Björk Guðmundsdóttir was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, on 21 November, 1965, to Guðmundur Gunnarsson, and electrical engineer and union leader, and Hildur Hauksdóttir, an office worker. With unusual disregard for Iceland's almost total lack of trees, they named their daughter Björk (Birch Tree). They divorced before Björk's fourth birthday. By that time her musical abilities were already showing. She could sing "The Sound of Music" in its entirety by the time she was three years old. "I've always sung, ever since I was a little kid," Björk once answered when asked to explain the appeal that music holds for her. "It's just always been my natural reaction to things."
Björk spent her childhood years alternating between her parents' homes. "They were really blissful times," she has said. "But then, I've always been a happy little idiot."
She lived up in a communal household when with her mother and step-father, Saevar Árnason, a local guitarist (though not a hippie commune, she's keen to point out). Music was played 24 hours a day. "I remember a queue by the record player," she says. "The record would finish and you'd be ready to put another one on."
At the age of five she was enrolled in Reykjavik's prestegious music school, where she studied flute, recorder, oboe, and piano for ten years, but it was singing that she enjoyed the most. In 1976, an Icelandic radio station commissioned a documentary on the school. Björk starred as the most talented vocal pupil, singing "I Love To Love," a hit UK disco tune. This led to her recording her first album, the self-titled "BJÖRK", at the age of eleven, with the help of her mother and friends. A big hit in Iceland, it featured only one song written by Björk herself, although she became an Icelandic celebrity on the strength of its success. "I felt a lot of guilt," she admits. "I promised myself that I would never front anything unless I was the one who did it."
At the age of 13 she formed the short-lived all-girl punk quartet, Spit & Snot. They played a handful of gigs in the Reykjavik club scene. At 14, she formed Exodus, an experimental jazz-funk band. While performing with them, she caught the eye - and ears - of the members of Tappi Tíkarrass, who immediately decided they had to steal her away from Exodus. They did so by convincing Björk that they were more fun.
Tappi Tíkarrass recorded only two discs, the EP "Bitid Fast Í Vitid" and the full-length album, "Miranda." Then some of the members, including Björk, split off to form Kukl, a band that recorded two albums,"The Eye" and "Holiday In Europe," for the label run by the legendary UK anarchist band, Crass. "When I was a punk there was no such thing as Icelandic music," Björk says. "We had to invent it."
"It was basically about our very stupid local sense of humor," Björk has said about Kukl. "We were a bunch of 16-year-old terrorists drinking absinthe we smuggled from Spain, and writing terrible tunes and being arrested a lot of times. We were just out to sabotage anything we thought was snotty." Kukl disbanded in 1985.
A year later, Björk married her then boyfriend, Thor Eldon, and gave birth to their son, Sindri. The couple, together with former Kukl member Einar Örn founded a loose, subversive movement they named Smekkleysa SM SF (Bad Taste Ltd). They instigated a Reykjavik art award show, established a publishing company, and staged "happenings" of varying levels of aesthetic worth.
In 1987, Björk, Einer, and Thor, along with Kukl's ex-drummer, formed a new band, called Sykurmolar (The Sugarcubes). From their first single, "Birthday", they were a band with unique qualities, combining a raw post-punk feel with touches of experimental sonority, affecting melodies and Björk'srk extraordinary, exultant singing. The Sugarcubes put Icelandic music on the world map, with Björk's personality, dress sense, and vocal style tailor made for an increasingly faceless music scene in desperate need of strong, innovative and self-determined individuals.
Following the world tour for The Sugarcubes second album, Björk took some time away from the band to persue a personal project. She recorded the album "Gling-Gló" with the Icelandic jazz combo Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar. The album was independently financed by Bad Taste, Ltd., thanks to the success of The Sugarcubes two releases, and was recorded in a mere two days. "'Gling-Gló' was the opposite of The Sugarcubes second album," Björk recalls. "We'd fallen into the trap of spending two months on each song, whereas I have always been an obsessive fan of spontaneous music and behavior. So I did that album in two days, which was so much fun."
By 1992, after 3 albums, The Sugarcubes were ready to split. Their last release - a remix project - reflected Björk's growing involvement in the UK dance scene. Björk's attraction to underground dance music, which was all but nonexistant in Iceland at the time, led her to leave her native land and relocate to London, in order to be closer to the heart of what she wanted to do with her music. The result was "Debut," released in July 1993, and it changed the music indrusty forever! The album introduced Björk as one of the most unusual solo artists and distinctive vocalists to appear in years.
According to Bono of U2: "The girl has a voice like an icepick. Such a pure sound. It seems to travel through metal and glass and concrete."
"With 'Debut' I was obviously a beginner," Björk admits. "Nellee Hooper was very supportive in helping me to deal with the world," she says, "the studio, my sense and longing for adventure. I found myself attracted to people who know as little as I did about what was going to happen. Basically, I'm obsessed with people with exciting ideas. I've got no interest in working with people who do what I tell them to do - I need people who are as strong as me, or stonger." Despite the experimentation, more likely because of it, "Debut" was full of hugely accessible songs such as "Human Behaviour", "Venus As A Boy", "Big Time Sensuality" and "Violently Happy", that still rank as favourites.
Since "Debut," her work has always followed her heart. Early days in Reykjavik listening to her grandparents' jazz collection, her mother's rock records, her classical music education, the songs, sagas and poetry of Iceland, anarchist punk bands and arguments about art were all carried with her into the musical vibrancy of London's stylistic, ethnic and artistic mix.
"Debut" sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide and was followed in 1993 by "Post," an even bigger success that added Graham Massey, Howie B, and Tricky to Nellee Hooper's production skills. Her producer set up strange recording environments - a beach at night, a cave full of bats - in which she could test her limits. More big songs emerged from the album, including "Army Of Me", "Isobel", "Hyperballad", "Possibly Maybe", "I Miss You" and "It's So Quiet", a rare cover version that became Björk's most successful record.
After "Post's" success, Björk, along with some of the best DJs and dance mixers on the scene, released "Telegram," a remix album of "Post." It further explored Björk's interest in experimental, electronic music, as well as the use of computers as an art form. It was during this time that an obssessed fan in Florida, enraged at Björk's interacial relationship with rave DJ Goldie, mailed a book to her London apartment, designed to explode sulphuric acid when opened. The plot was discovered and thwarted when the fan commited suicide with a shotgun, leaving behind a video tape of his plan and his death. Björk, disturbed by the attempt on her life, moved from London to San Pedro, in the south of Spain, to record her next album at the prestegious mountaintop studio of El Cortijo.
Following "Post's" bigger beats, deeper sub-bass and the cartoonish big band outburst of "It's Oh So Quiet", "Homogenic," released in 1997, was more experimental in its contrasting textures, more bold in its intensity and structure. Produced by Björk with Mark Bell, Guy Sigsworth and Howie B, this was a project through which Björk began to feel more confidence in the breadth of her own ability. "'Debut' was the first time I talked about arrangements," she says. "Towards the end of 'Debut' I talked about rhythms, and towards the end of 'Post' I got braver in that way and produced more. Maybe 'Homogenic' was the first album where I knew how the whole production, the big picture, was going to be before it started. With 'Debut' and 'Post', sometimes I would have half the song and I would ask someone to complete it, so it was like a duet a collaboration. I guess in 'Homogenic' I started to get a little more bossy." Songs like "Joga", "Bachelorette", "Hunter", "Alarm Call" and "All Is Full Of Love" proved how productive that new independence could be.
In conversation, Björk speaks often about courage and cowardice, both of which figure large in the moral framework of her creative decisions. Characteristically, she has always pulled back from situations where celebrity or habit threatened to reduce her freedom, or she has expanded into areas of high risk where the potential for learning outweighed the possibility of losing credibility or commercial leverage. Her decision to both act in the starring role and compose the soundtrack for Lars Von Trier's film, "Dancer In The Dark", for example, exposed her to vitriolic criticism from some film critics yet earned respect among those who recognised her need to move forward and take on new challenges.
Her choice of collaborators over the years - fashion designers Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, photographers Nick Knight, Stephane Sednaoui and Nobuyoshi Araki, video directors Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonz, percussionists Evelyn Glennie and Talvin Singh, remixers Dillinja, Funkstürung, Mika Vainio and Underworld - is a reflection of this desire to work with artists at the cutting edge.
With "Vespertine", as ever, she had a sensitive ear for who or what is the hottest noise: the ferociously detailed micro-rhythms of the San Francisco duo Matmos, Matthew Herbert or Thomas Knak contrasting with the fragile acoustic beauty of harp, music box and clavichord. Despite rhythm tracks constructed by teams that defined state of the art beats, this was a collection of overpoweringly emotional songs. "Hidden Place", "Pagan Poetry", and "Cocoon" overflowed with gorgeous melodies and exquisitely inventive arrangements. Immediately recognisable as the creation of Björk, "Vespertine" was a distinct progression in her own work, emphatic evidence that she is totally beyond comparison with anybody else in her field.
Björk had spent her entire solo career to date working on the cutting edge of technology in a way that no other international superstar would remotely consider. For the recording of "Vespertine," and after the 'emotional drain' (her description) of her performance as Selma in "Dancer In The Dark," she returned to her homeland, and turned to the laptop computer. "I've become obsessed with my laptop and my laptop speakers," she says.
Freed from the need to work in a studio, Björk took her laptop to remote corners of Iceland and worked at home. She sang most of the album at twilight ('Vestpertine' translates as "Evening Prayers") while walking alone by the ocean. "I needed this album to explore what we sound like on the inside," Björk explained, brilliantly, in an interview. "It's that ecstasy, that euphoric state that happens when whispering. It's very much about being alone in your house - in a very quiet sort of introverted mood."
Björk is now considering releasing a 'greatest hits' album. (As one who has been listening to her music for most of my adult life - I think everything Björk does qualifies as a greatest hit!) For the vast majority of artists, the release of a greatest hits album comes as a signal that their best work may lie in the past. For Björk, the opposite is true. "After I finished 'Vespertine'," she says, "I felt as if I had completed something. I felt I almost caught up with myself and had done something I really wanted to do since I was a child. Now I feel I have got a clean slate, a new beginning to start all over again. I feel like I am at a crossroads, so it felt like the right time to put out a selection, or more of a retrospect, of the story so far."