By Maya-Roisin Slater
VANCOUVER — When I call Norwegian experimental pop artist Jenny Hval, she’s climbing into the trunk of a car in London’s South Hackney neighbourhood. There among the luggage, she waits for the keys to her next Airbnb, and offers up some thoughts on her most recent release, Blood Bitch, and the evolving intentions behind her music.
Though she’d been playing in bands from the age of 16, Hval first started seriously putting energy into music while attending university in Melbourne, Australia. “I was studying other types of performing arts and fine arts, so music was sort of the only thing I wasn’t studying, it was my free space. A way of processing a lot of heavy theory that I was reading, and sort of avant garde art strategies I was studying,” she explains. Immersed in this rigorous academic environment, and finding freedom in songwriting as a method of digesting the information she was taking in, Hval entered a tumultuous relationship with pop music. “For a long time I was quite embarrassed because I was making these sort of Simon and Garfunkel songs about explicit performance art studies and heavy theory. I didn’t take the pop music side of what I was doing very seriously, it was sort of like a lower art form or something.” Though a confusing refuge at first, the contrast between pop and academia provided a welcome space in which to collect thoughts and feelings. It provided a separation from what Hval was studying, leaving room for the concepts she was learning to be interpreted in new creative ways.
Since then Hval has released six albums, the most recent of which being Blood Bitch, a ten-song LP with blood as its central theme: the blood of women, the blood of cult horror films, the lust for blood by a vampire. Far from her more premeditated theoretical beginnings, Hval didn’t set out to create work married to a theme or message. “I started writing at a time when I was playing a lot of shows with Apocalypse Girl, the record that I did the year before. So I was kind of tired of feeling like I was doing social commentary with music to it, and I wanted to just write something that sounded beautiful.”
With beautiful music as her sole intention, Hval joined forces with Norwegian noise producer Lesse Marhaug and started putting things to tape. Recorded in a work space above a bike shed in Oslo, the album came together with plenty of time and experimentation. “I let my interests and my life at the time become an album. I fused together the ideas of being on the road touring with women, and exploring the creative sides of that, and taking a lot from the movies I was watching— cult movies, horror films, and some sex films from the ‘70s,” explains Hval. Making a link between her time touring with women, the creativity that comes with such an experience, and the narrative structures of vampire and horror films, the theme of Blood Bitch manifested itself. More ethereal than previous albums where the lyrical message is the main focus, Hval hopes this piece of work can connect with listeners in a different way. “I didn’t want to write good lyrics, I wanted to write very bad lyrics but they would be hidden in the music so you wouldn’t have to focus on them so much. But I think as the album was written in the recording process, we ended up liking what was happening. I don’t think it’s the sort of album where you have to read the lyrics and study, I really hope it can be a dream ride, a subconscious journey to listen to.”
Though Hval’s music has evolved greatly since her first solo album, To Sing To You in Apple Trees, then released under the moniker rockettothesky, a motif can be found throughout all her projects. Themes of sexuality and gender, the often silenced desires of women appear consistently throughout her work. Though sexuality is ever present in pop music, Hval’s approach is a rarely heard mix of questioning and confidence. Her fearless vulnerability on these subjects is unique, and disarming. Singing of menstrual blood, gynecological visits, and washing down birth control with rosé, Hval hopes to erase words like “taboo” from association with these habitual reproductive tasks. “I want them to have more of an occult power, and be seen as magical,” says Hval.
The desire to romanticize things which may be seen as clinical or grotesque seems to be the root of Hval’s musical practice. She began writing songs to macerate the dense material she was taught in school. Continuing on throughout her career she used music to express complex political ideas and artistic criticisms in a way listeners who might not have come up in academic spaces could resonate with. In Blood Bitch she looks at the human body and the things it does to keep us alive: cold, wet, red, painful things. Human habits that some experience, or are born from, but have been reduced to doctors forms and bottles of aspirin, and doused in bleach. Just as Hval wants to inject emotion back into academic ideas, does she want to inject romance and magic into taboos. “I think we’ve made this kind of wound in our brains and spirits where we think that the academic can’t have anything to do with emotional stuff, and the emotional stuff needs to be seen as very simple and inexplicable. Then the academic is sort of dry and sensible. And that’s not true.” Hval interprets this separation of mind and spirit as an unhealed wound, one where she sees pain. At 36, Hval has been making music for about 20 years now. She says as she ages she can see herself getting stronger and weaker.
From the trunk of a car in South Hackeny, London, she is sitting surrounded by suitcases, proud to tell me every day she becomes stronger and weaker. Here she embodies her vision for expressing ideas, where feeling and thought trade places, and are admired in new ways for growing both stronger and weaker.
Jenny Hval plays the Biltmore Cabaret on November 16th.BC, Biltmore Cabaret, Blood Bitch, British Columbia, Jenny Hval