One of the wildest vocalists in all of popular music, Bjork Gudmundsdottir (known popularly simply as Bjork) has spent most of her life creating artful, experimental music that defies classification. Those who know her only by her solo career may be surprised to learn that she released albums with three separate bands prior to going it alone in 1993, and in fact this eccentric and original talent has had some measure of fame since she was sixteen.
When Bjork was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, it was not immediately apparent that she would someday become the world’s best-known Icelandic musician, if not the country’s most identifiable citizen. As a child, she studied flute, piano, and voice, and by 1979, she had joined her first band. At fifteen, she formed the group Tappi Tikarass, a post-punk outfit influenced strongly by Siouxsie and the Banshees. In 1982, two of the band’s songs were included in a documentary on the Icelandic New Wave called Rock in Reykjavik, and as a result, Bjork was soon recognized as one of the area’s most promising new talents.
In 1983, Bjork and other stars of the Icelandic New Wave were invited to join together as a sort of supergroup for a special radio program. She and several of the other members got along rather well, and by the fall of that year, they had formed a new band, Kukl. By the time Tappi Tikarass’s second and final album came out late in 1983, Kukl had become Bjork’s main creative outlet. Over the next two years, she and the band put out two albums, toured Europe, and began to develop a jazzy, political post-punk sound. But by mid-1986, Kukl was finished.
Bjork and her husband, guitarist Thor Eldon, had a son, Sindri, born June 8, 1986, and on the same day a new band was founded, featuring the two happy parents, plus several former Kukl members. By the end of the year, they had finalized the group’s name: Sykurmolarnir, or, in English, the Sugarcubes. The success of the Icelandic version of the group’s dreamy and remarkable first single, “Birthday”, in 1987, led to them signing a record deal with Elektra. In spring of 1988, their debut album, Life’s Too Good, was released in America to glowing reviews. Besides “Birthday”, the jangly, somewhat puzzling “Motorcrash” also received a good bit of airplay. A second CD, Here Today Tomorrow Next Week, didn’t fare as well, however. In 1990, Bjork took some time out to record Gling Glo, an album of traditional Icelandic jazz tunes.
Though the Sugarcubes’ third album, 1992’s Stick Around for Joy, generated the aptly titled single, “Hit”, the band broke up later that year. By that time, most of the Sugarcubes’ notoriety focused around Bjork anyway; her departure to begin a solo career made sense. The Sugarcubes’ swan song, It’s It, was released late in 1992; an album of re-mixes, it presaged Bjork’s solo work with dance re-mixes.
Having split up with Thor, Bjork and her son moved to London in 1993. The move allowed her to work with producers in the British dance music scene, and it was one of the finest, Nellee Hooper, who helmed Bjork’s first solo album, Debut. Highlighted by a tremendous single, the timpani-and-sampled-guitar-fueled “Human Behaviour”, Debut received wildly varying reviews, getting trashed by Rolling Stone but lauded by many others. The numbers tell the real story: sales figures for Debut finally established Bjork as a star in America.
In 1995, Bjork followed up with the more melancholy Post. It didn’t make the same kind of sales impact as Debut, despite the hugely entertaining, Busby Berkeley-ish video for “Blow a Fuse (It’s Oh So Quiet)”, a Bjork-does-big-band-jazz extravaganza. Early 1997 saw the release of Telegram, in which nearly every track from Post was either re-mixed or re-recorded by collaborators ranging from Dillinja to Deodato to the Brodsky Quartet.
Homogenic, her most experimental studio effort to date, followed later that same year and spawned many remix releases in the next few years to follow. In the spring of 2000, she was named Best Actress by jurors at the Cannes Film Festival for her work in Lars Von Trier’s Palme d’Or-winning Dancer in the Dark. Selmasongs, her score for the film, reunited Bjork with her Homogenic collaborator Mark Bell and arrived in the fall of 2000, just in time for Dancer in the Dark’s U.S. release. The full-length follow-up, Vespertine, was released one year later. She released a Greatest Hits collection and the Family Tree box set late in 2002. After performing a few dates in 2003, Bjork geared up for a busy 2004, which included the release of her all-vocals and vocal samples-based album Medulla and a performance of one of its songs, “Oceania”, at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The soundtrack to Drawing Restraint 9, a film by multimedia artist Matthew Barney, arrived in 2005 and also featured contributions from Will Oldham. Released in 2007, Volta returned to the more playful, percussive side of Bjork’s music and included collaborations with Timbaland, Toumani Diabate, Antony Hegarty, and an all-female Icelandic choir. Her tour supporting the album was a lavish affair, as chronicled in the 2009 set Voltaic, which was released in sets ranging from a CD/DVD to a limited multi-disc and vinyl edition.
“What I always wanted to do was to reconnect musicology with nature,” Icelandic composer and performer Bjork recently told the New York Times. “I always wanted to make bass lines behave like gravity.”
Biophilia (2011) is the Icelandic singer and composer’s most ambitious undertaking in a 20-year career distinguished by continuous innovation and artistic evolution. The album title refers to a love of all living things, and in every aspect of this game-changing multi-media effort, Bjork brilliantly connects nature, music, and technology.
In addition to the music itself, this project will offer interactive iPad apps, designed by the industry’s most creative minds that feature games, music, and editorial content-allowing listeners to explore more deeply the concepts and sounds of each of Biophilia’s thirteen songs.
The artistic and technological reach of Biophilia is nothing short of visionary. As New York Times critic Jon Pareles has put it, “Biophilia is a possible paradigm for the 21st-century album, one that welcomes the interactivity of the Internet and harnesses the power and flexibility of devices that incorporate video, audio and user control far beyond the play button.” Media artist and chief Biophilia apps designer Scott Snibbe, enthuses, “To me, it feels like the birth of opera or the birth of cinema.”
At the core of this groundbreaking project, of course, are Bjork’s sonically brilliant and emotionally stirring new songs, akin to the magical, otherworldly, atavistic hymns of her acclaimed 2001 disc, Vespertine. On Vespertine, Bjork rhapsodized about a new romance; here, she attempts nothing less than to retell the story of the creation of the universe in her own compellingly idiosyncratic voice.