SA Exclusive: Björk – brilliant and still a bit barmy at 50

2015-03-01 06:00

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Even if you’ve never heard of Björk and can’t identify one of her songs, you’ll recognise the swan dress.

In 2001, the petite Icelandic songstress scored an Academy Award nomination for best song for the film Dancer in the Dark.

She arrived on the red carpet in a dress that looked like a swan – then lifted it above her knees and “gave birth” to a white egg.

After the media hysteria had died down, the artist behind hits such as Human Behaviour, Army of Me and Hyperballad said: “I was very aware when I went to the Academy Awards that it would probably be my first and last time.

“So I thought my input should really be about fertility, and I thought I’d bring some eggs.”

On the phone from her home in Brooklyn, New York, Björk says she doesn’t have that notorious dress any more.

“But we had to go and find it because they’re using it for the MoMA exhibition. I’m not much of a collector,” she says, rolling her Rs magnificently.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York will launch a retrospective of Björk’s career next week.

Björk, who turns 50 this year and has been in the music business since she was a teenager, is a potent, convention-shattering performer.

In some ways, she has cleared a space for outspoken, somewhat odd, self-possessed artists such as Nicki Minaj and FKA twigs – just as artists like Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush cleared the path for her.

She’s planning a world tour to coincide with the global release of her album Vulnicura later this month.

On Black Lake, the album’s fourth track, her words soar from a whisper to a wail as she sings: “My heart is an enormous lake, black with potion. I am drowning in this ocean, my soul torn apart.”

Over the phone, she explains: “Vulnicura means a wound, and also a cure for the wound.”

Heartbreak has been a recurring motif over the past few years for Björk: she recently split from her longtime partner, and one of her oldest collaborators, Mark Bell, died in October last year.

“Vulnicura is a complete heartbreak album.

“Hopefully, the songs will prove how biological this process of healing is – the wound and the healing of the wound,” she says.

She sounds a little wary of going further, strangely reluctant to discuss her private life when you consider how searingly personal her music is.

I change the subject and ask what she knows about South Africa. “Not very much. I know about apartheid, Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba, Paul Simon, Marlene Dumas, Die Antwoord, District 9. I have a lot of respect for the struggles of South Africa.”

I respond by sharing what I know about Iceland. Most of it relates to elves. I read once that in a 1998 survey, 54.4% of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves.

How, I ask Björk – who spends about four months of each year in her native land – could we recognise an elf if we were looking for one?

“You don’t. It’s a feeling. I think you will feel it and then see it. It’s a form of animism to respect rocks, places and lava, and that elves and trolls live inside them. I think it’s more about our relationship with nature and to personalise this feeling.”

How does she feel about turning 50, and about the 50 potential years to come?

“I think it’s going to be 50 years of mental and spiritual importance. As the body fails, you need to make a spiritual temple in your skull – your own private temple, where you can live and come out.

“I think the first 40 years of your life are good genes, but after 40 it’s sort of about what you have constructed yourself – so there is a choice, you know.

“In the latter half, I think you can keep the impulse and instinct, but I think it’s important to have a spiritual intention. I’m saying this like I know how to do it, but I don’t. It’s important to embrace the changes.”

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