Making Movies: An Interview With Jenny Hval
"The album sort of made itself," Jenny Hval tells me when I ask her how it came to be that she's releasing her new album Blood Bitch a mere 15 months after her last excellent album Apocalypse, girl; "the work was like invisible. It was really joyful, it was easy." What comes out as our conversation progresses isn't that the album 'made itself' literally, but that it's the result of in situ collaboration with producer Lasse Marhaug in the studio as they were recording.
This was an idea that came to Hval and Marhaug as they worked together on Apocalypse, girl previously; "we had so many conversations when we recorded that album and so many ideas that were so fresh and interesting to me," but they couldn't work on those straight away. "We couldn't do them because I'd already arrived [in the studio] with songs that I'd finished writing and already played live in different versions and all that stuff... there were a lot of things that we couldn't do for that album - I wanted to dig into them from scratch."
This eagerness to work on these ideas drove Hval and Marhaug back into the studio together before 2015 was over to tackle this creative practice; "I let my demos stay unfinished, especially lyrically, because I wanted to write in the studio and have that interesting conversation about how to make things happen at the same time as actually making things, which sounds stressful but it's actually been great just to develop a structure, and a set of words and sounds and worlds and scenes as we went along with the recording."
The result of this is Blood Bitch, Hval's most engulfing album to date, and one in which the feelings of self-doubt and fleeting interconnectivity are even more at the fore. The album takes the listener by the scruff of their neck and forces them into the scenes as they unfold.
"I'm not very good with the past, I need urgency," Hval admits when I ask her why she likes to write in the present tense, letting the scenes play out with the listener within them. "I struggled with it seven years ago when I was writing a novel, and I wrote everything in the present tense, but my editor was quite set on changing it into the past tense. I struggled so much with that, it was so uninspiring to me to go into that sort of storytelling past, looking back... I'm always running after a thought."
The rich worlds through which she guides the listener are populated with unusual characters performing strange activities, and Blood Bitch is a continuation of that, what with its vampire protagonist and bloody imagery. "I really love thinking that I'm making a movie," she tells me, "maybe I'm more interested in the relationship between the viewer and the movie than the movie and its own telling. I'm interested in the situation the listener is in, and that's always the present."
This tactile world that she creates is bound to incite a lot of interpretation and searching for connections between songs. I suggest that the girl from Apocalypse, girl track 'Heaven' who spat out her heart, might be related to the girl in Blood Bitch's opening track 'Ritual Awakening' singing "I clutch my heart and the coffin for my heart." Hval is less sure, "I feel that there are always relations and I think people spot them much better than I do, because I just think I'm writing something different, but there are actually a lot of connections between songs."
Later in our conversation she admits "there's no essential meaning in any song on Blood Bitch, there are just many different things colliding, and I think that's how I write: things come together, some things are maybe political, and some things take in more from my intellectual life of thinking, and sometimes I take lines from film dialogue."
She is keen for people to divine their own connections and interpretations of her lyrics, and is even happy to spuriously elaborate on them herself; "I think the heart on 'Ritual Awakening' is her phone, and the 'coffin' is the phone cover [laughs] - or maybe it's the hand! I don't know, I'm going way off into a high school poetry interpretation!" Hval is unafraid to make fun of her lyrics, analysing them into something amateurish.
The acceptance and understanding of failed artwork is actually something that Hval has been teaching herself about in the process of making Blood Bitch, and a lyric from 'Conceptual Romance' admits "I lose myself in the rituals of bad art."
"This last year I've been watching a lot of movies that are considered really bad. I've been watching a lot of pretty low budget horror films from the '70s and I sort of had to retrain my eyes into thinking 'what is a movie if it's not creating a fictional space that I can believe really exists in that film?' And it was great!! My eyes are free! And I think that's maybe the ritual of bad art. Not art that is actually necessarily bad in every way, but is considered bad by institutions."
These films certainly permeated her thoughts as the was recording, and she even named the track 'Female Vampire' after her favourite bad film discovery. "There's a horror influence on this album, but it's not the limbs falling off kind of horror. It's more the heartbreak of a vampire, or things falling apart."
She expands further; "I guess it's always joyful to me when things fall apart. It's what music is for, talking about how everything falls apart. But at the same time what you're doing is putting it into a structure that you want to be beautiful, so it's like a double architecture of things falling into shit and at the same time being held in some kind of - I don't know - spiritual hand of maybe a chorus, maybe just sounds, or a drone, maybe Adam Curtis' voice, [Hval samples Curtis' political documentary The Power of Nightmares in 'Untamed Region'], maybe something that seems like a scene from a film you barely recognise, but you're not sure. It's like when your face changes when you look at it in the mirror because it's falling apart. Maybe all of a sudden you resemble someone, maybe someone you love. There's always a sensual joy to it."
This idea of shifting and impermanence clings to Hval's last two albums. Whether it's moving between bodies or between places, transience is a large theme. "[Transient] was one word that I hadn't used before actually, but that's strange because it's such a theme of how I lurk and how my life has been, because I've always travelled a lot. So I guess I've seen myself that way, and also always been attracted to artwork that has transience as the theme or rhythm of expression."
This is something that her lead vampire on Blood Bitch identifies with on an even deeper level; "in 'Female Vampire' I think the transience is also the eternal... the vampire is caught in cycles - every day is a new day and it's eternity, so days might not be needed at all. Also going from person to person, never having its own blood in its body; the blood shifts with how she feeds. Every day you have the blood of a different person in your system. It must be very interesting. What does that do to you? I don't know but it's definitely transient."
On the song 'Period Piece' Hval sings, "I must find some kind of art form where I can call back my tongue from the underground," and I ask her to expand on this arresting image. "For me it's about not holding back and being able to write clearly. Or maybe a way to write that can't just be reproduced and trapped into the machine of capitalism... I do remember this looking for blood, and looking for my tongue, and I think it's also about trying to be sensual about writing, not separating the intellectual meaning from this kind of visceral mass that is the sound of the synthesizers in the song, or the beats or even the sound of the voice. So trying to write with the body."
This desire to write with the body has caused Hval to come up with several interesting lyrics like "stuck in erotic self-oscillation" or "I separate from feeling complex harmonic notion." This is the singer's way of trying to break through lingual limitations to describe bodily emotions and feelings that the spoken language is not necessarily equipped for; "the more I read and write the less I believe in language as a capable form of expressing everything. I just see limitations. Language to me is a constant failure, and so I guess my theory on this album is to try to look for other ways of finding language. And that is also what we did with trying to find the words while recording. So it's all coming together on the album; experience and the practical situation and actually being confronted with having to record."
Hval wasn't daunted by the idea of writing the lyrics as the final part of the puzzle; "we just had this kind of looking for language idea because it sounded really good. Maybe the take I did had some kind of interesting performance, so on many occasions we chose to keep things like that."
We finish our conversation by switching from the past to the future, and discussing her plans to take the new songs on tour. "I'm not trying to create a spectacle," she admits, in reference to the last tour, which was a high-concept stage performance wherein the musicians were simultaneously playing and acting as though beautifying themselves in their bedroom in preparation for a night out. "It's totally fair to use [spectacle] for the Apocalypse tour, but my starting point this time is much more the music. Last time we had this idea we wanted to do something that wasn't music, so that was the search. This time I want to recreate the music in a way that is interesting onstage. At this point I'm thinking that all I want is for it to be sort of impactful in a non-spectacular way."
Jenny Hval's Blood Bitch is out now on Sacred Bones Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 4th October 2016.