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Big Time Astrology: A Classic Bjork Interview By Jon Savage
The Quietus , March 8th, 2011 04:29

Given that new material is imminent, we thought we'd bring you a classic interview with one of our favourite singers, Björk conducted in 1995, as it goes, by one of our favourite writers, Jon Savage, courtesy of Rock's Backpages

Posing for photographs in a studio high above Covent Garden, Björk is exactly like her image — a little taller, perhaps, but everything else is in place: pigtails, high-contrast clothing, fresh-faced innocence, exuberant sexuality.

Bouncing around in yellow sneakers, pink paper trousers and a red T-shirt with Coke-style lettering (ENJOY COCK!), she is every inch the modern pop star — in control of her image, comfortable with the many forms of promotion required by today’s music industry, at ease with her celebrity status. As we walk through Covent Garden, she is recognized by two homeless people. Their reaction is disbelieving, then warm. Björk is unfazed but does not linger.

Björk has been performing since age 11, when she made a record in her native Iceland. Raised by what she calls hippie parents, she rebelled on her teens and formed a punk band called Kukl; they recorded for the label run by the hard-core British anarchists Crass. It was a key moment: "I’m still definely obsessed with the spontaneity of punk. I’m a sucker for energy. Just put all the energy in the world into my ears." Subsequently, Björk’s voice shone through the guitar rock of the Sugarcubes, a group that, like many punk bands, was formed as a joke and ended up an unhappy career. In Iceland, in the early 1990s, with the Sugarcubes disbanded, Björk wrote and recorded much of her Debut album — "songs I had written in the evening when my kid was asleep, almost like a domestic housewife album". It was her two guest appearances with dance maestros 808 State that had opened up a whole new world for the former punk and paved the way for her collaboration with Nellee Hooper, the producer who, with his connections to Bristol trip-hoppers Massive Attack and Tricky, was in at the ground level of this year’s dance-floor boom. He provided the state-of-the-art sheen that made Debut so attractive. The CD was a winning mixture of club savvy and more reflective songs that explored nature’s mysticism.

Björk’s new record, Post, develops this fresh mixture. There are the up-to-the-minute dance beats, fused with sharp lyrics in songs like ‘Army of Me’ and ‘Hyper-Ballad’. There is the cover of a vintage show tune, ‘Blow a Fuse’. And there are spooky tunes that play with perception: the odd scratchings at the end of ‘The Modern Things’, with Björk whispering "no one sees me" in Icelandic, and the psychoactive assault of her collaboration with Tricky in ‘Headphones’. Her audacity is one of the most powerful things about Björk. She embodies the sense that anything is possible — in lyrics, in appearance, in gender, and in the very sound of her voice.

JOHN SAVAGE: When were you born?

BJÖRK: 21 November 1965.

On the cusp of Scorpio and Sagittarius.

My mum is heavily into these things, and apparently I’m as much Scorpio as one can be. To me, whether it means something or not — fuck that, I just love the symbolism of it. It’s pretty, like Greek and Nordic mythologies. I’m supposed to be run by Pluto. It’s like a fairy-tale, it simplifies things.

Is Nordic mythology similar to Greek?

It isn’t a copy, but it’s got the same characters. In mythology wherever you go, you’ve got the strong guy, the wise woman, the winners and the losers, the travellers and the domestic people. I always like the animals in mythology, like the ravens on Odin’s shoulders.

Scorpio is all about life, death and sex.

That doesn’t surprise me. My three fucking obsessions.

Have you ever had your chart done?

My mum did it. I think she took me to all the occult creatures of Iceland, from the age of zero until I was 18, when I became a rebel anti-hippie. I got my fortune told and everything. I think I probably believe most of it, actually. I’ve got Pluto in a very important place, and that’s what I’m about. I have to re-create the universe every morning when I wake up. And kill it in the evening, which is a bit outrageous, but there you go.

Hard work.

Heee! Well, maybe not every morning, but maybe twice a year I have to destroy everything. I’ve also got my moon in the twelfth house, in Scorpio, and my son in Scorpio in the first house, and also Neptune. Then on my other half, my generational picture, I’ve got Pluto and Uranus in Virgo, and my midheaven is in conjunct with those two. Virgo is the sign of the nurse, so this means I was born to nurse my generation. I’m still 50-50 about whether this is true, but I was breast-fed on it.

In your lyrics, you seem obsessed with the sea.

I am, very much. It’s a combination of things — being born on a small island and always having the ocean. It makes your head function completely differently. If I travel, as long as I’m by the ocean, I’m fine. If I’m not, I get claustrophobic.

What do you exactly get from the ocean?

First of all, a sense of well-being, like I’m home. I had a really wild upbringing, which I think is the best upbringing anyone could have. My home was by the sea. If I walked down to the sea and sat down by the shore, I was home. That’s my mother, the ocean. Nothing can go wrong. I love swimming, another hippie thing. My mum says it’s because I’m a water sign. And the sense of space and boats. I’m obsessed with boats. It’s freedom.

Do you feel the lack of sea in London?

Yeah, it really does my head in. I tried to stay by Little Venice, but it’s a canal, so the water doesn’t move. I’m only here for work. It’s just two hours on an airplane; my kid [eight-year-old Sindri] can go back home when he wants to. I’m only here for a period, to get my little mission done, and once it’s finished, it’s finished. But after this little job is over, I’m living by the ocean. It doesn’t matter where it is.

What do you think your mission is?

It took me ages to reason it to myself. I find it very hard to be selfish. I just decided, I’m going to move to London, I’m going to be really selfish, I’m going to get all the instruments I want, all the noises and lyrics I like, and make all the music I can, because everybody’s got to express their vision, and no two people are the same. I could happily go and die if I could say, "I did my best, I made my sacrifice." It’s as basic as that. If I hadn’t done this, I would sit in my rocking chair at 85 with my grandchildren on my lap, and say, "Sorry, I didn’t have the guts." I’ve become selfish now, believe me. I’ll go out to the flower shop and buy flowers just for myself. It’s outrageous, isn’t it?

What do you feel about moving to London from Iceland?

It’s a cosmopolitan city. That’s the reason I’m here. If I want a dulcimer player, I can get one. If there’s a certain photographer I want to work with, more than likely he’s going to come through London. I can appreciate London from above, all the rooftops, maybe because I’m a kid and I like Peter Pan. I’m starting to appreciate aimlessness and eccentricity. I’ve realized that Englishness is about people who have to behave politely all day, and the clothes have to be all proper, but that doesn’t mean they’re not mad. You have to focus on it, but once you find it and focus on that energy, then you can stay sane. Compared to the English, Icelanders are like people from Sicily or somewhere. "I’m upset!!!" Like a volcano, they break things, and two hours later, they’re happy. There’s a volcanic eruption in Iceland once a year, on average.

Do you think that environment influences behaviour?

Very much so. What happens in Iceland is that you get the blizzard in your face, you have to fight the weather all the time, and you stay very alert, you never fall asleep. Your head is always working. People who go there think the Icelanders are really stressed out. They’re not, but their energy is on 10. We’ve got this awkward thing, which is 24-hour darkness in the winter, and 24-hour daylight in the summer. There is snow from October or November until mid-March. It means that in the winter you’re just inside and you write all the books you were going to write and get everything done on your own, and then in the summer you go absolutely mad. Like bears after hibernating.

Do you write things down when they occur to you?

Yes. I’ve written diaries for a long time now, and sometimes a whole lyric comes, and I have to pick a sentence here, a sentence there.

There’s a great lyric on ‘Big Time Sensuality’: "It takes courage to enjoy it." Do you have that courage?

I’ve got a lot of courage, but I’ve also got a lot of fear. You should allow yourself to be scared. It’s one of the prime emotions. You might almost enjoy it, funny as it sounds, and find that you can get over it and deal with it. If you ignore these things, you miss so much. But when you want to enjoy something, especially when it’s something you’ve just been introduced to, you’ve got to have a lot of courage to do it. I don’t think I’m more courageous than most people. I’m an even mixture of all those prime emotions.

Sex does take courage sometimes.

I think so, because if it lacks that sensation of jumping off a cliff it would just miss so much. Then again, it has to be pleasurable and enjoyable and lush and all of that. But ‘Big Time Sensuality’ was actually about when I first met Nellee Hooper. I think it’s quite rare, when you’re obsessed with your job, as I am, when you meet someone who’s your other half job-wise and enables you to do what you completely want... so it’s not a sexual romance.

Are you currently in a stable partnership?

No. I split with my boyfriend at the beginning of last November, and at that point I’d been with a stable boyfriend since the age of 16, though in different relationships. When we broke up, I thought I might as well enjoy this, which I do and I don’t. It’s scary at times. The best bits is that you’re kind of skinless, you’re more vulnerable and emotional and on the edge. There’s also that silly thing that I had when I was 15 and 16 — looking around and wondering who it will be! So I’m sitting there on the subway thinking, will you have a long nose or a short nose? Will you enjoy this or that film? It’s like a little party game.

There’s something really stupid and romantic, thinking that it’s just going to be one person. Even though both of us might have five partners before we die, we always think of that one. Then there are all these things saying how brilliant it is to be self-sufficient and not needing anything or anybody and getting all these tools so that you can do everything yourself. It’s like you’re a little warrior armed with your Walkman and your video and all this technology. Everything’s geared toward self-sufficiency. Fuck that. For me, the target is to learn how to communicate with other people, which is the hardest thing, after all. What you should be doing is learning how to live with other human beings.

Do you have visual ideas in your mind when you’re writing your songs?

Definitely. It’s natural for me to express thing first musically, then visually, and third, with words. So the words are like a translation of noises and pictures.

‘Army of Me’ is a heavy song. Did you have a picture in your mind when you wrote it?

I’m a polar bear and I’m with 500 polar bears, just tramping over a city. The lyric is about people who feel sorry for themselves all the time and don’t get their shit together. You come to a point with people like that where you’ve done everything you can do for them, and the only thing that’s going to sort them out is themselves. It’s time to get things done. I identify with polar bears. They’re very cuddly and cute and quite calm, but if they meet you they can be very strong. They come to Iceland very rarely, once every 10 years, floating on icebergs.

Can you tell me about ‘Hyper-Ballad’?

That’s a lyric about being in a relationship, and after a while, say three or four years, you repress a lot of energy because you’re being sweet all the time. So I wanted to set it up like a fable, something that happens over and over again. It’s about this couple who live on a cliff in the middle of the ocean, and they live in this house, just the two of them, and she wakes up really early, about five in the morning, before anyone else wakes up, and sneaks to the edge and throws a lot of things off: old rubbish, car parts, bottles and cutlery. And she imagines what it would look like if she herself were to jump off. Then she sneaks back into the house, back into bed, then her lover wakes up and it’s "Hello! Good morning, honey!" And she’s got rid of all the aggressive bollocks. The chorus goes, "I go through all this, before you wake up, so I can feel happier to be safe up here with you."

There are some great subliminal noises on ‘Headphones’.

That’s a track I did with Tricky. He was getting a lot of pressure from his record company, because there was a real buzz about his album, so he was a bit naughty and escaped to Iceland. We drove around in a four-wheel drive and saw the glaciers and swam in the hot spring and wrote this tune. I went into my diary and found a complete lyric about receiving a compilation tape in the post from a friend. It’s a very personal thing. You’re pissed off with things generally. You save it until the evening, and after you’ve had your bath and brushed your teeth, you go to bed and take your Walkman and put you headphones on and you fall asleep. The lyric is a letter to that person. I had this idea to do a song that is like a worship of headphones. The chorus is "My headphones saved my life, your tape lulled me to sleep." All the noises in the song are just-for-headphones stereo tricks. It didn’t need a lot of instruments. Tricky feels really strongly about noises and beats, and that is exactly my weakest point.

Are you in character in a lot of you songs?

Most of my songs are written in the first person, from the point of view of my best friends. I find it 10 times easier to express my friends’ feeling than my own. If I write about myself, I usually write in the third person. It just feels natural.

Do you sing from your stomach or your chest?

My stomach. Most engineers find it quite difficult to deal with me, because most of the singing I did as a kid was when I was walking outside, completely on my own. This is absolutely impossible in London. There is no privacy here. I started singing with the whole of my body, which is both good and bad. The engineers usually end up using the same kind of microphones as they put on a stand-up bass, because it’s got a big body.

You’ve said that you recorded a lot of your vocals on the beach.

It was a very sentimental thing. I wanted to sing outside, because I knew everything would fall into place. Nellee made it happen. Compass Point Studio [in Nassau, the Bahamas] was right by the beach. I’d have a very long lead on the microphone and a long lead on the headphones and I’d just sit there at midnight. All the stars would be out, and I’d be sitting there under a little bush. I’d go running into the water and nobody could see where I went. In the quiet bits, I’d sit and cuddle, and for the outrageous bits, I’d run around. It was the first time I’d done a song like that in about 20 years. I was crying my eyes out with joy, because it was something I so deeply wanted all those years. Almost like you had sex lots of times, and it’s gorgeous, and then you couldn’t have it for 20 years, and then suddenly you have it. It was completely outrageous.

Do you think that musicians feel and act out emotions on behalf of their audiences as a way of helping people deal with emotions?

Definitely. It’s something I didn’t think about until recently. I probably wouldn’t have thought about it at all except I had to get my ass over to another country and force myself to think about why I was doing this. It was almost like I wasn’t doing it for myself. But if I have my vision of my life, I think I’ll be singing until I die, about 90 years old. It’s funny, all the attention I’m getting, but I don’t think I’m hooked on it. I could just as well move to a little island and live by the ocean and just be the village singer or whatever. Singing on Friday and Saturday nights, writing tunes for the rest of the week. That’s my role.

© Jon Savage, 1995

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