Everything that Björk Guðmundsdóttir has done, throughout her career, is an event; down to the last visual communication or utterance.
Over the last four decades, the Icelandic pop polymath has been at the vanguard of cutting-edge music, dragging the rest of popular culture along on her beautifully idiosyncratic journey and never compromising at any turn.
As she releases tenth album ‘Fossora’, we look back on the career of an artist like no other, and one clearly with so much more still to give moving forwards. Diving into the fantastical world of a legendary artist continuing to direct the course of music, here is our guide to all things Björk.
She’s been innovating for 38 years
For Björk, making music and performing came naturally at an early age. Born in Reykjavik in 1965, Björk Gudmundsdottir’s first musical exposure came at the age of 11. Following her music teachers sending a recording of her singing in a school recital to the one and only Icelandic radio station, RUV, the young performer was soon offered a recording contract and released her first proper album ‘Björk’ in 1977. It features a charming mix of original songs and covers, and offers an intriguing insight into her musical beginnings. You can already hear her unique voice developing, and it’s an album filled with the sort of wide eyed wonder that colours her future career. The album is something of a rarity outside Iceland and serves as early indication that from a very early age, she had a special talent.
A spoonful of Sugarcube helps the music go down
Her first musical steps instilled a fiercely independent spirit, one that remains to this day. Björk soon struck out on her own - leaving behind the label that signed her as a kid - and she started writing her own songs. In the early 80’s she formed the delightfully named Spit and Snot, before careering through all manner of genres and other side projects; ranging from jazz fusion to goth rock. These early days were key in finding her distinctive voice, reaching its early peak with The Sugarcubes. The Sugarcubes’ sparkling, luminescent indie pop provided Björk with her first European exposure as they enjoyed cult success with their classic first ever-English recording, ‘Birthday.’
And so peaceful until…
Following The Sugarcubes’ split in 1992, Björk’s career went stratospheric. The catalyst for her solo success was moving to London and throwing herself into the UK’s burgeoning electronic scene. She formed strong bonds with the UK scenes key players including electronic outfit 808 State and producer Nellee Hooper - who has also worked with Massive Attack and, calm yourselves, Holly Valance. Working with Hooper, she transformed her stockpile of weird and bewitching pop songs she was writing throughout the 80’s into ‘Debut’, her stunning 1993 masterpiece. Neither dance nor rock, it’s an utterly captivating record. It was hugely successful setting the tone for a decade of invention and ambitious pop. It was the beginning of establishing the most recognisable persona of the 90s.
I am a grateful… grapefruit
Away from the music Björk has provided more entertainment in her career than almost anyone else you can imagine. Playful and idiosyncratic, she can always be relied on to liven up any event. A guaranteed source of entertainment has been her appearances at awards ceremonies, whether it’s dressing up in her famous swan dress at the Oscars in 2001, or declaring herself to be a ‘grateful grapefruit’ at the Brits. Björk has undoubtedly been a influence on Lady Gaga and the future generation of daring pop stars. Let it be said; a swan outfit beats Gaga’s meat dress every time.
All is full of love
Throughout the 90s Björk’s run of albums is almost unparalleled. Each record had its own unique spirit, peaking with 1997’s remarkable ‘Homogenic’. Throughout this period her productions and experimental nature became even more elaborate and striking, a prime example being the oddly touching robotic love story in the video for ‘All Is Full Of Love’ directed by long time collaborator Michel Gondry.
As Björk retreated from mainstream pop - or, perhaps more accurately, mainstream pop couldn’t keep up with her - she further embraced the political activism, too. In 2008 she whipped up a storm by strongly championing Tibetan freedom while performing her incendiary battle cry ‘Declare Independence’ in Shanghai. That’s a move few people would be bold enough to undertake given China’s iron grip on the people of Tibet, and the fraught political background. In her homeland, she is held up as an Icelandic hero, and never forgetting her roots, Björk has tirelessly campaigned for environmental issues and the preservation of Icelandic nature. Last year she organised and performed at Stopp’s fundraiser show, Let’s Protect the Park, which she co-hosted with director Darren Aronofsky. The show raised over £3 million to help build a national park in her home country.
One of the key characteristics of Björk’s long career is her ability to form strong, lasting musical relationships and collaborate with different artists. In recent years, she has collaborated with Dirty Projectors on 2010’s ‘Mount Wittenberg Orca’ EP. Working with her is a special experience, as Dirty Projector’s David Longstreth attested to DIY. “She’s been a hero of mine for about 15 years. It was mind-blowing, to make an album together, the coolest thing ever,” he told us in 2012. “She’s incredible, a really kind woman, and just a great artist.”
You can also see her influence in all manner of different artists, from St Vincent to PJ Harvey and Radiohead. It’s unlikely you’d ever have had a record like ‘Kid A’ without Björk’s pioneering influence. She has even crossed over into aggressive hip-hop, with her voice featuring all over Death Grips 2014 release ‘N***s On The Moon’; and likewise, two stunning Death Grips remixes feature on her Biophilia rework album ‘Bastards’.
To risk all is the end all and the beginning all
It’s a testament to how long Björk has endured that perhaps her most ambitious project is also her most recent. There is no winding down or taking it easy on her watch. Her 2011 album ’Biophillia’ is a concept album exploring music’s relationship with nature, technology and culture. The album itself is a reaction to the Icelandic banking crisis in 2008, trying to establish a new way of life in surroundings defined by disconnect. Befitting such a grand concept, Björk composed the world’s first app album. Less of an album, rather an expansive multimedia project, it highlighted her ability to make transformative music in its truest sense. The concept and app proved to be so successful that schools in Iceland began using the Biophillia app to teach music to children.
Björk met Sir David Attenborough and they had a wild time
One thing that will always be true about Björk is that she will never lose the capacity to surprise or enthral. One man who was recently enchanted with her is British national treasure Sir David Attenborough. Last year the pair met up for a channel 4 documentary inspired by the ’Biophillia’ concept, and the two shared discussions about nature and her desire to bring nature to life on stage. It’s a pairing that seems odd on the face of it but in reality made perfect sense. Björk had held a long established admiration for the British naturalist going right back to her childhood, describing him as her ‘Rock Star’ to Rolling Stone magazine. They felt like two kindred spirits as they discussed science, nature, music and life. The documentary is more than just a curiosity, and it provides an excellent insight into her psyche. She has always believed that you can change the world, or at least a little part of it, through music.
Swipe left, swipe right
Through the late mid-to-late 2010s, Björk created two albums of vastly different energies that tracked the turmoil of her real life. In 2015, she emerged with the scarred ‘Vulnicura’, which tracks her divorce and the visceral heartbreak that followed. Through sweeping strings and a dark sensibility, she created a masterpiece out of devastation.
On its follow-up, 2017’s ‘Utopia’, she sang on opening song ‘The Gate’ of having a “healed flesh wound” – the very wound shown on the album cover for ‘Vulnicura’ – and the album that followed was a playful one, with constant use of flutes musically giving a lighter touch and tracking her re-emergence into the world from the depths plunged on the previous record. Björk has called ‘Utopia’ her “Tinder record” and there’s mischief all across it.
Welcome to Fungi-town
Björk’s tenth album, ‘Fossora’, is inspired, she says, by mushrooms. The album’s title can be translated as “she who digs,” and after the otherworldly qualities of ‘Utopia’, it’s a record that brings the singer back into the real world. Maybe the earthbound feeling of ‘Fossora’ is to do with Björk’s reconnection with her homeland of Iceland – she moved back there during the pandemic for a rare period of stasis – or intertwined with the death of her mother Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir in 2018.
“It’s something that lives underground, but not tree roots,” she told Pitchfork of her new shroom-based fascination. “A tree root album would be quite severe and stoic, but mushrooms are psychedelic and they pop up everywhere.”
The album doesn’t sound quite as organic and earthy as this might suggest though; on it, she’s collaborated with an Indonesian Gabba duo (obviously) and made some of her most fun and rambunctious music ever. “My fungus period has been bubbly and fun, with a lot of dancing,” she has said.
Whatever her inspirations and intentions behind any of her albums, the same groundbreaking spirit has defined Björk since the beginning, and will surely continue to do so until she is gone. Here’s to an artist like no other.
Björk’s new album ‘Fossora’ is out 30th September.
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