Fascination was the first emotion I felt when I heard Jenny Hval's music. The second was relief. That might be an unusual response to Hval's work, which is highly intimate, sexually explicit and abounding with startling images that reflect both her feminist view of the world and her ability to carry forward messages from the subconscious. Most first-time listeners feel challenged and perhaps uncomfortable with the sound that she describes, on her new album Apocalypse, girl, as "soft dick rock." But for those listeners who've followed the path of women artists challenging preconceptions from Yoko Ono's housefly meditations to Carolee Schneeman's erotic Meat Joy, and on through the "transgressive" art of post-punk provocateurs like Lydia Lunch and Karen Finley, Hval is that treasured figure: a younger visionary who honors the legacies of earlier generations while finding her own ways to explore the timeless tension between individuals' private lives and the roles and rules society imposes.
Hval's music, gorgeously rendered on Apocalypse, girl, is electronically driven, ravishingly pretty and sneakily theatrical in its creation of an interior world leaking into and being pressed upon by the larger one. In songs like "Sabbath," which tells of a young girl's erotic self-realization, Hval goes poetic, but in such a visceral way that her images will make you itch. The video for "Sabbath," debuting here, further enhances the music's dreamlike quality — but those familiar with experimental art's intergenerational conversations will also see Hval's wit in connecting with that history.
Hval and I recently engaged in an email conversation touching upon her rich knowledge of art and literature, her favorite real and spiritual collaborators, and the possibilities and problems of working in a pop idiom grounded in the marketplace.
Apocalypse, Girl enters the musical conversation, at least in the U.S., at an intriguingly tense and potentially transformative moment in pop's ongoing conversation about gender and sexuality. Both mainstream pop and indie rock abound with confrontational scenarios staged by women, from the latest work by Rihanna and Madonna to the many indie performers currently inspired by post-punk feminist rock. You've been developing your erotic vocabulary for a decade now; do you feel the landscape has opened up for this kind of work in music and in the art world since you started? Is it a circling back to the transgressive art moment of the late 1980s and early 1990s, or are we hearing something new?
I hope the moment we're in is something new — a lot has happened since the '80s and '90s (both in music, the arts in general and in feminist theory and practice). But it can only exist because of that work from the late '80s and early '90s, and I know that that time was incredibly important. The fact that for some reason (probably because of the work of so many groundbreaking artists) utterly unique female artists could become popular was very striking to grow up with.
I was thinking about this when I wrote aboutBjork for The Talkhouse a while back — what would I even be if I had not grown up with her music from such an early age? I can't imagine living and expressing myself without all those thoughts about being that she gave me. When I started out it seemed like times had changed and artists had to express some kind of retro stereotype. As if the world was weary of people expressing themselves altogether. If things are different now, it's a fantastic and important change.
There's more open discussion of transgender identity than ever before, and in addition, living on the Internet has granted ordinary people an easy and possibly irresistible way to construct multiple selves. Your voice is quite conventionally feminine, though you manipulate it a lot — on first listen, I wouldn't connect it with trans liberation. Yet your songs viscerally describe bodies that become fluid while experiencing desire. "Sabbath" offers a dreamscape of a boy and a girl switching genders and then both becoming animals — a horse, a wolf. Is this a kind of trans state?
I'm so happy these things are talked about, and I wish we could listen better, even if sexuality is openly discussed in certain parts of the world. I write about sexuality longing to take part in a conversation, to hear other people's voices. The world is more beautiful when it's polyphonic.
I haven't gone through any of the stuff that a transgendered person has gone through, so I wouldn't claim to know what that is like. But I know that sexuality is a huge part of who we are, and that in-between states are important to everybody. If they weren't, people wouldn't have any problems with genders and sexuality.
It's this kind of universal, but personal, in-between state of transformation I'm dealing with in my music, I think. A transformation is for me a much more interesting way to look at narrative than a "story." In "Sabbath," I send a person on a journey through several transformations (imagining further transformations). The reward is desire, a desire that is not about inequality and dichotomy, but about liberation. It's a fairy tale, perhaps.
Radical feminist art has long used confrontational humor to dislodge some pretty deep preconceptions about identity and acceptable behavior. This is something it shares with surrealism, another one of your influences. What kind of laughter do you hope to generate with your work?
Hopefully more than one kind of laughter, but perhaps a complex laughter, one that jumps out of your mouth and then makes you think. Yes, a dislodging laughter.
One of the central images on Apocalypse, Girl, and certainly the most discussed, involves something that "should" be hard staying soft — music itself, on the one hand, and a man's private anatomy on the other. I know you're a fan of the writer Anne Carson; for fun, I looked through her great verse novel Autobiography of Red for the word "soft," and it comes up once, attached to the image, "a pearl in a mussel." That reminds me of your work — you're always seeking that moment when soft becomes hard, or the opposite. What can we learn from such transitions?
I love Anne Carson's writing. The first piece of hers I read was The Glass Essay, which definitely deals with softness and in some way a situation in which literary genres start to blur and reality and fiction meet. A breakup becomes a moment where the protagonist of the essay starts writing about literature in a way that is not just personal, but placing herself inside it. That is how I remember it. It made such a huge impression on me. I probably devoured it and didn't understand any of the complexities ... I read it at a time when I was feeling that way myself ...
Softness has definitely been discussed a lot in reviews and interviews for this album — I'm not sure if I intended to write so much about it. But it's definitely there.
I remember this poster ad I saw (it's still going strong) for the first time a few years ago, for a product called "More Man." It's a dietary supplement, or testosterone supplement, I think, and the tag line for the ad was "Are you a man who is becoming a woman?" as if this was some frightening, apocalyptic (yes!) scenario. The signs of becoming a woman were listed below this horrifying headline, and it was all about becoming softin various ways. Then I realised the company was also selling a female equivalent, More Woman, but the tagline for women couldn't be about becoming a man, so it was just a twisted and sadder version of the man ad. Sorry about this lengthy description, but I just found this ad so interesting — it was a sort of hierarchical fall from man to woman (lower, softer being) and then it seemed woman had nowhere to go except back into a loop of continuously falling and softening.
I'm interested in where health and capitalism meet. They meet in the fear of a soft apocalypse and send us in a loop of constant hardening. It's like the Red Scare of our time.
Your mention of how health and capitalism intersect reminds me of your fondness for Todd Haynes's film Safe. Haynes is one of my favorite filmmakers, partly because his work is so much about the construction of identity — and how what we build as "ourselves" can so easily become dislodged. Safe is now twenty years old, and the anxieties it expresses have only intensified. It's interesting to think about the connections between sexuality and health. What is a healthy sexuality? Is that a subject you confront, do you think, in your music?
The first Haynes film I saw was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which completely changed my idea of film back when I was studying film many years ago (for a while I really thought I could be a film director ...!). I love the way he took such a complex character. Karen Carpenter, and actually made her universal and political — which is the opposite of every other biographical film, or documentary, about a female musician! He is just the greatest modern sci-fi thinker, isn't he? Because he looks at the female figure as the central figure of our time, at the ugly and manipulated crossroads of capitalism, politics and mental health.
I don't think what we call "healthy" in mainstream media and consumer storytelling has anything to do with actual health at all. It has everything to do with fear and nothing with health. Actual health has to do with social structures, it has to do with class and race and politics. It has to do with people together, I think. Healthy sexuality ... it needs to be courageous ... openness to others? Respect?
I agree with what you say about needing to listen to each other about sexuality. We are often emboldened to speak, but rarely does culture make a space for actually considering, in a deep way, how others experience both sex and gender. I see this as something your music is working to accomplish. But do you find that it's hard for some listeners to overcome their initial titillation and discomfort? Have you discovered or developed way to get listeners beyond those first reactions?
I think there are two answers: short term, yes. But I don't want to judge anyone for their natural reactions to something. Listeners need time to digest something, and I find that when they are given that time and space, they figure things out and overcome those reactions. I also believe firmly in the power of memory. If you make something that people will remember, they will come back to it. The best art is what haunts you (with or without the colourful aesthetics of the horror genre). Some of my favourite works of art are not the pieces I've loved the most at the time, but the pieces I remember, that keep making an impact on me and keep giving me some kind of drive to understand, or hope.
There are moments on Apocalypse, Girl (like when you sing "feminism's over" in "The Battle is Over") when your phrasing is almost that of a current pop star. I'm curious if you're expressing a connection to mainstream pop, especially on this album, with its references to time spent in New York.
I love pop music, and sometimes I wish I could write something for, or sing, like a really big pop star. I do what I do both because I have chosen another path and because I can't do what pop stars do, it's both a choice and a lack of talent.
The song "Sabbath" is quite poignant in way — it's a very sensual coming-of-age story, acknowledging the fluid desires children experience in a dreamlike or fairy-tale scenario. In a sense, it's recovering a kind of memory that isn't often acknowledged in the proper adult world. It makes me think of Sally Mann's photographs of her children — that unsentimental innocence. What does exploring a young girl's voice and story offer you as an artist and a woman?
I love that you brought up Sally Mann, I just watched the documentary about her — What Remains — and I really loved it. In fact, Lasse (Marhaug, producer of Apocalypse, girl) told me to watch it because it's so interesting how she moves on from capturing her children's faces and bodies to landscapes and even the dead.
In "Sabbath," the subject is an "I" looking at herself, so there is no gaze. But there is definitely a coming-of-age story, and a story of a child discovering her sexuality and telling the story very openly and in her own world. Sally Mann's pictures of her children are always capturing them in their world, and that world is allowed to be huge — it isn't a small space. Even if the photo is a close-up of a face, it shows an entire universe of a personality with infinite imagination. There is something overflowing in those images, something you can't just objectify or "take". They are so strong. I love them. And I love the idea of exploring a childlike (and female) sexuality without even considering that it can be "used," "taken," "deflowered," etc.
The video features two women who seem to be a sort of entourage — you've had them perform with you in other settings. What happens to your persona when you double (or triple) it like this? It makes me think about woman as commodity — an interchangeable product.
Bringing Zia and Annie (the two women in the video) on stage with me has been a revelation. They are amazing beings and incredibly talented and creative artists (both visual artists). I don't think we ever come across as interchangeable on stage except perhaps in this song — we've developed a small series of movements together. But working with interchangeable elements, such as wigs and costumes, has been interesting. I feel like I'm performing a piece where I'm trying to connect with being traditionally feminine, and failing but enjoying the odd performance of it. This is something I can relate to from writing and recording the vocals on the album. Like you said, sometimes I phrase things as if I'm a mainstream singer. I would perhaps say that on this album, I have moments where I dream of performing like a pop star, but I fail like bad karaoke. The emotional layering of this stuff really interests me. Failing is a key human element.
I don't know why I wanted to wear a wig on stage at first, but I guess I wanted to think big and try on something that is usually used by mainstream artists or performance artists. I also wanted to see what it was like for me to perform with a feminine look that these huge and long and perfectly curved wigs give you. It's something I've never been able to play with. And it's been amazing to play with.
When I started playing in Norway about ten years ago, everything was about "authenticity," also for me. Everyone seemed to be fresh and "real." I've become really tired of this idea that you play as yourself, and nothing makes me more uncomfortable than putting on "something nice" and walk on stage. It's like going to a really uptight wedding you don't want to go to.
I wish I knew why popular music, the most self-expressive and expansive art form this side of dance (with which it is intertwined), remains behind in terms of the identities it offers women. I suspect it has something to do with our maker and foe, capitalism! I do think there is a kind of secret history of women making music that's not dominated by the need to fulfill an erotic ideal. It's in the art world; it's in jazz; it's in blues, though not in the most famous blues. It's in punk! Do you feel what you do is connected with punk in any particular way?
I absolutely think this history is there (and it includes a multitude of gender identifications and voices who have been considered too minor to be considered subjects at all). I grew up obsessed with Annette Peacock. My dad played me her records and Jimi Hendrix records and I sort of saw them as one. And so from quite a young age I believed she was not just wonderful, but also incredibly famous, a rock star. Later I understood that she wasn't as big as Hendrix (she is famous in the jazz world, but nowhere near a rock star!), and I remember being heartbroken about it.
Pop is so intertwined with capitalism. Capitalism censors what kinds of expressions people get to identify with. Capitalism is a machine playing an endless tape loop of female stereotypes fulfilling erotic ideals, as you say. It's a very lonely experience, because censorship always creates loneliness, even in the biggest stadiums with thousands of people singing along to the same song.
I have always felt a connection with punk and riot grrrl, but I was too young to be part of it, and I never really connected with the music. I loved the politics, the will to express, about courage and people coming together, but musically, I felt much more lonely, like a bystander. Perhaps I needed a different kind of connection between the emotional and intellectual, or between music and thought. I took much more inspiration from film makers, visual artists and poets than from pop music or punk.
The review of my album in The Quietus was very moving for me to read, because it explains this relationship better than I could: "Individually, disgorging the early force-feedings of patriarchy remains tough and lonely work. I fear I'll die half-mended and I regret the head-start I wasted 20 years ago because I didn't like riot grrl. Friends, film and books have informed my journey but rarely has music. That is until Norwegian musician Jenny Hval's fifth album Apocalypse, Girl took me to a place I didn't know music could reach into and unravel."
In your own commentary on "Sabbath" on Genius.com, you say you were inspired by Kate Bush's practice of constructing different characters. Listening to Bush changed my life as a high schooler precisely because of this: I'd never heard a woman sing as a man before, or, really, sing songs that weren't about desiring a man, at least on the surface. Yet in myth and legend, and throughout literature, women do so much more than desire men, and they often shift identities. Why is popular music so far behind in this way, do you think?
I wish pop music wasn't so far behind. I often wonder why pop music, and with that I mean mainstream pop music, can't connect with the rest of the art world (beyond the work of producers). Perhaps it's too public and too popular? Perhaps it's too shaped by capitalist interests? Or perhaps it's more about how it is seen and heard. We are still quite naive with recorded music, it's still a young art form compared to paintings or books. Do we even know how to think about it yet?
Or perhaps all music that makes the world complex stays in the underground. If that's the case, we're not taking the public, our listeners, very seriously. But we can think big and keep trying.