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Exclusive Q&A: The Dark World of Singer Jenny Hval

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To adore horror is to appreciate all the places it hides. And in the abstract, bizarre work of musician/performer/artist Jenny Hval, her very essence speaks of all things dark, beautiful and cinematic. The multi-disciplinary Norwegian singer has been a composer of raw, jagged, abstract and thoroughly challenging pop noise for years now, making violent and exotic deconstructions of traditional rock music that are as painful as they are confounding as they are disturbing.

Her latest album is APOCALYPSE, GIRL, a tour-de-force of sound, fury, violence, sex and psychology that can not be easily defined nor can it be properly compared to anything else. Except maybe, the last Jenny Hval album. On the cusp of the Toronto stop of her tour at The Drake underground, the incredible Jenny Hval gave FANGO an exclusive interview.

FANGORIA: How do you feel about APOCALYPSE, GIRL in the context of your body of solo work?

JENNY HVAL: I think it’s the first time I’m really happy with something, actually, because the process was very long and such a visual experience as well. It was, like, very consuming and very positive. Yeah, I still find it interesting to talk about, and I feel like I unlocked something, but I don’t know what it is yet. It was a very kind of surreal and creative process, and I think you can hear that whether you like it or not, on the album. At least it’s there; it’s very colorful.

FANGORIA: Was it an organic process to create this? Did you have to overthink what you were going to do or did you simply just try to make this as pure an experience as possible?

HVAL: I guess it’s always more complex than that, although ideally it sounds good to do something pure. I think that what happened this time was that it wasn’t possible to overthink it because the way we produced the album, me and the producer Lasse [Marhaug], was by talking so much that we were thinking super-hard the entire time, and we were mostly thinking about other things than the actual album. We had this really long discussion about… specifically film, but also all kinds of cults and activists… We just had this really lovely conversation, so that it wasn’t all about me and the album, and it became a much bigger world, so yeah, there was so much thinking but I don’t think there was any overthinking.

FANGORIA: The cover is, on the surface, a girl lying on a… whatever that is, an exercise ball? There’s something so strange about it. It’s unforgettable; I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m not sure if I’m turned on by it, or I’m just generally confused by it, but can you just talk about the concept of that cover?

HVAL: Yeah, the photo was taken somewhere in New York, I think upstate, by Zia [Anger], who also does the videos, and she’s with me on stage. And I wasn’t there [on the cover]; a lot of people think it was me, but I just take that as a compliment.

I think there was this big shoot with lots of photos taken of, I believe, mainly of other things, so I think it was a surprise to everybody that this particular image was chosen, but to me, it’s a very uneasy photo. Just the way that you kind of think it’s moving, almost; very much like a living thing. And I’m very ambivalent as to what it is. Is she humping it or is she dead? Is it life or death, or is it both? Is it the apocalypse? I don’t really know, and that’s probably why it was chosen as the cover, because it was sort of a never-ending process to look at it.

FANGORIA: Well, tie it into some of the lyrics on the album. For some reason now, every time I look at it, I think of you collapsed over this “Capitalist Clit.”

HVAL: [laughs] Yeah, lovely. I have a picture of me; I just saw it, because you know when you plug in your iPhone in your computer, this annoying thing that happens and all your pictures come up? It happens on my computer, anyway, and I saw that there was someone who had taken pictures of me at the Museum of Sex, and I was there with Jenn Pelly from Pitchfork, and I just saw them now: these pictures of me, just jumping on a big boob.

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FANGORIA: That’s very Woody Allen.

HVAL: Yes, and very ‘album cover.’ It was the perfect combination of those two things.

 

FANGORIA: Can you talk about the sense of humor in the album?

HVAL: Oh, I think it was always there. I think, but to me, humor is really important: you can’t really have anything—well, I can’t really see anything really carnal or grotesque or even sensual without a slice of humor in it. It’s there, and it’s kind of part of my personality as well. I’m very much the kind of person who would just jump out and say something that was really surreal and funny, but very rarely, and after being very quiet. Maybe it’s a Norwegian thing.

But the ‘Capitalist Clit’—I mean, it is lovely how these things kind of come together and sound, and I think that’s maybe my kind of humor, the way that I’ve just always been able to kind of think of words as sound, and so when you do that, it’s kind of never-ending wordplay. I used to, when I studied philosophy, I read all these philosophy books in English, and I realized much later that I actually did not understand them at all, but I was just so much into the language. I could never have that sort of self-confidence, if I’d been reading them in Norwegian and actually understood them. But for some reason, I just didn’t even think about it as I read them in English.  So yeah, that’s kind of where most of the more humorous layers in my lyrics come from. The meaning of ‘Capitalist Clit’ is also funny, but it wouldn’t have been there without the sound and the alliteration.

FANGORIA: You’ve said this: “Intimacy is beyond rules—that is the very nature of it. If it’s pretty… perhaps you’re not close enough.” I love that. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

HVAL: So hard. I feel like sometimes I’m asked to elaborate on things and I actually think the short version that I chose to write was the good one. And I end up just stuttering away. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I think, partly, from the Bjork ‘Talkhouse’ piece that I did, I’ve been in so many conversations about where people try to make sense of art, setting up these divides between what is good and comes close to you, and what is bad. And intimacy getting too close and therefore being bad is something that I’ve just heard so many times.

As a description, maybe more than how anybody feels… maybe it’s just the way we can’t really say anything with words, and they just kind of leave us helpless, stranded in a world of signs. Yeah, but to me, it just makes me think of movies and how a lot of the films, or photos, even the clips I’ve been interested in over the years have been the ones that kind of go too close; where you kind of see, you start to not even recognize the face that you have seen already and you should recognize it, but you don’t because it’s too close.

Maybe this is something I’m fascinated by also because I have kind of bad eyesight. And so I’m used to going really close to something and looking at it, but without my contacts on, and I sometimes wander around without them. I can never see anything clearly; if it’s in a comfortable distance I can’t really see it, it’s blurry, and then when it’s not blurry anymore it’s too close to actually be seen as one thing. Even a face is kind of a thousand different things. So, yeah.

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FANGORIA: A lot of your music could be probably a little bit more commercial if it wasn’t for the use of certain words, like the word ‘cunt’; Americans don’t like that word. Can you talk about using that word and using it as shock value?

HVAL: Well, we just talked about the ‘Capitalist Clit, and obviously there I’m using it for the ‘C’ quality`, or the ‘CH’ quality. Was that the first lyric where it appeared? No, it was the last one. I think, well, partly it is that kind of word that is ‘too close’, and because I am interested in the ‘too close’—that’s kind of something that you would know, you even quoted it. It’s kind of at the core of how I see things and how I express myself.

So I’m always interested in those words, and ‘too close’ is, to me, kind of a better way of describing it than ‘provocative’. Because ‘provocative’ is very… you’re very distant when you say something is ‘provocative’. It can mean so many different things and it could also mean that you don’t want to deal with it. It’s just like, ‘Yeah, it’s provocative.’ It’s something that you’re almost belittling. But sometimes I think that I need to get close to something in order to really even write anything, otherwise I’m just stuck in writers block.

But when I get really close to something I start to be creative with it and I’m also very interested in sexuality as a very open-ended thing, and so ‘cunt’ usually comes with a pretty… how shall I put it… it doesn’t usually open up to a variety of different meanings. I do think that I’ve tried very hard, whenever I’ve used it, to actually put it in the world that isn’t so limited. That it could have musical meaning, poetic meaning, and also that it is not purely there for the sake of saying it. It’s describing something, and it’s kind of a different thing in each film or each instance.

FANGORIA: You keep talking about cinema. I think last time you were talking about Carl Dryer and taking a liking to THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, maybe with the INNOCENCE IS KINKY album, but here I read something about some of the context derived maybe from the movie SAFE, the Todd Haynes movie. Is that true?

HVAL: Yeah, I thought you were going to say PERSONA now, because I forgot to mention PERSONA by Ingmar Bergman when we talked about ‘too close’, because that’s a movie that gets very, very close, just to characters and has a lot of close-ups. So that was definitely very important, but also SAFE, as you mentioned. Yeah. No, my music isn’t very cinematic in that it’s not very soundtrack-like in the modern sense, although you know it if you see a lot of cult films or films from different parts of the Europe. It’s more kind of avant garde film canon; there’s so much different music, it’s so refreshing to hear all this wonderful music that you kind of forget nowadays that it’s possible to use it in film. But SAFE has a wonderful soundtrack; the only thing I can think of that it reminds me of is the UNDER THE SKIN soundtrack.

FANGORIA: An amazing movie and amazing soundtrack.

HVAL: Yeah, and the soundtrack has a huge effect on the film because it takes… it’s part of, kind of, taking this story that could be a very, sort of a suburban housewife narrative and taking it into the sci-fi world, which I think is very important, and why I got so interested in SAFE, because it is the ‘soft apocalypse’, or the terrible sci-fi film, in terms, you know, of sci-fi is always what we fear—our  fears at any kind of time when sci-fi is written or made into films or whatever. And SAFE is so much about fear, and it puts it into a very realistic narrative, but at the same time really crazy.

FANGORIA: I guess this last question—it seems silly on the surface, but I’m always curious to see what parents think of their child’s work. What does your mom think of the new album?

HVAL: My parents both love it. My mom has even told me to have a conversation with Lasse the producer and really tell him how beautiful she thinks it sounds. You know, production-wise. So that’s… yeah, my parents are pretty spectacularly supportive. And every time I’ve released something, they really take the time and listen to it and come to really love it, and they come to shows, and they’re very brave people in terms of going to see art.

Jenny Hval is currently on tour. Visit www.JennyHval.com for more info.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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