Bjork: The Ice Queen

On the heels of her new winter-inspired album, Iceland's most famous expat revisits her homeland, its music and, of course, its elves

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The artiness explains the swan dress she wore at the Oscars. Fashion has always helped her stand out--a priority for Icelanders, where mostly everyone is blond (kids called her China Girl in elementary school) and, as a recent genealogical study showed, people are a little closer to one another than they ought to be.

So like Iceland generally, the young Bjork was hungry for world music--the Beatles count as world music in Iceland--even though her background was classical. At one point in the Stokkseyri restaurant, she starts humming Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite before she catches herself. Another time, back in Manhattan at the Wild Lily Tea Room, she notices not only that the restaurant is playing French composer Eric Satie but that the music is being played on a harmonium instead of a piano. "I was put in music school when I was five, where they taught German 18th and 19th century, which is called classical music, which I think is very funny. To be told that 200 years of German music is it, and the rest is crap--I wasn't buying that as an Icelandic person," she says, sticking her tongue halfway out.

A prodigy who reportedly sang before she talked, Bjork became an Icelandic pop star at 11. From there she formed a series of punk bands, including the internationally popular Sugarcubes. "I felt pretty strongly about being truthful about what it means being a girl in Iceland," she says. "The other way was just to play Icelandic music, and I don't think that's truthful either. Even in Iceland, you go to a taxi and you hear jazz, and you go to a restaurant and you hear Indian music."

To give her music a truer feel, Bjork went pretty far this summer. Taking off from Manhattan ("I don't like heat. I feel like I've done 10 Valiums"), she spent a month in an aluminum igloo in Ilulissat, Greenland, with her boyfriend, artist Matthew Barney. There she assembled a choir of Inuits and taught them her songs, line by line. That was a group far different from the uber-precise classical choir she hired last spring for two semisecret shows in New York's Riverside Church that she opened by walking down the aisle holding a candle and singing. At those she was backed not only by the chorus but also by a harpist and a full orchestra, plus Matmos. Now that whole production is on a U.S. tour, her first in three years. Though Bjork could pack larger houses, she handpicked smaller venues, mostly opera houses, because she felt her songs were too intimate for larger settings. "I'm not going to make money," she concedes. "I never consider that. Music comes first. Life's too short."

While Bjork's insistence that music come from within gives her collaborators creative leeway, it also makes her hard to read, say the Matmos guys. Instead of telling them to pump up the bass, she offers less direct suggestions. "'Primordial with no history,' that's the kind of instruction she gives us," says M.C. Schmidt of Matmos. "The other instruction was to 'make it like a garden,'" says band mate Drew Daniel. Other than that, the duo insist that Bjork has been exceedingly normal. Says Daniel: "She's a parent. She's 35. She's not doing the epater la bourgeoisie thing. What is unusual is that the filters and shame and self-editing that go with being an adult seem optional to her."

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