The Always Uncjorked Björk
Interview by Jon Savage
Photography by Peter Robathan
Interwoman. Interview with pop singer Björk.
Bjork has been performing since age eleven, when she made a record in her
native Iceland. Raised by what she calls hippie parents, she rebelled in
her teens and formed a punk band called Kukl; they recorded for the label
run by the hard-core British anarchists Crass. It was a key moment.
Subsequently, Bjork's voice shone through the guitar rock of the
Sugarcubes, a group that, like many punk bands, was formed as a Joke and
ended up an unhappy career. In Iceland, in the early '90s, with the
Sugarcubes disbanded, Bjork wrote and recorded much of her Debut album -
"songs I had written in the
evening when my kid was asleep, almost like a domestic housewife
album." It was her two guest appearances with dance
maestros 808 State that had opened up a whole new world for the former punk
and paved the way for her collaboration with Nellee Hooper, the producer
who, with his connections to Bristol trip-hoppers Massive Attack and
Tricky, was in at the ground level of this year's dance-floor boom. He
provided the state-of-the-art sheen that made Debut so attractive. The CD
was a winning mixture of club savvy and more reflective songs that explored
JON SAVAGE: When were you born?
BJORK: November 21, 1965.
JS: On the cusp of Scorpio and Sagittarius.
B: My mum is heavily into these things, and apparently I'm as much Scorpio as one can be. To me, whether it means something or not - fuck that, I just love the symbolism of it. It's pretty, like Greek and Nordic mythologies. I'm supposed to be run by Pluto. It's like a fairy tale, it simplifies things.
JS: Is Nordic mythology similar to Greek?
B: It isn't a copy, but it's got the same characters. In mythology wherever you go, you've got the strong guy, the wise woman, the winners and the losers, the travelers and the domestic people. I always like the animals in mythology, like the ravens on Odin's shoulders.
JS: Scorpio is all about life, death, and sex.
B: That doesn't surprise me. My three fucking obsessions.
JS: Have you ever had your chart done?
B: My mum did it. I think she took me to all the occult creatures of Iceland, from the age of zero until I was eighteen, when I became a rebel anti-hippie. I got my fortune told and everything. I think I probably believe most of it, actually. I've got Pluto in a very important place, and that's what I'm about. I have to re-create the universe every morning when I wake up. And kill it in the evening, which is a bit outrageous, but there you go.
JS: Hard work.
B: Heee! Well, maybe not every morning, but maybe twice a year I have to destroy everything. I've also got my moon in the twelfth house, in Scorpio, and my sun in Scorpio in the first house, and also Neptune. Then on my other half, my generational picture, I've got Pluto and Uranus in Virgo, and my midheaven is in conjunct with those two. Virgo is the sign of the nurse, so this means I was born to nurse my generation. I'm still fifty-fifty about whether this is true, but I was breast-fed on it.
JS: In your lyrics, you seem obsessed with the sea.
B: I am, very much. It's a combination of things being born on a small island and always having the ocean. It makes your head function completely differently. If I travel, as long as I'm by the ocean, I'm fine. If I'm not, I get claustrophobic.
JS: What do you exactly get from the ocean?
B: First of all, a sense of well-being, like I'm home. I had a really wild upbringing, which I think is the best upbringing anyone could have. My home was by the sea. If I walked down to the sea and sat down by the shore, I was home. That's my mother, the ocean. Nothing can go wrong. I love swimming, another hippie thing. My mum says it's because I'm a water sign. And the sense of space and boats. I'm obsessed with boats. It's freedom.
JS: Do you feel the lack of sea in London?
B: Yeah, it
really does my head in. I tried to stay by Little Venice, but
it's a canal, so the water doesn't move. I'm only here for work. It's just
two hours on an airplane; my kid [eight-year-old Sindri]
can go back home
when he wants to. I'm only here for a period, to get my little mission
done, and once it's finished, it's finished. But after this little job is
over, I'm living by the ocean. It doesn't matter where it is.
B: It took me ages and ages to reason it to myself. I find it very hard to be selfish. I just decided, I'm going to move to London, I'm going to be really selfish, I'm going to get all the instruments I want, all the noises and lyrics I like, and make all the music I can, because everybody's got to express their vision, and no two people are the same. I could happily go and die if I could say, "I did my best, I made my sacrifices." It's as basic as that. If I hadn't done this, I would sit in my rocking chair at eighty-five, with my grandchildren on my lap, and say, "Sorry, I didn't have the guts." I've become selfish now, believe me. I'll go out to the flower shop and buy flowers just for myself. It's outrageous, isn't it?
JS: What do you feel about moving to London from Iceland?
B: It's a cosmopolitan city. That's the reason I'm here. If I want a dulcimer player, I can get one. If there's a certain photographer I want to work with, more than likely he's going to come through London. I can appreciate London from above, all the rooftops, maybe because I'm a kid and I like Peter Pan. I'm starting to appreciate aimlessness and eccentricity. I've realized that Englishness is about people who have to behave politely all day, and the clothes have to be all proper, but that doesn't mean they're not mad. You have to focus on it, but once you find it and focus on that energy, then you can stay sane. Compared to the English, Icelanders are like people from Sicily or somewhere: "I'm upset!!!" Like a volcano, they break things, and two hours later, they're happy. There's a volcanic eruption in Iceland once a year, on average.
JS: Do you think that environment influences behavior?
B: Very much so. What happens in Iceland is that you get the blizzard in your face, you have to fight the weather all the time, and you stay very alert, you never fall asleep. Your head is always working. People who go there think the Icelanders are really stressed out. They're not, but their energy is on ten. We've got this awkward thing, which is twenty-four-hour darkness in the winter, and twenty-four-hour daylight in the summer. There is snow from October or November until mid-March. It means that in the winter you're just inside and you write all the books you were going to write and get everything done on your own, and then in the summer you go absolutely mad. Like bears after hibernating.
JS: Do you write things down when they occur to you?
B: Yes. I've written diaries for a long time now, and sometimes a whole lyric comes, and I have to pick a sentence here, a sentence there.
JS: There's a great lyric on "Big Time Sensuality": "It takes courage to enjoy it." Do you have that courage?
B: I've got a lot of courage, but I've also got a lot of fear. You should allow yourself to be scared. It's one of the prime emotions. You might almost enjoy it, funny as it sounds, and find that you can get over it and deal with it. If you ignore these things, you miss so much. But when you want to enjoy something, especially when it's something you've just been introduced to, you've got to have a lot of courage to do it. I don't think I'm more courageous than most people. I'm an even mixture of all those prime emotions.
JS: Sex does take courage sometimes.
B: I think so, because if it lacks that sensation of jumping off a cliff, it would just miss so much. Then again, it has to be pleasurable and enjoyable and lush and all of that. But "Big Time Sensuality" was actually about when I first met Nellee Hooper. I think it's quite rare, when you're obsessed with your job, as I am, when you meet someone who's your other half jobwise and enables you to do what you completely want ... so it's not a sexual romance.
JS: Are you currently in a stable partnership?
B: No. I split with my
boyfriend at the beginning of last November, and at
that point I'd been with a stable boyfriend since the age of sixteen,
though in different relationships. When we broke up, I thought I might as
well enjoy this, which I do and I don't. It's scary at times. The best bit
is that you're kind of skinless, you're more vulnerable and emotional and
on the edge. There's also that silly thing that I had when I was fifteen
and sixteen - looking around and wondering who it will be! So I'm sitting
there on the subway thinking, Will you have a long nose or a short nose?
Will you enjoy this or that film? It's like a little party game.
There's something really stupid and romantic, thinking that it's just going
to be one person. Even though both of us might have five partners before we
die, we always think of that one. Then there are all these things saying
how brilliant it is to be self-sufficient and not needing anything or
anybody and getting all these tools so that you can do everything yourself.
It's like you're a little warrior armed with your Walkman and your video
and all this technology. Everything's geared toward self-sufficiency. Fuck
that. For me, the target is to learn how to communicate with other people,
which is the hardest thing, after all. What you should be doing is learning
how to live with other human beings.
There's something really stupid and romantic, thinking that it's just going to be one person. Even though both of us might have five partners before we die, we always think of that one. Then there are all these things saying how brilliant it is to be self-sufficient and not needing anything or anybody and getting all these tools so that you can do everything yourself. It's like you're a little warrior armed with your Walkman and your video and all this technology. Everything's geared toward self-sufficiency. Fuck that. For me, the target is to learn how to communicate with other people, which is the hardest thing, after all. What you should be doing is learning how to live with other human beings.
JS: Do you have visual ideas in your mind when you're writing your songs?
B: Definitely. It's natural for me to express things first musically, then visually, and third, with words. So the words are like a translation of noises and pictures.
JS: "Army of Me" is a heavy song. Did you have a picture in your mind when you wrote it?
B: I'm a polar bear and I'm with five hundred polar bears, just tramping over a city. The lyric is about people who feel sorry for themselves all the time and don't get their shit together. You come to a point with people like that where you've done everything you can do for them, and the only thing that's going to sort them out is themselves. It's time to get things done. I identify with polar bears. They're very cuddly and cute and quite calm, but if they meet you they can be very strong. They come to Iceland very rarely, once every ten years, floating on icebergs.
JS: Can you tell me about "Hyper-Ballad"?
B: That's a lyric about being in a relationship, and after a while, say three or four years, you repress a lot of energy because you're being sweet all the time. So I wanted to set it up like a fable, something that happens over and over again. It's about this couple who live on a cliff in the middle of the ocean, and they live in this house, just the two of them, and she wakes up really early, about five in the morning, before anyone else wakes up, and sneaks to the edge and throws a lot of things off: old rubbish, car parts, bottles, and cutlery. And she imagines what it would look like if she herself were to jump off. Then she sneaks back into the house, back into bed, then her lover wakes up and it's "Hello! Good morning, honey!" And she's got rid of all the aggressive bollocks. The chorus goes, "I go through all this, before you wake up, so I can feel happier to be safe up here with you."
JS: There are some great subliminal noises on "Headphones."
B: That's a track I did with
Tricky. He was getting a lot of pressure from
his record company, because there was a real buzz about his album, so he
was a bit naughty and escaped to Iceland. We drove around in a four-wheel
drive and saw the glaciers and swam in the hot spring and wrote this tune.
I went into my diary and found a complete lyric about receiving a
compilation tape in the post from a friend. It's a very personal thing.
You're pissed off with things generally. You save it until the evening, and
after you've had your bath and brushed your teeth, you go to bed and take
your Walkman and put your headphones on and you fall asleep. The lyric is a
letter to that person. I had this idea to do a song that is like a worship
of headphones. The chorus is "My headphones saved my life, your tape lulled
me to sleep." All the noises in the song are just-for-headphones stereo
tricks. It didn't need a lot of instruments. Tricky feels really strongly
about noises and beats, and that is exactly my weakest point.
B: Most of my songs are written in the first person, from the point of view of my best friends. I find it ten times easier to express my friends' feelings than my own. If I write about myself, I usually write in the third person. It just feels natural.
JS: Do you sing from your stomach or your chest?
B: My stomach. Most engineers find it quite difficult to deal with me, because most of the singing I did as a kid was when I was walking outside, completely on my own. This is absolutely impossible in London. There is no privacy here. I started singing with the whole of my body, which is both good and bad. The engineers usually end up using the same kind of microphones as they put on a stand-up bass, because it's got a big body.
JS: You've said that you recorded a lot of your vocals on the beach.
B: It was a very sentimental thing. I wanted to sing outside, because I knew everything would fall into place. Nellee made it happen. Compass Point Studio [in Nassau, the Bahamas] was right by the beach. I'd have a very long lead on the microphone and a long lead on the headphones and I'd just sit there at midnight. All the stars would be out, and I'd be sitting there under a little bush. I'd go running into the water and nobody could see where I went. In the quiet bits, I'd sit and cuddle, and for the outrageous bits, I'd run around. It was the first time I'd done a song like that in about twenty years. I was crying my eyes out with joy, because it was something I so deeply wanted all those years. Almost like you had sex lots of times, and it's gorgeous, and then you couldn't have it for twenty years, and then suddenly you have it. It was completely outrageous.
JS: Do you think that musicians feel and act out emotions on behalf of their audience as a way of helping people deal with emotions?
B: Definitely. It's something
I didn't think about until recently. I
probably wouldn't have thought about it at all except I had to get my ass
over to another country and force myself to think about why I was doing
this. It was almost like I wasn't doing it for myself. But if I have any
vision of my life, I think I'll be singing until I die, about ninety years
old. It's funny, all the attention I'm getting, but I don't think I'm
hooked on it. I could just as well move to a little island and live by the
ocean and just be the village singer or whatever. Singing on Friday and
Saturday nights, writing tunes for the rest of the week. That's my role.