The phone rings. “Hello?” I say. The voice on the other end responds: “Hello. My name is Björk.” I glance at my notes. There are but four words on the sheet in front of me. They are written in fat red Sharpie ink on an otherwise blank lineless sheet of printer paper:
Talk slow. Listen. Breathe!
I have interviewed other talented artists, worked directly with some of my literary and musical heroes, and have myself been on the other end of such questions probably fifty or sixty times, but I cannot remember, ever, having to remind myself to breathe.
Björk has been a pop star since she was eleven years old. She won a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award (almost reluctantly) for her work in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark; collaborated on groundbreaking videos with directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry; cultivated an underground fashion movement; and left in her teenage wake a series of radical Icelandic art collectives and rock bands, the most notorious of which was the Sugarcubes.
Björk is currently in the studio working on the soundtrack for her husband Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, a film about sculpture which will premiere in Japan. She has also just released a CD benefiting UNICEF which features twenty cover versions of her song “Army of Me” as produced and performed by her fans.
There is a childlike quality to Björk’s voice. Our conversation is in English, and occasionally she struggles to conjure words that match the sophistication, clarity, and frightening intelligence of her Icelandic thought process. She is plainspoken and generous and remarkably present. She is a Surrealist punk prodigy turned grooved-out electronic nature priestess. She is on the phone.
I. E. E. CUMMINGS
THE BELIEVER: Can I ask you about the E. E. Cummings influence that shows up in your latest album? You’ve said that Cummings is the first English-speaking poet with whom you really connected. Was there an immediate appeal?
BJÖRK: Well, I sang in my own language for a long time. It wasn’t until after five years of singing that I could actually start to say several very well chosen Icelandic words.And after five more years I could sort of add in some English words. I didn’t really start speaking English until I was about twenty or something. So it’s been a very long journey for me to add words to my music. And then I’m always reading poetry. Especially as a teenager, I was surrounded by poets. The kind of people I hung out with were, like, literature people. I guess they started the first Surrealist movement in Iceland during the punk years. It was half punk, half Surrealist.They were called “Medusa.” It was a collective, and they did paintings and movies but mostly literature and poetry. There was a lot of people getting drunk and reciting their favorite poems, and people would either boo them down or say they were amazing. But there was all this passion surrounding language. That helped me, being such a musical person, slowly realize that the words are not necessarily only a brainy thing, but that they can be quite intuitive and impulsive. But it took me a while to believe that. It took me quite a while. About five years ago someone gave me an E. E. Cummings collection, and it was the first time I saw English where I felt I could sing it. I remember being a teenager and reading translations by Paul Éluard and mostly French Surrealists, and loving that very much. However, it wasn’t something I felt like singing. Maybe it was a combination of it being translated, and perhaps that at that point in time I wasn’t ready to sing using language. Now, having spoken English for about ten years, I feel more like I can sing it and take on other people’s words and mean it from my heart. I think the reason why I picked several of E. E. Cummings’s words isn’t necessarily because I think it’s the best English poetry that has been written. I’m not even trying to make a judgment there. I’m not the right person to make that choice. It’s more my feeling that it’s just screaming to be sung. To me, it’s the syllables themselves and how he refuses to commit to a certain shape, and it’s a lot of commas, and he leaves it open where a sentence starts and a sentence ends.That approach is something I can really relate to—it’s more of a flow of consciousness rather than a really strict form. I also like the fact that it’s quite humble and yet still very euphoric. I have always been attracted to things that are humble and euphoric at the same time. Usually euphoric things are very grand and even arrogant. But “arrogant” is hardly something you could ever accuse E. E. Cummings of being… I also find it fun to sing in that particular mood. Like everybody else I have fifty different moods over the course of a month or whatever, but for some reason when I write melodies it’s mostly with that mood that I feel humbled and part of a big whole. Many of E. E. Cummings’s poems are talking about that mood.
BLVR: What about Icelandic poetry? Had you much interest in putting that to melody?
BJÖRK: Yeah, we did sing some of those works. I was in this other band called KUKL along with the Sugarcubes. Most of them now have put down their instruments and become authors, but those two bands were full of poets that decided to start a punk band. I used to sing for them. I mostly sang my own lyrics but there were times I would sing their words.
BLVR: Right, but you wouldn’t sing any historical Icelandic poetry, right?
BJÖRK: No, I didn’t. It was probably because of the age I was at that time.We were rebelling against conservative things. People were proud of their sagas, and then there was this minority complex, especially when making pop music, where bands felt we had to sing in English and try to be the Beatles or U2. So we 65 were part of this movement that was trying to be fresh and write about our own realities instead of old dead heroes. It was quite a big statement that the words were about us and what we were doing every day as opposed to some foreigners or old dead poets. And maybe now I’m in a different place where it’s not all about rebellion. Or, actually, a different kind of rebellion now, where you’re willing to unite with certain things.
BLVR: How do you maintain your creative freedom? One thing that other artists admire about you is that you are constantly creating the space necessary to create whatever you want. Is that difficult, or are you comfortable that you have carved out a big enough space that you can do what you feel on any given project without concern for corporate entities like record labels?
BJÖRK: Well, it’s everything that you said. I go through a lot of hassle to create the right situation for a new album. I have to do research and set up a new environment—new place, new equipment—and move things about. Sometimes I end up wondering “Why can’t I do two albums in a row that are the same, like other people?” I want to say to myself “Just stop it!” you know? I wish sometimes that it didn’t have to be such a hassle. But when I just try to hold my breath and do the same thing I did last month or something. Well, I freak out because I get bored very easily. I think my attention span is worse than in the worst teenager. It’s terrible. So in the end what drives me is my curiosity and hunger and the fact that I get bored so easily. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it, it seems to be what drives me. So I have realized that if I follow that, the rest falls into place. But if I go the other way around, avoid the hassle and do what I did before, it becomes a nightmare. I’m not driven and I get bored and I don’t like it. So what I’m trying to tell you is that I don’t really have a choice—and at the end of the day it’s fun! There’s that beginning stage where you have already done a record and you’re about to start a new one and you haven’t a clue what it’s going to be made of. There’s a sense of freedom and I am like,“Wow! I can do whatever I like.” And there is that moment of looking into yourself and asking what turns you on. It has to be exciting enough to keep you interested for at least a couple of years. There’s a side of me that’s like a fickle teenager that wants new toys every album—but again the other half of me is pretty conservative. There’s also a side of me that people may not easily see: a side my friends see more, how patriotic I am, and that kind of thing. Then, as I said before, there’s the fact that it doesn’t matter how different my albums sound; my voice is always the same. That is the aspect of the different projects that’s always going to be the same.
BLVR: What about the culture of the music business? Are there any pressures to conform in any way?
BJÖRK: I am blessed to be working with people I got to know during my punk years in England when I was sixteen, and we still have a deal where I just bring them my album when it’s ready. I don’t have a time limit and I can finish a project any way I want. It’s not like “Oh, go back and write the singles.” I don’t get any of that. I thought most labels were like mine, but once I started traveling and meeting people who do the same job as I do, I have found that it is of course very rare. It’s a shame, really.
BLVR:Are you more interested in the process than the outcome? You obviously have a lot of fun creating the records; do you listen to them when they’re done, or do you keep moving on the creative front?
BJÖRK: It’s a mix. There are so many levels. When I start a record I need to either hitchhike or go on walks, just be on my own for a few days. I have a solitary romantic side. When I write my melodies I am immersed in that side of myself. Then there’s another side of me, which is just noodling in front of the computer arranging things, which is something I end up 66 doing almost every day. It’s like I’m working on a mosaic or a puzzle, which is a totally different mood from that solitary persona I described. In my case the solitary trips I take have a high-energy, euphoric, and active state of mind. The mosaic computer arranger mind-set is the opposite. It’s like knitting a sweater. Like a nursing kind of motherly mood, which is also quite passive. Then there is yet another side of me that reacts to the computer stage by calling myself a lazy git. So I wanna hit myself for being a lazy git and I wanna do as much as I can myself. Finally, there is always the last 10 percent of a record where I just wanna play music with people! I suddenly say to myself: “Wait a minute—music is not supposed to be something you do by yourself in your corner.” So I always end up calling lots of people [loud giggle] and getting them in the studio and having a party atmosphere. Actually it can be a social gathering, or one-on-one, where we are singing together. It’s blending yourself with another person or persons. I guess I’m trying to say that there are so many levels to it. But luckily the minute I’ve done too much of one thing, I’m in the other thing. For instance, there is then the part of the cycle where I do videos.And that’s really collaborative, like being back in a band. And touring is yet another group thing. So then the minute you’re bored stiff of touring you just go climb a mountain and write a song. It’s just so different.
BLVR: Sounds like the rhythm of your lifestyle works for you. As opposed to someone who only tours or just sits in front of the computer… that can drive you nuts.
BJÖRK: Yeah, you can juggle it. Like I did after the Vespertine tour: I was able to listen to all of my live recordings. It took me a year and was more time-consuming than I thought. I became a bit of a librarian and then compiled the Greatest Hits album, so then I did another tour: the Greatest Hits tour, or whatever. So in a way, I did two tours in a row without writing new music. Likewise, what I’m doing now is writing two albums without touring. So it doesn’t have to always be the same cycle. And like anything, if you’re really driven and really want to do what you do, at the end of the day you do it nine times better and it takes a much shorter time. So if you tour and are having fun touring, you do it well, and when it’s not fun anymore it is best to stop. Because you’re not doing anyone any favors if you are not doing it well anymore. So it’s best to just skip it. And when you are in the studio and you are not enjoying being a hermit anymore and being an anal mosaic person then you should just stop, go out, get drunk, and have a party or something. I am obviously lucky that I can just follow my whims. But then again I have to say there’s a lot of hard work behind that to be able to be in that position. I think personally if you’re lucky and get to be in a position where your music is put out and people listen to it and all your work is appreciated, you’re also responsible for babysitting your hunger for music. You are responsible since people actually like what you’re doing and want to hear more from you. So if you go and tour for nine years because you think that is what certain people want, it’s a waste. There is a peculiar blend of self-indulgence in it, and in a way it is a service-oriented job. At the core, making music is all about generosity, and knowing yourself and knowing where you can be at your most generous at any given point. As much as it sounds like it would be selfish and self-indulgent, it is actually the opposite as well. I suppose that’s like any job, at the end of the day.
III. ARMIES OF ME
BLVR: With your Army of Me benefit album you released twenty different cover versions of your song and are giving the proceeds to a UNICEF children’s tsunami victim relief fund. I found the concept of so many people doing one song quite intriguing.
BJÖRK: Ultimately the ideas came from the people who did the cover versions. I started a website—I can’t remember how many years ago—and people would send in versions of my songs, which is very flattering, and for some reason people would always send in the same song…
BLVR: It was always “Army of Me”?
BJÖRK: Well, they would send in all the other songs too, but what I found interesting was that that song is quite different from my other songs and probably the only one that is that confrontational. Like my only aggressive song or something.And I found it interesting that people would pick up on that one. And a lot of people would take a death metal interpretation of things—which I found really funny because that’s a genre I haven’t really done a lot. So I thought: these people are creating something different in its own right, and so one of these days I’ll do a charity record. It would be justifiable to release this if it would be for a charity, you know—it’s not like I want to make money off of my fans. That would be slightly cheeky. The idea collected cobwebs, and many years passed and I forgot about the whole thing.Then the tsunami happened, and I thought: if ever there was a time to do this, this is the time. So I went on my website and I said,“Listen, if you could please send your versions back to me,” because the technology has changed so much and people could send a version with higher quality sound. Some of the people had sent me versions eight years ago. So everybody sent them in and we got around 600 versions, which was much more than I expected. It just sort of happened.
BLVR: The tsunami issue is obviously a very delicate and emotional thing. These people were devastated, but it’s an act of compassion to do a charity record. The aggressive nature of the song seems to reflect, perhaps, political climates and the state of the world—but you turn it into a compassionate act by harnessing that energy and sending the money to someplace it can directly help. How do you think about the juxtaposition of the anger of the song versus the outcome of helping the tsunami victims?
BJÖRK: It surprised me, the way people reacted to that song. As I wrote in the liner notes of the album, it was an unpredictable creative surge that hit my website. I have hopefully redirected it to children who had been hit by a very destructive force. But I see where you’re coming from. I totally felt that way. If I had been asked “Can you write a song for a starving child in Africa?” I probably would have sat down and written a really mushy song. But maybe things aren’t like that. I look at this project like only half of it is me, probably even less, and there are things here you can’t control. My fans reacted to my most aggressive track. Funny enough, this song was actually written to a younger relative of mine who was being a bit naughty! So I am telling him off and asking him to sort of stand in line and be more considerate about other people, and not be selfish and self-indulgent. So you could say it has a prudent energy, or at least an attempt trying to fix things. It’s what I call a “finger song,” like “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. You know those waving-a-finger numbers where you can imagine the singer waving their finger in the air and telling somebody off?
BJÖRK: So the song has that attitude where the singer has the right to address an injustice in the world.
BLVR: It works so well as a larger social cultural commentary, but now I do see it clearly on an intimate or domestic level too.
BJÖRK: Well, you have a point, and it does work on those levels. But another part of it is that the song 68 melody is really tight and it’s not a typical melody that I would sing. So recognizing that I have an idiosyncratic voice, I can imagine people thinking “Hey, this is a song that I can cover!” Because the melody is probably more traditional. [Hums the melody over the phone.] So part of what drives people to do the song is maybe trying to fix the world. But part of it is that the melody is so simple that people just take it on.
IV. BRAND NEW SHINY OBJECTS
BLVR: Did you sort through all 600 versions yourself?
BJÖRK: The first round I went through it all myself. I felt that was the least I could do. At first I thought I would do a CD with ten death metal versions of “Army of Me.” Which to me was pretty funny. Then, when I listened to everything everybody had sent in, well, it didn’t seem fair.
BLVR: Yeah, you ended up with some nice ambient and country versions. There was quite a variety of approaches to the song.
BJÖRK: That’s why I had to listen to all of them: to see where this project was going, because it’s a cool opera tion. I thought of the idea because of people who were sending stuff in, so it might as well be the material people sent in that would direct the project.
BLVR: That song itself originally was a collaboration with Graham Massey.
BJÖRK: Yeah, we wrote it together.
BLVR: I watched a DVD of all of Michel Gondry’s videos, which of course included some of yours. As I was thinking about your new charity CD I started thinking about repetition. Gondry uses variations on themes and repetition in an incredible way. Then I thought that a lot of great art is directed by repetition. Music is a short form, and you must restate a theme in that short period of time. Music is particularly obvious in its use of repetition. How do you use or think about repetition as an artist? Is there a natural guiding force to such things, or do you find yourself returning to cer tain themes?
BJÖRK: Well, I base a lot of my stuff on nature, and I think there is a lot of repetition in nature, like day and night, day and night, day and night—it’s sort of a rhythm. The seasons are basically the same thing, but just really stretched out. Then again there are certain things that are always the same and others that are always different. All Aprils are different from each other, you know? I think there’s a balance there. I think part of me is very conservative and wants to keep very ground ed, and part of that comes from where I come from in Iceland—and also the fact that I am a singer. I mean, I will always have my voice. It doesn’t matter how many fancy new objects I have in the arrangements; it’s always gonna be my voice.That will always show if I am happy or sad, reveal my age and health and so on. It’ll show if I am tired or energetic.All of this… The other half is that things change and other things happen, and you bump into new experiences that you could never have anticipated.What I am trying to say is that it’s a fiftyfifty contribution of repetition and brandnew shiny objects that you never even could have fantasized about.
BLVR: Speaking of repetition, what was it like to hear 600 versions of your song? Other than the drudgery of sorting through the sheer numbers, what were your emotions like?
BJÖRK: It was really flattering that people actually bothered; you could just imagine all the work that went into it. I was on the twelfth floor of a house in down town Manhattan. I spent two or three days listening to all of these songs, and I started looking inside every body’s windows and thinking, “Wait a minute; if you think that apartment buildings are full of couch po tatoes, just kind of sleeping and going back to work…” well, really all of these windows are full of very busy people doing all of these things that you never get to hear or see. So it made me very hopeful. I couldn’t believe all of the energy that is going on out there.If this 69 little project triggered all that, well, just imagine all the things people are doing.
BLVR: Did you hear anything in these versions of the song that depersonalized it and made it less your song? I don’t know if that’s possible after playing the song so many times yourself.
BJÖRK: I think the versions I chose were actually those kind of versions. They were versions where I can imag ine somebody listening and never having heard my ver sion and not knowing who I am, and hearing it would go,“OK, I get it!” I think that is the part of covering a song that is tricky. Making it your own.
BLVR: There was a great variety in the interpretations. In some cases you could actually picture the person in their apartment or room, and other times the produc tion was fairly elaborate. It sounded ultimately like each one was clearly chosen on musical merit and general intrigue. The remixes are really strong and creative.
BJÖRK: I remember the thing that started to happen when music was first being remixed—there was a dif ferent emphasis in England. When I first came over to the States after living in London it seemed that re mixing in London was really similar to jazz music. People would cover each other’s songs. It would be like fifty different versions of “My Funny Valentine,” but each person would try and make it their own. When I came over to the States, ten years ago or so, there was a lot of skepticism about remixing; people thought it was the record company trying to market by cutting off all of the authentic bits to make it super marketstyle. That’s a difference between Europe and the States. What I found with this Army of Me experiment was that in all the versions, you couldn’t tell if they were cover versions or remixes.The distinction was blurred. Some would use my original voice and change everything behind it, but then if you resing it then it’s not a remix anymore—it’s a cover version. Or the other way around, where they were sampling the original riff from my ver sion and singing it themselves. Is that a remix? Is that a cover version? I think it was kind of nice and it came in a complete circle. Remixing can be a really creative thing. A remix does not have to be from the evil music industry machine.