Norwegian artist and songwriter Jenny Hval has been mesmerizing an entire world of people who are willing to hear her out for quite some time now. In what’s her most creatively enthralling phase – we can say it started with last year’s excellent Apocalypse, girl album – Hval has just released her most focused and perhaps gripping album. It was about Blood Bitch and a myriad of subjects associated with its existence and creation that we talked with Jenny Hval.
You talk about menstruation in the album…
Do I? Not so much. I mean, I do but the thing is, I didn’t actually think about it as that when I was writing and recording it. I was thinking more about horror stuff and then later I realized that. Yeah, you’re absolutely right but I did place menstruation in a sort of horror/ exploitation film context, I think. I always wanted to ask this, so I’m going try to ask as many people as possible. Have you ever felt that you’re missing out, not having menstruation? Have you ever thought about that at all or wonder what is like?
I wondered what is like and I’m fucking scared every time I listen to women talk about the excruciating pains that comes with it – even though it’s different from woman to woman – and when I see their faces going through it and you can sense they’re in a lot of pain.
[laughs] Yeah it’s very different from person to person. It’s very different, it’s not like an unifying experience necessarily. It’s something that is an individual thing and also the shame factor of it is also quite… some people are brought up in these wonderful liberated families and other are not, so there’s a whole like misology around menstruation that’s also very different according to who you talk to. I somehow wish that it wasn’t considered so much something that women have to have. There is actually now more acceptance of trans people. There are now menstruating bodies of both genders, which is something that I find amazing. It doesn’t have to be so exclusive and it doesn’t have to be presented, certainly not, as it has been in commercials and in the Hollywood industry. The thing that I was sort of attracted to was the sort of link between the blood and the horror film, and the blood in menstruation. Unfortunately in the horror films is very much the virgin blood [laughs] that’s being sort of seen as maybe the highest form of blood or the purest blood. There’s so much nuance in terms of what blood is in the films that I was watching. Because I was watching so many films when I was making the album, and so many of them were horror films. And it was really nuanced, because in some films the blood would look so real – the more high-budget ones – but there were some films that I was watching that had no budget pretty much and so all the locations would be hotel rooms, or corridors, or just random spots outside, and a lot of the blood would look really fake. That’s also really interesting, this kind of not-believable blood. It’s almost like fake menstruation. There was so much blood that I was seeing in this period when I was recording Blood Bitch… I guess it was sort of very natural for me to sort of become a blood bitch at that point. I decided to record an album and watch a lot of movies, so I was recording during the day and watching movies at night as part of the album recording. I think I was drawn to that because I really wanted to make an album that was a narrative… It didn’t have to be a narrative like a conceptual album or something that you have to sort of read up on to understand, but just to give the listener a feel of urgency, I guess. Like there’s something driving one track into the other, as if you’re seeing a movie.
On your statement about the new album you say, “Blood Bitch is also a fictitious story, fed by characters and images from horror and exploitation films of the ‘70s.” Was with the ‘70’s films that everything started for Blood Bitch or was just a new way to approach something you already wanted to express?
I think it was already there. I think it was there from recording Apocalypse, girl, the previous album. These ideas that I wanted to explore and recording… Like writing and improvising as recording process, and making things that were more visceral, simpler, and recording without so many people. Recording pretty much everything on my own, or playing everything myself and making something extremely personal that would sound more personal. Not as in my diary… well, maybe but mostly the sounds that I would find and like myself rather than me bringing in other people who have their own history with what kind of sounds they like and which instruments they have. I wanted to make something that was very focused, so I guess that was my starting point for the recording. This sort of need to do something that I wasn’t really exploring with the Apocalypse, girl album of last year. I started watching all these films and it became really important for the writing. I came in to the recording space, like the time and space of the recording, and sort of just let… a lot of things just happened. I didn’t come with lyrics I was confident about. I came with snippets and I came with maybe like a couple of pages of writing, I came with sketches that were extremely unfinished, I came with ideas that I didn’t even have words to express what I wanted to [laughs], like very vague feelings, and then I kept writing all the way through the recording process. I think because I wanted I felt very drawn to these movies and the sexuality of them, like this kind of like very oppositional erotics of a lot of these films. Because they were underground films they didn’t have to stick to the same rules as mainstream movies, probably made without too many voices coming in saying, “Do this more professional.” There are a lot of different connections of like lo-fi expressions that probably I got interested because that’s I wanted to do.
The fictitious story seems to be heavily rooted in extremely personal and intimate thoughts. Would it be fair to say so?
I think the lyrics… If I’ve managed to make them sound very personal that’s great. I definitely want that feeling and I know that whatever I write, however fictional I make it, is always going to be me but I don’t think people will find… maybe I will find in two years that it was very personal in this sort of storytelling narrative about myself level. I think I’ve never written anything that’s been more sort of influenced by a drive to steal from the movies I was watching and make it my own, make it extremely personal. I think the idea of music that’s very personal is more to do with making things personal than whether they’re your actual reality or not because it needs to be specific and sometimes I find that if I combine the way I’m feeling about something with a very specific like a scene from a movie or a thought that I have that’s inspired by anything from a friend’s experience to a word of art, then that to me is, most of the times, more personal than me telling the listener what I’ve been experiencing in my life. Because that sometimes is more generic. When you read people’s personal stories, like celebrity stories about what’s happening in their lives, is very superficial most of the times. So, you need think deeper than that to say something that’s personal and intimate.
“It didn’t have to be a narrative like a conceptual album or something that you have to sort of read up on to understand, but just to give the listener a feel of urgency, I guess. Like there’s something driving one track into the other, as if you’re seeing a movie.”
On your previous album at one point you sing “Self-doubt – it’s what I do,” and on this album, with the song “The Plague”, you kind of shout “I don’t know who I am?” That’s what makes me say that it sounds personal and intimate, although there’s also that fictional side to it.
I think there’s definitely a good mix there and that’s what I mean by saying like combining strong feelings of something with strong memories from the associations that you have to other works. Yeah, those two observations are good. I think “self-doubt – it’s what I do”, that’s the very personal part of me actually talking about making art is. And maybe when I’m saying “I don’t know who I am?”… It’s from some other sound world that never got to be on the album. It has more of a context that you’ll never be able… and I will forget in two minutes and no one will know about, which is also something that I really love. Taking like short pieces from something that made more sense originally in a longer, like a song that I cut up and then I just use five seconds of it. Those sorts of things I really love doing because then you’ll have the intense motivation and maybe a line like “I don’t know who I am?” and they’ll exist in a world where you really hear the motivation of it. When I say it, I do say it in a very specific way, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll know exactly what happened before or after in that sound clip that I then cut.
“I don’t know who I am, but I’m working on it.” (“Conceptual Romance”) Would it be fair to assume that to be the goal of your artistic expression?
Maybe right now, maybe not always. I think that’s the sort of thing that always changes. It kind of grows with your experience, I think. Also, when I’m in a song I’m not really me. I exist for the listener as a song in the here and now when that song is on an album, so the “I” I’m talking about is sometimes the self of music. I like to think of it as this kind of fluid identity that’s not always the person, it can also be a sound. Because that’s more of an emotional side of humans, I think, when you don’t always try to sort of reconfirm that you’re a normal person doing this or that… it’s more like, “In this moment I feel something so intense that I don’t feel human.” or “I’m really wondering right now what’s happening because I’m having this experience What am I now?” A good experience of music or visual art can sometimes, for me at least, be like that. You can sort of feel your body, or your soul, or whatever, sort of extending a little bit, changing a little bit.
Unlike most singers, you experiment a lot with your voice looking for new approaches. How the process of creating vocal lines and melodies usually goes for you? Is there a borderline-unhealthy amount of demos piling up?
I never rehearse and I never experiment. I just write. I think that when I try to sing without having a writing plan I suck. I don’t understand… I mean, I have no motivation. I sort of need to be in a writing mode. Maybe that’s why I never got very good at any instrument. I can never get the motivation to practice. I have to write. With Blood Bitch, I actually feel like I’m doing almost nothing with the vocals. Everything is very soft, with a couple of exceptions, everything is very straightforward. But then is nice to hear that others don’t find it to be that way because this is how I remember it at the time… this sort of giving up of experimenting with vocals. But what matters is how it feels listening to, so maybe that’s more to do with my experience with making the album and the sort of hypnotic state of being in these weird horror films and then performing or writing something that’s feeling like it is in that world too.
The conversation that opens “The Great Undressing”… where does that come from and why did you decide to include it? It’s a truly wonderful moment on the album.
I love it! I love it because it’s this moment of a completely different sort of reality peeking through, like breaking an illusion in a really nice way. I ask two of my friends, who have been with me on stage a lot, to talk and send me the file of them talking. Me and my co-producer Lasse [Marhaug], we just chooe a part that we liked and it was a part that was about… it was a bit about cake and then it was a bit about these two people talking about what the album was. So, it was extremely casual and just really them not really knowing what to do in this recording situation. I just found it really lovely. I find it this to be a moment where I acknowledge the listener’s world also, like this stepping away into the world of whatever’s listening maybe, or a step closer to something that’s in the real world or in a different place. I went backpacking for the first and only time in the year 2000 and I’d picked up a cassette and it was Thurston Moore’s Psychic Hearts album, which starts with a recording of a voicemail message from a woman. It’s very sweet and I’ve always really loved these albums of an album having like skits or conversations or… humans doing human things.
You’ve included on the album thatconversation between filmmaker Zia Anger and performer Annie Bielski, who you worked with in concert as well as in film and images. How impactful has been for your art the presence of these two women in displaying your art?
I think they had an enormous impact. They’ve sort of been allowed to create a world I would never have come up with. Zia with her videos and then both of them on stage, and I think it’s not my world but it’s a world I very much admire and it’s really crept to the way I’ve been thinking about what I do. I don’t even know how to express my gratitude for it because it’s a true sort of collaboration that’s also a very strong artistic bond and friendship. Part of the reason I wanted their voices on my album was to just have that element of that bond on there, in the sound. I also really love their voices and they’ve meant so much to me.