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GUY RAZ, host:

The Icelandic singer best known as Bjork is the subject of this week's installment of NPR's ongoing series "50 Great Voices." But before we tell you why, some housekeeping.

How is your name properly pronounced?

BJORK (Singer): Bjork Guomundsdottir.

RAZ: Even though most English speakers say Bjork, it's not really Bjork.

BJORK: It's Bjork.

RAZ: Bjork. Bjork.

BJORK: Yeah. I usually say it rhymes with jerk. You know, if someone is a real jerk, and that sort of...

RAZ: Bjork.

BJORK: ...gets it.

RAZ: All right. All right.

BJORK: Yeah.

RAZ: There are people - and I'm not making this up - who do not believe Bjork is a human - or at least 100 percent human. And sometimes when I hear her voice, I wonder as well. There is something celestial about it, as if it comes from another world, a fantastic and colorful and utopian world.

(Soundbite of song, "Aurora")

BJORK: (Singing) Treading the glacier head, looking hard for moments of shine.

I think for me, it's always been about spatialness.

RAZ: Spatial as in space, as in the vast environment around her. It's how she thinks about where her voice fits into the sounds she hears - water, wind, thunder, breaking waves, volcanic eruptions.

(Soundbite of song, "Aurora")

BJORK: (Singing) Ahhhh, ultramontane...

RAZ: Bjork's relationship to sound is abstract. It's powerful and visceral, but she can't quite explain it. It's a little like her music - challenging, sometimes, to hear, but there are always moments of beauty and transcendence in each song.

BJORK: I feel there's something called like, northern or arctic sound, which is more stark. It just means there are fewer things - like in Iceland, you have the lava, you have almost no trees, almost no animals and almost no people, so things are very stripped down. It's very naked.

Mr. ALEX ROSS (Music Critic, The New Yorker): I cannot think of another voice like it in pop music, in classical music. It's instantly recognizable. I think you just hear one or two notes, and you know it's Bjork.

RAZ: That's Alex Ross. He's a music critic for the New Yorker. He mainly covers classical music. And he counts Bjork among the most gifted vocalists alive.

Mr. ROSS: This is somehow a voice that comes in from the north, that crosses vast spaces, that does have something ancient, something very old in the grain of it.

RAZ: Imagine you're sitting in a large, wooden church in 17th century Iceland. It's winter and cold. For a brief moment, clear sunlight peeks over the horizon. It wouldn't sound out of place if you heard this...

(Soundbite of song, "Unravel")

BJORK: (Singing) While you are away, my heart comes undone, slowly unravels in a ball of yarn, the devil collects it with a grin, our love in a ball of yarn, he'll never return it...

RAZ: The first time Thom Yorke, the lead singer from Radiohead, heard this song - by the way, it's called "Unravel," and it's from her 1997 album "Homogenic" -the first time he heard it, Thom Yorke wept.

(Soundbite of song, "Unravel")

BJORK: (Singing) ...have to make new love.

RAZ: Bjork was already a star in Iceland at age 11, when she recorded a children's record in 1977.

BJORK: I remember being in like, school buses when we would go on field trips or whatever, and I would be in the back like, and people would drive back, and people would be sleepy or whatever, and they will ask me to sing. So I used to do that a lot of the time. And my mom did complain about - that she couldn't take me to a bus when I was like, 3 years old to 4 years old because I would stand up on a chair and sing songs for everyone.

RAZ: Some Americans first heard of her in 1987. She sang with a band called the Sugarcubes, and they had a cult hit with the song "Birthday." But it wasn't until 1992 that she broke out as an international superstar with the release of her solo album, called "Debut."

(Soundbite of song, "Human Behavior")

BJORK: (Singing) If you ever get close to a human and human behavior, better be ready to get confused, and me and my hereafter, there's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behavior...

RAZ: Bjork's voice instantly filled the clubs across Europe and the U.S. On the album cover, she resembles a pixie. She's small; her hands are held together prayer-like, covering her mouth. She wears a fuzzy sweater; glittery rhinestones sparkle under her eyes. That record showcased her vocal range and her quirky sensibility - lyrics about pitch-dark forests and tiny sparks that live within them, landscapes that evoked a kind of Grimm's fairy tale world.

BJORK: When I was 13, I had saved enough money so I bought myself a tent and a rucksack, and I would go and camp, and live on my own. I really liked being on my own. So I would sing a lot. And then, I probably started hitchhiking when I was about 16 or 17, and then I would go further out and walk around in the lava and stuff, and sing a lot.

RAZ: And it's not too different from the way she creates music today.

(Soundbite of song, "Joga")

BJORK: (Singing) Emotional landscapes, they puzzle me, confuse, can the riddle get solved, and you push me up to...

I sang a lot while I was walking in Iceland, in nature.

RAZ: Just walking?

BJORK: Yeah. It used to be like, half an hour, 40-minute walk from my home to my school and I would walk alone, and I would walk alone back. And it would basically be about my sort of spatial location, you know, like locating myself spatially, like sonically and spiritually. And that's why I've always had to kind of be either by nature when I write or in - by the ocean.

(Soundbite of song, "Joga")

BJORK: (Singing) Emotional landscapes, they puzzle me, the riddle gets solved, and you push me up to...

RAZ: A voice, a distinctive voice, is like an instrument that can't be invented. Think the gravel of Tom Waits, or the heartbreaking fragility of Billie Holiday. Bjork's voice is also an instrument. It can shout.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And it can growl.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And it can spew utter gibberish.

(Soundbite of music)

BJORK: I like to involve the emotional aspect a lot because there is space in a lot of my melodies to do ad-libs if you want - that if one day, I'm hoarse or I'm very, extremely happy or I'm hyper or whatever, that I can involve that, you know?

RAZ: Do you like your voice? Have you always liked your voice?

BJORK: Hmm. Yeah. I think so. I think it's probably the part I'm most comfortable with, with myself. I mean, for me, it's home. It's where - it's my home, you know? It's - and maybe that's, was without being conscious of it, when I was walking outside as kid and singing, I was kind of like sonically establishing, like, being territorial and say, okay, this is my home - and singing quietly when I was next to the lava. And then when I'd get up on a hill, the chorus would come and I'd sing louder. So I think it's my home.

RAZ: And sometimes, she allows the rest of us inside that home.

(Soundbite of song, "Pleasure is All Mine")

BJORK: (Singing) The pleasure is all mine, to get to be...

RAZ: And you can hear more of our "50 Great Voices." They're at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Pleasure is All Mine")

BJORK: (Singing) ...the generous one is the strongest stance. The pleasure is all mine to finally let go and deepen me.

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We'll be back tomorrow, but for now, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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