Norwegian artist Jenny Hval has made one of the best, most strikingly essential albums of 2015 in the shape of Apocalypse, girl. A record delving into gender, religion and sexuality through ambient, experimental, trip-hop, jazz and folk music it's a staggering achievement from a supremely talented performer.
In an interview with The Quietus, Hval commented – perhaps in an offhand way – that she makes music that is difficult to talk about or discuss, so that’s where I begin…..is this true? “No, I don’t,” is Hval’s immediate response. “I make records that are easy to talk about. But it was my goal with this one to make it difficult to talk about.” I ask why that was the approach this time around? “When things get too easy to talk about – like if you were talking about a newspaper article – it’s not very interesting. I just wanted to be a bit more challenged myself I think.”
Apocalypse, girl is a challenging record but it’s no less engaging for being so, although Hval isn’t dismissing “easier” music: “I don’t think it’s necessarily of less value if it’s easy to talk about,” she explains, “but I think when I made my last album [Innocence Is Kinky] I was working with a lot of media sources, so it was very easy to be the person on the outside looking in.” This time around, Hval transformed the political into the personal and left her searching for answers (never mind the questions I have) during the recording of the album. “Part of wanting to make an album that was harder to talk about was to not really be on the outside so much,” says the Norwegian in her accent which has more than a touch of Australian to it. “So it was about creating scenarios where I would do something; it’s becoming easier to talk about but I didn’t want to have all the answers when I made the music. I wanted to be terrified, to find out if I actually had anything to say about it at all.”
Hval’s third solo studio album begins with a quote from Danish poet Mette Moestrup: “Thing big, girl, like a king, think kingsize” are the first words we hear on the spoken word “Kingsize” but it wasn’t Moestrup’s poetry – which also explores gender and identity – that started the process for Apocalypse, girl. “That song was midway through recording,” reveals Hval. “It was the last one to be at least started in some form. In the beginning it’s always hard to say [what began the writing of the album] because depending on the conversation – and this is why it’s hard to talk about a quote from another interview – there is no truth. There is no interview that is truer than another, and sometimes I just say things I don’t agree with the next day! Like most of us, I guess.” Hval does go on to reveal exactly what did stimulate the song writing process, though: “It started with a lot of scenarios for singing, and speaking,” she says. “I was creating a sort of lively way to record, starting with drum loops…but then I got really interested in karaoke and karaoke videos, people singing without being the artist on YouTube. I was nerding a bit about that without knowing why…” As well as that, Hval remembered that her recording technology and instrumentation also contained something similarly formulaic. She continues: “Then I realised that in most music programmes there are pre-recorded backing tracks, totally generic tracks, and for a while I was really excited by listening to these pre-existing genres or types of music. I was trying to sing over them: funk tracks, lots of music I’ve not really ever worked with.” Incredibly, this apparent banality was an inspiration to Hval: “I liked the feeling of trying to perform along with these tracks which are so generic you almost don’t even hear them…but trying to find something to sing with them was an exercise I really enjoyed and that connected somewhat with me watching these videos and doing music as some sort of practice, finding some kind of emotional direction.” In the midst of that the song writing actually started and Hval tells me “I started composing somewhere in that process. I did it because I was bored and I didn’t feel creative…so I was saying ‘oh, here’s a bluegrass track, let’s listen to that’ and so on. It was very abstract, and very embarrassing…but some of it facilitated songs and lyrics.” How much of the music actually finds a home on the record; are there samples, or snatches of singing? “I think physically, nothing,” says Hval, “and emotionally, everything.”
On the face of it, with the album beginning and ending with mentions of the USA; on “Kingsize” Hval says “In New York I don’t dream / I always wanted to be less subculturally lonely / but here I see no subculture” while on “Holy Land” she sings “I understand that we all want to feel unborn / I understand it in America”. There’s a contrast of sorts, and it feels like Hval has reached some kind of understanding of or with the country. Hval replies with qualified agreement: “I think the America at the end is the American ‘death drive’ [as in Freud’s theory of moving beyond the pleasure principle and as far away as possible from our survival instincts] ….it’s the meeting of religion and sexuality.” She continues: “I guess I am connecting with it in a way…but it’s [‘Holy Land’] a very dark track. Also in the death drive there’s complete devotion which is something I was very aware of when I was composing – some kind of giving yourself up, while criticising it, but wanting to be in it, still.”
There’s a feeling of death and rebirth across the course of Apocalypse, girl in relation to Hval’s relationship with America, manifesting itself in the mention of being “unborn” in that final track. I say to Hval that the lyrics in “Holy Land” remind me of Bulgarian/French philosopher Julia Kristeva’s use of the term “chora”; in this theory Kristeva refers to the pre-lingual point of child development where we are supposed to feel everything without the crutch of language or meaning, only experiencing through the life drive and death drive and being closest to pure existence as described in Lacan’s “the Real”. However, Hval replies with another view that’s defined by her use of words in her art: “I mean, maybe there is some kind of drive that connects with that at the very end,” she says, “but I never really understood that term [chora]. I’ve tried, but also I feel a little bit removed from it because I use lyrics. I’ve spent time in my life feeling almost ashamed [when making music]….you read about all these theories and then when they’re put to music it’s easier to write about stuff that doesn’t have lyrics. Stuff that’s easy to read as something destroying regular structures. And so I have been reading a lot of theory but at the same time I’m making melodies and words; but I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot…you can really explore the before or after or the beyond words, with words.”
America did serve a purpose in that it allowed Hval to revisit her youth in Norway – a childhood which was influenced, for better or worse, by religion. On “Heaven” she sings “I want to sing religiously, you know, airy / more than necessary / climbing the ladders just to fall / uncontrollably to heaven” and these words came from driving through the US bible belt: “I was touring there a lot and I reconnected with the place I grew up partly, which was in the Norwegian bible belt,” begins Hval. “Not that I travelled so much in the American bible belt, but I know people from there – and it’s easy to see it’s very different from Norway. It’s very ‘in your face’…this weird culture I hadn’t seen….so yeah, I thought I was going to experience different things when I travelled there but I ended up thinking a lot about being in high school with a lot of very charismatic Christians. Hval had conflicting emotions about these people she grew up with, being fascinated and repelled in equal measure: “I’d always kind of rejected what their beliefs were and what their lives were – very much in the church and with a spirit of Jesus revolution or whatever they call it. Even though I was friends with them I was from a very different world….but I did find their devotion very interesting and kind of appealing at the same time; almost abject, going back to Kristeva! So this is my re-engaging with that, I guess.”
Jenny Hval seems like a confident artist; surely you don’t make records like Apocalypse, girl or Innocence Is Kinky without assuredly knowing what you’re doing? Yet there’s a line in “Angels and Anaemia” which runs “Self-doubt, it’s what I do….it’s not writing nor music, fuck, it’s certainly not ‘art’” and it’s a hint that perhaps Hval does in fact struggle in creating her art. She explains: “Maybe part of it was wanting to challenge myself by having a starting point that was much more autobiographical; performing myself instead of writing stuff that was more detached.” This involved Hval posing herself some questions: “I wanted to start doing stuff that was beyond how I saw my identity as an artist, in terms of what type of artist I think people saw me as. It’s very appealing to try to challenge which type of identity you feel like you’re projecting as an artist when you’ve been working with being an artist for a while. You know? You’ve put a few things out, you start to realise the decisions behind what you’re doing…” Hval reveals there was an awkwardness in her music she’d not noticed before: “I started to see there were certain things I always avoid on an album, certain melodies I would maybe not take with me, certain things I would find too close. There was this self-awareness I was kind of sick of and I wanted to go and challenge that self-consciousness a bit.”
It’s not all serious introspection on the album; Apocalypse, girl contains a heck of a lot of explicit language that’s extremely funny while also being part of a straight-faced study of gender and sexuality, and there are also a number of questions and statements which are hilarious yet strikingly modern observations of the treatment of women. I say to Hval that perhaps listeners don’t always get the humour in her work? “Absolutely!” she agrees. “To me there are lots of humorous things about the album – and to other stuff I’ve done too. I wonder sometimes if people really exaggerate the provocativeness of my work…why do people think so one-dimensionally.” Hval continues to ponder this point, asking me a series of questions: “It is something you do with female artists? Is it something you do with a certain type of music? How would this be read if I were a hip-hop artists? That’s something I think about a lot,” she says. “There is definitely both humour and intimacy, because they’re not exclusives [laughs]. I find there are lots of levels of humour in music; not just what makes you laugh, all types of moods and layers in between the incredibly slapstick funny and the super-serious or doomy.” Humour seems a good way to approach sexuality without being po-faced about it, and it’s evident in Hval’s work, even in a song title like “Take Care of Yourself” which acts as diatribe against expectations but also a nod to masturbation or self-love, or even absent-minded touching of one’s self. “I would want to see sexuality [in the music], which I guess some people find provocative to talk about, which is weird as they’re thinking ‘oh, that’s provocative’ as they touch themselves in the most intimate way….as we do all the time!” laughs Hval. “Our bodies are very…it’s not all excitement and ‘cocks on duty’.” I mention that there is more of a focus on the soft dick than the erect dick: “Yes, our regular, intimate selves are quite mundane and boring,” she affirms. “It’s so many different things and I kind of wanted to bring in elements of all of it…although I’m not so interested in the cocks on duty. We have an expression in Norwegian when we say like off-duty in the military when you’re not wearing your uniform it’s ‘in civilian’…”
The best mixing of the serious and the silly comes with the list of questions in “Take Care of Yourself”: “What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting Laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market? Realizing your potential?” The ridiculousness of what’s demanded or expected of women by society is writ large here, Hval’s ire tempered by her scorn for it all, the most preposterous checklist going: “Yeah it’s like the course of a young life,” she quips. “Maybe not in the right order but yeah, success, success, success! Like when you log on to hotel internet – you have to type in a password and it says ‘success!’ The scene in ‘Take Care of Yourself’ is part of life that has nothing to do with success; you could be anybody and these are times when your whole identity is ‘in civilian’ [i.e. soft, floating] and your sexuality as well, and nothing is successful.” It’s also attacked by Hval in “That Battle Is Over” as she sings “statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying” and she explains to me: “I kind of mock it in ‘That Battle is Over’ which is the next song after that….” Especially with the line “what’s wrong with me”, I say…”Oh yeah that’s also something I thought was pretty funny when I wrote it,” replies Hval. “I didn’t write it as something deadly serious; that whole song was written as karaoke; maybe that was one of the songs where the emotional karaoke inspiration appears, where the performance doesn’t have to be genuine. Like, I don’t have to be an artist right now and I can try to sing in someone else’s voice or try to imitate something….or I can get it all out, get all my emotions out. ‘What’s wrong with me’ is maybe a little bit more cynical…” The mock-soulfulness of that track is the one moment on the album that the karaoke influence appears most noticeably, and Hval has thought this too: “I imagine that even when I’m performing it – which is why I love performing it! I’m the sort of person who would always pretend to sing out of tune. I’d sing out of tune on purpose in the choir, which I guess was about performing something. I’ve done karaoke a couple of times, and when I’ve done it I’ve been standing there freaking out, thinking ‘wow, this is not something I can do!’ But I’ve also really enjoyed watching people not as self-conscious as me really enjoying it. It’s a different kind of performance….maybe that’s why I write songs no-one else can sing!”
On her journey through identity on Apocalypse, girl Jenny Hval is joined by a cast of players including Swans and Shearwater drummer Thor Harris and fellow Norwegian Lasse Marhaug, who casts a stunning ambient glow over the closing tracks of the album, culminating in the claustrophobic “Holy Land”. But it’s in discussing the avant-garde cellist Okkyung Lee that Hval hits upon the best, if not perfect description of the music she makes. While explaining what Lee’s music means to her I couldn’t help thinking that Hval was inadvertently talking about herself. Hval’s music, and perhaps this album in particular, can be summed up with these words: “She is one of my favourite musicians in the world. Her playing is amazing and she’s one of the few people when she plays there are no distractions and I’m completely inside it. I appreciate a lot of improvised music but it is so easy to engage when she plays. She can play along to anything and make it accessible, make it direct and make anyone able to understand that you can make a hit really striking, it doesn’t have to be striking in a conventional way…you just have to connect it to being human.”
Jenny Hval's Apocalypse, girl is out now via Sacred Bones.
Photographs by Mike Hughes for Best Fit