BY JORDAN MAINZER
At night, Jenny Hval watches people fucking on her computer. Or so she says at the start of her latest album, the blunt, forceful, and altogether stunning Innocence is Kinky.
The Norwegian singer/songwriter is the type of artist who claims she’s indecisive. But from listening to Hval’s stark confessions or darkly comical analyses of herself and those around her, you get the sense she’s cold, calculated, and knows exactly what she’s doing: achieving a perfect balancing act between the lowbrow and the highbrow. Hval is influenced by pornography, classical mythological creatures, and everything in between. The sexual agents involved in her voyeurism and, um, Mephisto are all characters involved in her crazy lyrical world of primordial instincts and the relationship between mind and body. It’s heady, it’s intellectual, it’s a mouthful, and it’s also utterly invigorating.
Hval, who leaves from Oslo for her first major U.S. tour on Monday, spoke to me over Skype last weekend (she would like everyone to know that if anything influenced our conversation, it was that the whole time she was staring at my Skype profile picture, a blobfish, recently announced the ugliest animal in the world). We spoke about how Hval’s time studying literature at the University of Melbourne influenced her songwriting, her increasing interest in politics in the wake of the 2011 bombings in Oslo, and working with John Parish. Read the interview below, edited for length and clarity.
Frontier Psychiatrist: Innocence Is Kinky started as a sound and light installation. But what made you want to make an album inspired by it?
Jenny Hval: Two years ago we did a silent film concert in Oslo and that was pretty much the start of searching for the scenes of the record in the end. The sound installation was something that happened in between. There was a lot of strong energy that became several different things: an installation, a book, and an album. The sound and light installation has some of the melodies and sounds from the album, but in a different form. It’s been quite an interesting process. I’m the type of artist who benefits from not having to sit down at a piano and think to myself, “So, I’m going to make an album. Now what?”
FP: Are the themes you’ve explored in Innocence Is Kinky amplified versions of themes you’ve explored in the past? What’s different?
JH: I’m being more direct rather than looking inward. I’m looking at others and exploring my own sexuality through the instructed male gaze that you find in porn, reality TV, and tabloids. As much as you’re yourself in terms of your sexuality, you’re forced into these dispositions of seeing and being seen. I wanted to go into that and see my body, voice, and writing through these forced gazes. That’s a theme or experiment that I play around with on some of the tracks.
FP: What interests you about combining the concrete, physical, and low-brow with the intellectual and mythological?
JH: I’m inspired by both. At this point in time, I find it hard not to be very interested in political theory. Without that, you’d only have the reality TV that’s thrown in your face all the time. I really love the accessibility of everything that’s online. I did this project before Innocence is Kinky that was a trash culture project, which found its way onto the album. It made me addicted to internet blogs and the completely punky language of teenage girls. This is something going on at least in Norway, but I assume it’s a worldwide situation. You have these way too young girls who write their fashion blogs, which we call “pink blogs” in Norway. It’s punky even if they don’t intend it: all of the typos and dumb language and stupid pictures where they pose with expensive clothes in front of a trashy house. It’s something very private and excessive. I’m really interested in these different forms of language: on the one hand, this straightforward blog world, where nothing is analyzed and only the present exists, and all this political theory that I’ve been reading. I think it happened with the 2011 massacre in Oslo where I started thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t not read all these books anymore.” There’s a right-wing, extremist trend in the world. I need to be somewhere that’s not the media. Most of the media is manipulative and dumb.
There’s just been too much happening. We had our election in Norway on Monday and it didn’t go very well in my opinion. It’s going to be a combination of the right wing conservative slash liberal party and the very conservative slash free market economy slash immigrant hater slash racist party. But who am I to have more than one vote? I’m only me.
FP: One topic that you haven’t explored as much as gender and patriarchal hegemony is class. Do you hope to explore class more in the future?
JH: I hope so, but to do it in a contemporary way. Not just something that’s from Marx. Class is different now. It’s more complicated than it used to be. I do believe in the personal experience factor and I don’t want to be one of those people who go on holiday into the working class to see what happens. I’m not a journalist. If I explore class, I’ll do it in a way that affects me. You have to write what people want to hear from you. I couldn’t just sit and write about important topics; I have to want to hear my perspective. My job isn’t to cover different sets of minorities or majorities or complex groups. My job is to be a tiny part of a bigger movement of more political, yet emotionally engaging art.
At the moment, I’m with this big project writing about the difficulty of finding alternatives to capitalism, finding alternatives to ways of thinking that are neoliberal, and finding ways to work with your inner conflict. We’re in this society where we can’t get rid of being born into this capitalist world. There’s a big shadow if you want to find alternative ways to run societies. You’re still trapped in what you bring with you. We’re writing about that in this group.
FP: You studied creative writing in Melbourne. Would you say that the way a lot of your records start are similar to a literary hook in a piece of writing?
JH: I would, but not only in a good way. Sometimes, I’m able to be so interested in the effect of certain types of language, and that came from studying creative writing. I have to try out different types of creative writing and finding a voice. Sometimes, I wish I didn’t think about it so much. I guess studying creative writing made me a lot bolder. I got the opportunity to get rid of some of my romantic teenage ideas about good writing. Maybe it also made me a bit nerdy when it comes to why or what kind of energy I want to write with. I’m curious as to how other people would think of my creative writing. Where do you find that it’s displayed? Certain songs?
FP: Whether it’s journalistic writing, a novel, or a memoir, the frank opening line immediately grabs your attention. There will be some people who hear it and think it’s powerful, and others who won’t believe what they just heard but still won’t look away. When I first hit play on Innocence is Kinky, the opening lines drew me in.
JH: In creative writing class, I guess I was a bit the wild one. I kind of lost all fear of experimenting with genres. When I sing and say something, I don’t feel like I need to be honest. I’m more interested in honesty as something that’s subjective. I borrow from sentences that I see; maybe not the sentences themselves, but how they make me feel. Some of the frankness on Innocence is Kinky probably comes from some of these blogs. That’s not necessarily my own honesty. I do like those moments where you feel like you’re revealing something you feel slightly uncomfortable about. It might as well be about yourself because you’re saying it. That liberty to take those things in is probably connected to what I was experimenting with during creative writing. I wasn’t writing because I had to get things published. To be able to not just write to convince somebody to publish it is great, because the literary world can be very dull. Music can be much more interesting and free than the more mainstream literary market.
FP: What’s your ultimate goal for the listener? To explore similar topics about gender and sexuality for themselves?
JH: I certainly want to confront the listener a bit with moments of frankness. I want to do that through the music and through my different tones of voice through the album. I’m the type of artist who can’t ever decide whether to draw the listener in or repel them [laughs]. I do both. I can never choose or be satisfied in going far in one direction. I think that, somehow, is the most honest part of my music and the most personal. More than the lyrics. I wrote some songs a few years ago that are uncomfortable to perform now because they’re too nice sounding. They’re too pleasurable and easy. If I don’t show a conflict, I feel like something terrible will happen [laughs]. I’m writing new music now, and I’m trying not to think about this conflict because I’m making stuff for others to listen to. Not for myself.
FP: What’s the difference between your live show and your studio sound?
JH: The live show is more energetic. Innocence is Kinky is probably closest to what I sound like live. It also depends on the room; it’s hard to do the soft songs live unless it’s in a very intimate space. These things depend so much on rooms. Because of the changes, dynamics, and conflicts in the music, it’s hard to do the same show in different venues. If I were a black metal act, I’d just want to play loud and sound terrible and dangerous. But when I have all these changes, sometimes more abrupt, sometimes more gradual, and in volume or in tone, it can really depend. We’ve been booked into so many different and weird rooms that I’ve become more interested in those differences.
FP: What did John Parish bring to the table and what had he done that had inspired you to work with him?
JH: I’m not that unique. I grew up with P.J. Harvey and learned to play guitar when she released To Bring You My Love and later her John Parish collaboration. I just found the first album they did together extremely interesting because the structures were so weird. The reason why I wanted to work with John was because he was going to work with a friend of mine, and I had heard so many nice things about him. His name came up in conversation when I was looking for a place to record. My previous albums had been made in Norway, but because this one was about Norway, I thought I needed to get away to look from afar.
It turned out my friend was right. John was great. He’s an amazing guy. He came into my band in Bristol and immediately became part of the group. He’s a fantastic listener. He takes care of the songs and really goes into the music. He doesn’t really care too much or worry too much about anything but the songs. It was very liberating. Some of the songs are quite melodic, and I sometimes have trouble with that and things get too pretty. He was great at recognizing what was needed to keep things interesting and not just go with what seemed like the first obvious idea. He’s worked with a lot of different music and is interested in so many different things. It was so interesting to hang out with him as well.
FP: He’s got a very diverse portfolio, and I definitely hear diversity within your album as well. What are your different musical influences on Innocence is Kinky?
JH: In terms of references, we pretty much sat there with a blank slate. During the recording process, nobody could find anything to compare it with. It kind of makes you very self-centered to compare. It was great to let the music exist in its own space. A lot of producers are very fond of certain recording styles and are an encyclopedia of retro, but John really wasn’t. Especially in the way he talked about music. I really hate when people just reference. It’s really limiting. What was surrounding this music was like searching in the dark. And we also recorded in a dark basement, which felt like going into this very dark aquarium every day [laughs].
In terms of instruments, we used a great brass slash key instrument from the Eighties that we borrowed from Tim Friese-Green, who worked with Talk Talk. I never met him, but that, for me, was amazing. Just to have it there. Laughing Stock is one of my top 5 albums of all time. Just knowing that I was touching keys that they had touched was incredible. It’s like when people very different from me get to touch something that Queen has touched.
FP: Who designed the album art for Innocence is Kinky and what was the thought process behind the album art?
JH: The artist who did the cover is called Kim Hiorthøy and he does all of the cover art for my label, Rune Grammofon. The thought process I know nothing about. He just does it. I didn’t say anything. I had never met him. I’ve met him since, but it feels so great to let go and receive that visual impression of something you’ve done and for you not to have to say it’s about this and that.
FP: What interests you about singing about different artistic mediums and characters that are known through film even if they were real people?
JH: I like the way that you can pretend to be anybody with your voice and give life to characters. When I was studying, I was very much into the type of writing that is or was a part of the feminist movement. The kind of writing that is rewriting history. That was quite influential in how I started writing songs. The idea that history isn’t necessarily right. History books won’t tell you what kind of voice Joan of Arc had. My voice is as good as any. That’s kind of magical.
Jordan Mainzer is a Chicago-based staff writer at Frontier Psychiatrist, recent graduate of Brown University, and the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA. He’ll be at the Empty Bottle on September 29th for Jenny Hval’s sure-to-be-great show. Come say hi.