Jenny Hval Has Something to Tell You

We spoke to the experimental artist about algorithms, being "chill," and why her new 'Long Sleep' EP is an avant-garde reawakening.

by Andrea Domanick
29 May 2018, 8:29am

Jenny Berger Myhre

Leave it to Jenny Hval to turn an off-the-cuff, stop-gap EP into an existential meditation on art, technology, and the nature of listening. In the wake of her acclaimed 2016 album, Blood Bitch, the Norwegian avant-gardist was encouraged to make an EP to break up the lull between album cycles.

Six albums into her career, she’d never made an EP before. The task seemed easy enough, and she turned out its first single, “Spells” – a warm, even sleek, pop-soaked number–within a day. But moving onto the next tracks proved tricky for Hval, whose chameleonic output has been defined only by her rigorous conceptual intention.

“I wrote ‘Spells,’ and then I did other stuff, and then I realised that, ‘Oh this is all the same song,’” Hval explains by phone during a recent stop at Moogfest.

The result is The Long Sleep, a four-track EP that recycles, remixes, and otherwise meditates on the elements of a single song that Hval couldn’t get away from, together amounting to a shapeshifting melody, and the shapeshifting idea of what a song is.

“It's done as this one song travels from being awake, to the unconscious, or maybe even dying at the end, and then coming back from the dead,” Hval explains.

The record is more impressionistic and sonically lush than what we’ve heard from Hval before, with concepts taking a backseat to composition that includes 80s-inflected pop (Saxophone! Piano!), folk sparseness, and psychedelic layering. Together, it’s a hazy watercolour of sound whose elements are content to bleed outside the lines, and into each other.

But it’s impossible to cleave Hval’s music from the way she thinks about music, and even the EP’s rapt soundscapes are ultimately mise-en-scene for making the listener unpack and rethink modern relationships with music and art. Case in point: The last track, “I Have Something to Tell You,” is a not-quite-song, not-quite-spoken-word composition, in which Hval offers a candid sort of meta-confessional addressed directly to listeners of the digital EP (the track is pressed in reverse and unintelligible on the vinyl version). “What am I doing here? / What are you doing here?" she asks. "Are we communicating? / Am I promoting?”

It would feel like a trope, if the questions weren’t so nakedly salient to modern experience and conversation.

“The listener is the important part. Especially on this EP, the listener is a bigger part,” Hval explains. “I wanted it to appear addressed directly to the listener, from the beginning to the end. It's addressed to a ‘you,’ instead of it being about a ‘me.’”

Society’s relationship with art, technology, and connection is a recurring theme in Hval's work, and seems to be enjoying renewed focus alongside the feminist corporeality and power play of Blood Bitch. In addition that theme's presence on the EP, Hval’s current tour features a live-only track that she composed through Spotify, in which a computerized voice reads off the names of various “Chill” playlists on the streaming service over a building beat.

It’s both poignant and playful, eliciting as much laughter and cheers from her audiences as profound (or confused) stares. But she’ll be the first one to chuckle about it; you’d be remiss to mistake the freewheeling intellect of Hval’s work for solemnity or self-importance.

"There's not really so much thought going into it," she says of the Spotify piece. "I think it's more up to the listener to find connection points."

In that sense, Hval's music can be a bit of a Trojan Horse for the questions and ideas she raises, couching them in beats, harmonies, and melodic intuition that make what might otherwise be heady and cerebral into something visceral and accessible. You understand it because, first and foremost, you feel it.

Noisey: How was the EP conceived, and developed into what it's become?
Jenny Hval: The origin of like why I did it is very artistically uninteresting, because it's an in-between EP, like it's what I should do to stay visible. I didn't have any plans. I released two albums back to back, and I didn't want to release another one very quickly, because it's just so much work afterwards. I have no objection to writing a ton of stuff, but the touring and the promoting is really tough. So I wanted a bit of a break. But then I dive into this EP. It was kind of funny, like working less with concepts and more with composition, but at the same time, letting then the compositional work be a concept. I mean, everything is always conceptual. Not just things that are like albums with an idea. Everything that anyone releases will have concept. This time it was more like a compositional journey, I guess.

Why do you think you ended up gravitating in and out of these components of the same sort of piece or style?
I think I found so much there, and I wanted to do something with less elements, because my album had been full of so many different ideas. So I felt like, let's minimise and just see what I can do with a very minimal set of ideas. When can I do that? First the idea was to have three versions with one song, like the second song on the EP should be like the singer-songwriter version to comment upon the pop version of the first. But it turned out to be even more different, sort of partly that but also just like completely different entities.

It's cohesive but distinct at the same time. There's a lot of paradox that seems to be explored within it.
Yeah. It's also a message, this blurring the edges of a song kind of that I felt could be like more thoroughly investigated on an EP, where you don't have to do such a long timeframe. It can be quite short, which this EP is, it's like 23 minutes, and then it gave me more space for those kind of fewer elements. So it's me investigating or exploring what an EP is, as well, because I haven't made one.

It's funny because you said its origins were "artistically uninteresting," but it's a very interesting response to that as a concept. Like the expectation of visibility that artists have right now.
I think that every single release that comes out that you can see comes out because it's visible. The big part of any release is the fact that the artist should release something that is seen. You can't avoid it. It's a capitalist structure, even if it's an indie label, even if it's a very alternative type of artist. It exists for visibility. And I think that this EP kind of addresses this for the kind of sadness in addition to what I just said. It's a comment upon, "Oh, I needed to be visible." Well, let's take something that makes me visible, and then kind of let it die, or make the song die.

What went into making the choice to have different versions of the last track on different formats of the EP?
I just always wanted to do that. I think this is a good moment to do it. I dream of doing stuff like making a completely different version of an album – just one for Spotify, one for all the different streaming services, and then one for download, one for LP. Maybe not one for CD, but who knows. I just think they're so different that I wonder how the same albums can exist. The frame is already so different, but why not just make make it different?

Just imagine how you listen to music. If you only listen to vinyl, that's a different type of listening. You can't compare streaming to listening to vinyl. You can't compare listening to vinyl to going to a show. To me it's kind of that different. It's the context. For example, if you've listened to the EP through the physical format, you have purchased the album, or someone did, and you put it on without having a curated list, like the millions of "Chill" lists at your fingertips.

I'm very interested in the very, very personal listening patterns we have on streaming services, and that's the listener I wanted to speak to, maybe even reinstate some value, to. But that's very pretentious. But I think it's good to be very pretentious, and very aware, and at the same time be very open for letting the music just run its course. I think you can do both at once.

That seems to extend to the Spotify piece you perform live. How was that created?
It's just a compilation of "chill" playlists, like on Spotify when you do a search for "chill." And then I made a computer voice read them all. There's not really so much thought going into it. I think it's more up to the listener to find connection points. But you realise what it is. I think most people will realise what it is as the list goes on. Just like piling up algorithm upon an algorithm. But it is very much influenced by Liz Pelly's article on Spotify and her work as a journalist in general, because I think the articles she was she was writing last year were really, really amazing criticism. In Scandinavia we kind of started the whole streaming thing, but this debate has not existed. It's all been about whether artists should be on Spotify or not, and just how much money we make. And that's not enough.

Why do you think people are loath to get into some more of these deeper complexities and implications of it?
I was bored with the Spotify discussion as anyone. But the discussion of whether it should be there or not – it's really interesting to look at how, and to what extent, we can let algorithms be part of society and decision making. I think everyone's thinking about it, and everyone's discussing it. But putting it on stage I think is good. Just changing and re-contextualising something that is re-contextualising you a lot I think is necessary. Because when something comes in and sneaks in and tries to curate your life, I think it's good to curate it. Just to kind of put it out of its own comfort zone.

Why opt to go with the "chill" playlists?
Partly because of Liz Pelly, but also because I think it's quite ridiculous and it's a very big thing. There's also been a lot of also been a bit of talk about how Spotify will choose to get on a with an artist. It's better to make more plain music. Music that doesn't speak up as much, something that isn't so special, like music that you can listen to in the background. And I think that's where the "chill" comes in. Chill is a legitimate need. But chill is already to me such an ironic word. It's both actual relaxing, which everyone needs, and which I do invite, too, in a way, for The Long Sleep, like the title track. So this "chill" list has to do with the EP. But I think it's its own live performance creature. It's the sort of thing that might never make it onto an album and that works really well for me as experienced live. And maybe I'll do something else on an album. But it's also completely a laugh. It is meant to be laughed at. And that in itself is pretty great.

Right. And then of course there's the connotation of "chill" that implies a kind of isolation, or a little bit of distance.
For me, the word chill also implies like, "take a chill pill," like it's almost like an order. And it's ironic because it has a lot of aggression to it. I think rather, like, "relaxing" is more relaxing than "chill." It implies to me aggressive chill. Drug induced relaxation. It's an identity market. It's not necessarily about relaxing at all, but more like trying to get the modern world out of your system through chemicals, or, I don't know, candles.

Andrea Domanick should take a chill pill. Follow her on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.