Interview: Jenny Hval makes us feel uncomfortable ahead of UK tour

Jenny Hval"I say 'c*nt' in a lot of different ways on this album," muses Jenny Hval. She does. In the mouth of the Norwegian polymath, words are not so much spoken as they are tasted, chewed over, explored with the tongue for soft and brittle consonants. And when she spits out the word 'bake' on the spoken word opening to Apocalypse, girl, 2015's most playfully avant-garde album, it's perfectly clear that this is the more obscene word.

You sense that Hval has always nurtured a spirit of artistic curiosity. Starting out as the vocalist in a gothic metal band, she's since taken in a degree in Creative Writing (Master's thesis: "Kate Bush and the singing voice as literature"), written a novel, worked as a freelance columnist, and been involved in numerous collaborations. Five albums in, it seems as though music has become the primary source of her creative output. "Music is a natural home for me," she confesses. "Writing is more difficult, but I dream about writing more sometimes. I’ve wanted to make films in the past, but they involve too many people and too many permissions and phone calls for my liking. I like to work fast."

Apocalypse, girl was recorded in Norway with noise stalwart Lasse Marhaug, whose CV includes work with Sunn O))) and Merzbow, and former Swans drummer Thor Harris, who brings some decidedly un-Swans congas to lead single "That Battle Is Over". The track forms an interesting centrepiece to the record, with several voices and identities jostling for position, mostly delivered with tongue firmly in cheek: "You say I'm free now, that battle is over. And feminism's over. And socialism's over..." More than anything, it feels like a performance, and one senses that the soulful crooning is part of the costume.

As an artist with a multimedia background, this has inevitably bled into the visual element of her gigs, where Hval and other members of her ensemble have been sporting fetching pink wigs. With any artist, the live show beckons two conflicting possibilities: the chance to experiment and expand upon the finite nature of the recorded album, and the sense of duty that one might feel as the performer at a pop concert. Hval confidently assures me that she doesn't feel any such pressure. "But I've become less interested in musical improvisation," she explains. "I find leaving room for experimentation to be less interesting than sticking to a set of musical parameters. What is interesting to me is to communicate something human and vulnerable, and what is usually called musical experimentation is really just within the parameters of how the music is performed." Worrying about how to present music in a live context can also "leave a lot of other performative elements static - such as, for example, the act of undressing. I’m very interested in undressing."

The naked body is a long-standing source of fascination for Hval. Innocence Is Kinky, her 2013 breakthrough, opened with the words, "That night, I watched people fucking on my computer," and the new record is equally frank in its approach to sexuality. But the body is not presented here as a smooth, sanitised figure. It is, in a lot of ways, a kind of anti-pornography, an attempt to deconstruct eroticism by inverting conventional identifiers. There are several references on Apocalypse, girl to "soft dick rock"; elsewhere we find unclean hands, death, contagion, anaemia, and anxiety about "shaving in all the right places". Hval describes the record as "a eulogy for the lost natural body... Which probably contains the longing for a new natural and unnatural body. But I'm also singing about very, very unnatural bodies, bodies morphing into animals, bodies changing sexes, bodies (or rather, souls) longing for spirituality." The body has always been the battleground of identity politics, and it's another territory she works to destabilise.

Unsurprisingly, Hval's music is equally unsettling, not least because she possesses a voice capable of delivering soaring moments of beauty. "Heaven" develops into a fittingly choral affair, and on this occasion her love for the sounds of words conjures ecstasy: "The front row clasp their hands now, they're singing with devotion. I separate from feeling, complex harmonic motion." These are trance-like moments that sway the listener, often to be broken down again by the tides of the song. I mention Ingmar Bergman's Persona, a favourite film of hers ("I've seen it at least ten times"), and the way it frequently breaks the fourth wall to unsettle the subject's gaze. Does she recognise those disruptive elements in her own work? "I’m not here to entertain you," she tells me, uncompromising as ever. "I’m here to make you uncomfortable. But I don’t see the more harmonious parts of my work as lulling. I’m not a trickster. I truly believe that there is room for all kinds of elements together without them betraying one another. Beauty and destruction are not separate entities." More than ever, Jenny Hval seems to have mastered the knack of marrying the two.


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