Norway’s Jenny Hval combines avant-garde structures with music at the edge of pop, working with explicit lyrics exploring sex and gender, and subverting expectations. In anticipation of her April 18th performance as part of Unsound Festival NY, she speaks with ISSUE curator Lawrence Kumpf about her work and process.
Lawrence Kumpf: I wanted to start off by talking to you about your process of songwriting. You have a background in creative writing, a BFA from the University of Melbourne and more recently a Masters in Literary Studies from the University of Oslo (with a thesis on Kate Bush). You’ve published various articles, short stories and poems, and recently published a book in Norwegian: Perlebryggeriet. It’s clear from listening to your music that writing and words form the armature of your songs, but you also have a strong interest in the performativity of the voice. When you work, are there certain concepts and ideas that you feel translate especially well into your music as opposed to your written work? How does your process vary between these two modes?
Jenny Hval: Working with words in a musical setting has always been my main interest. I sometimes just improvise wordless pieces, but even then there is a string of words informing the music in some way or other. I tend to get hung up on voices, and I try to memorize the way people speak like I’m a human sound library. When I moved to Australia, this was how I learnt to speak English properly. Copy-paste, copy-paste (and eventually, songs and monologues).
I think working with both performativity and writing in my music gives me a certain freedom. There is no set way for me to make music — I don’t feel I have to write the ultimate melody or a strong lyric. If there is a combination of elements — some words and a way to pronounce them — that somehow seems to create a personality, then I have an idea to work with. Around that, there is a lot of improvisation, even if the song ends up sounding traditional. The difficult part of working like this is that I have so many written pieces that I just can’t find ways to put to music. They just don’t speak. It also means that I don’t feel like I belong anywhere — not in pop music, not in the experimental music world, definitely not in the writing community. But that may be a good thing.
LK: The word inhabiting as opposed to belonging comes to mind. Unlike other musicians ‘experimenting’ in the field of popular music, your work maintains a fairly traditional pop song structure but deviates in lyrical content. You’ve referred to yourself in the past as an artist with Pop Music as your form of expression. Can you elaborate on that a little more?
JH: I think this depends on who you’re comparing me to…any examples?
LK: I was thinking about artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and James Ferraro, who are creating their work through traditional processes of sampling, cutting and reconfiguring fragments of popular culture – processes that are easily identified as ‘experimental’ today. Ital or Laurel Halo, who are both playing Unsound New York this year, also have a method of working that follows this trajectory. But I see your approach as being fairly distinct — more in the tradition of Kate Bush or Diamanda Galás. It’s not bound to the traditions outlined above but still maintains a critical relationship to pop music.
JH: I guess I think of myself as an artist with pop music as an expression because I use the pop music form as a way to think. There’s an element of analysis, or thinking, in my songs or concerts. I write pop song essays (and, at the moment, a book). When I did my thesis on Kate Bush, I decided to listen to her music as if it were modern poetry. It was a great experience, and I found so many natural similarities between the two.
LK: Can you talk a little more about your project on Kate Bush?
JH: I wrote my Master’s thesis on “The Singing Voice as Literature,” and wrote about her albums The Dreaming and The Sensual World. Her work from the 80s is very centered around the voice: layers of voice, vocal effects, accents, microphone technique–but her voice is always working with words. I wanted to listen to the words as sound poetry, instead of reading them and talking separately about what the voice and lyrics do. I used theories of sound poetry, and wrote about Charles Bernstein, Christian Bôk, Caroline Bergvall…
LK: And with the voice comes the body, which is the subject of Viscera, your first album released under your own name. This album marks a shift from your solo project RocketstotheSky. Why did you decide to release Viscera under your own name and bring in a full band for the project?
JH: It seems weird to bring in the band and give up the band name at the same time, but I felt that Viscera, being set in the body, needed my own name, as if it were a medical record. The band was a natural progression. We’d played together since the release of my previous album, Medea, and I wanted to write songs that felt interesting for all of us to play. The guys in my band have played a lot of free improv, and I wanted to put elements of improvisation in there. It’s incredibly liberating to have songs that we can build – and change – every time we play them. Those elements gave the album an honesty – a visceral honesty – that I’m very proud of.
LK: Your last album, RocketstotheSky, was loosely based on the story of Medea, a woman who commits filicide after being abandoned by her husband. I tend to think of the album as approaching Euripides’ character from a number of different perspectives and distances, cracking open the play to reveal a myriad of personal and contemporary readings. Why was this story appealing to you and what was your approach to working with it? I know you’ve referenced Lars von Trier and are currently working on a project with Carl Theodor Dryer films. Did his version of Medea play a role?
JH: During my studies, I worked on a huge project where we wrote, directed and performed a project based around themes in Oedipus The King. I found it such a fantastic way to work–not having to invent a story, but rather inventing a contemporary unconscious for it.
I wanted to try out that way of working on an album, but felt that I needed to work with another play, and Medea (who is very lonely) resonated with me because I was working on my own. The main link to her wasn’t the lyrics, but the production and the production process – the spare, electronic soundscapes, the reverb, the loneliness of the characters and voice.
I’ve never seen von Trier’s Medea but I was looking for it and couldn’t find it at the time. I ended up watching Pasolini’s Medea, the one with Maria Callas, over and over. But yes, I’m inspired by von Trier’s other work. “Antichrist” walked straight into my book.
LK: I like this idea of the development of a contemporary unconscious as a working method — it’s interesting because in a way these plays you mention are inherently linked to our concept of the unconscious. In your last album, Viscera, you work explicitly with this dynamic of the inside/outside or rather the inside coming out, the unconscious bubbling up, ending with a description of the viscera coming out through the mouth while doing the downward dog. Can you speak a little bit to the content of this album?
JH: Viscera, like Medea, deals with creating a contemporary unconscious, but for the body. I’ve always written about the body (and studied it too — theatre studies, feminism…), and I like the idea of an unconscious body, a threatening body. So much in the day-to-day world is about controlling it — medicine, weight control — the contemporary body presented in the media, is a body without orifices. Everything is tight, stable and under control. But throughout Viscera, the body finds escape routes and creates a mess. In the yoga sequence, the lyrics are a slasher movie without a killer.
In Norway, most of the reviews interpreted my lyrics in a rather tabloid fashion. I’ve been called an exhibitionist so many times. But I don’t think Viscera is about an exhibitionist I — dealing with the unconscious is dealing with the collective. The album opens with the lyrics “I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris,” but the song is about how everyone’s sexuality awakens (whether they like it or not) in rush hour traffic. So many people touching.
LK: A slasher movie without the killer — this feels like an apt metaphor for thinking about Viscera. In the horror film the killer is often a stand in for the morality of the gaze — a punishment linked with sex. Without the moral figure of the killer, the prohibition against sexual desire, you’d have a space for the creation of pleasure. In this sense your work feels inherently feminist – reinserting the female body into the ‘clean’ realm of the pop song. The question of the work being called a form of exhibitionism is interesting because it seems to be symptomatic of a fundamental discomfort with female pleasure in popular culture. How have you been reading this reception of your work? Is it local to Norway?
JH I think of Viscera as a feminist record. It’s a work where the gaze is impossible – on the inside, there is no gaze. So what is sexuality without the gaze, and what is the female body in art when it’s not looked at or looking back? (Laura Mulvey calls it “To-be-looked-at-ness.” I’m very much into these things at the moment, because I’m writing a book and a new album where this gaze is central. I feel like I’m in a land of rituals and ruins.)
Yes, there seems to be a surprising discomfort with female pleasure amongst Norwegian critics – or perhaps it’s just my pleasure/art that is too out there? Even worse, I sometimes get the feeling that it is judged as weak or even anaemic when the music is quiet or more complex. I should add that the reviews I’m referring to are positive reviews. But a duo project I’m in just got slaughtered in WIRE by a prominent feminist who seemed to interpret certain lyrics in an equally tabloid fashion. She also placed me in a political landscape. It’s a pretty interesting review.
LK: Yes, I read that. I’m not familiar with Nina Power’s writing but she obviously has a specific political agenda in the review, which may or may not be relevant to your album. The main concern was with a song of yours being used in an advertisement?
JH: Yes, that was her starting point. One of my older songs was used in a British TV ad last year. It’s the only time I’ve done that, and although my decision at the time was pretty ill-informed, I was pretty surprised to find it as a starting point for a review of a Nude on Sand album. I guess I was naive. I will definitely be thinking about it, but I can’t really understand it in relation to the music on the Nude on Sand album.
LK: Can you speak a little about your new album and upcoming book?
JH: I’m doing a big project this year although it will probably not be ready until next year). It started with a silent film concert I did about six months ago to the film La passion de Jeanne d’Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer. We played a lot of new music (which will become my next album), and I wrote a little script that just didn’t stop expanding. Now it’s turning into a small book.
I find Dreyer extremely interesting. Coming from Protestant Scandinavia (he was Danish), I think I understand why his films are so sparse — almost no props, hardly any detail. In his Joan of Arc film, you see almost nothing but close-ups of her face. There is something so violent in that — something dirty, like I’m watching porn. The spectators have a direct view into a brightly lit face of a tortured woman.
What’s new about this project (for me) is that it’s contemporary. It speaks from here and now. Even though the film is from 1928 and my project is a natural continuation of my work, it’s pretty direct. I don’t quite know how it will turn out at this point, but it was a real shift to write the new music. And I’m still writing. We’ll play a little bit of the new stuff at Unsound.