INTERVIEW

SOME KIND OF RAWNESS: On her new, fifth album, Norwegian artist and musician Jenny Hval is exploring feminism from a personal angle. She spoke with James F. Thompson

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“At night, I watch people fucking on my computer,” Jenny Hval whispers on the title track of her fourth LP, ‘Innocence is Kinky’. “Nobody can see me looking anyway,” she adds, for added creepiness. It’s an oft-quoted couplet but one that perfectly encapsulates one of the Norwegian’s principal preoccupations within music: the exploration of gender politics and her own sexuality under the unfettered male gaze.

Starting out as the vocalist for goth-metal outfits like Shellyz Raven in her teens before putting out two albums under the moniker Rockettothesky, for the past few years Hval – now using her real name – has released a stream of off-kilter folk, electronica and rock that’s served to realign perceptions of music as a platform for discussing and dissecting female sexual identity. Unflinchingly confrontational, the 34 year-old deploys direct language, colourful characters and vividly-imagined scenes (“I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris,” she sings on ‘Engines in the City’), to challenge gendered orthodoxies and lazy preconceptions in the bedroom and beyond.

Living in a small town in Norway’s Bible Belt, Hval was confronted by many of these growing up. “I wasn’t from a religious family and I never really was religious,” she says on a call from her Oslo home with a slight, soft Australian twang, the result of a stint studying creative writing and performance in Melbourne in the mid-noughties along with a concerted effort to lose her natural accent. “So I kind of hated all that.”

Hearing the androgynous music of the likes of Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat) throughout her 1980s childhood, Hval soon set up her stall in opposition to the deeply entrenched gender and family roles that she found herself surrounded by. “I would always be different or wanting to be different from the other girls in the group who were discussing marriage, having kids and that kind of thing; stuff that I was very much not interested in,” she remembers. Gospel music and other religious trappings, though, were impossible to avoid: “I had to listen to all these gospel songs even if I really hated – or pretended to hate – them. I think they stuck with me though and I guess I was more influenced by all of it than I wanted to ever admit.”

Ironically though, until now Hval has tended to avoid directly referencing her own formative experiences of feminism in her music. ‘Innocence is Kinky’, for instance, instead soaks up influences ranging from the brutal crimes of Norwegian mass-murderer Andews Breivik through to silent film, Paris Hilton’s infamous 2004 sex tape and the local version of American reality TV export Teen Mom. All the same though, the songwriter frequently uses her music as a platform to explore feminist themes and initiate an honest dialogue around them.

“It’s important to allow people to disagree with your idea of any ideology, because – and I kind of love it – I’m part of a discussion and part of a very plural voice. Sometimes if you say you work with feminist themes, or you’re a feminist or whatever, it means that you have to always speak for everybody. I want my voice to not be for one specific and gendered group. I want to be just one individual in part of a long and fluid discussion with lots and lots of people who will disagree with me, or agree with me, or whatever.”

Later this month Hval releases ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ via Sacred Bones. “Think big, girl, like a king, think kingsize,” proffers opening track ‘Kingsize’; a rousing call to arms from Danish poet Mette Moestrup. Produced by Norwegian noise legend Lasse Marhaug and again featuring bandmates Håvard Volden and Kyrre Laastadalong, plus collaborations with people like Thor Harris (Swans), the record couples gorgeous, looped synth and harp melodies with intimate tales of desire and vulnerability delivered with Hval’s soaring, mellifluous voice. A good deal less abrasive and confrontational than its predecessor (though no more radio-friendly, Hval insists, courtesy of a cavalcade of “cunts” in the lyrics), ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ makes for an accessible introduction to an otherwise slightly intimidating oeuvre.

From the outset, Hval was determined to move beyond the stylistic template established with ‘Innocence is Kinky’. “I actually had, quite early on, a title for a project that I knew wouldn’t last: it was ‘Ruining My Reputation’, she laughs. “The starting point wasn’t so much to change my perspective from ‘Innocence’ as to kind of just ruin what it is to be an artist in terms of identity. There was this kind of death drive, you know; the death of the artist.”

One catalyst for this artistic Hari-kiri was Retromania, an excellent rumination on pop culture’s so-called addiction to its own past by British journalist and musicologist Simon Reynolds. In his book, Reynolds warns of the prevalence of retro-fetishism as stymieing pop music’s future. For Hval, the tome was something of a wake-up call: “It made me think a lot about what being an artist is like today and how it feeds into a modern or post-modern capitalist exchange and being part of that machine.”

As a result, she took a radically different approach to building the new record, eschewing guitars and starting with simple pre-made songs that were bundled with her music software, using these as canvasses for her vocals (“An awful karaoke purge,” she jokes), along with adding layers of additional loops and sounds. Hval also focused on field recordings, capturing the ambient noise of different rooms and outside locations before mixing these into tracks. Ultimately, she and Marhaug clocked up around five months in the studio.

Yet it’s lyrically where ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ represents the biggest step forward from what’s gone before. Hval moves away from character constructions as a means of exploring themes and instead towards an auto-biographical approach that draws far more of the songwriter’s own experiences into the music. It’s a brave decision, albeit one that was probably necessary.

“I think that I got very tired of the essay-like exploration of the ‘gaze’ that I was drawn to in the ‘Innocence’ composition,” she says. “When I released that record I felt like, I have to do something else now. So there’s a kind of emotional core to [‘Apocalypse, Girl’] which is very different to ‘Innocence’ and I would say that to me it feels more vulnerable to perform this album. I allowed myself to do something that I’ve never really allowed myself to do before, which is write myself into the music to a great degree.

“I think the auto-biographical reference framework is something that I’ve avoided because I’ve learned that it’s a cliché and it belongs to certain genres that I have been kind of afraid of… I’m not the kind of writer that will stop with some narrative voice. I just can’t stay there. When I start playing music and kind of write in this spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness way that I often do when I write, it just doesn’t stay there. I can’t write that ‘photograph’ of myself as a child or something. It goes into different things than it would if I started off with this like essay-like observational mode. So for me [the writing process for the new record] was great; it was some kind of rawness.”

Of all the tracks on the album, ‘Heaven’ is perhaps the most tangibly personal, recalling Hval’s time in a church choir. She marvels – perhaps jealously – at the devotion of everybody around her, before switching to the present. “I’m 33 now, that’s Jesus’s age… I want to sing religiously,” she whispers during the song. I wonder, has Hval’s experience in the church had a more profound impact on the rest of her music than she’s letting on?

“I find this very weird and I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before, but because I wasn’t part of these communities, I thought that it didn’t have an impact on me at all. Which is pretty funny,” she concedes. “But now I find it interesting how I rejected it and how I also maybe envied the collective; the devotional aspect of what the other kids had – and I didn’t – with religion.”

One might wonder whether that title – ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ – represents another religious incursion on the album. In fact its roots lie at least partially within Safe, a 1995 drama by Todd Haynes that sees Julianne Moore’s unremarkable housewife develop multiple chemical sensitivity, essentially becoming allergic to modern life. Aerosols, exhaust fumes and all manner of other substances are suddenly off-limits.

It’s a far more frightening end-of-world scenario than any overblown battle or macho narrative, says Hval. “It’s the story of the ‘soft’ apocalypse – a really beautiful film but one that’s mainly about fear. To me it’s this wonderful mix of portraying a very subdued, very passive American LA housewife in the late eighties narrative of someone who’s living – or almost not living – and having her become allergic to modern life. You take away all the stuff that’s usually inside sci-fi movies but this is just stripped-down and all about fear. I also watched [Lars] von Trier’s Melancholia, which I sort of read very much in the same way. So all these fear and apocalyptic themes I found quite influential.”

Hval was so enthused with her latest filmic influences that she made a film of her own between recording sessions for the new album; a collage of favourite clips from across the web. But the budding auteur still chose director and close friend Zia Anger to realise the video for new single ‘That Battle is Over’ – a sarcastic valedictory paean to victory in the battles for socialism and feminism. Anger does a fine job of warping scenes of female domesticity with Lynchian tropes like faded, soft-focus glamour and dimly-lit rooms to lend an air of dreamy surrealism to proceedings.

The song itself peddles the shopworn idea that the feminist cause is redundant; that equality has been achieved and there’s nothing left to fight for. It’s a notion that infuriates Hval but one that she couldn’t ignore. “When other people say things and you just disagree with them, you need to do something about it. You can’t just say you oppose it,” she insists. “You need to process it through your own prejudice. There’s always something to battle in yourself and there’s always something to kill that’s been said out there. So I try to say these things and then kill them with sound that’s very dark… and with a long, brooding ending.”

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