Björk: Passions in a cold

The Olympic flame is lit tonight, but the star of the show will be the fiery
Icelandic singer Björk, performing a song from her new album. She talks
to James McNair

13 August 2004

“Roast puffin, anyone? Guillemot?” This is not a Monty Python sketch, but
Björk’s manager Stuart as he peruses the menu at the traditional Reykjavik
eatery where I’m to meet his charge. Minutes later, Björk and I are chatting
in an antique-appointed back room. On the table between us is a mystery parcel
containing something she’ll wear at tonight’s opening of the Athens Olympics.
Mindful of creating the right ambience, the owner of the restaurant appears
and asks if we’d like him to switch off the Icelandic version of “This Old
House” that’s playing in the background. We would, thanks.

Björk is friendly, perhaps a tad shy. She says she’ll need some coffee
to kick-start her English. She’s wearing gold stilettos and a hand-made dress
with silver and purple sequins. Though strikingly pretty even without make-up,
the maverick chanteuse has a tomboyish, almost feral air, exacerbated by her
quirky facial expressions. Endearingly, she apologises profusely whenever
her caffeine buzz occasionally prevents me from getting a word in edgeways.

We begin by discussing a seeming disparity: between Björk the serious
artist and Björk as memorably caricatured in latex by Spitting Image.
Does the British media’s tendency to portray her as an eccentric elf grate?

“I sometimes wonder what they would say if I was from Leeds,” she says,
“but my relationship with England is kind of cute, too. When I was developing
as a vocalist, little kids here in Reykjavik would throw rocks at me because
they thought I was weird, but English music papers like the NME discovered
The Sugarcubes and gave me some credit, so I was never offended by them calling
me an elf.

“Anyway,” she adds, grinning, “Britain has druids, and it was an Englishman
who wrote The Lord of the Rings. I mean, how many goblins and elves can you
put in one story? Oh, and England is the best place for eccentrics, too. All
those totally gorgeous people like Richard James [Aphex Twin] and David Bowie.
They couldn’t come from anywhere else.”

The 37-year-old and I have met to talk about her new album, Medúlla.
Perhaps the most ambitious work in a solo career festooned with pioneering
records, the album relies on the myriad textures and timbres of the human
voice. There was a moment of epiphany as regards the record’s direction. Picture
the scene: Björk, eight months pregnant with Isadora, who is now almost
two, is recording her own drum overdubs. Think Meg White with a large bump.
Suddenly, it strikes her that what she’s doing is superfluous. Beginning
a process of aural archaeology, the singer first removes some rhythm tracks,
then excavates successive layers of instrumentation until her buried vocal
melodies start to glint afresh. At this point, Björk says, she hit on
the idea of doing an album almost entirely a cappella. “The only other rule”,
she adds, “was for it not to sound like Manhattan Transfer or Bobby McFerrin.”

Like 2001’s Vespertine, Björk’s wonderful take on introspection and
domestic intimacy, Medúlla’s title chimes with its content. “Basically,
it means ‘marrow’ in medical language, in Latin,” she says. “Not just your
bone marrow, but marrow in the kidneys and marrow in your hair, too. It’s
about getting to the essence of something, and with this album being all vocals,
that made sense.

“Something in me wanted to leave out civilisation,” she continues, “to rewind
to before it all happened and work out, ‘Where is the human soul? What if
we do without civilisation and religion and patriotism, without the stuff
that has gone wrong?’ I was going to call the album Ink, because I wanted
it to be like that black, 5,000-year-old blood that’s inside us all; an ancient
spirit that’s passionate and dark and survives.”

An entirely a cappella album sounds as if it might outstay its welcome,
but Medúlla’s eclecticism and cherry-picked guest list helps to make
for an absorbing, often thrilling listen. Produced by Björk and recorded
in 12 locations, including New York, Iceland, Venice and the Canary Islands,
the album has contributions from the Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis,
the Japanese beatbox ace Dokaka, the esteemed Robert Wyatt, Rahzel from The
Roots and the former Faith No More front man Mike Patton.

“I liked all of us to make any special noises we could,” says Björk,
her hybrid accent a wonder of timbre in itself. “Sometimes there’s a kind
of weave or blend where nobody is more important than anybody else; other
times, I wanted each singer to have a sort of solo.”

Listen out, then, for angelic and demonic sounds; for erotic, exotic and
comedic sounds; for human takes on insects and birds; and drum-loops, whistling,
joyous abandon and moments of sublime grace. There is also a typically Björkian
blurring of eras: just as Vespertine featured handmade music-boxes and the
cutting-edge electronica of the San Francisco duo Matmos, so Medúlla
has traditional choral arrangements and box-fresh programming, the latter
courtesy of Valgeir Sigurdsson of the Icelandic group Múm, and the
established Björk collaborator Mark Bell.

On one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Vokuro”, Björk and a 20-piece
choir reinvent a timeless-sounding composition that the septuagenarian Icelandic
composer Jórunn Vidar wrote at the piano. There’s a fascinating story
behind it. Björk explains: “Jórunn Vidar is a really grand old
lady. When she studied composition in Berlin before the Second World War,
she knew Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl, but I won’t go into that now. When I
called her to ask about using her music, she said, ‘Oh, it must be lovely
having a little girl. She must be such an inspiration to you.’

“I was a bit confused at first, because I hadn’t realised that the song
is actually a lullaby that was written for a little girl with blue eyes.
It’s so weird, because I’ve been working with that piece of music for four
years now, and four years ago I had no clue that I was going to have a little
blue-eyed girl of my own. Things like that kept happening on this album,
everything falling into place. I’m learning to trust my instincts with that

In his coming-of-age novel, The Fish Can Sing, Halldór Laxness writes:
“It is a matter of simple fact that Icelanders have always been notoriously
indolent.” Not so Björk Gudmundsdóttir. In kindergarten, she insisted
on taking care of the other children. Aged 11, she released Björk, a
debut that has since been described as “a perfectly listenable, mid-Seventies
pop album”. By 1984, Björk was touring Europe with Kukl (it means “practitioner
of witchcraft”), and by 1986 she was co-fronting the Sugarcubes.

Undoubtedly the seminal Icelandic indie band, the Sugarcubes brought Björk’s
magnificent braying to the world’s attention on their debut single “Birthday”.
Ultimately, the group couldn’t contain her burgeoning talent, and when some
critics accused co-vocalist Einar Orn of crowding out Björk’s vocals
on the group’s 1989 album, Here Today Tomorrow Next Week!, the die was cast.
The group’s guitarist, Thor Eldon, was to make a more lasting impression on
Björk’s life, the pair marrying after she bore Eldon a son, Sindri, in
1986. The couple divorced in the late 1980s, but remain good friends.

Björk’s adult solo career has demonstrated the scope of her work ethic.
She has recognised, sought out and sometimes dated movers and shakers such
as Tricky, Goldie, Nellee Hooper and 808 State’s Graham Massey. She has made
absorbing, idiosyncratic and unguarded videos such as “Human Behaviour” and
“Cocoon”, the latter directed by the Japanese design luminary Eiko Ishioka
and featuring a platoon of naked Björks.

Who but Björk would wear a swan dress complete with beak and matching
egg? And which other musician is versatile and self-assured enough to flit
between big-band jazz (her take on Betty Hutton’s 1948 hit “It’s Oh So Quiet”)
and electronic soundscapes inspired by Iceland’s physical geography (see “Joga”,
the magical stand-out track from her acclaimed 1997 album Homogenic)?

But Björk’s flamboyancy has sometimes cost her – and not just in terms
of elfin caricature. In 1996, the 21-year-old Ricardo Lopez mailed an acid
bomb to Björk’s British management company, then videotaped his own suicide.
Earlier that year, Björk had attacked a TV reporter who invaded her
son Sindri’s privacy. When the singer flew at the unsuspecting Julie Kaufman
on the floor of Don Muang airport in Bangkok, the resulting video footage
was screened the world over. But many paparazzi-weary stars applauded Björk’s
actions. *

* Understandably, the singer has become increasingly private in the years
since. Generally, her children and her homes in New York, London and Reykjavik
are not up for discussion. And don’t even think of asking her about Matthew
Barney, the iconoclastic, San Francisco-born artist and film-maker who has
been her boyfriend for the past four years. That said, Björk’s pregnancy
with Barney’s daughter Isadora had such a profound impact on Medúlla’s
gestation that there are moments when she can’t help but allude to the little

“When you are breast-feeding,” she says, “that feeling that you are nourishing
your child is the ultimate natural high. So with ‘Mouth’s Cradle’, I was imagining
some kind of musical where you had this huge mouth, and the teeth would be
like a ladder, and you would do a Fred Astaire dance using the teeth as steps
up to the mouth. It’s also about looking at a little baby and thinking, ‘Didn’t
they get the design absolutely right?’

“As any mother will tell you, though,” she continues, “there’s a sense that
you don’t own your own body when you’re pregnant. So when you start to feel
that you’re getting your own blood and bones back, it feels fantastic.”

It was on La Gomera, one of the least touristy islands in the Canaries,
Björk says, that she started to regain possession of her body. Her friend
Richard James had tipped her off about an invaluable little gizmo that she
carried with her while wandering and singing alfresco. “Basically, it enables
you to record layers of vocals while walking outside,” she says. So La Gomera’s
flora and fauna witnessed an early version of “Pleasure is All Mine”.

Though Björk’s considered, forward-looking and conceptually strong
albums have rarely fallen foul of the critics, her acting debut in Lars Von
Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark met with a mixed reception. Even while
composing Selma Songs, the soundtrack, Björk tackled the lead as Selma,
a Czech emigrant to the United States, whose escapist love of Hollywood musicals
is abraded by failing sight, single-parent poverty and a traumatising sequence
of events which Von Trier brings to a dark conclusion.

Looking back on the experience, Björk is typically frank. “When I first
met Lars I was probably at my most confident,” she says. “Not overconfident
or cocky, just strong and ready to work on the music for his film. I felt
lubricated after Homogenic. They could have asked me to write a score from
the point of view of five monkeys who live in a zoo in China, and I could
have done it.

“But I think my initial instinct not to act in the movie was right. After
filming it, I was at the bottom. Lars has a way of throwing petrol on your
soul and burning you. And then it’s just cinders. Nothing left. You don’t
come out of it like a phoenix. He did the same with Nicole Kidman in Dogville.
He would take her to a forest and say, ‘I hate you for being beautiful and
successful; I just want to ruin you.’ It’s all about him being jealous of
Hollywood, jealous of Nicole Kidman and jealous of me. He’s a genius, but
how many movies can you make about destroying the lead female?”

Naturally, Björk was thrilled to act alongside Catherine Deneuve in
Dancer in the Dark. But with the denouement of Von Trier’s screenplay requiring
that Björk’s character, Selma Jezkova, be martyred at the gallows, it
was hardly a role without psychological ramifications.

“Will I act again in the future? I’ve always thought I should concentrate
on music and do that well, but Lars convinced me to make an exception,” she
says. “If I don’t want to act more, it’s not because of him or Dancer in the
Dark, though. I never intended to act anyway.”

Medúlla, Björk maintains, is the album that has fully restored
her confidence. She says she has learnt to see her time acting under Von Trier’s
direction as a humbling experience, and that she has regained all the creative
strength she had five years ago. Given that her opening ceremony performance
at the Olympics tonight will see her reach a television audience of more
than a billion, and Medúlla will be released two weeks later, it’s
an excellent time for her to be match-fit. Perhaps the “volcanicity” of her
native Iceland is the ultimate performance- enhancing drug when blended with
Björk’s own restless, pioneering spirit.

“Basically, the Olympics people asked me to do a kind of ‘Ebony and Ivory’
or ‘We Are the World’ type song,” she says. “Those are smashing tunes and
all that, but I thought, ‘Maybe there’s another angle to this.’ When I tried
to write an Olympic lyric, though, it was full of sports socks and ribbons.
I ended up pissing myself laughing.” Plan B was clearly required. Björk
decided to call on Sjón Sigurdsson, the Icelandic poet who had collaborated
with her on songs such as “Bachelorette” from Homogenic. When she impressed
upon him that they’d need something suitably epic for Athens, Sigurdsson took
the matter seriously, even going so far as to take a short course in Greek
mythology at Reykjavik University. The end result was “Oceania”, a kind of
aquatic sojourn and the last song recorded for Medúlla.

“The Olympic version will be a little different,” Björk says. “But
it will fit the occasion, I think, because the song is all about how the
ocean doesn’t see boundaries between countries and thinks everyone is the
same. Sjón came up with this beautiful last line that touches on how
we were all little jellyfish or whatever before we made it on to land. He
has The Sea saying, ‘Your sweat is salty/ And I am why/ Your sweat is salty/
And I am why.'”

So, if Björk has regained her confidence and fire, what else has changed?
“I used to wake up and bulldoze through the day full of energy in a youthful,
ignorant, arrogant way,” she says. “Now, though, I’m enjoying getting older.
The best thing, maybe, is that I’m enjoying all those little nuances with
people, all those micro-moments that I used to think were just pauses between
real life.”

She says she wants to record another album right away, rather than tour
Medúlla. Later this month, she hopes to record a low-budget video
with the director Spike Jonze for the song “Triumph of a Heart” from Medúlla.
“The last time Spike and I got drunk together,” she laughs, “we invented
something called ‘The Falling Down Dance’. The plan is to recreate that moment
at my local pub in Iceland.”

Björk performs at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games tonight.
‘Medúlla’ is out on 30 August on One Little Indian