Tikarrass who released one album in 82 and then Kukl, who formed in 83 and released two LPs on Crass‘s anarchist outlet. In fact, it’s a combination of these little-heard ventures that provide the musical ground work for Debut. “Although nobody in this country knows the music l’ve done in Iceland, this album of mine is kind of a natural continuity of that while The Sugarcubes were very much an exception. That wasn’t really my music. . . I was brought up in a hippy commune where there were always Jimi Hendrix records playing really loud and so I tired of it when I was about seven years old. l’m bored with guitar, drums and bass because of what I’ve been through.” Debut is an ambitious and unique melange of avant garde indie, thrash, opera and offbeat cocktailjazz ; involving the unlikely union of traditional instruments tabla, saxophone, piano, harp with contemporary, sketchily minimal rhythms. Björk sings like a fallen angel, swooping from operatic highs to chilled lows through orgasmic sighs. Her voice is laden with sexual intrigue, her songs transcend gender politics to deal with desire above all : “His sense of humour suggests exciting sex’ she shrieks in “Venus As A Boy" (due to be released this month as the album’s second single). It’s quite extraordinary. There’s no restraint. Just passion run amok. And it sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Fusing this bewildering Icelandic genius with the production of Nellee Hooper, creator of Soul ll Soul’s massively influential shuffling backbeat, Debut may play around with the basic tenets of dance music, but ultimately it’s an album which fits no defined genre. “l had never intended to get a producer, I didn’t even like the word producer — I thought that things would just be done by themselves, you know. But Nellee Hooper seemed to be very sensually into my ideas and it seemed he would arrange my songs with me from the point of view of my lyrics, not from some musical history vibe. I didn’t really like Soul ll Soul, they were too tasteful for my liking. So I didn’t let him loose on the album, I would criticise every footstep he took but he seemed to have a very open mind like myself. I wasn’t worried about where I came from and he wasn’t worried where he came from at all ; we both wanted to start at point zero.” With Nellee Hooper pulling the project together, and DJ Darren Emerson and Dutch techno artist Speedy J transforming the first single, "Human Behaviour”, into a tense Underground House voyage, it would be easy to view Debut as a knowing attempt to corner the credible yet still commercial end of club culture as well as jazz and indie fans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Björk has already demonstrated her passion for House music — creative collisions with oddball electronic innovators 808 State and regular off-duty romps on dancefloors nationwide were earlier statements of intent. “l started traveling a lot with The Sugarcubes back in ’88 and up to that point I had been pretty isolated and hadn’t heard very much but then I went to clubs and witnessed a lot of exciting things. I mean 90 per cent of dance music is crap but just occasionally you end up in a club at 6AM when the DJ has stopped playing for the masses and is just playing for himself and you get magical moments. That is what has kept me going for the past few years.” Previously regarded — amiably but ultimately dismissively — as a quirky ingredient in the mix of one of the more original, more independent “alternative” bands to emerge in the late 80s, the release of Debut puts Björk firmly centre stage. Unconventional beauty with voice to match, she’s adapting with humour and integrity to this role, transforming a limiting label into the motorforce of her creativity. “Until now I’ve been happy to just sing songs to myself as I was cooking or playing with my son. I count myself luck ; now that other people want to hear it. It‘s all very precious to me.”

After years of acting as a silent, glamorous pull-quote flanking the real business of rock, women artists are suddenly achieving recognition without compromise, and because they don’t compromise This success sends missives of empowerment to their younger sisters. And because the shapes of this success are so varied — from Belly to The Breeders to PJ Harvey is a long way, from Riot Grrrl to Björk is even further — it counts for more than the breaching of sexist and heterosexist bias even (important thought that is). Gender is an issue again because these new role models are dynamic and unpredictable. Björk doesn’t aspire to be an inspiration — and that’s maybe why she is one.

par Avril Mair publié dans The Wire