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You're Listening to Jenny Hval Wrong

The Norwegian art rock singer-songwriter discusses her critically acclaimed 'Apocalypse, girl' and some popular misconceptions about her writing.

by Zach Sokol
Jul 10 2015, 2:37pm


Photos by Jenny Berger Myhre

Sometimes Jenny Hval’s music makes me think so hard that I can actually feel my brain thinking, as if it were an autonomous organ outside my control. Take the way she articulates “bre-a-A-a-st cancerrrrrr” on “That Battle Is Over,” the single off her recent LP Apocalypse, girl (released last month on Sacred Bones). Though I was once positive the vocal flourish was created with auto-tune, I’m now having second doubts. Her voice is a dynamic, malleable beast that consistently reveals deep idiosyncrasies upon further listens, and maybe she can mimic a robotic effect. Similarly, the way her double take-inducing lyrics simultaneously feel like an exercise in free association and meticulous planned narratives trips me up and makes distracts me in the best way. These subtle, cognition-fucking gems make her music infinitely exploratory and anything but shallow.

“I think a certain awkwardness is what I want my music to inspire,” the 34-year-old avant garde pop musician told me over the phone from Germany during a stint of European tour dates. “My ideal response or my dream reaction from a spectator is probably is one that is quite perplexed, but then they’re won over and allowed to experience something new.” Or, in other words, Hval makes music that’s so nuanced and even sui generis that it makes listeners learn something—be it about a particular concept, or how they interact with and understand sound and song structures.

Apocalypse, girl isn’t an easy record to gulp down, but that’s part of what makes it so ebullient. Sometimes getting art should be hard, and it should give you the intellectual equivalent of brain freeze. Though it took me a month after its release to really sit with the record, Hval and I caught up after our phone call with an email exchange to discuss her amazing, heady approach to music.

Continued below

What’s something you’ve wanted to be asked about this album that no one has asked you yet?
An Italian journalist recently asked me about irony, which I found really interesting because a lot of the reviews of my album have focused on irony and maybe also on distance. I love using humor, but I don’t see my work as ironic or a parody, so yeah, it’s been interesting to see how people respond to my work and then start extrapolating. It doesn’t upset me, though.

I can’t really explain why people find my work ironic. It’s a totally valid response to music, and I also think that a lot of music criticism is your first response because it needs to be written very quickly. It’s not that people are being shallow if they interpret something as more surface level than what I, as an artist, would think.

I’ve been working with this material for two years so it’s a very different thing for me. This response makes me think of when people laugh because they don’t know what to do with themselves. Similarly, people may find my music ironic because it’s funny or confronting. It’s a very human response, but maybe it’s not the full picture of what someone’s really feeling; it usually means something else. I love those situations.

Is that equally rewarding if someone can just listen to the song on like an aesthetic level or do you also want them to understand the conceptual, deeper layers?
I don't write songs on purely one level, so sometimes it’s weird for me, then, when people respond to my music as just being beautiful. But it’s equally weird when people find it as a manifesto of some kind. It’s always a bit awkward for me to think of other people’s response, so I guess I’m kind of an awkward artist in person and try to use that complexity as a way of engaging musically with the world. I think a certain awkwardness is what I want, or a certain emotional engagement. I mean my ideal response or my dream reaction from a spectator is probably is one that is quite perplexed but then won over or being allowed to experience something new, which is built on how I responded to other people’s work when really affected.

Is there anything that really bothers you about music writers trying to interpret your work?
The only thing that bothers me is that a lot of people seem to be thinking that I’m purely writing about a woman’s experience. I don’t think they would be thinking that if I were writing as a male. I think that putting things in categories and saying that my work is very, very based on female bodies just because I’m attached to a body is conflicted. I think my music is more universal than that. I’m using the body as a subject existentially, and I think a lot of people are getting that, and I think a lot of male writers are getting that, too.

I’ve just done a tour in the UK, and I noticed that at least half or probably more than half of my audiences are male, and so I think that kind of reinforces or makes me kind of happy that I can present my work as something and have the confidence to say that this is something you should listen to. This is universal. This is universal imagery, not just a woman’s story for and about a woman’s perspective.

Are there any noticeable differences about how your fans and audiences in Norway relate to and interpret your work, compared to American audiences?
I’ve tried to answer this question for about an hour, and I don’t think I can. I can’t really speak for others. Anything I say will only be assumptions, based on a very flaky memory. Comparisons are very hard. When I first started playing in America, seven years had passed since I released my first album in Norway. I did notice that I was perceived differently in the U.S., but perhaps it was because I was new to people, at a different stage in my career. Audiences did get to see me in interesting musical contexts, like supporting Swans. So I’m not sure if my comparison below holds any weight at all.

But, I’ve noticed that people in the U.S. seem to think I’m more confrontational and tough, and it’s often seen as something positive and fresh, if not an easy listen. People I’ve met there have been very open to my music as a part of what’s going on in the music world, especially in more mainstream music. Which is good.

I saw a quote where you said, “In the end, it doesn’t matter so much if you write about your own life or not. It’s going to be as much artifice when it comes out as a piece of music. Everything is in character in a way.” It sounds like you’re saying that even when you’re trying to be personal, you end up playing a character, or a version of yourself.
It’s the opposite: if you’re trying to write a book that has nothing of yourself in it, it will all still be you. Every single bit is me, and everything is artifice. I don’t think much about characters, but that quote came from a book editor of mine.

Are you aware of when the artist ends and the persona begins?
No. But it really is impossible to explain, because I have hopefully not written all my music yet.

While recording, how do you decide whether to sing or talk? Does talking about a certain topic, compared to singing about it, make you feel different? Are these vocal approaches different ways that you relate to—or even portray—various subjects and ideas?
Always! But this relates to the performance of a complex set of musical/performative elements. Topics are no more important than a musical key, or a beat, or a sense of reverb, or sonic texture. They constantly change what words—and what my body—means. There is room for this in art, and it’s important that it extends beyond "topics,” "subjects,” “characters”—that it resists the describable and sensible.

You’ve said that singing or listening to music can offer you an internal form of bodily transcendence. How does the body-music relationship compare to when you’re recording by yourself?
Recording: inward-looking, then jumping out, obliterating. Live: extrovert, a primal public scene, planned time warps, total humiliation. Let’s stay in fragments. If I could answer this fully, I wouldn’t need art.

You’ve been working on this album for two years. What motivates you to finish each of your projects and not get sick of them?
Have I finished this [Apocalypse] project? I’m just in the middle of it! But I’ve definitely finished my older projects. I get to a point and know it’s over. After that it’s really hard for me to play old songs. I move on.

After you’re done touring, what are some things you’d like to focus on outside of music, after you rest and relax, of course?
At the moment, I don’t have any breaks. I come home from tour only to keep planning the next one. I dream of a month of reading books, though.

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Jenny Hval