Music Features

Jenny Hval (interview)

My favourite album of 2011 was Viscera by Norwegian experimental singer-songwriter Jenny Hval. The few who got past Viscera’s prurience and spaciousness (a unique combination indeed) were rewarded with one of the most sensual and instinctive explorations of physicality you could really create with music. In fact, Viscera was so focused on physicality that Hval’s work has almost turned in on itself – on her new album, Innocence Is Kinky, she continues to engage unabashedly with bodies and pleasures, but in a more metaphysical way, in a way that explores subjectivity and desire from some curiously abstract perspectives. It’s also filled with a host of too-good-to-be-true reference points: Swans, Twin Peaks, Michel Foucault, Werner Herzog, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, and even, she tells me, Public Enemy!

2013 might just be the year Hval gets the attention she deserves outside of her native Norway. This time, she recorded with PJ Harvey’s producer John Parish, approaching the studio with some even more ambitious arrangements, and an astonishingly wide range of songwriting angles.

I was a huge fan of Viscera, and I love Innocence Is Kinky too. Viscera seemed to be based around your acoustic guitar parts. How did you start writing this time?

I think Viscera was probably inspired by the way I was playing at the time -  a certain sound of a certain instrument. But this album was different, it started with playing a lot of electric guitar, but it was more about this silent film project that I was doing one and a half years ago. [Hval was commissioned to perform a soundtrack to Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc]. And before that I was working on a project about “white trash” and teen mums. So that’s actually where it all started, I guess. 

I heard a recording of one of the live shows you did, and the arrangements seem to have shifted around quite a lot. Is that something you worked out in the studio as you were going along?

Some of these songs I’ve played for a while, and they changed, and became very band-like; but in the studio we went back to my demos, which was interesting. I made a lot of demo recordings and didn’t really take them seriously, I just brought them into the band and we just started playing longer versions of songs. But then I did a lot of sound installation work as well. When the studio work finally happened, I kind of wanted to go back to the demos, because it’s quite an aggressive album, and some of the live versions to me were too… calm? So it was really good to go back to a more direct version of the songs, and then the lyrics came out in a very different way, which was exciting for me, because I’m very into working with words.

How was it working with John Parish?

That was fun! I really wanted to go to the UK. There are not many studios in Norway where I know people, and not many producers that I know of, and I wanted to work with someone else than the last album. I met a friend in Australia who previously had written to John and asked him to produce her album, and that didn’t happen, but I heard he was so nice.He’s a very polite and friendly man, and a very sharp listener, but the way he makes things sound isn’t necessarily polite at all. His references are pretty crazy. I’ve never really recorded a studio album before, but I don’t think this was a very orthodox way of doing it; it was very much experimenting outside of the way that people would normally work in a studio, I think.

Is it still based on improvisation? I know Viscera was very improvisatory, and Nude On Sand [Hval’s folk-improv collaboration with Håvard Volden] even more so.

I think in some ways it is, because my original demos were improvisations; because we went back to them, I think some of that energy is there. But I’m not a free improviser, I don’t have a background in jazz – I don’t actually know my instruments when I play them, I don’t know which chords I’m playing! Some of the more soundscape-y tracks have a lot of tracks from a sound installation that I did, and those were very much me just putting microphones in my mouth or stuff like that. I guess that’s improv too! I probably have relaxed a little bit with the thinking of improvisation and experimental music as “higher” art than pop music. I don’t really care anymore if something’s improvised or just a spontaneous composition. I’m not sure if when we play this live, it will sound very improvised. But it’s sounding quite exciting to me; we’ve just started rehearsing and it sounds really different.

I was hoping to ask about how you incorporate theory – there are references to people like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault on the record. How do you manage to balance those more instinctive elements with the more intellectually-informed side of your writing?

Well, I studied a lot of theory subjects in Australia, and that was before I really realised the importance of the meaning of these texts – I was reading Roland Barthes when I was in Australia, and this is almost ten years ago, studying for my undergraduate degree, and my English wouldn’t be good enough to actually understand the full meaning of what he was writing, but I just loved the language. It’s kind of outrageous that I was actually studying this and writing essays about it, and I really didn’t understand it! And I’ve read some translations of the same books that I read ten years ago in Norwegian, which is a language that for me is all about meaning, whereas English for me is still kind of partly a language to be sung in. Even when I did understand it, I didn’t take it as “meaning”, I took it as, “ah, this would be a great song lyric!” One of my first songs with my first band in Australia was just some kind of Gilles Deleuze lyric, and I think he probably would have hated it so much…

What was the connection there, to Deleuze?

There was really nothing! It was more about his suicide, and his long fingernails.

I didn’t know about his long fingernails!

Apparently he had them! I think I kind of connected it to this Viking king, Harald Hårfagre, who, after he died, his hair and fingernails kept growing, which is something you learn when you’re quite young in Norway because it’s part of the Viking folklore! So maybe I thought he was one of those, Gilles Deleuze, who died in 1995, and his fingernails are still growing…

You once said that there’s “no performative level” to your singing. I thought that might tie in to the idea of the “death of the author” as well. Do you think that it’s ever possible to separate yourself from the way people interpret your music as performative?

Did I say that? Oh, nice! I guess there’s an honesty or openness to this album - a performative element, and that’s also something that’s reflected in the tone. There are elements of a certain type of humour, I think, in the soundscapes, and in how things change, how songs progress. I’m more open to performing pop music as well. For a long time people tended to call me a performance artist, which I didn’t really understand. So maybe I was, at some level, responding to that more than the context I was actually saying it in.

I’m kind of a very switched-on person, and so anything I read about my work will become part of what I perform. So when I started releasing solo albums, I had a radio hit in Norway, which was very problematic for me because a lot of people then would only know that song. I didn’t really want to be a performer doing the same project over and over; I wanted to do different things. I found it so confusing, so I think that became part of my work for a long time, to kind of erase that song.

Which song was it?

It’s called Barrie for Billy Mackenzie. I haven’t played it since 2007… One day I’ll revive it.

I do really like that song! It’s very strange to me that it became so popular…

Maybe I’d have liked it too if it wasn’t for everything that happened with it. Not that it was a big hit; it wasn’t in the charts or anything, but it was on the radio, and I guess that coming from having no response, to having the type of response that identifies you with a certain mood and a certain stereotyped type of artist, and also a particular song, that to me was very strange. If nothing had happened with that song, maybe I would have been still playing it. But I think it is important to be critical to one’s own work within one’s work. And even if you are playing music and even if you’re making music that’s more or less pop music, then I think one shouldn’t really take away the ability to criticise oneself and the world around you as well, but also just really re-think your project all the time. And I think I’ve done that a lot…

There’s something in your press release where you’ve said that your songs experiment with male perspectives, which might not necessarily be something I picked up from Viscera. Is that something that’s been entering your songwriting this time?

Yeah, very much. I was travelling a lot over the last two years, and I was playing quite a few shows at a festival in Australia, and this was a folk festival with thousands of bands playing, so a really loud reggae band would be playing next door in the tent beside you. I play with a trio, and we all started getting really aggressive, because we were just fighting against the sound. The drummer could play louder, and you can turn the guitar amp up, but I didn’t have that level in my voice, and I just had this period where I just really wanted to be very loud and aggressive, just to be able to keep up. And then I started wanting to listen to more of that music again. I got very into Swans for a while. And then I just became really interested in different perspectives, and subjectivity. I even got into trying to sound like Nick Cave for a while - this was only in my rehearsal space! But I just felt very interested in the whole idea of that kind of voice, we call it “mørk mann” in Norwegian, like the “dark man”. You really can’t hear it on the album, and that’s because we put so much emphasis on the pitch and timbre of the voice. So if I said “no no, this is really my Nick Cave influence!”, people would go “yeah right… it sounds like Joni Mitchell meeting Kate Bush and PJ Harvey and Tori Amos!” But it’s a good experiment, because it’s like writing a play, and that is performative.

You also talked about music being an “androgynous possibility”, and that was partly a response to Michael Gira and Swans. That was related to your sound installation “A Continuous Echo of Splitting Hymens”; could you tell us more about that?

The track Give Me That Sound is actually an excerpt, more or less, from that. It’s the kind of short version of that sound installation, or bits of it. It’s based on an interview with Michael Gira – I just found it so interesting that he talked about his voice – he wanted to be “like a boxing match” on stage. But he would be both the puncher and the punched at once. Normally, I find very aggressive rock to be all about being the puncher. It’s about feeling superior – that’s what I think seems very “macho”, and so I found this interview very different, and very interesting. On [Swans’ The Seer] there’s really aggressive playing, but then it’s just cut – and then there’s this floating feeling – and I find that to be in some of his lyrics as well. You think it’s really aggressive, and then there’s a very different tone in the words. Whereas when you go to a lot of Norwegian black metal or rock music, the lyrics are about being strong, and killing women, and raping, and that stuff, so I just found it quite valuable to have something so intense, yet not being about standing on top of someone else. 

I like that idea of responding to other musicians, as well. Are there any other responses to musicians on the album which are similar?

I think there’s a Throwing Muses reference, because I was listening to them a lot, the first album. I’m not sure if there’s anything else that I’m conscious of, but I hope that there’s lots of other things that I’m unconscious of! At certain points, there was so much stuff just pouring in. Maybe it’s not so easy to hear it, but there are references to a lot of trash culture, and there are references to certain other types of sound. Oh, there is a Public Enemy reference!


I had a Public Enemy song as a backing track for a while. I replaced it because I’m afraid of sampling, which is a shame. It’s in Oslo Oedipus: Fight the Power!

I’m still taking some time to digest the record, and it took quite a while with Viscera as well. Is that something you’re conscious of, making music which requires some work to get some meaning from it?

Well actually, I thought I’d made a pop album until people started listening to it. I thought this was really easy! But then people came back to me saying, “Whoa!” For me, it’s very direct, but there’s a lot of work in it. It’s quite a dense album, and I really like albums that take time, myself. But everything happens so fast. Everything has to be “glued up” when you play it. But I’m happy to make things that take time, and I’m always surprised that people do take time, when they do. We don’t have a lot of it in Norway; the music reviews are mainly in the major newspapers, and that’s the sort of “got the album, I’ve got two days” and then you hand in your review. And that’s not where the interesting listening experiences are really told to others. There was somebody writing – it wasn’t a review, it was more a personal reflection - who’d been really sick and then sort of felt like his idea of the sick body found some kind of resonance with Viscera, because there was so much body in it, and it was open. And that was really impressive to me, to be able to have that experience with music.

I immediately knew I loved Viscera, but then it took me a long time to get all the other bits of it as well. Perhaps the new record’s less immediate, but I’m getting a lot from it now.

I’ll understand in a while; it takes me so long to understand what I’ve made. It’s kind of weird when you work so much with something, and then you’ve finished it, and then you have no idea what you’ve made. And then you play it for a few years, and then you keep understanding it in different ways.

Part of the reason why it didn’t strike me as so direct is because you’re dealing with quite a lot of themes which you don’t really hear addressed in music so much. Because a lot of it is quite visual, and you’ve worked a lot with sound installations as well. So does it feel in any way limiting to go back to a music album?

Yeah, in a way I think it is limiting to work with music albums, and it’s also limiting to work with playing live, when you have to play an instrument all the time, and not be able to think about the visual element so much. So I find almost everything that I do very limited, and disappointingly so sometimes, but then again there are so many of the elements that you really want to work with that you can put into that limited world. It’s a very limited format, especially if you also decide to work with short songs. And then again, people choose to work with certain structures that are often identical for every song. But working in the studio was very unlimited, partly because working with John allowed a really big scope. 

Death of the Author is more about the non-existent person behind writing on the internet. Which sounds so dull and “2008” or something, but the world happens so fast that you’ve got no time to criticise the media, it seems – because it’s always, “Ah! Now there’s something else happening, this is old stuff!” And yet, we still say the same things as thirty years ago about violence, television and stuff like that,so it’s a double-edged sword. It’s more like the killing of a female subject, maybe, death of the author… I went into working with a lot of blogs, for this “white trash” project that I was doing in 2011, and I realised, I’m going from working with body to working with no body at all. There’s a lot of bodies online, but they’re all so uncorporeal, in a way, because everything is very not-naked, even when young girls post pictures of themselves in their bikinis, there’s no human there. It’s just a no-body.

I kind of see something of the idea of music as this sensual thing, which is somehow connected to desire as well. I don’t know if I’m just seeing these connections of how we experience music as becoming more influenced by technology, and how we experience sexuality as more and more technological as well, I guess there’s something of a connection there in your music?

Yeah, definitely. The way I see it, the way to experience desire in music is something more positive than experiencing and exploring sexuality just by visuals. Because with visuals, especially on the internet, which always gives you the promise of not needing to take responsibility for what you see, then music is something more abstract; it has a different potential than the visual world. I’m frightened by this very visual culture; I’m very ambivalent to it. I’m very ambivalent to pictures of myself. I’m much more interested in the expression of the body in playing music and hearing music.

What do you have lined up next?

I’m working on a composition together with a friend of mine – Jessica Sligter. We’re working on a bigger project at the moment, to hopefully be at a festival with a male choir of musicians - some more workshop-like experimental stuff. I just did a commission piece as well; I’m hoping to play more of that too, with a slightly different band. But I’m hoping that I can focus on this album release and play the songs live for a while. Because that really changes what the project is, it really expands it; so I would like to keep working with it.

Innocence Is Kinky is available now on Rune Grammofon.