There are three things that surprise you right away upon meeting Björk: 1. She is not short; 2. She has the second deepest laugh you’ve ever heard come from a girl; 3. Her name rhymes with work, not pork. On this particular London afternoon, there one other surprise: Björk is terribly hungover. Noticeably, unapologetically hungover.
“How late were you out?” I ask.
“What did you do?”
Apparently, everything includes bar-hopping with a “mate,” making a DJ play the Beatles’ “Yesterday” so that she could sing along, and getting drunk to the point of forgetting a chunk of the evening. “It’s quite humiliating for a 31-year-old,” she says. Because she is sniffling and rubbing her nose, and because alcohol alone does not usually keep people out until 10:30 A.M., I am wondering if drugs were involved in her pub crawl.
“I come from a country where from the age of 15 you drink one liter of vodka every Friday straight from the bottle,” she says. “I watch my granddad and my grandmother, and it’s my pattern. It’s a release that’s been going on in my family for a thousand years. Purely from alcohol is how people lose themselves and put their little policeman off shift and run riot. I actually need it in my life.” Finally answering my question (more or less), she says, “A lot of drugs basically just don’t agree with me.”
Conversation with Björk, you come to learn, is no more straightforward than any of her songs. “I find it really interesting that elephants hide apples and stuff and wait for them to go bad, and then eat then and get pissed,” she continues. “They actually make an effort to hide that apple behind that tree and then go on a bender.” The idea sends her into a fit of giggles. “I saw this photograph of a drunk elephant once and it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
One gathers, then, that the reason Björk stayed out all night and most of the morning, the reason that she’s nursing a blinding headache, is this: “I’m a Viking, and elephants hide apples.” Which, in fact, could very easily pass for the subject of a Björk song—a shimmering, flicking, dreamy tune that would be both deeply strange and not so strange at all.
On the day that I am to meet Björk for the first time at Nomis Studios in West London, where she is to begin rehearsing for her upcoming tour—she never shows up. On the second day of rehearsal (the day of the hangover), she is many hours late. It is hard to gauge from the people around her—the people waiting for her—if this is normal. If they are annoyed or worried, they don’t let it show. It is as if they have not only given her a permanent benefit of the doubt, but also refuse to burden her any more than absolutely necessary, perhaps because she appears a bit fragile and plenty leery—still somewhat unhinged from the events of the recent past.
1996 was Björk’s year in the barrel. While on tour in Asia, Björk arrived in an airport in Bangkok and was descended upon by a bunch of television reports. The most aggressive telejournalist of the bunch shoved a microphone into her ten-year-old son’s face and tried to interview him on live television, saying to him at one point, “It must be really difficult to have a mom like that.” Björk—who says she has only lost her temper two other times in her life—snapped, beat the stuffing out of the reporter, and then, in an unintentional display of her recently acquired karate skills, threw her to the ground. The footage immediately went into heavy rotation on the Hard Copys of the world, and turned Björk into a most unexpected tabloid subject. Several months later, a crazed fan in Miami, disturbed by Björk’s impending mixed-race nuptials to jungle star Goldie, sent her a letter bomb and then killed himself. (The letter bomb was intercepted by police; she and Goldie never tied the knot.) Overnight, photographers were camped outside her London home, and Björk went from being the cultish and irresistible iconoclast of dance music—a hipster novelty from a strange land—to an international celebrity. The fuss has mostly died down, but it was, she says, the most “outrageous, mental year of my life.” With some distance on these events, she now believes she was asking for it. “I sent out messages,” she says, “and I got answers: Please put me on the edge of a cliff and will someone please kick me off.”
Björk’s response to her emotional crash was to fly off to El Madroñal, a small town on the southern coast of Spain, where she spent several weeks sleeping, Jet Skiing, and making music. If we are inclined, as Björk seems to be, to find the silver lining, then her beautiful, spooky, difficult new album, Homogenic, appears to be it. It is a minimalist masterpiece. The extravagant disco show tunes of yore are gone, and what’s left are the fuzzier musical experiments that popped up on Debut and Post, her first two solo records after leaving the punkish Icelandic band the Sugarcubes in 1992. A head-on collision of often contrary sounds—the Icelandic String Octet; the electronic, ahead-of-the-curve weirdness of coproducer Mark Bell of techno outfit LFO; and Björk’s outsized, unprecedented voice—Homogenic, she says proudly, is her least compromised work to date. “It’s the record that’s closest to the music that I hear in my head. It’s closest to what I am.” But. “I don’t know if people are going to like it or not.”
Neither does her record label. “Björk’s challenging her audience, and, more so, radio, to get beyond traditional song structure, to step outside their comfort zone,” says Greg Thompson, senior vice president at Elektra. “So yeah, it’s a challenge. No doubt. I liken her to Beck. They’re not necessarily radio-driven, single-driven artists. They conceive great albums. Björk’s concept is to combine strings and hip-hop beats, and quite frankly, from radio’s standpoint, that’s difficult to mix in with Sugar Ray.”
While Björk has charted 11 Top 20 singles in England, she has yet to have the same commercial impact in America (Homogenic debuted at No. 28 on the Billboard Top 200.) The worldwide combined sales of Debut, Post, and Telegram (last year’s remix album) total around six million, with her biggest single success in America coming from “Army of Me,” a song from Post that appeared on the Tank Girl soundtrack. Despite the steady momentum gained from the MTV airplay of 1993’s “Human Behavior” (Björk being chased by a bear) and ’95’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” (Björk dancing with a mailbox) and electronica’s recent Stateside foot-in-the-door, chances are remote the the bizarro Homogenic will launch Björk beyond her cute, cuddly cult. The album’s first single, “Joga,” a love letter to her best friend, feels nearly a cappella, a barely detectable beat humming under Björk’s soaring vocals. The stuttering, scratchy “5 Years” sounds as if it was recorded in a video arcade circa 1980. “Immature” repeats the same four lines over and over (“How extremely lazy of me!”) over a church bell-laced beat. You get the idea. Unless your name is RZA, such avant-garde strivings don’t do much for your bankbook. When Thompson says that the folks at alternative radio are “waiting for her to make that one gem that actually works as a radio song,” you can be sure that he knows it’s not on Homogenic.
Though Björk’s loath to put down Americans and our notorious need to categorize pop music into endless charts and radio formats, she can’t help herself. “It’s American radio’s own worst enemy,” she says. “Music, to me, stands for freedom, and to be so limited is the opposite of what music is.” And even within our endless sub-categories, it seems to her, we’ve still gotten it all wrong. “I went to New York last January and did some interviews and they were all like, ‘Electronica is the next big thing,’ and I’m like, ‘Please.’ And they put it under the same thing as Prodigy, Kraftwerk, Massive Attack—the whole lot. To them it’s this thing that was born half a year ago. Please.”
To Björk, the charge that techno is inherently cold and soulless—the typically rockist, typically American criticism formerly known as “disco sucks”—is patently absurd. There is no soul in a guitar, she points out; someone has to play it soulfully. “I saw this magazine called Guitar,” she says, with a smirk, “and there was this comic in the back with this blues guy with a guitar, and the question was, ‘Why will computers never take over the guitar?’ And the final thing was, ‘Well, you can never call a computer Layla.’ Please! Have you heard the names all the kids give their computers?! They’re like pets. Please!”
Settled in, at last, for band rehearsal, Mark Bell and engineer Allan Pollard are on stage fiddling with the pets: a 909 drum machine, a brand new, powerful effects unit called a Sherman—that is no bigger than a typewriter—a keyboard, and a mixer. They are gearing up for an eight-city mini-tour of nightclubs around Europe hat kicks off in Munich a couple of days from now. All of the shows are low-key affairs—either barely promoted or unannounced—that will allow Björk and Bell some time to learn to play off each other before the Icelandic String Octet is brought in for the tour proper that begins in November. This is, in many ways, a new model for onstage musical performance: one person pushing buttons—remixing live, really—the other singing. “I think I can say this has never been done before,” Björk announces. Many of the songs will be left “open” so that Bell “can drop things in and surprise me. And then it’s just eye contact. It’s all very free-form.”
Bell has remixed parts of Homogenic for this tour, better to suit a late-night disco experience. He plays for Björk his pumped-up drum track for “Alarm Call”—it’s both deafening and skittish, a nimble feat—at which point Björk joins Bell onstage and begins to dance from one end to the other, sometimes skipping, sometimes marching, sometimes standing in place and twisting her torso in a strange reverie. She’s wearing an odd pants-with-a-skirt combo, a faded black T-shirt, and funny little canvas shoes that, she will tell me later, are worn by Japanese men who build houses. They make her feet appear webbed. The performance—Björk’s mad dance, her improbably voice, the unlikely outfit, the schizophrenic beats—reminds me of nothing so much as Alice in Wonderland, a trippy little universe unto itself. When Björk sings the line “I’m no fucking Buddhist / But this is enlightenment,” the track sputters out, and she and Bell matter-of-factly huddle, swapping asides on this tape loop and that string noise. Bell heads back to work. Björk comes down off the stage, yawns, and says, “I need meat.”
A few blocks away from the rehearsal studio, Björk sits in front of a huge plate of crispy duck, devours it like a hungry truck driver, washes it down with red wine, and explains to me why she’s titled such a weirdly eclectic new album Homogenic. “This album is only songs that were written last year,” she says, while Post and Debut were like back catalogs of all the songs she’d always wanted to record—of all her obsessions with different sounds and ideas from different times in her life. Those records weren’t as much solo projects, she says, as collections of duets with the producers who had inspired her: Nellee Hooper, 808 State’s Graham Massey, Tricky, Howie B. “This is more like one flavor. Me in one state of mind. One period of obsessions. That’s why I called it Homogenic.”
Those obsessions were, improbably, pre-Off the Wall Michael Jackson (“I love Michael Jackson so much. He’s got a ridiculous, outrageous, stubborn faith that magic still is with us.”) and 20th-century string quartets. “I went to music school in Iceland for ten years,” she says, “and obviously I was introduced to a lot of music.” In some ways, Homogenic is a return to her classical training, “going back through everything I learned,” she says, “and trying to focus on where I was in that moment.” With the help of Asmundur Jansson, a musicologist friend in Iceland who has been making her tapes since she was 14, Björk would sit down to compiled cassettes of, say, songs about ships or songs featuring angular, out-of-tune brass. “I went to him h`oping to find a treasure,” she says. “I really wanted to discover what Icelandic music is, and if there is such a thing. And in a way, there really isn’t.”
It is not a very big leap from this discovery, or lack thereof, to conclude that perhaps Björk herself is Icelandic music. Iceland is a country obsessed with literature and story-telling (think Viking sagas), to the exclusion of nearly all other arts. And, unlike America and Europe, countries that industrialized slowly over a period of a few hundred years, Iceland has come into the technological present fairly recently. Björk’s grandfather, for example, lived in a mud house. Out of this sped-up modernization sprang both an almost mythological relationship to nature and a brand-new fixation on technology. “All the modern things / Like cars and such,” Björk sings on Post, “Have always existed / They’ve just been waiting in a mountain / For the right moment… / To come out / And multiply / And take over.” And on Homogenic’s “Alarm Call”: “I want to go on a mountain top / With a radio and good batteries.”
Call it techno-nature. Or natural techno. Acoustic strings and programmed machines. Voilà! Icelandic music! Björk music!
“You know, I would tour Asia and see a very similar thing as I see in Iceland: farmers who’ve got really modern roads with lights and everything, but the roads have got a bend in them around a rock because they think elves live in it. And they’ve got a mobile telephone. It’s these two extremes. People hear that in my music, but it’s not so conscious with me. It’s just because I come from that kind of country.”
Björk Guðmundsdóttir was born in 1965 in Reykjavik, Iceland, to parents who had been together since the age of 14. Björk’s mother was unhappy being a housewife, so she divorced her husband and became “a hard-core hippie,” eventually living with her daughter in a house with seven other adults. (Björk now has three brothers and three sisters with three mothers and three fathers among them.) “Can you imagine being brought up by seven grown-ups,” Björk once said, “who all hate work, and all they want to do is play games with you all day long, and tell you four-hour-long stories, and make kites?”
But by the age of seven, she began to grow tired of the unfulfilled dreaming of her mother and her groovy, in-crowd friends, and rebelled by becoming a self-sufficient and ambitious little girl. Studying flute and piano in Iceland’s classical music system, Björk became something of a prodigy, and actually released an album of Icelandic folk songs at the age of 11. It sold 5,000 copies in a country of about 265,000. The hit off the album, “Arab Boy,” was written by her stepfather and made Björk famous in Iceland. She posed for the album cover in a caftan.
After her early success, Björk refused to make another record; the preteen had already developed a distaste for the music business. At 13, she began to play in a series of short-lived punk bands, the last of which, Kukl, lasted two years and recorded a pair of albums. As she got pulled further into the tiny punk scene in Iceland she met fellow anarchist Thor Eldon, and, after getting pregnant at 19, married him and gave birth to their son, Sindri (he now splits his time between Dad in Iceland and Mom in London). In 1987, Björk, Thor, and four other Icelandic bohemian types formed Bad Taste, a loosely structured collective through which they ran an independent label, produced art events, and published one another’s writing. As a lark, they formed a band called the Sugarcubes in 1987, and released a single, “Birthday,” which, to their surprise, caught the attention of the British music press. So they rerecorded it in English, followed it up with a full-length LP, Life’s Too Good (they released four albums in all), and before long, Björk was on her way to rock stardom. Elektra’s Joel Amsterdam, who has worked with Björk since 1990, says that, in many ways, she is nothing like her younger, punkier self. “She was a kid then,” he says. “Now she’s a professional, a mother, a homeowner, a businessperson, an artist, and focused. Then, it was all about beer and partying, hanging out with her childhood friends, and traveling the world.”
I mention to Björk that all this history, both hers and her homeland’s, doesn’t solve the musical riddles she casually tosses out record after beguiling record. Half-jokingly, I suggest that I might like to “unravel the great Björk mystery.” She stares at me, unblinkingly, and with absolute earnestness says, “Okay. I’ll try.”
“First of all,” she begins, “I decided that my heart was with pop music because I believe in things that grannies and kids can get. If they don’t get it, fuck it, you know? So even though my arrangements are quite experimental, I’m very conservative when it comes to song structure. So it’s this beautiful relationship between complete discipline and complete freedom. Most people think that when I’m singing I just go, ‘Wah wah wah,’ and the song is finished. And I’m actually quite flattered that I get that feeling across to people.
“Usually I write about one song a month. I never write them down. The chord structure, the bass line, the lyric, the melody, it just goes around in my head when I’m in taxis or whatever. I know what instruments, I know what noises, and I could arrange these things on my own—sometimes I do—but I love working with people so much. They almost operate like my midwife—they get the song out.
“If I’m lucky, it all comes at once. With lyrics, sometimes it’s a very strong feeling, then I’ve got to work it out, almost like a scientist. It’s all these noises: wha oui aah ooh. It’s syllables and noises. Ahh eee ech crmpffff eeo. First, I only sing noises, then I slowly go into Icelandic and then do hints of English. I always write in Icelandic, and when I translate it to English it adds to the song and then maybe I translate back to Icelandic and then back to English. I actually get quite a lot out of the translation.”
“Your word associations are very nuanced,” I say.
“Nuanced,” I say again. “Subtle. They don’t hit you over the head.”
“Oh,” she says, understanding. “I love nuance. I love that word so much. Me and my mate, we keep talking about nuance and nuisance. They’re our favorites.”
Watching and listening to Björk talk—and eat—is an event unto itself. She rolls her R’s in about 19 different ways, perhaps because she learned English in several accents, including Mancunian, Scottish, southern Cockney, and French, as well as, she says, from “quite camp drag queens in America.” She also makes the most amazing faces—baring her teeth, wrinkling her nose, widening her eyes—and pulls on her face and hair constantly. A few journalists have noted that Björk often, and without embarrassment, picks her nose, and sure enough, in the middle of one riff or another, one of her little fingers found its way up to one of her cute little nostrils and wiggled itself around, before being called away to perform another spazzy, adorable gesture.
One Friday night, Björk arrives at Bar Rumba, a small, newish club near Picadilly Circus where her current boyfriend, U2 techno swami Howie B, is on the DJ lineup, along with Ben Watt from Everything but the Girl. According to Björk, she doesn’t go clubbing like she used to, so tonight is all about running into old friends, a situation that makes her “hyper.” She spends most of the evening clutching a cocktail, surrounded by people who know her, pretend to know her, or want to know her; every time the crowd gets too thick, she escapes to another room, onto the dance floor, or up into the DJ booth, where she lovingly watches Howie B work his magic. The two first met when Björk moved to London in ’91, and they became best friends. Suddenly, she goes all girlish and demure. “Last February we started going out together.” She bats her eyelashes, and puts her hands over her mouth.
Björk and her boyfriends have been the subject of much scuttlebutt; she counts among her exes fashion photographer/video director Stephane Sednaoui and dance-floor machers Tricky and Goldie. One gossip column item had the two fighting over her in a New York City nightclub. When it is suggested that the pattern to her choice in men might be labeled “insufferable geniuses,” she doesn’t flinch. “They’re very obviously geniuses,” she says, “straight in your face. But for me, the guys I had the most fantasies about as a child were David Attenborough and Carl Sagan. Really. In school, I would fall for the guy in the back of the class with really thick glasses and the insect collection who told you about the solar system. It’s these people who show you these secrets. They pull out this rock”—she gets out of her chair and lifts up the cushion she’s sitting on as if it were the rock, and then leans in, staring at me, widening her eyes in mock wonder—“and they go, ‘Do you want me to show you a lot of really strange things that nobody’s ever seen?'” She looks back under the “rock” and then back to me.
“It just drives me nuts. It gives me 53 hard-ons. That’s what turns me on.”
“I dare you to take me on,” Björk wails from the tiny stage of the Sugar Shack in Munich as she sings “5 Years” to a firetrap-capacity crowd of sweaty, happy, twenty-something Germans. Fifteen minutes later, Björk bounces offstage and into the dressing room, all soaking wet hair and crazy eyes. The brief set—six songs from Homogenic—went better than anyone expected, and she is clearly relieved and thrilled. As she drums madly on a table with her hands, Mark Bell and the rest of her crew pile into the dressing room. “That was our most crowded rehearsal ever!” she says to the group, and they all laugh uproariously at what is obviously a joke at her own expense. Björk, it turns out, does not like to rehearse. She prefers, she says, “jumping off a cliff.”
As everyone pairs off and recaps, Björk says to the engineer, “The best thing about the show was what you and Mark were doing. So tight. Every sound was perfect.” Her sweaty hair is now clumped into little daggers all around her face. “I’m just glad I got my ‘Aaaaah!’ right. One-two-three, ‘Aaaaah!’” Suddenly, the PA guy, who couldn’t see the stage from the back of the room because the crowd stood on the furniture, shouts, “It was like setting off fireworks in the fog: ‘Oh, that must have been a pretty one! Oh, that must have been a loud one!’” Everyone falls out laughing, Björk loudest and longest.
The day after the Munich show, I am waiting in the airport for my flight home. Half asleep in a coffee shop, I look up and see Björk off in the distance, walking down some far-flung ultramodern hallway. She is wearing a 21st century, floor-length, sleeveless purple dress with a big orange circle on her stomach, and her web-footed, Japanese carpenter shoes. She is carrying a funny, furry little purse in one hand, and a cell phone in the other. She is chattering away into the cellular in Icelandic, oblivious to the fact that people are staring, not necessarily because they know she is Björk, world-famous pop star, but because she appears to be deeply strange and not so strange at all.