SEASON 2, EPISODE 2
Björk's musical foremother
I can’t do a comprehensive podcast about Björk without tracing her musical forefathers — or in this case foremothers.
Here I'll focus specifically on Kate Bush’s influence on Björk. I’ll draw connections between their careers and their music to better understand Björk's place in the family of musical greats. And through it all, I’ll explain how Bush paved the way for Björk's success in the UK.
[this clip of Bjork introducing Kate Bush 4:07 - 4:45]
[Kate Bush - “Wuthering Heights”]
That was a clip from "Geschmacksache,” German for “a matter of taste.” It was a program that invited artists to share their favorite music videos. Bjork was featured on the show around 1997 and shared tracks by Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk, Michael Jackson, and of course Kate Bush.
I always love hearing about the music artists grew up on. The records that inspired them to start making music. In my head I create a pedigree, tracing a contemporary artist to their musical forefathers. Of course, that doesn’t mean an artist is a carbon copy of their musical influences — just as any child isn’t exactly the same as their parents. But, if you listen closely, you can hear little commonalities — in the vocal delivery, composition, or instrumentation.
Naturally, I can’t do a comprehensive podcast about Bjork without tracing her forefathers. When asked about her musical upbringing, Bjork cited Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and British singer-songwriter-dancer-producer Kate Bush. Not because of the type of music they played but because of the worlds they created through each of their albums.
In this episode I’m going to focus specifically on Kate Bush’s influence on Bjork. I’ll draw connections between their careers and their music to better understand Bjork’s place in the family of musical greats. And through it all, I’ll explain how Bush paved the way for Bjork’s success in the UK.
Bjork grew up listening to an eclectic array of artists. At school, she immersed herself in avant-garde music from John Cage and classical music from Karlheinz Stockhausen.
At her father’s home, she mainly heard jazz.
[Miles Davis clip]
With her grandparents, she listened to Icelandic folk.
[Icelandic folk clip]
On the commune with her mother, she was steeped in Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Deep Purple.
[“Smoke on the Water” clip]
The first record she brought to the commune was Kimono My House by the American pop duo Sparks.
[“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” by Sparks clip]
Side note: the hippies didn’t like it. She said, “They thought it was too pop, it didn’t have cred… That was the first time I was like ‘I’ve got a record and I’m going to play it and now you’ve all got to listen to what I like.’”
Then, as Bjork grew into a teenager, she discovered Kate Bush.
[“Oh to be in love” by Kate Bush]
Imagine you’re thirteen years old listening to this song for the first time in your bedroom.
As the music fills the space, the walls seem to expand outwards. You’re no longer in your bedroom. You’re in a palace. You’re underwater. You’re in a different world.
That’s how Bjork felt when she listened to Kate Bush.
She said, “To me, Kate Bush will always represent the age of exploring your sexuality, when you change from a girl to a woman. All of that. There were so many records in my parent’s house, so I saw a lot of album covers. I thought they were all macho and occupied with power, things I didn’t like. I guess that’s what I found fascinating about Kate, she totally stuck out. She was so - what’s the word - so complete. The music, the lyrics and the way she looked, it all made sense.”
That song you just heard is called “Oh to Be in Love.” It’s from Bush’s debut album, The Kick Inside — which she released in 1978. When she was 19.
Like Bjork, Bush started her music career as a child. She began writing songs when she was 11. And pretty soon, she had a demo tape of 50 of her compositions.
[clip from demo tape 2:10]
Her family passed around the demo tape, hoping to get the attention of a major label. She was turned down until Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour discovered the mixtape through a mutual friend.
He recognized Bush’s potential and helped her record a more professional demo tape with a producer and engineer. He sent the tape to an EMI executive, who then signed her.
Bjork’s career also began at the age of 11 — when she covered a song called “I Love to Love” at a school event.
[“I Love to Love” clip]
I just have to say that hearing an 11 year old Bjork sing “baby” with that much attitude is the most precious thing ever.
Anyway, her teachers were so impressed that they sent the recording to Iceland’s national radio station, who added it to their rotation. She then became a local celebrity and secured a record deal with Falkinn Records.
The resulting album is called Bjork. Bjork doesn’t include this record in her official discography because it was all cover songs — except for one instrumental track that she composed as a tribute to the Icelandic painter Johannes Kjarval.
[clip from Johannes Kjarval song]
But that’s not to say that she took a backseat in the production process. One of the guitarists who worked with her, Bjorgvin Gislason, remembers how intimidating Bjork was, even as a child. He said, “She was quite different from other kids — she knew what she was doing. She didn’t take any bullshit — I remember that.” (Pytlik 8)
Sugarcubes biographer Arni Matthiasson added, “...She was obviously not just doing the child singer thing, which was just to sing something that someone prepared for you. She had input and she was writing songs, so it was a bit special.” (Pytlik 9)
Similarly, Kate Bush took an active role in producing her first record. When EMI planned to release “James and the Cold Gun” as her first single, Bush insisted that it should instead be “Wuthering Heights.”
[“Wuthering Heights” clip]
And “Wuthering Heights” became an international hit. Bush became the first British woman to reach number one on the UK charts with a self-written song. The album was a hit, too. It turned Bush into the first female artist in pop history to have written every track on a platinum debut album.
[“The Man with the Child in His Eyes” clip]
Both Bjork and Bush struggled with being pigeonholed in their early careers. Bjork was cast as the “Icelandic elf queen,” while Kate was… a bombshell. Her label promoted The Kick Inside with a poster of Bush in a tight pink top that emphasized her breasts.
Here’s what Bush said when she was asked about becoming a sex symbol.
[0:35 clip - wants to be seen as an artist]
But even though she couldn’t control the media’s portrayal of her, she could control her work. So she set up her own publishing company and management company to ensure she maintained the rights to her music and image. She has produced all of her studio albums since then.
With her newfound freedom, Bush experimented with different production techniques and musical styles. The result is a mish-mash of genres, a precursor of sorts to Bjork’s Post.
[“Sat in Your Lap” clip 2:00 - 2:20]
That song from The Dreaming is called “There Goes a Tenner”. Bjork has cited this record as one of her all-time favorites, and you can hear some musical similarities in her early work.
[“I Miss You” by Bjork 1:45 - 2:00]
From there, Bush’s music became increasingly experimental. Her next record, Hounds of Love, played with the two-sided format of vinyl and cassette. Side A has some of her most popular singles to date like “Cloudbusting,” “Big Sky,” and “Running Up That Hill.”
[“Running Up That Hill” clip]
But Side B features a seven song suite written as a concept piece. She called it The Ninth Wave, which is a reference to Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Idylls of the King”.
Here’s the third track on Side B, titled “Waking the Witch.”
[“Waking the Witch” clip 0:55 - 1:10]
Conceptually, this record is similar to Vespertine — which I consider Bjork’s departure from art pop to avant garde. The first half of Vespertine has more accessible tracks like “Hidden Place” and “Pagan Poetry.” But after that song, the album becomes more melancholy and experimental.
[“An Echo A Stain” clip]
There are some similar musical elements between Vespertine and Hounds of Love, too. Like using the human voice as an instrument. Here’s a later section of “Waking the Witch.”
[“Waking the Witch” clip 1:15 - 1:25]
Bjork used a similar technique on “Harm of Will” by using her breath as one of the song’s microbeats.
[Harm of Will clip]
Now, I’m not saying that Bjork was copying Kate Bush. But we do know she was influenced by Bush’s music because she listened to it growing up.
In an interview with Another Magazine in 2016, the interviewer asked Bjork to talk about a person she discovered as a child or teenager who gave her the confidence to pursue her career.
Bjork said “...obviously Kate Bush — I would listen to her non-stop.”
When asked why she inspired her, she explained, “It was mostly just the courage. I didn’t understand it then, I was a very introverted kid, but now I can look at it and say, it was something about [her] forming [her] own worlds. It wasn’t that [she was] just fronting male stuff. People like Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith didn’t do anything for me, much as I respect them as musicians, because they were just dealing with rock, you know? It was still the music my dad was listening to, it wasn’t that step to somewhere else. Kate Bush or Meredith Monk managed to include so many musicians, drummers, engineers, bass players, and they really got to flourish and be themselves, but still very much in their own worlds.” (Another Magazine, 2016)
In another interview, Bjork said that Bush caught her attention not because of her voice but because of her production style, which she called underrated.
She said, “I think it’s really original and really feminine, but with more primitivity than women have, or what men would like to believe we have. If it had just been the voice and the look I’m not sure I would have been that into her - what’s so common, a girl that looks great and sings great. What’s very special about Kate Bush is that she didn’t do that. She created her own look and she produced her own sound.”
Bush was a pioneering producer — who happened to be a woman. But because she was a woman, she made space for other female producers, like Bjork, to follow after her.
I'll always remember a music industry seminar I attended while studying at UCLA. We were sitting in a circle talking about music icons. The professor asked us, “Who comes to mind when I say ‘musical genius’?”
Of course, there were the usual suspects. John Lennon, Prince, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain. Then, some more contemporary answers: Thom Yorke, Kanye West.
It took a few minutes before a single woman was mentioned.
Although women have recently made huge gains in music, it seems our popular image of a musical genius is still a man.
Bjork noticed this when she was growing up, too. She said, “I remember when I was teenager that no one confessed they liked Kate Bush because she was so weird. She was always written about like ‘crazy Kate’. Insane ! I don’t think she’s crazy at all; I think she seems like one of the most healthy people there are.” (The Lipster, 2008)
Reading this quote, I can’t help but think about Bjork’s own image in the popular imagination. “Bjork the weird Icelandic elf.” “Bjork, that crazy lady who wore the swan dress.”
I mean sure, some of her music is strange. But so was John Lennon’s. Why do we call one “genius” or “avant-garde” but the other “crazy”?
Yet, ever the optimist, Bjork sees light on the horizon.
In 2014, after nearly 20 years on hiatus, Kate Bush staged a comeback. She performed a 22 night residency in London at the Hammersmith Apollo. Tickets sold out in 15 minutes, and her albums returned to the UK Top 40. At one point, she had 11 albums simultaneously in the top 50. To put that in perspective, she tied the record The Beatles set in 2009.
Bjork attended one of those shows. In an interview with Dazed Digital, she said, “It was such a victory. She had been allowed to age like most male singers are allowed to. Bob Dylan can be croaky. With Johnny Cash it’s charming. She still reaches all her high notes and I think it has been really inspiring for a lot of people.”
[Kate Bush 2014 Before the Dawn clip]
As I’ve been researching for this podcast, I noticed a pattern that I couldn’t quite explain. When you look at how Bjork’s singles and albums perform on the global charts, they consistently rank higher in the UK than in the US. Much higher.
While Debut charted at 61 in the US, it was number 3 in the UK. Post was number 32 in the US. In the UK it hit number 2. Homogenic reached 28 in the US, but in the UK it reached number 4.
Admittedly, things have evened out a bit with time with records like Volta and Biophilia. But there’s a consistent pattern here. Bjork’s music always performs better in the UK than the US.
I’m sure there are a number of factors that could explain this, like cultural taste and expectations. But I believe that one of those factors was Kate Bush.
Bush is beloved by her home country. She has been nominated for 13 British Phonographic Industry accolades, basically the British version of the Grammys, and she won Best British Female Artist in 1987. In 2002, Bush received the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. And in 2013, Bush became the only female artist to have top five albums in the UK charts in five successive decades.
She redefined pop music to become one of the founders of art pop — a torch that Bjork took up when she started her solo career. Bush showed the world that women can write their own songs, produce their own music, craft their own images — and that those images don’t have to be sexual. Bush is an artist in every sense of the word.
So, to me, it’s no wonder that when Bjork came along in 1993 — the same year that Bush released the last album before her hiatus — the UK was prepared to embrace Bjork. Bush walked so Bjork could run.
Throughout this series I’ve focused mainly on Bjork’s music. But there’s another aspect of Bjork that is equally iconic — her fashion. In the next episode, I’ll talk with Bjork fashion researcher, Techno Prayer. We’ll discuss her iconic looks, memorable collaborations, and her impact on the fashion world.