Who Is…Jenny Hval?

Stephen M. Deusner

By Stephen M. Deusner

on 06.04.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: Art pop with strong scholarly grounding

For fans of: Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, P.J. Harvey, and David Cronenberg's Wife

From: Oslo, Norway

Jenny Hval’s second solo album — fourth, if you count the two she recorded under the pseudonym Rockettothesky — opens with the Oslo-based artist illuminated by the glow of a computer screen as she watches internet porn. “It’s late and everything turns a white kind of dirty,” she says, setting the scene over a curious cascade of synths.

Forty minutes later, the album ends with Hval envisioning her voice as a second flesh. “My body is the end,” she sings on “The Seer,” as a psychedelic keyboard unspools into infinity.

The ideas on Innocence Is Kinky are bold, but the music itself takes even more risks; Hval combines synth-pop, performance art, drone, garage rock, skewed folk, spoken word and wordless ragas into a constantly mutating sonic palette. It’s the combination of music and concept that drives Hval, an academic and critic who wrote her master’s thesis on Kate Bush, penned a novel called Perlebryggeriet (The Pearl House), and designs sound installations such as the recent “A Continuous Echo of Splitting Hymens.”

Innocence Is Kinky grew out of Hval’s installations, yet the songs took on a life of their own as she played festivals and clubs around Scandinavia and Europe, where a new aggression snuck into her performances. By the time she recorded the album with producer John Parish (P.J. Harvey, Sparklehorse, Grandaddy), the songs had morphed into all new arrangements that allowed Hval to bend her dexterous voice into all new shapes and sounds.

As she prepared for tour, Hval spoke with Stephen M. Deusner about film close-ups, European nationalism, the male gaze and the challenge of writing pure sound.

On working with John Parish:

A friend of mine from Australia had almost worked with him, and she was saying how nice he was, so I decided to contact him — but I’m very shy, so I had to get someone else to do it. He was very nice and incredibly balanced and very open, and he was not in any way judgmental about the music, which allowed me to be more spontaneous. He was just this wide-open ear, and was brave with the music. Plus, he threw himself into playing with my band as a band member, so it was very much a creative collaboration. It was very relaxed and we had a lot of fun. It was very positive and almost like a cheerful process, and there’s actually a lot of humor on the album. I have this tendency to get stuck in this weird way of thinking, where I find that something must be serious to be experimental. How dumb. When I got home from recording, John sent me one of Captain Beefheart’s albums — Doc at the Radar Station — and I’ve been listening a lot to that and learning a lot from that.

On writing and singing in both English and Norwegian:

Obviously, my Norwegian is superior to my English. I only started writing in English when I moved to Australia. But sometimes I feel like I’m a grown up in Norwegian but I’m a teenager in English. I’ve grown up listening to pop music with English lyrics and almost nothing with Norwegian lyrics, so English was always the language to be sung and Norwegian was the language in which teachers told you what to do. I remember listening to a lot of the Velvet Underground, and I didn’t understand any of the drug references. That came later. When you listened to pop music, you didn’t understand a single word for years, so you just invented your own meaning. It’s very far away from what the actual meaning is, but you have this amazing process of just listening to language and not even thinking that it is language. It’s this quality of seeing straight through the words and into the sound. English was always freer, and I still tap into that freedom when I write. But recently I’ve written a couple of new songs where I sing in both English and Norwegian. For me, this is just crazy. I have no voice in Norwegian, so I find myself sounding like I’m doing traditional Indian singing. So I’m still trying to learn how to sing in Norwegian. It’s very new. But I’m of two minds about using Norwegian, because it’s very hip at the moment to return to your own language and to me I can’t help but think of what’s going on in Europe with this new right-wing nationalist movement. I find it very frightening.

On accidentally writing more aggressive songs:

My previous album was much more of a quiet, inward-looking album, and I got fed up with “inward-looking.” When I played live sets that were much more quiet, I got really sick of my own songs very quickly and had to stop playing them. I could never go back to them, ever. But I think it’s changed a lot for me, I think just from doing a lot of improvisation. I just played a lot, and songs like “I Called” are songs that I would have gotten rid of before. I played that song as an improvisation and thought, “What is this about?” It was like writing a blog. Quite a lot of songs were like that, and I guess I was just trying to get my head around this new aggression — singing louder and playing louder. So I decided to keep that song instead of moving on to more refined songs. The aggression was there at that moment, and I found it to be interesting as an expression.

On not trusting her instincts:

I’m not sure that I always trust my songs. I just play them anyway. I was talking with someone about this last night. We were discussing if we were thick. I said to her, I don’t think I have thick skin, but there’s this stupidity in me. Even if I’m affected by everything, I just don’t know how I can react to it. I’m almost like a grunge artist — I am full of self-hatred and I don’t trust what I do at all. Yet I have no problem doing it. But I think that’s why I change the way I play live. I have a moment of trusting a song, and then I go, “No! I have to change it!”

On looking outward to look inward:

Innocence Is Kinky is an outward-looking album, but what it’s looking at is a world that is very much a mirror world. It’s a world of visuals that are just telling you to look at yourself, to identify with everything. This has been my experience watching a lot of films over the years, as a female spectator, and seeing the objectification of the body in all different kinds of genres. As a young girl, you’re asked to identify with being an object or identify with being looked at. It can be painful to look at things and realize that everything is about looking back at yourself. Visual culture is just this mirror. There’s nothing else. There’s nothing behind it. It reminds me a little bit of the dangers of capitalism, which lays everything on the individual so that no one is to blame. Everything is your own fault. If you didn’t make it, it’s your fault. There’s no system.

On being ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille:

I watch a lot of everything. I have no boundaries. There is nothing I do not watch. My interest is so nerdy that I don’t care so much about gender, and I’ve always been so obsessed with film and also sounds and voices on film. There are no voices in Joan of Arc, but you have that face, which is so close. It’s very much like pop music where you always have the voice with the microphone very close, so you have this ability to be huge. This is something I find very interesting on stage, where I can whisper and it will be enlarged It’s like a magnifying glass for the voice.

On dividing her time as a musician, novelist, critic, and essayist:

I see things as very connected, so it’s hard for me to separate between writing an essay and writing a song. Sometimes an essay becomes a song, which doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be a song or that it could only be an essay. On the other hand, I find it very hard to write music criticism. The more I write, the harder it gets and the more I realize I’m just saying the same thing over and over. As for fiction, I’ve written one novel and a book that I would just call a book because it’s trying to be much closer to the music and the way I work with sound and voices. It was an attempt for me to get closer to the speaking voice and the sounds I hear in language in my head when I write, which was great. But writing a novel is very distancing from that directness that I’m very fond of in my songwriting, and there’s so much more writing of words obviously than in a song. The music is gone and then you have all these descriptions in a novel that replace sound. Where is he? Which way is he looking? What’s the color of this? Rather than just the [sings] daaaaaah of sound. And to me the daaaaaah is much more interesting. So yeah, I’m trying to write more like sound.