Jenny Hval evades neat definitions

Nina Mashurova

In the past few years we’ve seen an impetus for individuals to identify their place in the world and speak directly from it. Being cognizant of our bodies and socioeconomic positions has enabled us to navigate culture and politics more deftly, to ask questions not only about what we fight for, but where we’re fighting from.

But while fighting for visibility is an important step in establishing space for various identities within the legal and social frameworks we have to navigate every day, visibility can also be a trap. Once visible and defined, one can be profiled, that data used for everything from government surveillance to targeted advertising. A famous 1993 cartoon once held that on the internet no one knew you were a dog. Now not only does everyone know you’re a dog but also what kind of dog you are as well as the dog parks you frequent and the shopping habits of your particular breed.

“As a woman of 34 now every time I’m watching something on YouTube, I get to see a diaper ad. They just put me into this category of my age and sex, which is extremely annoying,” laments Jenny Hval in a Skype call from her Oslo home. “So music to me has always been the idea of the opposite — you can see yourself or express yourself as something that’s not just placed on the top of your head, that’s not just objectifying you.”

As an artist, Hval is interested in in between spaces. Hval has been making music for over a decade, releasing two albums on Norwegian experimental label Rune Grammofon, a collaboration with vocalist Susanna Wallumrød, and multiple albums with other projects. Beyond that, she has written two books, produced collaborative performances and sound installations, and written for magazines, anthologies, and newspapers. “I find that I’m somewhere in between, which is liberating and also kind of a defense mechanism, to never quite say I’m a musician and never quite say I’m a writer,” she explains. “It makes me write more.”

Her work also explores the liberating properties of in between spaces —between feminine and masculine, grown-up and child, pop and noise. Unsatisfied with narrow definitions that serve targeted-demographic capitalism, Hval creates dreamlike dissociative music, transcending borders and acting as a medium for multiple voices to speak through her, both consciously and unconsciously. On Apocalypse, Girl, the Norwegian artist’s first American release, out on Sacred Bones, Hval continues to evade neat definitions.

Hval’s explicit focus is on the body. “I’m lying in our bed unable to sleep….I grab my cunt with my hand that isn’t clean,” she sings on “Take Care of Yourself.” Her thoughts wander to an equally languid other: “I imagine you’re doing the same, holding onto your soft dick.”

The language is jarring, but more so is the context—we’re used to hearing “Robin Thicke has a big dick,” because we’re used to hearing about bodies when they have a clear use value, usually as vehicles for reproduction or objects for consumption. But something about the reality of bodies as passive and vulnerable makes us blush. Further, Hval is 34—just about “Jesus’s age,” as she sings on “Heaven”, which is also older than American media likes their visibly romantic/sexual women to be, and singing about inhabiting an aging body in an agephobic media climate even poetically is in itself transgressive. “The body to me is not just talking about things like gender or reducing people to sexual organs,” Hval explains. “It’s also something political and social and plural. So when I talk about the body I’m also talking about things like social and capitalist and contemporary strategies.”

It might be less immediately apparent, but Hval’s album is full of critiques of capitalism and consumerism. The bodies in Hval’s world are shifting and fluid, existing beyond the narrow borders capitalism would pen them into. On “Sabbath”, Hval dreams of turning into a boy. She dreams also of a dog, which becomes a wolf, as a rock becomes a cliff, and another girl becomes a horse. On “Angels and Anaemia”, she transforms a boy into a girl simply by touching him. “I understand why people want to be reborn,” she sings on “Holy Land”. “I understand it in America.” But where America usually sings of birthing new souls into old bodies, Hval’s dream of America is one in which the possibilities for transformation are total.

“When I was growing up in the 80’s, I think I got this idea that pop music was the meeting point between male and female and also grownup and child,” she says. ”Maybe it had something to do with the time, because at the top of the charts in the 80’s were very androgynous songs and a lot of bands from the UK had lots of very high male voices.” At six years old, Hval found herself drawn to artists such as Bronski Beat, Erasure, and Pet Shop Boys, touched that people would choose to sing in voices that were outside of standard ideas of gender and age. Equally formative was Kate Bush’s “Cloudbursting” video, in which Bush plays a young boy. (Hval eventually wrote her master’s thesis about the literary potential of Bush’s songwriting.)

Androgyny is sometimes interpreted as the absence of gender, but it really means gender in its full spectrum: a combination of masculine and feminine elements, presented in various, fluctuating proportions. That’s the kind of androgyny that drew Hval in at an early age, the kind of androgyny very much present in her own work. It’s one of many factors that informs the amorphousness she tries to capture in her art: “That, to me, was this kind of wonderful world. I had this fascination that you as a singer can go outside what you’re seen as visually and the categories you’re always placed in. I love the freedom of that, especially now that the internet always knows about you.”

“At the same time, I know that people can hear that I have a female voice so maybe it’s an illusion,” she acknowledges, conscious of her positionality. “But at least there’s a joy in thinking this for me when I perform. It’s not always about achieving it but it’s definitely about experiencing it to a degree.”

Unsatisfied with narrow definitions that serve targeted-demographic capitalism, Hval creates dreamlike dissociative music, transcending borders and acting as a medium for multiple voices to speak through her, both consciously and unconsciously.

This desire to unearth and give voice to elements that might otherwise be muted informs her songwriting process as well. Hval began recording herself when she was 19 or 20, improvising spoken and musical ideas to a small three-track digital recorder. The process of recording and improvising has stayed with her, as a step in her process as well as a source of inspiration. “I never grow tired of that, ranting on tape,” she says. “Things start happening when you turn off the self-censorship antennas.”

The improvised recordings will often make it onto an album, either in their original form or as source material. “I kind of just copy what I did when I first started dealing with the words,” she explains. “It has a different emotional content to me than something that has been changed and edited and made into something more structured or more beautiful or more clear … I love working that way because I think things that I didn’t know I would say. I think it’s more personal than to try and write something because I find that I think too much.”

On “That Battle Is Over,” the first single from her new record, Hval sings in other voices as well, but this time they’re coming from outside of herself. “A lot of stuff in those lyrics was said by others, so its me doing this crazy karaoke of other people’s words, and a lot of those words I disagree with.” The words Hval is referring to are at the core of the song, which boldly declares, “That battle is over / and feminism’s over / and socialism’s over.” A victory cry that’s simultaneously sinister and blissful in its momentary indulgence, Hval rejoices, “I can do what I want now, consume what I want now.”

The Second World War was the last war to directly affect Norway, and Hval says she grew up internalizing the idea that wartime was a thing of the past. As an adult, she realized how dangerous that belief was, and how it mirrored other dangerous falsehoods, such as the idea that we’ve already achieved equality. “It’s ridiculous,” she says, “and also makes us very passive.”

“I wanted to deal with the emotional content of how I react or how we react to this stuff that’s shoved in our faces by the media. It was quite cathartic, but I also wanted to kill those words, which is why there’s a very deep and dark part at the end of the song, which is kind of where all the sentences that put people down kind of go to die.”

The body to me is not just talking about things like gender or reducing people to sexual organs. It’s also something political and social and plural. So when I talk about the body I’m also talking about things like social and capitalist and contemporary strategies.

It can feel deeply cathartic to voice other people’s words, step into other performances and other realities and perform from a space other than your own. In conversation with Hval, wonder out loud if that desire for momentary transcendence is what’s led to the current resurgence of karaoke as a beloved ritual in arts spaces. I mention Fiona Apple Karaoke, a performance project by artists in Brooklyn on Valentine’s Day last year, and Hval’s voice lights up: “I’m a huge Fiona Apple Fan! I’ve been listening to Tidal recently.”

As it turns out, Apple was a huge influence on the album; the video for “That Battle is Over” was even influenced directly by the iconic video for “Criminal.” Hval explains that she and Lasse Marhaug discussed Apple extensively during the making of the album. An accomplished noise musician, Marhaug had never done a pop album before, but Hval asked him to produce her next album when he interviewed her for his fanzine Personal Best. “When I got to know his taste in pop music first we talked about things like 10cc and things that were revolutionary in terms of technology and stuff but then all of a sudden we were talking about Fiona Apple every day,” she recalls. “Which was strange and great because she’s the type of artist I wouldn’t really have seen as somebody’s favorite when someone’s a harsh noise musician, but you know she can appeal to anyone.”

But the two did come to a shared understanding, making Apocalypse, Girl simultaneously a noise album and a pop album. The first three songs on the album, “Kingsize”, “Take Care of Yourself,” and “That Battle is Over” form a triptych that starts out as a spoken word piece and continues along its stream of consciousness until it becomes a pop song. After that though, conventional song structure dissolves. “White Underground” is an ambient, abstract tracks, the words barely audible. “Heaven” is a downtempo club track full of spoken word and whispers that eventually shatters into Hval shrieking “so much death inside my body!” about a sort of reverse birth metaphor in which she physically internalizes the tombstones of young girls by sitting on them. “Some Days” is a forty three second long whisper that offsets the ten minute long “Holy Land”. Taken as a whole, Apocalypse, Girl is dissociative and amniotic, audibly matching the surrealist headspace of Hval’s automatic writing processes.

“He was just really good at hearing the very immediate and artistically very strong effect a track could have without the melody or without the rhythm or things we usually think of as the hook,” Hval says, of Marhaug. Taking a noise musician’s approach to a pop album, Marhaug would warp, loop, and often play recordings backwards, extracting the intimacy of a pop songs while evading pop songwriting conventions.

The idiosyncrasies of the recording process—layers of processing, up to twelve synths being played simultaneously—made it a difficult album to replicate live. Instead, Hval opts to put a lot of it on backing tracks and play up the performative aspects, touring as a five-piece with two people playing a mix of backing tracks and improvised sound and two people doing visuals, which includes a person eating bananas and then spitting them back out. The band includes Zia Anger, who also directed the videos for “That Battle Is Over” and “Innocence is Kinky.”

“To me it’s amazing because it means I don’t have to play an instrument, I can just sing. I actually think thats much more interesting than me in a very nervous and half assed way trying to play something that I don’t really know how to play that I almost nail but not quite,” says Hval. “On stage, I’d much rather be a karaoke singer.”

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