There is a huge sea of Björk interviews, TV appearances and live shows out there on the internet to get wonderfully lost in. Whole days can go that way, easily. There’s also many a rare gem to be found, if you dig deep – and in the course of writing my 33 1/3, I definitely dug deep. Months on, YouTube is still going “Hey! Maybe you’d like to watch this other Björk video!” And do you know what, I still would. Here are some of the best little video oddities out there.
— Emily Mackay
I Love to Love (But My Baby Loves to Dance), 1976
This is where it all began: a sparkling, pure-toned disco pop cover, performed during a local radio documentary about Björk’s music school, Barnamusikskóli in Reykjavík. The recording caught the attention of listeners, and led to Björk being signed for her true debut album, 1977’s Björk, at the age of 11. With only one Björk original, Jóhannes Kjarval, the bulk of the record was made up of songs written by the adults who recorded it with her, and Icelandic covers of songs including The Beatles’s The Fool on the Hill and Syreeta’s Your Kiss is Sweet. “The record became very, very big,” Björk told Details magazine in 1994. “Certainly big enough to know that I didn’t want any of it. On the bus, kids were shouting at me, ‘Oh she thinks she’s much better than the rest of us, she sits in the front of the bus. Then, when I sat at the back, they would shout about that.” She felt uncomfortable with the album, which she saw as not really her work, and her subsequent teenage musical adventures were more about punk-ish collaboration.
The Nativity, 1976
Reading the story of baby Jesus on Icelandic TV later the same year, Björk is introduced by one of the Jólasveinarnir, or Yule Lads – Icelanders have not just one Santa, but 13, who traditionally leave gifts for good children, and rotting potatoes for bad. Despite this rather stern approach to the festivities, Björk loves Icelandic Christmas. “It’s always the same thing,” she reminisced to Spin in 1997. “On the 24th, we eat dinner at six. Actually, I can almost taste the rice pudding with raisins and cinnamon. And after all the presents are open, we sit by the fireplace.”
This Icelandic TV movie from 1986 starred Björk as new-wave wild-child Maria, whose troubles include a heavy hairspray habit. Confrontations with an evil-stepmother type lands her in an institution, which she eventually escapes, cutting through a stained-glass window and fleeing on the back of a motorbike into the midnight sun (quite an exit, even by Björk standards). Glerbrot (“Broken Glass”) is surreal, shlocky and heavily dry-iced, but the talent for conveying emotional extremes that Björk would deploy to such powerful effect in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is already in evidence.
More Christmas! This track is taken from an Icelandic compliation album, Hvit er Borg er Baer (“the city and the town are white”, roughly) featuring contributions from Icelandic musicians including alt-rock legend Megas, who’d recorded with Björk’s band Kukl two years before in the side-project Megakukl. The title of Björk’s track translates as “Christmas Cat”. Awww, adorable! Not quite: in Icelandic tradition, the vicious Jólakötturinn prowls the streets during the Christmas season, hunting for people who haven’t received the traditional gift of a new garment before Christmas Eve, so he can EAT THEM UP. Hold those woolly jumpers close, people.
Live Zabor, 1989
Christmas time yet again in this brief interview segment, which went a little bit viral recently, with many people sharing it in an “isn’t bonkers Björk adorable!” spirit. As with many of Björk’s seemingly “wacky” moments, though, a little context goes a long way here: her little freestyle parable about curiosity, television and poetry comes from a 1988 live video, Live Zabor (geddit?), released by her former band The Sugarcubes. All of the band have surreal little interview segments in it – Einar waxing lyrical on the similarities between people and planets, for instance, or Siggi Baldursson channelling US preacher Billy Graham in a bizarre sermon about radiation, limestone and acid rain.
In the context of the whole band’s wilful, gleeful pop art absurdity, Björk’s segment makes more sense. She relates how “an Icelandic poet” told her that because parsing the pixelated TV image busies so much of your brain, “you don’t watch very carefully what the programme you’re watching is really about… you stop judging if it’s right or not, you just swallow and swallow”, and the TV becomes a tool for indoctrination. But later on, she read, “in a Danish book… the scientifical truth, which is much better. You shouldn’t let poets lie to you”. The Sugarcubes grew out of Björk’s friendship with Medúsa, Reykjavík’s renegade literary collective; as she recalled in the Post book, “the whole punk scene was always poets. Between the bands, they would stand there and scream. It wasn’t delicate”; Denmark, meanwhile, is the former colonial power in Iceland, who Björk has semi-jokingly referred to as “bastards” for their historical oppression of her country. So is she really siding with the poets, and warning us to beware the siren screen? Or is Björk the Biophiliac science nerd urging us to eschew conspiracy theories in favour of cold facts? Or is she just pissing about? I don’t know. I don’t know if she knows. But it goes to show you there’s always something more going on than just “kookiness”.
The Juniper Tree, 1990
American director Nietzchka Keene based her arthouse film roughly on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Set in a pre-industrial Iceland, it stars Björk as Margit, who has to flee her home with her older sister Katla when their mother is burned as a witch. When Katla turns to the dark side, their mother returns in the form of a raven to guide her younger daughter to freedom. It’s intense, dark and minimal, and both Björk and her beloved landscape are perfecly bewitching in it. Björk was actually a last-minute casting when another actor pulled out. “I knew she was a performer – that was really important,” Keene told Björk biographer Mark Pytlik. “And her looks and the aura she gave off made me feel like she was right for the part because it’s a very withdrawn part – a lot of it is reacting to what is going on around the character. When I rehearsed her, she was very quick at taking in the emotional state and incorporating it.”
Modern Minimalists with Björk, 1998
In spring 1998, Björk filmed a Renegade/Dazed TV production for Channel 4, aired later that year. In her segment, called Modern Minimalists With Björk, she interviewed Estonian “holy minimalist” composer Arvo Pärt, along with Homogenic’s glass harmonica player Alasdair Malloy – who opens the documentary – and Finnish electronic experimentalist Mika Vainio, in Barcelona. “What seems to me has happened very much this century,” she says, “especially the later half, is that people have moved away from plots, structures and moved to its complete opposite which is textures. Basically a place to live in or environment or a stillness. It seems to be in this speedy times, the most bravest thing you can do is to be still.” This thinking would lead her away from Homogenic’s grandeur into the smaller, quieter sounds of Vespertine.
Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu, 1994
In the mid-90s, French composer Hector Zazou enlisted a range of singers including Suzanne Vega and Siouxsie Sioux for a compilation of traditional songs from chilly climes, Chansons Des Mers Froides (“Songs of the Cold Seas”). Björk sings Visur Vatnsenda-Rosu (“Verses by Rosa of Vatnsendi”), a traditional setting of a lovelorn 18th-century Icelandic poem written by Rósa Guðmundsdóttir (no relation, of course, Guðmundsdóttir being a patronymic). After enthusing about the song with the Icelandic String Octet who played on Homogenic, Björk had them play it as the intro to her Homogenic live set, before the usual opening track, Hunter.
Short Term Affair, 1997
One of comedian Steve Coogan’s many personae, Tony Ferrino is a sleazy lounge singer and former Portuguese song contest winner. The duet Short Term Affair was originally sung with Kim Wilde on Coogan’s programme The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon in January 1997. Two months later, while still recording Homogenic, Björk gamely agreed to sing the part of the seduced au pair (“You took me to the kitchen / Your hands kinda started twitching”). It seems bizarre to see her in such a mainstream TV variety performance now, but at the time she was a huge pop star, the kind who fell prey to the UK tabloids. She’d also featured on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, her unique vocal technique parodied by having the Björk puppet sing along to the sound of a fax machine. “I liked it, I felt honoured,” she said. “I’d only been living in England a few months and already they understood me… I prefer a fax machine any day to a guitar solo.”
Björk was still game for a laugh a decade later, making a guest appearance on sitcom Dagvaktin (“Day Shift”), which follows the staff of a lonely hotel out in the Icelandic boondocks. It’s co-written by and stars Jón Gnarr, comedian and punk poet, an old associate of Björk’s and also the husband of her close friend Jóhanna Jóhannsdottir, the subject of Jóga. The episode plays off the idea that not all Icelanders might accept Björk as a paradigm of their nation. “Look at this freak,” Gnarr’s character grumbles as he reads a newspaper feature. “This is Iceland’s global representative… like a retarded schoolgirl going to a costume party.” He swiftly, crawlingly, changes his tune, however when Björk herself walks in and asks to use the hotel bathroom.
“I think I’m a much better Icelander abroad than I am in Iceland,” Bjork told Bust magazine in 1996. “In Iceland, everyone thinks I’m really foreign and eccentric and really strange and they don’t understand me and my music sounds very awkward and foreign. And then I go abroad and they say, “Oh, you are so strange and awkward. That must be because you are from Iceland.”
The year after this was broadcast, Gnarr founded the Best Party, a semi-satirical response to the absurdity of the Icelandic bank crash, and led them to an entirely serious victory in Reykjavík’s city council elections in 2010. Former Sugarcube Einar Örn Benediktsson was also a party member. Björk didn’t stand, but at the same time, was doing a lot of work trying to persuade the Icelandic government to resist the encroachment of the global aluminium industry on Iceland’s highland wilderness and instead invest in hi-tech green startups, releasing the single Nattúra to draw attention to the cause. That struggle would later lead into Biophilia’s plea to reunify nature and technology.
Emily Mackay is the author of Björk’s Homogenic, published earlier this month.