Saturday afternoon Soho is grimly grey and numbingly November. Outside, the central London streets are their usual mix of casual mayhem and serious stress. Right here, right now in “swinging London” Newsweek and anyone else who doesn’t live in London there isn’t enough room for a swinging cat.
But Inside : Inside things are lovely. Lovely and organised and professional. And well-catered. Neverending pots of steaming tea, soft white cucumber sandwiches, dreamy sponge cake. This, according to the faxed communique’ from the international department of the record company, is “Björk ‘Telegram’ Press Day”. So we are in Soho House, a four-storey, highly-discreet private club, favoured venue for the press schmooze, the illicit assignation, or the all-night bender at someone else’s expense. “We” are scribblers and snappers, TV folk and radio types from all over the world. Twenty-four of us.
The deal ? Björk is just back from a tour of South America, where she played a series of 8,000-ish venues in the company of 808 State and other groups too rubbish to mention. Now she has a couple of days free, allowing her time to get wasted at a fancy dress Halloween ball for umpteen-thousand scenesters in a big shed on the banks of the Thames [that was last night ; Björk went dressed as a world-renowned pop phenomenon] ; to go to the pictures with her son Sindri to see Dragonheart [that’s to be tonight] ; to have her flesh depressed by the earnest queries of the international press cadre [that’s this afternoon ; “So Björk, this fellow with de bomb and all this before heading off to Spain on Wednesday to begin recording her third album proper. Two weeks after that it is Björk’s 31st birthday. She will probably be working.
Today’s schedule clears the singer-songwriter’s press and TV duties upfront of the release of her longpromised, often-delayed remix project, Telegram. BIork will only be on-duty for two hours. Everyone will get their 500 eurograms of flesh. Except us. We will get the full meaty kilo, after the quick-change press conference, in an exclusive one-on-one. When you are Björk and multi-successful, things are smooth and organised. Or rather, when you are Björk and smooth and organised, things are multi-successful.
“She’s a professional,” says Tricky of his one-time paramour. “She can deal with it. She could go to a club and people would fuck with her and she could deal with it. But she’s been doing it since she was 11. It weren’t no love thing. We needed each other at that time. I met her ; she supported me, I supported her, boom.”
Here, then, is a half-day in the strife of Björk Guðmundsdóttir .
Europe and the Far East collide on the dot in the bar. Scandinavia appears to have lost their photographer. Germany wonder if they can have a private room to do their shots. Japan smokes. Holland looks confused. Italy looks pregnant. Britain chills out. The MTV crew haven’t turned up yet. Everyone flicks through their Björk biography, press release, tracklisting, colour picture and colour transparency. Where’s the limited edition deluxe chocolate box set we can flog later ?
Europe and the Far East sit in a blue velvet private cinema listening to Telegram. There is nothing to look at. Except the Björk’s biography, press release, tracklisting, colour picture and colour transparency. Japan and the low countries smoke. To Britain’s left Holland—or is it Germany ?—read the only extant, recent interview with Björk, in British dance paper Mixmag, wherein Björk reveals that she and Goldie have just split up. To Britain’s right Germany—or is it Holland ?—writes down a question : “Do you think that you will ever marry Goldie ?”. Britain quietly goes : “Heh heh heh”.
“Transfer to private rooms where full traditional English tea will be served.” Cue cakes and cuppas. Björk begins “table-hopping” [ie “spending approx. 15 mins at each table having an informal chat with all the journalists—during this time photographers must remain in the bar downstairs.”]
At our table are Japan#1, Japan#2, Italy and us, Britain. “I hope you have some questions,” says lovely Japan#1 to snide Britain, “because I don’t.” Britain feels a little bit guilty about wanting to keep all the good questions for our intimate tete-a’-tete later. But only a little bit. Britain drinks all the tea. Italy eats all the sandwiches, because she’s “eating for two”.
Björk hops over to the table.
“We heard the tape,” says Japan#1, “and it’s very good.”
“Okay,” chirrups Björk. “Tank you. I actually feel quite awkward because it isn’t my work. I did one remix myself, ‘You’ve Been Flirting Again’, and obviously me and Evelyn Glennie, that was just us [the only new track on Telegram is ‘My Spine’, a deliciously sparse collaboration between the all-hearing Icelandic singer and the deaf Scottish percussionist]. She lives in Oxford and I just went to her house and we ate a lot of biscuits and drank a lot of tea and she took out exhaust pipes and we just made up that song and recorded it in ten minutes.
“I find the remix album a real turn on. And I think remixes aren’t respected enough. They’re like the record company trying to get money or trying to get the song played on the radio or in clubs. Whereas most of my remixes make sure they’re not ! So remixes— I’ve even funny feelings about the word—it’s like recycled or something... I don’t know what I’d prefer. ‘Alternative version’ or ‘interpretation’ is a bit snobby...” Japan#1, Japan#2, Italy and Britain go “ha ha ha” through mouthfuls of cake. Björk goes on.
“What happened to me was I obviously lived in Iceland and did loads of records and was really loyal to the people and worked with the same people ten years. Then I moved four years ago to England, and just met all these brilliant, genius musician people. And now I’ve really been spoiled rotten cos I’ve gotten to work with most of them. I’ve met people, both musicians and people that make beats, as varied cards as, say, Talvin Singh and fuckin’ Tricky. And for me really this is like the end of that period.”
“You say it’s the end,” wonders Britain. “How ? What comes next ?”
“Well, I always knew it would be two albums and that’s why I called them Debut and Post. Before and after. Björk packs her bags and goes to England and works with all these exciting people. I’m not saying there are no more people to work with—there are tons of exciting people—but maybe we don’t have anything in common”.
‘Do you already started writing songs for next album ?” asks Japan#2.
“Yeah,” replies Björk, “I’ve got it written. It’s mostly based on string quartets. I wrote all of them on my Asian tour. I had my computer with me. And I’m actually recording it on Wednesday !”
“Ahh, ah-hah, titter ; wow,” we say. Japan#1 wants to know how she got in contact with the Brodsky Quartet [who worked on Telegram’s ‘Hyperballad’ revamp].
“Oh I just called them up really,” Björk grins, sipping her frothy cafe’ latte. “I worked with all the people in Iceland. From fucking opera music to teaching children to play recorders. Then when I called up Graham Massey in ’90, that was the first sort of ‘fuckin hell, I’ve got nothing to lose, if he says no’. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
“You once said,” pontificates Britain, “that Post was a letter home to your mum in Iceland. Who is Telegram being sent to ?”
“Well for me Telegram is really Post as well but all the elements of the songs are just exaggerated. It’s like the core of Post. That’s why it’s funny to call it a remix album, it’s like the opposite. It’s like the cover of Post —me like this [she smiles beatifically] in pink and orange and big ribbon and it’s like a pressie for you. But Telegram is more stark, naked. Not trying to make it pretty or peaceable for the ear. Just a record I would buy myself.”
“Like a letter to yourself ?” posits Britain, vainly trying to keep the epistular concept going.
“Yeah, more, sort of... fuck what people think. It’s a truth thing. Which is maybe a contradiction because it’s other people’s remixes.”
“Have you heard the last album of Tricky, Pre- Millennium Tension,” Italy wants to know ?
“Did you like it ?”
“I think it’s gorgeous. I think, I mean, he’s the most important person around, he’s just so brave. The most important element about Tricky, which I think a lot of people overlook, is his honesty. He’s not scared of being ugly. A lot of people are always beautifying themselves and making themselves more glamorous. But it’s just truth. And you can’t kill that.”
Japan#1 mentions that sometimes she sees Björk going into a record shop after hours to flip through the shelves. She must like music.
“Oh thank you,” Björk smiles rising for more cake at the next table. “But I think that’s pretty obvious by now. I’m definitely addicted for life.”
Europe and the Far East disperse politely. No one has dared mention the bomb thing. Britain loiters about, trying to look inconspicuous.
Björk poses in the library of Soho House. For about ten minutes. “That’s 135 pictures so far ;” chortles the man holding the reflective light-screen after two minutes. Björk wears a long black leather dress and black leather T-shirt and carries a nasty woven aquamarine shopping bag, possibly full of ’70s groceries. While the whirlwind of shutters goes on, Björk weaves from side to side, humming gently to herself. “Beautiful,” says one snapper ; “gorgeous, give me more.” He is possibly joking. But only possibly. Björk grins and doesn’t bare her soul.
Geffing on for 4.30pm MTV are setting up in the private dining rooms. Soho House’s waitresses bustle past the cameras, getting ready to serve posh dinners to posher people. Björk says when she was a waitress she had to develop the same sense of humour as drag queens. People are rude to you so you have to be very rude back. “If drag queens aren’t full-on back they just get beaten up. I really like that way of working on the remixes,” she says. MTV smile. Britain is confused. Aaaand, action.
MTV wonders, noting the elements of drum’n’bass on Telegram, if Goldie has had any influence on the music ?
“I moved to London four years ago,” says Björk, not missing a beat and deftly, deliberately missing the point, “and an Indian community in Southall, the string arrangements on the Indian soundtracks and the pirate jungle stations were the only things I thought were creative. But I don’t know if it’s [not ‘he’s’] influenced me, I think that’s too obvious. The drum’n’bass scene is something that’s thrived and taken ten, twenty years to brew, and it’s a culture, it’s not only a music style... I’m just a visitor here, so I don’t think I can just go shopping and say, ‘I’ll have some of that please’. But I think that’s what’s so brilliant about remixes...
“I don’t think Goldie personally has influenced me. We do play a lot of music for each other but it’s not necessarily as obvious as I play him string quartets and he plays me a bit of Photek. It’s not as literal as that.”
“Are there any plans to work together ?” MTV goes on.
“I don’t know. Because we talk so much about music—I mean, you’d be surprised where Goldie’s influences come from and where my influences come from. And we’ve nourished each other and we’ll continue to nourish each other. That’s what’s so excellent about musical relationships. You just never know.”
MTV asks about Goldie’s skyscraper flat [“it’s very techno, very Goldie”], about “Possibly Maybe”, about the European Music Awards. Does she think she’ll win in the Best International Female category ?
“I don’t think so,” says Björk, her voice now piping and fluting and definitely childlike, “‘cos I won last time didn’t I... Nah, awards are always like that—you won last time so you don’t win again now. Then again, Janet Jackson always wins, don’t she. Then again, I’m not her ; am I ?” Björk’s management people loiter by the curtain at the entrance to the dining room. MTV are getting more than their 15 minutes of her fame. Björk says she’s been in London for four years “and it’s been great. But I’m gonna move.”
“Out of London or out of the country ?”
“A bit of both really. But I’m still staying. Strange, innit ?” Björk grins and licks her lips. Confused, or maybe trying to confuse with her cuteness.
“You can’t clarify that ?” probes MTV. “Where are you going ?”
“Oh, it’s a bit foggy, eh ! Yeah, I’ve found a lighthouse. On Gibraltar And I’m gonna put a pipe organ in it. And play it at midnight. Every night.” She pronounces the ‘G’ in Gibraltar like the ‘G’ in guitar. After this remark there is a small silence that feels like a big silence.
MTV pushes on, feeling for a way to ask about the “incident” with the fanatic in America who sent Björk a parcel-bomb then killed himself.
“The bomb incident changed my life definitely,” muses Björk. “But not in the way that people probably think. Because the biggest test has been to my relationships with my friends and my family. I’ve got a brilliant job—I can wake up in the morning with a song in my head and before I go back to bed it’s on vinyl and I can get almost any person I could dream of to play that song with me. And it’s literally a dream come true. And I’m ready to take the down side of that, which is being hassled and people thinking I’m things I’m not. But what’s difficult is that it affects my friends and my family. And that’s kind of where I draw the line. The bomb incident, for example, my only son’s life was in danger because I happen to sing through a microphone sometimes. And that’s scary. I can take it myself and the effect it has on my life but the fact that my granny gets calls to make waffles for the Daily Mirror ; and all my friends are asked if I’m going out with so-and-so. It’s been a test and I’ve never appreciated my friends more than I do now.”
Apparently, notes MTV, the guy objected to her mixed-race relationship... “I didn’t take that so seriously,” scoffs Björk. “The guy was called Lopez, which is Latin, and he doesn’t want a Icelandic person to go out with a guy who’s half-Scottish and half- Jamaican ? I’m sorry, that is definitely not the root of the problem. I just think it’s very, very sad. The guy obviously suffered but I have to say that I’m emotionally healthy enough not to take it personally. But still it affects me and I cried and I couldn’t sleep for nights, just thinking of his face. It’s really, really sad.”
“Do you think that you’ll marry Goldie ?” MTV wants to know.
“I don’t think so now.”
“Well, we’ve split up to start with. So that won’t help marriage. I don’t know, I’m not really a marriage kind of person.”
And the man from Björk’s management says ‘okay, thanks very much’.
Björk has flitted, moth-like, from psychopathic pillock to Post, and now it’s time to relax and reflect. Björk and Blah Blah Blah cosy up in another private dining room for some questions on Post, Telegram, love letters, hate mail, and how Björk learnt to start worrying and fear the bomb.
Einar from The Sugarcubes thought music was a bogus way to communicate ? Have you convinced him that he’s wrong ?
“No ! He’s still one of my closest friends, I love him to death. It’s funny, the core of me and Einar is very similar but the way we communicate is completely different. That’s why we worked together for ten years. He’s very outrovert but when I’m at my best I’m very introvert and private and inside the music.
“I have this ongoing argument with Nellee Hooper [ex-Soul II Soul, producer of Debut] where I say falling in love is a bad replica of making music, and he says, no, sort your shit out Björk, music is a replica of people falling in love ! What is copying what ? I don’t know, maybe it’s because everybody’s got one sense stronger than the other. Some people’s got the eye, some people got the body or athletics, mine is definitely the ear. You can go through a day in your life with all the relationships you’ve got going on and your friends and your work and it’s just fucked up. The minute you put the right song on, suddenly everything makes sense.”
Ever opened anyone else’s mail ?
“No ! I love secrets and mystery and I provoke that in my son—he doesn’t tell me everything. I can’t even go into people’s bags. When people ask me to get their keys from the bags, I can’t. “I expect the same from my friends. Sometimes I trust too much, I just leave letters lying about and think nobody will read them. If I see a postcard for someone else I won’t read it. I’m brainwashed !”
Do you check your credit card bill ?
“Yeah, because I was taught by my family. I started working with my own money when I was 11 and rented my own flat when I was 14. But now my work is so complicated I get other people to take care of my things. My babysitter takes care of my bills now. The first year I got to London I was too proud. I did the cleaning, I did everything. I just ended up with no time.” Do you remember the first love letter you wrote ? “I don’t remember a specific letter but I remember the stream of letters. I was 16. It’s romantic, innit ? But faxes have taken over now, eh ? But you never know who’s gonna read it. If you wanna be emotional you have to talk in code language. Which makes it more complex and exciting. I like that.”
Do you remember the first fan letter you got ?
“No, I was always really clear about that in my mind, that it just wasn’t my field. I’m not meant to read fan mail. Because... It seems really arrogant but it isn’t. If I read the fan mail I would accept that I’m God. And I’m not. And also, I’ve hardly got time—I forget my grandmothers’ birthdays, and I forget to call my dad, so why should I read letters from strangers ?
“I come from a family full of electricians and bricklayers and hard-working people and I look at my job like that. And all I can give to a stranger is a song, and actually I’m giving them all I’ve got—and sometimes more than I’ve got. And communicating with them in another way, it’s an illusion that it would add to things. And when they write ‘I love you’ it makes me sick. They don’t know me ! I’m a difficult bastard in real life !”
You’ve said your son Sindri appreciates words the way you appreciate music. Is that still the case ?
“Yeah, he’s writing science fiction stories. On his lap-top. He’s really into Star Wars and we’ve got a new craze : Aliens ! I never seen them till last week ! Sigourney Weaver ; what a woman ! Sindri has to go a bit under the sheets sometimes. His senses are words—I don’t know if he’ll be a teacher or a writer or something to do with language. But I don’t mind what he does.”
Do you write to each other on tour ?
“I’ve been very lucky, he toured with me all the way up till he was six, then I could do the tours when he was on half-terms or holidays. But we’re so connected that when we’re not together we tend to just get on with our lives. It seems cold but we’re together ; mostly, 24 hours.”
You and Graham Massey [of 808 State] used to send each other tapes [‘Headphones’, the last track on Post, is about this]. Were those personal compilations important to where you are now ?
“Definitely. Meeting Graham was vital. I had worked with everyone in Iceland. I’m just like that, it’s not because I’m a greedy bastard. Well, I am a greedy bastard, but I’ll give as much as I take. I believe in true love, and meeting a partner and the fantasy of being loyal and being with the same person forever. If that works, ha ha,” she laughs dryly. “But music is just not like that. It’s in its nature to get new subjects and new things. In Iceland, it’s such a closed community—you’ve gotten drunk with someone and known them for two years and end up going to some garage and writing a tune. It goes that way around.”
Have you ever split up with anyone by letter ?
“No, but sometimes it’s easier in the aftermath—when it can get very painful, you sit in front of a person that you love to pieces but you have to face it that it doesn’t work—sometimes there’s so much emotion you can’t be organised when you look at them and you’re in the same room as them. You got to write it down.
Have you written a letter to Goldie yet ?
“Ha ha ha. It’s too personal. I think I should leave that out of the papers !” What will your new album, your letter from Spain, sound like ?” I think it’s more spontaneous and instead of a letter or a diary or a fax or an e-mail it’s more of... a direct conversation. What happens with letters or diaries is you can read them over and over again and what do you call it when you cross out all the sensitive bits ?
Censor it ?
“Yeah, censor it. Now I think I’ve got the courage and the musical maturity not to hold anything back.”
And she’s up and off, off to the pictures with her son. Britain senses that the last year—the fame, acclaim, the pain and paranoia—has helped her refocus her priorities, lock down what she and her music and her world are all about. No more self-censorship but, at the same time, more savvy self protection. That next album should make for explosive listening. Let’s hope it doesn’t bomb.
Boom, and indeed, boom.