INTERVIEW: Jenny Hval Talks About Her Solo Work and Her New Lost Girls Project
Jenny Hval has wowed us again and again with her inventive approaches to pop music and her ever-evolving live show. Her music builds multi-faceted compositions of subtle electronics, spoken word, and ambushes with soaring vocals. Her lyrics are an intelligent and humorous look at life, death, capitalism, and the roles of women in a weird and unpredictable world. Though she’s low key about it, she is also incredibly prolific, with the EP, The Long Sleep, released in May, a 12 inch single out as half of Lost Girls, and a new novel out in the fall.
Jenny talked to us on the day between a set at Roskilde with Lost Girls, her side project with long time collaborator Håvard Volden, and a set at Brorsons Kirke as part of Jazz Fest. She answered some questions for us over the phone while walking through Christiania (“I’ve actually never been here before. I’m walking around a bit, it’s really nice. I don’t know if actually saw the entrance. I just came in through some back roads.”) and shared her thoughts on touring as an income, the different aspects of productivity, and how both collaborators and visas have influenced her work.
What do you have planned while you’re in Copenhagen?
I haven’t been that much in Copenhagen. I don’t think I’ve ever had a day to go anywhere to see anything before. I’m always just playing and then going somewhere far away the next day. This time I’m here for a few days because we’re doing several things, so we have a day off. It’s really nice. Just seeing things and rehearing a bit for tomorrow.
We were playing a Roskilde set and then also playing a set with my band. It’s just a lot of preparation because they’re not so dissimilar but the band is a five-piece band instead of a duo when we play Jenny Hval concerts at the moment. It’s super exciting for me because I have a trumpet player and a saxophone player. I’ve never had that kind of band before. It’s really exciting but we haven’t been able to rehearse because everyone’s away on summer holiday. It’s going to be a little intense tomorrow, but it’s going to be great.
Is this the first time this band is playing together?
It’s only the second time because we had a show in Oslo originally, but it was new. Then we had some shows that were booked before I knew that this band was happening. We’ve done so many different things, actually, and this always happens. I wish I had a way to figure out how to book things so that we could do something that’s a little more stable, but things are kind of falling out of the sky a bit. Some shows are booked six months in advance, some shows are booked a year in advance, some shows are booked two weeks. And then the band changes all the time. We’ve done shows with a choreographer and dancer who is now seven months pregnant, so she is now resting. But she was with us and then I needed to find someone else. So it keeps changing, and it’s really nice, but sometimes it’s then also creating this weird sudden changes in line-up and what we do. And that can be eccentric. But eventually it’s always great. Just sometimes it’s a little too fast for me and we have to think for a bit. But it’s been really good.
I tell people to go see you live specifically because the show is always so different. A friend of mine saw you play in New York and then I saw you play two weeks later in Denmark and it was completely different.
It’s kind of come together that way because of visa problems. Originally we couldn’t bring a band over to the US because — this was several years ago — the band didn’t have visas. It’s very hard. It’s even harder now, actually, to get visas to the US. So I started working with some Americans that I also worked with for music videos. For a while we had this strange, completely different way of arranging a show when we were in America and when we were in Europe. It was just a practical movement but it ended up being very educational and really wonderful for me. I’ve brought the American artists over to Europe, that’s much easier with visas. I’ve tried to make people see both versions over the past three years, but it’s really weird how very practical situations make for huge changes in the art sometimes. I’m really grateful for that. Thanks American visa situations!
That might be the only time anyone ever says that.
Yeah, and I’m not really saying it. But I’m very grateful for the artists and friends I’ve been able to work with. They influence the show greatly. Everyone I work with will change the show. It’s not really about me changing things, it’s the situation changing. Maybe I’ve made the concept of what a concert is pretty open so that I’m able to allow other people to change it. Hopefully I’m contributing to that. To me, it feels like sometimes I’m doing the same show until we start playing and I realize, “Oh, these other people are now changing things so I can do new things.” It really is very much about what other people do for me. Credit to them.
Related to how people change the performance, the Lost Girls was a very different experience seeing you perform. Has the project performed much?
We’ve done quite a few shows and also we’ve done many of my shows as a duo, as well. Sometimes because we’ve been on a long tour in the US and we couldn’t bring anybody because we couldn’t afford it. Sometimes because people were doing other projects. That’s kind of the core of my show as well, with different material and a different set up.
My project and the Lost Girls we don’t really see as something we need to separate so much from each other because when we play shows on the Friday and on the Sunday in the two different formats, it’s really quite ridiculous to try to force a separation. What you’ll see on Sunday will sometimes be very related. We’re playing a couple of the same songs, too, but hopefully the experience of the full performance will be different or at least a new experience, rewarding in its way.
How do the songs present themselves in the recording process as belonging in one place or another?
They don’t. I think we’ve worked together for so long that the thought process just needs to be within the music. We haven’t actually recorded anything knowing we’re Lost Girls ever. We recorded two songs for the 12 inch we released, but they’re so old. When we recorded Håvard’s track, we didn’t even know it was going to be a collaboration. Originally he was going to release it under his name.
I had a track that was like a third of my show for two or three years, it kept changing a lot, but it was this moment in a concert that was very, very, very much a part of my solo project, but only as a live version. We couldn’t make it fit on any of my albums. It was just too old and to different, I guess, from the albums I was making. These two tracks were just lying around and we finally got to finish them and we realized it should be a collaboration because we’ve contributed to each others’ work so much that it’s more of a collaboration than a solo thing for very different reasons. I still think they made a really nice combination on the 12 inch.
We’ve never recorded anything while we’ve been consciously aware of having a project. This will happen hopefully in the future. Not sure when. But it might or might not contain any of the stuff we’re doing now. We still haven’t figured out quite how we exist in a recording type thing.
You’ve created so much work in the last few years and it seems like you’re always on tour. What is your process that allows you to produce as much as you do while touring?
The reason why I can be productive is partly because of Norwegian funding. Because I can afford to do the touring. People say that the touring is an income, but it’s not for me and a lot of other artists unless you scale things down a lot to the bare bones or you have some kind of security net, which I do have, because I’m so lucky I’m Norwegian and I’ve been able to get touring grants and other grants for my work. That’s how I can focus on working. I don’t have to go back to a day job when I come back from a tour to fund the next tour.
But I think that I’m productive because I feel like I have to tour. I love playing shows but I’m very much of two minds about the need to be so visible. I think I have to compensate by producing a lot of stuff when I don’t tour because otherwise I’ll just die in a sea of visibility. My main work is not the traveling, my main work has always felt like the writing. When I’m on stage for that one hour when I am on tour, I feel like that’s the writing process. But the rest of it can be very difficult and tiresome.
That’s how I get energy also when I’m at home: I need to have a project and so I make a lot a new stuff. And I collaborate probably with the most productive person I’ve ever met. It’s very easy to get energy from other people’s constant ideas. It’s not about producing a lot of work, it’s more about this hunger for ideas and to engage with the world that I get from other people that I work with. The ideas and writing world around me is pretty rich, so I can join in on that energy also. I think for me it’s been easy. I also work really fast.
In terms of how you write or how you record?
I write pretty fast. For good and bad.
When I do write fiction, I’m fast but also slow. I’m fast to write a load of first draft stuff. Then it takes me a long time to expand and go really deeply into what I’m trying to say and create the rest — because I usually write down stuff and think, “It’s all here.” Then I realize, “No, it’s all here if I’m inside my head.” I need to go into an editing processes to make other people read what I heard in my head. And that takes a long time.
I envy a lot of people who do less. I think that there’s always a danger that being productive could also just be fitting in nicely with currently capitalist trends. The more you produce, the more you can be visible. At least for me it’s a way to be visible without compromise because — well, there’s always compromise — but at least then I have something that I’m proud to allow other to read or listen to instead of just being visible by having a scandalous Instagram. Some people are good at that, but I’m not. I struggle with the general visibility and accessibility. It’s easier for me to write and present new work than it is to tweet.
I know so many writers who put so much of their energy into social media because they feel like they have to even if they don’t want to.
I think that I probably would have produced a lot more and maybe bigger things if I didn’t have to do things like accounting and all the practical things. I probably do spend 50% of my time doing those things. Even if I seem productive, I’m also very productive — like everyone has to be — with all the stuff you just have to do. Because artists are forced into being freelancers and having our so-called businesses, a commercial business. Which means you’re trying to fit into something you don’t fit into. They’re very frustrating. But thankfully you can return to your art sometimes and get some other energy.
Just as you were saying touring isn’t the income source people think it is, there’s that whole unglamorous layer that people who receive regular paychecks don’t have a concept of.
Some artists, when they write about money, it’s amazing how much they know. I’m following a few and they write really great stuff about money because they know so much about the tax system, the interest rates, various loans you can get, the structures of how ideologies exist in the world. Sometimes that’s because of very unfortunate happenings, when you’re forced into being your own business and somethings goes wrong and blah blah blah blah.
So grant applications must be both a positive of that but also a different kind of time suck.
For sure. Also, in a country with a lot of grants, there will be some artists who do amazing work but they can’t write applications. Or they didn’t have the right education, so they struggle with being recognized. That’s a whole separate economy and world of recognition. It’s not like all Norwegian artists get those grants. Au contraire.
Back to what you were saying about writing fiction, do you think your novels influence the thematic nature of your albums? Or does your music influence your fiction?
I don’t know. I didn’t write Blood Bitch or Apocalypse, Girl in relation to any work of other writing. I didn’t write between 2012 and 2016 at all aside from music, and I also didn’t write those two albums thinking of themes at all. The themes were something I made long after I’d finished the album. But concepts and themes are not always something that’s planned. Sometimes the creative process is pretty independent. It’s unconscious. It seems so well planned afterwards because everyone reads the press release and the press release makes everything seem like it was planned. But don’t be fooled by a press release! It’s a treacherous little document.
All photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh.