Jenny Hval: the improvised hallucination
When Skype finally focuses into clarity, and Jenny Hval and I are facing each other, we begin with cursory apologies. While she’s recovering from a bewildering bout of jet-lag brought on by a recent stint touring America, I’ve spent the majority of my weekend uncomfortably wriggling in my bed with a nauseating flu. Put simply, we haven’t felt like ourselves lately.
With a strange appropriateness, however, I have also spent my feverish sessions listening to Apocalypse, girl, the Norwegian artist’s fifth solo record, her third under her own name. The record is a weird dream of sorts, pulling ideas in and out of focus through disorienting sonic shifts. In a sense it exists in a fluid universe; melodies are briefly active before disintegrating, lyrics and ideas make contact for a moment before twisting and melting completely.
I pose this idea of hallucination to Hval, asking her where such intense malleability starts. “I thought I was making a spontaneous, but still very clear, pop album. I didn’t intend the intensity. For me it was a very happy writing process. As the album recording went on this depth emerged.” Hval’s spontaneity is the driving force of the record, with spoken word segments naturally transitioning into impulsive melodies. “I don’t try to write perfect songs, instead I try to follow the immediacy of the structure that I originally improvise. Doing that preserves the human element in music, when you can connect to a melody without knowing where it’s going.”
This method results in the unfolding character of the record, a narrative that spirals into scenes of apocalypse and introspection. “Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying, that I need man and child to fulfil me, that I’m more likely to get breast cancer,” she sings on The Battle Is Over. Hval admits that she was surprised by how disorienting her lyrical content became. “The things that come out when you improvise might be a lot darker than you thought they were when you were just ‘saying them’. That is sometimes the real discovery with music, those immediate elements.”
From speaking to Hval and listening to the record, it seems as if the weird worlds she discovered and unpacked on Apocalypse, girl became the territory where she was best able to communicate her ideas. Far from the strictness of a conventional pop or alternative rock album, the fluidity offered a safe space from preconception. In order to best articulate this, she recalls a recent party she attended, where “someone put on a Marvin Gaye album on and I thought it was Nina Simone. With music you don’t have the prejudice you have when you see things.”
The Simone/Gaye confusion is a conveniently placed reference next to Apocalypse, girl – a record that plays meaningfully with identity and, in particular, gender. Our culture, as it stands, enjoys categorising and delineating gender politics. Feminism comes in waves, with manifestos and structures. Apocalypse, girl doesn’t necessarily attempt to defy or escape any of these entanglements, but it certainly does explore the idea that a more introspective angle on feminism can induce powerful responses.
“I definitely think the personal take on things is overlooked,” Hval says. “I want to express things specifically from a female point of view, but also in universalistic terms. I really want female existentialist crises, or themes of crisis, to be universal.” This aim for universalism gives Hval’s voice freshness. Tackling confusion and doubt on abstract terms means they can be read in a multitude of ways.
“There is always an element of confusion to any kind of listening experience, and that’s where my interest in more abstract sounds and gender politics meet.” It is the emergence of concepts from seeming senselessness that empowers Apocalypse, girl, and qualifies many of its most affecting moments. Much of this is achieved by linking bigger, universal themes of crisis back to personal, and specific, memories. “I was starting with images that were nauseatingly private, like the song Heaven which literally begins with the memory of me trying to sing in a gospel choir and failing when I was 13.”
This level of exposure, Hval feels, is what then establishes a closer relationship with her audience. “I feel that when things turn intensely personal in an artistic context, they also manage to express something that isn’t personal but more a confrontation to something the listener is feeling.” Was this an attempt to separate herself from being a named artist, and instead perform as a person, I ask? “At an early stage, the working title for the album was Ruining my Reputation – because I was really sick of the images that dictate how you are supposed to be as an alternative artist: a minor voice, away from the industry, more authentic than mainstream artists. I was trying to see what I could do to destroy that. I think it is very old-fashioned.”
While Apocalypse, girl will do nothing to destroy her reputation, it is palpable how the vividness of her personal experience allows for a very real connection to the listener. “In the end I feel I was able to say things and create sonic textures that I wouldn’t have been able to without those images. I also watched a lot of films while making this album, so many ideas turned into something visual in a way.”
Rooting the process in cinema comes both from Hval’s interest and that of her producer, Norwegian musician Lasse Marhaug. “He’s even more of a film nerd than me. He’s seen everything. He watches a film while making coffee in the morning. People have seen him watch films while he packs up equipment after a show. He is intensely into it!” Marhaug’s prolific viewing habits made him a perfect fit for Hval’s creative process. “It was amazing to work with someone who has such a good and developed visual language. I often think in very visual terms. In fact I probably know more about films than music. I’ve studied film but I’ve never studied music.”
The visual language developed for Apocalypse, girl, as the title suggests, was one of extinction and desperation. Yet Hval and Marhaug’s end of days was far from Armageddon. “We were trying to explore the more frightening world of the softer apocalypse. The apocalypse in films like Melancholia by Lars Von Trier, where it is just inevitable and nobody is fighting it. They are limp – taking a bunch of pills to kill themselves, a sort of soft amputation.” It struck me, at this point in our conversation, that our talk of the album had ranged from the vague to the specific, the political to the fantastical. It is strange that an album so emotionally engaging should draw on such disparate themes. In one stroke, the record is close to hyperreal, referencing Hval’s immediate memories, then in the same hand there is a wild mysticism at play. At this point, we return to Hval’s previous comment about the improvised nature of her writing, a technique she reduces as something that is principally emotional. “The emotional is incredibly confusing but can also contain these incredibly clear moments, when you know exactly what it is you are feeling.”
Ultimately, it is this search for the splinters of clarity among the melee of ‘feelings’ that makes up Apocalypse, girl. Hval respects her ideas and emotions enough not to try and fully understand where they have come from. Instead, like our conversation fought through jet-lag and flu, she interprets the moments of crystallisation as the rarity. In some ways, it is anti-pop philosophy, believing emotions to be far from direct. Instead her interludes of clarity and realisation, as with life, are made occasional monuments in a bizarre hinterland.
Apocalypse, girl is released 8 June via Sacred Bones Records