Jenny Hval interview: "There was no plan, it was completely intuitive."
Jenny Hval photo by Lasse Marhaug
Despite being a slender, soft-spoken Scandinavian, Jenny Hval is an intimidating person. Her albums have featured screams and forecasts of the apocalypse, have detailed stories of zombies and vampires, all as ways to communicate her complex mind and unique worldview. Even though her new record, The Practice Of Love, is her most immediate and welcoming yet, it’s also her most emotionally open, which is in itself a brave turn of events – and another facet to add to my nerves on the day of meeting her.
Loquacious and sharp, Hval’s answers often went on at length, with my mind scrabbling around underneath trying to collect up the thoughts, examine them and ask about them – rarely before the next pearl dropped from her mouth. The result is a long conversation about the process of making The Practice of Love, the new collaborative process that has seen her welcome a trio of vocal contributors to the record, emphasising the pop elements of her songs - and the lack of intention behind any of it.
Before we get on to The Practice Of Love, I just wanted to mention The Long Sleep a little bit. I don't know if you look at your discography in any particular shape, but do you see The Long Sleep as the end of one era or the start of another?
I think it's its own thing. It is also to whoever listens to it, whatever that person wants it to be, because it felt like it could have easily been an album. So, in a way, it's its own era. I did a bunch of stuff after that, which I then scrapped - at least for now - that could have been a very different album; it would have been very much the next step after The Long Sleep.
Sometimes I work a lot and I have these periods of time that are never recorded, at least not recorded, refined, thought-through and released; so there are two albums in between that nobody ever heard. If you saw us live around The Long Sleep you would've seen something else that could've been the next album that didn't end up being there.
I'm sorry I missed that tour.
It wasn't a tour, everyone missed it. We only did like three shows, because I was writing a book and I couldn't, I had to have a break. This was a very strange but also very nice phase of not continuously showing people where I was at. It gets very fragile in the phases where you work out a lot of new stuff.
I only just noticed yesterday listening to it that the last track on the vinyl of The Long Sleep is different from the last track on digital...
Yes! Nobody knows that.
Right, because I was looking at the track titles thinking "the name on the back of the sleeve is different to the track listed on Spotify..."
You don't need that message on the vinyl, so that's why we reversed it. It's just the same track in reverse.
Why don't you need it on the vinyl?
Because then I'm not speaking from Spotify, you're out of the streams; as a listener you've come away from this kind of surveillanced, measured number-of-listens based type of industry that surrounds you and steals all your personal details every time you even listen to music. So yeah, obviously I made the streaming/digital version first, but then I thought "I think the vinyl will have something else." I didn't mention it unless people asked about it.
Alright, let's talk about the new record, The Practice of Love. Last time we spoke you likened making albums to making movies, do you still feel like that?
It's complicated... I don't feel that way because that's not how this album was made, and that's because I focused more on lyrics.
And multiple voices, for example it starts with Vivian Wang's voice first - did she write the words?
No, no, that was something she read that was meant to be the narration voice for a film - and this film was never made, it was changed and became another film. [The reading on ‘Lions’] she did a long time ago, a year and a half two years ago, and I really liked the recording so I asked if I could have it. The film wasn't being made anyway so I thought "I'll make something," and then I just made the 'Lions' track from placing her vocal slightly different from when she read it, because obviously I needed more breaks. That was really great, that felt more like I was making something more of a collage poem than movies.
With Blood Bitch and Apocalypse, Girl I worked with Lasse Marhaug so closely on production, he's such a movie nerd and also now he makes films, so I think that was kind of a transition for him to start thinking about making films, but also for me. That sort of became very interesting in the production of the tracks and the albums, and they became very much like glued together, so we had a lot of transitions and made a lot of new parts based on what's coming next. But this album was very quiet and clear in comparison, and all about writing words and placing them. So it's a different discipline almost, to have made this album.
But I also ended up producing it myself, because Lasse and I were working on something that might have been much closer to Blood Bitch in the way we worked, but it didn't end up being the album - that's another album of thinking. So [The Practice of Love] ended up being a very lonely person's work, although Lasse was involved, but he didn't do much to the production. For me the work that I do on my own is much more centred around poetry and writing, and then this time there was just not so much collaboration on [the production] side. There was more collaboration with voices and reading stuff, singing stuff; sending lyrics to others and having them send it back and then collaging it into new tracks. It was great for me.
It's funny you say this is a “quiet” record, because to me it's your fullest sounding.
When I say “quiet” it's more about the focus; it's to me a more focused record because of that. To me, Blood Bitch was quite confusing, it was this character in a horror movie, a character that was very confused. So this is a different type of network of voices that really have more of a goal. But yeah when I say "quiet" it doesn't refer to the amount of sound, it refers more to the focus of it all.
Can you define the focus?
Trying to communicate. Although that sounds like we're just scratching the surface, I do think that is maybe quite central anyway, that trying to communicate. Not necessarily just trying to express something, but trying to communicate that to someone else and maybe drawing other people in. So, for example, when those other voices come in I feel like I've written stuff that really wants them to be there, and that really wants to speak to someone and have them magically respond. You know like when you're writing a letter to your favourite musician, your favourite artist when you were a teenager, what if they magically responded because your writing was so precise - it's like that. I don't expect Georgia O'Keeffe to respond from the heavens, but I wanted to write something that really felt like it was connected already through the act of writing.
How did you come to work with these other women, like Vivian Wang?
Vivian I know through other people, she was a good friend of several people I worked with, and I've met her when she's been in Norway many times with her band The Observatory. I met her briefly and then I'd heard of her work and personality a lot, and I know that she's done a lot of really good work with a bunch of other things like narration, radio, editing, a lot of stuff that I find interesting to hear about when someone's a musician. I knew that I really loved her voice, but then this recording of the thing that ended up being 'Lions', I got to hear it and I really really loved it. And she's also a person that I really wanted to get to know, I really admire her qualities. She has a lot of really brilliant, interesting thoughts about art and music. So we started collaborating and she's now going to perform in the project that's coming here in September. She's an amazing collaborator.
And Félicia Atkinson?
Félicia I've never met. I was shown her music when we were working on this, she kind of came up when I was starting to think that we should have other voices on the record. At this point I was still working with Lasse, and we were trying to produce this together, and he mentioned her and I had not heard her music, and I don't really know why, it's something I should've heard. So I became obsessed, and she agreed to record something really fast, because she was very pregnant so she needed to do it before she exploded.
She was making her own album during that pregnancy, so I guess she was used to it.
Yeah! She's a workhorse. But I've still never met her. I've had nice email conversations with her, she seems amazing, and obviously I'm now completely obsessed with her music and the way she uses her voice. So it was more of a getting-to-know process to have her involved.
Then Laura [Jean] I've known since early 2000s, from Australia. She's an old friend who I feel very connected with, both musically and personally, and I've always wanted to have her collaborate in some way on my work, and I still want her to do more some other time. The reason she's not in the album more is just because of the worlds apart situation, but I managed to involve her and I just really love her brain and her voice. It was really amazing to have her part of my world. So those are the three people whose voices I ended up using, and I'm really happy with being able to work with other people's voices that I connect with so much, and to use them as instruments. The way people pronounce and place words has a lot to do with their personalities - and I think there's a lot of empathy in voice as well. To have that insane level of different thoughts on communication within the space of a song or a set of songs was a really big part of the production.
Wow. But you wrote all the lyrics right?
I didn't write what Laura says on the title track; she says all the clever things and I'm just in the background going "mmhmm." But the rest of it is mine. I'd love to have other people write stuff too, but then I think we'd have to collaborate in a different phase of the record. That's hopefully another project, another time. I also wouldn't like to put my name on it as my solo record.
One of the themes that I take from the record is immaturity, would you agree?
I wouldn't, but I want to hear about your interpretation because it matters as much as mine.
Well, the first instance where this occurs to me is 'High Alice', which takes cues from Alice in Wonderland, a classic children’s tale. Why do you think that character, that metaphor for awakening, has persisted? Why did you use it?
I had no idea that I would ever reference Alice, but I did read Lost Girls by Alan Moore, and I think that made it more possible to use these more common characters that everyone will refer to. There was something really nice to me about her being everywhere, and then me going there as well. I think that she has persisted... I'm not sure how much has to do with drugs, quite a bit maybe.
I haven't read the original text for many years, but I used to be obsessed with the [Jan] Švankmajer puppet version of Alice, which I think presents her very nicely as this very annoying, immature, stubborn character. I think everyone thinks of Wonderland when they think of Alice, but she is really quite boring. But I think that I was more interested in the Alice that's in Lost Girls many years later, that maybe has opened up the fantasy a lot more than just being in this intrusive Wonderland that she's annoyed with. She's more accepting in my track, maybe she's fused with the rabbit or the other characters that are actually enjoying Wonderland. So immaturity in that sense.
Yeah, and also 'Accident' seems quite immature...
I think 'Accident' deals more with remembering your magic, being aware of all times in your life. I think it goes into child-like universes also in sounds, to construct something else, to tell something else that's not so much about immaturity but more about how we use it or how we remember it.
I think maybe that has also come from using these 90s synth sounds - I'm not capable of making something that sounds like 90s dance anyway, especially lyrically I'm not interested in simplifying so much, because if I don't write lyrics freely then I don't write music. So it's more about trying to use those sounds in a different setting. Something like 'Six Red Cannas' was originally written as a spoken word piece with very eerie Blood Bitch-y Chernobyl-like sounds underneath, but then it just became a dance track instead. It's not like everything is written tailored to the sounds, it's more like what happens when you use those sounds.
The other point that immaturity jumps out at me is ‘Thumbsucker’.
I think that 'Thumbsucker' is the hardest track for me to talk about, because maybe I don't really know what it's about. I mean I know that there are things that are happening in it, it's not like I'm unaware of the fact that there are rabbit holes and mouths and hiding places. I've been writing this song for five years, it's the oldest one, although it's been very restructured for the album, it was originally much more of a jazz-ish thing. I think other people will need to figure it out for me.
My impression is that it's this person who realises they were once a child, a 'Thumbsucker', and they've been around the world and had all these experiences, but after all they realise they're still a baby, they know nothing.
Maybe. That's definitely part of it.
You mentioned you were in a way trying emulate the sounds of the 90s. The one I can definitely hear is the influence of Massive Attack on 'High Alice'.
That was a part of the mixing discussion, but I really just wanted it to sound like Kylie Minogue 'Confide In Me' - but also early Massive Attack in terms of the beat and the way that the elements were mixed. I asked Chris [Elms] who was mixing to listen to 'Unfinished Sympathy', it was those two references basically. We had no strings but we had a couple of layers of synth, the beats and vocals - there's not that much more to it.
Let's talk about 'The Practice of Love', the title track, which is a combination of two pieces of spoken word, one's a conversation and one's a reading of a script - why did you decide to combine these two things?
I heard Vivian's recording in this, because I was there while we were recording that for Lasse's film, and I thought "this sounds great." I just really enjoyed the way she read while thinking and processing what I had been writing, and changing things, and trying on words, and I thought "this is something that I'll just have to use,” but it needed to be in a setting where it can sort of exist in relation to something else. So this was in Norway when Vivian was visiting from Zurich, and then Laura Jean was coming to Norway as well, as if by magic, a month later, and I thought "we'll have a conversation and I'll try to use it on the album in some way."
So we recorded us talking, and then I felt like that just needs to be in the other channel. So they're almost completely isolated, you have two love practices going on. I just really loved how they work together, and I made some Long Sleep-ish synths in between. I really like when things are isolated in channels, in stereo fields. I was thinking of The Velvet Underground track where they do that and the reading is only in one channel ['The Gift'] - it was like an homage to sonic invention history as well.
I know that this kind of stuff has been done a million times, but I think in this context it just seemed quite important for me to go there. I cut a lot of tracks in order to place these new tracks in there, but I felt like this was more what I want to have on this album; an actual conversation, not only between two people but people not hearing each other, and how different texts can correspond.
Do you hope that people isolate them and listen to them individually?
I don't mind... I have hopes that people will do things way beyond what I can think, because listeners are pretty cool.
'Ashes to Ashes' is a song about a song, but not the David Bowie song - did you have any qualms about naming it after that very famous song?
No, I was just excited. I felt like this just needs to be the title because for once I actually have a chorus - I have several of these on the album, actually, but I was excited about it and I felt like this needs to be the title; David Bowie certainly write that for the first time, he didn't invent "ashes to ashes." I love his music though, and this song in particular I love it, so it's nice to have a link, but the link is only in the title.
To me it's not necessarily a song about a song, but more like a thinking through of your vocation. In my case, being a musician and how you're always digging closer to death throughout your life. Every time you write a word you're one word closer to your last word; the passing of time.
In listening to ‘Ashes to Ashes’ for the first time, as someone who's listened to your music a lot, it was a surprise when the "techno" part really kicks in - was it always the plan to make a big song?
There was no plan, it was completely intuitive. This whole album was very intuitive. There were definitely songs like this in my demo collection for Apocalypse, Girl and a little bit for Blood Bitch, and also maybe way before that; I've always had these elements, but they've been usually just there for the demos. I think that part of the reason why you hear it so well is because it's been mixed by someone who's very good at mixing pop music, Chris Elms. It's the first time I've worked with someone who can hear those things; I can hear them when I write, but I'm always surprised when other people can't, and I think it's to do with the fact that it's not emphasised. You can write a really poppy song, but if it's not put together in a way that emphasises those elements it'll sound experimental to a lot of listeners. It was really fun to work with someone who really could discover where the different parts were, and I could talk about "here I say this, so that means that this is the chorus," and then he could help me with getting things right.
He didn't mix all the album, but he mixed all beats-based poppy songs, but it was a really nice experience to have those elements emphasised. I noticed that other people heard what I heard to a greater extent in that respect. I've been very very happy with working with a more sort of film narrative wonderland with my last two albums, but for this album and this production I think it was really good for me to work with someone who could hear the structure differently.
It was quite a revelation for you...
It was more of a revelation for me to realise that other people could take part in the poppiness... pop music has an amazing ability to bring out clarity. You can listen to songs and feel like you're tidying your brain a bit, or you're focusing on something; you follow and it takes you places, ideally. That's also why I didn't want to go with the lyrical side of 90s dance tracks, because I wanted to have those structures in there, but I wanted to use them to draw much bigger pictures and hopefully take the listener with me into that picture.
Very cool. I find it kind of funny in 'Ashes to Ashes' that you have this big chorus where you describe how it seemed "[the song] was telling her: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, me to you," but then you undercut it saying "but I don't think it was" - why so cynical?
I think there's something strong about those moments where you realise that you created something instead of just hearing something; like in 'Ashes to Ashes' when you think a song is about something much more tragic or much more direct than it really was, then I think you've created something that was necessary for you, and that you could make on your own. That's also an amazing part of the experience of art; you keep creating. So I think it's not cynical at all, I think it would be cynical to say "and that's how it was."
Alright, well argued. The part about rotting plums and moist nude magazine reminds me of your novel Paradise Rot, is there any connection there?
No I don't think so - although the link is me. Paradise Rot is something that to me is very old, because I wrote it over 10 years ago now. So I think if it appears it appears because I'm me, and the things that I write always reappear. I don't feel that connected to it now, like I don't feel that connected to albums I wrote 10 years ago - which is nice, and which is why it can appear stronger, because I don't think so much about them, so it's very nice if it appears. I think more about, as you say, the childhood experiences of actually finding porn magazines out in the forest and discovering this place that everyone knew about, all the boys knew about or whatever. It's not so much about the plums, the fruit in itself, it's more about this idea that you can enter a communal space, a rotting space or a decomposing space.... so I think Paradise Rot was more about something unknown and kind of wild but lonely, or facilitating just two people meeting, melting together. Whereas this I want this to have be some kind of space for everyone, if you put your finger in you can be slightly intimate. It's related to my new book, which will be translated and coming out in a year and a half - far away.
What's the title?
The English title will be Girls Against God.
I have questions, but we'll save that for much nearer the time...
It seems like you had a communal experience with Georgia O'Keeffe's spirit at the Ghost Ranch, as described in 'Six Red Cannas'?
It didn't really happen. I've been to the Ghost Ranch many times, but none of this is autobiographical, I have to admit, which makes it more personal I think. I was part of a Joni Mitchell project last year - I never do this kind of stuff but I did sing 'Amelia', the song which begins with her seeing six red jet planes in the sky, and I thought "I can do that." So it's all sort of automatic writing, like an image I had, something I experienced, and then I wrote it. I have most of my song experiences by writing them. I think that makes them more personal, because they then are related to my writing voice and the music. It's nice to think about how you can use your writing (or whichever way you communicate) as a way of communicating with what's not there anymore - reaching out, I think is very important. That's how I think about singing in music, as reaching out physically, emotionally, psychologically...
So do you have an emotional connection with Georgia O'Keeffe's work?
I've admired some of her paintings in the past, but I've been to New Mexico three times in the last three years and got to see more of her spaces. So it was more about me wanting to write about being in that space and trying to connect. I think it was not so much based on me being a long-time fan as the experience of going somewhere and seeing places.
Because of the way that closing track 'Ordinary' builds it's like re-awakening to the outside world, was that the intention?
I don't think it had an intention, but I think that's the experience.
I always ask about intention but you say you never have any intention.
The thing is - and I think this goes for a lot of writers and songwriters - if you know your intention before you start writing then you won't write it, because it'll be too scary. So I have to write first and realise the intention after. Otherwise I wouldn't have written this, because it would have been too honest or too straightforward. It's good to put those things away, but it's important to me to emphasise that, because in a conversation about it later it seems so orderly and it's so easy to think "this is what the artist planned," but to me writing music is closer to life than that - you don't really plan.
And just before we finish, what are your intentions for the live show?
Intentions again! I'm making an inter-disciplinary piece, so I do have an intention for this actually, and that is to present something that shows how art can work; how it can be built as an attempt to communicate, hopefully also then feeling like we're trying to communicate with you as an audience member. I feel like music shows sometimes can't display this well enough, at least I've felt like that, and I really want to try to see if doing something interdisciplinary can show something that the music can only show me when I make it.
An album is a beautiful thing because it's finished and you can use it for whatever you want in your brain and your body as a listener, but performing live sometimes lacks a bit of immediacy and process, for me, because you have to set up so quickly and everything. It's so efficient, but I don't want to be efficient. So it's about trying not to be efficient and trying to communicate something more than the efficiency of playing the songs. I love playing shows as well, so we'll see. I'll do this a few times and see what it does. It's very confusing, but I very much enjoy having a lot of input and working with collaborators in ways that I haven't been able to do before.
Jenny Hval's new album The Practice of Love is out now on Sacred Bones records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 13th September 2019