The interview / BJoRK, SINGER, TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON
Ms Gudmundsdottir rarely mixes romantic and professional relationships - but finds musical collaboration as important as a love affair
Sunday 31 December 1995
Having been moved to a quieter spot by a very solicitous waiter ("Excuse me, but are you a singer?") Bjork opens the paper and reveals the full extent of her relationship with the man with whom she is now supposedly "inseparable". "I probably met him for about five minutes this year - three minutes in February and two minutes in October," she says. Does this sort of thing bother her at all? "Because I come from a very small town society [Bjork grew up in a satellite village of Reykjavik] I am very used to gossip. With a small town mentality you make a decision very early on as to whether you are going to do everything by the book or just go your own way and not care."
No prizes for guessing which of these courses Bjork decided upon. Her childhood experience of being "the official eccentric" in a small community was to prefigure with uncanny accuracy her later status in the global entertainment village. Perhaps one reason why she has remained so famously - even notoriously - in touch with her inner child is that she was forced to take on the mantle of adulthood very early. (In person Bjork, now 30, is less wilfully girlish than she sometimes seems on TV, but there is still the odd breathless stamp of the foot to contend with.)
"It wasn't like I was bought up by wolves," she insists with regard to the bohemian upbringing which followed the divorce of her parents when she was one. "But it was very much a question of getting a key round my neck and becoming my own little trooper. I learnt very quickly to just go to the right place to find what I needed - if I wanted someone to make me hot chocolate, I would go to my granny's house, if I wanted to laugh I'd go to this uncle or if I wanted to find out about Stockhausen I'd go to another."
The ease with which Bjork seems to skip from one shrewdly chosen collaborator to another suggests that this "hunter and collector" mentality has carried through into her professional life too. "That's very much how I still operate," she agrees.
What was most important to her in the culture of her homeland? "We've always been obsessed with information, that has been our role for the last 1,000 years. Icelandic people were the ones who memorised the sagas ... we were the first rappers of Europe!" The scientific bias of Icelandic TV - in Bjork's youth broadcasting for just three hours a night, with Thursdays and all July off - seems to have had an impact too. "There is such a big chunk of me that is David Attenborough," she says, very seriously. "I think he is my biggest inspiration."
A healthy scepticism about the value of fame for its own sake ("In Iceland you just have to walk once naked down the main street and everyone will call you 'the naked person' for the rest of your life") saw Bjork through an awkward brush with child stardom at the tender age of eleven. In her mid-teens she fell in with the anarchic crowd that sustained Iceland's only independent record shop, and underwent a rigorous musical education.
"We would do odd jobs all year to buy a van," Bjork remembers. "Then drive around Europe playing in black cellars to twenty punks - stealing petrol from other people's cars and running into motorway shops and eating sugar to get energy."
Few can boast of having seen the band she used to play with whose name translates as "Cork The Bitch's Arse", but the success of the more accessibly labelled Sugarcubes made Bjork an indie pin-up. Some had their doubts about the unsettlingly child-like brand of sexuality she projected. Bjork in turn resented the way her Icelandicness was exoticised. "I think English people still have more imperialism in them than they think. A lot of people here can't deal with the fact that there are places on the planet where people don't drink tea. The English eat all sorts of birds - pigeons, ducks, sparrows - but if you tell them you eat puffin, you might as well come from Mars."
As a matter of general interest, what do puffins taste like? "They're quite tough and the meat is very dark." There was - and is - a steely- eyed quality about Bjork's refusal to be typecast as a novelty turn. This resolute independence of spirit has served her well since she dissolved the Sugarcubes in 1992. "People say 'You're so lucky to have such a great situation with your record label', but they don't realise it's a long story. I have had 500 options to sell out or compromise, and I never did. Each time it was maybe not a big step - people might say 'oh that wouldn't matter, that's just a detail' - but when you've gone 500 compromises down the road, you're fucked."
The choice of London as the launch pad for Bjork's solo career must have been something of a compromise, as she'd often spoken of her antipathy towards the city. "In a lot of ways England stood for everything I couldn't stand," she admits, somewhat undiplomatically. "That kind of conservatism of deciding chairs should be brown and making them brown for a thousand years - it's just in my system to go 'Aargh! Make them pink'." Bjork pauses. "But then that is a fault of mine as well, because there are only so many times you can change the colour of a chair."
She is now Anglicised to the point of dissolving into helpless laughter at the very mention of Alan Partridge, and the oddest feature of her speech is not the flurries of extravagantly rolled R's but the occasional sentence that could have been uttered by a life-long Londoner. Her fond memories of the late eighties boom in British DJ culture attest to its liquefying influence on her music. "Sometimes you have to go to 50 clubs, and then at number 51, if you're still there at six in the morning, you will just see miracles - something to make you believe it's mind over matter and everything is possible."
This is exactly the effect Bjork's best songs can have. Not everything she does works - repeated playings of her maddeningly over the top cover of blonde bombshell Betty Hutton's "It's Oh So Quiet" are now being used by the CIA to extract confessions - but the things that do, work in a new way. One of the most intriguing moments on Post (sombre follow up to the jauntily block-busting Debut) is the extraordinary "Hyper-ballad", which seems to be about struggling to maintain relationships in a world where, to quote the song's author: "The identity people have is not like a family, it's more like 'me'."
"Everyone will take this the wrong way," Bjork observes, "especially the Daily Star, but for me to work with people musically is just as important as a love affair. That's why I very rarely get romantically involved with them - I think Tricky [the enigmatic Bristolian who co-wrote two tracks on Post] is the only exception - because I have been trained from the age of 11 to always work with boys and be the only girl. It's a feminist thing really, because if you go out with somebody in a band, you're just their girlfriend, but if you keep it professional you can say 'that drum pattern was crap'."
The interview concludes with a brief rhapsody on the thought processes of Bjork's nine year old son Sindri. "All this travelling has worked completely differently on him than it did on me," she says cheerfully. At home in Maida Vale, Sindri will probably be roaming the Internet as we speak. "It doesn't matter if a kid is interested in tap dance or insect wings," his mother enthuses, "they can just go and find it."
Bjork: Sheffield Arena 0114 2565656, 19 Jan; Manchester G-Mex, 0161 832 9000, 20 Jan; Wembley Arena, 0181 900 1234, 25 Jan; Bournemouth International Centre, 01202 297297, 27 Jan.
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