And then there’s Björk.
She is leaning forward, elbows on a sunlit table in the Rose Garden Cafe, in London’s Regent’s Park. She has just come from a photo shoot, and a few strands of the silky red temporary hair extensions the stylist wig-glued to Björk shimmer in the glossy fall of her own dark hair. A little green mascara (“Dead modern, dead ’90s,” she says with satisfaction) still clings to the tips of her lashes, but she has changed back into her own clothes: a black Comme des Garçons dress (“It’s posh. Really posh, actually, but I live in it”) that sort of looks like a cross between a lampshade and a lava flow; striped pajama bottoms; neon Reebok trainers (with the pump!); and, based on the strap slipping down her right arm, an orange bra. She is as lovely as the day, which is an exceptionally lovely one, and she is talking about “Isobel,” a track off her second solo album, Post.
“It’s tricky, the story of ‘Isobel,’ because it’s almost, like, epic,” Björk says. “And I want it to be like that – sort of influenced by people like Gabriel García Márquez and all those lot. And it’s supposed to be a very South American sort of drama, you know, like a story where the mother accidentally kills her only son or something stupid like that.”
“Or marries him,” I say. “Don’t you hate it when that happens?”
“It’s terrible!” Björk says. “So Isobel in a way is not a person, it’s more a myth, and she symbolizes intuition, kind of like Atlas is a strong guy, and so-and-so is the god of the ocean.
“And she would be called Isobel,” she continues, “and she’s born from a spark in the South American forest, not from a mother and a father, and as she grows up and gets older, she notices that all the pebbles on the forest floor are actually baby skyscrapers, and they grow, and they grow, and they grow, and they overtake the forest. And she realizes she’s got really big breasts, and she becomes a complete woman, and she’s operating on intuition, of course, because she’s Isobel!”
Björk pauses, an event —– happily a rare one —– that is like a carillon chiming to a close; she is a chatterbox. She takes a sip of cappuccino and continues: “And she meets all these grown-ups, and they’re always working with their heads, being really clever. And she falls in love with the wrong people, and she means well, and she hurts people, and then she gets hurt herself, and she decides in the end just to isolate herself, and that’s why she’s called Iso-bel, not Isa-bel. But still she thinks you should do things with intuition, not with your brain, so she gathers up all these moths, and she sends them out to the windows of people who are using their heads too much, and they land on the collar of their shirts, and, of course, the creature who is supposed to be the spokesperson for intuition would not use words. . . .” She trails off, bells fading in the crystal mountain air.
“They’d use moths?” I ask. “Yeah!” she answers. “So the moths land on the collars of the clever people, and they go” — Björk assumes a serious, reproving expression and waggles her finger –— ” ‘na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na.’ And they stop them to be clever, and they go, ‘Oh!’ “
“This is the video?” I ask, confused. Most of these details are not in the song lyrics.
“No!” she says, frustrated. “It’s just the story!”
She is a one, that Björk. Formerly of the Sugarcubes, with whom she first gained the world’s attention via her purr-like-a-pussy-cat, soar-like-a-lark vocals on 1988’s “Birthday,” she is a one-woman polyglot whose speech unites a mélange of accents ranging from French to Scottish to cockney, although she is in fact Icelandic (“I think I just picked the words from all the different accents that sound most interesting,” she says). She has a mind like a kaleidoscope and a musicality that seems to bubble up, pure as Perrier, straight from the spring of her soul. This has evidently always been the case, ever since she was a little Icelandic toddler, born Björk Gudmundsdóttir to hippies in Reykjavík 29 years ago.
“When I was 1 year old, I would get goose pimples when I would hear a beautiful song,” Björk says. “My mum talks about that. And I noticed with my son, when he was 1 year old, he got goose pimples on his arm when he would hear beautiful sentences. He’s really good with words and ideology and logic. He’s a bit of a professor; he likes encyclopedias. And I find that fascinating, because I always used to think that literature was just a cold way to explain music. But then I realize, no, it can be the prime, the first, and for my son, music comes second, if not third. And some people are that way with their eyes: They just get goose pimples when they see something pretty. But I’m like that with sounds and noises.”
There are many delightful things about Björk. In fact, given her beauty, her intelligence, her musicianship and her modesty, she could pretty much be said to be the single greatest source of abiding delight to come out of Iceland since Njáls Saga. Although her appeal transcends local-export status, she is very much a product of her native land’s creative community (“If you want to get really simple about it, Icelandic is my subconscious, and English is my conscious,” she says).
During Björk’s youth, at least, this community derived much of its vitality from its insularity. “My friends that I was brought up with,” she says, “we got only shit films, we got shit records, we got everything shit, so what we would do was find the good bands and put them out ourselves, find the good poets, find the good novelists and put them out.”
Björk is not just whistling the Icelandic equivalent of “Dixie”: She attended music school from the age of 5 and made her first record, a collection of children’s songs, one of which she wrote, at age 11. Uninterested in pursuing the child stardom this earned her, she declined the opportunity to make another record in favor of going her own sweet, self-sufficient way, studying flute and piano and, as a teen-ager, hooking up with likeminded boho punk surrealists from whom the Sugarcubes eventually sprang.
“The second time I met her,” says Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson, an Icelandic writer friend who worked with Björk on the lyrics to “Isobel” and has known her since she was 15, “I came to her place in Reykjavík to meet a friend. She sat me down for tea, and a few minutes later, my friend came out of her bedroom, and it was a little embarrassing because he was all covered in blue leopard spots. What happened was she had woken up before him and had just a little fun with him while he was sleeping, decorating him in this way.”
It seems a shame to overburden such a lovely anecdote with analysis, but it is worth noting that it illustrates not only the quality for which Björk is primarily known (mischievous, unbridled, idiosyncratic creativity) but also the one for which she is less known and without which her more immediately striking attributes might never have gone much further than her own Reykjavík living room (responsible, centered, tea-serving maturity).
That is to say that a record like Post, which never fails to sound as immediate and fanciful as imagination itself, could never be the product merely of imagination. Work this good takes work, and while it is clearly more fun –— Do you believe in fairies? Clap your hands! –— to emphasize the first rather than the second element in terms like magical realism and childwoman when applying them to Björk, it does her a slight but nonetheless real disservice.
“What I am mostly discovering about myself,” Björk says, “is that because my mother trusted me —– and when I was 5 or so, I had a key around my neck, and I took the bus myself to school, and I did all my homework, and I dressed and fed myself –— I became my own mum very, very early, and I developed a relationship to myself where I was the mum and the child. People see the kid in me; they think I’m innocent and naive and all those things, but being organized and hard-working is completely second nature to me. I don’t even have to worry about it. And that’s probably why people don’t see it. And I will probably be that combination forever because I got both, and I don’t have to let one go.”
But is Post, with its small but distinct note of heartbreak, the work of a sadder but wiser Björk?
“I don’t think necessarily sadder,” she says. “I am, but. . . I was. Because people always have sadness. But now I have probably the guts to confront it, and to have the guts to confront it means you can enjoy the other bits as well.”
Björk herself sees “Post” as simply a better version of Debut in the sense that it records what she regards as the natural progression, artistically, emotionally and technically, of an “immigrant housewife in the big city.” Two years ago, Björk, along with her son, Sindri, now 9, moved from Iceland to London, and, as she explains, “all the songs on the album for me are like saying, ‘Listen, this is how I’m doing,’ and that’s why I called the record Post –— because I always address my songs back in my head to Iceland like a letter, like I have a love affair with someone, and it goes horribly wrong, and I go like ‘Dear Iceland, “Possibly Maybe.” ‘ Because it was such a big jump for me to move away from all my relatives, all my friends, everything I know.”
In any event, on Post the sounds and noises so beloved by Björk return the favor. From the industrial rumble of the bass (as fuzzy as the sweater she wore on Debut‘s cover) with which she kicks off the ominous, anthemic “Army of Me” to the sweet simplicity of “Headphones,” the album’s closing track, Björk piles on the sounds and noises – less as if there were no tomorrow than as if she were not going to waste a moment of today. Where Debut was sonically coherent, Post is more of a variety act. In addition to tracks from ambient soulmeister Nellee Hooper, with whom she produced Debut, here are contributions from ex-Massive Attack trip-hop artist Tricky, Scottish techno wizard Howie B., musical eclecticist Graham Massey and Brazilian demigod Eumir Deodato (yes, Deodato of 2001 fame).
As a result, the grinding techno fusion of tracks like “Army of Me” and “Enjoy” rubs shoulders with the more minimal, offbeat melodics of “Possibly Maybe” and “Headphones,” unified primarily by Björk’s pure, limber vocals; the magical-realist lyrical tone of songs like “Isobel” and “The Modern Things” keeps company with lines that detached from their delivery would not sound out of place issuing from the mouth of Juliana Hatfield (“Since we broke up, I’m using lipstick again”). And just to keep things interesting, every now and again the entire project blossoms into full-out big-band swing (“Blow a Fuse”) or string arrangements so syrupy and yet so celestial they seem to have floated into your speakers from the otherworldly soundtrack that I imagine accompanying the movie playing in Björk’s kaleidoscopic mind.
“She has developed a style and a music that I’ve never heard anything like in my life,” says Deodato, who is responsible for some of those string arrangements. “When I heard her material, I freaked out, and I said, ‘What are you doing? This is crazy, this is so difficult, to propose this kind of style to the people.’ But she does, and she’s successful at it. There’s the liberty she takes with melodies and with harmony that sometimes apparently leaves clashes that are not really clashes, they’re concepts. It’s an acoustic principle, but she instinctively goes into that vein, and she blends all these things with a beautiful voice.”
Björk has many enthusiasms, and she pursues them, well, enthusiastically. She is standing slightly pigeon-toed in the engineer’s booth of Angel studios, in Islington, England, regarding the space in which she is shortly to record a new mix of “Isobel.” The hem of her long black slip dress is taped up where it had ripped when she stepped on it in her enthusiasm. On the other side of the glass, Deodato is rehearsing a 16-piece string section, counting bars and looking very Dolce Vita. “He’s a legend, Eumir,” she says. True, but it is typical of Björk that she tracked him down because of his work on a little-known song called “Travessia,” by Milton Nascimento.
“You’ll listen to it and go, ‘OK,’ ” Björk says of Nascimento’s song. “Then after one year, it’s your best friend; after two years, you can’t go a day without hearing it.”
Occasionally, Björk’s enthusiasm runs away with her, and sometimes she takes other people along with her. “I met her in some club,” says Tricky, “and we said we’d work together, and the next thing I know, I’m in a hotel room in Iceland, having a drink and running the QY20 through a boombox, then the next day you’ve got a song.”
It is somehow unsurprising that Björk says she has an easier time relating to her dreams than to reality. What is surprising is that she dreams of being Paul Newman. Naked and with a rucksack full of weapons on her back. In this dream it is her mission to go into a house to kill Steve McQueen, who is also naked and who is eating toast and jam with one hand and throwing knives at her, circus style, with the other. Eventually, to make a long story short, they both turn into women and make love.
“What a great dream,” I say, impressed. “What do you think it means?”
“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” she replies.
I love the spring,” says Böjrk, walking balance-beam style along the little wooden curb that borders the flower beds leading away from the Rose Garden Cafe. “I feel like 10 spring onions are going to burst out of my chest like in Alien. Do you know that feeling?”
I don’t, sad to say. But I do feel pretty sure that if Björk were to bring 10 spring onions into the world, they would be 10 of the best-tended, freethinking spring onions you could hope to meet.
“I remember being in my kindergarten and helping take care of the other children,” Björk says. “Because I insisted I take care of them. And the second thing that I remember really strongly from the same time is me playing with the kids in my street, and we were really excited and really happy and really free. And then we were just about to do something, I can’t remember what it was, and the other five kids decided that we shouldn’t do that. And I’m like ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘Because you’re not supposed to, just because you can’t.’ And I always remember that it was sort of a crossroads in my life. Understanding that terrified me. On the one hand is the things you’re supposed to do, and on the other hand is the things you want to do, and there’s a big canyon between those two. So I said, ‘Well, I’m doing what I want to do. Fuck you guys.’ So I went on that side of the canyon. And I’ve never regretted it ever since.”
In general, Björk has few regrets, although she does remember the first time a man kissed her earlobes as disappointing. “I had read all these books about how gorgeous it felt,” she says. “But what he forgot is my ears are oversensitive, that’s my strongest sense, and it made this really horrible noise.”
In general, these days the forecast for life on Björk’s side of the canyon seems likely to be springlike, onions optional. She misses Iceland, especially the blizzards, and being able to walk around at night singing at the top of her lungs, but she’s coming to terms with that, and on a recent trip to Sweden to promote Post, she took advantage of a nearby forest to sing.
“Then I heard some noise,” Björk says, “and when I looked around, it was five horses following me. And the funny thing was, because I stopped, they stopped as well, they were just standing there pretending they were invisible, with this comical horse expression.”
“I think yesterday was one of my favorite days in my life, actually,” she says as we prepare to go our separate ways in the English spring. “I woke up, and I felt like I was on three ecstasy tablets, and I bicycled around this park, and I went on a photo shoot, and when you feel like you’re on three E’s for some reason, it’s such a little effort to click people in. So I did that, and then –— I shouldn’t say this really, but I have to say it if we talk about yesterday –— but I’ve sort of got a new boyfriend now, you see, and I’m really excited, and he came home one day early, so I had a date last night, and it was really exciting. It was the first date I think I’ve ever been on in my life. I was talking to my friend and actually asking hideous questions like ‘Should I wear nail polish?’ But I decided not to. And we just met and got drunk together, and it was very special. And he’s actually sleeping in my bed, so I’m going to meet him after this interview.”
“Oh, well, that’s nice,” I say, feeling mildly guilty. “Your perfect day spilled over to today.”
“Yeah! I’m very excited,” Björk answers. “And I changed about five times, and, honestly, I was never like that as a teen-ager. I would just wear a little punk outfit. It wasn’t really my first time with him, it was just my only date date.”
“Is there anything else you would like to share about your new boyfriend?” I ask. “No? Well, at least he doesn’t kiss your earlobes wrong.”
“No, he does it ever so right,” says Björk dreamily. “He’s ever so sensitive about sound and music. He’s got, like, a motor running inside him. And then you feel like you’ve got the same kind of motor yourself, and we’re the only two people who can hear it really.”
“Like the kind of whistle only dogs can hear,” I say, trying to keep up but probably wearing the interviewer’s equivalent of a comical horse expression.
“Yeah!” says Björk, pleased, once and for all, to have been finally understood.