In the narrow confines of Rough Trade's backstage dressing room in Brooklyn, Jenny Hval and her trio of supporting performers, the Apocalypse Girls, slip on floral nightgowns that they bought earlier that day at the 99-cent store. "Are we doing blood with these?" one asks, looking down and smoothing her gown.
Hval is currently at the midpoint of a 20-date North American fall tour in support of her recent album Apocalypse, Girl, and the mood backstage falls somewhere between a slumber party and the early stages of a Wiccan ritual. The four women line up in front of a long steel-rimmed mirror as they apply makeup, and pull long, flowy wigs tight over their skulls. It's like being back in high school, watching the other girls primp in the restroom—only this time the makeup is smeared grotesquely, and there's a jar of calamine lotion and Dixie cups full of fake blood that are going to come into play, later onstage. At the center of it all is Hval herself, Norwegian with close-cropped pale hair dyed different shades of blue and green—an elfin woman with sharp Nordic features that look like they were sculpted by someone with a mathematically precise understanding of the human face. As she pulls a bright red wig of cascading curls from a plastic box, she brings it close and handles it gently, like an animal.
"A lot of people don't know I'm wearing a wig onstage," Hval told me earlier that day when we spoke over the phone. "I love when you take one off during the performance and people didn't really know that there was anything to take off. I like the idea of undressing, and of trying something on that's clearly awkward and wrong but still has a longing to it."
Hval fuses the language of self-help, corporate self-actualization, and heteronormative bliss to form a thick, sweet drink that's as compelling as it is repellent.
Hval's theatricality and willingness to engage the audience in strange and awkward intimacies is part of the 35-year-old's effort to "expand what a live performance is allowed to be in a musical context," to bring to it some of the conceptual heft and discomfort of performance art. She embraces the lushness and apparent health the wig projects, as well as its link with hair loss and illness.
For Hval, wearing the wig symbolizes participation in a stereotype of femininity that she feels conflicted about, but also finds fascinating. "I look more like a wholesome person with the wig I'm currently wearing," she admits. "I look much more feminine and true and real." She laughs. "Wigs are weird creatures."
The tour is Hval's first as a headliner in North America. In past weeks she's drawn crowds in the Northwest and the Midwest and Canada. After the Rough Trade show, she heads on to Philadelphia, DC, North Carolina—performing each night in front of an audience that may or may not have ever experienced a lovely wigged woman speaking to them gently yet commandingly about soft dicks, as she does on the first track to Apocalypse, Girl. In many of these shows Jenny has performed solo, accompanied on stage only by a man named Håvard, who told me that his role was to "play the music."
Apocalypse, Girl is Hval's third release, and boasts a more spacious, orchestral sound than her previous two albums, Viscera (2011) and Innocence is Kinky (2013). On Apocalypse, Hval's piercing and steely-sweet singing is punctuated by spoken-word passages that sound almost aggressively gentle, but conceal a barbed take on the sociocultural imperatives women internalize as they become feminized. "Oh, it's easy to take care of yourself!" Hval sings on the album's second track. In fragile, breathless voice she continues: "Getting paid, getting laid, getting married, getting pregnant, fighting for visibility in your market, realizing your potential, being healthy, being clean, not making a fool of yourself, not hurting yourself, shaving in all the right places..." Hval fuses the language of self-help, corporate self-actualization, and heteronormative bliss to form a thick, sweet drink that's as compelling as it is repellent.
Like Björk or Joanna Newsom, Jenny Hval's music packs an emotionally dense and textured punch, but Hval is also unafraid to be funny or to hold the listener at a distance. Like Laurie Anderson's Big Science, Apocalypse, Girl functions as a snapshot of a distinct moment within late capitalism. But Hval's snapshot is fleshier and more visceral, with more references to the bodies and cunts and flaccid penises missing from Anderson's album. Apocalypse, Girl borrows as much from pop music's playbooks as it does from minimalist, avant-garde electronica, with an intricate and choreographed sound that Hval says marks a different way of working and recording from her earlier albums. For this record, she spent more time than ever before in the studio tweaking vocals and backing tracks, working "with such detail, almost to the point of the detail which a writer has when they edit, with control over each word." Reproducing the full sonic texture of the album live seemed like a disappointing project until she realized that the very impossibility of the task offered her more room for spontaneity and play, "a much bigger palette to work from, an opening for including a lot of influences and thought, more spontaneous ideas."
As Jenny Hval takes the stage at Rough Trade with Håvard and the Apocalypse Girls, it becomes clear that this will be very different from most rock shows. Hval sinks to the stage and begins speaking the first lines of "Kingsize," the album's opener. "Think big, girl. Like king. Think king-size," Hval says slowly, a smile in her voice. The words are soft but sound uncomfortably personal, overly close. Around her, the Girls rub calamine lotion over their bare faces, drape themselves on the stage surface, swig from tallboys of Brooklyn Lager. They look alternatively enticing and deranged, at one point they sing a twisted version of Lana Del Rey's "Summertime Sadness." In them, the familiar clichés of feminine beauty—long hair, bare skin—are remade in an unfamiliar form. The girls hold one other around the waists and swing back and forth in slow-motion unison, bodies pressed tight together, long fake hair swinging around above real hair of a different color and texture, and it's hard not to feel moved by it, compelled by as if by a really dreamy tampon commercial or a fantastically glossy Instagram account.
But before you can dwell in that feeling, you see the bloody patches on their gowns, the socks on the bare stage. Standing up, Hval's voice rises to a heartbreaking pitch as she sings: "climbing the ladders just to fall uncontrollably to heaven." I look behind me at the intent, open faces of the people watching her, and it feels like I'm looking right inside them.
This is Hval's greatest strength as a musician and performer: her ability to make you open up more fully to hear her—and then, once your innards are accessible, to hit you with a phrase, a cry, an image that pierces you to your emotional core.
"I sing in several songs in my live performance about wanting everybody to cry together," Jenny Hval had told me earlier, over the phone. "It could be seen as something that's kind of funny and sad, but it's also a genuine wish—that music performance is a sort of way of coming together, a collective cry. And it's not just the sound of it, it's the openness, and these moments of being outside of yourself and really being yourself at the same time."
When I ask Hval what she hopes people feel when they listen to her album, she answers instantly: "Total destruction. Total destruction of the heart."
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Jenny Hval performs at Boot and Saddle in Philadelphia on September 8; DC9 in Washington, DC, on September 9; and Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, on September 10. More tour dates can be found here, and her album Apocalypse, Girl, can be bought here.