Jenny Hval is a Norwegian singer, composer, lyricist and writer. She studied literature at The University of Melbourne, was a member in Australian bands and has released five albums under the moniker Rockettothesky as well as her own name. She lives in Norway and has written a novel Perlebryggereit (Pearl Brewery) and worked as a freelance columnist and writer.
Innerversitysound: Firstly I want to talk about the structure of your performance setup. It has changed dramatically since your last album. Become more adventurous and experimental, moved away from a classic alternative rock setup. Can you tell us about the developments in both how you have approached sound and performance?
Jenny Hval: The funny thing is some people would now say the opposite. Because we no longer do a lot of improvisation. So it is interesting to see how these changes are seen. For me it was very important to stop playing instruments. I am not really a trained musician. So that was always very hard for me. To have to practice and know songs and most of the time to have to carry most of the song structures with my instrument. I have never been very comfortable with that role in a band. But I always did it because I thought I had to; I didn’t have money to bring lots of musicians and also was at the core of what I was writing.
But with this new album I realised pretty quickly as we were recording it that I couldn’t preform it live with that setup. So from that realisation that opened up lot of possibilities because if you can’t perform something live in the normal alternative rock setup, or whichever way you choose to think of it, then you have to think of other things that are happening on stage. It was very interesting to me the fact that you can do anything on stage really. And music can be very interesting to be listened to look at, even if it’s not just performed by instruments. I think that I have never really been interested in authenticity and seeing and knowing exactly what is being played and all that. For me that is all very surveillance based. So it was amazing to start thinking of performance as something that wasn’t that. So I dreamed of working with the film director who I have been working with for my videos recently and just having her on stage. And she had never done anything like that before. She thought it was interesting so we developed together the live visual side of the performance which started with a bunch of videos and then evolved into something more performative.
Innerversitysound: Your live setup now is moving towards a form of performance art as well as music. There is a development of visual and theatrical elements. Are you getting more professional, creating an experience, providing a show and yet still resisting the concept that what you are doing is providing escapism. Is the goal a non-escapist form of edutainment?
Jenny Hval: I think to a certain extent I have to let the audience decide whether they escape or not. Rather than talking about escapism or not. I would say that on the one hand I would really want to comfort the audience and meet them as some kind of honest voice. That looks them in the eye and can do something that can be moving. And very simple in a way. On the other hand I also know that as a person I could never be a perfect entertainer who could just do that. I’m too awkward. I sort of like these realisations of the impossibility of being something which I am not. So I am trying to express some form of complexity with that. And also the songs deal with a lot of complexities about being human. And so I guess I have to do that in a stage light as well. And when I am not playing anything I think that what I am dealing with when I am onstage is a whole lot of boredom. This kind of ‘oh no I don’t have anything to do what should I do’. It’s like when you become very self-conscious in a setting and you go; ‘oh no what are my hands doing’, and you feel very unnatural. I am very comfortable on stage but I am trying to do something with the boredom and the self-consciousness of being looked at. Because that is what’s happening when you are on stage.
Innerversitysound: The album seems to suggest a Post-Modern cut up culture world of mirrors. Allusions to Laurie Anderson, The Velvet Underground, Lennon and Yoko Ono, The Sex Pistols, Mette Moestrup… There is a sense that the continual self-reflexive, both with culture to itself and the overly self-concerned examination in relations to others, ideals, structures of power, is a never-ending maze. While you may not want to provide escapism, isn’t there room to actually escape this mode of being. That development is possible and not all power is monolithic and oppressive.
Jenny Hval: I think that is a really interesting way to look at both the album and the live performance. I do feel like a mirror onstage as well, or try to be one. I even put up my phone a lot, especially if the audience does so. Sometimes all you see is a wall of phones. And that’s the hall of mirrors, the audience are kind of mirroring themselves and putting up a wall between us which is kind of sad. For me music is always a way of negotiating and never really being stuck in an identity that is placed in front of you. You can choose your mirror and keep looking at the reflections you get from it but I think that the important thing with art is to present a mirror which is kind of more magical where you can see yourself in many different ways and I do think that that is a very important part of human experience. To not just at the time seeing what the media is reflecting back at you. You are like this very continuous thing. I have chosen to work with people who are very much younger than me on stage this time and I noticed just how well they use social media. Especially as a mirror function, Instagram and photos and just setting scenes and they are very comfortable with social media.
I am not comfortable with too much social media, that to me is all just about image and self-representation and I just find it very boring. But the people I work with are very good at working this kind of self-consciousness into something that is really quite interesting and part of their art work visually. And so I see it as a shift of generations happening, for me it’s been kind of interesting to have a belief in the mirror I guess. Because I guess I have been rejecting it a lot, rejecting the mirrors we have in our daily lives now. In terms of power I do think that I am trying to work more and more to find some kind of ways of looking at yourself beyond the power hierarchies, sexual hierarchies, whatever people call it and using music to be a little bit more free. Even though that sounds a little naïve, although I think it is necessary to be naïve.
Innerversitysound: The Battle is Over: The end of history, of feminism, of socialism all morphed into pro-consumerist becoming: it’s slightly ambiguous whether these are your targets and the song culminates in the call ‘We hang on to Heaven’. A call to remain utopian? Is this sense of transcendence a reasonable call, have me not moved away from transcendental idealism to a form of rational materialism.
Jenny Hval: As a thought piece I really do criticise the movement towards, I don’t think I would call it materialist, a return to science. Where you are looking at gender for instance, because in the beginning of the song I talk about how statistics and newspapers tell me this or that and there has been, at least in Scandinavia, a kind of critique of Feminism, especially more philosophical feminism, especially deconstruction as being something that is almost religious and all these lofty ideas about identity that are almost as bad as religion. A saying ‘We need to tear it down and get back to the biological differences between the sexes and get back to what’s really true’. That stuff I find is really dangerous. If you can’t have theories about the world and identity not based on science and what is science anyway? If art can’t be any way to touch upon identity and the human being then what’s left really? This is not what I am saying in the song but I wish I had been able to say something more clearly about that. But at the end I am criticising how it returns to spirituality. If you break down all the revolutionary ideas and you say that we have moved on, the world is fairly conservative still. So I guess I am doing both, criticising the new, criticising the old. Criticising the way we look at criticising the new and the old.
Innerversitysound: Moving towards an underground sense of optimism: a spiritual underground? A reappropriation and repurposing of the instruments of the choral structure for your own purposes. In a sense that the structure still conveys a state of being. It is aiming for the induction of joyous states which has always been the political purpose of both Christian music and the success of pop music. To take people into that state of joy by design. Seeing the fetishisation of the medium without the accompanying ethical acts is a form of escapism, but surely the resonance of idealistic states remain but the focus of what is an ethical act has changed.
Jenny Hval: The first thing that I can think of in relation to this probably has nothing to do with your question. But it concerns the structure of Heaven (track 2), which has this interesting aspect. I have been speaking with my collaborator on this album, Lasse Marhaug, we were extremely into the Alice Coltrane album Divine Songs when we were making the album, and we still are I think. We had been talking a lot about how she has this ability on that album to create songs that start off with a state that changes so that at the end of a song she can return. It can sound almost similar to the start of that song but there is a difference state, almost some kind of religious ecstasy or something that has been achieved and it is now performed in a state of ecstasy but the difference is both minimal and huge at the same time.
I think Heaven starts off and comes back to the same part at the end, but obviously Heaven is emotionally very different at the end than at the start. The reason why it returns, is because there are two parts to that song. One part is at the beginning and the end and one part is just in the middle. For me I think it was important that it had to return to the beginning. But in a very different state. Obviously that song doesn’t really make sense of the personal history of that song. I usually have to go to the fact that it puts two things from my childhood together, not from my personal history but from the place where I grew up which was in the Norwegian bible belt. The bible belt brings with it a kind of religious groups and extremely trashy lower class life I guess. This was like a small town in a part of Norway that wasn’t doing extremely well economically and was very traditional and old fashioned. So what I am imagining at the end of Heaven is like this little bit extreme religious symbolism returning in this kind of trashy town, with people just driving around and getting drunk, doing too much body building; a lot of stuff that was happening when I was young. So that kind of stuff, is what I am combining at the end. The dirtiness of my experience with a religious locality or something like that.
Innerversitysound: The album starts with self-doubt? There is a large focus on the self, what it is to be, and especially what it is to be a woman. It is perhaps directed at women of a particular age, considerations of an embodied state, of a relation to society and the limitation and possibilities. Is there an idea that this question of self is an ongoing question? Is there a sense that you are speaking to specific moments of life and not about an overall state of being?
Jenny Hval: Not intentionally but I did hear that someone said: ‘oh this music, not interesting. I have already been there’. Some woman of about fourty. So maybe it is a very thirties album in that way. I do hope that the ideas of self, coming from a woman in her thirties, really can be seen as interesting as a contribution to the idea of self universally speaking. If I am speaking about being a woman it is because I really do think that concerns the human race and not concerns other women of my age. So when I am asked questions about whether this is directed at women, or something like that, my answer would be: ‘Yes but we’re all women’. So it depends on where and how we see that within ourselves. Self doubt is also about opening up to an empathy.
Innerversitysound: Is this Punk Feminist posturing – Soft dick Rock, no big bananas. When is a banana just a banana and a cupcake just a cupcake? Are ideas of gender really the important intellectual questions of our day?
Jenny Hval: I don’t know if I am the right person to ask whether a banana is just a banana. To me when something appears in my writing, an object is never just an object. It’s always just a word. But a word is more open than the object itself. At least when the word is in my lyrics. I find that words always change their meanings as I keep performing, especially now as I perform in a more performative stage situation. I really get to think about the cupcake. I even have a joga ball on stage with me that becomes the cupcake sometimes. When I performed in Lisbon two days ago I asked for pink lights and the lights were so pink that my joga ball turned pink as well. It was amazing. So it was the most cupcake(ie)/breasts that it has ever been. So objects keep changing.
AUSTRALIAN TOUR 2016
Jan 15 @ Main Stage, Mona Foma, Hobart
Jan 19 @ The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival
Jan 20 @ The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival
Jan 22 @ National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne