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Interview with Jenny Hval

It’s the middle of the hot, dead summer of 2018 when I speak to Jenny Hval for the first time. Talking via web phone, we are both, for once, in the countries we were born in, and for the moment, both in retrograde: me, in my parents’ house, sweltering in the attic room where I avoided homework and chatted to boys for the first time on MSN; her, talking to me about a time before she had learned how to express herself as an artist, when she didn’t know which language to call her own.

 

We have arranged to talk about Paradise Rot, her first novel, which originally came out in Norwegian as Perlebryggeriet in 2009. Now translated by Marjam Idriss and published by Verso, it is finally available to audiences in the language Hval originally – if unsuccessfully – began writing it in. It tells the story of Jo, in a strange country for university, who finds herself living in a huge, decaying house share with the confident, but ultimately fragile Carral. Against the narrative of Jo’s biology degree and her sexual awakening, the two girls explore how things spread and spill over in this strange house: mushrooms sprout, sounds echo and bodily fluids leak, adding to the uncomfortable frisson of vulnerability. The novel’s naïveté is an early blueprint for the bodily, intimate, communal, queer, and theoretically-conscious work she has since made.

 

While it’s true to say Jenny Hval makes music – avant-garde pop which wanders with facility between a heightened euphoria and pulsing weight – it is her lyrics that affect me the most. She allows herself to wallow in childish rhyme and playful pattern, a drip-drip juice that spatters sound with meaning. Here, the personal is also political but, undoubtedly for Hval, the personal is also the artistic. What contributes to the sense of self also contributes to the sense of the artist, often almost in the same breath. ‘Like capitalism, it works like unrequited love,’ she sings on ‘The Great Undressing’. And then, a few breaths later: ‘But I need to keep writing, because everything else is death.’ The song comes from her album Blood Bitchwhich is arranged lyrically around themes of menstruation, vampires and female gangs, and muses on immortality, bodily autonomy and the experience of time. On an earlier song, ‘That Battle is Over’, she lets loose her fury at those saying feminism is no longer needed, despite her personal experiences of sexism. Again, it’s not just a satisfying clickbait takedown, no ‘sublime thinkpiece’, to use her own words from this interview, although it is deeply gratifying in its own way. Even when she sets her lyrical vision on an obvious target, she is still writing about the narrative arc of her own artistic life, making plain her interest in digging through the dirt of what is forbidden, unsanitary or otherwise repulsive.

Q

The White Review

— How did you end up writing Paradise Rot, where were you at that time?

A

Jenny Hval

— I think I started writing this book before I really released any music. Back then, I didn’t see myself being a musician: I was playing, but the real thing for me was writing. This was at a time when I was really trying to figure out how to be an artist. It was the mid-20s crisis: the ‘I haven’t done anything yet’. I finished studying and panicked because I hadn’t written a book yet, or something. So I started writing, in English actually.

 

But I realised I had to write in my own language, so I had to start this book by translating. It was very difficult: trying and sort of failing to find my own language. I think that took longer than the writing of this book in particular but I think I gave it a good try.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did it feel to see it translated back into English, more than 10 years later?

A

Jenny Hval

— I didn’t really read it as the translation was happening: most of it arrived in small parts, and in a mixed-up order. I think I was almost afraid of revisiting it because it was quite connected to this phase of life in which I was really struggling with writing, and with writing in Norwegian. I’ve been blessed to be a bystander and watch the translation unfold as a reference point. Some people are not very good with their old stuff, and I’m one of them. I never play old music, I just move on. If I stop playing a song, it almost never comes back into my set. This is different though because it’s a small step removed from my own process. Not having to go back to my struggle with the Norwegian language so much.

 

Q

The White Review

— It’s interesting that you say you found it more of a struggle to write in Norwegian than in English.

A

Jenny Hval

— When I wrote the book, I was very disappointed that nobody would consider publishing my work in English. When you’re the writer and not the translator, it becomes a very different text. So the translation made it a completely different type of fiction. For me, this whole thing was about realising that I’m not that competent with English, which was a little sad. I can sing it and work with it, but not for a full work of fiction or any kind of book.

 

Also, I hadn’t really found a voice – I’d never written that much in my own language, so I didn’t know who I was in terms of writing fiction. I’d read so much fiction and poetry in English and skipped a lot of Norwegian literature. I was trying to catch up but it was so different from what I’d read when I was studying in Australia, where I became very focused on a lot of writers that I couldn’t find Norwegian versions of. And with art, if you’re looking for something specific, then it’s not as fun as discovering things you didn’t know about, things that will surprise you. I had great expectations of finding that exactly the same things had been written in France or Canada. I was looking for the Norwegian Anne Carson. But Norwegian writers, they would be doing their own thing.

 

Q

The White Review

— There seems to be a parallel between finding your language as an artist and finding your language in your native Norwegian. I would imagine your position on that is quite different now having released several albums and performed a lot.

A

Jenny Hval

— I think I’m more comfortable now than I was back then. I think it’s great to be able to express something in the middle of trying to find who you are, and your artistic voice. There was more magic involved than I remembered. I think part of the juiciness I now find in Paradise Rot that I hadn’t remembered is that kind of thing – looking for language, looking for metaphors, looking for sensuality in my own expression –, that I didn’t really know I’d found. There is a lot of enjoyment of language there anyway. I’ve explored this connection between the sensual part of the artistic voice and identity-related parts of sexuality in my other work but I didn’t remember it being so connected to this book.

 

Q

The White Review

— So you really didn’t see that themes in Paradise Rot were coming up throughout your other work (such as Blood Bitch or the Meshes of Voice album)?

A

Jenny Hval

— I don’t understand how I could not see it! The Meshes of Voice album was also released when it was a few years old, so that was actually written at the same time as the book. For me, that’s the closest you can get to a parallel to Paradise Rot. There’s definitely this kind of naïve exploration of sexual metaphors and the senses. I was going into some Biblical stuff and it just seemed too dark but there’s also pleasure and lightness in being able to play with it. This stupid imagery of apples and Adam and Eve, and alternative versions of Genesis that can come from language and playing with language. I think that on Meshes of Voice, we visited a noisy soundscape a little bit like creating a world, or a house – there’s even a song called ‘House of Bones’ which was probably very related to the house in Paradise Rot.

Q

The White Review

— I was listening to that album yesterday and really noticed what you refer to as ‘naïve sexual metaphors, such as lyrics referring to milk running down legs.

A

Jenny Hval

— Because I was writing this novel in Norwegian, I felt very liberated to be able to also do a musical, lyrical transformation of some of the Paradise Rot material – I could just take it out of my book project and put very simple themes or lines into an English lyrical context. Because nobody would know. Also the release of that work was not planned – we just had that one show, which was made into the album. I had no expectations that anyone would be able to compare the two things, but now you obviously can, because the book’s coming out in English. I think had I known that so much of it would exist and be available to people at that time, I would have been more guarded with what I wrote in both contexts. In a strange way, it does give you more courage, that things can be hidden. Context is very interesting for me, to look back at.

 

Q

The White Review

— In this conversation, we’ve both referred to your work as naïve, but it also has a kind of boldness in that naïveté, which strikes me as quite rare.

A

Jenny Hval

— I just found an old flyer that I sent way back, I think in 2004, with my CD-R demos to venues to try to get to play shows. And I used the word naïve a lot, and I was using it as a way to be bolder. Later on, when I’d released an album, I saw that the word ‘naïve’ was being used to put my work down, especially from some kind of patriarchal idea of what ‘naïve’ is – which is that it doesn’t mean anything, or that it’s very fragile. But to me, the naïve can be very bold – like how kids can say things that grownups wouldn’t but they’re true­. You can’t fool dogs or kids.

 

Q

The White Review

— I notice that Chris Kraus has described you for the book jacket as a ‘master of quiet horror’, which I think sums up this childish curiosity towards things that as adults we often are repulsed by. How do you think that horror relates to queerness in the book?

A

Jenny Hval

— There’s definitely a parallel running between themes of horror and ways of approaching the body. Choosing to explore things that you’re told you can’t. When I reread the book recently, I realised I had forgotten how repulsed the main character was when she was seeing heterosexual desire unfold (or not). The main character’s voice is playing with different types of repulsion – repulsion towards interpretations of her interactions with both things and people. Even words and thoughts. It’s in a context that is based in a lot of feminist and queer theory.

 

I would definitely not say that I’m speaking for anybody or a group of people with this work of fiction. I think it relates more to the theory that gave me a right to be an artist. Or gave me a right to express anything at all. I was really trying to look for types of language where I felt like I could belong.

 

Q

The White Review

— A lot of your lyrics and other artistic works talk about the creation of a work of art, and this book itself often veers into themes of genesis (and Genesis) quite literally. Is this book about the creative process?

A

Jenny Hval

— It would have to be about creating and process in a way that also includes the creation of a self. I think all those things are very related and visceral, so then you have to see the artistic process as being very much a lived experience. To me, everything is always about that moment of actual creation, on top of being about other things. It’s not just some kind of sublime thinkpiece. It’s a dirty, uncertain and very much body-centred moment.

 

Q

The White Review

— How do you think your performances fit into that, since they’re the most ‘bodily’ format you work with?

A

Jenny Hval

— They’ve been through many different phases and incarnations. But what I’ve been very interested in, in my own stage experience, is to never let go of the compromised position you’re in when you’re on that stage: You bring with you your very personal guilt, shame, regrets. Or at least I do. I’m quite uncomfortable with being on stage knowing that people will immediately see me and have some kind of first impression about how I look. I’ve never understood this idea of looking ‘nice’, just because you’re on stage. That, for me is very foreign. I really embraced, for a while, wearing pyjamas. Or these horrible tracksuits.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your attitude to performance is often quite playful. But how are these performances connected to the themes of your songs? For example, Blood Bitch?

A

Jenny Hval

— I think that, as time has passed, I’ve explored very different ideas of what Blood Bitch’s lyrics can be deciphered as. I’ve allowed the performances to unlock things that I wouldn’t have seen if I’d just written it, performed the album versions, recorded it, and that’s it. It made it all different again: we were a team of vampires, rather than one person, that was really nice. Playing with the idea of being part of a team as a kind of immortality: feeling like you were part of something so you wouldn’t really die. I remember exploring this a lot.

 

Also, menstruation being something that could be very lonely, but something that could also make you part of a group. I’ve been travelling with a lot of women on tour for the last two years and that’s why the idea of menstruation came up in the first place, this synchronicity thing. I don’t know if it’s real, but it’s something that comes up when you change from touring predominantly with men, to mostly women.

 

The really nice thing about doing performances is that you can play with things that on paper seem so stupid and simple. I think that everything is allowed onstage when it’s in a pop concert format, because the format is so dead – to me anyway. It’s so much simpler than a theatre space. It doesn’t require much: you just show up. And I kind of like very simple elements. I mean obviously, I have no choice because, with the budget and the travelling with a live setup, I don’t have any room to develop much new stuff. So I’d rather play with very simple elements.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you feel like you want to connect to the people that come to your shows?

A

Jenny Hval

— Yes. Always. I’m not very confrontational. I don’t want to be against anybody. I find it very difficult when people are not behaving, like on the rare occasion people have been like sitting on the stage on drugs and they don’t know anyone’s playing, and you just have to work around it. When you can’t get through to people that’s very upsetting. I don’t like telling people to shut up – some people do it but I don’t like it. I want to connect.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your interest in writers like Kraus and Carson in the novel comes across quite clearly, as well as French feminist post-structuralists – and you’ve sampled Adam Curtis on Blood Bitch. I’m wondering what your current interests are?

A

Jenny Hval

— They’ve changed quite a bit. I’ve written a new novel that came out in August in Norwegian, which is really sad because I want to talk about it with everybody but you can’t read it. But that’s full of my recent obsessions… Sadly that conversation will have to be when somebody has decided to translate it.

 

The last two years I’ve been very much into Alan Moore. I read them all later as books. I didn’t read comics so much when I was younger, which is very sad because I think I would’ve loved them. But I got really into Promethea. And then Lost Girls. I spent summer of last year reading Jerusalem which is his most recent novel, a huge one. So that’s been quite an obsession for me. But also a lot of films.

 

Since 2012 Chris Kraus has been someone I’ve just read and reread constantly and who’s been a really huge – too big maybe – inspiration for me. But sometimes inspiration is not only the things you like, but the things that pop up. Sometimes I feel like when I’m asked about this stuff I quickly have to curate something that makes me look good which is not what I want and is not always the good answer to a question of what inspires you or whatever. It’s always difficult to answer.

 

Q

The White Review

— Well, Kraus’s use of personal material to work through artistic quandary – that feels like your area.

A

Jenny Hval

— But hopefully she and I have also read or heard or seen other things that could be common points of interest. I think that all the work I made before I started reading her would’ve benefited from me having read her first. I look back on Paradise Rot, and I think, ‘Oh I wish I’d read this or that or seen this or that when I’d written it because then I wouldn’t have felt so lonely writing it!’

 

Q

The White Review

— It seems like it would’ve been a very different book without that loneliness, though.

A

Jenny Hval

— I think that Paradise Rot shows a voice trying to find places to belong, or a sense of safety. And finds a lot of metaphors or alternative or extreme ideas (or ideas that are seen as extreme). But she can’t figure it out because, even if there’s a great deal of attraction between the two people in the house, it’s not something that ever becomes a space of comfort – it’s always, to some extent, twisted. Which is kind of a shame. This is why I hope it’s not seen as showing that queerness, or queer types of attraction, can never be a space of comfort, or being united, or love. That is not something I think!

 

I’ve certainly enjoyed a lot of early work from a bunch of artists­ – work where you just have to make it to find what you can clarify later. And the clarification isn’t always the best part. Sometimes looking around in the trash of normative society can be the most intense moments of your life and really inform the rest of your expression. My book is short, and some reviewers in Norway said, ‘It doesn’t really go anywhere.’ It doesn’t really want to get to a space where everything is resolved. It’s dissolving but not resolving. I’ve enjoyed that many times when I see work by others.

 

Q

The White Review

— I wanted to ask you about the last song, ‘I Want To Tell You Something’ on your most recent EPThe Long Sleep. Where you address your listeners (‘I want to tell you something… I just want to say thank you / I love you’) and attempt to talk directly to them, somehow circumventing the context of the algorithmic platform.
A

Jenny Hval

— I was really trying to speak to the Spotify listener, who then encounters music in a space that’s more about the platform than the music – the strange, removed space where this closeness between the artist and the listener doesn’t matter so much. I am very fascinated with this at the moment – how to remind the listener that there is importance in this connection to the artist. Not because the artist needs money and streaming is a terrible business model, but because it’s good to look at all the things that are dissolving around us as well as how we relate to each other. It’s speaking to how art loves its recipient, how there is a connection – the magic of that connection.

The press release {for the EP} said that this decision wasn’t so political or conceptual, but that’s not really true: it’s the other way around. It gets really boring to say that something is conceptual – what does that mean? Everything is conceptual! I wanted to maintain the fact that there is a concept and thought in work and it can be in the work itself without it being a selling point.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and editor, based in Berlin. She has written about art and culture for The GuardianFriezeThe Economist, Artforum and many more.

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