Björk: Passions in a cold climate

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

Friday 13 August 2004 00:00 BST

"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.

"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."

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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 stuff."

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 girl.

"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

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