Bjork Gudmundsdottir insists that she has her down moments, but her claim is unconvincing. After all, she makes this statement from an airport in Reykjavik, Iceland (her hometown), that's being pounded by a massive snow storm: "You look out the window and all you see is white," she reports. Rather than being angered by this quirk of fate, however, Bjork--whose achievements as a solo artist have already outstripped those of her previous band, the Sugarcubes--accepts it with a balmy equanimity that would seem forced coming from anyone other than her.
"This whole thing interests me," she chirps after blithely divulging that she'll be trapped in the Reykjavik terminal for a minimum of five hours longer than she had anticipated. "There's all of this rubbish about man pretending he killed nature and really feeling very guilty about it. But then, look, here comes this little blizzard, and suddenly we can't do anything. And that's good, because it makes people humble. And it doesn't bother me, because I'm sitting here eating Icelandic China rolls and drinking a German beer and talking to someone in Denver, Colorado.
"Besides, they sell Icelandic books here, and I found some by my favorite author, Halldor Kiljan Laxness," she races on, swept up in her own enthusiasm. "He's, like, the author of the century in Iceland; he won the Nobel Prize in 1955, and he's written probably 1,500 books or something. I've only read three or four of them, but I just bought five more. And I also bought a copy of Elvis Presley's Greatest Hits, even though I never really liked him. He's just a bit too obvious, and he's got so much to do with America feeling very confident in the Fifties and all that--and sometimes that kind of imperialism pisses me off a bit. Also, you have so little time. I try to listen to music all I can, but I can only do it about two hours a day. And since I'm probably only going to live until around the year 2050, if I was to get into Elvis Presley, that would take so much time away from other things. I gave him a chance today because I have a five-hour delay, but then my headphones broke down. So it looks like that's the only break he's getting from me."
If that recitation makes sense to you, then you'll have no trouble negotiating the Bjorkian universe. For those not so fortunate, a conversation with Bjork may seem like the equivalent of tumbling down one of Lewis Carroll's rabbit holes. Every time you think you've got a fix on the way her mind works, her words skitter away in unexpected directions. For instance, she says that she dealt with the out-of-the-box success of her first major-label solo album, 1993's Debut (worldwide sales: 3 million and counting) by "making up a little formula for myself. It's something like this--`The more selfish you are, the more unselfish you are.' Or maybe, `The more selfish you are, the more generous you are.'" Ask her to decipher this axiom, though, and she concedes, "Actually, I don't really get it, either. So I'm just going to do what I've been doing and see what happens."
The latter is as close to a description of the Bjork approach to life as we're likely to get. Ms. Gudmundsdottir was born in 1965 to hippie parents who plunked her into a music school as soon as they possibly could. From early on, it was clear that Bjork was, well, different. "I've been called `strange' and `cute' and `alien' since I was, like, three or something," she discloses. "So I decided a very long time ago not to really bother so much about what people say--to just mind my own business and have a laugh."
At age eleven, Bjork began her career in professional music; she recorded an album of kiddie tunes (including one of her own composition), and it briefly made her the Icelandic version of Tiffany. But instead of making the most of this opportunity, Bjork chose to join a succession of local punk and new-wave bands instead. One of them, called Kukl, eventually led to the Sugarcubes, a combo in which Bjork was joined by Kukl's Einar Orn and guitarist Thor Eldon. The act's first single, "Birthday," was released in 1987 by a minute British label, Little Indian, and within months the Sugarcubes were the subject of a bidding war. Elektra eventually won the U.S. rights and issued a 'Cubes full-length, Life's Too Good, in 1988. Critics, led by the Los Angeles Times' Robert Hilburn, rhapsodized over the album, but in retrospect, the recording seems as erratic as it does intriguing; Bjork, clearly the most interesting member of the group, was forced to fight for space with Orn, to the detriment of everyone involved. The two Sugarcubes followups, 1989's Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! and 1992's Stick Around for Joy, gave Bjork more room, but the music itself was considerably less inspired. Certainly, there were tunes that worked--such as Joy's "Hit," which was one--but in the final analysis, the rest of the band seemed to be holding Bjork back.
Bjork thought so, too. "I used to be very unselfish from the age of, say, eleven to twenty-seven. I used to do things for a lot of people, to help them serve their visions and make true what was in their heads. But when I turned twenty-seven, I decided to be very selfish and do exactly what I want to do."
After leaving the Sugarcubes in 1993, the obvious next step was a solo album, but Bjork reveals, "I hated the album that I did when I was eleven so much that I promised myself that I would never do that again. But then I realized it was something I had to do, or else I was a coward. I couldn't really escape from it." For Debut, then, Bjork says, "I collected all the songs that I'd written in the last fifteen years; it was, like, the greatest hits that nobody had heard except me. So it was about me being into brass music when I was fourteen and Stockhausen when I was sixteen and disco music when I was eighteen."
To put it mildly, the material on Debut zipped from one side of the musical map to the other. Dance tracks, experimental tracks, uncategorizable tracks--the CD had them all, jamming them together without the slightest attempt at transition. Some reviewers rapped Debut for these jarring qualities, but Bjork views this eclecticism as one of the disc's strengths. "I think pop music should represent all the situations in real life that every person experiences," she states, "including waking up, being scruffy in the morning, not being ready for work, being overexcited, being sad, crashing your car, having no money for food, having a boring sister-in-law, being interested in the postman, having three children--I don't know, I'm just making this up. But in a way, the record celebrated the unpredictability of life.
"You won't know how you're going to feel at ten o'clock tomorrow, and I quite like that. And I quite like going dancing in a club until three o'clock in the morning, getting really sweaty and then coming out and it's an entirely different atmosphere. There's no such thing as a person's week being completely stylish and fade in, fade out, you know. Life isn't like that. You may be madly in love and kissing someone in your bed, and the phone rings and it's your mom, and she wants to talk about washing machines. And that would be fine with me, becaue I'm very anti-control. I trust life and all of the little surprises it offers in a day."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Similar logic fuels the makeup of this year's Bjork declaration, Post, yet her growing confidence gives it a more unified feel than Debut. She somehow makes the leap from the big-band sounds of "It's Oh So Quiet" to the modern-dance mastery of "Enjoy" (co-written with British trip-hopper Tricky, with whom she's been linked romantically) without stumbling. Post hasn't made the commercial splash of Debut, but this shortfall doesn't bother Bjork. "I can't really moan," she admits. "I'm in a position where some of my favorite people on the planet are helping me get out all the things that have been spinning in my head all my life and put them straight on vinyl. It's too good to be true, really."
Equally satisfying to Bjork is her relationship with her nine-year-old son, Sindri, fathered by ex-Sugarcube Eldon. She momentarily drops her perky exterior when she mentions that the lad won't be joining her during her upcoming tour--"It was tough, it was pretty hardcore to leave him," she allows--but even this situation doesn't faze her for long. "I'm going to Asia for two months in February, and he's coming with me then," she burbles. "It's not going to be a problem with his school, because he can do his homework on the Internet. Also, he's a tough cookie. I went on tour with him when he was one year old, and I was prepared to go on home with him the next day if he couldn't handle it. And he was like, `Woooo! Woooo!' I toured with him for six years, and he flourished in fucking airports."
Like son, like mother. "I was brought up here by my grandfather today--he's 74," Bjork notes as the snow continues to swirl. "And he got here. The snow didn't stop him, and it's an hour's drive from my house. He basically thinks pilots are sissies, but I can see both points of view, to be honest. I was never a good driver and would probably make an awful pilot. But it would be very interesting to try."
Bjork, with Goldie. 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 7, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $22, 830-TIXS or 534-8336.