Published Oct 01, 2001Björk once sang, "I'm going to prove the impossible really exists," and for the last 25 years she's celebrated the contradictions that create her distinctive personality and unforgettable music. She is the perfectionist who routinely surrenders her work to radical remixes. The extrovert who revels in solitude. The cosmopolitan urbanite who is most comfortable atop a mountain with her boom box. The violently happy optimist who stars in a gut-wrenching tearjerker. The astounding actress who vows never to act again. The avant-garde sound sculptor and Stockhausen disciple who prefers structured pop songs. The freewheeling flake who guards every aspect of her work with meticulous and studied detail. The sober workaholic notorious for her boozy club-hopping. Joni Mitchell and Public Enemy. Matmos and a symphony orchestra. It all adds up to one woman, perhaps the most beguiling solo musician of the last decade, who also happens to sell millions of records.
1965 to 1976
Björk Gudmundsdottir is born November 21, 1965, and is raised on a hippie commune. Her mother claims she is singing melodies at seven months old. Björk's parents split when she is one. Her stepfather plays guitar in a cover band, and saturates his daughter with exposure to Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. As a result, she develops a lifelong aversion to guitar music. Instead, she's drawn to her grandmother's Ella Fitzgerald records, and at age seven becomes entranced by a Sparks album, much to her father's chagrin. Björk wants to play the oboe but ends up on flute instead, to which she credits her breathy vocal style.
In school she studies the philosophy of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who becomes a lifelong hero. At a school open house, teachers are impressed by her singing, and soon the 11-year-old Björk is offered a record deal and makes a full-length with Iceland's top studio musicians, including her stepfather. The music is 70s pop with current Icelandic material, covers of the Beatles ("Fool on the Hill"), Edgar Winter, Stevie Wonder and Melanie, as well as an original instrumental piece. The album sells 6000 copies, double platinum in Iceland.
1979 to 1980
Her father turns her on to Joni Mitchell's Hejira album. Later, Björk would tell Q magazine: "With hindsight, she was one of the first women I heard who wasn't completely stupid. She had her own air of style and independence, whereas a lot of women just wanted to play men's music. I wasn't so much into her voice, more that she had her own world, with her own elements. You definitely knew that it was Joni the second you heard her. It was very strong, but very feminine. It was natural and earthy but modern as well." Björk forms her first two bands, the new wave pop outfits Exodus and Jam 80. She develops an obsession with oxygen when she loses her voice at a smoky bar gig.
Björk leaves home at age 14, but returns a year later after working at a fish factory because she's broke. She starts her first serious band, Tappi Tikarras, which apparently translates as "Cork the Bitch's Arse!" They record one 1982 EP and one 1983 full-length, Miranda. Björk's productive teenage years are void of much sexual distraction, as she explains to Q in 1994, "I just wasn't interested in boys until a few years ago. I thought they were shit. You can't talk to them, especially as a teenager. You could play with them in a band but as people they were so limited. You can't get properly drunk with them, like, all-the-way drunk."
Björk starts hanging out with Stifgrim, an improv rock duo. With them, she participates in an attempt by the Reykjavik underground to claim the Guinness World Record for longest continuous live performance: 100 bands play for up to 12 hours each over several weeks. Bootleg cassettes apparently exist of an edited 90-minute sample of Björk and Stifgrim. Björk also moonlights as a keyboardist in Cactus, playing 70s covers on weekends.
Björk plays drums in Rokha Rokha Drum, a band featuring her future husband Thor Eldon, and the poet Sjon, who remains a collaborator to this day. Björk also becomes a vocalist in the new Icelandic super-group Kukl ("sorcery"), drawn from various local projects. She describes their goth sound as "hardcore existential jazz punk." Members include future Sugarcubes members Einar Orn (vocals, trumpet), Siggi Baldursson (drums) and some Killing Joke associates.
Tappi Tikarras split and Kukl becomes Björk's main concern. The anti-establishment Kukl raise some local controversy with their political lyrics. Kukl release a seven-inch and two albums, The Eye and Holidays In Europe (The Naughty Naught) on a label run by London anarcho-punks Crass. The Eye is perhaps a reference to one of Björk's favourite books, George Bataille's surrealist empowerment fable The Story of Eye. "It's basically a book that proves that you should do what you want, no matter what," she explained in 1994. "There's all these behaviour patterns you're taught, and it's saying, Fuck all them.' And you should just follow your instinct and your need, and trust your system I read that book when I was 17 and it just changed my life. It proved to me that I wasn't mad."
Another side project, the Elgar Sisters, is formed with Thor, Siggi and Kukl's guitarist. Eleven songs are recorded but never released; Björk re-records three of them for B-sides in 1993.
After a summer European tour, Kukl's line-up is overhauled, adding bassist Bragi Olafsson, guitarist Thor Eldon and keyboardist Margret "Magga" Ornolfsdottir. Tired of being dreary and serious, they change their name to the Sugarcubes and start penning more whimsical material. A seven-inch single featuring "Ammaeli (Birthday)" and "Kottur (Cat)" is bankrolled by selling postcards commemorating the Reagan-Gorbachev summit held in Reykjavik that year. The band joins a local arts collective called Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), which evolves into a record label and publishing house. On Reykjavik's bicentennial, the band breaks into Iceland's Radio One for a pirate broadcast ("to play songs that we considered more realistic") and are thrown in jail for their mischief. Björk is also sued by a woman who claims that watching the Sugarcubes perform on television induced her heart attack; she was upset by Björk's appearance of shaved eyebrows and an exposed pregnant belly. Björk gives birth to a son, Sindri, fathered by Sugarcubes guitarist Thor Eldon. And on "Birthday," she also gives birth to her trademark swooping vocal style, unleashing one of the most unique voices in pop. A Melody Maker journalist hears the single and names it Record of the Week.
1987 to 1988
The Sugarcubes re-record "Birthday" and "Cat" in English for the One Little Indian label and become instant press darlings. "The papers started writing things about us, making things up," Björk told the Sunday Times in 1994. "At first we flew over to correct the impression, but then we decided if they wanted us to be surrealist Eskimos or whatever, fair enough, we'd just sit back and have a laugh." Björk makes her acting debut in Icelandic film The Juniper Tree, playing a woman whose family is accused of witchcraft. In 1988, the Sugarcubes release Life's Too Good to wide acclaim. The band doesn't take their pop stardom seriously, continuing to hang on to their day jobs, much to the chagrin of their record label.
The Sugarcubes embark on a large North American summer tour with New Order and Public Image Limited. "It was a great tour with no responsibility," Björk would recall later. "We only had to play every other day, and all we had to do was smile at John Lydon when he was puking." The band asks ABBA's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to produce their second album, but are turned down. Here Today Tomorrow Next Week is released simultaneously in English and Icelandic. The press beg to differ with the album's title; the critical love affair is over, and the Sugarcubes are dubbed "the B-52s from hell." Björk and Eldon split amicably.
1990 to 1991
Somewhat dismayed by indifference to their second album, the Sugarcubes take a hiatus. Einar Orn becomes a radio personality. Bragi and Magga form a cabaret duo, Caviar, which swells into a big band in which Björk plays clarinet. She also catches the jazz bug by recording an upbeat album of Icelandic jazz standards, Gling Glo, with the Tríó Gudmundar Ingólfssonar; the pianist bandleader dies shortly after. Released on Smekkleysa, it goes platinum and becomes the label's biggest seller; Icelandic sales surpass even Debut and the entire Sugarcubes catalogue. Amidst this embrace of tradition, Björk is immersing herself in Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. In her first real foray into electronic music, Björk co-writes and sings on 808 State's 1991 single "Oops," beginning a long working relationship with the group's Graham Massey.
After the Sugarcubes release Stick Around For Joy and the remix album It's It, the band agree to split. Björk finally moves to London, where she composes songs on a Casio keyboard, and becomes best friends with Howie B. She records the James Bond-ish single "Play Dead" with David Arnold and Jah Wobble, from the film Young Americans. Despite the critical consensus that she should have ventured solo far earlier, Björk tentatively begins contemplating her solo career.
With the help of Graham Massey and Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper, Debut is recorded, mixed and completed within one month. Steeped in dance culture and percussion, its wildly adventurous arrangements and genre jumping surprise many listeners, and record company expectations are low. A harp-and-voice cover of "Like Someone in Love" is a tribute to Chet Baker, one of her favourite singers. A young Talvin Singh records the string sections in Bombay and tours with her as a percussionist, as does long-time keyboardist Guy Sigsworth. Björk begins a relationship with French photographer/video director Stephane Sednaoui.
As Debut's sales figures move into the millions with little radio support, Björk is known almost as much for her personality and fashion as her music. She wins Best International Newcomer and Best International Female Artist at the 1994 Brit Awards, where she plays gong behind PJ Harvey on a rendition of "Satisfaction." Practically all of Debut is handed over to remixers, including Underworld, David Morales, Sabres of Paradise, Masters at Work, and Talvin Singh. Björk releases The Best Mixes Of The Album Debut For People Who Don't Buy White Labels at a low retail price, sacrificing her royalties. The live home video Vessel, directed by Sednaoui, shows that at this point Björk's approach to live arrangements is far more conventional than her album. Madonna borrows Nellee Hooper to produce Bedtime Stories and commissions Björk to write her an album's worth of material; only the title track makes the cut. It's Madonna's least successful album.
Parts of Post are recorded in Nassau, Bahamas, where Björk captures her vocals on the beach with a long microphone cord. Once again, Massey and Hooper are the principal collaborators, with contributions from Howie B, new boyfriend Tricky, and string arrangements by Brazilian jazz composer Eumir Deodato. Remixes by Goldie, Todd Terry, Dillinja, Outcast, Photek, Towa Tei and her new drummer Trevor Morais, who recasts "One Day" with gamelan and marimba. The videos for Post are nothing less than astounding: Spike Jonze's colourful video for "It's Oh So Quiet," an homage to Hollywood musicals, catches the eye of Danish director Lars Von Trier; in "I Miss You," Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi places a redhead Björk inside a lewd and fantastical '60s cartoon; key video collaborator Michel Gondry helms "Hyperballad" and Sednaoui creates a neon dream world in "Possibly Maybe."
Remix album Telegram is released, including an improv collaboration with avant-garde percussionist Evelyn Glennie. After soaking up four frantic years of urban London culture, Björk decides she's had enough. Her fatigue is evident in what becomes known as the tabloid year. Arriving at a Bangkok airport with her son during an Asian tour, a group of paparazzi approaches; after Björk refuses an interview, one reporter asks Sindri, "Isn't it terrible having a pop star mother who's full of herself?" Björk uses her martial arts skills to pummel the reporter, and the film clip becomes a trash-TV staple. She breaks up with Tricky and starts going out with Goldie, with whom she has a short-lived engagement; both men get into an altercation in New York City on the subject. In September, an obsessed "fan" from Florida sends her a mail bomb packed with corrosive acid to protest her interracial relationship with Goldie. Unbeknownst to either party, Björk is actually in Florida when he does this, three blocks away. The "fan" videotapes himself making the bomb, mailing it to her in London, shaving his head and shooting himself. The police find his body and the video in time to warn Björk. Severely shaken, Björk and Sindri leave London and move back to Iceland.
At the end of the Post tour, Björk tapes a fan club-only performance and releases the home video Live at Shepherd's Bush; it is considerably more assured than Vessel and reworks several songs considerably, including "Big Time Sensuality" accompanied only by marimba. The band includes Sigsworth, Morais, Leila Arab, electronic duo Plaid, and ace accordionist Yasuhiro Kobayahsi. Her next album Homogenic is her most cohesive and stylistically consistent work to date, with rich strings and crunching beats, her most personal lyrics and beautifully expansive melodies; it's also her least commercial. Her rhythmic backbone this time out is Mark Bell of LFO, who accompanies her on tour with the Icelandic String Octet. Remixers include µ-ziq, State of Bengal, Beck, Matmos, DJ Krust, and Alec Empire. A session with RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan is discarded. Her platonic friendship with Howie B turns romantic.
Björk is declared 1997's Woman of the Year in a Melody Maker readers' poll; Princess Diana comes in second. Volumen, a video/DVD compilation of her groundbreaking video clips is released. Danish director Lars Von Trier drafts her to write the music for Dancer in the Dark; John Travolta is pegged to be the male lead. She begins a year of work on the soundtrack, and insists that Von Trier co-write the lyrics with her trusted collaborator, the poet Sjon. Von Trier eventually convinces her to star in the film, alongside Catherine Deneuve and David Morse, although Björk demands changes to the script to make her character less "stupid and naïve." A Spanish "fan" who has been stalking Björk for four years breaks into her mother's Iceland residence and makes himself at home for 24 hours. When discovered, he refuses to leave "his home" until police are called. Scared for the safety of her family, Björk ponders retirement.
Protesting an environmentally controversial new power plant in Iceland, Björk teams up with new Icelandic musical collective Gus Gus for a benefit single, "It's Not Up To You." Björk contributes a new song to Being John Malkovich soundtrack, and performs an intimate acoustic live show with the Brodsky Quartet. Soon after, she records four tracks with them and Alec Empire (Atari Teenage Riot); an anticipated EP is still awaiting release. Dancer in the Dark is filmed in Sweden amidst numerous reports of Björk's tempestuous behaviour, including a five-day walk-off and a reported breakdown. The walk-off is prompted by her displeasure with how her music was being spontaneously edited for choreographic demands. She returns with a manifesto for Von Trier, including the condition that all musical changes have to meet her approval; he reluctantly concurs, to keep the film on schedule. Von Trier, best known for the sadistic misogynist classic Breaking the Waves, later wants to use sensitive off-screen footage of her in a documentary about the film. Björk and her management protest loudly and eventually win a war of attrition; the scenes are edited out. "We did disagree on things," she would tell Time Out. "But we would make up all the time. The media has blown that a little bit out of proportion. But this was painful for me. Lars is very attracted to pain; he says that openly. For him, pain equals truth and being happy is lying. I don't agree with that." On the eve of the millennium, the Icelandic government names her both Musician and Female Singer of the Century.
Dancer in the Dark wins the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Björk wins Best Actress. She promptly announces her retirement from acting, vowing to be loyal to her musical muse. Deneuve tells a press conference that Björk "cannot really act she can just be." Von Trier says on the DVD, "She only felt the pain the character felt without the pleasure an actor would feel afterwards. I'm sure it was terrible for her." The soundtrack is released as Selmasongs. The song "I've Seen It All," recorded on Selmasongs as a duet with Thom Yorke, is nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. Björk performs the song solo; she withdraws an invitation to Yorke when she discovers she has only three minutes to perform. She loses to Bob Dylan, whose own eerie, twitching performance makes Björk appear normal in comparison. Björk buys a small volcanic island off the Icelandic coast, Ellidaey Island, for its seclusion and the acoustic properties of its lighthouses. Sindri moves in with his father in Iceland; Björk moves to New York City and starts relationship with artist/sculptor Matthew Barney.
Björk becomes a vocal champion of San Francisco found-sound slapstick samplers Matmos, and commissions them to program some sounds and beats on Vespertine, her subtlest and most intimate work, recorded primarily on a laptop. The duo maintain that the most Matmos-y tracks are the ones she did herself, including one where she samples her feet crunching snow. They are regrettably unable to fulfil her request to capture the sound of pussy willows blossoming. Other Vespertine contributors include Opiate's Thomas Knak, filmmaker Harmony Korine, and Matthew Herbert. She invites Matmos to join her tour of the world's opera houses along with a symphony and Greenlandic choir, along with harpist Zeena Parkins and Nunavut throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis. Continuing her fascination with acoustic vocal performance, in May she debuts her new band at a small church in Harlem and plans spontaneously announced, intimate un-amplified shows on the tour's off-days. Matmos recreate the album's sounds live by shuffling cards, walking on rock salt, and brushing their shoes. The night before her tour begins in Paris, the government of France declares Björk a Knight of the National Order of Merit for her contribution to culture.