Jenny Hval on The Practice of Love
Norwegian musician and writer Jenny Hval talks about love, pop and dance music ahead of the release of her new album The Practice of Love
Jenny Hval is probably writing, sitting on some secluded northern fjord, a place where the sun never seems to set. Jenny Hval is probably ruminating upon one of humanity’s most puzzled over concepts, and finding a pathway to understanding it. Jenny Hval is probably dousing her audience in fake blood. The Norwegian musician, writer, artist, thinker, experimentalist, has such an aura of mystique and headiness that it's preposterous to imagine her in any mundane situation. But, Jenny Hval is actually on the other end of the phone... “in a sort of cafeteria on the posh side of London. I’m really just looking at a lot of cardboard boxes.”
Hearing her voice without being in her physical presence conjures these images because Hval’s music can rarely be put down to simply chords and rhymes. Her records are treatises filled with meticulously hypothesised lines of argument, and close concentration by listeners when engaged with them facilitates immense understanding of her ideas. At the same time, her music is sonically textured and enjoyable, and never intellectually isolating or ponderous. The grand themes she has dwelled on across a string of releases – sex, gender, the body and, on her last EP, a deliberation on the delivery of art through technology and the nature of listening – may be labelled highfalutin by careless bystanders, but they are always put across with a lavish helping of humour and accessibility.
“I think I’ve always been making pop music,” says Hval on perceptions of her music. “Although I’ve not always been very comfortable admitting it. I don’t understand this 'experimental' label, but I don’t really understand labels in general. I think that’s what it’s like for artists with their own stuff – it’s so much in our heads that it doesn’t always fit with what other people think. But I’m okay with whatever people call it.”
A fair proportion of avant-garde-leaning artists flirting with mainstream acceptance have at some point had what some may describe as their ‘pop moment’. If Hval is to have such a breakthrough, her new record The Practice of Love may be it, which is more than a little bemusing considering that opening track Lions includes a voice dauntingly intoning 'Where is God?'
The reason is that, on this record, Hval couches her musings in breakbeats and synths, Balearic dance, trashy trance and fitfully uncool throwback flourishes like house sax. When she isn’t employing hypnotic ambience to back recorded conversations about childlessness and semantics, The Practice of Love could soundtrack a rave or Renton’s move to London in Trainspotting.
It's a commanding stylistic decision, one that has already caused critics to react with befuddled enjoyment, almost lashing out at just how easy it is to get into. For Hval, someone who has dabbled in so-called ‘low’ forms of art in order to convey her ideas previously – as she did on 2016’s Blood Bitch when talking about menstruation via inspiration from low-budget vampire flicks – it makes complete sense.
“I am very fascinated by all sorts of outsider culture,” she says. “Mainstream dance music is something I grew up with seeing as a little dirty. The people who liked it the most were people who I didn’t see myself as similar to. I mean, I really loved the music too, but it shifted fast as I was growing up. I’m very fascinated with stuff that critics have called 'low' forms of art and that’s maybe to do with seeing myself as someone who didn’t really feel very comfortable in the stereotypes of how you were supposed to be.
“But on this album, I’ve moved my focus. I’ve tried not to place myself and my artistic identity in one type of art and rather tried to broaden things, combining something I found trashy growing up... with the big themes. I find there’s something beautiful in that combination.”
In the end though, the music is just a vessel for those “big themes”, and on this record it's the grandest of them all: love. Not romantic comedy love though. “That kind of love is something that you’re meant to achieve in a specific way and then once you’re married the credits come up,” she says, through laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it. “You know, this very kind of reductionist and stereotypical personal narrative. Love is supposed to be a success story. And usually the heterosexual successful creation of a relationship. The rest of the complexity just doesn’t exist at all.
“I’m not tackling that here. It’s much more of a broader scope of what love as an emotion or a concept can be, even as a writing practice – love as communication, as longing for other people, as belonging.”
Hval expounds generously on her thesis. She admits that it took her a while to work up to tackling love in her work, even as some of her previous records have leant up against it and are as, if not more, weighty. “I realised I was getting older and had placed myself outside a lot of things. I wanted to look at what I avoided, and why, as a writer. It was like ‘how can I do this, this is something everyone else is doing, can I go there?’”
Bringing her work on this to life are the voices of friends and artists Vivian Wang, Laura Jean Englert and Félicia Atkinson. They can be heard on the title track as two recordings overlap. Wang talks about the Norwegian for ‘love’, a Matryoshka doll of a word containing another, ‘honesty’, and how that affects your understanding of the original word, and a conversation with Englert about the role of women in society who don’t have children, as “people who don’t do what most people do, and what that means for figuring out who you are.” Throughout the record, voices pan in and out. It immediately strikes as her most collaborative work.
Naturally with Hval, not everything is as it seems. “Well this album I see as quite a lonesome construct,” she says. Hval wrote and produced the album virtually by herself, intuitively on her computer and without much input from long-time collaborator Lasse Marhaug. Even the other voices were usually recorded over great distances. “People were sending stuff to me and then just allowing me to use their voices to do whatever I wanted. I was very amazed and grateful for how much trust they had in me.”
That was important, she says, after writing a new novel, Girls Against God (due in November 2020), that also brings together voices, but in an angrier way. Her work with these three women, she feels, is more peaceful. “I felt an umbilical connection with them. When I listen to what they do, I feel like I’m already in conversation, already giving something back. And these invisible traces are magical because they don’t really exist. But at the same time, there’s some kind of residue of communication that doesn’t maybe go anywhere, but it’s more felt. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. When you hear music you really love, you just understand in a way. It’s not like you could have written it, but it was somehow meant for you.”
She seems almost in a trance, before snapping out: “It’s very banal.” For the professorial artist that she can be, she seemed to almost choke on this hackneyed, emotional language. But, she returns to it: “Those things are very important for us. That’s one of the many purposes of music, to create these moments of communication.”
The Practice of Love is released on 13 Sep via Sacred Bones Records