What Are We Taking Care Of? Jenny Hval interviewed
Daring Norwegian polymath Jenny Hval rejects being an artist and questions everything from religion and capitalism to femininity, gender roles and sexuality on her stirring new LP
Given that Jenny Hval's 2013 album, Innocence Is Kinky, evolved from a silent-film concert through various forms, including a book and a sound installation, before crystallising into an LP, you wouldn't expect the process around her follow-up to revert to anything approaching orthodox – even if it has been done amid a jump in label profile, from the experimental Rune Grammofon of her native Norway to Chicago-based Sacred Bones. Around the release of her previous album's frank exploration of gender identity and materialisation of sexuality, Hval told the website Frontier Psychiatrist, "I’m the type of artist who benefits from not having to sit down at a piano and think to myself, 'So, I’m going to make an album. Now what?'"
So it proves, as her latest record, a paradoxically icy yet emotionally delivered big picture of an LP, Apocalypse, girl, came out of formative creative musings that initially weren't intended to be an album. "Kinky had come out and I had some time over the summer so I just did a lot of improvisations, but I didn’t really feel like starting from scratch," she explains over Skype from her Oslo home. "I needed something to start me off and I was in this headspace where I didn’t want to be feeling like I was an artist. The artist space has been so standardised," she furthers. "Anything you put out is always just mirrored back on you, so everything seems so planned and cynical in a way. The life of an artist is very much caught in a capitalist net, as well as being copied by the capitalist system and the system of social media. Things like selfie culture and identity, this constant self-consciousness."
Hval's efforts to avoid feeling like she was falling once again into that world involved taking inspiration from things like instrument demonstration clips and karaoke cover versions on YouTube, instances where she felt music was being created without artistic expression at its core. Additionally she recorded demos that took the form of what she describes as "really horrible, pre-made background music; the sort of music you’d put on your wedding video." It induced a feeling of liberation. "I’ve never been a karaoke person; I can’t really do it," she says. "But I guess I effectively created karaoke bars in my home, sang very embarrassing songs that I made up, and out of it came this energy. Energy that was very destructive but very liberating and very happy in a way."
"The life of an artist is very much caught in a capitalist net" – Jenny Hval
The former University of Melbourne creative writing student (she also studied literature at the University of Oslo) has a CV that suggests someone who struggles to reconcile being pushed into the channels and structures that dictate the conventional industry release of an album. Apocalypse, girl will be the third under her own name; she also has two under the moniker Rockettothesky, has recorded with renowned producer John Parish, toured with Swans and St. Vincent, and has a slew of other EPs and collaborations under her belt. Other works include a master's thesis on Kate Bush, a novel in 2009's Pearl Brewery, as well as numerous essays and ruminations on everything from Patti Smith to Paris Hilton's 2004 sex tape, One Night in Paris. The sound installation that informed Innocence Is Kinky came from the idea of the female face on-screen as presented in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Hval confesses she felt a greater kinship with visual artists during the making of Apocalypse, girl ("At a certain point I realised ‘you’re all embracing the mainstream music scene more than I am’") and describes the record as a series of scenes rather than songs. Towards the very end of our chat, she admits: "I don’t have that much faith in the interview as an art form. Reading out a lyric aloud explains more than any explanation of it would." There's the suspicion that it, inpart, acts as a gentle shutting down of a conversation that's wound up too close to promotional campaign protocol around a release that's just one of many different mediums and ways in which Hval constantly seeks to express and further herself. She's most likely correct.
However, it's hard not to ask more about an album that, in exploring gender roles, media propaganda surrounding ideas of femininity, why people choose religion and, at the root of it all, desire, delivers a critique on many of the West's socio-political wounds with a sharp intelligence that doesn't hinder its emotional heft. On an album influenced by conversations with Norwegian noise veteran Lasse Marhaug – which led to both the decision to focus on an album and to hire him as producer – and featuring contributions by Swans' percussionist Thor Harris, Welsh improviser Rhodri Davies and Jaga Jazzist pianist Øystein Moen, among others, it's Hval who soars highest.
In content and delivery, her vocal performance is at once poised and perturbed, swinging between hushed spoken word to soaring operatics that feel like they're straining to reach the heavens she frequently seems to be trying to make sense of. This is notable, of course, on the track Heaven, a perfect mirage of minimalist electronic pulses and graceful string arrangements that break through a woozy twilight hue – "I'm 33 now, that's Jesus' age," she whispers at one point. Then there's perhaps the album's thematic centrepiece, That Battle is Over, which, over a shuffling beat that bears distant allusions to a hip-hop break, pools textures of rich drones together and pulls in all of her questions under an overriding sense of growing older and a search for more.
Hval grew up in the Bible belt of Norway and found herself disconnected at high school, sharing classrooms with students whose parents were often high up in church circles. "On the one hand we were all friends, on the other hand we were violently opposing each other’s world views and I'd always just wanted to escape it," she ponders. "But then it came back [for this album] and I thought maybe I’m revisiting it because I realised I was also kind of envious of the way that my fellow high school students could explore things like religious ecstasy and devotion. This kind of energy that I just could not connect with and maybe felt like was a taboo or something in my life."
America, a place of increasing interest to Hval thanks to her new label and recent touring, is referenced both at Apocalypse, girl's beginning and end, and she admits it was perhaps the catalyst for re-examining a previously uncomfortable period of her life. "I was constantly confronted with the idea that I would burn in hell, and that’s very violent, even though you just think it’s crap and it makes you laugh. The song That Battle Is Over is speaking about trying to deal with ideas that are thrown out at you all the time, that you don’t agree with but they become part of you anyway. Or you realise that in some crazy way they resonate in some way with you to the point where you have to deal with them."
Personal confrontation is a constant theme, the line 'Feminism's over. Socialism's over' perhaps the most powerful of many that intentionally put their creator in the shoes of those whose ideas she opposes, in an attempt to empathise with rather than simply dismiss them. "I need to challenge my own prejudices, and maybe I also have ideas that are misogynistic or anti-socialist in me that I have to also face. We have different reasons to be on the outside or to lean towards the left, and there are different motivations, and to understand how they are different and where we come from is something that’s deeply interesting."
That's something the UK could certainly do with taking on board in current circumstances, although the politics and messages of fear that the right-wing press utilised so successfully in the recent general election aren't tools used only in our country. "Living in Norway is weird because on the one hand we are very liberal, but on the other hand we have tabloid media and they’re all over our daily lives," Hval says. "They keep pushing out these horrible news stories about research and statistics. It places so much guilt and shame on the individual, it’s like all this health advice that’s written about: you’ll get this type of cancer if you eat this. It’s weakening us and making us fear ourselves."
Hval's brilliance comes in the concise and extremely, well, human way in which she structures her thoughts, her music a jarring mirror held up to the world but also, at its, root providing a very simple, affecting ode to love and its necessity in ongoing battles for parity against societal ills. And she's right as she finishes by simply pointing out that Apocalypse, girl is "a journey that speaks for itself." It just so happens to be a particularly breathtaking one.