Ice Ice lady: The many sides of Bjork (+audio)

By Scott Kara

Bjork was destined to be a rebel. It's the Danes' fault. The way Denmark treated her beloved homeland of Iceland, which was a Danish colony for 600 years, inspired the venom behind the punk bands she was in from age 14. Her first band was called Spit and Snot and she spat and raged alright.

"We were treated really badly by the Danish," she says in that cute, fragile voice of hers. It could be a 4-year-old on the end of the phone, but a young child wouldn't speak with such informed rancour.

When she says words like patriotic or Volta, the title of her sixth and latest album, they fight their way out of her mouth beautifully, as if she's about to cry.

"When punk arrived in Iceland," she continues, "we weren't fighting against Margaret Thatcher; for us it was more like declaring independence from the Danish. We were singing songs in Icelandic and being very punk, patriotic, and Viking."

"My mother and father were born in the year of independence [1944] so it took that generation to get their heads around the fact they were actually their own person. So it was the role of my generation that really broke off."

Today she is holed up in a hotel during the Mexican leg of the Volta world tour following a jaunt through Chile, Peru, Argentina and, for the first time, Colombia - "The audiences have been incredible. Really enthusiastic, well, that's putting it mildly actually," she giggles again.

And she's on her way to New Zealand as one of the headliners at the Big Day Out on January 18, having last been here in the mid-90s.

Her music nowadays may not sound like the punk rock of Spit and Snot but that rebellious attitude still comes through. Every time she walks into the recording studio she makes music on her own terms. Since her first major band the Sugarcubes released their 1988 debut, Life's Too Good, she has produced some of the most popular yet innovative music around.

Her music may not always be palatable - Medulla from 2004 and parts of 1997's Homogenic were especially hard going - but it's progressive. Over the course of six albums she has never repeated herself, from kooky dance hits like Human Behaviour on 1993's Debut, to the delightful pop of It's Oh So Quiet from Post (1995), to grandiose and ambitious tracks like the punishing Declare Independence from Volta. All up she's sold 15 million records.

"Because I've been doing this for so long, I know if I start teasing people it would be suicide. It doesn't work that way. So it's kind of more that I have to please myself. I guess I go through some sort of unconscious process where I edit stuff out that I think is self-indulgent and people won't enjoy, so what ends up being on the album is something that I'm more ready to share."

Bjork - born Bjork Gudmundsdottir in Iceland's capital of Reykjavik in 1965 - turned 42 this week and has been making music most of her life.

The singer, musician, mum, and sometime movie star - she starred in Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark although afterwards swore off acting because making the film was such a traumatic experience - remembers writing her first song when she was seven. She was walking from her grandfather's light shop to the hospital, it was night time and very windy, and shewas singing a made-up ditty at the top of her voice.

In 1986, as an 18-year-old, she formed the Sugarcubes and she reckons the band's quirky pop still stands up today, 15 years after they split up. Last year the band did a one-off reunion gig which meant Bjork listened to Life's Too Good a lot. She was in Tunisia at the time and biked around the villages listening to the album on her iPod - a very appropriate environment considering the Sugarcubes' song Motorcrash goes, "Riding on a bicycle, saw a motor crash."

"Listening to it I'm like, 'What were we on?' When I look back now I feel like I was a baby then but it actually surprised me how formed the ideas were," she says.

Though Bjork is fine talking about music she is less forthcoming when it gets too personal. Like the question about what her and her partner Matthew Barney, a renowned New York contemporary artist, talk about over dinner.

"Just everything really. It can be both the banal and the flighty. Just anything really."

She's not rude, she's just weary of the fame and celebrity tag.

Apart from wearing a swan dress to the Oscars where she laid eggs on the red carpet, there are two non-music incidents that Bjork is most famous for.

She walloped a reporter at Bangkok airport for talking to her son. It turns out the reporter had been hounding the singer for weeks.

More serious was the stalker who filmed himself making an acid bomb that he posted to her house. Luckily police intercepted it, but the film also showed him killing himself.

Scary stuff, and we don't go there.

She says "Mmmm" a lot, taking long considered pauses before answering. Like when it's put to her that reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry - who is similarly eccentric like Bjork - is inspired by the wind, so what inspires her, besides personal experiences.

"Mmmmm ... I'm more of an ocean person really. Anything to do with oxygen. I get claustrophobic very easily. So I like open spaces with a lot of ocean."

Not surprising considering she comes from Iceland.

Since she was in the Sugarcubes, and their first single Birthday made them instant indie music darlings in the late-80s, she has spent a lot of time away from Iceland touring. She has lived in London (during which time she dated trip hop artist Tricky and drum'n'bass mogul Goldie), Spain (where she wrote Homogenic), and currently lives in New York with Barney and her two children, Sindri (whose father is Sugarcubes' bass player Thor Eldon) and Isadora (her daughter to Barney).

But she says her transitory nature makes her even more patriotic.

"You set up this balance where half the time you're travelling the world and the other half you're at home and I really like that balance, it makes you even more patriotic than if you were there all the time. My most patriotic songs were on Homogenic, and I did that in Spain. When you get really really homesick and you're somewhere else you look back and it inspires you."

Which brings us back to Iceland's independence and establishing itself on the world stage. She says not only did Iceland distance itself from Denmark it also had to shake loose the Scandinavian influence.

For Bjork, Icelandic literature and art is more "anarchic", "freedom loving" and "aggressive" than in countries like Norway and Sweden.

"I wouldn't say it's better or worse. I don't mean it like that, but it's definitely a different mindset."

After independence there was also a feeling in Iceland that all foreign countries were like Denmark and that they should all stick together "in our woolly sweaters" and be "isolated forever".

Bjork wasn't having that and along with the other Sugarcubes she showed that it was "okay to mingle with the aliens".

"So when we started playing Icelandic music all over the world, and being very proud of our heritage, it was to stop the isolation. My generation was very much about breaking that up and [now] I can go and play Mexico and New Zealand and I will [still] be as Icelandic as any of you guys."

She loves going back to Iceland. She talks fondly about a "nice and scruffy" pub called Surkus (as seen in the video for Triumph of a Heart) that she used to frequent where anybody can go up and put the music on. "It's not precious and you can have all your favourite songs. We all know the woman who runs it so we just take turns and people just turn up with their iPods and DJ."

Most of this year though she's been on tour for Volta starting in April at the Coachella Festival in California's Palm Desert - "It was our first show so it was almost like a rehearsal. We were still a bit wooden and now I've moved things up a lot," she giggles.

The show is a grand, extravagant and, at times, heavy affair with an all-female brass section, lasers and lights, crazy outfits, multiple costume changes, and material ranging from Volta songs to classics like Army of Me and Hyperballad.

It's a big contrast to her last tour for Vespertine, which was performed in opera houses with a 50-piece orchestra, a 20-person choir, and Bjork singing almost acoustically. She didn't tour her next release, Medulla, because the ambitious vocal-based album was virtually impossible to pull off live.

"I feel Volta live is much better than the album so Volta the album is almost like the rehearsal before the tour. The tour is where it all comes alive. For example, Vespertine is the opposite, very delicate, pretty and miniature. This is the total opposite. There is a necessity for brutal things a lot of the time," she coos.

"Volta is ... shaman, voodoo, and big strokes of red and neon colours. It's harsh, almost brutal. It's very physical, almost butch," she laughs.

See, it's all punk rock in the end.

Lowdown

Who: Bjork
Born: Reykjavik, Iceland, November 21, 1965
Where & when: Headlines the Big Day Out, January 18, with Rage Against the Machine
Latest album: Volta, out now
Past albums: The Sugarcubes - Life's Too Good (1988); As Bjork, Debut (1993); Post (1995); Homogenic (1997); Vespertine (2001); Medulla (2004)

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