Jenny Hval's Innocence Is Kinky is one of the strangest pop records released this year, and perhaps one of the most slept-on. You'd think that starting your record by whispering, “That night, I watch people fucking on my computer,” might turn a few heads? In places, her sound seems to fit alongside the immaculate but off-kilter melodies of American artists like Julianna Barwick or Julia Holter. But her music is just as likely to disrupt itself with jagged bursts of electric guitar as it is to settle into some uncanny, angelic coo. That it was recorded with the help of John Parish, best known as P.J. Harvey's long-time band member and producer, makes a perfect sort of sense.
Tonight, the Oslo-based songwriter and her band perform their first live show in New York City at Manhattan's Mercury Lounge. Tomorrow, Brooklyn gets its turn when they play Glasslands in Williamsburg. We talked to Hval as she prepped for the much-anticipated U.S. dates, finding time to rehearse in a schedule filled with conceptual sound installations and experimental choir projects. She fretted over the expectations of American audiences, explained how her love of the spoken voice influenced the choices she made on her record, and made a very important point about the danger nostalgia poses to modern art.
Did you have any visa troubles getting into the US?
We didn’t have any trouble. I know lots of people who’ve had trouble. It’s just very hard, that’s all. Some people travel without visas. More underground artists have to because it’s so hard to organize to get a visa, and it kind of requires you to work with professional people. It makes it a lot easier to have someone in the industry to help you out, and not everybody has that. But it’s such a big rush for American audiences, that bands outside of the industry can come and play. It’s something that Norwegian musicians are always talking about. [mock grave tone] “The U.S. Visa.” Endless conversations.
Is your band still performing as a trio at this point?
Yup. A trio—guitars and synthesizers and drum kit and me. I guess we tend to do a bit of unusual stuff, but that’s not a very uncommon arrangement. When you have a band with just three people in it and you want a big variety of sounds to fit with different music pieces, then you kind of have to make a lot of really strange things happen, unorthodox use of instruments. So we’ve been doing that.
Listening to the latest record, it's almost hard for me to imagine a band getting those ideas across. The feeling seems really direct and solitary. How does having a group of people up there broadcasting those ideas change it, as opposed to just being the work of a solo performer?
I think the live show is pretty similar to the record. At least that’s what people say. I think what we try very hard to do is keep the very spontaneous and at the same time very dynamic structures of the music. It’s more interesting, I find, to play live rather than just make everything more stereotypical to just make it work. To kind of trust this impulsive urgency in the music. I think as long as we do that, it will sound quite similar in some way to the album. There’s always fun things that can happen. Different rooms and sounds and audiences and all that between song stuff.
I just heard from somebody last night that U.S. audiences expect you to talk between songs. “They really want people to talk??” Is that true?
I mean, there are plenty of artists who prefer not to. I think a good live performance can sort of cast a spell that you might not want broken.
It was just a funny comment. It sounded very mainstream to me. Very sort of “entertainer”-ish. I’ve seen so many American bands who don’t say a word. So I was thinking maybe this is not really so necessary.
Did you ever think that they had Norwegian friends who told them that your audiences expect them to be silent?
You’ve done a lot of sound installations in galleries. What do you think the main difference is for a person attending something like that, versus a pop music concert? Do you think it is just a matter of expectations?
Well it really just depends on the sound installation. With the pop concert it really just depends on the venue. Also it depends on whether the sound installation is played through regular speakers or is kind of more like an adventure. When I started doing sound installations I had very distinct expectations of myself. I thought, “Oh, I have to stop writing melodies. I have to do something stuffy, because a sound installation is when you come into a room and something is just blasting.” I couldn’t really do that, so I just made sound pieces that I found interesting and then played them in a quite traditional way, I guess. Found a way to put up speakers and found a way to make the room interesting for it. So, it kind of worked that way.
Actually, last week I did a sound piece at a conference where I was physically present, it was kind of a lecture, but on a tape, like a cassette tape. That was really great because on a big old Walkman you can adjust the speed. And that’s really cool...unless they run out of batteries. That was really interesting for me to do something where I was present as in a concert, but I didn’t say a word. I was just playing on these tapes. That was nice because it had that presence that you really expect from a concert, but at the same time it had the focus on sound and that kind of calmness to it, that kind of not being nervous thing about it, that a sound installation to me has.
A lot of the songs on Innocence Is Kinky have lyrical sections that are spoken or whispered. Did you have a specific intent in using that sort of delivery, rather than just singing all out? Do you think a song whispering to you has a distinct affect?
I love doing that. I find that, going back to the pop concert and people demanding that you speak, it has something to do with that, hearing the spoken voice. There’s something in the spoken voice that’s a different kind of being personal than the sung voice. I’ve always been super interested in speaking voices. The number of voices from films that I remember, how people say this and that word, is kind of a very nerdy archive in my head. I really love hearing spoken voices. I’ve also listened a lot to recordings of poetry, not necessarily spoken word, but kind of just recordings of poets reading. It’s a very intimate thing.
When we recorded this album there was this specific microphone that you couldn’t scream into because it could only take really soft volumes. I was kind of forced into whispering into it, and whispering into that mic was a very interesting way to work. It just sounded really nice. I thought, “Ooh, more of that.” It brings that intimacy, I think. When you hear music it’s a very emotional response. You just get all these emotional responses to different sounds. I think that with the whisper-y, spoken word-y vocal, you get a different response to that than from different types of singing. That’s definitely one of the biggest reasons why I do different types of voices. A full emotional register, I guess.
Was this your first time making a record in a traditional studio?
I did make my first album in a studio, but it was almost a makeshift studio. Nothing was sort of set up properly and it was just recorded very fast. I really did feel like this was the first time I recorded something in a studio. It was great!
I know you worked with John Parish, who’s been a collaborator of PJ Harvey’s for a very long time. Were those old PJ Harvey records, or even the new PJ Harvey records, a big touchstone for you?
Yeah, very. But also the collaboration they did together came out at a lucky, lucky time for me. I was learning to play guitar. I borrowed this horrible electric guitar from the music school, and then the Dance Hall at Louse Point album came out and I was just so fascinated with the very strange structures of the songs. I just couldn’t get over it and its strange chords. So it was kind of that combination for me, learning what music was about from guitar, and then trying very badly to play some of those songs that John Parish made. They were kind of a big moment for me back in the day. But that wasn’t the reason why I contacted him, to say “Hey do you want to do my album?” It was because we have a mutual friend and I heard so many nice things about him that I had to try to get a hold of this man, this nice man, who turned out to be as nice as I heard he was. What an incredible person to work with in the studio! Kind of old-fashioned, which was great.
I read something that I thought was interesting about how you were specifically not interested in making music that was nostalgic. I don’t know if it’s because everything is online and everyone has access to all this music from the past, but overly nostalgic music is all over the place right now. I wonder how you go about making music that forces people to be in the present if they are sort of explicitly looking for music that makes them comfortable and nostalgic?
Well, I think that there is sometimes too much emphasis put on production, in terms of talking about nostalgia. When I talk about not wanting to make nostalgic music I do know that whatever I do is going to remind people of something. Whatever I do that makes certain people like my music, it will evoke something that they already know. I love music from different times, I love sounds, different guitar sounds, different sounds from a synthesizer, different types of keys, different blah blah blah, and it all is from some different time. But I think what becomes more dangerous is to not update the content of a song to the present. If it’s always about the past, even trying to evoke “I want to be like the singer songwriters of the 60s, and sing about exactly the same things,” that to me is really scary.
The content of the music and the artistic vision, if you will, the energy of the music, I find if it’s not in the present then that to me is just museum music. Although it can be very pretty, and although I like it sometimes, I do feel like pop music sometimes needs to take itself ...”Believe in yourself! You have a place in contemporary society! You need to belong in the world you’re in now!” But that doesn’t mean that music always has to have a certain sound or avoid certain sounds.
Is the use of frank, sexually explicit language in your songs an attempt to reflect our moment, where the Internet is putting all of this material in front of us?
Definitely, some of my album is probably just about language and how those images feel. Other parts are more about trying to understand them and trying to figure out, “Who am I if this is what I’m served? Who am I when I’m watching this that I understand is meant for a very different person than me, but I’m kind of forced into this kind of male gaze, watching porn or whatever.” It’s very existential in a way.
It’s weird, because, I think the Internet has made us realize that basically everything in the world is somebody’s strange, fetishized thing. I’m not sure we got that before.
Everything is becoming fetishized, sexualized. I’m a big fan of sexuality, but I’m more scared of this oversexualized world where it becomes, at the same time, tempting to always go to the sexual and the pornographic and the shaven and the innocent. This is Europe’s impression of America by the way, that kind of fear of sex as well. In iTunes they won’t sell a book because it has a sexual word in the title even though its a great book of high value. Or there’s a picture that has nudity in it. To me it’s strange that this happens, that you kind of can’t tell the difference between something natural and something really capitalist and mass produced. I think we can see the difference, we’re just afraid of the difference.
Follow Jeff Klngman on Twitter @jeff_klingman.