Soft Serve

Norwegian singer Jenny Hval talks about her dreamy “Apocalypse, girl.”

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The album cover for "Apocalypse, girl" which the New Yorker described as "experimental folk music, which resists the rhythmic and melodic efficiencies of chart pop in favor of something stranger."
  • The album cover for "Apocalypse, girl" which the New Yorker described as "experimental folk music, which resists the rhythmic and melodic efficiencies of chart pop in favor of something stranger."

Will 2015 be remembered as the year of “dad bods” and “soft dick rock”?

Probably not, thankfully – though some middle-aged guys may not see them as altogether horrific trends. (Certainly not on the apocalyptic warning level of say, Donald Trump and his pet pigeon Lucas Don Velour, leading the polls).

Norwegian musician Jenny Hval has been getting a lot of press for her music and for exploring unusual questions such as “what is soft dick rock” and other gender/power roles on her latest release, the dreamy and crisis-driven “Apocalypse, girl.”

Hval’s light and airy vocals float, and sometimes stab, above atmospheric synth loops and collaborators including Øystein Moen (Jaga Jazzist/Puma), Thor Harris (Swans), improv cellist Okkyung Lee and harpist Rhodri Davis. The resulting deconstructed pop is almost cinematic, like a feverish Ingmar Bergman scene (or more influential to this album “Safe” by Todd Haynes) -- both directors whom she loves.

Hval, 34, has a background in sound installation art and as a journalist who has written a novel. She's a candid interview subject (my opening question, "how are you?" was met with an honest "I'm sorry . . . I can't answer that in an interesting way.") She started out in a goth metal band and her music still provokes; though it finds her more in that unruly lineage of Yoko Ono, Meredith Monk and PJ Harvey.

Style spoke with her by phone before her performance in Richmond on Friday at Strange Matter (she’s also playing at Hopscotch in Raleigh on Thursday night at midnight at King's Barcade).

Style Weekly: Your lyrical imagery moves from big questions to highly personal ones and you seem very in touch with your subconscious. I wonder if, like director David Lynch who uses meditation, you have any techniques or preferences during the writing process?

Jenny Hval: I’ve never tried meditation. I don’t think that I’ve ever really thought about what I do in that way. It is an interesting way to bring it up. The more I do, the more I realize that what I need to do when writing something worthwhile, I kind of need to get into quite an intense but still open state of mind. Explaining how is kind of self-helpy. I don’t think that’s the way I think about life in general. It’s not a technique or way of living. It just takes time.

So when I write sometimes it means I watch TV for two weeks and feel awful, you know? Watching TV for two weeks is like not taking a shower, you’re just dirty. And your life is total garbage but then suddenly something clicks into place. I’m sure if you did meditation you would not have to do that kind of shit. But I find that doing nothing or as little as possible for a while can be a good thing. Maybe because I tour so much and I deal very poorly with the transition, with coming off tour. It’s very hard to come off this intense lifestyle of moving around a lot to being very still.

But it can be good to feel really empty. And then there’s something there anyway. Something that you didn’t feel like came from anywhere particularly -- more like it appeared. I prefer poetry to self-help books. It helps me much more.

A lot of the song titles on this album use religious terms; and I understand you grew up in Norway’s version of the Bible belt but with atheist parents. What do you think of the Bible belt in this country?

I am really interested by the South; meeting people who have grown up in or near the Bible belt of America. I’ve bonded with a few people or met a few people that have become friends, having grown up in similar backgrounds. They haven’t continued a religious lifestyle or spiritual path even though they grew up in it, watching it from the outside. Really, I’m interested in the ways religion is linked with capitalism, especially.

Whenever we go to places on tour with a lot of Jesus [imagery] or messages – I’m always out with my iPhone taking pics like crazy. I kind of love it. These messages are so far removed from the spiritual world but yet so preachy. It’s really sad but interesting. Very apocalyptic – this landscape of words.

I never felt like [religion] was a big part of my childhood until I came to America and realized I had sort of left it all behind. Due to my proximity to religion, I was excluding all kinds of religious stuff from my work. That’s probably what I did growing up. I was always excluding stuff that had anything to do with what Christians were interested in – which is pretty horrible. I think returning to why I avoided things, that fear of getting too close to Bible people, that was interesting to revisit with this album. Playing with words that have religious connotations and come from religious context – was very interesting. But it’s still all seen from the outside.

The New Yorker review called your music “experimental folk.” Is that how you would ever describe it?

Well, I haven’t read [the article]. No offense to any writers. I don’t tend to read interviews or reviews. I don’t keep up with what other people write so much. Especially because at the time when my album came out – I was busy with so many interviews and I’d rather focus on people I’m speaking with. I think I will read it at some point but I need to get a copy of the actual magazine. Someone is saving me one.

No, I would never call it experimental folk. I don’t think it has anything to do with any kind of folk. I’d rather say pop music, no experimental needed. Experimental I find is something . . . that can be in the mainstream as well. For example, in a lot of hip hop, there are elements … But experimental is more like an attitude. I would rather say I make pop music. I work with melody. Saying its pop music isn’t limiting anything. It’s an easier way to stop thinking about labels. I used to be more interested in naming my music. But I never have, really – a name is just a name, anyways.

My music isn’t “soft dick rock” either though some have said that.

Now that you brought up the most famous lyric from this album, I wondered if you’ve heard the phrase “dad bod” which also came into vogue briefly this year?

Yes I have. Well, that’s what’s interesting and necessary about getting older. You really get to explore and see through the stuff that is being thrown at you in the media and culture industry. A lot of images that we see every day are purely about fear. The youth cult stuff: The obsession with young, strong bodies. Young girls, etc. etc. It’s all about fear and power. Exploring that, I never tire of finding links between creativity and fear. Images of fear have always been really interesting to me.

I feel like I can have more to say about it now then maybe ten years ago – I’m a little bit more detached. I don’t care so much. I’ve become very interested in how the “soft” represents fear of death; failed sexuality with the soft dick. Sometimes people laugh at it and just think it’s a joke reference, which it is – but it’s more than that. And that’s why people react to it. Because they kind of have to take this in their mouths and say “soft dick.” I’ve given it to them and they have to chew on it like, I don’t know, a religious sacrament, like what do you call them, a biscuit (laughs). Anyway, having people confront fear a little bit. There is something sad about the soft parts of bodies.

Traveling through this country, I keep seeing gyms – people running, getting fit, people doing exercises in the park, in the most public places ever. I just walked by somebody doing a crazy routine, taking up a lot of space. This stuff is crazy to me -- this showing off of the toned body. I mean, in Norway we have focus on health, it’s called awareness of different diseases – but also its just creating fear. If you eat this you will die of cancer, this kind of news story. All of this is part of something bigger that can feel like fascist ideology. So I like to explore this stuff and put it in an emotional landscape.

I’m not very good with technology – making electronic music and using the Internet and stuff like that. But I’m good at working with ideas that we see everyday and have to deal with. Not the way technology sends us images everyday but how we have to process them and the content.

Who will be playing with you on the East Coast?

That’s a special part of the tour – I’ll have more people with me. At the moment we’re a duo, me and a synth/sample/electronics musician. On the east coast we’ll meet up with visual team behind the album cover and video. So they’ll be onstage with me and occasionally other people – it will be more like a colorful performance of a visual piece. But I love both versions.

Does this album translate well live? Do the rooms make a big difference?

I feel like I’ve played almost everywhere. I’ve been playing a long time. Never been a very picky live performer. I’ve really tried it all. I have things I prefer. My music isn’t loud. Sometimes it’s dynamic and loud in parts … but when we play in pubs I kind of need to be louder to be heard. I just hope the parts of the audience that prefer to hear what I’m doing will try to get an experience from it anyway.

Sometimes I might hear some chatting in a bar situation and I don’t try to compete with that. Though I do try to talk to it sometimes. Sometimes I’ll put in a lyric -- if I hear a conversation – I’ll try to answer that conversation between the lines of my own song. I find that really interesting to try to engage the room. I have a lot of aggression in my music. I think sometimes its good to feel like I’m having to challenge myself in terms of the room. Try to make the room a bit different. But I never feel like I have to translate anything [musically]. That’s really more of a question for the audience.

Did you hear there’s a new female Viagra pill?

Oh yeah, yeah, congrats everybody! Finally they did it.

Jenny Hval performs with Briana Marela and Blanks at Strange Matter on Friday, Sept. 12. Show starts at 9 p.m. $10. 18 and up.

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