Deconstructing Jenny Hval
“This is my last album,” says Jenny Hval over Zoom from her apartment in Oslo. She’s speaking about her forthcoming full-length, Classic Objects, although she doesn’t mean for the statement to be as final as it sounds. “I always feel that way about making art, by the way. It’s necessary for me to always feel like I’m not sure if I’m going to do anything again. That’s how I attach myself to a project. That’s how I get more brave with what I’m writing and how I’m performing it.”
This immersion in concept and execution has resulted in one of the most singular bodies of work in recent memory. Since 2011’s Viscera, Hval’s debut record under her own name, the Norwegian artist has made richly theoretical and compositionally challenging music. She’s created art pop about feminised body horror, and posited a rejoinder to creaky rockist machismo delightfully coined “soft dick rock”. Her work is sympatico, and often compared to, the fiction of Chris Kraus. She also writes like the feminist punk novelist Virginie Despentes, whose earliest and most famous novel, Baise-Moi, is a kind of rape revenge Bonnie and Clyde rewrite, with a pornographic and deeply French sensibility. It makes sense that Hval is also a writer of literary fiction (see 2020’s Girls Against God and 2018’s Paradise Rot). Her lyrics often take on the quality of a short story; in which women wrestle with their femininity and are fed up with feeling like submissive playthings, rejecting the masculine forces trying to turn them into housewives, girlfriends, gamines and ladies.
Take, for example, 2015’s Apocalypse, girl. Here, Hval wrote songs about ageing in a female body and feeling punished as a result. “Statistics and newspapers are telling me I am unhappy and dying/ That I need man and child to fulfil me,” she sang on That Battle is Over amidst sensual organ sounds and searching percussion. On her urgent 2016 record Blood Bitch, Hval homed in on blood of all kinds, especially period blood, and the feelings that come with seeing your body through the lens of someone else’s desires. Her most recent project, 2019’s The Practice of Love, was inspired by a 1985 Valie Export flick, and also namechecks Georgia O’Keeffe’s yonic flower paintings.
Classic Objects – her eighth solo album if you include her first two released as Rockettothesky – is a very different record; one that side-steps such heady conceptualising. Instead, it’s a work of direct storytelling positioned somewhere between heaven and ordering a coffee to-go, soundtracked by cavernous vocals and airy synth pads. If Blood Bitch is a baroque, picaresque novel about monsters, then Classic Objects is a lucid tale about the strangeness of the quotidian. It’s not exactly a work of realism – it’s far too freaky for that. Instead, these are ordinary stories taken more or less from Hval’s life, with some surreal images imbued where you least expect them: an empty bar that functions as a portal to the afterlife, or seeing spiders who show the way to an expanding universe.
© Ida Fiskaa
This unexpected and new direction was prompted by Hval’s own change in circumstances. Since the start of the pandemic, things have been quiet for the 41-year-old. She moved to a two-floor apartment in a more suburban part of Oslo, the city where she was born, and got a dog. Hval named the dog Cleo, after the protagonist in Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7. When we chat, Hval is upstairs in her office, where the walls look like they’re made of pine and the roof is slanted. There are lots of books. Cleo isn’t around during our call, but her presence is felt throughout our conversation. “I think she’s at the dog equivalent of finishing high school, wondering what to do with her life,” laughs Hval. “She’s in that phase where apparently dogs try to figure out whether they could go live elsewhere or whether they should stay with their owners. So it’s interesting. She loves everyone more than me.”
Having someone or something to look after can profoundly alter the way you view the world – it narrows it down for a start. For Hval, taking care of Cleo has changed the way she approaches her practice: “80 percent of my brain capacity was on the dog,” she jokes. “I think it allowed for a certain level of subconsciousness to [seep in]. There’s a different feel to the lyrics and arrangements of the songs. They’re gentler, a little more acoustic.” As a result, the lyrics and narratives on Classic Objects are less abstract. Everyday minutiae creeped into the record: stories about old roommates, eccentric artists, Australia (where she once studied Creative Arts at the University of Melbourne) or watching the movie La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc while hunched over with a UTI, which she sings about in American Coffee. There are also songs on the record that Hval says are stories that would end up in a boring Christopher Nolan sci-fi film (hello, Interstellar). These images that Hval draws on, however, are no less jarring or profound than her previous experiments with feminist exegesis. Likewise, the sounds on Classic Objects are quieter, roomier, more sparse. And yet simple would be the wrong word. The record’s minimalism – if you even want to call it that – is deceptive. Plotlessness and engineered boredom, after all, are radical narrative techniques.
“I wanted to write a more straightforward version of myself. I didn’t realise how much I’ve tried to avoid that in my previous work”
Ultimately, on Classic Objects, Hval is at her most transparent. “I wanted to write a more straightforward version of myself in my artistic voice,” she reveals. “I didn’t realise how much I’ve tried to avoid that in my previous work without knowing it. It was nice to have a confrontation with that, and try to, from that, make work that feels more spiritual.” Hval listened to a lot of devotional music as source material for Classic Objects. This meant Alice Coltrane and Sufi Qawwali music, but it also meant pop. “I see a lot of pop music as divergent,” she continues. “It has moments that are not super impressive, but moments where you want to say, ‘Wow, that chord change was beautiful.’”
A song like American Coffee is lush, full of revelatory chord shifts courtesy of ecstatic organs, church vocals and congas. They burst and bloom, and so do Hval’s lyrics. We meet her as a baby, in the arms of a midwife who remarks how scared she looks. And then we arrive at Hval in her 20s, getting a fine arts degree. She’s living with a bunch of nurses and they’re quoting Gilles Deleuze, a prominent French post-structuralist thinker, to her: “A concept is a brick/ It can be used to build a courthouse of reason/ Or it can be thrown through the window.”
© Ida Fiskaa
Turning French Theory into something that you can also sing and dance to might seem improbable, but Hval has form in this area. In a past life, as part of her master’s thesis, she explored Kate Bush lyrics as they were performed, instead of how they were written; how they were stretched, changed and manipulated. “It was very interesting to look at [the] transformation of texts in a musical context. How they sound different and more experimental than they’re given credit [for] when discussed as lyrics written on a page,” she says of her research. She applied a similar technique to philosophy and fiction. To understand the text, she’d set it to melody and give it a new purpose.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I needed to just sing through what I was reading.” A lot of this has to do with the fact that she often reads work that is not written in her native Norwegian. “In a situation when I just want to devour everything, because I’m infatuated with the language of a writer, I get a bit greedy. I forget that I need to understand every sentence to really follow.”
“I’m an artist who has been written about as subversive. What is that, though? I’m a person, I’m married. There are all of these normal things about me that don’t always make sense when I think about what I may seem like as an artist”
This obsession with language and synthesising ideas from multiple sources can be heard throughout her entire catalogue; she uses found objects in her work, but instead of say, a bidet if you’re Marcel Duchamp, she’ll airlift a phrase from Deleuze, or insert an image from a raunchy vampire movie. Or, more radical yet, she’ll just tell you a story about this time when someone proposed to someone else at one of her shows, a seemingly innocuous act that prompted a moment of self-reflection. “It was a really confrontational experience,” she says. “It made me face myself. I’m an artist who has been written about as subversive, provocative. But what is that, though? I’m a person, I’m married. There are all of these normal things about me that don’t always make sense when I think about what I may seem like as an artist.”
That proposal is the source material for Year of Love, the record’s opening track. “We were married on a rainy day,” she sings over prickly guitars and flickers of canned drums. “I wore black jeans and codeine/ I guess I wanted to make sure I seemed relaxed.” Later on Jupiter, she’s driving through the desert in west Texas, passing Prada Marfa, a sculptural art installation off the side of a highway, and an abandoned petrol station.
Lately, of course, Hval’s life has revolved mostly around home. “I feel like my world has been quite small,” she says of her life for the last two years. It’s unclear if she’s going to be able to tour Classic Objects due to the proliferation of the pandemic, so she’s been trying to work more visually. At the beginning of the pandemic, Hval and her band made videos of everyone washing their hands. This led to other visual experiments, most notably with Hval’s friend, the artist and writer Annie Bielski, who created the album cover and also contributed lyrics on the record’s title track. Hval’s interest in the visual world also extends to YouTube, which she finds fascinating. Especially videos that are over two hours long and review something – like that Jenny Nicholson video in which she ardently unpacks the intricacies of The Vampire Diaries franchise.
But back to the dog. It’s fitting that Hval named her new companion Cleo, especially because Classic Objects is an album that draws so heavily on everyday life. Essentially, Cléo from 5 to 7 is a movie in which nothing happens: Cléo goes to the diner. Cléo goes to the park. Cléo practises her singing. It’s a film about nothing in that nothingness is something that is rigorously conceptual. It comes down again to womanhood, and how there are certain projections placed on women – how so often women are expected to be so deliberately confessional. “That movie is about waiting. Cléo from 5 to 7 is like a better version of Waiting for Godot,” Hval laughs. “I just learned that in Beckett’s last will and testament he said that no women could ever be in that play.”
Classic Objects also asks: what if instead of offering up your whole soul and baring all your pain, you just tell everyone the most mundane bits? “Being stuck at home made me more interested in other parts of my life that I’ve not really talked about in my music,” she explains. “I really enjoyed taking myself down a bit as ‘a voice’ and doing something that was just me experiencing more personal things, and not trying to reference so much. There is something about this album that wants to reference differently – less searching for Georgia O’Keeffe and more dealing with the fact that I’m not her, I’m me!” And that’s what Classic Objects is: a record of little labours, about Jenny being Jenny in this weird time simply as it is.
Classic Objects is out on 11 March via 4AD
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