The Rumpus Interview with Jenny Hval


Norwegian musician and writer Jenny Hval has been keeping a low profile in the U.S., but for those in the know, it wasn’t a surprise when her 2013 release Innocence is Kinky turned up on many critics’ year-end lists. That album, which followed her prior solo release Viscera, carried on the sonic experimentation, making the album somewhere between a daring, incisive pop record and a sound installation.

On Innocence is Kinky, Hval touches on themes of youth and gender, all the while keeping an ear tuned to the sheer musicality of language she uses. The album also comes with a hybrid-genre companion book, which Hval tells all about here.


The Rumpus: Tell me about your book.

Jenny Hval: It’s a book that’s, on the one hand, an essay, and also has snippets of novel-like fiction and song lyrics within it. So it’s kind of almost like a collage. Sometimes writing it was a bit like writing a fanzine. It’s very much quite close to the way I work with writing song lyrics. Which is what I was interested in, because I’m not—I mean, I have written a novel, but I realized as I was writing it that I wasn’t very good at writing novels. So I needed to go do something that was more assembling music. Playing with the structures more and being freer. So that was my book, and it was very much based on the film about Joan of Arc. There was a lot of writing there about depictions of the female face. Like, the young girl’s face.

Rumpus: Does the title, Innocence is Kinky, reference a young girl’s face, then?

Hval: I have different versions of why I used that title. There’s a musical level to it, which is kind of taking rhythm from the Silence is Sexy title of Einstürzende Neubauten. Their album. It’s not just a title that means something. It’s also something that just has to do with the music of the words.

But there is also something there about innocence being a real fetish in our culture. Which I’m kind of trying to explore, maybe [on an] emotional level, a little bit on the album. It comes out in a few places. I wouldn’t really say that I could manifest an explanation of why this title is something that pulls the album together, because I don’t actually think it does that. But it is one level of something I’ve been thinking about. 

Rumpus: These methods that we’ve talked about in the past, your love of pornographic language and your fascination with it?

Hval: Yeah, I think I’m probably fascinated by the directness. I remember reading a lot about pornography when I was studying film. Back in the days. And I was really fascinated about the similarities between documentary and pornography, because it presents itself as this reality. Because it’s really happening. The sex is actual sex. This is, of course, hardcore pornography I’m talking about. And I was just fascinated with the realness of it. How real is it when it’s filmed and styled and oiled?

So I’ve always been quite fascinated with that level of reality, I guess. Which is a very sort of gray area of reality. And now with reality TV, which is something I have been avoiding, but started watching when I was doing this performance project. That was the start of this: I kind of got into trying to understand that reality level a little bit, as well. This album is playing different interpretations or manipulations, or using the concept of the real in visual culture and genres of TV and visuals, that take a certain level of reality for granted. It’s very manipulative. And also a lot about young women exposing their bodies. And exposing, maybe, their innocence. Some type of innocence.

Even in Norway, there’s a separate channel that’s kind of a women’s channel now. And this is quite recent for us. To me, it’s very outlandish—something I didn’t really think that women care about so much here, but it still exists a few years after its initial launch. This channel, it’s very, very commercial, and it’s just… It’s dividing genders in a way that I didn’t really think would be interesting in our time. So I watched a lot of that and disagreed with it.

Rumpus: I think that’s a good example of where that kind of manufactured innocence fetish that you’re talking about comes in. Can you tell me a little bit about “Oslo, Oedipus”?

Hval: Well, it’s from the book that I wrote. It started out as just the music of words, once again. And on the record, it appears twice. And it appears as both the broken windows after the bombing in Oslo, but also as a shuteye of that development that I didn’t think would happen in Norway, which is the kind of invasion of the super-capitalist, super-commercial culture that I’ve maybe grown up with thinking as very American. And that I just kind of thought that we’d managed to stay away from. But it’s still everywhere. It’s sneaking in. The neoliberalism.

So it’s [the song] both of those. And also the passive role of just watching something taking place. Like when you watch pornography or you watch these girls on Teen Mom or Top Model. It’s the look of—the gaze onto—the female body, same as it’s always been. A very old look. So that was just a concept that came out of the words. It started out as just sounding interesting to me.

And then on the record, it also becomes a bit of an improv, with the yodeling piece that I used for another sound installation maybe two years ago. So it’s kind of a presence. On the one hand, I had this yodeling piece that I recorded ages ago, which is what’s on the album. And then I found it a little bit disgusting because…I felt like critiquing the way that I maybe used influences from certain types of folk music before. So I just made a break and then did something completely different, and made it into a sort of a hip-hop tape.

Explaining it makes it sound so rational, but it’s actually just an improv. It’s kind of like when you start doing something, and it feels interesting, and then you just lose faith. And it’s like something in the music crashes and you just have to kind of turn everything around. Sometimes this happens in concerts. Something just doesn’t work, and you have to go stop and do something completely different. Not just trying to save a performance that goes wrong, but putting up a contrast and also having that honesty of a break when something doesn’t work. I think that’s quite nice, when things just stop and start, and you have a new thing, and it’s different. And it exposes what you’ve been doing up until then.

Rumpus: I know Kate Bush has been a big influence on you, vocally. But I can’t remember if we’ve talked about Meredith Monk in the past.

Hval: I would say that she’s [Meredith Monk] probably a bigger influence. People read about the fact that I’ve written about Kate Bush, and maybe that’s been pushed a little bit by me, also. I did a few interviews while I was writing my master’s thesis, which was very much about the way she was singing. And I’ve probably been talking too much about it, because I was just very interested in listening to it.

I think that Meredith Monk has probably been more of a revelation for as a singer, because I started singing just as I started listening to her. Kate Bush—I listened to her when I was little. And then I didn’t listen much to her until I started writing about her, which was way later. And way after I started singing. And so I think Meredith Monk was one of those voices that I found so interesting, because she was doing something that was so unleashed that I thought, Oh, I have to sing. Because you can do it like this and not just in a structured, contained way.

Rumpus: Did she help you become more comfortable with the idea of vocals without words, and how to be expressive without necessarily articulating it with language?

Hval: Well, I think she made me aware of singing more unconsciously. Like, singing and being aware of the body. And I think regardless of whether you have lyrics or not, to have that unconscious level in the voice is really, really liberating. And it really helps me to write words more freely, which is kind of why I really emphasize that. Also “Oedipus,” for example: it could have been something I was just not thinking about but just singing, because it sounds good. And maybe that was more of a Meredith Monk unleashing of words through vocals. Because many times, I think I work with a lot with words. So I tend to work a lot with them as if they were sounds. And not [to] have meaning in the literary level, although I do think that on this album, I really wanted to be quite clear.

Rumpus: Meredith Monk’s relationship to Buddhism is interesting to me. I guess I don’t really know where to put that, especially in relation to everything she does with her body. Because I think of Buddhism as being something that’s not necessarily concerned with embodiment. I don’t know if that’s something you’ve thought about.

Hval: No, I haven’t—I don’t know enough about Buddhism to really understand it. I think I get it wrong sometimes.

I’ve had many battles over the sort of motivation for singing and using the body. And I’m just thinking of Meredith Monk. I’ll leave the topic of Buddhism, because I really don’t know enough about it to talk about it. But I’ve always kind of been going back and forth between wanting to be introvert and extrovert with using the body and singing—in a very visceral way.

Like, with my previous album, I was feeling like I was singing almost on the inside. I was very body-aware, and then I got really sick of it. Because to me, it became like yoga. Very self-centered. And also in a bad way. And so I was really interested in just being more extroverted and looking outward more. And being clearer. And I don’t really think that’s made me less aware of the body. It just made that perspective open up a little bit and take a different shape, which was to shape the music very differently. But there is a spiritual level, just to singing. I feel when I listen to other musicians playing or especially singers, that I can hear an interpretation of the body’s spirituality when I hear the voices.

Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her work has recently appeared in Salon, No Depression, Gigantic Sequins, and Yalobusha Review. More from this author →