Björk Gudmundsdottir was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, one of the world's
most remote places to live, on 21st November 1965. The coountry has a
population of just 250,000.
"Iceland is my little world, the village with my relatives and friends,
people I love and people I hate. It's a magical place. Our feeling for
magic stems from out recent past; until 50 years ago Icelanders were still
living in the Middle Ages. Actually they still do. The average Icelander
might now have a portable phone and a satellite antenna, but his soul still
lives in the rural Iceland of the 1750's. Even though I've felt quite
misunderstood in Iceland, I've always found that quite fascinating."
a hippy upbringing
Björk's parents divorced when she was one, after which she was brought on a comune in Reykjavik. "I grew up with all these hippies. Ten of them and one of me. None of them wanted to work and spent all their time talking and dreaming and fooling around. 90% of that hippie stuff is just bullshit but the ideals of that generation were very beautiful and powerful and rebellious. I had to dress and feed myself from the time I was six, which meant I became a very organised person. But there came a point when I was about seven or eight, when I saw the absurdity of living in a commune and I said to them, 'Why don't you just DO SOMETHING!?'" Björk attended music school from the age of five to fifteen, studying flute and piano. After singing Tina Charles' cheesy '70s disco anthem 'I Love To Love' on a radio documentay about her school, Björk was offered a record contract by a small company. "The record label offered me all these songs and I turned them down because they were shit. I got very upset in the end so my mum ran around to her hippie musician mates and they all did songs for me. "The music was happy, light-hearted pop; half bubblegum, half crazy. It was mostly adaptions of kids' songs, as well as one I had written myself called 'Johannes Kjarval'. It sold 7,000 copies, which is enough to go platinum in Iceland. Having a bit of success brought its problems - on the bus, kids shouted things at me, like 'oh she thinks she's better than the rest of us.'"
Björk isn't averse to a bit of getting it on with people she fancies, but she was a bit of a late developer! "When I was 14 I thought boys were only good for being in bands with. I thought one of the most horrible things that could happen to me would be to get a boyfriend, as all my girlfriends had just lost the plot when they got one. Then I met Thor (Eldon, a budding guitarist) when I was 16 and it was love at first sight. I moved into his house the same evening."
"I left home when I was 14 because I got the feeling that time was running out, that there were all these things happening out there and I was missing them. You decide that you want to rent a flat and cook really bad meals. I had to come home a year later when I was broke."
Björk developed her own unique style without taking any lessons whatsoever. "Singing is very pure for me: it's my own way of dealing with other things going on in my head.I use my voice to think, in the same way that Buddhists use their 'Om' chanting. I love to sing in the wind, in the rain, during a storm, at sea, on a lava flow... me against the elements. Even for 'Post' (her latest album that has seen Björk make the big breakthrough with the 'It's Oh So Quiet' single) for some of the songs I used a special microphone with a very long chord so I could sing on the beach instead of the studio."
Music has always been in Björk's blood and her love of beautiful melody has stayed with her throughout her life. "When I was one year old I would get goose pimples when I heard a beautiful song. When he was one my son got goose pimples on his arm whenever he heard a beautiful sentence. And some other people get goose pimples when they see something pretty. But I'm more like that with sounds and noises."
An example: 'All the modern things like cars and such/ Have always existed/ They've just been waiting in a mountain/For the right moment.' (from 'The Modern Things'.) Er... come again? "Lyrics add something to a song. Otherwise, I might just as well sing 'babba dabba doo'. But the lyrics are mostly just describing the atmosphere, translating it into words."
It's been a long, weird road from the commune to Wembley Arena, but getting there was obviously a lot of fun. "I was in a muso band at 13, playing seven-nine rythems, being complicated and difficult. Then I got into punk. I formed this band called Spit And Snot. I was the drummer, with no hair. Then I was in Toppie Tikarras, which translates as Cork The Bitch's Arse! Everyone whowas in these bands got over the problem of not knowing how to play. Me and my friends did evrything ourselves; the posters, the driving, the singing. We even started out own label. We were like 'Fuck the system'." Björk's third band, Theyr, became notorious in 1982 when Jaz Coleman, singer with post punk madmen Killing Joke, fled to Iceland fearing an impending world apocalypse and ended up working with the young punks. "Today I still want to be responsible for everything and know it's mine and that it's on my own terms and done in a human way - and that it's not full of things I don't know about so that people who work with me still get treated with respect."
Following the demise of Björk's fourth band Kukl, who had toured Europe and released two records on the Crass label, Björk, drummer Siggi Baldursson and co-singer Einer Or teamed up with bassist Bragi Olaffson, keyboardist Margret Ornolfsdottir and guitarist/boyfriend Thor Eldon to form Sykurmolar, better known as The Sugarcubes; a passionate, freaky combination of pop songs, surrealistic lyrics, Björk's unfettered whoops and whispers and Einar's spoken-word ramblings. The band, formed on June 8 1996, were signed to the One Little Indian label in the UK and were immediately hailed as major tallents. "The Sugarcubes were attracted to each other because we were all extreme people. We always had a good time, even if we were stuck in a boring German suburb eating cold hamburgers. The music was secondary, so we didn't have this big musical ambition to be brilliant. I could be in the background and write my melodies and lyrics and then watch how the music turned out. Plus I got the chance to travel all the time and see how other bands function, which taught me a lot. Fame was not in our plan but at the same time, we enjoyed it. It was a happy accident. - "The Sugarcubes people will support each other until the ay we die. And we are also each other's hardest critics. Like, I'll send my record to the bass player and he will tell me it's crap, you know? And he sends me his poetry."
shaving off yer eyebrows and getting sued!
It really happened! "That was some time ago. I'd shaved my eyebrows, I was very pregnant and I exposed my belly on a TV show, performing in my band KUKL, a jazz punk thing. Apparently the combination was too much for some viewers. One woman had a heart attack while she was watching and sued me. Fortunately, she lost!"
The Sugarcubes' dedut single, a magnificent, inique sound that bewitched and confounded the UK indie music scene on its release in 1987. Reputed to be written about Sindri, but Björk says not. "It's a story a love affair between a girl who's five years old and a secret with a man who lives next door. The song's called 'Birthday' because it's his 50th birthday, but not many people can figure it out from the lyrics. It's a tasteless love song."
reality versus fantasy
Björk is often portrayed as a mad little pixie with her head in the clouds, talking about a load of fairytale stuff that no-one else can really tune in to. She doesn't see herself that way at all. "I don't see why people can't take things as they are. What's wrong with bread and butter and tube stations and cinemas, all these things around us? I think they are the most intereesting and exciting and crazy things, the real things, so why do people have to put pretentions on things. like seeing things through pink sunglasses? Reality is much more exciting than fantasy."
the icelandic jazz album
In 1990 Björk released 'Gling Glong', an album of traditional Icelandic folk classics. "'Gling Glong' was a bigger seller in Iceland than 'Debut' and all the Sugarcubes' albums put together! That tells you a lot about Iceland."
moving to england
In early 1993, following the demise of The Sugarcubes in the early '90s, Björk decamped from Iceland to London so she could further her solo career. "I made a sacrifice by leaving Iceland, but I've been on a little personal mission - which was for my songs, so that they would get the instruments and the work and the pain and happiness they deserved. Basically, the money, studio and equipment was all here, not in Iceland. I still have a house in Iceland. Iceland is actually like my sub-concious and England my concious."
"I was thinking about moving to LA, New York and Paris too, as it had to be a big city if I was to leave Reykjavik. There had to be lots of musicians, clubs, movies and books. But England was only two hours from Iceland. I eventually fell in love with this country, but like all flirting periods it had a lot to do with being hard to get at first. I'm not into conservatism and tradition, which is so woven into English life, so when I tried getting into English culture I ended up going out and buying Indian music. I'm a visitor here: I call myself an immigrant housewife. I hang out with the Indians in Southall and go to Thai takeaways. They haven't sacrificed their culture for fish'n'chips or hooliganism or Victorian dandyism."
One of the hardest things about making the move to the UK was the cultural divide that Björk found when it came to everyday problems like shopping. "When I saw there was a shop called Iceland I was totally confused. I thought it was the National Embassy. But when I went inside there was just loads of fridge-freezers."
Björk's songs have always veered in many different directions, from the most commercial and melodic tunes, through weird-out bleepy techno and on to stuff that's simply not describable! "I make Björk music, and Björk music is very flexible, very intense and very rich, but also very whimsical and always changing. I get bored very easily, I think... Yes, I think that is the reason why I do what I do: I get bored very easily."
the debut album
Not officially Björk's debut solo album - she'd released one when she was 11, remember? - but she certainly saw it as her first long-playing achievement. 'Debut' went on to sell nearly three million copies worldwide. Not bad for a solo novice. "It's a bit of a nostalgic album because all of the songs were written in the past. It's like a photo album of what I've been thinking over the ten years before I recorded it. Sometimes you're learning and sometimes you've learnt enough so that you can use it, which is what happened here. I became a grown-up. Well, not a grown-up, but I was in charge. It was a lot easier than being in The Sugarcubes. It was a very simple relationship between me and my songs."
Björk has made an
art of collaborating with different people and one of her
main influences has been producer Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack and Soul II
Soul) who produced 'Debut' and over half of 'Post'.
"He's a genius. He's also a stylist who likes things to look immaculate.
When you go to Nellee's house he knows where to get the best brandy in
Europe and he's got the best cheese. He'll have a record that could only be
bought from some record store in Texas in 1953. Everything is the best. And
so, in a way, when he is working with you you feel quite special. When I
was working with Nellee I would write five times better lyrics and five
times better melodies and five times better everything - because he was so
hard to please, you see."
optimism versus pessimism"I'm both, but I'm an optimist in the end, because I always have a strong sense of wonder for everything. Even when I feel down i still think, 'mmmm, maybe there's a song to be had from this'. As a rule, we Icelanders are gloomier folk than others because living in the high north we get very little light, but we have developed a natural immunity against that. That is why there are so many artists in Iceland - art is a natural way of dealing with gloomy feelings. But I want to prove that music can be happy and facinating at the same time. That there is as much intense emotion in 'I feel fantastic,' as in 'oh, I'm such a martyr!'"
dance music versus pop music
Björk has always been sniped at for being too clever for the trendy dance scene and too straightforward for the pop market. "It irritates me when people try to separate the two: dance music has to be brainless and simple while, 'serious' pop music has to be difficult and lyrically oriented. I've always felt, even before I made my own music, that everything should be possible, all combinations. I want to be everything at once: clever, dumb, angry, sweet, ancient and childish, naive, experienced happy and melancholic."
'it's oh so quiet'
The third track on 'Post' to be released as a single is Björk's first top five smash in the UK. The cover of the big-band swing standard originally performed by '40s blonde bombshell Betty Hutton has taken her deeper into the heart of the mainstream, its kitschy arrangement appealing to younger people and thirtysomethings as well as the usual indie-teenage set. Its fun element also led to Björk being invited to compere the Christmas edition of Top Of The Pops. 'It's Oh So Quiet' has already sold over 200,000 copies in the UK alone and has firmly established Björk as a genuine superstar. "Isn't that the best song you've heard for five years? In a way it was against my principles to do an old cover version because I'm so anti-retro. But it has this story, this narrative: there's a beginning and something happens in the middle and the ending is different. So many pop songs, especially with English lyrics, are just 900 different ways of saying 'she left me!' Which i actually love because it's pop, just one idea, very simple, but it doesn't mean it's cheap. I can relate to it, but I belong to the storytelling group."
Björk's second album was released on June 5 last year. "Whereas 'Debut' was like the greatesthits of ten years, 'Post' was like the last two years. For me, all the songs on the album are like saying, 'Listen, this is how I'm doing,' and that's why I calle dthe record 'Post', because I always address my songs back in my head to Iceland in a letter. Because it was such a big jump for me to move away from all my relatives, all my friends, everything I know."
selling millions of albums
To date Björk has sold a whopping great 150,000 copies of 'Post' in the UK alone, which means that she's up there with Oasis, Pulp and Blur as the biggest of the biggies. "It hasn't really changed the way I live or work. I think things have mostly changed in the sense that I am now responsible for a lot of peoples' work in life. I'm now an umbrella over them, so I'm like a mother now to all of them. And if i make a wrong move I'm not the only one who's gonna suffer. Although it's more responsibility I do like it because I felt I was ready for it."
Although Björk has cunningly managed to avoid the limelight so far, it's coming wheather she likes it or not. "People automatically think that I am more important than other people which of course is rubbish, but it's been like that since I was 11 and I guess if you experience things early it's like little kids who can learn languages very quickly and very well. People come to you and you know exactly what they're after; if they want to give you something or take something away or ae simply curious. It's often a good reason, it's not like everybody is evil or anything, you know?"
the recent french and saunders spoof
Björk knew that she had arrived in the big time when cuddly comedy duo French and Saunders filmed a spoof of her eccentric style. She loves gentle ribbing and has already been thrilled by a Björk puppet which was used in Spitting Image, the now-defunct satirical comedy show. "Things like that always make me laugh. I was very honoured."
As far as is known, Bjork has been in four long-term relationships in her life to date. "I was born to be in love. I think it's more important for me to love than to actually be loved. It's such a head thing. It has to be with someone who can turn you on with your imagination and the body usually follows. When you're a teenager you meet someone and you always have a laugh together and you want to marry him and always be with him. 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 forever. But to get all those things in one person, you have to know yourself really, really well. I'm learning. It isn't calculated. That's one thing love isn't. But I want to meet someone. Who doesn't?"
Björk has freely admitted that loads of her ideas come from listening to the weird stuff that they play in obscure dance clubs. "Back in 1988, I started going to hip-hop clubs where a lot of things were happening, to find records you can't exactly pick from your collection and play. You might have to go to 50 clubs and then, at number 51, at six o'clock in the morning, there comes the most brilliant half an hour you've heard in your life, when the DJ stops worrying about pleasing people and just pleases himself."
her cockernee accent
Have you heard it? "I think I just pick the words from all the different accent accents that sound interesting!"
giving a song to madonna
The blonde one was so impressed with 'Debut' that she commissioned a whole album from Björk and Nellee Hooper but was only given 'Bedside Stories'. "She asked for 'something Björk'. She also wanted me to sing on the song, to make it a duet. I had written the song especially for her. But my intuition told me that it would be wrong for me to sing on the song. I also refused to meet her officially. When I finally meet her I want it to be totally by coincidence, when we're both drunk in a bar or something like that."
keeping pop new
"I think a lot of pop music is written in reference to other pop music, which is ridiculous. You have to write pop music about real life, so I keep trying to change old songs and old styles to get more real-life things, so that it comes out almost like film music."
working with tricky
Two 'Post' tracks, 'Enjoy' and 'Headphones', feature the alchemic powers of the already legendary Tricky. The pair have since been involved romantically. "He's Mr Chaos, he likes to be Mr Unpredictable and turn his back on the world and play hard to get. I like Tricky - he got that nickname at school and it's no coincidence. If you want Tricky to go right, you ask him to go left. If you want to do an aggressive song, you suggest doing something tender, and vice versa. But now I think he's sussed me out!"
the scanner controversyOn the 'Post' album track 'Possibly Maybe', Björk sampled some noises from conceptual duo Scanner's 'Mass Observation' album which led to a court case between the artists' record labels where Björk was accused of being 'the big star ripping off the underground artist'. "The theme of Scanner's album was that all noises in the world are for free, which I thought was really clever and interesting. I offered them money which they agreed to, but then they signed to a publishing company who thought, 'Oh, Björk has sampled them - let's try to put the Scanner album in the charts by making something of that'. They obviously didn't have a clue what they were talking about - these publishing people are not very into music, they're just trying to get the money."
How many times have you read about Björk the mad, puffin-eating, elfin,
pixie, loony, ice queen Eskimo?
"I do get hour long interviews in which all the questions are 'why are you
so weird?', things like that, but I don't think I'm weird. Everybody sees
things from their own viewpoint, and because no two people are the same,
that makes everybody weird. It means that what is normal to me is not
normal to you, and vice versa, which doesn't bother me. I've got quite
comfortable in my own little misunderstood position. I grew up that way,
since I was at school, and quickly learnt to turn it to my advantage."
Björk has been working on 'Telegram', a mini-album
of alternative versions
of 'Post' tracks, collaborating with the likes of classical troupe The
Brodsky Quartet (who will support Björk on all her tour dates except for
London), jungle star Goldie, deaf classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie
and techno trio Underworld, among others.
"The last time me and Polly Harvey met we were joking that we would be
fucking 80 years old and still trying to talk each other out of
stage-diving because our bones are getting too old for it! But I might not
be on stage because I get a very big kick out of working with other people
and I can easily picture me writing songs for others or producing others -
I mean hopefully, and not being big-headed, but I would love to do that.
It's like a tangent or a dream. Or writing musicals. I would also love to
teach. But it will always be music, I think, because it wasn't like I
picked music, it was music taht picked me. Sometimes it's quite weird
because I try to get away from it, but no matter how far I try to go, I
always somehow get back to it. It's an obsession."