There’s a death-defying, almost acrobatic quality to the post-millennially tense pop of Norway’s Jenny Hval. On two critically adored releases, 2013’s Innocence is Kinky and this year’s Apocalypse, girl, Hval traffics almost exclusively in charged elements—both sonic and philosophical. To witness Hval’s avant-songs unfold is akin to watching an escape artist set up seemingly impossible parameters only to elude total catastrophe with grace and style.
Hval’s music is built on extended vocal techniques, vintage R&B-style interstitial monologues, and molten noise, but there’s a fundamental rock n’ roll giddiness that her work elicits: “Is she going to pull this off? How is she going to pull this off?” The synthesis seems scientifically proven to lure the listener into a total body experience where one can be gently (and sometimes not so gently) provoked.
Complex questions are posed about the body, male and female sexuality, cultural and psychic voids. But Hval’s dry literary wit—positioned somewhere between Kathy Acker, Roland Barthes, and Kierkegaard—refuses to allow for simplistic Internet polemics or worse, intellectual masturbation; the prompts often get us to larger conversations about the human spirit. It feels necessary at a moment where, as Hval’s track “The Seer” puts it, most of us are too busy either “seeing or being seen.” It’s fitting that Michael Gira cherry-picked Hval to open for Swans in 2014.
I spoke with Hval, who plays Boot and Saddle this Tuesday, about subverting systems, growers vs. show-ers, and just how she manages to pull this stuff off.
The Key: On “Kingsize,” you mention seeing “no subculture, no no future” in New York. On “The Battle is Over,” you talk about a feeling of radical ideological movements “being over.” I get the impression you might have a grasp on the complacent, cultural vacuum we’ve found ourselves in.
Jenny Hval: I do feel like we’ve been in an ideological rut. It’s all been kind of privatized. It’s all about money and media and who can [be reached] through big business. Even though I mention New York [in the song], it’s maybe referring more to Norway, where I live.
TK: It seems like a pervasive feeling no matter where you are. You seem to make great efforts to integrate intellectual and spiritual themes into songs that often reference the body. Do you think that’s a deliberate response to our current ideological rut?
JH: I think actually I’m a pop musician very much within a system; I’m not one of the people on the frontlines. I’m contemplating being “inside” instead of choosing to be outside any system. I’m definitely in between, which is maybe why I put so much into it because I have this position of choosing not to be completely outside.
TK: You refer to yourself as a pop musician but you play with form and language in way that suggests more avant-garde threads. I feel like your work is actually quite subversive.
JH: That means you probably look at pop music as something with a more standardized form. There’s so much you can do with pop music, so many rules you can break—rules that are even broken in the mainstream. It all depends on how you look at it. Pop music, for me, is the minute you use a melody at all. And I released an album. Things like that.
I have many friends working with much more avant-garde art. I come from a community of people doing noise music, free music. I’m always the pop musician and that’s fine with me. I’m actually not very comfortable saying I do experimental stuff because “experimental,” to me, is something that can exist in any form; it doesn’t rely on genre at all. When I say my music is pop music, I don’t mean that it’s any less subversive than if it had been something else. There’s a kind of longing for the music to cross over to something where [a listener] feels a closeness to the personal expression.
TK: I love the phrase “Soft Dick Rock” [used in “Kingsize”]. It reminds me of some articles I read a few years ago that suggested the ubiquity of porn emotionally and sometimes physically neutered men. I feel like “Soft Dick Rock” pokes fun at the pressure society imposes on men to “perform” sexually but also suggests you empathize with that specific plight.
JH: Yeah, I think it’s definitely trying to recognize a link between health and sexual success of the capitalist era. This problem with softness being [equated with] disease or weakness is a real gender problem but it’s also me venturing into a term that’s not necessarily female sexuality.
It exists for me in a lot of metaphors, as well; I see soft dicks all the time. I had this conversation with a friend of mine who’s also in the band sometimes. She did an art project with clothes on clothing lines just waving in the wind and run-over traffic cones. So, we have this broken-off, flying, uncontrollably flapping, flaccid object conversation that never ends. It’s multi-layered but it’s in no way something I would call my music. It’s really just a pun on the Wikipedia article on “Soft Rock.”
TK: I really appreciate the way you use humor in your work. It’s really inviting. I find it opens up a lot of possibilities for discourse about complex emotional subjects. Are you a funny person in everyday life?
JH: [Long pause] If you know me very well, I think I am. But I’m very dry.
TK: You’re able to synthesize so many different threads in your work so seamlessly but what I find most engaging is the way you make deliberately jarring decisions—like your voice at the beginning of “Innocence is Kinky,” for instance—and then work backwards to arrive at some kind of conclusion. There’s often a feeling as if the song is dangling by a thread. What’s the most difficult part about maintaining a balance between elements?
JH: For me, the trick is not to find balance. I don’t work with balance. I work with as getting as deeply into something as I can. I think going really, really far with a lyric or a concept or a voice or multiple elements is intended to create maybe empathy or humility in a way can get close to the listener if the listener accepts the space I’m creating. What you might hear as a balancing of elements is what’s built up around the emotional complexity of what I’ve written. It could create a balance but it’s more intended to bring out a more complex emotional situation than just choosing one part and ignoring the others.
TK: There’s an interesting tension between the sound world, which is quite inviting, and what happens once the listener accepts your invitation to the space, which is often quite challenging or provocative.
JH; I’m definitely more about invitation than distance. I could never do what a lot of musicians do really well, which is putting something disturbing right in the face of the listener to disturb them. I think invitation is probably a much better way to [present] what I do. But it’s an invitation to see something that isn’t necessarily comforting. Although, that level is always there because [I’m working on a] human level.
When I’m on stage, I very much want to be very open and invite in many different listeners without actually making compromises with the music, but rather by being someone on stage who’s quite mutual and open when I perform. It’s been important for me to stop playing instruments on stage and to rather make a room.
Innocence is something you break, anyway. I’m not about innocence but I’m about innocence as part of a larger fabric of human experience. You can never have the songs of innocence without having the songs of experience. Innocence is something you see in others; curiosity is what you have.
TK: You talk about making a room on stage. I’m curious how you go about recreating the intimacy of your recordings in a live setting.
JH: It’s almost easier live than on recordings because you’re there. My live shows are very different. I do very distinct things at the moment: one is a duo set, which is about creating intimacy. But I also do another type of show, which you’ll see in Philly, where I bring performance artists on stage with me and we do more of a crazy, whirlwind Internet situation. Both are really interesting for me to explore. They both evoke different types of intimacy and human contact. I think the two shows are actually quite different and they’re different from anything I’ve done in the past. As far into my career as I am now, I’ve never done the same thing twice, as far as performing my material. So, it’s always quite different whenever I’ve done a new project or a new album or a new tour.
I don’t look back [laughs]. I feel like it’s important to be honest to the listeners and the situation and actually perform a piece that is a performed piece, rather than snippets of this and that from the past. I’ve always struggled very much thinking about a set list as different parts where you go into different songs. We do it but I prefer thinking of a performance as a performance because a performance starts way before you start playing your first song. It’s when you enter the stage or even when you enter the room if there’s nowhere to get on stage without going through the audience. It really doesn’t end until you’ve finished speaking to people after the show.
Jenny Hval plays Boot and Saddle on Tuesday, September 8th. Tickets and more information on the 21+ show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.