Jenny Hval “Language is the most sensual body part that we have in some ways.”

In music, exerting yourself between the spiritual, the sexual, the emotional, and the physical — and sometimes all of them at once — creates a holistic approach that goes far deeper than what most songs take on. You can attain a greater sense of the self in this manner, making everything feel more whole, especially when delivering your message in a way that feels more physical than aural. That’s something Jenny Hval has been working toward in recent years. After breaking out with Innocence Is Kinky, Hval struck even higher in Apocalypse, girl, which we gave EUREKA! honors to earlier this year. While some might focus on the more sexual deliberations that briefly appeared due to its supposed prominence in the prior album, Hval brings out the more complicated aspects of being human through her music.

Hval sat down with TMT and talked about purity, the nature of language and performance in music, the culture of American tours, and the concept of emptiness. Also, I learned a little bit about the Norwegian language.

How’s your tour going? I recall reading that in Vancouver, somebody stole your wig.

They did!

So how’s that going? Did you get it back?

No! Someone’s probably having a good time with it right now. I’m hoping. I mean, I have several, so it’s not the end of the world nor the end of the tour. But you shouldn’t steal. [commanding voice] Don’t Steal from Poor Artists. Don’t Take Their Stuff! [laughs] That would be the word of wisdom. I’ve never experienced that before, people stealing stuff. People take setlists. And I’m a bit cheeky: For me, this is an American thing. Maybe because I’ve also played so much here now. When people started taking setlists after I played shows, I was like, [makes a look of concern] “You’re taking that! I need to do something!” So I started writing fake titles. It’s very childish, I know. It doesn’t matter so much anymore, though, because I’m so used to it. I’ve never understood this kind of ‘taking something’ culture. I’m more of a giver. Take other things!

Would you say there are other things that happen in America that you don’t see elsewhere?

It’s been different than in other times previously. People know my music and engage with it in a more emotional way. It might also be that we’re performing differently, in that I’m not playing, I’m rolling around on the floor a lot. Hopefully that creates a different type of intimacy than when you stand playing an instrument.

So you’d say it’s more performance art?

I’d say performance is a good word, because it can be both. It can be musical performance or an artistic performance. But it can also be a performance in that it’s you and I sitting here. It can be anywhere in between also.

It’s funny, I thought this was your first big tour, and it was until my friend told me she opened for you at the Empty Bottle last year that I was all, “Oh, riiiiight…”

Oh did she? I wonder if I caught her or it was a busy day….

With that said were you solo or were you with Susanna (and I’m about to butcher this) Wallumrød?

You added an American flavor or something. It’s [correct pronunciation]. That’s how we say it in Norwegian, but then you’re not Norwegian. I think you did pretty well. I have never played a show in the U.S. with Susanna. We haven’t been able to work that out yet. Our project is pretty complex. It requires a lot of preparation and many facilities because there are a lot of projections. So we haven’t been able to play it yet. But I have toured a few times. I’ve played at the Empty Bottle twice. But it’s pretty under the radar, really. What I play isn’t very well known.

I was noting how a lot of interviews, the first thing they mentioned is your reading of poet Mette Moestrup…Did I get that right?

Yep, yep! Good job.

Thanks. There are a lot of people who have been mentioning this. I understand this was part of the press release, but still, what do you make of it?

I wrote it in the press release because I love her work. It’s hard for a poet to get known outside of your country when your country’s small like Denmark or Norway. When you write, you write in your own language as she does. I’m lucky because I can read Danish, which is great, because there is so much fabulous writing. But she only quite recently got translated more.

When you get the pleasure of seeing yourself on stage, and you wonder, “Does my shoulder look like that?” it’s because you get to see things that you never see when you look at yourself in the mirror. I love those things. They estrange me a little bit and then I go, “Ooh, interesting!” [laughs] So I feel like I’m a stranger moving in a very comfortable but awkward body.

There’s one thing that I’ve noticed with a lot of your work but particularly with Apocalypse, girl. There is this idea of oblivion that seems inherent. For example, the repeated lines, “What are we taking care of?” The music itself sort of dissolves sonically, so that everything kind of collapses under its own weight, and leaves this emptiness to it. The last song, Holy Land, the fact you stretched out “Angels and Anaemia…”

We did more than stretch it. We did a lot of stuff to it. But the material is various stretched versions of that song.

In any case, in regards of oblivion, how does that play into your thinking? Is it pervasive? Or is it more subconscious?

I would use three other words than “oblivion.” To me, “Holy Land” is about weightlessness, which is about a certain religious collective death drive, an all-linking death drive in religion together. And in other songs… Yeah, I do think of collapse a lot. I enjoy many things I see in everyday life as this modern emptiness.

Sort of like what you said with “Kingsize,” “no future.”

Actually, it’s “no ‘no future.’”

Ah! My mistake, didn’t pick up on that.

It’s fine. You can’t always pick up on everything. I’m referring to an Italian political theorist, Franco Berardi. He’s a brilliant thinker. But if I get more into that, I’ll misquote and dissect the wrong body!

We’ll be talking about the body in a little bit. Going into the song… eh, give me a second here. I scribbled down these notes in a random manner. There’s no sense of order to it…

Sometimes performing feels like that, and you need to restructure. But I have the benefit of time, unlike you right now, not really having the ability to be all, “Hey, let’s do this again tomorrow! We’ll have a much better interview then! Ten takes, we got it!”

Interviews are such a weird thing. You’re trying to initiate a conversation, yet there’s still this bit of artifice involved. When something flows naturally, it kind of comes out of nowhere.

Yeah, that’s very much like performing. Some days are hard. Some shows I don’t know why things aren’t floating. Other nights, I invent songs on the spot and it comes out of nowhere. It’s just the energy that is different. Anyway, you were saying “Going into the songs…”

Right. Going into the songs themselves, one of the things I noticed after “Kingsize” there’s three tracks that sort coalesce in a symbiotic way. I was reading some of the annotations you made on Genius – by the way, pretty awesome that you did that.

Well, I didn’t even know what it was. I’m too old or too obsolete.

It’s still relatively new…you’re cutting-edge on that!

That’s great. I mean, I loved it. It was a very good interview, and there were annotations that came out of it. It was a true pleasure. Anyway, going on…

It was these three songs, and you noted that they hold their own ideologies. I’m curious to know what you would then see it as if people were to view it as a singular structure?

We created the structures at the very very end of mixing. Usually, mixing is getting each song right and then putting them in order. But when we mixed, we just kept restructuring and building larger parts. To me, it was amazing because then we made 12 different albums, but only one could be sent to mastering and the printer. We created blocks like that, and we made blocks that no longer exist. We do this live a lot too. It was really amazing to see how the songs came together as larger parts and how they could drift off and take energy from each other. Those three songs and “Into Heaven” in particular are like a lot of different stuff that is then repeated. There are repetitions in each song from the one before it.

In the beginning, I didn’t want them next to one another for that reason. “Kingsize” is also repeated in “Take Care of Yourself.” There are lots of references between them. So I was a bit worried it was a bit too self-referential and too much to take. But because we built larger parts from it and let them sort of have a subconscious in the next song, we’re kind of just then building. One song just keeps building underneath the next one, which I really liked. It’s a new thing for me to be doing so much mixing. It’s like doing gardening: It keeps growing. [laughs]

That’s kind of interesting really. You’re not necessarily building a concept album, but you’re something that revolves around an array of concepts.

Absolutely. I think I was not thinking of it as a concept album at all. It was more the way that it grew together that makes it like these little phrases, sounds, ways of using effects of sounds, or field recordings. It’s these small things building up to larger concepts and creating something that repeats enough for it to be hooky in a way. When you repeat stuff or ways of saying stuff or linking them, that’s something I enjoy because I come from pop music. Instead of choruses that are bound and keep pumping, I have tiny minuscule references that keep building. I would think of it more that way: Hooks instead of concepts. But it’s certainly possible to read it as more conceptual. I don’t know what a conceptual album is beyond what was made in the 70s, because it’s also building on history and the idea of making albums.

In so much of our culture, women have been imprinted with impurity in so many different ways. But also then, because of that, they also somehow contain more purity. It’s such a complex thing. It’s a wanting. If anything, purity is something you want, which is kind of horrible.

I guess what it is, too, is that concept albums back then were more building on a narrative than anything. In your case, it’s more about creating a discussion. It gets into another question I had in mind: With Viscera and Innocence Is Kinky, I felt there was this sort of internalization involved based on the way the sound was projected and lyrics had this inward scope. Here, there’s a more external element. It has a performative mannerism to it, which makes me wonder: Would you say you’re conversing with the audience?

Well, I think we had a lot of discussions in recording about doubles and about intimacy in conversation. We were talking a lot about the movie Persona, which was a really groundbreaking movie from 1966. There are two women in it, and they filmed and arranged everything in close-ups. One woman is silent, the other is speaking. The one that is speaking is a nurse who is taking care of a patient at a hospital. The latter’s fallen silent I think in reaction to the horrors of the world. It was some kind of sublime experience with horror. We were thinking of these images with something as intimate, but speaking to another person or being in another space with others. It probably translated into the way the album was made.

The album was very extroverted in the way it uses sounds because Lasse [Marhaug, the producer] himself is very extroverted with the way he produces them. He uses a lot of very clear sounds – kind of abrupt rich textures, but which are very direct at the same time. Working with that made me project a little bit in sound. Also, the way the vocals are produced, we went into them close. But I wanted to ask questions rather than state things. I’ve been stating a lot of stuff in my last two records. So I started writing lyrics where there were so many questions involved. It was intriguing to me because I would have to perform it differently. A question is something different from a statement. Rock and roll is full of statements…except sometimes when people say “Why? WHY?” [laughs]

Moreover, the conversations that I mentioned in that film are complex in that the one voice starts speaking both women’s stories. So it’s an exploration of things getting too close so that things become unclear. When you get really close to a person, you stop seeing the features of the face. You don’t see anything in particular beyond a color or shape. This is a very fascinating thing to me. In this movie, it’s the same thing. The women get very close because the film is building that way in pictures, until finally at the end, when one of the women is speaking, she saying things that she shouldn’t know or seemingly wouldn’t know without being the other, silent woman. There are a lot of interesting ways to approach this: Being not too intimate, but just exploring this borderline of intimacy. I think this also plays into the meeting between religion and death drive. They’re all disillusions of an idea of self that’s locked or solid and good. It opens up for crises or opportunities.

Why don’t we talk about religion, death drive, and religion a little bit? The connection between these three appears in a lot of contexts, especially Christian contexts.

But that’s the one I know the best. I’m from a country that has a lot of these things.

It’s interesting that you say that because I could sense – and forgive me if I’m wrong – this syncreticism to a certain extent on this album. There was a lot of iconography and illumination involved on the sonic level, which is a very Catholic [or Orthodox] mentality. But when you spoke in your lyrics, there’s this greater effort towards a sense of purity and personal relationships, which I tend to associate more with Protestant elements.

Well, Norwegians come from that to a certain extent. I don’t remember what the movements are called because I come from a non-religious family. But when I did my previous album, I was studying Carl Dreyer a lot. Danish filmmaker. He was very much about elimination in his work. He even eliminated shadows in his sets to get back to a puritan idea of the human picture, or maybe pure soul, which is fucked up and was likely something he was criticizing. Other people would describe better at what I’m trying to do. I’m not the best interpreter of my own work from the outside. But I definitely do touch upon speaking about these elements. I’m definitely quite critical of it.

The idea of purity to me is insane. And yet it’s genuine. It’s a very complex thing. On the one hand, it belongs in a religious world that has at many times too rigid ideas of what it is. On the other, there’s no room for curiosity, which annoys me to the core. I do at times search for very pure moments in this album — like in “Holy Land” — and in various ways try to unravel things and strip them down, making them really simple. It’s sort of like what I did on the song “Why This.”

But at the same time, there is always so much curiosity as well. I like to present myself as someone struggling between lots of different ideals and ways of expressing yourself and being problematic or being in a problematic position of expressing something. That’s what I like, that’s what I’m like, and that’s how I enjoy performing. It’s what I like to see when viewing performance art: Admitting that something is complex and not just giving into the stadium rock of single lines and arms in the air and simplicity and “let’s just come together right now!” It’s that, but you just [makes crushing noises] crush it as well. “But I’m complex!” “But let’s praise the Lord.” “But I’m complex!”… Not that I ever want to praise the Lord.

When you get really close to a person, you stop seeing the features of the face. You don’t see anything in particular beyond a color or shape. This is a very fascinating thing to me.

Another subject that you brought out is this discussion of purity being a particular concern. It sort of reminds me how you discuss sexuality in this album but especially in Innocence is Kinky and Viscera. I mean, there’s this fear of sexuality in this country, and I suspect that a part of it is that there’s a very high premium on purity as a commodity.

I like the use of “high premium.” Like putting a lot of stocks in it.

Yeah. I guess it goes to the historiography of this country being a new idea, an artifice, in comparison to the organic development over centuries of much of Europe. It’s interesting to have a discussion on both sides of it, really.

What’s problematic is that once you have an unattainable idea such as purity, it just reminds me of that ideal of all animals are equal but some are more equal than others. This kind of idea — for me anyway, coming from studying feminist theory and history — that you just see so much throughout history that purity is something that is unequally distributed, and in so much of our culture, women have been imprinted with impurity in so many different ways. But also then, because of that, they also somehow contain more purity. It’s such a complex thing. It’s a wanting. If anything, purity is something you want, which is kind of horrible.

Going into purity a bit further, the American aspect of purity brings to mind that your album is bookended by discussions of America to a certain extent.

The fact that I mention America is me talking about the apocalypse. The big thing. It’s saying something that I previously would have avoided because it’s such a big thing. It’s a cliché. Saying “America” is a cliché, at least when you’re an unknown Norwegian artist. It’s like trying too hard or something. I mention it because I’ve been here a bit, but also because through being here, I felt like I needed to record this album in Oslo, not here or anywhere else. I also needed to write more about where I come from. So there’s this weird link on the album that in one way starts off in America.

It’s very nice that people think I’m discussing America, because they see something in it that maybe belongs here as well. But to me, it’s actually very much a discussion of belonging, longing, and where I come from, on top of mentioning America. I come from a place in Norway that’s essentially the Bible Belt. There are actually a lot of American pastors who moved to that part of Norway and were a big part of the new Christian Jesus revolution movement when I was in high school. I met all the stuff and it felt like America’s arrived here, but that America. So it was strange part of my life in that sense.

So, by visiting America, you can recall that aspect of your past to a certain extent.

I feel like when I grow older I reconnect with things here and there. And reconnecting is not about nostalgia as much as it is realizing all the interesting things that were there. In addition, there’s reconnecting with all of the ideas that I’ve forgotten about, I’d run away from, or connect something very personal and autobiographical with something that is current, political, and collective. It’s where I see myself as part of a greater self and maybe that connection I just discussed there was me seeing myself here a little bit. It’s trying to understand what ‘here’ is.

Going into your work with Susanna, would you say that this has had an influence on your work and performance?

I wouldn’t say no. But it’s important to remember that the project with Susanna was in 2008-09. It had far more of an impact on Viscera, which was recorded afterward, than it did on subsequent albums. We started playing again last year because the album was released so late, six years after it was made. It was just recorded live and we didn’t do anything about it until much later. But then we got the opportunity to play so much, and it did get me thinking a lot about performing. Yet it kind of made me want to perform less, focusing more on performing and less on the technical stuff.

Meshes is a very technical project, I enjoy it very much. But it was interesting to start just playing that material just as I was starting to record Apocalypse, girl and realizing that, ah, yes, this works great with Meshes, but I want to do this completely different thing with my solo stuff now. So I think that Meshes has definitely influenced what I’ve done a lot in many different ways because it’s so old. I’ve had the opportunity to think about it for a long time.

One thing I do recognize is that you focus a lot on the body as a whole. You have both an internal and external discussion about the body, about being detached from it to a certain extent from dreaming, from imagining what other ideals the body can be. So what would you say the body means to you as a whole?

Well, I haven’t been able to sum it up yet in a song. So I don’t think I have the power to do that in an interview. I think it just keeps being interesting to me. It keeps being the way to write about human experience, fleshly. Also, because I sing that, it makes sense to me. But as a whole? I don’t know.

Well, perhaps we can take this in a different direction. Another thing I’ve noticed is that there is this sensory element involved in your work. Do you think it comes out as an interaction with the senses?

In general?

Well, within the scope of how your lyrics impose this idea. I could be wrong on this.

Well, I’m not sure I entirely understand what you mean. But I can say that when I’d been recording Apocalypse, girl for a while, I had a break and started listening to a lot of music. I hadn’t been listening to music so much while I was recording. So I started listening to a lot of recent albums that had come out. I was trying to be interested in what was happening around me, and I realized that, “Oooh, this is all flowing in a different way.” Then I put on a take of one of the songs on this album that we recorded, and it’s full of consonants in the language. There are so many words, and the words have so many consonants. The pop music I was listening to was full of vowels, very long vowels, where you can use that beautiful voice that just holds those notes. And I’m all [makes weird clicky noises] in comparison. It was kind of freaky.

But then, it’s very tactile when you have language full of consonants, or even when you have more of the spoken element, even in melodies and in music. It’s very important for me to create language that is tactile or sensory. It’s almost like I can visualize it when I’m listening to music. That’s something I enjoy and I like about recording: Being able to put that experience down. It’s like some kind of seismometer, just writing that little line. I like there to be activity.

I was a bit worried it was a bit too self-referential and too much to take. But because we built larger parts from it and let them sort of have a subconscious in the next song, we’re kind of just then building. One song just keeps building underneath the next one, which I really liked. It’s a new thing for me to be doing so much mixing. It’s like doing gardening: It keeps growing.

I think that was where I was going: More how you project the lyrics than their content.

Oh, yes. I’m obsessed with pronunciation, intonation, speed. It’s all how you say things. My weird accent comes from an obsession with English accents and language, and Australian accents, and confusion. Copying what other people do like a child all my life. This is some kind of insane curiosity for language as an essential thing. Language is the most sensual body part that we have in some ways. That can be good, bad, frightening and wonderful. It doesn’t necessarily mean “Oooh, it’s so sensual!” but more in the strictest sense of the term.

Yeah, it sort of touches on what I saw in some of your work. “Rene Falconetti of Orleans” comes to mind, particularly the way you deliver the line “But innocence is just too kinky, isn’t it?” The way you intoned it… it adds a certain amount of depth to it that made it a more fascinating song.

There [are] a lot of different voices in that song. I haven’t thought about it for a long time. But it’s definitely a place where a different voice comes in. It’s sort of like director’s commentary.

I would even say a bit of a critical air to it.

Yeah. It’s very sarcastic.

Going back to the body, is that something that you’re projecting in your performances? Perhaps as a guideline or instrument?

I don’t really know if I’m that capable. Most of that work starts out in the writing. What I’m doing onstage is different from that, because it’s not thinking, it’s doing. When I write, I have the time to think. I can play with things. When I perform, it’s all there. There’s nothing. I can’t take anything away. I can’t edit. I can’t record like, “Oh we’ll do another take. Oh I moved my arm funny, we’ll do another take of that. Hang on audience!” It’s all there. It’s all coming at the spectator, and it’s all coming at me at the same time. So there’s a lot of synchronization I’m thinking about.

I don’t know what exact abilities I have in my performance as a human being on stage. That is different every night as well, because it depends on what I’m getting back from the audience and the vibe I get. It’s actually very different: Some nights are very awkward and I very much enjoy it. Some nights are awkward in a different way and I don’t feel like I enjoy, but perhaps it was interesting. Some nights I feel like it’s a failed performance, but that’s not always negative. My body feels very different depending on the room. I really try to just be on stage as not necessarily me in any kind of way but just this.

What you think of as me on stage is not always that. When you get the pleasure of seeing yourself on stage, and you wonder, “Does my shoulder look like that?” it’s because you get to see things that you never see when you look at yourself in the mirror. I love those things. They estrange me a little bit and then I go, “Ooh, interesting!” [laughs] So I feel like I’m a stranger moving in a very comfortable but awkward body because you’re not entirely comfortable on stage necessarily, especially when you’re thrown up on it. It takes a long time to get comfortable there — many years in my case — and even now, it’s not something I can pull off every night. But I definitely try very hard to show some level of comfort and discomfort, to be some kind of person in the middle of something, in conflict. A conflict in the body between the self and something.

Perhaps an understanding that this is not you necessarily.

Well, you can’t escape the idea that this is a very weird situation. It’s not where I would normally be. But at the same time, I can’t hide. This might actually be more me than when I’m not on stage. It also presents the idea that when I’m off stage, I’m also performing like everyone else.

And how much does self-doubt play not just into your writing and performances, but your thinking? There’s one song you mention it…

“Angels.” I just mention it once. But… I think self-doubt is meant as all those things: As losing yourself, but in a very positive way. As a person’s ability to actually think differently. Think not just of what people are giving back to you as to who you are, such as when you’re growing up and people say, “You’re like that!” It’s learning not to look at yourself or any self like that, learning to understand how you have to become an individual or a self. Part of that to me is doubt, because it makes a person more humble. I’m speaking about a lot of things there, but definitely about singing’s ability to create different beings that are allowing yourself to be open and thinking about self in a humble way. It’s not just about individual choice or very practical things or stereotypes, but an actual way of expanding. Thinking is expansion. Singing is expansion.

[Photo: Photograph: Jenny Merger Myhre]

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