The last of the great pop stars

The Independent, 9 août 2001

Today, Björk is not wearing a swan. She’s wearing a medieval kaftan made out of a stiff but soft-looking cream fabric. It has a flattering high waist and seed-pod sleeves from which her arms emerge like pallid stamens. Its hem brushes her toes.

We are introduced. “Hello.” She curtsies. She actually does it—a tiny, polite bob. I consider curtsying in return, clicking my heels or sweeping off an imaginary hat and making a leg, but settle for standing up and smiling. The thought is : if Björk hadn’t already existed, then surely someone would have to invent her. The second thought that quickly shoves the first one out of the way is : yes, but no one has that much imagination.

Björk’s hair is in a state of florescence too. Actually, it’s a Davy Crockett hat of soft black curls sat low on her brow, from which a multitude of raccoon tails swing and tangle about her shoulders. They frame her scrubbed face, wide and white as a dinner plate and dotted with tiny freckles. Her nose is tipped up Manga-style to level two perfectly circular nostrils at you like tiny gun barrels. She pokes at these continually with a hand, all four fingers closed, scuffing up and down. Her nose looks a bit raw, but her Inuit eyes are shiny and as ambiguous in colour as a northern sea.

She has a new record coming, of course. It’s the first authentic Björk album since Homogenic in 1997, which was diligently harsh and was played to death in houses without comfy sofas in them. Homogenic was, in Björk’s own words, a “volcanic” album inspired in part by the landscape of her homeland, Iceland, and partly, we may presume, by the eruptive nature of her life at the time. It had the density and mass of lava and a very low boiling point. Beautiful it was, but a bit ugly. “It was,” she says, scrubbing at her nose, “very hyper and romantic and over-emotional, which is, I think, very Iceland.”

She thinks the new one, Vespertine, is linked to Homogenic “but is the opposite—the polar version, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious”. It is, in fact, a record all about being in her kitchen.

The world is pretty tired of pop music, by and large. Pop doesn’t have much to say in the 21st century that wasn’t being said with rather more elan (and less vulgarity) two-thirds of the way through the 20th century. But theoretically there’s no reason at all why pop shouldn’t go on being thrilling provided it sticks to its cardinal function, which is to offer the possibility that, contrary to centuries of social and religious conditioning, it is feasible to live entirely in the moment ; that life can be experienced as a continual “now”.

This would appear to be Björk all over. She really does live to work. “Music is the be-all and end-all of everything for me,” she says. “And I have to live with two of me. One is the myth of me, which I know about as much as you do—it’s got nothing to do with me... Well, no, that’s not true... But the mythic me is made out of events that happen once or twice a year and are made public, and people join up the dots and create this alternative person, and I’m like oooooh...” She narrows her eyes. The mythic Björk, she implies, is the part of her that moved the Icelandic government to offer her an Icelandic island to dispose of at will —an offer she turned down.

It is also the mythic Björk that caused the real one to exchange London and her place in the glasshouse of celebrityhood for one in the potting shed of furious artistic endeavour. “The other me just wants to meet new people, make music, and live a mobile life, moving all the time,” she says stoutly. The classical austerities of deferred gratification are not for her. Only with her very last breath, you suspect, will she give in to social convention and utter that glum trope of self-denial, “not in this world, ducks”.

She is the last great pop star. She might thump television reporters. She might engage in unseemly wrangles with film directors. She might be disturbed by disturbed fans. She might live in a child’s dressing-up box. But she always seems to be hard at work, ensuring that life is not a fruitful curve zooming towards inevitable riches, celebrity and duets with Mariah Carey, but a jerky sequence of moments—of “nows”—as rough- hewn, lurching and unpredictable as the beats on her records.

Each of her melodies, she says, stands for an “emotional location”, retained from more than 20 years of mapping her feelings, moment by moment, with the tunes she makes up “secretly” in her head. “It’s a habit of mine never to write them down or document them, because that would be an offence against spontaneity.” So she just dials them up at will when emotional occasion demands. She is far more in love, she says, with process than with product.

“I was really curious to make the home routine into a paradise,” she says of Vespertine in her extraordinary portmanteau accent, “that home should be the most exciting place on earth. Not sure why. I think it might have been a joke on myself, after travelling for 15 years [she’s 36 in November]. Also, to sit still has always been a challenge for me.” She executes a big nose-scuff and screws up her eyes. “To make an exciting, euphoric, divine, action-packed album about your kitchen seemed somehow impossible, so I decided to go for it.”

This might, of course, be a disingenuous, self-dramatising way of saying that, after Homogenic and its fearful landscapes, it was high time she did something nice that people with sofas can buy, in all their millions. But she has that thought covered. “I thought, let’s do a pop album you can enjoy in yer airse [Björkney for ‘your house’] in the same way you would enjoy reading a book. Still modern but more inside.”
So Vespertine—a real word meaning “relating to the evening”—is the first authentic indoors Björk album, a sort of book of hours for the world of home, in which the customary awkwardnesses of Björkean style are softened and made diaphanous by slow tempi, delicate beats and rippling melodies. It’s beautiful. It features lower-case poetry by e.e. cummings and tinkly celestas and harps. Its glinting closeness reminds me of Bergman films. Has she seen Fanny and Alexander ?

She hasn’t, not properly. But the question provokes an untranscribable disquisition on the way the duality of “indoors” and “outdoors” is as vital to the Nordic sensibility as that of “summer” and “winter”. We explore the “many whispered, translucent voices from the walls” that compose the wintry atmosphere of Vespertine and contrast them with the “fat narratives” of summer. Yes we do.

We also touch on the world of “laptop music”, Björk’s current musical amour. Laptop music, a.k.a. “Clicks and Cuts”, aka “Snap, Crackle and Pop”, is the ultra-detailed musica franca of hipster cyberspace. How does it sound ? Snappy, crackly and poppy, presumably—a sort of sonic Jackson Pollock of manufactured and found beats, processed on the hoof on a laptop computer. It’s very big in the German underground. Björk does some laptop for my benefit on our table with a spoon and three fingers. “Small is beautiful,” she says from her customary low angle. “And to create a world that doesn’t come from any place, and is not anchored, means you can recreate that world anywhere.” You get a picture of a weightless Björk dirigible floating untethered around the globe in a cloud of creativity, docking at favoured destinations for a tankful of the right stuff : Iceland, Spain, London, New York.

She has formed an attachment with a New York artist called Matthew Barney, but is not forthcoming on the subject. (Are you in love at the moment ? “Er, yeah, well, I guess I am.”) And after 15 years on the hoof, her son Sindri has decided that the time has come to cease the endless shuttling with Mum, to drop anchor in Iceland and get to know his dad. Given that Björk herself left home at 14, she says she is not resistant to the thought of Sindri going back home at the same sort of age. She is tenderly matter- of-fact about it.

“Yes, it’s a bit hard,” she says, suddenly inscrutable. “But I sort of prepared myself for it. It’s fair enough. Because of my experience of leaving home, when my mum couldn’t get her head round it, Sindri was always focused on the age 14—he was determined to be his own person then. And I had to be ready to let go. So I’m just trying to let go, really.”

She is, she insists, an “old school” Romantic. “I’m a very emotional person—I should be from the 18th century. Life is seamless for me. If I start to crave something, then I go and get it and it’ll end up in my work. I have a lot of laughs with my accountant about this, because to draw the line between work and pleasure is kind of impossible.”

Which is rather the point of the whole Björk package and, theoretically, pop itself. If you can conceive of the pop life not as a means to prolong adolescence and defer adulthood, but as a means to live continuously in the moment, while taking responsibility for children, having a full working life and addressing the more complicated requirements of the soul, without foisting terrible pop records on the rest of the world, then you’re probably in with a chance of being happy.

“I really don’t believe in an afterlife,” declares the last great pop star, picking her nose. “I think it’s rubbish.”

publié dans The Independent