Björk - Biography
Björk Gudmundsdóttir was born on November 21, 1965 in Reykjavik, Iceland. She found national fame at 11, fronted a punk band at 14, and played in many other Icelandic groups as a teen and young adult. Björk first met international acclaim in the late 1980s and early '90s as the quirky lead singer for punky art-pop band The Sugarcubes. She has since released six proper studio albums of new material, plus two film soundtracks. She has consistently shown innovation as a composer, lyricist, and manipulator of new sounds, particularly electronica. Because of her Icelandic accent and the yelping vocal gymnastics, Björk's singing is among the most distinctive in alternative music. Though nominated for 13 Grammys, she has yet to win. Regardless, her career has been remarkable, earning her a loyal fan base and much well-deserved critical praise.
Björk was raised in Reykjavik, one of seven children. When she was 11, she began studying piano. Her teachers submitted a recording of Björk covering "I Love to Love (But My Baby Loves to Dance)," a March 1976 UK #1 single for Tina Charles, to a local radio station. The Icelandic tween's version was broadcast nationally, and the Fálkinn label offered Björk a recording contract. This resulted in her 1977 self-titled album of pop covers and folk-pop originals, all sung in her native tongue. The LP went platinum, which, in Iceland, meant sales in the low thousands (today, 10,000 copies is the threshold). Although she was offered the opportunity to record a follow-up, Björk opted out. At age 14, she helped form one of Iceland's first punk groups, an all-girl band called Spit and Snot. Later in 1979, she switched to the jazz fusion band Exodus. In 1981, she joined Jam-80, which later evolved into post-punk group Tappi Tíkarrass. They released one album, Miranda (1983 Gramm), before disbanding. In August, Björk and four other Reykjavik musicians formed the goth group KUKL. The band issued two studio albums — The Eye (1984 Crass) and Holidays in Europe (1986 Crass) — and one live LP, the precisely titled KUKL à Paris 14.9.84 (1985 V.I.S.A.).
KUKL fell apart in 1986, but many of the band members would remain together as the genesis for The Sugarcubes, which formed later that same year. On August 8, 1986 Björk gave birth to her first child, Sindri (fathered by Sugarcubes guitarist Pór Eldon). The band released their debut single, "Ammæli," that same year. In 1987, the song's English-language version, "Birthday," would turn The Sugarcubes into international stars, thanks to legendary British DJ John Peel's enthusiasm and frequent spins. The band signed with indie label One Little Indian and began recording their first album. The Sugarcubes' debut, Life's Too Good (Elektra), hit stores in April 1988. Elektra handled distribution in the US, establishing label partnerships that Björk has maintained throughout her solo career as well. Giddy punk fused to art-pop and the college rock sound of the day, the fun and frisky Life's Too Good charted well and garnered many fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Their sophomore LP, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week (1989 Elektra), didn't quite hit the mark like its predecessor. The group's third and final album was Stick Around for Joy (1992 Elektra), an overly reined-in record missing the spark that had once made The Sugarcubes great. The group split amicably in 1992. Between The Sugarcubes' second and third full-lengths, Björk teamed up with Icelandic jazz combo Gudmundar Ingólfssonar Trio for Gling-Gló (1990 Bad Taste). The record is far from a major entry in Björk's discography and has received lukewarm reviews.
Despite having released one juvenilia album under her name, splitting the bill with a jazz trio, and issuing multiple releases with a variety of bands, Björk chose to call her first post-Sugarcubes album Debut (1993 Elektra). Actually, this is fitting, as the record ushered in a new sound for her: arty electronica-heavy pop. Debut announced a vital force on the alternative music scene. The album's lead single, "Human Behavior," rode a big, grooving, martial beat and featured Björk's trademark voice breaks alongside girlish vocals. By contrast, second single "Venus As a Boy" glided along on swelling strings and chiming synth tones. Björk followed this with "Big Time Sensuality," a mid-tempo track that, instrumentally, would have fit well on a cut from Pet Shop Boys or Madonna (Debut producer Nellee Hooper had also produced the latter). What set the track apart was Björk's glottal growl. The fourth single from Debut, "Violently Happy" was a clubby slice of dubby trance-pop. These songs all sold well in the UK. In the US, they performed best on Billboard's Modern Rock and Dance charts. A Björk CD shouldn't be judged merely by its singles, though. Album tracks such as the harp-based "Like Someone in Love" and the horn-arranged "The Anchor Song" showed that she was unafraid of branching out.
In March 1994, Björk issued a new single, "Army of Me," which would become the lead single for her sophomore album, Post (1995 Elektra). "Army of Me" was her most techno-influenced song yet and featured a heavy, insistent bass pattern. Post emerged more than a year later, in June 1995. Joining Hooper in producing the record were trip-hop artist Tricky, Howie B, and Graham Massey from electronica group 808 State. This variety of collaborators led to an even more eclectic album. Björk returned to the jazzier feel of Gling-Gló with the big band number "It's Oh So Quiet," a surprise UK hit. Album cut "The Modern Things" split the difference, melding jazzy brushed drums with electronic atmospherics. Most of the album continued in the vein of Debut's electro-pop, although Björk's songwriting had grown less conventional. Post hit #2 in the UK and topped out at 36 on the Billboard 200. It has since gone platinum in the US. The following year, Björk released a collection of remixes from Post, Telegram (1996 Elektra).
For her third album, Björk primarily utilized the production skills of Mark Bell, with Howie B and Guy Sigsworth handling one track each. A darker and more sonically ambitious record than her first two CDs, Homogenic (1997 Elektra) won rave reviews from critics, including a 9.9/10 from Pitchfork and five stars from All Music Guide. Four of the album's songs paired Björk's chilly synthscapes with the warm, organic textures of the Icelandic String Octet, imbuing the record with an orchestral feel. Homogenic continued Björk's use of au currant beatmaking. "All Neon Like" and "Five Years" feature tightly clipped glitch-pop drum sequencing, while "Pluto" relies on jagged breakbeats. Though none of Homogenic's singles reached any US chart and had only mild success in the UK, the album's singles are terrific. The pretty and plaintive "Jóga" is propelled by intertwining string melodies, while the pensive "Hunter" walks a broken march before blooming into a wide-open chorus. "Bachelorette" drips with Romantic-era drama, including tympani-like drums.
After Homogenic, Björk took time off from recording her next proper studio album in order to act in Lars von Trier's 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. Björk's performance earned her a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. She also provided a soundtrack to the film, Selmasongs (2000 Elektra), named for the character she portrayed. Her duet with Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, "I've Seen It All," received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Björk's now infamous swan dress, which she wore to the Academy Awards, has left an indelible mark on the public's perception of her. She didn't get the Oscar, but she did settle down in 2000, marrying filmmaker Matthew Barney.
The following year, she issued her fourth studio LP, Vespertine (2001 Elektra). As chilly sounding as its whiteout cover suggests, Björk traded out the organic elements of Homogenic for an array of samples, including digital slices of snow and ice. The beats on the album are stuttering and scratchy, reminiscent of IDM acts like Aphex Twin and Autechre. Lead single "Hidden Place" uses samples of choral vocals that slide into a soaring synth melody. A less obvious choice for a single, "Cocoon" is slow, dreamy, and ambient. Standout LP track "It's Not Up to You" rides an upsurge of heavenly string sounds and angelic female vocals into its chorus. Closing cut "Unison" is the only song on Vespertine for which a live choir was used. In the US, the album charted higher than any previous Björk effort, peaking at #19. A year after its release came Greatest Hits (2002 Elektra), a singles compilation with a tracklist chosen by Björk's fans. The album featured one new song, "It's In Our Hands," which hit #37 on the UK charts. On October 3, 2002, Björk gave birth to her second child, daughter Isadora.
Those who already thought Björk's music was weird probably had no idea what to make of her fifth full-length, Medúlla (2004 Elektra). The album is constructed almost entirely of vocal recordings. Björk wrote lead single "Oceania" for the 2004 Summer Olympics and performed it during the opening ceremony. Like most of the rhythm tracks on Medúlla, the song's drum sounds are produced by vocalized beatboxing. The track was her first to dent the US singles chart since 1995, although it only reached #120. Former Roots member Rahzel provided many of the CD's beats, while Mike Patton and Robert Wyatt offered their varied and otherworldly vocal talents as well. Second single "Who Is It" boasted a snappier tempo and a catchier chorus. The beatbox-heavy "Triumph of a Heart" was the record's third single, but the oddly engrossing and technically amazing Medúlla is clearly meant to be experienced as a whole. Critics received it warmly, and Björk's ever-growing fan base sent the album up to #14 on the Billboard 200. In 2004, Elektra also released live versions of each of her first four studio LPs, assembling them from assorted performances over the course of her career to date.
One year later, Björk issued Drawing Restraint 9 (2005 One Little Indian), the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Her husband, Matthew Barney, directed the indie art film, which is set in Japan. On several of the record's songs, Mayumi Miyata performs on the sho, a traditional reed-based instrument of Japan. Drawing Restraint 9 is even less mainstream than Medúlla. Opening track "Gratitude" (a duet with Will Oldham) is the most conventionally Western-sounding cut on the album. The disc received lukewarm reviews and sold far less than a proper Björk studio album.
For her sixth such effort, Volta (2007 Elektra), Björk heavily utilized a 14-member all female brass group from Iceland, as well as choral vocals and a host of guest artists. Timbaland produced the CD's first two singles: "Earth Intruders" is a bouncing and aggressive track reminiscent of early Björk tracks like "Army of Me" and "Human Behavior," while "Innocence," with its sharp coughs of percussion, sounds like a melding of every uptempo style she had previously explored. Album cut "The Dull Flame of Desire" possesses a very different mood. Drifting on a bed of horns, the duet with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons is a smoldering sleeper. Antony also joins Björk on the kora-centered "My Juvenile," a nod to Debut's "Like Someone in Love," but this time featuring the mellifluous playing of Mali's Toumani Diabate. Also from Africa, Konono No1 contributed to the international flavor of Volta. In the US, the album peaked higher than any of her previous efforts, reaching #9.
Over the course of six proper studio albums, two soundtracks, and a slew of other releases, Björk has established herself as one of the leading forces of the alternative music era and one of its most consistently forward-looking major label acts. In terms of creativity, very few major acts can match Björk as an artist. Her videos, too, have proved edgy and groundbreaking, and helped launch the career of one of her most frequent collaborators, filmmaker Michel Gondry. Despite an odd and sometimes off-putting public persona, Björk has managed to slowly grow her US fan base, sending each of her subsequent albums higher and higher up the Billboard charts. In the UK, she began as a bankable star and has remained so. Love her, hate her, or simply refuse to understand her — in any case, Björk continues to be a musical iconoclast and one of the great music-makers of her generation.