To celebrate her 50th birthday, we’re revisiting the pivotal moments in the life of Björk Guðmundsdóttir, starting with this adorable shot of a childhood Björk shortly before she was recorded singing Tina Charles’ ‘I Love To Love’ at a school recital and made famous on Iceland’s only radio station RÚV. She soon signed to Fálkinn records and, aged 11, released her self-titled debut album in 1977.
Via various Icelandic punk acts called things like Spit And Snot, Exodus and the Iceland phrase for Cork The Bitch’s Ass, she ended up in The Sugarcubes, whose first single ‘Birthday’, released in Iceland on Bjork’s 21st birthday, was an indie hit in the UK in 1987.
The Sugarcubes released three albums, but midway through promoting their second ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!’ Bjork had already decided to leave and begun recording solo material, inspired by her love of house music. Their final album ‘Stick Around For Joy’ (1992) produced the international hit, um, ‘Hit’.
Bjork’s first solo album ‘Debut’ was a revelation, its Nellee Hooper-produced combination of dance and experimental alt-pop claiming NME’s Album Of The Year title thanks to such iconic tunes as ‘Human Behaviour’, ‘Big Time Sensuality’ and ‘Violently Happy’.
‘Debut’, which included songs Bjork had started writing as a teenager, went platinum and earned her the Brit Awards for Best International Female and Best International Newcomer in 1994. As a result, she worked with the likes of David Arnold, Plaid, Madonna and Tricky, with whom she’d have a brief relationship.
At the 1994 Brit Awards, Bjork duetted with PJ Harvey on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’. Her collaborative nature continued with her more experimental second solo album ‘Post’ in 1995, which involved Tricky, Howie B and 808 State’s Graham Massey helping develop the industrial and trip-hop elements in her music.
As her star rose, so did the media attention – Bjork famously attacked journalist Julie Kaufman at Bangkok airport in 1996 over what she saw as harassment. She later apologised and no charges were brought.
Following a thwarted attempt by an obsessive fan to post Bjork an acid-spraying letter bomb, the singer was deeply affected, and began writing more personal songs. The result was the significantly less ‘pixie’ and more emotional and innovative ‘Homogenic’ (1997).
‘Homogenic’ fused lush atmospherics with monstrous ice-scape beats and electro-rock elements and was an inspiration on Radiohead; Thom Yorke would claim that ‘Unravel’ was his favourite song ever.
In 1999, Bjork was asked to write the score for Lars Von Triers’ film Dancer In The Dark, about an immigrant named Selma trying to find money for an operation to save her son’s eyesight. Von Trier suggested that she should also play the lead role, but Bjork was initially reluctant.
Eventually she relented, and Dancer In The Dark was a huge success, winning the Palm D’Or in 2000. Bjork also released the soundtrack as an album called ‘Selmasongs’.
Bjork attended the Academy Awards in 2001 in her famous swan dress, where she was nominated for Best Song for collaboration with Thom Yorke on ‘I’ve Seen It All’. This followed her winning the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance in the film.
Her 2001 album ‘Vespertine’ was a more enclosed experience, made with a chamber orchestra and built from hushed vocals, beats made from household implements and lyrics inspired by EE Cummings and Harmony Korine.
To promote the album she toured theatres alongside Matmos and an Inuit choir. The album sold 2 million copies in 2001 alone. It was Bjork’s fastest selling album to date.
The album was promoted with some controversial and hard-hitting videos, including the graphic, nudity strewn promo for ‘Pagan Poetry’ and a video for ‘Cocoon’ that featured the singer in a white body suit with red thread from her nipples forming the titular cocoon.
Bjork’s costumes and images became ever more elaborate; at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens she wore a dress which unraveled to become a 10,000 square foot map of the world, covering all of the attendant athletes.
Bjork planned her 2004 album ‘Medulla’ to be an entirely vocal record, featuring throat singer Tanya Tagaq, beatboxers Rahzel and Dokaka, Faith No More’s Mike Patton, Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, and several choirs. Eventually, some bare instrumentation and beats were added.
Her artistic experiments continued in 2005 when she collaborated with visual artist Matthew Barney on a feature-length film called Drawing Restraint 9, incorporating sculptures, videos, photographs and drawings. The project told the story of a Japanese love affair and was built on themes including the Shinto religion and whaling.
Hooking up with Timbaland, Anthony Hegarty and an array of celebrated world music artists, Bjork’s sixth album ‘Volta’ saw her hit the US Top Ten album chart for the first time, thanks to such strident art-tronica as ‘Declare Independence’.
The subsequent world tour took her to Rio, Sao Paulo, Bogota, Lima and Australia, where she once again attacked a member of the press – a photographer taking her picture at Aukland International Airport. In China she caused further controversy by shouting “Tibet! Tibet!’ during ‘Declare Independence’.
Having developed a futuristic and individual approach to art, technology and image, Bjork had created her own world by now. So when the opportunity to work with long-term collaborator Michel Gondry on a 3-D “scientific musical” came up, she leapt at the chance.
The result was ‘Biophilia’, a multi-platform musical project on the themes of science and nature that involved an ‘app album’ based around iPad apps for each song and played on freshly invented instruments such as the ‘gameleste’, the gravity harp and a musical Tesla coil.
The ‘Biophilia’ project was as educational as it was musical, involving school workshop programs to help children understand how music and science mesh. Students would get to play with Bjork’s new instruments or extract DNA from an onion.
Her most recent 2015 album ‘Vulnicura’ returned to more personal territory, covering her break-up with Matthew Barney and adorned with cover art that made her resemble a tube-legged, scar-chested S&M peacock.
The album coincided with a Museum Of Modern Art exhibition about her career so far.
A companion album ‘Vulnicura Strings (Vulnicura: The Acoustic Version – Strings, Voice And Viola Organista Only)’ was released in November.