Confronting Convention: An Interview with Jenny Hval

Vada Voices

During the writing of her third record, artist Jenny Hval reflected on how she viewed by others and positioned herself as an alternative artist. Her music to date has featured a strong emphasis on narrative with spoken word and typically unconventional song structures. She ultimately wanted to disregard the experimental identity she had become known for and simply create.

The impetus of her new record Apocalypse, girl started from a previous collaboration, entitled The Dark Passenger, in which she wrote vocal music for her male friends. The creative process for the project involved workshops in which she encouraged them to discuss the male identity and internal fears.

As an artist whose work has continuously delved into identity, sexuality and gender – the conversations, which emerged were enlightening in how men both shared and experienced vulnerability similar to women. She recognized how they spoke of their physical appearance concerns like hair-loss and sexual insecurities in a similar way women spoke of them.

Hval observed how the space within society for men to express such feelings does is limited or is engaged by very few. The collaboration birthed the ambiguous term ‘Soft Dick Rock’, referenced on this album, which Hval intends as a universal symbol of vulnerability and an anti-capitalist sexuality.

The character of Apocalypse, girl is written neither specific to male or female identity – instead Hval wrote the album to represent every possible self and experience. Andrew Darley spoke with Jenny Hval to discuss the themes she wanted to address on this record and her fascination with language.

Apocalypse, girl addresses how society frames female experience and conventions they are expected to adhere. Were there any particular experiences that initiated the theme of the record?

In my mind, there isn’t really a theme on the album. There was a time when I had a project title in mind – it was ‘Ruining My Reputation’. Back then I was thinking a lot about confronting myself because I felt like I reflected a lot of conventions better than I thought and hoped that I did.

I wanted to question the role of an alternative artist in Western liberal society – how we are the perfect workers in the neoliberal economy, how being an ‘alternative’ voice held me back and what this had to do with gender.

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That’s how I ended up writing things like ‘What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid, getting laid, getting married, getting pregnant, fighting for visibility in your market,’ and such.

You wrote the song ‘Take Care of Yourself’ after working on The Dark Passenger collaboration in which you wrote vocal music for a group of male friends. Part of this writing process included workshops and conversations with them about male sexuality and vulnerability. Did talking with them open your eyes to the male experience?

Yes, definitely. That’s when I started seeing symbols of softness everywhere. ‘Take Care of Yourself’ was written during The Dark Passenger collaboration and was also a part of that performance. It was written from a male perspective but changed at the last minute during the album recording.

Later, Zia Anger (film director/band member), Annie Bielski (visual artist/band member) and I started sending each other pictures and writings about soft things, vulnerability and various failures that came together as ‘Soft Dick Rock’.

Could you see the correlations between male and female societal pressures?

I don’t think the image of the pressured young girl in society is given enough weight. She is constantly referred to as having very specific problems and conditions that are society’s fault, yet left on her own to carry them. But this metaphorical female figure of Apocalypse, girl needs to be seen as the picture of all of us.

You mentioned earlier that softness and vulnerability came into focus writing these songs. A juxtaposition exists between soft and hard textures – for example, the soft-spoken delivery of the words and sound of the organ against the abrasive context of the lyrics. Have you always been interested in the textures words and pronunciation can make?

I’m interested in what language does, how it sits in my mouth, what it does to the totality of the sonic texture in a recording. I don’t think so much about softness as sensual qualities. But I do know that if there are a lot of words, shouting can easily puncture them.

You also refer to the idea of women mothering themselves or taking care of themselves. Do these songs question the behaviours deemed appropriate for women and what would be the result if they didn’t do those things? I feel this album really engages with the relationship women are expected to have with themselves.

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This is not something I thought about so much when I wrote the album, so I’m not sure if I can – or should – answer. It’s rather a lovely bonus that you interpret it in this way, which is obviously a very good point.

The album’s title Apocalypse, girl juxtaposes something larger than life, with a feminine word written in the smaller case. Could you tell me how it came to be?

It came after everything was finished. It was one of the many suggestions for song titles. It was a runner up title for the song ‘Holy Land’. It’s meant to be said like that awful phrase, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ Like, ‘It’s the apocalypse, girl!’

On ‘Holy Land’, which closes the album, there is a sense that a fight is over or that the album has reached a neutral space. What feeling or idea did you want to close the record with?

I tried to avoid ending with that song, but in the end it was the best progression.

The album cover and ‘That Battle is Over’ single art depict a woman lying face down on exercise equipment. Were these visuals linked to the idea of giving up on what is expected?

In my mind, the woman on the album cover is in an indefinable position – she might have given up, but she might also be enjoying the yoga ball, is she humping it? Or is she just dead? This extends to the treadmill of the ‘That Battle is Over’ cover – perhaps she has fused with the machine?

Given your songs are very visual, I have wondered how you experience the writing process? Artists I’ve spoken with before often mention seeing songs in different colours, shapes or film scenes. Would this be relevant to your process?

I’ve been asked about this a lot. I work very, very relaxed – I generally ramble, just talk or sing into a recording device. It usually gets embarrassing. Later, I decide if I should keep or delete, and start seeing some kind of narrative. But rarely when I record.

‘Kingsize’ opens the album with the image of ‘Soft Dick Rock’ and a bunch of rotting bananas. Is this song about the overcoming or defying masculinity?

I don’t think this song is about anything that clear. The image of the bananas is to me not just a soft dick, or a hard one becoming soft. It could also be your own genitals, or your child, or the child you didn’t have, or the dick you never had. I enjoyed the ambiguity.

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Was there a moment growing up when you recognized that you were not content or felt restricted by societal norms and felt the need to confront them?

Always. But doesn’t everyone feel this? More and more, as I got into my teens but even way before then. All I had was anger, although I didn’t know how to confront anything.

Who were the artists that spoke to you or encouraged a sense of self-discovery?

Nina Simone.

Given the theme of this record and previous work, do you think that for people who see your music as feminist, it may limit their experience of it?

Ideally, it shouldn’t. I’m a feminist, but that doesn’t limit the scope or come in the way of some kind of idea of universality.

Once you have completed a body of work, are you interested in how people interpret it?

Yes and no. I’m more interested long-term, I guess. When I release something I try not to read too many reviews until later on. I rarely read my own interviews – I’d rather read about other people!

I am grateful whenever someone appreciates what I do and takes the time to think about it and write about it or interview me with an interesting set of well-researched questions.

Do you think sound and voice is more instant compared to the written word?

Not necessarily. It depends on the voice and the words and the music or print format. There are so many variables.

If these songs were written in poetic form, would they have the same impact?

No, they would be different. I wouldn’t have written lyrics this way. That’s why I’m very hesitant to put lyrics online, or even type them up.

One of most striking images of the album is the lyric referring to how you’re the same age Jesus was when he died. When you’re writing songs do you enter an uninhibited headspace to bring the words to life?

That sounds very interesting but I don’t know exactly what kind of headspace I’m in when I write or sing. This line probably started out with me feeling very much myself. At the time I was 33 and trying to rant about my feelings, very precisely. But then later I thought it was a good statement of self-confidence.

You can feel like Jesus, you’re his age. It’s like what I said about that image of the torn young girl at the beginning – she is representing all of us. A modern Jesus figure.

Apocalypse, girl is out now on Sacred Bones.

Words by Andrew Darley