To celebrate today’s release of Björk’s Homogenic, we’re pleased to share with you the fourth installment of Björk Week by author Emily Mackay!
A whistle-stop tour of Iceland.
Björk presents her music and personality as so much founded on her home country that soon enough, all smitten Björk fans will find themselves longing to take a trip to Iceland. If you’re lucky enough to make it out there, here are a few Björk-related places you might want to check out (and a whole load of nerd-facts to boot).
Before she moved from Reykjavík to London, Björk lived in a flat by the city’s harbour in a former blacksmith’s shop, where she could watch the boats coming in and out. It was her happy place. “I realised I could have an easy life in Iceland, just have a glass of Cognac and good books and two jobs and do my songs in the evening,” she told Vox in 1995. “But I would be such a consumer, taking it all in and not giving anything back. I thought: “OK, I’m 27. If I don’t go on a mission now and make some sacrifices… I will never forgive myself.” The harbour pops up in both ‘There’s More to Life Than This’’s pumping ode to doing nightlife your own way (“We could go down to the harbour/And jump between the boats/ And watch the sun come up”) and in ‘Anchor Song’ (“I live by the ocean/And during the night/ I dive into it”). In London, Björk was drawn back to the water, settling near the canal in Little Venice. Years later, she would try houseboat life in New York, the inspiration for the foghorn sounds on Volta.
After a time living with her mother’s hippy pals in a “commune” (actually more of a shared house), Björk moved to this south-eastern Reykjavík suburb the age of 10. Originally a separate village on the outskirts, it expanded rapidly in the 60s, and is now one of the city’s most populous areas. Describing her upbringing in a 1997 Canadian TV interview, Björk described Reykjavík as “a small village compared to, at least, Montreal… and when I was a kid, it had like, 80,000 people so it’s very safe. People don’t lock their car, or their house or anything. And I kinda know everyone in the town anyway… I kinda walked around town and got friendly with the other inhabitants of my village.” Breiðholt was also close to Björk’s beloved nature – she loved, she says, to ramble, camp and sing in the wild — with Elliðaárdalur valley and Elliðavatn lake nearby. More recently, the suburb was the setting for Ragnar Bragason’s 2006 film Börn (“Children”), a dark, witty family drama.
Situated right in the middle of Reykjavík’s main shopping street Laugavegur, Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste”) is not just a record shop but an Icelandic punk institution. Formed after the demise of Björk’s early band Kukl, Smekkleysa was conceived as a record label, publishing house, prank promoter and general art-terrorism organisation, with a motto of “World domination or death!”. There’s a detailed, fascinating history on their site, and you can read excerpts from their manifesto online including articles of faith such as “Bad Taste will work concertedly against anything that can be categorized as good taste or financial restraint” . Out of Smekkleysa grew Björk’s former band The Sugarcubes; their irreverent, surreal spirit is still a strong part of who she is. ‘People who know me realize there’s an incredibly strong core inside me that’s very conservative,’ she says in Live Box, in an interview itself conducted by Ásmundur ‘Ási’ Jónsson (who in 1981 co-founded Gramm, Iceland’s first indie label, with Sugarcube Einar Örn, and subsequently managed Smekkleysa). “I’m still a punk and still Icelandic, that was decided when I was sixteen.”
Iceland’s largest glacier, and the second-largest in Europe, features in the video for ‘Jóga’, a visual tribute to the Icelandic landscape directed by Michel Gondry. In 2002, Björk’s mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, went on hunger strike to protest against the building of hydroelectric dams on Vatnajökull’s river by American multinational Alcoa in order to power an aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður. A few years later, the banking crash made the Icelandic wilderness even more vulnerable to rapacious industry, and Björk publicly joined the fight, writing the introduction to Andri Snær Magnason’s protest book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, and setting up the Náttúra concert, foundation and single to draw attention to the threat.
The most north-eastern of the Westman Islands, which lie off Iceland’s south-east coast, Elliðaey is most likely the island pictured lying in place of Björk’s heart at the end of the ‘Jóga’ video. Despite this, it was not presented to her as a gift by the Icelandic government for services to her country, as is often reported. The building visible in pictures of Elliðaey sometimes referred to as “Björk’s house” is, according to Iceland Review, a bothy owned by the Elliðaey Association, “which practices puffin hunting on the island in the summer and egg collecting in the spring”. Confusingly, Iceland Review also writes that Björk was interested in building a holiday home on a different, formerly inhabited island also called Elliðaey (this one’s in Breiðafjörður) in 2000. Davíð Oddsson, the prime minister at the time, raised the idea of giving her the whole island for free in parliament, but the plans proved controversial, and so Björk dropped the idea of her Elliðaey house. There’s one more Björk connection, though, to the Westman Islands: in 1981, Björk’s youthful post-punk band Tappi Tíkarrass appeared in a comedy film, Nýtt Líf (“New Life) filmed there.
One of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, Hekla was nicknamed “The Gateway to Hell” by European visitors. Björk looks more affectionately on her country’s lively volcanism: a new island, Surtsey, was being born at the same time as she was. Reykjavík’s radiators and swimming pools are powered by geothermal energy, and Icelanders like Björk have long linked their hidden, but fierily explosive emotion to their country’s geology. Her initial plan for Homogenic was that it would be, in contrast to the excitable eclecticism of Debut and Post, “something that’s Icelandic,’ she said. ‘And I want it to be more me, this album. Debut and Post are a bit like the Tin Tin books. Sort of Tin Tin goes to Congo. Tin Tin goes to Tibet… now I think it’s a bit more “Björk goes home.”’ To make that Icelandic music, rather than singing old folk songs or using Icelandic instruments such as the langspil, she wanted to emulate, almost embody the volatile landscape. “I wanted the beats to be almost distorted,” she said. “Imagine if there was Icelandic techno. Iceland is one of the youngest countries geographically, it’s still in the making. So the sounds would be still in the making.” Björk also drew inspiration from the work of Icelandic composer Jón Leifs, who, she said, “animated eruptions and lava in sound”. Leifs’ Hekla (1961) tries to capture volcanic sonic energy in the same way that Homogenic does, while his Geysir, composed the same year, does the same with the hot spring that gave all the rest their name.
When I interviewed Björk following the release of Biophilia, she met me in the bar of this beautiful 1930s city hotel (whose name literally means “city hotel”), and told me that her grandfather, an electrician like her father, had worked on its original wiring. The hotel is also a key venue in the Icelandic music scene. In its early days, as revealed in this fascinating history, it was one of the few venues that could afford to pay bands, and eventually became the centre of the city’s punk scene. Much of the 1982 documentary Rokk í Reykjavík, which features Björk’s early band Tappi Tíkarrass, was shot there. Björk also played the jazz songs of Gling-Gló, her album with Trió Guðmundar Ingólfssonar, there in 1990 – bootlegs are available.