“What’s this album about Jenny?”
That question is asked around halfway through Blood Bitch, the fourth solo album from Jenny Hval (sixth in total when you count her work as Rockittothesky). The voice on “The Great Undressing” is Hval’s collaborator and filmmaker Zia Anger and while she gets a reply stating this magnificent art pop record is about vampires - and blood - further explanation is interrupted by Hval’s singing.
It’s a typically Jenny Hval move to dangle this explanation in front of us and then slowly move it out of reach. Because while Blood Bitch is about blood and vampires it’s something of a sleight of hand. The focus on this album is often about the search for a language which allows us to approach and engage with this music – and art in general – in an increasingly capitalist society. And it’s about failure, and embracing that failure as a success.
I’m speaking to Hval a few days after the first Blood Bitch show at Oslo’s Ultima Festival. “We had a show last week and that was the beginning of the live shows,” she tells me, “but now we have to do it very differently. There was six of us onstage for that show; it was the sort of thing you could only do in your hometown, bring your friends and have dinner on stage. We ate mostly watermelon but we had a food break…it worked really well, I was really happy.”
Despite it being the first live take on the new songs, Hval is content. “It felt really great because I haven’t had much time to think about the music or the tour; it was amazing to take a week to focus on the creative side of things and collaborate with people. We’re gonna try to make a very small version of it for shows in the US and maybe bring some of the people along to those shows….it’s going to be very spontaneous. We don’t have a huge budget, so we just have to be creative.”
In the weeks since our conversation I’ve now seen the Jenny Hval Blood Bitch live show. Featuring an inflatable pool, fake blood, capes, swimming costumes and a thumping, clubby take on the album’s more drone-based songs it’s a singular and wonderful experience. I’m interested in the props used and how they relate to the songs and the album, and if this is a reinterpretation or re-engaging – already – of Blood Bitch.
“I don’t know if we take it in any direction,” says Hval. “To me, it’s very connected to the album. Musically we take it – sometimes – in a different direction because we expand a lot. Things are longer and clubbier than on the album. It’s just a lot of fun!"
The Apocalypse,girl live show was a more intense experience completely suited to the tone of that preceeding record, but everything about Blood Bitch feels lighter, playful even. “There is a different energy to this one than to Apocalypse,girl,” agrees the Norwegian. “I know I’ve only done one show but it’s got a very different energy to what we’ve been doing the past year and a bit. It’s a bit more work on stage which is good, and the music is a little bit more visceral and drone-y. It’s so good to be onstage with it and be with the audience. I’m basing all these experiences on the one show which is a bit stupid! We had a little swimming pool, like a kid’s inflatable pool onstage…it was lovely, it was the place to hang out.”
I ask about the interval in the Ultima show, and whether taking tea was significant in any way as a break in the music. “There’s a ritual happening there,” says Hval. “I don’t know where the idea came from beyond that. Actually, now that I think of it the idea for the break – which I don’t think we’re going to do again because it was perfect – might have been because we originally didn’t think we were going to play the track called ‘The Plague’ because it’s such an edited piece. So we thought we’d do a plague instead, some sort of interruption.”
"We had a little swimming pool, like a kid’s inflatable pool onstage…it was lovely, it was the place to hang out"
It’s here that Hval mentions for the first time the influence of horror film on Blood Bitch. “Lasse [Marhaug, collaborator and co-producer on Blood Bitch] and I had been talking a lot about scenes in movies that sort of come in and are completely different from the rest of the film,” she explains. “Like the plague sequence in the Werner Herzog version of Nosferatu…there’s a scene there in the middle of the narrative with vampires where the plague arrives in the form of rats [known as the Danse Macabre scene which also includes a dinner setting], and it’s almost like a music video but starring rats! There are people gathering in a square…it was a very, very friendly version of that!”
As we start to get into the bones (or liquid) of Blood Bitch I mention to Hval a comment she made to me in a previous interview between us. The singer mentioned that when discussing a record, the interview instantly becomes about that particular conversation rather than the record itself. I say that I’m unsure where to start digging because of that, but I point to the repetition of certain words in Blood Bitch: the aforementioned “ritual” and also “failure”. “I don’t think you should be afraid of beginning a conversation about the conversation,” suggests Hval. “What I’ve become very aware of doing more interviews is that I don’t mind at all talking about my music, but I realise afterwards I’ve not said anything which has really got close to the music.”
The idea of ritual in art is one which has been on Hval’s mind. Not just in her own work, but in how to break the rituals we go through in music, art and literature. “There’s this never-ending problem of ‘can language get close to music?’ and so that’s on my mind a lot, definitely,” she reveals. “Especially now I’m doing press, you know? I’m trying desperately to say something that will stay in my mind as something which actually did get close to what I was trying to do…so I think that’s something that certain aspects of the show onstage is also about.”
The format of Hval’s live show, which breaks up the normal concert ritual of song after song with things like the inflatable pool, her onstage companion drawing the audience on an art pad, a break to drink wine and sunbathe, is an attempt to answer her questions. “It’s trying to find a language for performing this music,” she begins, “and a stage language which works for this music and is not just a repetition of the format of the pop concert where you play a song and then you build up this arc which goes a certain way with this kind of song and everyone claps in between, the lighting does this and that, and is these colours…people buy beer…it’s very standardised. I need to rip open the wound in the concert space, creating a sort of anti-concert…but I’m not sure if I’ve managed to do the anti-interview yet! That would just be rude, wouldn’t it?”
Hval continues on the subject of ritual. “I love to think of music – and songs and albums – as rituals. I also love to think of music – and this album – and my songs as letters…or messages. I was watching a ton of horror films…we probably talked about this last time [we did] and there are so many voices, non-communicative voices or one-way conversations in horror films…at least the ones I’ve been watching. There are a lot of letters which someone reads, left behind by someone who’s died a [Hval adopts a spooky voice here] very strange and mysterious death. Or there’s the voice of the dead father – the ghost voice – sending messages through time or space or dimensions. Or the voice of a dead person who might not know what it’s speaking to. All kinds of dead-end conversations. So I was writing in this manner or in these forms for a while. I think there’s a voice in space kind of left at certain points on the album.”
There are a number of interruptions on Blood Bitch; whether it’s Hval waking from a dream during the gentle organ and spoken-word of “Untamed Region”, a conversation between collaborators Annie Bielski and Zia Anger on the beautiful, burbling 80s synth pop track “The Great Undressing” or the radio static and choir sections on “The Plague”, the record plays with conventional structures. “One of those places is definitely ‘The Great Undressing’,” agrees Hval. That was written as a letter about writing a letter. But it’s been cut…most of the lyrics are not on the album, it was brutally cut! We inserted the voices of Annie and Zia talking about the album instead. Which is another type of ritual, or interruption of maybe a real world, maybe a different dimension. It’s a kind of friendly cousin of the horror theme where the interruption is many times scarier - or at least very confusing and mysterious. Here it’s more like when you’re listening to an album and the phone rings…it’s more of a trivial interruption. I just really like creative interruptions.”
"This failing of being a proper or fully-grown woman that’s dealing with life….we can all feel like that, failing the standard. The standard is a brutal thing!"
I return to the horror movie theme; I mention the trance states some of the victims of the vampire (both men and women) are put into, and how these also show a one-way conversation or an interruption. However, the trance state is something I feel dominates the sound of Blood Bitch. Filled with drones or pulsating beats, the record casts an entrancing spell. “There’s definitely a longing for a kind of hallucinatory state on the album,” says Hval. “From the beginning I was very much wanting to create as many sounds as possible on one synthesiser, the Arp Odyssey. It’s a 70s gem instrument used by many of the famous synth bands. So there was a learning process with this album trying to learn analogue synth patterns and sequences, which leads back to my interest in several types of drone-y or dreamy music. German ‘70s music – some call it Kraut – and also these horror soundtracks.”
The Norwegian continues: “It kind of comes together in some movies I’ve taken interest in where the soundtrack kind of blends in with the sounds of the film…so you almost remember the Goblin songs as the horror sequences, the sounds of screams and knives and blood in Suspiria or something like that. The brain makes these lovely connections between sounds and film…so this album is maybe a little bit about that stuff, sonically.”
I ask about the writing process, and whether there’s a connection between the placing of some sounds and words like “ritual”, “failure”, and so on. “Well with many of the tracks I needed sounds first, and words came later,” explains Hval. “I think that goes with the hallucination aspect…I really wanted to be under the influence of the sound when writing and performing vocally. I also wanted to be less crisp and at the forefront, or leading the way, with a clear voice like we worked with on Apocalypse, girl. So there’s a lot of reverb and echoes and vocal drones on this album.”
With the mention of these key words I ask again about “failure”. Appearing during the stunning art-club anthem “Conceptual Romance”, Hval sings – in what might be her finest vocal to date – “I lose myself in the rituals of bad art, in failure” in a sort of self-analysis of her work within a capitalist society, how the two cannot be united. An unrequited love. So where does Hval’s interest in failure come from? “First of all there’s me learning how to watch movies again, or in a new way,” she explains. “From taking a real interest in very underground or cult films, which had been considered very poor quality films…if you judge them by the conventional standards of what is a good movie. The art world is full of conventions of what is good art, what is bad art….I guess I’ve always been interested in this because I’ve been the pop artist playing at the contemporary music festival…like I was last week.
“I’ve played with many free improv musicians or been a much appreciated artist from popular music being this ‘odd’ pop music artist playing in different settings. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. I come from a lesser – or considered lesser, up until recently – artform….and with Apocalypse I was wearing a wig onstage so I was this more androgynous female figure embracing this more stereotypical beautiful or sexy image of a woman…or the hairstyle at least. So this failing of being a proper or fully-grown woman that’s dealing with life….we can all feel like that, failing the standard. The standard is a brutal thing! Gender standards, identity standards and standards of happiness or whatever.”
While Apocalypse, girl and Blood Bitch lack a sonic connection, there are themes linking the two. The former looked at certain general expected standards, but with the latter Hval made it a little more personal. She explains: “So after dealing with these topics for a year, or six months, I guess I was ready to take it and bring it closer to my own creation or my own creativity. Bringing those together, rejection and romantic love, or the failing of a life according to the standards, bringing them together with the failure of art to be conventionally good. Linking things together….and then there’s the vampire who’s failed at life, probably! But acing death haha!”
“I think menstruation is a failed art"
Despite the themes of vampires, failure and blood, Hval is keen to stress this is not a depressing record. “It sounds like I’m a tragic person, saying it like that,” she laughs. “But that’s not what it’s about….it’s a little bit ecstatic. For me it’s a happy record because it’s about embracing all these things and turning them around. In many ways it’s disregarding a lot of things; where Apocalypse dealt with…’you look at yourself in the mirror and you fail’, this one is like ‘oh, but I can walk through the mirror’ and there’s a crazy, creative realist world there I can partake in instead. I’m using creativity as a kind of drug…which also sounds tragic! To me it’s happy record, it was easy to make and I found it quite joyful.”
Of course, much of the talk around Blood Bitch has been about the titular liquid and the link to periods, or menstruation. I say to Hval that while pop music has been lacking positive songs about periods – and this record is a celebration of them in some ways – the period itself might be regarded as a failure of the body. Hval doesn’t quite agree, but sees the failure in a more positive light. “I think menstruation is a failed art,” she states. “It’s not given the place it should have, and it’s not given the potential positive power it should have in terms of linking it to artistic expression.”
“I see menstrual blood as a kind of singing voice, because it’s flowing out of your body like a voice speaking in tongues kind of, because the voice is also something which comes or flows out of your body and is both your body and not at the same time. You could link all this together, and maybe it’s me just wanting it to happen, but I feel like in some of these horror films I was watching that link has been made. That understanding of menstrual blood as more complicated than ‘please erase it, please erase it, please go somewhere else’. It’s always there; when there’s blood it could be that, blood always symbolises all types of other blood.”
There’s a certain visceral quality to some of the horror films from the period Hval was indulging in, many with gallons of blood, some with red filters so that the whole screen would be filled with the colour. However, this wasn’t quite what Hval was into. “The films I watched were mostly less bloody,” she explains, “especially the Jesus Franco films. He wasn’t very interested in blood, gore and limbs falling off. So blood in his films is very unnatural, like did he just spill some ketchup on that? It doesn’t look real…there’s a wonderful sequence, and now I’m just riffing, in a film which isn’t a horror but from the same era, Jubilee by Derek Jarman. There’s a fight or something in a diner, and it turns a bit violent and someone is holding a bottle of ketchup while in the fight…and the ketchup becomes the blood just because it’s red and in the fight it gets spilled. It’s really funny.”
With Jenny Hval, everything returns to the body. Throughout her recorded work, from Viscera to Blood Bitch, there have been songs focusing on the body. Often explicit, there are few artists better than Hval at addressing body issues. On Blood Bitch, there are various mentions of curves and gazes and eyes…but the Norwegian is approaching the body in a new way. “On this record I see it a little bit differently,” she begins. “I guess every album looks at it differently. On Viscera it was very much about the body, it was a telling of a body story. It was almost like ‘here is a limb, and another limb is here’. Innocence Is Kinky was very much about looking at it in a dirty way….exploiting it, and that cold pornographic stare we have at each other. And then Apocalypse was very much about feeling your body and failing at the standard of what it should be like. It was about many other things too…singing, returning some kind of spiritual level.”
Hval continues: “But on Blood Bitch, I think more than anything the body is maybe something I’m a little bit tired of. I just want to get somewhere else, kind of. I just wanna make it into art or create something with it. I’m kind of over it, a bit tired of subjectivity. But I’m also joyful about the whole thing. I’ll have better ideas about what I was thinking in a year’s time! But I’m always…I can’t help but return to the body. It’s something I’m very fascinated with writing about and something I’m probably always wanting to change the idea of a little bit through writing.”
"It’s a disease to call everything experimental because everything is experimental….I mean, it’s experimental to live!"
Before speaking to Hval, I was reading an interview with the singer in which it was put to her that Hval was not a pop music artist, something at which she bristled. It speaks to this need for us to put a label or a value on art, to put everyone in a box: this is experimental, this is pop. “I think this changes a lot; you could centre it round me but you could also centre it around which boxes work at a certain time,” says Hval. “At the moment, in the last few years, there’s been a lot of focus on experimental music – I don’t know what that is – or music that is I guess not necessarily trying to push the same buttons or use pop music in the same way as more mainstream or conventional song writing. There’s been a lot of influence there from more abstract, electronic music.”
“But it’s a disease to call everything experimental because everything is experimental….I mean, it’s experimental to live! So that’s why I keep returning to ‘I make pop music’. It’s also because I’m not so interested in being put anywhere, and that’s not because I think it’s wrong to be put in boxes when an individual writer says something about my work. That I don’t think about so much. The fact that I’m asked so much and people seem to be so in need of placing music on a map….you can ask me but I think it’s maybe more fruitful to turn around and ask why do we need to? And why do we need to say ‘Jenny Hval is not pop music?’ Why is that so important to us?”
I say in response that society more and more requires things to be seen in black and white; grey areas are too vague, almost weak. “Black and white is beautiful…but everything is in colour now!” exclaims Hval. “All images are very sharp and you see the entire person on Instagram. It’s very sharp, all limbs are sharp, and it’s very unnatural to have this world of images and constant information and boxes and brackets. I think it’s really important to leave a lot of elements more mysterious and not reveal everything. I’m saying that after a lot of interviews and maybe I just wanna [Hval trails off a little here]….I’m not tired of speaking, it’s more that I’m tired of clarifying. Because I don’t think you can clarify everything and I don’t think I’m the right person to clarify everything about what I do!”
As with boxes, people like to put a value on art so they can compare it to another piece of art. So like putting a price on an auctioned painting means a person can comprehend the value of a Monet against a Bacon, when someone listens to music they’re desperate to call it pop music so they can file it alongside the other pop music they like, or call it experimental and place it next to their other experimental artefacts. While I refuse to comprehend that Blood Bitch is anything other than the most wonderfully engaging pop music, Hval doesn’t want a label: “It’s like putting it on the stock market, and then you have the stocks instead of the thing!"
As we close out the interview I return to a comment Hval made at the start about finding a language to get to close to music with. The last lines of the record, on “Lorna”, are “Does anyone have a language for it? Can we find it?” I ask if that’s really the most important moment on the record… “Maybe at some point I was wondering, and hoping, and we were talking a lot about it in the studio,” she muses, “what if we had more of a language for it? But maybe that’s the language you can create without words. The one thing you can’t find in the interview…..”
I can’t help but laugh here. I say it’s perhaps a good place to end the conversation about the conversation. “It is a good ending isn’t it? Stop reading an interview!” laughs Jenny Hval in response. “I think that great things can be said in interviews but I just think there’s always more. Sometimes as an artist you feel the pressure of being available and speaking about your work so much.”
“You keep thinking maybe we all need to see artists talk about or clarify their work, explain things. Are we trying to explain instead of valuing? Are we trying to do the same thing as we do with the menstrual blood when we make it blue in a commercial, sort of clean up art which should be allowed to be quite messy? It might be the same thing as the pop or experimental genres….or maybe it’s a more interesting way of saying ‘I’m so sick of genres’….maybe it’s more interesting to say I just want music to be more valuable.”