I’m in Oslo for six days and I meet musician and writer Jenny Hval on three of them. Twice, by chance. It’s that kind of city.
The first is after her set at Øyafestivalen, Norway’s largest rock festival. Øya is a great way to soak in some long northern European days while seeing big touring acts like Lana Del Rey, Vince Staples and the xx, along with lots from Norway.
In the past, Norwegians didn’t listen to much home-grown music. That’s changed in recent years, evidenced by several Øya acts singing exclusively in Norwegian. Still, the population here is only 5.2 million. Insularity is an indulgence Norway isn’t afforded.
I’d thought Øya would feature more Norwegian metal bands but they’re mainly pop. During Jenny’s performance the visuals display the Google image search results of the term “true Norwegian black metal”. Live and slowly scrolling, they are costume-party ghoulish. I feel pretty silly knowing I’d hoped to consume a slice of that true black metal myself.
In 2015, Jenny’s fifth solo album, Apocalypse, Girl, made the year’s best records at Pitchfork, The Guardian, Tiny Mix Tapes and more. Last year's Blood Bitch has done much the same, even with its themes of menstruation, horror films and the Virginia Woolf novel Orlando.
Apocalypse, Girl arrived more as a momentous life event for me, than a listening experience. There is 'before Jenny Hval' and 'after Jenny Hval'. On the single "Take Care Of Yourself"she sings “This is what happens at the end of history/The great eye turns to us”. Only I felt the great eye was hers and it was turned to me.
I see her backstage with her partner and musical collaborator, Håvard Volden, and I tell her I’m the journalist she’s meeting on Tuesday. She is very polite – and very tired.
“I tried to see Kelly Lee Owens’ set but it took an hour-and-a-half to get over there. People kept stopping me!" she explains.
“Do you know where we’ll go on Tuesday?”
“I will take you to places that I go. That also means we don’t have to go very far.”
Stop # 1: Tim Wendelboe Coffee
Øya is over and I have moved to a bright pedestrian development called Vulkan. It’s on the Akerselva River in the Grünerløkka borough. Grünerløkka is where you’ll find bars, venues, local designers and artisanal food. Is it obvious I’m avoiding the word hip?
The businesses in Vulkan inhabit former industrial buildings known for their environmental design. You can walk the river for miles and never feel unsafe. In my energy-recycling hotel, Scandic Vulkan, items that usually rest on the floor are fixed to the wall to save the cleaners’ backs. The nearby PS Hotell operates a socially inclusive program that eases people back into the workforce or provides their first job.
In short, Vulkan presents as all good things Scandinavian countries are rumoured to be. Just don’t try to dine after 8.30pm. Oslo eats early even when the sun sets late.
Tim Wendelboe coffee in Grünerløkka is an Oslo institution. “Sweden thinks of us as farmers, vikings, simple people,” one local says, yet even the Swedes rave about Wendelboe. Jenny is outside in a bright yellow raincoat, her blonde hair died light aqua blue. We order espressos (her recommendation).
“I’m sorry for bailing you up at Øya.”
“I was trying to crawl my way backstage and get my things so I could leave. When I’m tired I almost get afraid of people because I’m too tired to be social. Maybe that’s very Norwegian? People say we are introverted. To an American I’m incredibly introverted but for a Norwegian I’m not. Although I don’t like to mingle and if that’s a stereotype I’m happy to own it.”
We run into Marianna Sangita , singer of Oslo band Broen. Outside, we see Joakim Haugland, boss of record label Smalltown Supersound (Kelly Lee Owens, Dungen and Neneh Cherry) with the woman who heads up Spotify Norway.
“Everyone comes here then?”
“Yes. We are all addicts.”
“This coffee addicts. Everyone who’s been to Oslo a few times comes when they’re in town too. One of the coffees they get tastes like blood, almost.”
In the sun-dappled park opposite, Jenny sees a dog she knows and laughs, watching it poop. If only all journalists could watch an artist they intensely admire watch a dog poop and know, as I do now, it is the ideal spectacle to calm one’s nerves.
Jenny lived in Oslo until her family moved to Norway’s south when she was nine. At 16, she went to high school in Grimstad. She was a goth. “If I’d been in London I could have chosen between 70 different goth subcultures but it was too small. The goths were just one pile of people; generally just the non-Christians wearing black.”
She returned to Oslo to complete a university program that sent students to Australia. As we talk, remnants of her Australian accent grow more pronounced. “I originally wanted to live in London or New York but I couldn’t afford it. I was very shy, too, so I didn’t want to apply to writers’ schools or things I dreamed of. I was afraid I wouldn’t get in. I thought Perth might be a way to toughen up a bit and keep travelling after. But I was 19. I wasn’t one of those people with a really good plan. I lived in Perth for one unhappy year then I moved to Melbourne.”
Oslo’s been home since returning in 2004. Her Toyen apartment is close to Grønland, an immigrant area.
“I really like it but it’s changing. All this noise is coming from houses that have become student housing. I wonder if gentrification is kicking in? Bars, breweries, it’s changing.”
“It starts with craft beer and coffee.”
“And more expensive rentals. It’s been possible for a lot of immigrant families to settle down but I have heard a lot of people are struggling now. It’s really sad but at the same time, I am part of it too; I can’t sit here blaming this and that.”
Øya is held in a park close to Jenny’s home, just past the Munch Museum. Her band walked the gear in, including a blow-up swimming pool (part of the show). The tuba was biked in. “When I travel I’m so frustrated when I can’t walk. In America many times you don’t walk between suburbs and it’s like being in space. Things are not real to me unless I can walk.”
Stop #2: The Studio
We walk to Jenny’s studio. It’s behind a residential block and has a bit of a farmhouse feel. Outside, a pleasant courtyard with a tree that looks as though it might bear fruit. Inside, rough floorboards and worn-in furniture.
“There’s no water. And the bathroom is separate and has no sink. We have to use this horrible stuff.” (It’s hand sanitiser.)
We thud up some wooden stairs to a mezzanine where Jenny and noise artist Lasse Marhaug work. Lasse produced Jenny’s last two albums. Hang long enough at the coffee joint and you’ll see him, too. The detritus of discarded ideas and recordings is everywhere: vintage tape apparatus (mostly Lasse’s) and a small loudspeaker Jenny used as a sound effect until she decided it was too toylike.
She points at a desk with an old Yamaha keyboard on it. “That horrible coffee cup chair is my favourite. I’ll always be next to the heater. All of Blood Bitch was made in this room. But the week we were going to start recording I broke the computer with a Chinese firewire-to-USB adaptor. We heard a small explosion and the computer was fried.”
A shelf is crammed with books: Elfriede Jelinek, Alina Reyes, Leonard Cohen, a tarot book, Girls To The Front by Sara Marcus and a book on avant garde music. I pause on Art Sex Music by Cosi Fanni Tutti.
“I have an art catalogue from one of her exhibitions with very well-written essays on her work. I’m drawn to books that are out of literary and publishing houses; somewhat not accepted within literary circles, at least on arrival.”
“Did that happen with you?”
“Musically, yes. I needed help from reviewers and audiences outside of Norway to bring it back to Norwegian audiences. Though my first album as Rockettothesky in 2006 had quite an impact here. It was kind of loved but then I got a little weird. I didn’t try to be a pop artist so much.”
“Is it important for you to have outside validation?
“Yes. I never wanted to be big in Norway and not go anywhere else. I wanted to meet other people, collaborate internationally and play for audiences that could take it.”
“Do you have tall poppy syndrome in Norway?”
There is a Norwegian expression, janteloven, but we have a huge tradition of socialism in Norway; we work very hard for equality. I guess that’s sometimes mistaken for the tall poppy syndrome.”
Stop #3: Grünerløkka Library
As we enter Grünerløkka branch of Oslo Public Library, Jenny pulls two cards from her wallet. “This one is the best thing that has happened to me”. It’s a lifetime membership card for the cinemateket, which shows “little known art films”. The other is her library card. “If I could go to only place in Oslo it would be here.”
The library specialises in small press, poetry, arthouse DVDs, reading groups and avant-garde and noise shows. Hang on, noise gigs in a library?
“It’s low-cost to rent so low-profile things or cutting-edge politics can use it.”
“But it’s not officially an Oslo music venue?”
“No. That’s why it’s great.”
Inside, we run our fingers along the spines of DVDs. We have to whisper. Jenny is better than me. “I hate rom coms but I love to watch them. It’s so interesting what they say about society. I like the idea of transcending and transforming the dull experience of lived life that you see in a rom com; the idea of magic. I originally thought the Blood Bitch material was fictional but … now I also see it as a desire to creep towards death in a way that can change the experience of living and dying.”
Upstairs, she shows me some Alan Moore graphic novels. “He's one of the bravest artists I've ever read. His incredible imagination, unguarded and socially conscious at the same time.”
If I had authored a book slotted into one of the ruddy shelves here, I’d show those books to the adoring journalist following me around town. Jenny has two - Perlebryggeriet (2009) and Inn i ansiktet (2012) – but she doesn’t. Too modest for a show and tell.
She began writing Inn i ansiktet after the July 22 bombing in Oslo in 2011 when 67 people were killed by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. “I heard a hum in those days after the attack; this long drone that went through the city. It was like after bells have tolled. The resonance of something big. But also the kind of sound you hear like a minute of silence. A nervous quiet.”
I think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. “Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.”
She’s greeted warmly by a librarian, Cathrine. I stand by looking amiable while they chat in Norwegian. (It is Cathrine who shows me Jenny’s books when I return. She is a friend and a fan. “She takes you places you don’t ordinarily go,” she says of Jenny’s work.)
“Why do you sing in English?”
“I grew up not listening to Norwegian music. There was nothing I identified with.”
“Nothing. Also, I could say things more directly in English, be a different person, not shy Jenny who was occasionally vulgar. I had this romantic idea of recreation when I was in Australia.
“Would you do it now?”
“My voice sounds like I’ve never sung before in Norwegian, like I’m in a choir. It doesn’t sound like I’m experiencing anything because I’m so insecure in phrasing and how to place the vowels.”
Stop #4: The Street of Everything
The myth is real: Oslo is expensive. Taxis and hotels are brutal. Two espressos cost $12 Australian dollars. A decent glass of wine, nearly $20.
Some commendable social engineering is behind some of it. Alcohol is taxed to stop people boozing too hard; petrol to encourage public transport and rechargeable cars. Some measures make things cheaper. A new wave of Best Før supermarkets sell only close to outdated food to reduce the country’s waste, while SNÅL sells “wonky vegetables or odd coloured eggs” at a discount.
And when a medical emergency sees me at a hospital clinic with no ID, Oslo’s true colours shine. The intake nurse insists on a passport, I start crying, pity is taken and with merely my name, address and hot tears, I’m seen by a doctor who hears me so holistically he repeats back my key concerns. I am medicated and discharged, floppy with gratitude, and so very ready to forgive Norway its exorbitant white wine.
Jenny and I walk past the clinic. She nods at my story; her visiting friends have used it too. Getting ill in foreign countries is hell, we agree, but it sure makes you appreciate universal healthcare.
She points out some blue graffiti - the words ‘I’m sorry’ encased a heart.
“Sometimes it says ‘I’m sorry, my love’ like someone has been unfaithful. It’s all over the city. It could be a performance.”
“Your Øya show used those words on a screen too, didn’t it?”
“In Norwegian, the entire word honesty (ærlig) is inside the word love ( kjærlighet) so I played around with that. My French choreographer thinks relationships in Norway are very trust-based and she aligns that a bit with the Protestant religion. It’s really interesting.”
I don’t entirely follow but I figure that’ll happen from time to time hanging with Jenny Hval. Her brain is nuanced, quirky and stubbornly abstract. You have to hang on tight. She doesn’t, though; she’s learnt to let things go. “I never say exactly what I mean, anyway. There is already two broken links – brain to mouth and language to language.”
We pass the guitar shop.
“I bought my first guitar in Camden market second-hand. It’s still in Australia, I think Laura Jean has it.”
“What a great person to leave it with!”
“She’s one of the people I wish I could transport here.”
We turn onto Brugata Street mall, close to Grønland station. Bookended by 7-11s, it’s crammed with cheap fashion and fabrics, Indian restaurants, mobile phone stores and fruit and veg.
“I call it the street of everything. I really like it. It’s what’s happening in Oslo all on one street. It’s the most run-down junkie street; it usually has its own police car. You’ll see people begging for money. Even though Oslo is very safe it’s full of people selling drugs.”
She gestures to some nondescript windows above a dive bar, Teddy’s Softbar.
“Up there is a famous artist collective that is still existing somewhat. It’s had a lot of super underground shows, magical shows you’d not be able to see at a venue.”
“Does it have a name?”
“Have you played there?”
“Yes. It’s so low key you can do anything. It’s sort of the noise scene people who’ve been very important to the underground community, some kind of legendary people.”
It’s been hours of walking so we cross the street to rest in a park. Jenny’s favourite is Oslo’s Botanical Gardens, two blocks from her apartment.
“I go there all the time and pretend I own it. It’s a free garden, a democratic place.”
“What do you miss when you’re away?”
“Being at home and writing. I miss walking. I miss going to small shows. There is a lot of lo fi culture in Oslo, which I enjoy a lot.”
“Relative to other European cities?”
“There is more happening here.”
“Because it’s small or because of the arts funding?”
“Both? I don’t know!”
“Will you stay?”
“It’s not so easy to move away. Norway is small and there aren’t really other towns with nice artist communities full of creative people. It’s not like America or even Australia’s little commune-style towns. And if I moved too far I couldn’t vote for my political party and have the chance to make a difference.”
Jenny and her collaborators filmed the video to Female Vampire in Grønland and an Oslo club. A woman dancing there was curious about the film and ended up starring as the naked woman in the "The Great Undressing" video.
Stop #5: Café Mir
The next day I meet Joakim from Smalltown Supersound at Tim Wendelboe. I tell him I love Carmen Villain’s new record, Infinite Avenue, so he calls her. I can hear her voice on the other end. He arranges for us to go to a show at jazz venue Café Mir.
That night, Carmen and I arrive late and barely squeeze in. Jenny is there; her aqua blue head tilted, paying attention in the respectful way Norwegian audiences do. After the show she laughs when she sees me.
"I would have brought you here!"
"I was going to warn you I was coming!”
“I already knew.”
“I went back to Tim Wendelboe.”
“What did you have?”
“Not the coffee you said tastes like blood…”
“Oh, she's coming next week.” She pauses. “Did I just say ‘she’?”
“The blood bitch is coming!” says Joakim.
We decide to go to a wine bar but Jenny goes home. She doesn’t drink. I have a final question.
“Do Norwegians hug?”
“Yes. Full body hugs, too.”
Kate Hennessy is a Sydney based music writer. Follow her at @smallestroom