For the last 18 months, experimental songwriter Jenny Hval has performed songs from her latest album, Blood Bitch, across multiple continents, at massive outdoor festivals and tucked-away rock clubs, as a headlining act and as an opener for legacy bands like German industrialists Einstürzende Neubauten. Her music, which centers her voice and lyrics among a lattice of synthesizers and the occasional guitar, takes on additional dimensions onstage, where she’s often joined by collaborators like artists Zia Anger and Annie Bielski. Where some artists aim to dutifully recreate their studio compositions at their concerts, Hval sends her songs spinning off-kilter, opening new pockets of curiosity with her playful, often surreal performance style.
Along with her co-performers, Hval’s been known to don clown makeup, smear paint all over herself, roll around on an exercise ball, inflate and deflate pool animals, and wind fake intestines around her neck while onstage. The experience of seeing her show falls somewhere between watching Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle and watching kids playing at a lawn party; her stage worlds are absurd, colorful, and generally self-contained. You don’t need to be familiar with her music to tap into what she does live, which she often softly narrates as though she’s as perplexed by what’s happening as her audience. Each concert is a little different, and each tests the boundaries of what it means to be a musician or an audience member, what it means for human beings to interact within such routinely practiced structures.
Speaking on the phone from her home in Oslo, Hval discussed how her music and performance have evolved with rigorous touring, the liberation of collaborating with others, and what happens when you try to take a suitcase full of intestines through airport security.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’ve been touring with the same music for a while now. How have the songs from Blood Bitch evolved for you over the past year and a half?
JENNY HVAL: The music has changed quite a lot. I actually realized that I preferred repetition to improvisation, even though it sounds very cool to be free and improvised. With a lot of my stuff, I like having structure so that I can see what else is there. I can play around with what’s in the songs and find ways to develop them. If more stuff was improvised in the set, I think I’d have less of a good time figuring out what this material is and less time to actually think about what I wrote. I’ve had this amazing time transforming what I thought the music was about into something else, just thinking about what the lyrics mean, realizing that it changes with time and it changes with the context and with the audiences and with spaces and political climates. It’s so interesting to live with it. I think the world has such a great impact on what anyone does onstage. At least I have the songs so I have a starting point to communicate with the room. I’m not a trained musician. I highly respect people who are great improvisers, but I don’t think I’m one of them. I like to play around with stuff. That’s what I do with my lyrics, too. I go into the structures of the world and look at them.
What has revealed itself to you in your work recently?
I did originally think that I was making an album that was almost a found sound from the ’70s. I was really into sounds from analog synths made in the ’70s and a bunch of movies that were made in a specific political and artistic climate. But then playing it a lot in the now, I realized how much it is about the current time. Even a lyric like “Female Vampire,” I wanted to make it very much fictional, almost writing a story for it, a scene from a movie or something. But it could also be about wanting to be invisible on the internet, wanting to be less of a subject, wanting to be less self-representation-obsessed. I’ve been pulling 2017 out of 1974 and realizing that it’s easy.
What role does the audience play in the creation of your music in a live setting?
Playing live and being in an audience is a very intimate connection that you can’t really have with people in another context. The wonderful thing about the concert is you can look people in the eye. You’re not acting, although you’re definitely playing a part. I’m playing the artist within some kind of confines, which I’m always troubled about and always trying to explore. What is this thing called the music artist that is supposed to play these songs? What does it mean to be here? I talk a lot about this stuff onstage. I sing about it. I film the audience, so I get to see a lot of their reactions. I film them with my iPhone and I look at them as it’s happening. I’m sometimes trying to be the audience, even, trying to communicate like they do.
I think the audience contributions could be anything, from something very collective, like how they participate, whether they sit, stand, film, don’t film, wave at the camera or not. But it can also be conversations I have. Sometimes I meet people after the concerts. That also influences everything. When you tour, the concert is everything. It’s the only space in the day when you get to have a break from survival: the sleeping and the eating and the getting from A to B on time and that kind of thing. I feel very humbled when we play and people actually want to participate in my art. When they pay attention to my work, it’s a really rich experience for me. And it’s different every time. There are not always words for it. Maybe it’s a magical secret just between me and each audience that I can’t explain.
Have there been any specific moments of audience interaction that surprised you or challenged you in a specific way?
I’ve felt very welcomed in places where I didn’t have any specific expectations, like when a group of kids in a small town in Italy stood in the front row and loved pretty much everything at the festival I played. It was a lot of wild stuff and they just took it all in. It’s really an amazing experience to see really young people really, really enjoying this huge variety of music and being part of that. I’m not that good at memorizing stuff. It’s like I go somewhere when I play that I can’t take back with me. I tend to not really remember so much detail from shows. It’s like a secret place, or I just get very stupid.
It’s like a trance state. Your shows have that feel. Most artists tend to take advantage of the fact that they’re on a stage: they’re amplified, they’re addressing you from their pedestal. Your banter, so to speak, is very quiet and tends to draw the audience in.
Sometimes they can’t hear me. I do respect that position and what you can do with that, being big and amplified. But it would be weird of me to take that voice, because my art tries specifically to critique that spot, that easy hierarchy. I try to make myself smaller rather than bigger. I probably do both, because I do enjoy dynamics and I do enjoy loud sounds, so sonically I might be both places. But I really enjoy making myself smaller or even going offstage down to the audience, not necessarily to confront them but just to be someone other than the enlarged person. Everything is supposed to be so powerful, but most of the time, humans feel powerless in society. I want to contribute to that human dilemma.
You’ve experimented with different costumes and props and other accessories to the performance. What motivates you to cycle through those? At what point do you decide to pack up one set of costumes and move onto another?
This past year and a half has been a lot about collaborating with others. A lot of the stuff we’ve done has been collective ideas, or come from conversations that we’ve found really interesting. We’ve also worked with an amazing costume designer for some shows. You can be as amazing as you want with makeup and costumes, but there’s a very small budget and very little time. The whole thing is going to be more like a trash performance of clothes and strange makeup. I’m not very good at judging what is the best thing to do with costumes. I just like things that are comfortable, and I don’t want to look like I’m trying to be that big figure. I like to play with more relaxed scenarios, so I’ve worn a lot of suits that are comfortable to wear. I’ve also tried to experiment with having conversations and then trying to bring those ideas into some kind of physical form. Sometimes that involves inflatable things and deflating them onstage. Sometimes it’s trying to look dehumanized, or trying to look more human, because you have makeup on and it peels off. I like to change things. I’m more fond of changing something throughout a set than I am of dressing up as something. I prefer a costume that I can take off to a costume that looks great. Not to strip and be naked, but to strip from the costume, maybe use it as a prop, maybe put it somewhere, wear something else underneath. I like transformations. There’s been a lot of transformation experimentation onstage this year.
In one performance video, you literalize the album’s blood theme. You’re wearing a blood-red outfit and fake intestines coiled around your neck.
They’re extremely difficult to pack. We had a full suitcase. This is sometimes left out of interviews, but it’s really tough to travel with costumes. When people ask me, “Why didn’t you bring this and that?” it’s just because if I bring something that’s striking, I might have to pay a hundred bucks just to bring it on the plane. Sometimes it’s not practically possible to bring what you want. You have to strip everything down completely. I’m already doing that because I travel. I can’t bring most of the people I work with to America because of visas. Everything I do has practical limitations. That’s sometimes half the fun, but it’s definitely also a bit of a nightmare, especially with costumes.
I’m sure some of the things you’ve packed have raised eyebrows with security.
Yeah, and also sometimes people have stolen things. I should have told you this in the audience participation question, but in Vancouver, someone stole several bits of costumes.
Do you think they wear them now?
I hope they do.
That’d be a good way of carrying the performance into the world.
Yeah. It was a really nice wig that was stolen, but if the wig’s happy now, it’s OK.
Beyond touring, where has your work been focused lately?
I feel like I’m doing everything. A lot of it I’d prefer to talk about when I know what it is. I can’t really talk about stuff that’s so unfinished, because that’s just going to be very confusing. But I’ve done a lot of stuff. I’m going to be at my artist friend Constance Tenvik‘s exhibition, wearing this really strange knight’s armor. It’s a really nice, very absurd costume, and I’ll be performing a little bit. I’ll also be in one of her films. I’ve been part of other people’s absurd art projects, as much as doing my own stuff. It’s amazing to jump into other people’s work. When you’ve done so much of your own, I think it’s really necessary.
Is it freeing to be put into that new context?
It’s liberating to look inside other people’s brains. Instead of thinking that I need to do my stuff this way, I can think, “Ah! I’ve just set these rules for myself and I could do it more this other way.” Constance is a visual artist, but she makes films and in those films she works with sound in a way I really like.
I can see that — your work is fairly multidisciplinary.
I don’t see myself as a multidisciplinary artist so much. I don’t really mind that other people say it, but I would never say that my work is performance art or visual art or anything. I’m more from a subcultural music background and just interested in a lot of different things. It’s more messing around in other people’s disciplinary work.
Does it take some of the pressure off you to work the way you do in a music context as opposed to a fine arts context?
Yeah, but there’s room for that even within a visual arts context. Maybe it needs someone to come in and have a very different way of using visual elements. That can be nice to see in a museum: someone who hasn’t learned the parameters of good and bad art, for example. It can be really refreshing. There’s always a need for the bastards in arts communities.
Do you feel that your own work hovers around the line between good and bad art? Is that a boundary that interests you?
I’m very interested in going back to my own education from the very beginning, how much I’ve learned about what’s good and what’s bad, and trying to understand why. And also understanding the structural part of it, looking at my curriculum from high school and the books we read and the explanations we got for why this author is great, and me never understanding why. I just remember I was very often angry at books because I didn’t like them and we were told that they were so good. The classics and all that. I’m interested in the choices made. There’s a selection of art that you learn about, but even at university level, there’s so much that is omitted. I studied film for a long time and it’s really interesting to look back at which films we learned were the greatest and which films they never mentioned. That kind of thing sometimes sneaks into my work, wanting to look again at the stuff that slips through the cracks. Maybe I identify with it.
You’ve spoken about Spanish horror filmmaker Jess Franco and how his work informed Blood Bitch. He made his movies for the sake of making them, not to make a bid for some kind of canon.
With Jess Franco, there’s a link for me to pop concerts, the low-budget version. I always feel like I have ideas, but I execute them on a super low budget, and so did he. The artificial nature of things that are low budget is so interesting. It’s really fake, and that sometimes makes it more real. It goes against what you’ve learned. If you think of movies, you’ve learned that a certain type of thing is realistic, like perfect costumes and effects. With Jess Franco films, all the rooms that they film in, even if they’re supposed to be offices or hospitals, they’re hotel rooms most of the time. It all looks makeshift. I could see the reality behind the film, which is more real than the fiction of the film. You’re dealing with a construction of reality in film, and different films and budgets have different ways of presenting reality, voluntarily or involuntarily. They care or they don’t. For me, that was like, “Yes! That is my stage! I don’t care if it looks fake.” You have the opportunity to focus more on a really strong idea, especially if it’s an idea that works within that budget parameter.
Do you see the stage as an arena for the construction of a kind of fiction?
I like to work with technology that way. I’ve started using video. Rather than make things that look great and are very technically advanced, I like to use technology in the same way as the audience. Or maybe those people in the audience who are least likely to do a lot of stuff on the computer. Just everyday stuff like surfing the internet, Google searches, choosing an emoji. It’s a space in our lives that we don’t really discuss. I was thinking about this when I filmed myself trying to choose an emoji for an email. This is something that millions of people spend time on every day, and we never talk about it. Why do we choose this emoji? It’s super simple stuff, but there’s always something interesting in it. I’ve been struggling with this for all of my career, how to present this process that is sometimes much more personal than the result. It’s so musical how you type something. And the doubts. There’s constant deletion, trying a new word, erasing it. I just love the opportunity to show something like that. It’s music to me.
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