If you haven’t gotten on board with JENNY HVAL yet, it’s probably about time you sorted yourself out and got around to it. The Norwegian musician has established herself as one of the most intense and inquisitive creative voices about at the moment, exploring gender, sexuality and modern life across six albums (two under the name ROCKETTOTHESKY, two collaborative albums and two under her own name) and two Norwegian language books, Perlebryggeriet (2009) and Inn iansiktet (2012). In the wake of the release of her truly outstanding latest album, Apocalypse, girl, we at NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION thought it would only be fitting to confront this prolific artist with some music and videos – art in any form. Enjoy the extensive piece about sexuality, submissiveness and surrealism right here.
01. David Bowie – ‘Boys Keep Swinging’
‘I’m six or seven, and I’m dreaming that I am a boy’ is the opening line of Sabbath, the second single off Apocalypse, girl. Boys Keep Swinging is, on the surface, an ode to the wild freedoms of being a young man. It’s an awful lot more complex, though, especially when you consume it along with its cross-dressing, lipstick-smearing video. Do you have any theories on what point Bowie is trying to make here? Is he critiquing the cult of young malehood? Or is he trying to do anything other than blur and confuse?
Lodger is certainly an interesting album, but I’ve never loved this song. The melody and structure feels a bit generic, and I’ve always preferred Look Back In Anger’s more furious energy. Crossdressing video, sure. But that is also quite surface level to me. Perhaps the standardised rock song format was saying something about stereotypes and gender? Didn’t Bowie say that Boys was about gender colonization?
The lyrics remind me of something I think I read in Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’ The Sex Revolts – that in rock there was a place where men could explore femininity (Somehow it seems to have changed, doesn’t it? I feel like more vocalists exploring gender roles now are female). Boys could keep swinging… But within this set structure, of course. That said, I love that the old lady backup singer (Bowie in drag) at the end doesn’t take her wig off. She just sends us a kiss.
I got cable TV in the mid-to late 80s when there was so much androgyny in mainstream music – a lot more capitalist driven than in 1979. But things like KATE BUSH as a young boy in Cloudbusting was like Alice in Wonderland for me. So the word ‘boy’ to me didn’t signify the male gender (GIRL was another story). This non-male gender meaning of the word ‘boy’ is probably what I was thinking when I wrote Sabbath. It starts out as a ‘Boys keep swinging when they are girls’, and then it gets more complex and looks at sexuality from that fluid-gender child’s perspective.
02. FKA Twigs – ‘Water Me’
It’s a simple concept, but I still get unnerved by this video. There’s just something about the slow, almost imperceptible, warping and distortion of a human face that’s a bit weird, almost an uncanny valley effect. What’s your take on it? What do you think of FKA TWIGS’ music? It’s part of a new wave of music that’s a blend of producer style glitches and beats and pop.
I find all the FKA TWIGS videos wonderful, you just can’t stop watching them and so much attention is given to the movement of the music, it’s delicacy and aggressive energy all mixed up. I can’t really hear the songs outside of their produced context and the videos. Perhaps the melodies and lyrics don’t jump out at me as much as their texture and energy, but the more I listen, the more I love and admire this quality. She is exquisite, delicate and also wildly confronting because she dives into complex gender and philosophical territory. She deals with delicacy, intimacy and vulnerability, pairing it with images that could be interpreted as submissive (the muscular man putting his fingers down her throat in Papi Pacify, the manipulation of her face in this one). But she also creates a world that is wonderfully fantastical. She as an artist, even when she appears beautifully shot in her videos, remains a work of art. I can’t objectify her. This is truly extraordinary. To me this song and video is about dealing with desire and rejection, creating images that are both beautiful, frightening, real and unreal.
03. Maya Deren – ‘Meshes Of The Afternoon’ (1943)
Meshes of the Afternoon is a surrealist short film by Maya Deren that you cited as an inspiration for your collaborative album (Meshes of Voice) with Susanna Wallumrød. What about the film appeals to you?
I didn’t see this film until the year before we made Meshes of Voice, 2008, but when I started watching it I realised I’d seen literally a ton of images and films that were inspired by it or taken from it. My first reflex was anger, because I was stunned by how wonderful it was, and I’d studied film for years and no one had even told me about this film or written one sentence about it in all the books I’d read. And still I’d seen so much material from it everywhere – like the amazing image of the person wearing a hooded cloak and instead of a face there is a face-shaped mirror.
Anyway, the film was instantly music in my head, the use of repetition, the use of everyday scenes and objects turning into something frightening. Surrealism can be using everyday life through a pedalboard of effects. Which is what we did with Meshes of Voice, really. Our music is not something that could have been played alongside this film, I don’t think it’s that related in tempo or atmosphere, but some of its language is definitely in there.
04. The Velvet Underground – ‘The Gift’
Literature is a big part of your work. This is one of my favourite mixtures of literature and music. Have you heard it before? What are your thoughts on it?
I have to admit this song, even if it is a journey and even if I LOVE John Cale, is something other people had to play me – I never went out and looked for it. It’s great to listen to but when I think of literature and music, I think of things that aren’t ‘meetings’ between literature and music, but literature which exists because of music. ANNETTE PEACOCK’s voice on songs like My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook or Elect Yourself.
I listened to her from I was a kid because my dad is a fan, and I kept listening to her voice. A few years ago I played her music to my boyfriend, who once reluctantly studied jazz guitar at Berklee, and he was really surprised that I had been listening to this 80s jazz fusion music. And it’s true, 80s jazz fusion is possibly my least favourite type of music IN THE WORLD, but ANNETTE PEACOCK has been my exception because her voice (not to mention lyrics and how she phrases the words!) is so entrancing that I really don’t hear whatever’s playing along with her. I never noticed the fusion.
05. Carl Sandburg – ‘Fog’
You mentioned before that you this was one of the first poems you’d ever heard as a recording before in an interview, and it made a big impact on you. What draws you to it?
This is a poem that places a big importance on the sounds of the words, the spring of the sentence. Are you interested in the sound made by certain words and sentences? Is it something you try and explore in your own work?
I had a copy of the CD-ROM Encarta 96 back in the day and I used to sit and read articles on my parents’ computer – I’ve always loved encyclopedias (and dictionaries, and atlases). And there were some sound clips in these articles – this was pretty ancient technology so they were short and sweet – and some of them were poets reading their own poems. The Sandburg poem and the way he read it was a real poetic awakening for me. Not just because the specific recital made me hear and understand the words so well compared to reading, but because of the way he used rhythm, melody and syllables to create vocal architectures. I listened to it over and over, I love looping pieces of speaking voices.
Another huge thing for me was the sound quality itself, the way this old hissing recording gave the voice a ghostlike feeling. It added layers of fog to the poem. Probably enhanced by the horrible sound quality of 1996 compressed sound files. Good old Encarta.
06. Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac Trailer (2013)
In an interview a few years back you referred to a line from your song A Cute Lovesong, Please (‘When you think of me do you masturbate? I want to know that I can make a man ejaculate’) and said: ‘A lot of female artists pose like they are saying, ‘When you think of me, do you masturbate?’, but of course, when I actually sing it, I break the illusion, and people react in a very different way’. In the same interview you mentioned the films of Lars Von Trier, who is a director who encounters a lot of controversy for how sexually explicit his films are, especially Nymphomaniac. Do you think there’s a similar factor in play here? Society expects people to hint and imply rather than depict baldly?
I sound a bit silly in this old interview. I must have been inside some kind of academic cocoon because I make it sound as if to pose or be sexy always means to be owned by a male gaze, as if all women or artists who portray their bodies without addressing it directly lose power. I’m trying not to reduce things to power relations now, that’s just too depressing.
I find that I haven’t really encountered a lot of controversy for writing so-called explicit lyrics, perhaps because they aren’t very explicit – I mean, the way tabloids or reality shows or whatever depict people are so much more explicit. I think a lot of music that uses body imagery, or sexual references, is doing so to try to deal with the ongoing reduction of humanity in mainstream media and our daily lives. Some people may find us, or me, perverse, for speaking so directly about bodies and sexuality, but it makes me want to ask “have you ever seen a film, or read a book, or had a weird dream?” because we are all perverse, natural beings.
I haven’t seen Nymphomaniac, I don’t know if I can take it, but I love, love, love Melancholia. The true apocalypse(,) girls.
07. Jenny Hval – ‘Apocalypse, girl Trailer’
Why produce an album trailer? It’s something more and more people are doing now. What can it provide that previewing an album with selected singles cannot? What were you and Zia Anger (filmmaker, director of videos for Hval and ANGEL OLSEN and member of Hval’s touring band) aiming for in this trailer?
To be perfectly honest, this wasn’t my idea. I didn’t know that trailers for albums were being made, I haven’t paid much attention to how albums are rolled out because this is the first time I’m working with a label press strategy. But I was really happy that we could do a trailer, it can be an interesting way to get a glimpse of what the album (not individual songs) feels like and it can be much more grassroots than a music video, very easily made. It can be any moment of music from an album, whereas singles are often chosen for their individual qualities. I love having the trailer because the album is so much inspired by film and film sound.
Zia Anger did a photo shoot for the cover art in December last year, and she chose to work with film stills, so there was a lot of material just lying there, waiting to be used. For the trailer, she put together scenes that had been inspired by religious ecstasy and epileptic fits – the girls in the shoot watched a lot of Benny Hinn videos to prepare and also Zia had made a (gorgeous!) short film about epilepsy last year so that had been inspiring for me too when making the album. So we wanted to put this footage to the most eerie soundtrack, the spoken-word opening track Kingsize. And we wanted to end it with my question: ‘What is soft dick rock?’ A question which I will leave unanswered.