The Godmother and The Gate
My mum refers to Björk alternately as "that Icelandic bitch" and "your real mum". Her relationship to her is wary and cautious but ultimately profoundly respectful.
For many years, my mum looked upon my Björk how Susan Sarandon looks upon Julia Roberts in Stepmom or, if you'll allow me an even camper reference, how Barbara Hershey looks upon Bette Midler in Beaches; with an icily reserved judgment, almost wilfully waiting for Björk to fuck up so that Trisha could revoke that hesitantly written vital clause in her will... That if (heaven forbid) anything should happen to her, custody of her first-born would automatically revert to Björk Guðmunsdottir of Iceland.
But like Susan and Barbara's characters before her, my mum harboured underneath that contempt something that it took her a good 15 years to admit to, a secret so sensitive it would quake her to her core to finally admit it, when she came to me, sobbing; she knew all along that Björk was the second-best person for the job. She loved Björk like a sister. She always knew that someone who chewed up and spat pens back at people who asked for autographs, who shat golden eggs on the corporate back-slapping pomp of an Oscar ceremony, and who ultimately would beat the living shit out of someone who came near her own biological son, was a woman who was quite probably a long-lost relative (my four-foot mum once punched a six-foot man who made a lunge for my then seven-year-old brother in a Sainsbury's car park. "If you touch my son I will touch your fucking face!!!" she screamed, skyward, like some sort of Incredible Hulk from Bedford, as the poor twat scrambled, shaking, into his van and drove off).
The Sugarcubes had been formed two months before I was born and released their first, second and third albums when I was two, three and five years old, respectively. Although I don’t remember it, what with my new-music obsessed father and the fact that there were only four television channels to watch and radio to listen to, I am positive my ears would have heard The Sugarcubes at some point during my early-learning years. Björk's first maternal tug at my imaginary Scandinavian umbilical cord (I'm Irish-Liverpudlian, so I've basically got a Viking passport) and her first yank at the tug-of war she would fight with my mum to this very day.
At 18 when I realised that 'liking boys' was not the same as 'being in love with someone, irrespective of what was between their legs' and that this was going to be an arduous journey...there was my babysitter, constantly writing tailor-made fables for me.
Unbeknownst to me, my mum had skulked in the background, watching Björk babysitting me, my cousins and my peers from age seven, when Björk was telling me I was Venus as a Boy, and age nine, where in "The Modern Things" at 2mins56secs I swore to God Björk was saying "Iain" – she was beckoning me, telling me to come join the party. And at age 11 when she was teaching me how to go hunting. All the time keeping tabs, all the time smiling and knowing that with this woman/fucknut as my spirit guide I would always be protected. Björk was my Sirius Black. My mum saw me fall in love with boys for the first time and could hear my Björk giving me gay-sex education age 15 "who would've known that a boy like him would've entered me lightly restoring my blisses?". And then fall back out of it age 18 when I realised that 'liking boys' was not the same as 'being in love with someone, irrespective of what was between their legs' and that this was going to be an arduous journey. But there was my babysitter, constantly writing tailor-made fables for me, my personal favourite volume Medúlla 'Who is it that never let you down?'
And then off into the world. I left home, and Björk went with me, with the relentlessly craving wanderlust of Volta as I tried to work out how people (artists) live in London without dying.
Iain Woods by Lucy Dunn from the series 'Self Portrait (psychologist)'
In 2010 I made the first of many aborted attempts to make my debut full-length trash-pop opus psychologist, which, for a tumult of reasons, would not end up seeing the light of day until the same month as Vulnicura. On the first morning of these particular sessions I woke up to good-luck messages from all of my friends, all saying the same thing: ‘Woodsy! Björk has sent you a good-luck gift! Hahaha lol’ etc. It was the first morning of the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, and even though I spent lunch-time of that day with my friend Hannah crying down the phone because she was stuck in New York with no money because her plane had been cancelled, I secretly was looking up at the sky, saying, "of all the days for this to happen…. Cool."
If there's one thing that Professor Björk has slapped me and my other classmates at her School of Witchcraft & Wizardry around the head with since 1993, one sole bit of advice she has kept written on the blackboard for 24 years, it is this: your instinct is always correct.
Then 2011 came. I was 24. I released the first of my own experimental conceptual sound-recordings, Epidural Collection. And Björk released Biophilia. Trish, by now one of her own favourite past-times to listen to her long-lost sister's interviews and have a giggle at her humour and humbleness, could sense an unease in me. "Mum... I'm worried about Björk. Something is up and I can't put my finger on it, but I'm getting mad clairvoyant Scandi-umbilical vibes. She's not happy. There's pain in her eyes. She's not speaking about something". I was so convinced she was trying to distract either us or herself from something that when 2014 rolled around and I had the massively pleasant surprise to learn that my (finally finished) album was to be mastered by Mandy Parnell, who had Mastered Biophilia for my batshit-babysitter (the most enjoyable day in the whole making of psychologist - Mandy Parnell is in character even more like my own mum than Björk is) I even tentatively asked Mandy "does Björk seem happy?" "Yeah, I think so? She just kept feeding me almonds!" Said Mandy, ever the professional. And I let it go. But I could still smell a storm. If there's one thing that Professor Björk has slapped me and my other classmates at her School of Witchcraft & Wizardry around the head with since 1993, one sole bit of advice she has kept written on the blackboard for 24 years, it is this: your instinct is always correct.
The Biophilia Barnum Circus continued. It rolled around the universe. But my worries were varied and persistent; had Björk sustained a knock to the bonce? Was she trying to conceal a bruise? Is that why she was dressed like Elaine Paige in Cats throughout this whole thing? What was she hiding? Also; her memory seemed to have been wiped? She kept banging on about 'only just now getting round to opening a music school'. And for seven-year-olds for fuck sake!? Was this the difference between what thick people/journalists call Björk having 'lost it' and Björk actually having lost it? She'd been running one of the most prestigious PhD courses in Modern Music since 1984? She's seen quite literally millions of students pass through her halls! Hundreds of thousands of us are all grown-up! Some of us are putting out our own albums! Some of us have houses and cars and mortgages and wayward babysitters of our own!? (I have none of those things, thank fuck). Look at Arca's comments about him crying to our Stepmom's CDs in his dad's car in Venezuela as a child, look at the paragraph in this article where I basically say the same thing, but set in fucking Coventry! Look at my mate Aleya over in Jamaica totally vibesing to this cover of "Lionsong". Listen to music by anybody who grew up in the nineties and isn't completely stuck on a Brit-pop revival-loop? Listen to the music made by first and second generation digital-natives who don't even realise that Björk Guðmunsdottir is to them what Karlheinz Stockhausen is to her? Did I sing along to Biophilia? Did I scream along to the next chapter of my life in the next bedroom of my life as all the other chapters before? You bet your ass I did. But did I find it nigglingly fishy that nobody ever spoke about the lyrics 'I feel you compress her into a small space. Respect her spatial needs. She left her craft for your nest. For your love. Build a bridge to her. Tell her you love her'. You bet your ass I did. It wasn't so much a silent cry for help as an SOS-flare.
It is January in 2015. I've finally released my debut album. I'm temporarily homeless. I can't afford the rent in London any more. The music industry (actually the whole arts sector) has become a place where only people who went to high-end private schools or who have famous parents can get help. Gone are the days when people from working-class backgrounds can do anything other than play caricatures of people from working-class backgrounds. I sometimes ruminate on it and get down about it, but mostly I'm made of Teflon and a pretty chipper person. I was a punk as a teenager and I'm from a housing estate in Coventry so I'm used to DIY and its ethos chimes very, very well with me. Oh, and I went to the Björk school. My friend Lily gallantly steps in when I tell her that I’m going to have to admit defeat and move back home to my parents in the Midlands. She's lends me the tiniest, cutest, most well-formed narrow-boat and I'm living here for the time being and I’m so happy. I spend my evenings sat in front of the crackling fire with no electricity. I pretend to my friends that I’m ‘sorry’ my iPhone battery has run out. It’s Heaven. Björk, with no-frills whatsoever, announces a new album. My clairvoyant skills tell me from the track titles alone that this is going to be some sort of exhalation to Biophilia's endless intake of breath. Already it's easier to digest. A few days later I wake to a Whatsapp. It is a few degrees below zero. I can see my breath thick and clear on the air in my boat-bed. "Woodsy, Vulnicura has leaked". I listen to it straight away. I can't not. I'm sorry Björk. (I of course buy it legit that evening when it's rush-released so I can hear it full-quality)
I don't have to listen past 21 seconds of "Stonemilker" before my vindication for my suspicions about the last three years appears. I don't need to hear another note. It's there. I can pinpoint it to a nano-second nustled between two other seconds. It's the noise her voice makes in between the 'F' her teeth and lips make and the 'ate' her lungs expel after it. This is a crack that goes beyond the long practised, honed Björk 'rustic' rasp. This is the sound of somebody's heart having been broken. It's not Björk. It's not an elf. It's not a genius. It's not an auteur, it's not my 28-year-long Scandi-fantasy Mary Poppins. This is... just... a human. Crying.
This noise does something to me that completely freaks me out. It is an unmistakeable memory. Or at least feeling-memory. It's the first time I ever saw my mum crying. I can't remember when exactly that was, but it invariably happens a few times in your childhood: your universe inverts because the one thing you were sure was inhuman with strength all of a sudden needs you to be the support. It's an umbilical tug hundreds of thousands of years deep. I lay in the boat and I'm paralysed. I switch it off. I'm not sure I can listen past 'a juxtaposition in fate'. And I start crying. Now, in another context this isn't saying that much, because I cry at the sad episodes of South Park, but this is different. Why is mummy crying?
If even the Grand High Björk herself can suffer a man-induced stumble in self-esteem, or a bout of perceived self-worthlessness so deep that it can temporarily make you forget that you've sold 20 million records and changed the lives of millions more, or that can make the end of an era seem like the end of your life, then I, tiny little me, must be normal.
Well, as she said herself that very evening, she was initially crying for herself and for her own broken hopes and dreams, but she put it on record for the broken hopes and dreams of anyone who ever couldn't look at themselves in the mirror, or who found themselves saying 'sorry, what?' To the waiting lady at the checkout, or who couldn't chew their food or fall asleep because every single iota of their being was focused on a lump in their throat and a crushing-in of the chest. She was being an artist. She was being a witch. She was committing the age-old alchemical act of sublimating something toxic into elixir. She was telling me for the first time in all of these years that actually she might need me after all. Björk has made plenty of heartbreak tracks. But she has always remained stubbornly abstracted in her descriptions, therefore creating a protective Brechtian distancing effect, and consequently bolstering the notion that we can never really know her. For most singers 'I've had my heart broken' is the first and last thing in their oeuvre. It's so standard that it's almost pathetic. It can be done magnificently. The greatest artist of my generation, Amy Winehouse, turned Blake Fielder-Civil into Back to Black. This girl called Beyoncé turned the lemons of her marital turbulence into a big, fresh jug of Lemonade. But for the pathologically cryptic Björk Guðmunsdottir to say 'I've had my heart broken and the result is this record'? Wow. That must have taken a swallowing of pride that is unimaginable. And yet it's the strongest show of solidarity I think I've ever seen from my Stepmom.
If even the Grand High Björk herself can suffer a man-induced stumble in self-esteem, or a bout of perceived self-worthlessness so deep that it can temporarily make you forget that you've sold 20 million records and changed the lives of millions more, or that can make the end of an era seem like the end of your life, then I, tiny little me, must be normal. It's not really her fault that she comes across as 'alien', it's just a phenomena that is constructed somewhere between her having an accent and English people being endemically xenophobic, but here was an unmistakable letter from my revered anarcho-punk babysitter; "I've been trying to tell you all these years you fucking idiot: I really am just like you".
Then I read the Pitchfork interview. Björk does not cry in interviews. Punch the interviewer? Sure! Piss in the interviewer’s tea? Yes, that’s the Björk I know! Cry…? Never. Then I saw the album cover and as if the music wasn't point-proving enough; here it was. The nail in the coffin. One thing Björk has never, ever, ever done throughout her whole mutation and maturation and skin-shedding process is use a costume from a previous campaign in the next one. And yet there it is, bright blue and yellow and clear as a bell. A visual language so obvious it may as well be a Barbara Kruger. She is telling us: The woman inside that Biophilia tour costume was very, very nearly dead. Her chest cleaved open, her suit (incidentally the first time I have ever seen my Björk wear trousers) more body-bag than body-sock. Her hair wet from the Black Lake like some sort of "Scream"-era Michael Jackson Laura Palmer. Her skin blue and grey in cardiac-arresting shock-pallour. And yet, what's this...? A wry smile? More ambiguous and more telling than Mona Lisa's. She ain't dead yet! Her heart is exposed but still beating. She's whispering to us "Don't worry. I am Björk! Who, age 12, told the people who tried to make me a child star to get fucked in favour of being in bands called things like ‘Spit & Snot’ and ‘Cork the Bitch's Ass’. I am the Björk who, age 18, was signed to Crass and touring Europe in a van surviving on sugarcubes. I am the Björk of Kukl who made Alice Glass look like... Well... Alice? Alice? Who the fuck is Alice? I am the Björk who, as well as babysitting all of you freaky little motherfuckers long before Gaga was Googooing, did the whole first three chapters of my solo-career whilst being a single-mum. You think I'm going to let a man send me to an early grave!? Nearly, but not quite, suckaz!!"
In that Pitchfork interview, Björk said two things: firstly, that she didn't know how she was going to perform Vulnicura without ‘crying and being a mess and just getting through it’. The other thing she said was that the lyrics 'Don't remove my pain, it's my chance to heal' rather than being a statement, are a goading. A bit of advice from herself to herself.
Björk cancelled the final leg of the planned 2015 Vulnicura Tour for ‘reasons beyond her control’. Her recent touring exhibition Björk Digital has seen her revisit the Vulnicura arrangements for one-off gigs in each country and it was during the London run that I got to witness the heartbreak play out over a rapt-crowd at the Royal Albert Hall. But it was still too much for me. I remember thinking that I’d rather just know that my Stepmom was fully healed than to have to watch her go through this in front of all of these people. I still felt a deep sadness; an old, unhelpful, stuffy energy, buzzing and intense under that headdress.
It is Friday 15th September, 2017. I am 31. I have finished the first draft of my second album. 2016 was horrible. The world felt like it had gone insane. 2017 feels like we’re slowly picking up the pieces and are all exhausted from the ideological warfare but trying to muster strength in the knowledge that the worst perhaps has still not come to pass. Disturbing news-bulletins of all shapes and sizes seem to come thick and fast. Even as I’m writing this a thwarted terror-plot is unfolding down the road in Parsons Green. It was announced a few weeks ago that Björk will be releasing her new album, the ‘utopia’ to Vulnicura’s personal wilderness. Thank fuck. Me and Hannah stumble in at 1am after a cheeky cocktail. We have been out to see the Mercury Music Prize in Hammersmith (Sampha and his piano won). We are falling asleep when all of a sudden I jolt awake. I remember that as I was going into the Hammersmith Apollo, Björk had posted on Facebook that she was going to release "The Gate" at midnight.
Iain Woods, Flight Case, 2017
I jump out of bed and, in the pitch-blackness, plug my iPhone into the amp and whack the speakers on. Me and Hannah, who is dealing with her own recent heartbreak and is, like Björk, healing slowly and miraculously, lie there, cuddled up under the warm duvet like puppies, and the gate opens over us.
It is a floodgate. A floodgate behind which has been a prismatic, dammed-up, exponentially pressurising tidal-wave of benevolence, calm, peace, wonder, hope and grace.
I tell Hannah that one of the (millions of) reasons I love Björk so much is that her voice and composition seem to be so bizarrely devoid of ego. More like a wind blowing or an eddy swirling than a woman ‘singing’. As though pressing play on a Björk track is more akin to, indeed, opening a gate, that a kindly snowdrift might enter your room, than it is to merely loading up a few minutes of entertainment.
I can’t wait to be 32 and 38 and 44 and 50, because as long as Björk is in the world composing, there is an oracle for me to follow, and my mum doesn’t have to worry about me.
But my overarching feeling is one of profound relief. As Hannah drifts off I lie there in the dark. I think of myself as a 7 year old, and as a 9 year old, and as an 11-year-old and as a 15-year-old and as an 18-year-old and as a 20-year-old and as a 25-year-old and as a 28-year-old. I think of the batshit, crackpot babysitter, the genius godmother who has been there for me at every single step of the way and watched me grow. I’m so, so glad she’s ok. I can’t wait to be 32 and 38 and 44 and 50, because as long as Björk is in the world composing, there is an oracle for me to follow, and my mum doesn’t have to worry about me. I think of what a gift it is to mankind that there is this phenomenon of creativity; that an individual’s idiosyncratic and life-specific heartbreak and subsequent rise to betterment can be aligned with seismic political shifts so that the personal can become universal when circumstance allows.
I text my biological mum: ‘Mum. Björk has sent a telegram from the arctic. She’s OK. She’s all better. She’s ready. It’s OK. She’s OK now’.
Hannah pipes up from the dark, half asleep:
“She’s in Reykjavík….. you can tell she’s in Reykjavík… wait no….I’m in Reykjavík. I can see the northern lights”
We lie in the dark as the sun gets ready to rise on autumn, my favourite time of year.
We watch the aurora unfold in my bedroom in Dalston.
Welcome back, Björk.
P.S: Trish says Hi.