Songs Cycles: Jenny Hval On The Importance Of Uncertainty
Fourteen hours ago, Jenny Hval was mashing watermelon and confetti into the compact stage at the Oslo club Vulkan. Now the Norwegian artist is struggling to transition into a more rarified mode. The 36-year-old is hiding from the sticky mid-September sun in her studio in gentrifying Grünerløkka, rehearsing — this weekend she'll form part of a choir backing homegrown superstar Susanne Sundfør at the 8,700-capacity Spektrum arena. "I'm bad at singing in choirs," Hval says, sitting on an old wooden chair and clutching each foot to the opposite hip, knees pointing forward like an arrow. "I'm not used to being told how to sing, and also I'm not used to singing with other people so much — so I don't have that ear where you listen to the others and try to adjust. I'm just like, raaargh, my own thing."
Although Hval is a true individual, her own show suggests a version of communion. At last night's Norwegian live premiere of her sixth album, Blood Bitch, she was flanked by three dancers who undertook a variety of tasks while she worked through the record in order. They enacted a workout routine inspired by b-movie actress Linnea Quigley's zombie-themed exercise tapes, daubed messy pastel portraits of the gamine Hval on individual easels, and cycled their legs in the air while they writhed in an inflatable paddling pool filled with jelly. Halfway through the show, the cosmic, shadowy music stopped, and the performers climbed out of the glistening slime. They joined Hval behind a table at the back of the stage and enjoyed a lurid pink feast, slurping rosé through straws and munching on hunks of watermelon while chatting unselfconsciously among themselves, paying the crowd no heed. The smell of sugar steadily overpowered the venue's inbuilt beery hum. After five minutes, the performers resumed their positions and embarked on the show's more frenzied second half.
Her blonde eyebrows still stained orange from stage make-up, Hval is thrilled with the performance, which is never likely to be repeated. (Even jelly and table decorations stretch the budget.) Despite resembling a staging of the Last Supper by deviant video artist Ryan Trecartin, there was no determined narrative or symbolism; it was just a chance for her and her collaborators to "explore our friendship and the ideas that come about when we hang out," she says in her Australian-tinged accent, a lasting trace of her time spent studying for an undergraduate degree in creative writing and performance art in Melbourne. She calls being on stage with them her safety net as a solo artist. "It can be really tough to be bold, but working with other people that understand you and give you self-confidence can make things a lot more bold and clear, and that I really enjoy."
It's hard to believe that Hval has ever had problems being bold. Her worldview was fully formed on To Sing You Apple Trees, her 2006 debut under the name Rockettothesky, the product, she says, of having honed her voice as a cultural critic for several Norwegian newspapers and author of two novels. Her work has always turned the body and desire inside-out, and no article written about her has ever failed to mention her provocative lyrics: She arrived in town "with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris," as she sang on "Engines in the City," the opening track from 2011's bodily Viscera, her first album under her own name. The title track of 2013's surface-obsessed Innocence Is Kinky opened with a similar admission: "At night I watch people f****** on my computer." Amidst critiques of the crooked paths women are offered to so-called empowerment, last year's comic treatise Apocalypse, girl asked, "What is soft dick rock?"
Critics attempted to boil that particular question down into a definitive ideology, flattening and essentializing Hval's complex work, as if she thought 10 songs could unseat decades of cock-rocking bombast. It changed her experience of the material. "I think it's kind of unfortunate, but I also think that it's no single person's fault," she says. "That's how things are reproduced and reduced with how the Chinese whispers of Internet works now. In Norway we call it 'sharpening' — like sharpening a pencil, that's the tabloid way of writing. We need to reduce it in order to really say something because it needs to sell, and I wonder, why do we let that happen?"
Beyond concern for the state of journalism, the prurient attention made her anxious that she would never have had a platform if not for those lyrics. "There are occasions where avant garde art meets tabloid media and it's a perfect fit," she says, recalling an Oslo show where the North Carolina performance artist Liv Ann Young pulled blueberries from her vagina — considered the cleanest part of the body — and asked the audience to taste them. "That show was quoted in a tabloid newspaper then it was all over. It's unfortunate — I'm certainly not writing those lines in order to get recognition in that way. I find it very problematic. I wonder, if I hadn't said 'cunt' even once, would I even be reviewed anywhere? You can do whatever you want as long as you say something that seems sharpened."
Hval wrote Apocalypse, girl to exploit the spotlight she received following Innocence Is Kinky, boiling the artist down to (what she calls) a one-dimensional political commentator to see how it felt. "What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market?" she sang on "Take Care of Yourself," sounding more ecstatic with every question. Although she still enjoys performing the songs, doing so became harder because it was "so self-conscious" — the writing was always present. Hval pauses to check a text from her partner about the neighborhood drug dealers pulling up outside their place again. "Looking down at them on the street from the second floor, it's a little bit like being on stage sometimes," she says. "And that's an aspect that I still struggle with, this idea that you're higher."
With Blood Bitch, Hval wanted to be less present in the music "to be more present in it." She started writing a month after the release of Apocalypse, girl, using a newly acquired Arp Odyssey synthesizer. Like its predecessor, it's a collaboration with Lasse Marhaug, a noise artist whose lack of familiarity with the elements of pop allowed them to have more abstract, philosophical conversations about the production. "I really wanted to let the recording process almost dictate what the lyrics came out to be," she says. "I wanted the words to be lost in the music, and that was something I'd dreamt about making for a long time. I didn't want to make a commentary; whenever I had to speak something, we decided that I was gonna confide in someone or write a letter, not be the narrating voice of [Apocalypse's] 'Kingsize.'"
The effect is weightless but haunting, like the night sky refracted in the ocean's depths. "I'm so tired of subjectivity," Hval sings on "Female Vampire," her voice sweet and disembodied above the Arp's flared arpeggiations. Despite Hval jettisoning self-consciousness, Blood Bitch is her most intimate album. The melodies feel as shadowy and precise as a mushroom's gills, each song working as a complete functioning organism. "Like capitalism/It works like unrequited love that way/It never rests," she sings on "The Great Undressing," as a soft techno beat pounds ever onward. In "Period Piece," greyed-out dub soundtracks the opening of another dimension: "In the doctor's office/The speculum pulls me open," she recounts blankly, "spacing the space/Accidental sci-fi/Regulating my aperture." And a heart seems to beat beneath "Conceptual Romance," the artery that pumps blood around the album.
That song's title and chorus — "Conceptual romance is on my mind/I call it abstract romanticism" — both come from Chris Kraus' acclaimed 1994 novel I Love Dick, which Hval says has been a huge influence since she discovered it in 2012. As she was writing the music, she started reading from the copy she keeps on the studio shelf. (She calls it a "very sloppy version" of Kate Bush's interpolation of James Joyce's Ulysses on "The Sensual World" which was part of her MA thesis on Bush's work.) Initially she intended to rewrite the whole thing, but ended up leaving some of Kraus' words behind. "To me that's very personal, because I love her work and there's nothing that my brain wants to do more than get closer to what I love," she says warmly. "It's like a conceptual romance in that way, the song itself."
The song is as much about her relationship with art as it is romantic love: Both depend on the kind of infatuation prior to consummation, the energy that fuels I Love Dick. "Me being a very shy person, those before-situations have been most of my life, because I was too shy to say something," says Hval. "So I have this strong connection between the idea of myself and the idea of conceptual romance. Then there's the idea of Chris Kraus' conceptual romance with Dick, which is pure rejection, but she keeps going into this really interesting idea: What if it doesn't stop there, what if it goes on? What is infatuation, and what has it to do with feminism, art, the voice, literature, and everything that we reject because it's considered poor?"
The thought overhauled and inverted Hval's thinking, and inspired her obsession with imperfect, "bad" art. On Blood Bitch, she became obsessed by the human feel of the technical failures in Jess Franco's low-budget '70s horror films, which she admits are mostly thinly veiled rape fantasies. If she had any worries about the themes, it was that they didn't affect her enjoyment of the movies. "I think you have to let go of certain things if you can, and that is different for every artist, but to be able to work with art is to be able to see things beyond the political, because if you just see things from the political then quickly your brain becomes about the censorship of many things that actually have a lot of artistic value. And I'm not saying that about the most horrible, racist black metal lyrics, but with these films, it's a very limited way of watching movies."
Blood Bitch has been billed as Hval's "vampires and periods" album, which is admittedly an appealing prospect. Both themes appear — most notably on "Untamed Region," where she expresses her surprise at awaking to blood on the sheets, feeling ageless: "I feel old in this hotel / As if surprised I still have it in me / And yet so young / Hollow / Unsure if from young or old." But this time, she's made sure that the record can't be boiled down to a single thesis. She's happy that the word "blood" is in the title, because she thinks of it as an act of giving, though that generosity is counterbalanced by the loneliness in the record, which was partially inspired by her touring experiences. Hval isn't interested in being part of the mainstream movement to "normalize" menstruation; rather, to preserve the mysticism of the body, "the spirit, the way you hear things, the way you see the world, and that adds to our everyday lives and so many of things we experience, even if they're trivial, also have enormous power. There's so much of human experience that's not possible to contain in sensible language and realistic stories."
"I need to keep writing because everything else is death," Hval sings on "The Great Undressing." With Blood Bitch, rather than forge a conscious theme, she aimed "to make something that creates a state where for a short moment it's okay to die. So on the one hand, wanting to reach those moments that are a consummation, absolutely, but also there's this need to long for something in order to write. If I don't long for a sound when I'm making music I won't make anything."
More surprising than anything regarding periods or the undead is the apparent anxiety on the record: Hval's lyrics repeatedly return to failure, abjection, unrequited love and loss of voice — the antithesis of Apocalypse's confident pronouncements. "I must find some kind of art form where I can call my tongue back from the underground," she sings on "Period Piece," while the final two songs on the record confront the need for precise language to express desire. Fizzing like a vintage MC Solaar track, "Secret Touch" is a death drive through illicit experiences, "and later we regret it, because we have no language to express that it was both ravishing, destructive, and most of all, absolutely necessary!" Hval sings in raptures. The mood drops with the eerie twinkle of "Lorna": "No-one ever asked me, how do I desire?" she asks mournfully. "I don't think anyone ever talked to me using the word desire at all. No-one ever told me or taught me how to contain it. It kept existing, but there was no language / Does anyone have a language for it? Can we find it?"
The lyrics don't relate to the romantic specificities of Hval's own life, but her relationship with her work. In an age where we praise the gentle radicalism of middlebrow entertainment like the Kardashians and The Great British Baking Show, and so-called subversion is a marketable aesthetic, where does that leave artists like Hval? "It seems so fashionable to be radical that I don't understand what it means," she says. "Now anything can be experimental, it's not something you are, it's something you do, so to me it's very strange to always have to say, 'No, I do pop music; listen, it has two choruses, it's amazing!' But it's not a very interesting discussion because the words are all gibberish now so I don't know what anything means."
Her mission now is to unearth a form of expression that can exist outside of the capitalist machine: Avant-garde art is often censored in its original form, but then appropriated as strategy by politicians: "Untamed Region" features a sample from an Adam Curtis documentary about Putin's advisors doing just that, to keep the country in a perpetual state of confusion. "What kind of language can we have that is outside, that is our own?" asks Hval. "That could also be on a personal level — how can I say things and it's really from me? How can I say things and it really represents my desires? Those moments where you say things you didn't know that you'd say, and you feel like they're coming from your burning body or something. It's a moment of wanting uncertainty to discover something that is personal. That, to me, is very much to do with the art that I do."