The Emma Brockes interview

The Guardian, 13 février 2006

Q : Did your fellow Icelanders think you were eccentric when you were starting out ?A : Yeah. Most people didn’t like what I was doing. It took the English to discover it

Björk is just back from Banda Aceh in Indonesia, the closest major city to the epicentre of the 2004 tsunami. She was taken there by Unicef as a goodwill ambassador, although she likes to think that it is as “a mother from Iceland” and, more generally, “a human being” that she has the most to offer. In Unicef’s London headquarters the dim, late afternoon light pools on her face. “I’m trying to find words for what I saw,” she says. “I think it’ll take another month. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”

There has always been a big gap between how Björk seems to see herself and how she is seen by the rest of the world. When she emerged on the music scene in the mid-80s it was hard to tell if she was wildly eccentric or if it was just that she was from Iceland. Did her fellow Icelanders think that she was eccentric when she was starting out ? “Yeah, pretty much,” she says. She stood out from the crowd as much in Reykjavik as she did in London. (She does, quite rightly, dislike the extent to which her looks have contributed to her reputation of being weird.) “Most people in Iceland are blonde and blue-eyed. I was nicknamed ‘China girl’ in school ‘cos they thought I looked Asian. And most people in Iceland didn’t like what me and my mates were doing. It took the English to discover it.”

What she and her mates were doing was making music, first in a band called the Sugar Cubes, then solo as Björk, by which time she had learned that there were certain advantages to being different. After the success of the band’s album Life’s Too Good in 1988, Björk had her first major solo hit with her 1993 single, Human Behaviour. Although she places herself in the folk tradition—her parents were both “hippies”, she says, and “most of my relatives are tradesmen. I guess they look at [what I do] in a similar way, like craftsmanship”—she came of age at the tail end of the punk era and it has influenced her outlook on almost everything, including charity work. Before her involvement with Unicef, Björk was suspicious of organised fund-raising in the same way that she disdained organised politics, or organised anything which required more people than could fit in one room.

“I’m really weird like that. I blame it on the punk background. We were so ... what’s the right word for it ? I guess a bad word for it would be ‘holistic’. You know, this idea that you make your own poster and you glue it up and you carry your equipment. And even though it’s a long time since I put a poster on the wall, I have to tell you, I have that background, and I’m still working with the same people I’ve been working with since I was 16. I have a feeling for the whole picture.” Previously, she has turned down appeals to do charity work. “I always feel a bit funny about it because I don’t know where the money’s going and the people come and I don’t know them ... and [you hear] scandal stories about charities where most of the money pays for champagne to help with celebrities.”

Unicef’s choice of Björk is interesting ; since Geri Halliwell’s widely derided stint as a UN ambassador, charities have been forced to give more thought to the suitability of their celebrity backers. Björk’s eccentricity is, despite its eye-rolling silliness, generally perceived as a sign of her sincerity rather than the grim “wackiness” contrived by duller musicians. At the Oscars five years ago she wore a dress, a costume really, designed by Marjan Pejoski in the shape of a swan, and left eggs all down the red carpet. She wasn’t rebelling ; she just liked the dress.

“They didn’t get it. They actually thought that I was trying to look like Jennifer Aniston but got it wrong." She had in mind a playful, Busby Berkeley look, inspired by his aerial shots of synchronised swimmers, but it didn’t quite work out. “I probably wore a more eccentric dress for Cannes [in 2000], but nobody noticed. I think Europeans can stomach things like that more easily. I think Michael Jackson should settle in Switzerland or something. He’d be fine.”

When Björk first visited London at the age of 18, she went into shock. The Iceland she left behind was so parochial, she says, that when a foreigner walked down the street people stopped and pointed. This was before the country’s tourist boom and there were only a few hotels there then. “When I walked around London, I felt all the buildings were sticky and I had to wash five times a day. There were strawberries, things I’d never seen.”

There is something about Björk’s suspicion of big organisations, charitable or otherwise, which makes her appear quite controlling ; she likes to keep everything small scale so that she can personally keep an eye on it. In 1999 she had a high-profile fallout with the director Lars Von Trier, during the shooting of the film Dancer in the Dark, in which she appeared and for which she also wrote the music. According to co- stars, she called Von Trier “a tyrant” and a “coward” and resented his autocratic style. And she has had the odd Naomi Campbell-style scrap with the paparazzi. Is she controlling ? Does it contradict all the holistic stuff ?

“Well. I mean, both of these words have a really bad reputation. Like ‘holistic’, I mean the Icelandic version of that word is much more practical. It’s not so hippy, airy-fairy. ‘Control’ obviously has a really bad reputation. I guess ‘responsibility’ is better. Coming from the punk generation, it was about being responsible ; you know, you can’t be an Elvis who said, ‘Oh, they gave me the drugs and my manager fucked me over and blah blah blah.’ You can’t blame anybody else. You have to set it up yourself ... it’s kinda the indie way of thinking. You can call it control, but at the end of the day it’s being responsible for what happens to you and what you do to others.”

The trip to Banda Aceh came about after Björk released a remix of her 1995 single, Army of Me, to raise money for victims of the tsunami. She was there for two days and has only just got back, stopping over in London before returning to her home in New York. She has a further home in Iceland, which she shares with her husband, an artist, and her three-year-old daughter, Isadora ; she has a 19-year-old son from a previous relationship with a bandmate from the Sugar Cubes. She often refers to her Icelandic sensibility : “Like any Icelander, I like my drinking. But it’s like, I drink rarely, but when I drink, I drink. It’s all or nothing.”

Björk is under no illusions as to how much her visit to Indonesia might have contributed to the aid effort. “I’m aware that it’s a very, very small percentage,” she says. She was shown around the devastated city by a woman who had lost both her mother and her brother. “And she was pretty cool [at first], taking us to the locations and interpreting and laughing. And then, right before we went to the airport, she took us to see the house where she used to live. And obviously it had just been scraped off the ground and you could just see the floor tiles. And then she found her mother’s dress, in the debris. And just broke down. And it was ... because we’d got to know her, it was quite hard-hitting. It’s a lot to take in, in two days.”

Björk has never had much time for mainstream politics, although, as she grows older she says she finds herself softening a little. “In elections in Iceland I have always been an abstainer. It seems like politics is such a small bundle of self-important people, who don’t have much to do with things I’m interested in. Or something. But then, obviously, when you get older you realise that they do have a lot to say, right ? Maybe I would just like to think there are other angles than that. For example, I got involved in a concert in Iceland a month ago, which protests [against] building huge dams in the country. Environmental [politics] aren’t any more a left, green, hippy thing. It’s something that concerns everyone, cross-politically. I guess I’m more on that page than party politics.”

Björk’s last solo album, Medulla, made the Top 10 in 2004, and she has been nominated for a Brit Award in the International Female Solo Artist category against, among others, Madonna and Mariah Carey, the winner of which is announced this week. A big part of her mysterious appeal is that she never seems to look older. She is 40 now, but her face is as pixie-like and unlined as ever, so much so that she seems almost computer generated. She is wondering how her experiences in Banda Aceh will surface, down the line, in her life and her work. Björk’s music has never strictly adhered to one genre, but moved with relative ease between pop, rock, electronica and folk.

When she was growing up she listened mostly to instrumental music. Her attention span is so “retarded”, she says, that she has to “keep reinventing the wheel” to retain interest in what she is doing. She is occasionally frustrated by the sheer literal-mindedness of the way some of her fans approach her music ; there seems to be a need, she says, for people to identify a single theme within it. She is pleased, however, that the fans themselves defy easy categorisation ; as far as she can tell, they range across the age and music spectrums just as widely as she hopes her songs span the emotional range.

“You’ve got happy, sad, angry, confused, and then all the 50,000 other colours that a human feels. And if one song is just about turquoise blue—that can mean a lot of things ; that [can mean the way] you feel about apples, and your brother, and your wooden bed from your childhood. And you would sing about that in one song, and people might say, ‘Oh, it’s about her boyfriend.’ But that’s OK. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that I capture that turquoise-blue thing. If I do my job right. I guess I look at it more like that. As kind of ... abstract”.

publié dans The Guardian