The Face No. 62, 11/93
Interview by Ekow Eshun
Photography by Juergen Teller
Scans by Aniello
Links to /rho
It's hard to avoid Björk Gudmundsdottir recently, but then she
has made one of the year's most exciting albums. Back in Iceland
for the first time since recording "Debut", she says she really
doesn't know what all the fuss is about.
"That's how it is in Iceland," says the singer. "They're not sure how to treat me. When I do interviews, they ask questions like, `Are you famous?' `How much money have you made?' `Have you met Michael Jackson?"'
Those of her fellow islanders too old to recognise Björk from her former band, the Sugarcubes, know her for an album called "Gling Glong": a jazz reworking of traditional folk songs, sung in Icelandic, that sent the white-haired and the frail of limb into dewy-eyed bliss. Released in Iceland a couple of years ago, it has sold more copies than "Debut", ensuring that for a particular generation, Björk will always be the singer who put the heart back into the old songs. International acclaim aside, she seems, for the most part, too close to home, too familiar, to be a real star. "Everyone is proud of her here," Björk's best friend Joga tells me. "But to them she is like a little girl."
Nine months ago, work and love drew her to London with her seven-year-old son Sindri. The two of them are returning to their birthplace of Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, for the first time since then, for some long-overdue catching up with Björk's endlessly complicated and extended family.
Björk and her seven-year-old son, Sindri, at the Blue Lagoon, the unnaturally hot, blue water that is the by-product of Reykjavik's main power plant.
Yet the album, which reached number three in Britain, is an unlikely mainstream hit. From her pairing with 80-year-old harpist Corki Hale, to the track apparently recorded "live" in the toilets of London's Milk Bar, it is determinedly experimental and occasionally off-kilter. Björk's own assessment is blunt. "This record was a bit of a rehearsal and it's really not that good. I can do much better."
But in a way the singer herself hasn't fully grasped, Björk is the face of the moment. At a time when the charts are full of manufactured pop, when supermodels and celebrities are prized for their skill at games of artifice and glamour, hers is a singular voice of honesty. And "Debut" is the sound of an artist, sometimes winning, sometimes failing, but always struggling to be herself.
"When I first heard her album I was so surprised," says her mother whom I meet fleetingly in Reykjavik. "Because for anyone who knows Björk, it is so very much her. It is a bit to do with being here, to do with the light and dark, the dramatic contrasts. It is very honest and I love to listen to it."
THE NIGHT WE ARRIVE in the city, I find myself staring up into the glistening polar sky, watching the Northern Lights - the aurora borealis. Green and purple stripes of astonishing luminescence shiver above my head, changing form and oscillating in, then out of focus.
When I tell this, with some excitement, to Björk the following morning, she is disarmingly blasé. Natural phenomena are a way of life in Iceland, a volcanic island where hot springs, fjords, summer snow flurries and midnight sunshine are all commonplace. Indeed, almost to prove the point, Björk, Sindri and I take off on a tour of the jagged, windswept terrain outside Reykjavik. Her friend Hubert, a painter of dark, brooding still lifes, drives us in a heavy-duty army personnel carrier that has somehow found its way into private hands. Hubert tells me that Icelanders have a "natural immunity" to their long winter of almost perpetual darkness: instead of sinking into depression, they turn to art, with the result that almost everyone on the island is a painter, a poet or a musician. Iceland, says Hubert gravely, has nine chess grand masters to Britain's two. It has produced three Nobel prize winners from a population of only 250,000.
she was too impatient, too anxious to do something real, to play the
child star. "When you're 11, you're not listening
to Sesame Street any more. I wanted to write music about walking down
the street, having visits, laughing, having a swim, the things you do every
Her band consisted of "losers in their thirties,
past the hottest moment in their life".
Björk grew up an only child in an extended family of doting hippies. "When I was one, my mother became a feminist, a rebel, and left her husband to become a hippy and lead a very free lifestyle. It was the Sixties," she says with a sigh of apology, "and everyone was doing it. She started hanging out with the wildest lot in Reykjavik and they all rented a flat together. They were always singing and drawing, going wild and barefoot - you know what hippies are like. There were ten of them, and I was the only kid. Being hippies, their favourite people were children, so it was like a 'let me read you a four-hour-long story' kinda thing."
But at the music school Björk, the child prodigy, attended, she was bored and restless; fed up with the strict curriculum of classical music and maddened by the disposability of the pop songs she heard outside classes. Much of the time, she didn't bother to turn up.
"They kept telling me I had a lot of talent and all I needed was discipline, so they wouldn't throw me out. Which turned out to be a privilege 'cause it meant I could do whatever I wanted."
She'd probably have wandered away for good if a new, young teacher hadn't "completely opened my mind", by introducing her to Schoenberg, Stockhausen and the whole canon of contemporary modernism. It was only through their challenging structure that she came to understand, and finally love, the clarity and simplicity of pop. "I think it's important that there's pop music," she says earnestly. "Because people need songs that are fresh, spontaneous, just about everyday life and having a laugh."
"There's nothing better than waking up in the morning in the middle of nowhere. You can do whatever you want, just shout at the top of your voice and be absolutely free."
What's so important to you about having freedom, I ask "I dunno," she shrugs. "I guess it's just being able to do what you want to do. It doesn't really take explaining, does it? It's like looking at a menu. Why do you want a piece of cake and not an apple? Who knows? But the point is you want it."
She'd ask herself questions about what she wanted, what she could do, how to be herself, all the way through adolescence. Eventually, she realised that all she wanted was to live a little.
"There were so many things I wanted. To be a singer, a skateboard champion, to experience meditating in a Buddhist temple," she remembers, gazing out of the window. "I've always been very aware that you only have one life, and you have to try as many things as possible."
One summer, she worked at Iceland's Coca-Cola bottling plant. "I had pink hair at the time, and I was supposed to sit in a chair, watching the bottles as they passed to see if they were clean. Mostly, I just used to fall asleep. I never made the employees' hall of fame."
Last year, Coca-Cola held a party, which the Sugarcubes were invited to. Among the employees were contemporaries of Björk who'd intended to leave after three months, like her. "They were still saying, `I'll be gone by September,'" she shudders.
When Sindri was born, Björk and the baby's father, Thor, moved into a tiny flat together. "All our friends started to hang out there beause it was clean and organised and there were no parents around." They were painters, poets, musicians, "surrealists" - Reykjavik's alternative artists. As a joke, Björk, Thor and four others formed a band.
They called themselves the Sugarcubes and refused to take things seriously, even when they suddenly became Iceland's first viable pop group. Instead, they rolled round the world, getting shamefully drunk, recording intermittently brilliant songs and turning into a family. Björk split from Thor, he married keyboardist Magga, male group members Einar and Braggi announced a brief Platonic marriage of their own, and Björk took Sindri on tour from the age of six months. With the result that his early vocabulary included phrases like, "Gimme five", "Rock'n'roll" and, perhaps inevitably, "Fuck off".
Wouldn't it have been easier to leave him at home? I suggest.
"No, not at all," she insists. "When you have a baby it's like the purest love there is, so you don't ever, ever think about things like that. It's instinctive and reassuring to have him with you. And it means you're always trying to do something brilliant, for his sake almost more than yours."
"It's as if you started cooking at this restaurant and everybody heard about it and started coming," she says, shifting in her seat. "But you'd still only learned how to fry eggs. You're doing your best and everyone's happy, but it's not exactly what you wanted to do with your life."
Promoting an album she doesn't wholeheartedly believe in for most of the year has brought her to the edge of exhaustion. "It was all right the first six months; seven months was a bit tricky; eight months was when I started hitting people. I've been telling this hideously pathetic, stupid joke that the Bible in England is different. God created the world in one day and then he talked about it for eight days."
Despite her reservations, "Debut" is one of the boldest and most striking releases of the year. Discordant minor chords, rumbling bass notes, Björk's idiosyncratic, sometimes heart-stopping voice - the joy of the album is listening to its disparate elements swim together and finally merge into a fragile harmony. Like droplets of water slowly freezing until they flash and sparkle like ice crystals.
"It's very hard to say just what it's about," muses Björk, tossing her head from side to side. "I'd like it to be a statement of individuality. But I've still got a long way to go, so I'm a bit confused, because I just know I can do so much better than this record." She pauses for thought... "If you went out somewhere and had a really good time, you don't wake up the next morning and try to figure out why you did. It's not because of anything. It's just the atmosphere, the people, the chemistry of friends, your mood, what happened before, what will happen after. And you can't explain it, and I don't understand why you should. And it's the same with songs."
She lives with Sindri and her boyfriend, a London DJ called Dom Thrupp, in a converted dancing school in Little Venice. They met two years ago in LA, just after the Sugarcubes, exhausted by "six different ideas of how to make a record", had recorded their third and probably final album, "Stick Around For Joy".
"There's something very delicate and tender about him," she says. And then as if catching herself sounding like those love-struck friends she used to despise, she hurriedly adds: "But not in a sickly sort of woofty way." Still, it's Thrupp who provides the inspiration for one of the most poignant moments of "Debut". The sigh of desire called "Venus As A Boy", whose lyrics, "He's exploring the taste of her, arousal so accurate", seem all the more sensual, for being made public as a single.
"Extremes of anything" make her cry. But particularly when she hears music that's so abstracted from the ordinary it has taken on a singular, transcendent beauty of its own - "Like pure, pure, pure singing or pure, pure, pure hardcore noise."
Touring in Belgium one time, she happened across a cavernous industrial music club, playing new beat. "The sound was so simple and in a way, totally boring. But just seeing everybody tranced up and getting into it was a revelation. I realised how modern it was, but at the same time, how it was about going back centuries, thousands of years even, back to basics, back to the original trance dances."
The club opened her ears to dance music, leading her to the Chicago house sound of Larry House and the Detroit techno of Derrick May - "I still haven't heard anything better than that."
Then towards collaborations with 808 State on their "Ex:El" album, and eventually, with Nellee Hooper on "Debut".
"Like going treasure hunting," she'd search out the clubs in every city the Sugarcubes would visit, looking for the perfect beat. "You'd go to 50 clubs, and maybe at the 51st, if you waited for four and a half hours, the DJ would play one song and it would be brilliant."
"I look at myself very much as a David Attenborough when it comes to music," Björk tells me. For a moment, it crosses my mind that she's joking. But only fleetingly. David Attenborough is her idol. Like him, Björk believes herself to be an anthropologist; albeit one who explores emotional landscapes and attempts to capture them in music. "I walk around saying, `Listen, there's love in the air, the lights are dim, look...'" she whispers, mimicking his hushed tones. "And I try to make music from that which excites people, which inspires them and gives them joy."
"If you know me, you realise I'm pretty much a common-sense, no-bullshit kind of person. Very simple, very direct." At heart, insists the singer, she is "a bore".
"I'm not an artist or a poet. A poet is someone who can create something with words that can stand on their own on paper, that become a world of their own you can enter. My words are very dependent on their music. I try to make the music into a world in its own right. But really, beyond that, I haven't got a lot to say."
I think about this for a while, as clear night falls over the harbour. Perhaps Björk really is as mundane as she suggests. A dexterous weaver of mood music that sounds good, but signifies little. In which case, "Debut" may have cast a spell over her current audience in the same way "Gling Glong" enraptured an older one.
But pop is about making music that chimes with a particular moment. And if she has captured a mood, it's not simply the appropriate tone for a dinner party. The eagerness with which many have seized "Debut" may puzzle her. Yet its success has occurred within a broader shift of cultural values, that's also been played out in other fields such as fashion and photography. A move away from gloss and sheen, towards aesthetic honesty. Under such circumstances, Björk's music may well be "ordinary". But that will do just fine.