"Traditionally, the primal was the female, and the loud shriek, the childbirth sound -- they had a special word for it, and it was very dangerous back in ancient Greek times. There were special ceremonies where women made a special sound that existed between life and death."
I am sitting on a couch in an Airbnb apartment in Bed-Stuy. Beside me perches Norwegian singer/writer/artist/feminist thinker/modern Renaissance woman Jenny Hval in sock-feet, brimming with devastatingly interesting tidbits (see above). I half expected her to be a giant, smart brain sloshing around in a fishbowl of fleshy parts and bodily fluids. That she appears to be a normal human woman with a pleasant, soft-spoken way about her makes it all the more surreal.
I was first introduced to her work a little over a week ago when my friend showed me the video for "Innocence Is Kinky," (NSFW) the title track off her recent album. Directed by and starring the performance artist Zia Anger, the video explores the song's themes of gender, gaze and objectification in a faithful visual interpretation. The woman is chopped into her various pieces with a framing technique approaching violence. Taken together, the song and its accompanying images were titillating -- sensually and intellectually -- in a way I'd never quite seen or heard before. I was enraptured.
Fast-forward to two nights ago, when I caught Hval and her amazing "free rock" band, comprised of Håvard Volden on guitars and synths and Kyrre Laastadat on drums and drum machine, at the Lower East Side's Mercury Lounge, where they played slightly looser, noisier versions of the songs I'd been listening to obsessively for days. "I came all the way from Norway to tell you innocence is kinky," Hval deadpanned on stage, "but I guess America knows that. Then again, I don't really agree with 'innocence is kinky.'"
Despite having been written about on Pitchfork and other places people pay attention to, Hval is not yet a "buzz act" in the U.S., and probably doesn't care about words like "buzz" anyway (unless they refer to vibrators), and it felt like we were being let in on a special secret. When she uttered the line, "I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris" in her delicious accent, you could hear a pin drop. It's not every day that this happens in a venue whose primary business is selling alcohol. Least of all when the word "clitoris" is spoken.
Jenny Hval thinks people should sing that word more. After all, it plays an important part in female pleasure, and most pop songs are about sex. Why, then, is it still so shocking for some people to hear that word, and other words related to sex and the female body? Is she trying to provoke, or is that just a result of the disconnect between her interests and mainstream culture? (I am speaking now of how her work lands in America.)
"I seriously don't think these topics are provocative," says Hval. "I think they matter, and they should matter, and they are vulnerable and fleshy and dead serious and humorous and intimate and sensual and frightening and they're about how we see ourselves and hear ourselves and understand and feel ourselves, but to call them provocative is too easy and too structured." Holy shit, good answer, I think for the first of many times.
Born and raised for the first nine years of her life in Oslo, Hval started playing the keyboard at the age of six ("I wanted to be Mozart and Vangelis"), and spent some time in Norway's Bible Belt while attending a specialized high school for music. Her first group was a Goth band, but she found herself chafing against the rigid gender roles of what was supposed to be an alternative scene. "I was meant to be the sexy singer," she says. "It was so old fashioned, it was ridiculous." Needless to say, she did not stick to this paradigm for long.
Hval studied literature at the University of Melbourne, where she grew fascinated with picking up language and accents. She then returned to her homeland to attend the University of Oslo, where she wrote her master's thesis on Kate Bush and singing as literature. For most of her creative life, she's moved freely between forms; to date, Hval has produced essays, music criticism, sound installations, and of course, music. In 2009, she published a book, "Perlebryggeriet," that started as a novel and ended as song lyrics. Impressively enough, she writes much of her work (book manuscript included) in English, her second language. She has said she feels like "more of a brute" in English -- this helps make her lyrics direct, concise, impactful. It also lends her songs an honest immediacy. "I think I'm a more complex person in Norwegian," she says, "which also means I would be much more guarded in my songwriting."
In Hval's writerly mind, the voice is a unique tool of expression, in that she can explore her ideas in a much more visceral way than with words on a page -- which is useful, as her ideas involve, well, viscera (as the title of her 2011 album would attest).
"There's something physical about a voice," she says. "Writing comes from a body, too, but it's not as immediate. You can't hear texture. The other side of it is that it is freeing from the body. Because the voice isn't the body. It's always on its way out of the body."
It's this tension between mind and body, subject and object, slavery and transcendence, that takes up much space on her last two albums. "I want to sing like a continuous echo of splitting hymens," she rasps distortedly on "Give Me That Sound." It's not meant to be taken literally, but a spiritual onomatopoeia is nonetheless achieved.
More often than not, Hval's description of the body, with all the various forces acting upon it, comes across as grotesque, violent, dehumanizing. It's this thread that connects her interest in "low culture" like Paris Hilton's sex tape with "high culture" like Carl Theodor Dreyer's close-up heavy film "La passion de Jeanne d'Arc" (both of which appeared in a multimedia sound installation she did last year, also called "Innocence Is Kinky").
"We have this great urge to be and to see and to feel like we're experiencing the human without the person in modern society," she says. "And maybe always."
But while Hval's vision is often frightening -- "A black vegetable soup of hair and teeth" does not sound like something I want to participate in -- and while she's not afraid to identify as a feminist, with a strong affinity for Italian thinker Silvia Federici (who did important work on the connection between gender, labor and capitalism in the 1970s and beyond), she avoids making any definitive ideological statement with her work.
"Sometimes I wish my artwork could say once and for all something that would make people I find to be misogynists slightly less misogynist," she says. "To make a difference in that way. [But] I think it's important to not really care so much for the conclusion." Plus, as an individual with a socially permeable membrane, she finds it hard to totally separate herself from the things that trouble her, preferring to engage with and transform them.
"You're always a reflection of your culture, so whatever you react to is already in you, in a way," she says. So tension and ambiguity are given free reign.
I don't ask Hval why she writes about sex and the body in the first place, because the evidence is already present in everything we're discussing: This shit is at the heart of the modern human condition. Why would anyone NOT be thinking about these things? Nonetheless, she still attracts some of the usual boring comments that follow female artists like so many unwanted suitors. "'You just need to get laid!' I get that sometimes," she laughs. "It couldn't possibly be existential."
I want to stay on her rented couch forever, but Volden (who is also her partner) has just cooked her dinner, and I sense that he's waiting for her to eat it with him. So I end by asking how she feels about people discovering her on YouTube, expecting a complicatedly qualified reply. "I do like it when people discover the music by chance," she says. "I love it when people say they came to my show because they accidentally stumbled on this video."
Well, here's hoping a few more people are about to fall in artsy fartsy bizarro-love with her.
Innocence Is Kinky is out now on Rune Grammofon.