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Both Jenny Hval and Gazelle Twin’s work is tangibly driven by a raw, organic and unadulterated self-expression.

Across their respective output over the years, the interdisciplinary experimentalists have crafted a breathtaking breadth of immersive worlds. Ones through which they capture and convey varying manifestations of the strangeness of existence.

Given the parallels between Gazelle Twin and Hval’s work – as artists who tap into the uncanny, draw inspiration from horror and transcend performance conventions to highlight a few common threads – it makes sense that speaking to the two of them reveals similarities in their philosophies toward making work and the intersection of theatre in their music.

Ahead of playing the forthcoming edition of Rewire Festival – taking place in The Hague from 4-7 April – the two musicians discuss playing with performance expectations, how they approach each of their projects and the shared connections in their work. Plus they give us an insight of what to expect from their upcoming shows.

Crack: When did you first know of each other’s work?

Gazelle Twin: I lived in Brighton in 2002 until 2014. I’d been studying music and I hadn’t been listening to anything outside a very rigid, self-imposed, slightly pious diet of either really scratchy contemporary classical music or choral music. Then I met people who were interested in electronic music and became more interested in contemporary artists and living in Brighton, where there were so many artists coming through doing really interesting shows and really interesting performances, I started to become aware of a lot more around that time. Around 2006/2007, along with people like Lucrecia Dalt and Julia Holter, I think that was when I was discovering your work, Jenny. I became interested more in singers and female singers and what they were doing as self-producing artists.

Jenny Hval: I discovered your work a bit later. I want to say like 2014. I feel like I’ve had this relationship with your work as a sort of parallel English mythology. I’ve never seen any of your work performed. The one time I remember a piece of yours I was at a festival, it was as we were setting up to play after. That’s when I met Natalie Sharpe, who was performing. So I felt like I got to experience the piece right before I went onstage, which was amazing. I’ve listened to the records but I have this idea that I’m not 100% sure it’s real, because I haven’t seen it, because the experience I’ve had with it has been very different from a lot of other music. I’ve probably been influenced by people talking about your work and writing about your work, because I’ve been reading about it as well. I feel very ready to see something, although I’m worried that I might not be able to see what will happen at Rewire. Because something always comes up and things are always at the same time. I’m very bad at seeing shows when I’m performing. I’m not sure what it’s like for you.

GT: I haven’t gigged abroad for a really long time, so it’s going to be quite a shock to the system. But I really hope to see you! There’s always requests and there’s always admin and things to do, you know, to eat and take breaks. The thought of just being in that space all day and all night is overwhelming.

Natalie [Sharpe] was performing my proxy show, which is when I had my first child and I had a commission to create a new AV performance. I had a lot of stuff that I had really wanted to get out before having a child, but it just didn’t happen. When the opportunity came up for there to be this show and tour I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it physically and needed to find people that would be able to carry the performance in my absence. Natalie was the only person I knew that would be able to do it. It was very physically demanding on her because she had to run on a treadmill at the same time as singing, which is something I probably should have tested before I put that out there. But she did it. She speaks really highly of that meeting with you.

JH: Oh me too. I think of it all the time. I was lucky enough to work with her a few times after that.

Crack: You both create very immersive experiences with your live performances. How do you approach developing your projects in this way and preparing for performances?

JH: In terms of the preparation of a performance for me, it’s always quite different. It depends on the starting point of the work. Most of the time, I’ve written music first because that is my starting point. I have this kind of beef going on with proper performance art. I really want the music to be the narrator of a performance because that’s what I come from. I can’t really try to be a theatre director. I mean, I could try but my big dream is that I’ll win over an audience with musical narration and form in a setting that is on stage. That’s my big dream, that music can tell a story that can’t be told if the music is not the main element. I mean that as an interdisciplinary use of work with music as the driving force.

For the performance that I’ll be doing this year, I started with creating radio pieces and then I had this big project, which I think is very confusing, when you have a big music project on your computer and it contains 17 different songs. To go back and edit something is completely crazy. But I just wanted one melodic or lyrical idea to become the next one, sort of morphing into each other. Then I started realising that I was writing a lot about being on stage. So I returned to some ideas that had to do with my experience with studying theatre a long time ago. It is this struggle that I have with feeling like music is inferior or is often used as an element in theatre and performing arts. But not the main element. With my background, I am equally interested in music and theatre as a stage phenomena.

There’s a lot of meta layers, a lot of criticism involved in creating a performance for me. I think the aspect of criticism is something that is a little undervalued, especially in my home country, when it comes to music. Music is still seen as something that needs to be successful in a certain entertaining way of entertainment, or popularity. And undervalued from the point of view of how long you have in a space, how much you’re paid, whether you’re compensated for rehearsal time etc.

GT: All valid. It goes to show just being a musician and a performer in the world now is not without a host of complex thought processes. It’s one thing to create and record music, but to then take it out of your studio, to people and places and all of the myriad things that can influence and go wrong, or be interpreted in totally different, adverse ways to how you intended. The process of performing had to become much more feral and visceral for me to be able to get through barriers that I found really early on.

When I began to make things as Gazelle Twin, I had a list of things that I wanted to address in performance, but also in music. Most of those were to do with how I presented myself on stage, how the music would lead the performance in its themes, form and its intensity, and how the whole thing in my ideal world would be like a film. Like the experience of going to a cinema and being in a world in another world, and then being left with the traces of that as you go about your everyday life. That’s how I wanted my shows to be.

I didn’t have any budget to do any of these grand plans. So I had to do the simplest thing I knew, which was to take myself away from the performances. From my second album, Unflesh – which was about my teenhood and experience with anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia – the performances were built during the recording and composing process because it was such a raw thing that was coming out. In the performances I ended up being in my PE kit from school and in the music there’s a cry, the rage of that teenhood just flew out. I realised that all I needed was to channel that person, which I did, and nothing else really mattered. That show was me in my PE kit, with a few additions to remove my facial features and things like that, and a vocal pedal and another person on stage with me triggering samples. The idea really with that performance was to assault the audience with my rage; for once in my performing life and life generally as an anxious, quiet woman to actually be able to scream and square up to people, which was squaring up to myself and my past. At the same time, I felt really powerful in that process. And that became a template for how I then prepare for each performance and actually how I make albums which is to allow anything to come out and to make sure it’s articulated visually.

In my new show, however, it is slightly different in that it’s a bit more staged. There’s a reference to the idea of spiritualist mediums and how they would perform. Ultimately I’m performing as myself but I’m channelling voices like a medium of my adult self and my parents’ self. And the whole performance really is a conjuring of those voices that that have needed to speak and cry and shout so there’s a bit more thinking going on with the staging. I sit in an armchair and there’s a lamp and there’s a whole visual thing that happens, which I’ve never had before, I always used to say I’m the visuals.

"I've always loved to do things that you're not supposed to do in a music venue" – Jenny Hval

JH: It’s so interesting to talk about removing yourself and removing your face. Because I started out wanting to do that. At the same time as I started performing music on stage I was studying theatre and I was studying more modern performance art inspired by old or other types of forms of theatre than the dramatic theatre. I started performing music at the same time and I was learning to perform as an empty body on stage in a very abstract setting during my school days.

I think I was naive enough to think that in the moment I was on stage, I could be a blank slate, I had no face. Then when I started releasing music I realised that is not how music and being an artist is enabled, you can’t. That is something I still think about a lot, the fact that I really want to be a vessel on stage and I really feel like I am that when I am performing. It is interesting to be a music artist in this pop industry. Even though I’m not a popular artist I am working within the idea of the pop artist, which is that you’re selling yourself, you’re selling you’re an idea of identity and your face is the shopfront, to quote SOPHIE. For a long time, I felt a lot of regret for not actually having taken my face out of the equation when I started out releasing music. Although in Norway at the time, I don’t think I would have been allowed to release music without having my face plastered everywhere.

GT: I certainly had my fair share of questioning. In the early days, it was like, “has she got any photos of her face?” And people were just like, “well, no, that’s the point. She doesn’t want her face in it.” People would still publish photos that they’d find of me that weren’t official photos. It seemed completely perplexing to people that I would want to remove myself from it. For me, it was the simplest thing. I wanted to completely remove myself altogether. I think in my list of things, I was like I want to be a plume of smoke or a rock or I don’t want to be human. In some ways that echoes how I feel as a person sometimes.

In the end, it had to be much closer to something recognisable, but not quite recognisable. So then I became really interested in the uncanny and how that can really appeal in a live performance when it’s not something that people see often. It became another source of power. It’s interesting that you talk about how your studies in theatre gave you this inherent way to perform that wasn’t necessarily you. I learnt a lot about myself just through creating these extreme versions of myself in a setting where it was people receiving that and adding to that exchange. That’s the beauty of performing, the exchange of your ideas but then what you get back is more information and reflection and if it’s working it can be this amazing cycle of ideas about your identity. There isn’t an alternative to live performance, there’s no connection there really until you’re in a room with people and talking to people and seeing how they’re receiving your music and how it processes inside their bodies.

Crack: Both of your work has such a breadth to it and each album or project feels like a distinct chapter – and I wondered how you view this journey through your work?

JH: To me, they’re such chapters that I close them when I’ve finished touring. I don’t like to think of it as an album cycle. I like to think of it more as performing something for a while, and then stepping out of it, and actually sort of going through it.

I released my first album in Norway in 2006 and at that point, I had a song listed on the radio, and I got my first output here at home. So I am still asked sometimes to perform the old stuff, from 2006. And I have to be that very pretentious person and say that is the past, I can’t go back. But the thing about pop music is that people do and they can, that’s what it’s about, you know, but I, I close that. Maybe someday I’ll revisit, but it’s going to be within a whole different composition. It would be like a memory existing in the present. I do think that I’ve allowed myself to close a project like the whole book and then start over. It interests me less and less to reinvent myself, I think because that is such a commercial idea. I’m more interested in just creating and seeing what happens if I’m not thinking so much about reinvention. I do think that if I am to see my work as different chapters it’s also about how I think about musical forms. What I’m interested in, in general, what I’ve been reading and how that represents. There are all these more philosophical elements too of how I think about substances, is the body tight this time? Or is it viscous? Am I interested in powder this time? Now it sounds like I’m talking about drugs! But for my new performance, I’ve been very interested in residues and the voice as residue of the body. I’ve been very interested in cigarette smoke, because it’s like a reflection of your inside that comes out of your mouth; it colours your inside and then comes out. It has to do with memories and what’s happening in my body or what’s happening in my life on a more abstract level, or maybe more physical level actually. I have to interact with my subconscious, my body, the world from scratch each time I make something.

GT: That’s so interesting. Your approach is very delicate, thoughtful and detailed. I think my approach is much more childlike and kind of throwing great big colours at things and loud, noisy gestures sometimes. That’s how I see the stages at which I’ve made my albums. I like to make big, loud, noisy statements, even if they come from a place which is much more complex, fragile, quiet and awkward. I like to make a giant ball of energy and just sort of throw it out. And also for there to be traces of art and cultural references. For me, music is obviously the tool and the medium but it’s also sometimes the final thing. It’s mostly visual first, and trying to get very disparate, sometimes quite extreme, bold imagery and finding ways to connect them that make them have meaning and connection to me personally. It’s almost as if I want to give that imagery a sound.

With my two middle albums, Unflesh and Pastoral, both have a really deliberately bold, strange persona. Many times I’ve been overlooked as a quirky attention seeking weirdo, which is totally fine. Because I am. But actually, there is an impulse driven by something quite meaningful, to me at least. The one that I’m doing now, my face isn’t covered. I am me, because it is very, very much about me. The worst part of me, actually. There was nothing apart from the suit that I wear, which is referencing my childhood 80s obsession with turquoise. And that 80s aesthetic, the showiness of mediumship around that time.

I also do not like to go back over old songs. With my initial list of things that I would and wouldn’t do. That was one of them. I make an album, I tour it as if I was touring a theatre production for a certain time and then it’s done. I’m moving on. I couldn’t think of anything more depressing and boring than to have to keep resuscitating songs that I made 10 years ago that I completely moved on from statically, maybe not completely thematically or in terms of the essence of what I’m saying. You have to allow yourself to grow. I’m not a pop artist. Sometimes people do shout out a song that I made from my first album, but I think it’s a joke. It’s great that you do that too Jenny, I don’t really know many people that do. I think live music still is very old fashioned in ways and it’s always good to throw something in that people maybe haven’t seen before.

JH: I’ve always loved to do things that you’re not supposed to do in a music venue. I think it belongs together with not playing old stuff. The fact that the interaction between audience and artist in the music setting is based on this idea of giving back or gratitude or the fact that the music is never enough. So you have to do the old songs, which I think many audience members would really regret if I did. Music has such little value, even in its own rightful place. That is something that I have always been mourning on stage in one way or another. And I’ve never felt like it’s enough to just remove it all.

There are so many interesting and weird ideas behind what the music performance is, what a concert is, when it starts, when it ends, what the artist is, when or where they end. All this comes together for me. That is the reason why I close chapters and don’t go back. I love speaking with people after the show, sometimes I do it a lot. But the codes implied in that meeting place and the value it holds I’m not comfortable with. There’s so much work to be done to make the entire music discipline and how it is performed, give it more value, and make it more contemporary, because I think it is struggling with being extremely old fashioned and capitalist.

GT: It’s kind of not surprising… in formal settings, such as when you fill in your insurance details or do any life admin, the umbrella that we exist under is just entertainment. There’s no breakdown of how you can be a music producer or DJ. For the show that I’m doing at the moment, I wanted it to be more of a sit down show, but that’s changed how it feels to perform. I’m not quite okay with it. It depends on the audience very, very much and how they are receiving it. I think I always have had problems with it from being stuck in the classical world and going to see classical performances and feeling equally frustrated at how frozen I needed to be in my seat, and how I couldn’t react to this music which was exploding my soul and my heart and yet I had to be completely contained and unable to speak, unable to vocalise my reaction to it. And then the total reverse where I was doing shows where there were no boundaries and I was having people grab me or loads of noise in the background. Sometimes there is an in between, but it’s so rare.

It’s hard especially when you’re trying to do something that’s trying to cut through these layers of tradition. I love the way you do that just through your lyric. You’re so present and I haven’t heard anything like that other than one of my heroes, which is Laurie Anderson. This sense of presence, it immediately switches how you’re experiencing this artist. Because it’s not existing in this ephemeral world and it’s not existing in this very constructed way, like the way that people construct their identities. It’s the emotions that are driving it. It’s very exquisite.

"The process of performing had to become much more feral and visceral for me to be able to get through barriers that I found really early on" – Gazelle Twin

JH: I could have said the same thing back. But I also feel like I should say that I genuinely do not disapprove of any audience. I love that you were following that up with the traditions of how to be an audience because everything that I said before did not mean that I do not appreciate the audience. I just don’t appreciate the codes and the value that also the audience has, like the devaluation of what it means to be a person in a room and experiencing art. Sometimes when I do a performance in a theatre room with a different audience, I really miss the conventions of the loud bar and the people who don’t care whether there’s a show or not because there is something lovely about breaking through.

I think that there is tremendous clarity in your work. I always find that seeing my own work in my head is really messy and overcomplicated. I always long for clarity, which sometimes I find when I’m on stage. I find a place that is more clear than reality can ever be. Which is why it’s soothing to be there. And it’s also a place with no screens, no distractions, there’s tons of distractions, of course, but not the distractions that I can turn to.

GT: With the live shows, I totally agree. I think some of the best shows I’ve ever had were the tiny little dive bars that were rammed with people that just wanted to be there and experience it. For me, it’s that electricity. I’ve done one show for this tour. It was the first show actually and everything had gone wrong. I was feeling like the most horrible I felt before a live show ever. I didn’t know if the sound was going to work at all, because the desk had completely shut down during soundcheck. Then when I actually got out into the room, and it was just throbbing, people wanted to be there. The energy that they threw out into the air was amazing, I was just kind of surfing it for the show, and nothing else mattered. I’m so grateful for moments like that.

Jenny Hval and Gazelle Twin play Rewire in The Hague, Netherlands, on 4-7 April