Jenny Hval's Songs About Sex Are Embarrassing, and That's the Point
Jenny Hval (Photo Credit: Kristine Jakobsen)
"Some people are cool and collected. I'm cool and embarrassed," says Norwegian singer/songwriter Jenny Hval, referring to her notoriously explicit lyrics. "The key is to write something that will never stop being embarrassing." Cases in point: The opening line of her 2011 full-length debut, Viscera, is "I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris." On Innocence Is Kinky, her follow-up album that arrived earlier this year, it's "That night, I watch people fucking on my computer." (If you really want to feel uncomfortable, watch the NSFW official video for the title track.) When Hval performs these songs live, though, she really does keeps it together even after that line is out of her red-lipsticked mouth. Still, how can she live with herself after singing about cunts and cum if it never stops being embarrassing for her?
"I'm very interested in those moments where things get out of hand and things fall out of your mouth," she says. "That's what's interesting, letting the audience hear that moment where you let go of yourself." Such a conscientiously unself-conscious technique has even worked for the more conventional songs she used to write under her former moniker, Rockettothesky. "Barrie for Billy Mackenzie" had the lyric "I imagine all your hairs are fingers and it makes me cum," but it also had the unbeatable First Aid Kit-tested combination of acoustic strumming and Hval's gently ragged voice, so it got some airplay in Norway (the album it was on, To Sing You Apple Trees, scored Hval another pop coup in the form of a 2007 Norwegian Grammy nod). Ironically, that approach, more than the music she creates now, made the audience uncomfortable. "There were people who were just interested in what they heard from me on the radio that had no idea where my music was coming from," she says. After Viscera, "I guess I became kind of this crazy lady."
But that doesn't matter to Hval, who has never been "the kind of artist who's comfortable with the status quo," she says, an attitude that inevitably spills over into the rest of her life. In high school, she rebelled against her Norwegian Bible belt upbringing and joined a goth band, Shellyz Raven. When she was 20, not knowing a word of English, she moved halfway around the world to study creative writing at the University of Melbourne. It was also then that she started making music after getting a three-track Zoom recorder. "I immediately really loved it. It had some simple effects on it, so when I would record, I could add vocal effects to make it sound like different bodies," which triggered her ongoing fascination with the body. And it's not just sex and genitalia: other bits like hair and teeth find their way into a vegetable soup on Innocence Is Kinky's "Mephisto in the Water".
Part of that physical obsession comes from Hval's acute sense of wanting to know what's going on inside her own body when she performs the physical act of singing, even though she can't. She also experiences this same sort of desire on a less visceral level; in the studio, for example. "I always want to be something I'm not, at the time I'm wanting it," she says. To a certain extent she thinks Innocence Is Kinky–by all accounts a masterful collection of dissonant noise and raw vocal manipulations that's challenging in an accessible way, even if Hval aspires "to sing in a continuous echo of splitting hymens" ("Give Me That Sound")– is a failure, because it's not as aggressive as her sonic benchmarks Nick Cave or Swans. (Coincidentally, she closes with a track called "The Seer," unrelated to Swans' album of the same name.) "I think I failed. Like, really. I really failed," she says.
And yet, in the next breath, she backtracks such soul-crushing self-defeatism. Again, it's about this "want." "When I say I failed, it's not some kind of depression: it's more like the energy that you want is not yours," she says. Producer John Parish, a frequent collaborator with PJ Harvey who has also worked on albums by M. Ward, Giant Sand, and Eels, guided Hval through her mixed feelings about Innocence Is Kinky, which Hval had shepherded through several life phases already: first as the score for Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent film La passion de Jeanne d'Arc; then the primordial Innocence was incorporated into a later light and sound installation. It was her baby, but she also trusted Parish's largely hands-off approach.
"We had a hard drum beat in the song 'Death of the Author,' and when we replaced with something softer, in the end, because the vocals had more space, the aggression and the lyrics get across more. I change my mind a lot," Hval says.
After a summer of not having to think about the record, Hval is looking forward to two firsts: a North American tour, and one with a tour manager at that. "I'm really happy to have a little less focus on the travel stress, and a little more focus on the music," she says. "I'm not a very good tour manager. It's like playing the director and producer at the same time. You end up in this weird double role, which makes me very depressed."
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