Jenny Hval is smart as hell. The kind of smart that makes you want to know everything she knows about art and life. Over her recent run of records, she’s explored issues of gender politics and sexuality in a manner that’s as playful as it is provocative. Her latest and maybe greatest effort, Blood Bitch, continues to investigate both through what is arguably one of their most primal and oddly taboo sources: menstrual blood. While some might be unfortunately quick to turn away from such subject matter, Hval expands on it to explore ideas of identity and eternity, all in the form of some of her more accessible yet challenging songs yet. See? Smart.
She’ll be showing off those smarts live at PhilaMOCA this week. I had the privilege of chatting her up beforehand, discussing her influences for the record, getting awesome film and book recommendations, and reflecting on how she brings her ideas to life on stage.
The Key: Right off the bat, I’m caught by how the album title echoes the Cocteau Twins song of the same name. Was that in any way intentional?
Jenny Hval: Actually it wasn’t, which is weird because I love the Cocteau Twins. I’ve listened to that song a lot. Blood Bitch kind of came in a sneaky way into my lyrics. When I thought of it as a title, there was no link. But I think it’s a good homage. The link is there anyway!
TK: Agreed! Of course with this album, you also stretched out narratively. You tell this amazing, epic story about Orlando, who is a vampire traveling through time and experiencing a bit of tour fatigue.
JH: [Laughs] Well I’m glad it you see that structure. It’s a lovely interpretation and that’s how I’d like the listener to emotionally respond. It comes from the Virginia Woolf novel (Orlando: A Biography). Have you read it?
TK: I must confess I have not.
JH: You have to read it. It’s fantastic! Orlando is a character that lives through several centuries. He starts out being a male growing up. At some point through history, he changes into a she. So it’s a coming of age story that is very fluid, traveling through time and gender. It’s a really lovely book and I think all of my albums are inspired by it in some way because it’s one of those things I read quite early on. It really influenced the way I think about art.
For example: With this album, I didn’t intend to do anything in particular beyond beautiful songs when I started writing it. A horror theme and a vampire theme quickly came into it almost subconsciously. When it was all finished, I realized it was just Orlando.
TK: Do you read often when you’re on tour?
JH: I’ve started. I didn’t think I could, but then I just made myself start. I’ve become really good at reading in cars, especially in America. In Norway, the roads are crazy going up and down mountains so you mostly have to focus on staying upright.
TK: Anything good you’ve read or picked up recently?
JH: The last thing I read before touring was Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty. I still have to finish it but it’s really nice collections of essays about art. And cruelty.
TK: This is being promoted as both your most fictional album and your most personal one. What parts of yourself are easier to express through a fictional narrative?
JH: Well I think this is a more personal album because it had such a simple intent. I started just looking for sounds and made demos from that, letting the lyrics stay pretty open. That was a pretty personal aspect for me, to just kind of look for sound that made me feel something. I also based a lot around very simple things around me, like these very specific films that I happened to be watching at the time.
It also wasn’t so much writing fictional stories as watching tons of horror films, and taking dialogue and themes from there. I wanted to do something from the perspective of the protagonist of a horror film, like one of those girls that arrive at a scary house or a vampire at a disco. Out of that process came more lyrics and finished songs. I came around to this idea of a vampire stuck in eternity. It sort of links in with the idea of the female musician on tour.
Improvising those lyrics told a story that was maybe personal in a different way than if I had just written about myself. I mean you always write about yourself. No matter what you do, it’s always about you. Everything you write about yourself in some way, and I think different ways of writing connect you to different parts of yourself.
TK: What film has the vampire at the disco? That sounds amazing.
JH: That one is actually yet to be made. The idea for it was partly inspired by the film Female Vampire. It’s by a Spanish director called Jesus Franco. It’s very low budget, very boring, but it’s beautiful and visionary. I also think the idea could come from the opening of The Hunger with David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. It has a disco sequence at the beginning that’s really great. The rest of movie isn’t very good but that opening is worth a million dollars.
TK: Are there any other visual influences that go into your work like your music videos and press imagery? Anything surprising?
JH: Well I really hate reality TV but I kind of find that whole sweatpants/paparazzi look kind of inspiring. The paparazzi photographers are kind of vampiric in their own way as well. I find it disgusting but also fascinating, like ‘this is what it’s like to take someone’s soul!’ It’s pretty evil.
There’s also influence from a lot of softcore ‘70s porn. You can’t see that as much though because I think of myself more like the director from those scenarios. I can’t really appear as the object.
TK: How does that director ethos apply to your live shows?
JH: Well I don’t always see myself as the director of my live shows. I have a lot of ideas but I love collaboration. Sometimes I let people completely take over the performance side of things. I’ll be sort of directing the musical angle, but it can be anything from me surrendering to someone’s visual ideas to having all my own. I’m more like the co-director, I’d say.
TK: What is your goal with your live shows? I quite enjoyed your performance at Boot & Saddle a few years back but it sounds like things have evolved a bit since then, away from live instrumentation and such. What motivated that?
JH: Necessity, I think. When I made last year’s album, Apocalypse, girl, I realized I couldn’t perform it live with instruments. Obviously when you play and you’re not exactly popular yet, you can’t afford to bring a lot of stuff with you. I also had a lot of of instruments like harps that I couldn’t really travel with. So I decided to just use backing tracks. I don’t really like playing instruments live anyway. I love being on stage, but don’t like to be constantly playing something while singing. I prefer to sort of be free.
It’s kind of continued from there. I originally thought I’d just stand or sit on a chair and nothing would happen while I sang. But then I had these friends who wanted to come along and had these ideas that I loved. We started using a lot of projections and video screens that were easy and travel with. It’s a nice change to step back from being that scrutinized musician, to step forward occasionally and actually confront and engage with the audience with the things I’m singing about.
The new album is a little more introverted and “clubby,” so I’m not quite sure how it will differ yet. It’ll probably just be two of us this time. Hopefully it will be beautiful and a real trip for everyone. You’ll have to see!
Jenny Hval performs at PhilaMOCA on Thursday, September 29 with Olga Bell and Moor Mother. Tickets and more information on the all-ages show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.