Nature, Paradise, Patriarchy: An Interview with Jenny Hval

Jenny Hval is a Norwegian musician and writer known for using non-traditional yet seductive synth-driven pop to deliver challenging lyrics, most often about issues of gender. She kindly responded to these questions over email and gave insights into her book, “Paradise Rot,” which will be published in English for the first time this October. After this interview Jenny Hval performed at Big Ears, the experimental art and music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, famous for its yearly lineups of boundary pushing artists. Hval’s performance was delightfully minimal and improvisational, with a yoga mat, cell phones and Microsoft Office all contributing to the visual and auditory experience. She played hits from her most recent solo album “Blood Bitch,” an album inspired in part by vampire movies and, according to the album insert, “the purest and most powerful, yet trivial and most terrifying blood: menstruation.” Needless to say, Hval has achieved acclaim for her frank portrayals of the body and sexuality. As her following responses attest, her work and process are confessional and chaotic as much as they have been construed as political.

Bethany Fincher: You opened for Einstürzende Neubauten last year [2017] at Villette Sonique — what was that experience like? Do you see a connection between your work and Neubauten’s?

Jenny Hval: It was very intense. But I didn’t get to meet the band or see the show. We worked so hard on our own performance and it was such an intense time. The strongest connection between my work and Neubauten was probably the fact that we played on the same night, at least for the audience. I don’t know how that connection played out, unfortunately. Hopefully it was interesting.

I’ve met Blixa once – he was in Oslo for a solo show and I was sent out to interview him – something I’ve almost never done. It was a disaster. I was so nervous. I hope he doesn’t remember. I haven’t listened to their music so much, but some of it I really like and there are some great live videos that I’ve seen.

BF: At that show [Villette Sonique] there was such a strong visual element to your performance — you had a dancer, a red tent on stage, everyone emerged in red cloaks, some with stockings and protruding fabric. The entire space felt reminiscent of the female body and the interiors of the body. How are the visual components to your live shows planned? What is their purpose?

JH: That show is one of the best shows I’ve – we’ve – ever done. It was so hot, body temperature I think. Perhaps that added to the experience. I love playing when it’s really hot. The show just flowed really well.

The visual components were not really planned. I was working with a choreographer and a costume / make up artist / visual artist, and they are both some of the most talented people I know, but we never have much time to organise or compose the elements. We just talk, come up with ideas, and then press PLAY and we’re on stage trying to make sense of it all.

BF: Your work has been described as some of the first to bring conscious feminist political thought into the realm of music. Do you feel a political urgency to portray sexuality in music?

JH: Maybe I do. There is a lot of urgency in my writing, and a lot of humiliation. I don’t think about this as much as you would think when you read interviews I’ve done. Journalists are very good at structuring themes and elements. When I write I’m in a much more chaotic state, and I don’t try to express or plan to express anything in particular.

BF: After the release of “Innocence is Kinky,” you conveyed in a Village Voice interview that you felt it failed to a degree and lacked the aggression you desired, citing Swans and Nick Cave as your sonic benchmarks. Many agree that your lyrics alone are aggressive! And you have retained highly feminine, experimental yet melodic vocals that convey frank and aggressive content. Was your perceived failure of “Innocence is Kinky” in reference to a masculine notion of aggression?

JH: Yes, the album process was a failure to an extent. I had written music that was much more aggressive than what ended up on the album, and we had played a lot of rock band shows for a while. I had been working for a couple of years with making louder music with electric guitar and noise elements, but in the lead-up to the album recording I found that it didn’t work off stage. A lot of songs were completely reshaped or cut from the album. In the end, the aggressive elements were still very much there, but contained in lyrics and pronunciation, arrangement details and pacing.

I think I talked a lot about masculine notions of aggression at the time this album came out, but I have been rethinking things a bit since. First of all, I do think there is room for a lot of different interpretations of «aggression» in art. Secondly, I don’t think «loudness» means masculine, or that male musicians have to be aggressive in a certain way. But I think there needs to be conversations about aesthetic elements in art as well as political conversations. They sometimes blend together in a non-progressive way.

BF: Do you think there are pressures or limitations on the female voice’s ability to be aggressive?

JH: Certainly in my youth I felt like I there were places I shouldn’t go with my voice. For me it was hard to accept that I wanted to sing because of those limitations, I felt it was «feminine» in a stereotypical way to even try to sing. When I started singing eventually my instinct was to go to those places that are not pleasant or nice, but in a really messy way, a taboo kind of experience. Those things are hard to shake off. Performing in front of people for years helps me to explore a more subtle range of elements though, and not think so much about taboo – more about sensuality . . . Now other people bring it up a lot.

BF: English is your second language — has working in another language affected your creative process?

JH: Definitely. At first it was very liberating, I could be bold and reinvent myself and study the «self» from the outside a bit – nothing I say in English is really from «me» because it’s that one step further away from the idea of «me» I have grown up with. And then it gradually got more difficult because I realised, and I’m still realising more and more, how much is missing for me in my second language. I am very much aware of this gap. A lot of words and meanings pass me by, like music.

BF: Your upcoming book “Paradise Rot” is about “bodies, sexuality and the female gender.” Particularly with your book — but this question applies to all of your work in general — what audience are you trying to reach? Who should read this book?

JH: I didn’t say it was about bodies, sexuality and the female gender! My publisher did! I don’t disagree, but it is also equally about language and growth and nature. Nature and language embody ideas of sexuality of course, and it’s that range which interested me at the time.

It’s important for me to add that I started writing this book when I was very young, in 2005, and it was published in Norwegian in 2009. It’s related to my work of course, in the sense that I am just me, but it’s not so much to the music I’ve made in the last few years. I’m not sure what kind of audience I was trying to reach at the time I wrote it – perhaps a secret society of people who had studied feminist theory? It was my first book and full of romantic dreams about literature and readers.

BF: Based on the title, “Paradise Rot,” is there any religious angst underpinning the themes of your novel?

JH: Yes, but maybe not anxiety as much as a dream of destroying the link between nature, paradise, patriarchy and gendered sexuality (seen from a female perspective). With language. Like I said, full of romantic dreams.


Featured image by Jenny Berger Myhre, courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR.

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