Human Behaviour: The Story of Bjork

Staff Writer: Hannah Johnson

Björk Guðmundsdóttir born 21 November 1965) is an Icelandic singer, songwriter, composer, actress, record producer, and DJ. Over her four-decade career, she has developed an eclectic musical style that draws on a range of influences and genres spanning electronic, pop, experimental, classical, trip hop, IDM, and avant-garde music. 

Born and raised in Reykjavík, she began her music career at age 11 and first gained international recognition as the lead singer of the alternative rock band the Sugarcubes, whose 1987 single “Birthday” was a hit on US and UK indie stations and a favorite among music critics. After the band’s breakup, Björk embarked on a solo career in 1993, coming to prominence as a solo artist with albums such as Debut (1993), Post (1995)and Homogenic (1997), while collaborating with a range of artists and exploring a variety of multimedia projects. 

Several of Björk’s albums have reached the top 20 on the Billboard 200 chart, the most recent being Vulnicura (2015). Björk has had 31 singles reach the top 40 on pop charts around the world, with 22 top 40 hits in the UK, including the top 10 hits “It’s Oh So Quiet”, “Army of Me”, and “Hyperballad”. She is reported to have sold between 20 and 40 million records worldwide as of 2015. She has won the 2010 Polar Music Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in recognition of her “deeply personal music and lyrics, her precise arrangements and her unique voice.” Björk was included in Times 2015 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She was ranked both sixtieth and eighty-first in Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest singers and songwriters lists respectively. Björk also won five BRIT Awards, and has been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards. 

Outside her music career, Björk starred in the 2000 Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark, for which she won the Best Actress Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Song for “I’ve Seen It All”. Her 2011 album Biophillia was marketed as an interactive app album with its own education program. Björk has also been an advocate for environmental causes in her home country Iceland. A full-scale retrospective exhibition dedicated to Björk was held at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2015. “Bjork is  true artist, her style and the way she composes herself is quite interesting and beautiful”.- Adrian Parada, Sophomore at Kennesaw State University.

 

Where she grew up. Björk’s mother is activist Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, who protested the development of Iceland’s Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant. Björk’s father is Guðmundur Gunnarsson, a union leader and electrician. They divorced when Björk was born and she moved with her mother to a commune. Her stepfather is Sævar Árnasona former guitarist in a band called Pops. At six, Björk enrolled at Reykjavík school Barnamúsíkskóliwhere she studied classical piano and flute.After a school recital in which Björk sang Tina Charles’ 1976 hit “I Love to Love”, her teachers sent a recording of her singing the song to the RÚV radio station – then, Iceland’s only radio station. The recording was nationally broadcast and, after hearing it, a representative of the Fálkinn record label offered Björk a recording contract. Her self-titled début, Björkwas recorded and released in Iceland in December 1977 when she was 11 years old.

During her teens, after the diffusion of punk rock music in Iceland, she formed the all-girl punk band Spit and Snot. A year later, in 1980, she formed a jazz fusion group called Exodus and collaborated in another group called JAM80. During the same year she also graduated from music school.[2] In 1982, she and bassist Jakob Magnusson formed another group, Tappi Tíkarrass (“Cork the WORDS WE CANNOT SAY HERE in Icelandic), and released EP Bitið fast í vitið (“Bite Hard into Hell” in Icelandic)in August 1982. Their album Miranda was released in December 1983. The group was featured in the documentary Rokk í Reykjavík, with Björk being featured on the cover of the VHS release. Around this time, Björk met guitarist Þór Eldon and surrealist group Medusa, which also included poet Sjón, with whom she started a lifelong collaboration and formed a small group called Rokka Rokka Drum. Björk appeared as a featured artist on “Afi”, a track from the Björgvin Gíslason 1983 record Örugglega. 

Due to the imminent discontinuance of radio show Áfangar, two radio personalities, Ásmundur Jónsson and Guðni Rúnar, called out to musicians to play on a last live radio show. Björk joined with Einar Melax (from the group Fan Houtens Kókó), EinarÖrn Benediktsson (from Purrkur Pillnikk), Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson and Sigtryggur Baldursson (from Þeyr), and Birgir Mogensen (from Spilafífl) to perform on the concert. The group developed a gothic rock sound. During this experience, Björk began to develop her vocalisation – punctuated by howls and shrieks.] The project performed as Gott kvöld during the concert but later decided to keep playing together as a group and they used the name Kukl (“Sorcery” in Icelandic).  Björk’s acquaintance gave the group their studio to record in and released their first single in 1983. Their first big performance was at a festival in Iceland which was headlined by English anarchist punk band Crass, whose record label, Crass Records offered the band a record deal. The Eye was released in 1984 and was followed by a two-month tour in Europe, which also included a performance at Roskilde Festival in Denmark, making Kukl the first Icelandic band to play at the festival.During this period Björk published a hand-coloured book of poems. Um Úrnat frá Björk was distributed in 1984. In 1985, Björk discovered she was expecting a child from Eldon, but continued touring with Kukl.Their second album, called Holidays in Europe (The Naughty Nought), came out in 1986. The band split up due to personal conflict, with Björk keeping a collaboration with Óttarsson, which was named The Elgar Sisters. Some of the songs they recorded ended up as B-sides to Björk solo singles. “Her music is so out of this wolrd, I have never heard another artist like her”.- Ryan Mcall, junior at Kennsaw State University.

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Bjork as a child, around the same age her first album came out.

 

 

In 1986, Björk wed Þór Eldon. On 8 June the same year, she gave birth to their son, Sindri Eldon Þórsson. Soon after Sindri was born, Björk performed in her first acting role on The Juniper Tree, a tale of witchcraft based on the Brothers Grimm story, directed by Nietzchka Keene. Björk played the role of Margit, a girl whose mother has been killed for practicing witchcraft. That summer, former band member Einar Örn and Eldon formed the arts collective Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste” in Icelandic), created with the intention of being both a record label and book publishing company. Various friends, namely Melax and Sigtryggur from Kukl, along with Bragi Ólafsson and Friðrik Erlingson from Purrkur Pillnikk, joined the group and a band coalesced in the collective solely to make money. They were initially called Þukl, but they were advertised as Kukl (the name of the previous band). At a later concert supporting Icelandic band Stuðmenn, they addressed themselves as Sykurmolarnir (“The Sugarcubes” in Icelandic). Their first double A-side single “Einn mol’á mann”, which contained the songs “Ammæli” (“Birthday”) and “Köttur” (“Cat”), was released on 21 November 1986, Björk’s 21st birthday. At the end of that year, the band was signed by One Little Indian. Their first English single, “Birthday”, was released in the United Kingdom on 17 August 1987; a week later, it was declared single of the week by Melody Maker. The Sugarcubes also signed a distribution deal with Elektra Records in the United States and recorded their first album, Life’s Too Good, which was released in 1988.After the release of the album, Eldon and Björk had divorced soon after the birth of their child despite being in the same group. The album went on to sell more than one million copies worldwide. Björk contributed as a background vocalist on 1987 album Loftmynd by Megas, for whom she provided background vocals also on his subsequent album Höfuðlausnir (1988) and Hættuleg hljómsveit & glæpakvendið Stella (1990). 

In the last quarter of 1988, The Sugarcubes toured North America to positive reception. On 15 October, the band appeared on Saturday Night LiveBjörk alone contributed a rendition of the Christmas song “Jólakötturinn” (“The Christmas Cat”) on the compilation Hvít Er Borg Og Bær.The band went on hiatus following the lack of reception of Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! (1989) and a lengthy international tour. During this time, Björk started working on her solo projects. In 990 she provided background vocals on Gums, an album by a band called Bless. In the same year, she recorded Gling-Gló, a collection of popular jazz and original work, with the jazz group Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar, which as of 2011 was still her best-selling album in her home country. Björk also contributed vocals to 808 State’s album ex:elwith whom she cultivated her interest in house music. She contributed vocals on the songs “Qmart” and on “Ooops”, which was released as a single in the UK in 1991. She also contributed vocals to the song “Falling”, on the album Island by Current 93 and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. In the same year she met harpist Corky Hale, with whom she had a recording session that ended up as a track on her future album Debut. 

At this point, Björk had decided to leave the band to pursue her solo career, but their contract included the making of one last album, Stick Around for Joy (1992), with a subsequent promotional tour, which she agreed to do. Björk was featured on two tracks of the soundtrack for the 1992 film Remote Control (known as Sódóma Reykjavík in Iceland). The Sugarcubes split up after they played one last show in Reykjavík. Rolling Stone has called them “the biggest rock band to emerge from Iceland.” “Her voice is so strange and she sounds like she is about to blow out her vocal chords… not a fan”.- John Baker, junior at University of Georgia.

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Cover of Bjork’s famous album Post, which eventually brings her worldwide fame.

 

Björk moved to London to pursue a solo career; she began working with producer Nellee Hooper (who had produced Massive Attack, among others). Their partnership produced Björk’s first international solo hit, “Human Behaviour”, a clattering dance track based on a guitar rhythm sampled from Antônio Carlos Jobim. In most countries, the song was not widely played on radio, but its music video gained strong airtime on MTV. It was directed by Michel Gondry, who became a frequent collaborator for Björk. Her first adult solo album, Debut, was released in June 1993 to positive reviews; it was named album of the year by NME and eventually went platinum in the United States. Debut was the leap Björk made from being in numerous bands during her teens and early twenties to her solo career. She named the album Debut to signify a start of something new. Debut had a mix of songs Björk had been writing since she was a teenager, as well as more recent lyrical collaborations with Hooper. The dance-oriented album varied in instrumentation. One single from the album, “Venus as a Boy”, featured a Bollywood-influenced string arrangement. Björk covered the jazz standard “Like Someone in Love” to the accompaniment of a harp, and the final track, “The Anchor Song”, was sung with only a saxophone ensemble for accompaniment. 

At the 1994 Brit Awards, Björk won the awards for Best International Female and Best International Newcomer. The success of Debut enabled her to collaborate with British and other artists on one-off tracks. She worked with David Arnold on “Play Dead”, the theme to the 1993 film The Young Americans (which appeared as a bonus track on a re-release of Debut), collaborated on two songs for Tricky’s Nearly God project, appeared on the track “Lilith” for the album Not for Threes by Plaid, and co-wrote the song “Bedtime Story” for Madonna’s 1994 album Bedtime Stories. Björk also had an uncredited role as a runway model in the 1994 film Prêt-à-Porter. 

Post was Björk’s second solo studio album. Released in June 1995, the album was produced in conjunction with Nellee Hooper, Tricky, Graham Massey of 808 State, and electronica producer Howie B. Building on the success of Debut, Björk continued to pursue different sounds, taking interest in dance and techno. Production by Tricky and Howie B also provided trip hop/electronica-like sounds on tracks like “Possibly Maybe” and “Enjoy”. It was these producers’ influence along with older friend Graham Massey that inspired Björk to create material like the storming industrial beats of “Army of Me”. The album was ranked number 7 in Spin‘s “Top 90 Albums of the ’90s” list and number 75 in its “100 Greatest Albums, 1985–2005” list. Post and Homogenic were placed back to back on Pitchfork Media’s “Top Albums of the ’90s” list at numbers 21 and 20, respectively. In 2003, the album was ranked number 373 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. 

Although Björk continued to receive more mainstream attention for her videos than her singles, Post included several UK pop hits and was eventually certified platinum in the US.]Björk also contributed to the 1995 Hector Zazou collaborative album Chansons des mers froides, singing the traditional Icelandic song Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu”. During this period, Björk complained of being hounded by paparazzi. In 1996, Björk arrived at Bangkok International Airport with her son Sindri after a long-haul flight; reporters were present, despite Björk’s early request that the press leave her and her son alone until a press conference. While Björk was walking away from the reporters, Julie Kaufman, a female reporter, began to ask questions to Sindri, which was then followed by Björk’s lunging at her and knocking her to the ground. Björk’s record company said that the reporter had been pestering Björk for four days. Björk later apologized to Kaufman, who declined to involve the police. 

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Even in her older years, she is still killing it! This is the beautiful makeup for her new album utopia

 

 

On 12 September 1996, obsessed fan Ricardo López mailed a letter bomb, intended to spray the recipient with acid, to Björk’s London home.The package was intercepted by the Metropolitan Police Service before the plot could be carried out. López wrote a diary and recorded 22 hours of videotape of himself that described his obsession with Björk, his learning of Bjork’s romantic relationship with Goldie, his manufacture of the acid bomb, and ended with López committing suicide by shooting himself. 

In her few public comments on this event, Björk said she was “very distressed” by the incident and “I make music, but in other terms, you know, people shouldn’t take me too literally and get involved in my personal life.”Björk left London for Spain where she recorded the album Homogenic, released in 1997. It marked a dramatic shift from her earlier “pixie” image, cultivated on the Debut and Post albums. Björk worked with producers Mark Bell of LFO and Howie B on the album, as well as Eumir Deodato; numerous remixes followed. Homogenic was her first conceptually self-contained album and is regarded as one of Björk’s most experimental and extroverted works to date, with enormous beats that reflect the landscape of Iceland, most notably in the song “Jóga“, which fuses lush strings with rocky electronic crunches. The album was certified gold in the US in 2001. The emotionally charged album contains a string of music videos, several of which received airplay on MTV. The video for “Bachelorette” was directed by frequent collaborator Michel Gondry, while “All Is Full of Love” was directed by Chris Cunningham. The single “All is Full of Love” was also the first DVD single to ever be released in the US, which paved the way for other artists to include DVD video and other multimedia features with their singles. Björk began to write more personally, saying “It wasn’t just the letter bomb, […] I realised that I’d come to the end of the extrovert thing. I had to go home and search for myself again.”

In 1999, Björk was asked to write and produce the musical score for the film Dancer in the Dark, a musical drama about an immigrant named Selma who is struggling to pay for an operation to prevent her son from going blind. Director Lars von Trier eventually asked her to consider playing the role of Selma, convincing her that the only true way to capture the character of Selma was to have the composer of the music play the character. Eventually, she accepted. Filming began in early 1999, and the film debuted in 2000 at the 53rd Cannes Film Festival. The film received the Palme d’Or, and Björk received the Best Actress Award for her role. It was reported that the shoot was so physically and emotionally tiring that she vowed never to act again. Björk later stated that she always wanted to do one musical in her life, and Dancer in the Dark was the one. The soundtrack Björk created for the film was released with the title SelmasongsThe album features a duet with Thom Yorke of Radiohead titled “I’ve Seen It All”, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and was performed at the 2001 Oscars (without Yorke), while Björk was wearing her celebrated “swan dress”, a copy of which was auctioned off for international aid agency Oxfam on eBay and sold for $9,500 in 2005.

 

Photos are from creative commons

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