Jenny Hval’s Soft Apocalypse

“Maybe the weirdest thing I could do is to write an album with normal lyrics, without mentioning any genitals,” Hval says, or almost sings, on the other side of the telephone line. “Maybe I will do that.” Her soft English –along with her almost non-existing Norwegian accent- sounds like she wrote the words, before speaking them out loud. They sound like lyrics, poetry or literary or journalistic fragments. But still her answers to my questions are far from prepared: Jenny Hval considers her words like she is writing lyrics right on the spot. It isn’t hard to imagine that the Norwegian writer, composer and singer took a big share of her lyrics from the conversations she has had. Listening to the noise on the telephone line between Amsterdam and Oslo, some of her answers wouldn’t sound bad on vinyl. Maybe accompanied by some synthesizers, organs or drums, like on her last album Apocalypse, girl.

Her voice, the provoking and at the same time extremely intimate words she’s uttering, are what her music is all about. Hval doesn’t play any instrument – or, not very well anyway: she’s not interested in skills, but in the message that she expresses with her music. And that meaning is what’s hiding behind her alternative poppy sound. Despite her frustrations about the technical side of music, her last three albums (released under her own name) and two albums before those, like Rockettothesky, sound like a mix between Kate Bush, Björk and Diamanda Galás.

Those names remind me of when I was a five-year-old girl working on what can now only be described as the starting point of my writing career. Because my mom used to play Björk and Kate Bush records so often while I was making little storybooks, when I heard the first sounds of Apocalyspe, girl, I couldn’t resist comparing Hval to those two legendary women. Just like with their music, Hval’s risky lyrics questions. The lyrics question the feminist vision, the backgrounds, personality and influence of the Norwegian word artist, singer and composer.

“I’m six or seven and dreaming that I’m a boy,” she sings in the song Sabbath.“I felt tight against supple, cool against hot, wires and skin. I’ve always been like this.” She didn’t make that up: “When I was very young I was always looking inwards; in the quietness I discovered myself and the world. I read books, made covers for videos and books and pretended to have my own library or video library. Writing is something that I’ve always practiced: that drive has always been here, I had to write.”

By traveling a lot, Hval became more conscious of how lucky she was for growing up in a liberal country with parents that have a huge interest in music. Her father made her listen to his records of “very weird” artists like Anette Peocock, Diamanda Galás and the Dead Kennedys, but also to The Doors and Jimmy Hendrix. “As a child you don’t wonder what you like and what you don’t like: loving something derives from curiosity. I remember being surprised when I found out that all those different pop music elements came from different (musical) worlds. For a long time I just experienced music, without knowing where it came from or what it was.”

“Capitalism made everyone into an artist”

In the meantime, Hval found her own unique and wilful sound, that (according to Hval herself) derives from her lack of knowledge about the technical side of music. “It makes me approach music in a different way, and that makes me into a different kind of composer.” This is why her music emphasizes her voice.

In contrast to her last albums, Apocalypse, girl is much less focused on the theme of sex (gender) and more on social issues, from a female viewpoint, and on existing in a capitalist society. “Thanks to social media, capitalism made everyone into an artist. That is a violation of the freedom of expression and the freedom of artistry – something that’s good and bad at the same time. Artistic expressions have changed in a way to show your identity, as seems to be the case with pop music.”

“I always saw myself as a subordinate, alternative artist”

Hval has always had a large amount of freedom. “I have worked with small labels; my music doesn’t make much money. I saw myself as a subordinate, alternative artist, but felt less and less comfortable with that image.” To make more music, she had to let go of her last albums and projects, just like she had to let go of the ideas she had about herself. The working title of her fifth album turned out to be very appropriate: Ruining my Reputation.

For the rupture of her reputation she had to dig deep into her past, where she discovered autobiographical lyrics. “I used to find that very cliché, but it’s so pure, so transparent and everything that I have done so far has also been done by others. Apocalyspe, girl is more about me than it is about musical history.” But musically she also tried to renew herself: “I really got into some unknown (for me at least) styles, like gospel and soul. I grew up in a religious, conservative part of Norway; I was looking for elements that were completely separate from my work to see what would happen when I had to fight them instead of avoid them.”

Music versus film and literature
One element of her studies at the university of Melbourne was directing films. “For a while I really thought I could become a film director, but I found out that I wasn’t confident enough.” She dropped out of the practical part and started to focus on writing. And where does she think her musicality comes from? “I have never studied music, but it became a way of processing everything I learned.” She wrote about philosophers and theories, took fragments from books and films and added music and sounds to them. In that way she could kill two birds with one stone: “I absorbed more of the literature that I read, and taught myself to produce music at the same time.”

“Literature to me is when words evoke some kind of emotion which makes you lose contact with the material or the medium; when words reveal images or emotion that don’t exist outside of the paper.” Her favourite forms of literature are art catalogues, the walls of toilets, and graffiti: “It depends on the context, but literature can be everywhere, even on the back of a bad DVD.”

What music has, that lyrics and images don’t, is a hard question, according to Hval. “A story is an experience. Sometimes when I read a book or watch a film, I can still feel emotions that before that moment I didn’t even know existed.” That effect comes, according to Hval, from the difference between the used media. “Music has the power to express complex subjects in a simple way: you can put elements from literature, visual art and life in it. The result is that you can musically express yourself without being a real musician.” Music is a simpler, much more reduced world than the world of images, says Hval. “I like the intersection, I don’t really need to show myself. You can express very intimate subjects very directly in that way.”

Kate Bush and Björk
Despite not studying music, she wrote her master thesis on Kate Bush. But by analysing that music, it never became a conscious source of inspiration. “I think that it wouldn’t be a good sign if that were to be true. I always feel flattered, but what fascinated me was how she created poetry with her voice, with the lyrics she already had.”

When I ask her if it was actually true that Björk and PJ Harvey were sources for inspiration, she tells me that she might not be the best person to judge that; “It is much easier to hear those kinds of things in someone else’s work. My music is a mix of many artists that you would never expect to have inspired me.” She wonders if I remember that she said that children don’t know what they do or don’t like. “Inspiration has nothing to do with what you like, it is much more of a subconscious process. I don’t make music to identify myself with other voices –I like to steal from them, something I do very explicitly sometimes, but those are not always the artists that I have listened to a lot.”

Writing news articles
Apart from that, her lyrics mostly come from conversations. Which audience does she want to reach with those lyrics? “Writing ‘That Battle is Over’ felt like I was writing a news article, I tried to reach everyone and anyone. In other tracks I reach out to a fictitious conversational partner.” The beautiful thing of microphones is that you can reach strangers with them, in an intimate way, like she’s reaching me now through the telephone with her melodious voice. “Because you don’t know in what way people listen to your music – at home, alone, with headphones, or in a crowd – you never know to whom you’re singing. That indefinable element is something you can’t avoid.”

“Sometimes I feel alone in my choice of words”

Apocalyspe, girl is less about feminism than the last albums, but Hval is still wondering how people in this world can’t write or think about feminism. “It’s too big of a part of our existence to just call it a theme.” The way in which she sings and speaks alludes to a certain perspective, a certain freedom in the way she uses her words, even with this album. “Sometimes I feel alone in my liberality with words, and how I use them. Other artists have that freedom as well, but in other ways.”

No soft dick rock
Another “theme” is softness. “In our culture softness means dying, getting older. But it shouldn’t mean that: it also has to do with love.” We’re living in a time in which softness is seen as a negative thing and in which success and growth are important, according to Hval. “The soft dick has become a symbol of a failed human existence and failed capitalism. It’s loss, disease, failure, physical weakness.” It could be a poem, but she’s already continuing. “Dealing with pain instead of healing it, that’s softness.

Different media write that Hval calls her own music soft dick rock. “That’s ridiculous! I would never call my music that.” She repeats the words soft dick rock, this time even more sensitive and slower. “It was meant as a joke. If you Google soft dick you get different images than when you Google soft cock. So it also has to do with choice of words, some words imply weakness, some imply power. The world is incredibly distorted.”

If you’re hungry you have to eat
In one interview Hval said she sometimes feels embarrassed for the lyrics she writes. I ask her if she finds it difficult to talk about them. “Not at all! It is actually more interesting if something is embarrassing: it gives a reason to talk. People should talk about awkwardness. It is like being hungry: you got to eat.”

She’s never afraid to write something, and is curious what the reactions would be if she would start writing normal, boring lyrics, that don’t have anything to do with intimacy or genitalia. “Maybe that is the weirdest thing I could do”, she says after a little pause. “Maybe I’m going to do just that.”

Politics and complex love stories
Now that she has translated her own life to music and left the feminist approach behind, I am curious what Hval’s next step will be. Is there still something that she would like to write about? “Politics”, she answers immediately, “but I don’t know how I could do that in music. Actually there are so many subjects of which I haven’t really discovered how to convert them to easily sung lyrics– not in the way that they would be embarrassing, but more the opposite. There has to exist an urge to write about something, something should be read and heard.” Complex love stories for adults is also something she would like to try. She just doesn’t have a clue how to do it. “Too many other writers know how to. Oh and I would like to get more into surrealistic writing techniques to see where that leads.”

The things we will see, hear and read from Jenny Hval in the future will be a surprise. Her tour through Europe is the most exciting thing she did up to now in her career, but the people that saw her should realize they were lucky. The Norwegian won’t be performing in that way anymore, despite being very happy that so many people came to her shows. “I will always want to continue doing new things and keep developing myself.” The same is true about her writing process. “I will keep searching for the future, to things that already exist, but that are unknown to me.”