“How were you born?” Jenny Hval asks me.
We are standing in front of a large painting of doctors performing a cesarean section. Inside Chicago’s International Museum of Surgical Science, few other visitors pass. Industrial fans hum through the building, an early-20th-century greystone lit through huge windows by a midsummer sun. Scalpels, tongs, and other instruments designed to remove infants from uteruses rest labeled under glass. The baby in the painting looks alarmingly calm.
I make sure I’ve heard her correctly. “How was I born?”
She nods. I tell her: hand-first, two and a half weeks early. What about her?
“I had to be pulled out. Tongs,” she says. She was two weeks past her due date. “I was stubborn. I didn’t want to come out.”
As a singer, songwriter, producer, and performer, Hval might, by necessity, still carry some of that stubbornness around. Before her music broke from Norway into the United States in 2013, she also found work as a writer in both English and Norwegian, publishing poems, reviews, essays, and a novel. Her work, whether on the page, in the studio, or onstage, tends to tease out the space where power acts on the body — especially female bodies, especially those belonging to women living under capitalism.
Lately, birth is something she has been talking about with her collaborators and tourmates Zia Anger and Annie Bielski. Both frequently appear onstage with Hval, though they aren’t musicians. They come from an art and film background, and instead of playing music at Hval’s shows, they dance, clown, and play exuberant foils to the singer, whose affect onstage and in person tends to be stoic, unflappable, serene, even as her fellow performers blow up huge inflatable doughnuts and cut off her clothing with safety scissors.
Hval mentions that Bielski was a C-section birth: “She's been writing about that experience of realizing that you never pushed your way out. You never made your way out. You were taken out to a different place.”
The image of the procedure is strange to look at: an artificial orifice, a life-giving wound, a shortcut from the body to the world outside of it.
Hval fixes her gaze where things start to break down. She is not interested so much in what is breaking down, nor does she care especially about where the pieces land. She works in the coming apart, in the stitching together, in the ephemeralities that give rise to desire, or disgust, or art, or whatever — the immediate things. She speaks in births and deaths: liminal states where something essential changes, where something happens.
Hval wants process, not product. Still, as a touring musician and maker of albums, she has to work within structures: album cycles, press releases, concerts. She is skeptical of festivals (she likens them to shopping malls) but plays them anyway, because she is curious about how to subvert things that inspire her skepticism. “You have a standardized world when it comes to what a song is, what a radio song is, what a music video is, what a live performance is, what an audience is,” she says. “It’s very painful to see those standards all the time.” So she moves through the frameworks that allow an experimental pop artist to survive and share art with an audience, twisting them gently as she goes.
Her new album, Blood Bitch, released last September on Sacred Bones, has a similarly critical relationship to pop music. It is, ostensibly, a pop album itself: The portals into the music are wider and more inviting than anything on her earlier records. There are hooks and bright synthesizers and lyrics that can be sung along to. The single “Conceptual Romance” offers an easy melody and the kind of language you might hear over grocery-store speakers: “I don’t know who I am, but I’m working on it.” But within the same song, more complex, contradictory moments appear — moments of self-interrogation and exhaustion. “I lose myself in the rituals of bad art, in failure / I want to give up, but I can tell my heartbreak is too sentimental for you,” Hval sings over pulsing chords that sound like they were meant to carry more saccharine words. Her voice at the chorus is delicate, presentable, but during the verses she sounds frenzied, like the song itself can’t contain her.
The album is dense enough to change with time. In the summer, when I first heard it, I was drawn to its shinier points: “Conceptual Romance,” the intoxicating drone of “Female Vampire.” Now those gleams almost feel worn out, the way a radio song exhausts itself among listeners hungry for the next hit of sugar. What draws me in are the furrows, the interludes, the passageways between structures, the shadows. Those remain.
On one of Blood Bitch’s quieter tracks, “Untamed Region,” Hval speaks over the sounds of someone writing with pencil and paper. She describes waking up in a hotel to find she’s stained the sheets with menstrual blood. “I dip my finger in it,” she says. “Then I feel the need to touch everything in this room. Like a dog, I’m marking everything that belongs to no one, bringing it close to me.”
Synthesizers smear the air behind her. She’s not reciting or even reading a text; like the rest of the spoken-word moments on the album, “Untamed Region” was improvised in the studio. “I was trying to speak as an actor. I was just talking to myself,” Hval tells me. “You know those characters trapped in the room they’re given in this weird house where horror is about to happen but you don’t know it yet? It’s that kind of situation.”
While making Blood Bitch, Hval immersed herself in the films of Spanish director Jesús Franco, who was once ranked in the Guinness Book of World Records for making literally hundreds of mostly low-budget films over his career. (Her song “Female Vampire” takes its name from a 1975 Franco title also known as The Bare-Breasted Countess.) She has seen only about two dozen of his movies, 30 at best, which makes her something of a novice as far as his cult fandom goes. “The Franco community would not consider me even having seen his films at all,” she laughs. “There are just so many and you have to see lots and lots of movies. It’s not about one particular movie. It’s about getting into the state of this artist.”
That state is trancelike, unmoored from traditional filmic elements like plot and character and dialogue. That’s not to say Franco didn’t deal in plot or dialogue — many of his films follow familiar horror and sexploitation arcs, like the vampire seductress or the nun who’s taken in by a satanic sex cult — but they are not the point. “Franco was never really interested enough in the horror narrative,” Hval says. “He probably just wanted to do something else, something that’s much harder to describe. Something that creates a certain disinterest in narrative.”
In a 2000 interview in The Guardian, film documentarian Pete Tombs suggested that all Franco ever wanted was to make movies — which he did constantly, sometimes two or three films at a time, often using the same actors simultaneously — regardless of how they turned out. He was addicted to creating, indifferent to the creation. “He doesn’t actually seem to like his films at all,” Tombs said. “But he likes the process of making movies and couldn’t care less about the outcome.”
With the cornerstones of traditional cinema grayed out, Franco’s work allows space for something subtler than adherence to craft or style, something nimbler than the conveyance of a particular message. Unlike many canonical American horror films, where teens’ throats get slashed minutes after they pop each other’s cherries, Franco’s movies don’t come embedded with the baggage of social mores. “No moral is being imposed on you,” Hval says of his films. “It’s as if something else is always more important. There are naked women all over the place, zooming in and out on various body parts. You have incest, you have vampires, you have people attacking each other, you have blood and possessions and all kinds of brutality, but it’s all seen through a very trivial lens.
“So many modern American horror films are completely destroyed by morals. They’re always trying to teach you something — to say something about sex, say something about controlling women, say something about parenting. The role of the mother, the role of the father, the role of authority. But these films do not say anything like that. You’re allowed to think in a much greater space. They’re about desire and dreams, this very transcendent desire.”
That, for her, “creates this loop of trivial interactions [and] boredom. It’s really boring to watch. You lose out on all the climactic moments that you would have in a more conventional, bigger-budget film — a film that would be considered a better film,” she says. “That to me opened up a huge space. It’s actually liberating.”
Blood Bitch explores a similarly un-bordered space, one that Hval refers to as “desire space.” The album moves dreamily from room to room; characters stalk and fuck each other, stirred by the wants in their blood. “I on a whim followed her suddenly into her room, and kissed like blood intinction to avoid thinking of death,” Hval sings on “Secret Touch.” “Death! Death, exchanging one drive for another drive.”
There’s talk of vampires, though not in Hval’s voice: Anger and Bielski appear in snippets throughout the album. At the start of “The Great Undressing,” Bielski answers Anger’s question as to what the album is about. “It’s about vampires,” she says, speaking for Hval. “No!” Anger responds. “That’s so basic: ‘It’s about vampires.’” Anger mocks her, laughing.
“The Great Undressing” touches on capitalism as an object of unrequited love, so “basic” is a good word here. (Hval says she captured that conversation by running the tape and just letting the two friends talk. In the clip heard on the album, they’re trying to figure out what they want to talk about.) “Basic” is a word used to police desire, mainly female desire, mainly female desire dictated by a source of capitalist authority like, say, Starbucks — or Stephenie Meyer. Throw “vampires” and “basic” in the same sentence and it’s hard not to think of Twilight.
Hval, who notes that “we’re all really basic,” has read the Twilight books — all of them, on assignment for a Norwegian publication, back when she was active as a cultural critic, before music became her full-time occupation. “This was just when the first film came out, so it’s a long time ago,” she says. “I was just, like, this is where conservative Christianity meets acceptance of rape culture. It’s a perfect intersection. And just throw in some capitalism there and you have it. It is nothing else than that.”
She calls the series’s finale, Breaking Dawn, “the worst book I’ve ever read in my life, by far,” both in terms of the content and the quality of writing. But sitting in the theater, watching the first film of the franchise, she found herself fascinated by the audience around her. “I was amazed at how many young girls were just screaming seeing the film,” she says. “That was way more interesting than anything in the books.”
So that was where Hval fixed her attention: not on the poisoned object of the desire, but on the desire itself. “That desire is so potent. There’s so much greatness in it,” she says. “Occasionally, you find amazing outlets for it. I couldn’t see even Twilight as being entirely bad, because I got to be in this room with this desire. I think it’s dangerous to just connect it to objects and then criticize it. Follow the desire and see where it takes you. Not to any kind of object. Look at how it desires. I find it very positive. Forget the movie. Think about the desire between the body and the seat in the cinema. Or the bodies brushing against each other, how much that feeds into it — the girls together, this friendship desire. I enjoy that very much.”
As a preteen in the ’90s, Hval became infected by a similar desire. It’s hard to avoid under late capitalism, when the burgeoning sexuality of young girls holds an immense potential for profit. She used to write fan letters to celebrities — she names the British boy band Take That — before she realized that it was the writing itself, not the intended recipient, that fed the fire. “Follow the fire, then. Fan fiction is a great exercise. They write crazy stories. They start off being cute and containable, but then it becomes completely out of control. Sometimes it gets bigger than the phenomenon itself. Most of it’s probably better than the books. Especially that fourth [Twilight] book. I think any 13-year-old could write something much more interesting than that.”
That’s one danger that capitalism faces as a governing force: Its subjects can always find each other and build a self-sustaining network of desire all their own.
Not that these are protest songs. Blood Bitch only seeks to map what it’s like to want within a system deeply invested in our wanting. “No one ever asked me, ‘How do I desire?’” Hval says on the last song, “Lorna.” “I don’t think anyone ever talked to me using the word ‘desire’ at all. No one ever told me or taught me how to contain it. It kept existing, but there was no language. Does anyone have any language for it? Can we find it?”
The album itself grew from the residue of Hval’s own creative friendships, the ones she’s been cultivating with Anger and Bielski ever since Anger offered to direct one of her music videos a few years ago, around the release of Hval’s 2013 album, Innocence Is Kinky, which introduced her to American audiences. “They just are the most creative team I’ve ever seen,” Hval tells me. “It’s changed my performative life and music. There’s a lot of that change on this album. Obviously that’s a very personal thing. I wouldn’t expect anybody to hear that in the music, but that’s been a very, very important part of the writing of Blood Bitch. And touring with a majority of women is incredible.”
It makes menstruation into a shared experience, for one, something that can be readily talked about. “When it becomes part of the creative side, blood just informs everything,” Hval says. “It’s like you put milk in your coffee and it changes color. It just becomes a part of it. Our conversation is very open, so anything trivial becomes part of a very political discussion that’s always going on, a very creative, artistic discussion.”
That ongoing conversation forms the core of Blood Bitch, even if Anger and Bielski’s vocal contributions are sparse. It’s at the center of many of Hval’s recent live performances in a more visible way. For her set at last summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, Anger and Bielski came out in clown costumes, wearing full clown makeup. Throughout the performance, they stripped, until they were each in American flag bathing suits waving at the midday crowd like beauty pageant hopefuls. By the last song, a nine-minute extension of “Female Vampire,” all three women wore bodysuits that made them appear both naked and smeared in blood, like performers in Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 art piece Meat Joy. Over the bodysuits they wore black vampire capes, which made them look also like the eponymous heroine in Franco’s Female Vampire, who stalks the opening credits in a cape and not much else. They danced together. Hval ad-libbed once she ran out of lyrics, singing words on a set list Anger had read to the audience earlier in the afternoon. The pulse from the synthesizers droned on and on.
“I like to think of the opportunity to play a big, cool festival as a kind of death,” Hval tells me in the museum. “All the crazy things we’re doing, all the costumes and things are like little deaths, killing the authority of the stage.”
One item on the set list read by Anger and sung by Hval said, “Acknowledge the state of the world.” But no one ever did. This was July, and people were dying variously, and Turkey had just experienced an attempted military coup. Hval nodded to the idea of acknowledging those things without actually acknowledging them. “I wanted to state things more than do them,” she says. “I think there’s power in having written that music and performing that, and creating an alternative to a world that speaks directly. So much is speaking directly to us already in different forms. So you put an acknowledgement in a monologue. Describe the acknowledgement. Describe the events. A lot of the time I think that that is what live performance is about — describing the event or recreating the event. We work with events, happenings.”
Before the festival, Hval, Anger, and Bielski had played a club show at a Chicago venue called Constellation. Before they even took the stage, a man at the back yelled, “Turkey!” He kept yelling it, increasingly upset, throughout the performance. “I quite enjoy the people doing things like that, although it’s something that you do because you’re drunk,” Hval says. “But I don’t think it’s always the artist’s responsibility to address it, because that is about authority. I don’t want to have that power. I would rather let him shout ‘Turkey’ and let me be the person who can’t speak, because I think that if anything is necessary to have on a stage, it is the person, the human, not having authority. And there are so many ways of doing that. But my way, at this very performance, was about Annie and Zia playing the clown, using that muted mime, and the stupid costumes, the continuous changing — nothing staying the same.”
More and more, the pressure to know everything mounts. You are supposed to be able to acknowledge the state of the world at any time. There’s an ambient imperative to be prepared, to hoard knowledge and therefore authority, to barricade yourself against impending chaos. I don’t have to say its name. But intellectual survivalism is exhausting. There’s value, too, in the loosening of expectation, in the acceptance of some chaos, in play. One way to survive is to become a wound in the side of what is expected. To let the blood come out.