Statics and newspapers are trying to convince Jenny Hval that she is unhappy and dying; yet she does not carry the burden of the modern-day malaise surrounding her, like a divine punishment. Instead, she inverts the trappings of the capitalist structures she cannot escape, and makes a fantastical karaoke session out of all the hidden agendas forming around her. On her newest record Apocalypse, girl, the Norwegian musical auteur confronts her personal conservatisms through the language of transgressive pop music, while searching for the boundaries of herself and the world around her.
It is a carefully crafted album of deep emotional layering, a power-play of radical theatre with a well-articulated and lively dialogue, and a stage set full of musings of what it means to be human in a world of ever-changing ideals. Hval encompasses the barriers of modern day feminism throughout her performance, wondering how her position as an artist has come to define her existence – a position she is fiercely open to discuss when I catch her over Skype a few weeks before the release of her new record.
In a review of your single ‘That Battle Is Over’ I described your artistry as representing the sweet spot between psychotic and iconic, between wanting it and feeling unsure if you already got it. Can you relate to that description?
I think that is a pretty interesting description, because that song to me is very much performed in a karaoke mode – and karaoke is in between wanting it and getting it. You have the emotion of something that you want to perform, and you are performing it, but you don’t quite get it. Because you will never get to copy somebody else’s voice, you will never get it right – it is a failed performance. Karaoke is icy, it is a very emotional thing when you try to copy your favorite artist, the way he or she sings, or try to get into someone else’s groove. It is like getting into someone else’s brain or body, not in that kind of sexually penetrating way, but in an emotional and maybe even technical singing-wise way. So I do love the idea of wanting to sing beautifully in one way or the other and failing, but still having that all 100 % attempt of trying to so.
When I started writing this new album I wanted to do things that were very embarrassing to me, and that I considered taboo.
The new album feels like you are in constant conflict with yourself. I read that you thought about naming it ‘Ruining My Reputation’?
Yeah, that was a very early title that really appealed to me, more in terms of how I would want to perform the material, rather than the actual album title. I was really tired of feeling like I needed to project this alternative artist identity, or present a specific kind of position with my music. I have been through the album cycle a few times now, and through that, I have become much more aware of what I represent in society as an artist, not just aesthetically, but also in terms of what kind of worker I am and which kind of capitalist structures control me.
When I started writing this new album I wanted to do things that were very embarrassing to me, and that I considered taboo. Maybe that is why I ended up doing more of a “bits and pieces” type of autobiography – thinking big, using words that are often placed in a very cliché context, like spiritual themes, and talking about really big things like the apocalypse.
Can you walk me through your process of confronting moral conservatism?
Well, I am confronting my own conservatisms, and I think that it is something that you constantly need to do, in order to have some kind of vulnerability in your work. I have an interest in radical theories, and I probably have quite a radical view on the world, partly because of my academic background, and partly because of the way I am; and so, in order to be a radical, you need to constantly confront your own conservatisms, or battle ideas, in order to believe in what you are saying.
If we go back to the song “That Battle Is Over” and the karaoke performance idea, I found it interesting to not let my own narrative be center. A lot of the stuff I’m singing on that song are not my words, they are words taken from the media – which is a pretty boring thing to do really; to take conservative ideas from tabloid media, and put them in a song lyric – but I wanted to do a ‘karaoke’ of them, because I have a lot of tension build up to this type of Norwegian culture. In Norway there is so much stuff being written, that seems to have this kind of “hidden agenda” of feminism as something that we need to stop being so upfront about. There is all this quasi research being done, as I quote in between the lines of the song, this “do not be different, conform – or you will get breast-cancer, or some kind of other decease.” It is very fundamentalist in a way, and I wanted to think about the tension that I felt about it, and why it made me so angry, but I did not want to answer it: I wanted to understand the emotions that I had, and the anger that I felt. I wanted to be this raging – again, thinking big – persona, and I wanted to explore the rage or the emotional reactions, and really go into that, instead of trying to come up with some kind of manifesto, or some kind of answer. Because that is very naïve and not a very artistic representation, wanting to say something that would make everyone go quiet – I would rather make everybody sing instead.
Feminism is not something that you need to own, and it does not have to be the same for everybody…
Feminism has become a pivotal factor in mainstream entertainment of the Western world. Can you relate to the circulation?
I think that feminism should be a lot of different things, and I hope that people disagree with my perception as well. Because feminism is not something that you need to own, and it does not have to be the same for everybody, obviously it cannot be – so I let Beyoncé do what she wants to do (laughs). Feminism is happening all over the world, by women locally in all kinds of societies, which is amazing, and I cannot talk as if I know the answers for every one of us, but from where I come from, I find it confronting and confusing, and quite reductive that you can try to bring feminism to this other place, yet it is still all about the body. To me, it is not enough to not be “flawless”, you have to stop worrying about the body altogether, and think of the self as something that is not just a surface, you need to think beyond objectification and body images. You have to also look at the body as something that can transform through art or something that is more unstable, without it being a mental breakdown. There is so much more than just the surface of the body.
The way you use your voice throughout the new album as an instrument is an interesting way to confront gender boundaries. Tell me about the emotional layering?
It is very simple; I just record and therefore many of my songs are a documentation of improvised ideas. Because I do not really look back, and because I work really hard to get into a level of concentration, where I can say things I did not know I would say – I think that is very central to my work, and that is where things fall out of your mouth, that go beyond the way you are constantly being perceived by others. I have always loved these moments where I am speaking with more than one tongue, or a changing tongue – I am changed by words when I write, and I am changed by the music and the sound of my voice when I sing, and it changes the idea of who I feel I am.
It does create a lot of interesting closeness and vulnerability when you do something really endearing – it is an intellectual, ongoing, internal learning process and debate.
You studied creative writing in Melbourne. How have your studies influenced your perspective on music?
I think that it has influenced my music purely in a good way, but that was because I did not study music. When I studied film, writing and academics, I never took the music into that world; music was the place where I combined everything, and yet it was not school work, it did not need to have this kind of distance or this kind of cleverness that you easily get, when you are in an academic study mode. Studying is a very naïve thing, you can lose yourself very quickly to the idea that your studies create some kind of energy, which is great, but it does not always work if you want to put it into art. And so, music was my kind of radical act; a side-project. But the thing was, my radical act was actually very sweet. My academic studies were based around things that were avant-garde and confronting, so when I came home from studying, I would make these very sweet songs that had confronting elements within them – Simon and Garfunkel songs that explored ideas of radical theatre. To me that was kind of embarrassing, because I thought that I would have to get away from that, change the style and place music in the academic world too. I always felt like there was something wrong with that sweet and gentle pop-world, but now I think it was probably the most radical thing I did; to combine the different worlds. I think it was great that I did not pull the musical side of things into my studies too much, because that way the music managed to stay in a more spontaneous and free context.
With me being conflicted as a person – I have always been a bit conflicted and interested in opposite ends of art – it was perfect to combine my conflicted interests to the point of embarrassment, and then later realize that it was the best thing I could have done. Because it does create a lot of interesting closeness and vulnerability when you do something really endearing – it is an intellectual, ongoing, internal learning process and debate. I find that your emotional and intellectual way of thinking are- and should be, more connected than they are allowed to be in both academic studies and the outside world.
Your music – especially Apocalypse, Girl – murmurs with social uneasiness. In which social situation do you find yourself liberated?
I can feel very liberated with people that I know very well, in conversations where I feel safe. I can also feel very liberated in a performance context – like when I am with my current band. My band right now consists of two American members and they do video and performance. They are younger than me, so we have different references to music and time; they come from a different world, so it is not the same as being with the people that resemble me the most in terms of background. They are also much more at ease with being women than I am, so I find that very interesting; to go into a world where it is much more accepted to explore the feminine, maybe even the stereotypically feminine, without it being reductive to your personality – so we wear wigs, work with makeup and costumes onstage now, and I find that oddly liberating (laughs).
How would you describe your new stage act as more ‘you’?
I am always more me when I am doing something new, something that feels like me right now. I find it hard to identify with me three years ago in an artistic setting; I always move on. So it is almost easier for me to identify with someone else’s work than my previous work. I do not like to go back – that I find very hard. It is partially true that my new live show is more personal than my old one; I feel much more embarrassed on stage now, and that is because I do not have an instrument in front of me anymore. I find it interesting to explore the sense of exposure; going beyond that first moment. It is like when someone’s pants fall down, there is that moment where you are embarrassed because it happened – but then, if you do not pull them back up, and you start really exploring walking around in your underpants, that is what I am interested in; what happens after, and trying to really go in to that emotion of feeling exposed, rather than try to rescue the situation and move on.
A special thanks to Sofie Dahl for additional editing.
Apocalypse, girl is out now on Sacred Bones & Su Tissue.