There’s music in the air. It’s a time of year where acts from all over Europe are gearing up for the next era of “Eurovision 2016”, which will be held in Stockholm in early May. For some, it might be the first time they tune in. For others, like Iceland’s very own vocal powerhouse Hera Björk, it’ll be a new chapter added to her already fascinating Eurovision journey, which brought her all the way to Chile, extending her international audience to music lovers all over South America. Six years after serenading us in 2010, she’ll be hosting “Eurovision in Concert” this weekend in Amsterdam, a huge promotional event that highlights this year’s upcoming acts. But like any true diva, Hera had some big news for her fans that even surprised us at GayIceland!
The sun has set and after a long day of teaching, Hera sits herself down and like any true professional, shows no signs of being tired. Within seconds of this Skype call, Hera’s warm energy can be felt through the computer. Her living room walls are bare, resembling those of any traditional cosy Icelandic flat. There’s a special vibrancy when Hera speaks. “Where in the world are you right now?”, she asks me as if we’ve been best friends for years. It’s clear that the Hera you see on TV is the same Hera that you’d run into at the grocery store, except she’d likely give you a huge hug in person. After all, she became the Eurovision fan favourite in 2010 when she represented Iceland with “Je Ne Sais Quoi”, her global hit. “It’s crazy to think that it’s likely being played somewhere in the world right this second and this is why we do it. We have a message and story to tell, so when you record it and people actually like it, it’s the best feeling in the world. When a song gets through to someone’s heart, when people get married to it, when people fall in love to it… it’s fantastic. When you become a part of someone’s life in a way that’s so intimate and personal, you feel like your voice is being heard. This is amazing.”
When Hera reflects back on her childhood and how much she dreamed of being a singer, there’s a victorious tone in her voice, as she had to overcome many obstacles to get to where she is now. “It was fantastic for me because I really wanted to step in those Eurovision shoes ever since I was 4. My mom was a singer as well so I followed into her footsteps and each year, we would watch it together. As I grew up, I think I had been subconsciously working on it forever. I was always a singer in Iceland but it wasn’t until I moved to Denmark and met some people, that things started moving. They sent me a song, I sang it and it went on to get 2nd in the Denmark Eurovision selection, Melodi Grand Prix. When the Icelandic people heard about this, they went crazy and decided they’d send me to win it for them instead! The support from Iceland at this time was amazing.”
“In Iceland, we are so used to seeing our famous people everywhere, that we don’t treat them differently … When I came to Chile, everyone put me on this tall mountain like I was a statue of Jesus, simply because I was a singer, which is something I wasn’t used to. I’m just an ordinary person!”
When asked about the new era of Eurovision music, she mentions that things have changed. “We’re hearing more indie pop, it’s becoming less commercial and perhaps more political. I’ve been watching it since I was a little kid and I love that it’s becoming more current, the young people are stepping in with new technologies which has created a new sound. They know how to work with iPads, screens and all these machines that weren’t available when I was younger.”
Does this make it easier for the older generation artists? “It’s way more challenging. I have to be my own producer, graphic designer, publicist… I have to do all those things. I’m lucky to have a great manager but I still have to work harder than ever.”
A few years ago, after spending 14 months in Chile, and winning the Viña Del Mar International Song Festival, Hera’s career reshaped itself into something bigger and more international. “I was pleasantly surprised when I went there, I thought I’d just be flying there with a chicken on my lap (laughs). It was quite the opposite. Countries like Chile and Argentina are quite European and they have a lot of forces of nature that are very strong, which was familiar to me. There were a lot of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, similar natural circumstances to the ones I was raised in. Chile is a very isolated country and they know how to survive, almost having the mentality of island people. Everything felt strangely similar.”
This was surprising to hear, especially considering one would likely never put Iceland and Chile on the same page. A big difference between the two would be the treatment of public figures. She tells me that Latin-Americans often put public figures on a pedestal, which was a huge change. “In Iceland, we are so used to seeing our famous people everywhere, that we don’t treat them differently. We don’t have private chefs, 12-door garages… we all shop at Bónus! When I came to Chile, everyone put me on this tall mountain like I was a statue of Jesus, simply because I was a singer, which is something I wasn’t used to. I’m just an ordinary person!”
In fact, before landing in Chile for the first time, Hera recalls a time when she nearly missed her flight to Chile, but eventually got on-board because of a loyal fan. “I was on my way to the song contest, sitting in Madrid with my manager Valli. For some reason, my computer was in Icelandic time, so we sat there answering emails, until suddenly he turns to me and says, “what time is it?” Somehow, we realized our flight was leaving in 15 minutes. We started running across the airport to catch our flight. Of course, I was in heels so Valli raced ahead of me and got to the gate first. When he got there, the tall bearly security guard told him that we were too late, that the aircraft was pulling away from the gate. The guy was so tall and had a very serious gaze. Suddenly, I came around the corner and his expression changed as he screamed “Hera Bjðrk! Oh my god!” I was out of breath but he was still going crazy and asked for an autograph and picture. My manager replied: “Of course, as long as we get on the plane”. I had no makeup on and looked tired but after the photo, sure enough, it all worked out and we made it on! (laughs)”
It’s almost midnight and with two teenage kids of her own, it’s a wonder how Hera juggles her time between being an international pop star and a full-time mom. It’s a rare circumstance to have the chance to have one on one time with a music pro but since returning to Iceland, she has invested her time in teaching people of all ages how to sing. “I’m just an ordinary person who does ordinary things. If I could go back and tell my 20 year-old self anything, it would be to practice and take every opportunity as it comes. I was blessed with my voice and even more blessed to be able to use it, but I still have to work really hard. So I always tell my students that they are like sailors; you have to sail through all kinds of weather to find the fishies. And maybe you’ll find the big fish, but you won’t catch it if you don’t try. This is real job, it’s real work and people wont knock at your door until you put in the work. I hope my experiences as a singer will help them grow into the people they want to be.”
More famously, Hera has been a prominent figure in the gay community since she first broke out in 2010. From her fabulous stage persona to her public fight for equality, people from all over the world have embraced her into their communities. “I love the community. I just feel a strong connection there and it’s a two-way street: I’m just as crazy about them as they are about me. I think everyone has a fight or purpose on this planet and my fight in this life is equality and the right to be whoever you chose to be. I’ve travelled with a group of drag queens in America and hung out with them backstage. It was hilarious, dramatic and I felt like I was in a movie. I mean, who doesn’t love RuPaul?!”
“I met Elton John … I went into the VIP area to watch him. I had curlers in my hair and a jogging suit but I immediately started crying. My makeup artist was screaming at me to stop crying as I was ruining his masterpiece (laughs).”
For someone who supports the LGBT community as much as Hera does, some might argue that meeting Elton John would be the pinnacle of any music career. As it turns out, Elton John actually opened for her show in Chile. “I met Elton John. When I met him, I was speechless. He opened the show, and prepped my audience (laughs). While preparing for my set, the security allowed me to hear him play so I went into the VIP area to watch him. I had curlers in my hair and a jogging suit but I immediately started crying. My makeup artist was screaming at me to stop crying as I was ruining his masterpiece (laughs). He started playing “Your Song” and that was it. I was blown away.”
As we’re one day away from “Eurovision in Concert” in Amsterdam, Hera’s getting ready to host the biggest party in Europe. “I’m hosting with Dutch commentator Cornald Maas. Of course I’ll perform some songs myself and there will be a meet-and-greet but most importantly, we’re there to introduce the newcomers. It’s a chance for the new acts to gain some new fans and without a doubt, Eurovision lovers are the most loyal fans in the world. I am so happy and blessed that they welcomed me into the family with open arms. My experience in Oslo in 2010 was amazing. That being said, I was aware that after that two-week bubble, reality was going to hit you in the face. You need to be aware that this is just a short period of time. When you step out of the bubble, people won’t recognize you as much, people wont want to talk to you as much, so you need to know this before going into it. In my opinion, it’s all about the exit. How are you going to exit? Will you grow? Will you nourish the connections you made? After all, that’s when the hard work begins and with my team, we did just that. I hope the upcoming competitors realize this and focus on having fun.”
Before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes, our conversation took a surprising turn. Hera Bjork’s upcoming solo show “Queen of F*cking Everything” was originally postponed due to an injury she faced after slipping on ice. “It was cold outside, the stairs were icy and I fell on my ass. It was a majestic fall but I decided to postpone the show to let my body heal. I’m really lucky it wasn’t worse.”
Before I could get another word in, Hera gave me some big news that I wasn’t expecting. “This being said, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll premiering my debut show “Queen of F*cking Everything” at the Playhouse Theatre in Stockholm on May 7th, right before the Eurovision weeks starts!” The excitement was building in her eyes, as if she had just revealed a secret to an old pal. “It just feels like the right time. With my injury pushing this show back, I suddenly feel like everything was meant to be, as it’ll be kicking off the week of music celebrations!” For all the Hera Björk fans, this is huge news.
We say our goodbyes and upon hanging up, you can feel still Hera’s energy running through your body. Her story is compelling, as it gives you the motivation to keep going and do what you love. Underneath all the triumphant vocals and the dramatic dresses, is a young girl who simply wanted to sing. Ceaselessly moving forward, always challenging herself to new heights and now, launching a solo show that’s about to take on the world. It’s no surprise she was the fan-favourite in 2010; her authenticity speaks volumes, her voice soars through all the noise and her beauty shines beyond her gorgeous locks. It boils down to her passion for people; Hera genuinely cares about you. She cares about everyone and that is what makes her special. She wants everyone to feel happy, to feel included. To celebrate life. And even after a short Skype convo, I truly feel like I can call her a friend.