By Philip Runco.
“You shouldn’t worry,” Jenny Hval tells me, her cadence faintly sing-songy like many from Norway. “I’m very nice.”
Fifteen minutes earlier, I had jokingly wondered on social media what the Norwegian word might be for when you’re about to interview one of the most provocative and cerebral musicians in the experimental pop space and you’re paralyzed by intimidation.
Then, in an adroit exhibition of stunting, Haval retweeted this just before I was set to call her in Oslo.
“I was going to write something in reply but I didn’t know the word,” she says now, softly chuckling. “Then I spent more time wondering what word it would be, but I don’t have an answer.”
It’s the middle of August and Hval will soon depart on a tour of America in support of this year’s stunning Apocalypse, girl. The summer has been cold and rainy in Norway – the product of unusually high pressure systems across the European mainland. At least that’s what the self-described weather nerd tells me. “When that extreme weather happens, we get more of an arctic summer,” she explains. “We’ve been walking around in jackets as if we were Greenland or something.”
Extreme weather has a habit of following Hval. “I’ve been in America two springs in a row – this year and the year before – and it was my two coldest spring times ever,” she shares. “I’ve also been in Australia for their most rainy summer ever. Maybe I’m just doing something.”
Of course, her art often pushes the edges, too. A few days before we talk, Hval performed at Oslo’s Øya Festival, where she and a larger than usual group performed in white jumpsuits and doused themselves in red paint. “We all looked really bloody afterwards, and now there are these slasher film pictures going around,” she says. “There are so many more but I feel like I can’t release them all into the world.”
Performing under the afternoon sun, Hval was unable to utilize the film projections that are typically an integral part of her more intimate club performances. She and her cohorts were forced to improvise. “In my experience, when you collaborate with people, you have a lot of ideas that are on the wilder side. Usually those ideas die quickly, but not in this group,” Hval tells me with amusement. “Whenever things seem to push us somewhere or feel uncomfortable, we just think: ‘That could be the reason to do it.'”
“Some people hated it and some people loved it,” she continues. “That’s a great way to divide people.”
You said a few years ago that you’re always going back and forth between the desires to make music that’s abtract and music “that’s telling everybody to listen.” Are those still impulses you vacillate between?
I haven’t struggled so much with it lately. For this album, I got over that dilemma a little. If you’re in a world where you’re very aware of mainstream music but you’re also interested in other things, I’m sure that I fall somewhere in between. But I’ve grown tried of having to think so much about placement between two very constructed poles of what music is. I’m thinking more about other things in music, which is great.
I think it has to do with self-confidence, too. I’ve certainly felt like I’ve allowed myself to have greater confidence with making music over the last two years. Maybe it’s because I work with such great people and I have for a while now, and I was allowed to work on this album for a long time. I was able to go very deeply into a world without having to record really quickly.
If you were to compare me to someone famous on a major label, there would always be the hidden huge difference, which is money. I would normally be able to afford two or three days in the studio; big artists could afford a year. That difference is amazing. But there are many ways to do things. A lot of it is about finding the right people to collaborate with – if you like collaborating, which I do.
So, yeah, self-confidence replaced doubts and made room for other doubts, which is great, because I need to have some doubts; otherwise I wouldn’t write anything. You think creativity drives us, but it’s usually self-loathing and doubt, and maybe some death drive. It makes a good cake.
You often refrain from giving a single interpretation of your lyrics – they’re open-ended for listeners and, to some degree, possibly for you, too. Are you more attracted to art that leaves itself open to interpretation?
I take interest in a lot of different expressions. I don’t care so much about the open-endedness because I think you always add yourself as a listener or spectator. There needs to be some kind of reaching out – some way of saying, “You can see this.” Or: “You can’t see this, but that gives it some sort of ambivalence.”
I always talk about my lyrics as something that’s fairly open-ended, even if they’re fairly intimate and could be read as a very straightforward personal moment. But there’s a difference between how I talk about my lyrics and the lyrics themselves. Usually, when I’m being interviewed, I feel like whatever I say, I can never talk about my lyrics as well just citing them. The way that I write is stream-of-consciousness to a degree, but they’re actually saying things pretty straight a lot of the time. It’s not necessarily a narrative, but there are definitely direct moments of interaction with whoever is listening. I feel like it’s impossible to talk about those lyrics in a way that is more relatable and direct than if I was just to sing them.
I know that for a lot of other artists it wouldn’t be that way. I go to a lot of concerts, and sometimes I go to shows where people just say what a song is about before they play them. Some of the time, that’s a of a letdown, especially if what they say is so good that they don’t need the song afterwards. But sometimes it’s just really great. I don’t have that ability with my songs to sum it up like, “This is blah, blah, blah.” If I were to do that, I would have to say something, and then I would sing it and I’d be thinking, “Really? That’s not what it’s about.” I would have this interior monologue while I was singing.
I don’t know if I say anything truly interesting about my lyrics in interviews. Whenever I return to them afterwards, I think, “Oh I just said whatever was on my mind at the moment more than the actual lyrics.” We are always in the moment. It’s hard to go back to things that were written a long time ago and really try to sum it up.
Do you pay attention to critics’ interpertation of your work?
If somebody recommends that I read something, I’ll do it. I almost never read interviews that I’ve done. It’s like observing yourself on stage too much. It kind of feeds into self-conscious. It’s a place that I don’t want to go. But sometimes I read reviews if someone says, “You should read this.”
Some of the reviews are so well-written and great, especially after I started getting slightly more interest outside my own country. That was a very pleasant surprise. I don’t think I’ve read many truly interesting reviews of my music in Norwegian. I come from such a small country. There’s not much music reception at all. I tend to really enjoy somebody who has written something about a way of seeing music in general.
You’ve discussed feeling a connection between the southern U.S. and where you grew up in Norway. What is Norwegian bible belt like? In what ways does are there characteristics unique to the country?
The Norwegian Bible Belt is where I grew up, for sure. I’m from Oslo, actually, but I’ve lived in various other places in the south.
I was reading in the paper today that there’s a new, more traditional Christian political party that just started, and they’re very active in the south, and I thought to myself, “Yeah, typical.” I could see people in the south joining up with these people who are very conservative. It’s a weird thing to have these extremely conservative parts of countries that are otherwise not considered conservative at all. It’s not extreme like it is in America.
I experienced a particular thing where I grew up up, but I was from a liberal family and then I moved away and have forgot all about it. Coming to America and meeting people who grew up in the South, we had all of these connections and shared experiences that took me back to my high school days.
I hadn’t been to America before the last couple of years, so I had more of a European media experience with the more conservative, Bible Belt-ish American culture, which is presented in news story that are always like, “Look what they did with the abortion legislation once again!” But I met people in America and talked about school and growing up near these charismatic and almost musical and sort of crazy communities, where you have to divide yourself between being friends with people you radically disagreed with. I always had this doubt and weight on my shoulders because I wasn’t religious. I was always feeling that pressure. America reminded me of that.
I got quite obsessed with distancing myself from certain aspects of that Bible Belt culture, especially musically. I needed very much to find an identity that wasn’t related to that white gospel music scene at all. To me, it was also very traditional. I had all kind of judgmental thoughts about it. Thinking about it now, I can also see it was something that I admired from afar – I admired the community of it, but I never admitted that to myself as a kid. This closely knit, kind of ecstatic coming together of people is a strong image to see from a distance.
It’s vulnerable growing up. Those teenage years you always feel lonely and weird. I’ve been closer to that community at times. I tried to sing in a choir. But I always felt very much apart and hated it. I just had to learn to accept it. It’s fairly similar to the U.S. except slightly less political.
Was that wariness something that came from your family or did it develop on its own?
It was both. It definitely came from my parents and my family, but it was also kind of my stubbornness. We moved from the big city to a smaller town just as I was realizing, “Oh, I’m person.” Being apart from those communities was one of the ways of creating an identity for myself. I mean, I didn’t understand them.
There’s a certain kind of weird innocence that I remember, when you’re sort of being dragged around. You meet people in school and they take you places and you don’t actually know what it is. I was probably brought into a couple of youth camps or Christian gatherings, and I didn’t really understand that it was religion. When I did realize that, I was very much feeling like I needed to take a stand on it, which is sort of stupid to ask of any kid, I mean, everyone else did it; everyone else who was religious had done it seemingly. By taking a stand, I decided that they were all brainwashed. [Laughs] Aren’t we all?
Why is the “g” lower case in Apocalypse, girl?
It’s just to avoid people thinking, “It’s Apocalypse Girl!” It’s not a superhero. It’s more like: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Speaking of hatred, I really hate that phrase. That was the Republican slogan wasn’t it?
It was actually a Bill Clinton campaign slogan.
Well, he’s also not my favorite. [Laughs]
Why is that?
I don’t know – I’m more on the left than any American party would be. I’m a socialist, so I’m always looking at these campaigns with a certain interest but also shock. There’s too much money and PR expertise.
You will always be disappointed with our political system.
Oh but I have a lot of disappointment for all counties! [Laughs] I spread it out. I’m not one of those people who thinks I come from a place that’s better than anywhere else. I’ve lived away from Norway long enough to know that we’re not better. I did think that growing up – I thought that we were from the best place in the world, and then I moved to Australia and got some resistance and learned some stuff, which was good.
I saw you were working with Kim Myhr on music for Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. What can you share about it?
It’s not actually new, but it’s being mixed at the moment. It’s very recently been in mixing. This was recorded about a year ago, and it was written three years ago. Things take time sometimes, especially with these big ensembles.
It was written as a piece. Kim gave me a lot of music, so I wrote melody and lyrics, and improvised with them, and performed with them at a big festival for new music in Oslo called Ultima Festival three years ago. It’s a collaborative piece, even though it’s mostly Kim’s piece. It’s his artistic vision, and it was a great pleasure to be part of that because there’s a lot to learn from working with great people and having other people start things and then realizing that you can join and do something in their world.
It’s an acoustic piece for around ten or twelve musicians and very much based on free music and improvisation. It’s also a quite endearing piece, maybe? I’m always just myself, but it’s a quite different musical world from what I do with my own music and recording. Hopefully. it will come out next year.
You seem to be fairly voracious consumer of culture across all platforms. What pieces of art whether film or TV or music have moved you lately?
This might be really boring, but I just watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy. I’m not sure what the film trilogy is called in English, but in Norwegian it was, like, “The Trilogy of Emptiness”. They’re amazing movies from the early 60s. They’re really, really beautiful and very contemporary. I can’t believe I missed that before. I’ve just been thinking about them so much.
It’s six hours, but sometimes you have remind yourself that it’s just a few hours. That’s what I have to say when I think, “It’s too heavy I can’t go into it.” It’s just a few hours and the reward is a thousand hours of thoughts.