You often hear stories about film directors playing songs in between takes, but Jenny Hval is the kind of musician who brought movies into the recording process of her new album.
One film that influenced her new album Apocalypse, girl is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It’s one she’s watched countless times and always pulled more from in each instance. Bergman is like that, and — through work that plays with sound collage, spoken word, and art rock — Hval is a lot like that too.
From the moment Hval begins speaking on ‘Kingsize’ over a recording of her packing up her equipment, her new work reveals itself as a careful layering of dimensions that create a dynamic whole. Some words are chosen deliberately for their meaning, others flow in a stream on consciousness chosen more for the way their sound or feel. Songs dance between harsh realities and dreamlike fantasy as gender shifts with total fluidity. Examine a song up close and you’ll find ambitious collages of found sound and instruments; take a step back and look at the full canvas and you’ll find yourself a lot closer to pop music than you’d expect. The album is a passionate collection of pieces that may resist giving answers but certainly inspire conclusions.
I recently spoke with Hval over Skype about Apocalypse, girl (out today via Sacred Bones), her writing process, and the collaborations that took place once she entered the studio.
I’m always excited by the way you process these outside influences through your work. I love that the first line to open this album comes from Mette Moestrup. What were you taking in during the time that Apocalypse, girl was coming together?
I wrote that lyric very late. That was pretty much on the spot in the studio. It was a period where I was reading a lot and I loved the energy of Mette Moestrup. She’s got this great ability to be both light and humorous and then — it’s very dynamic, her language. It was a lot longer, but we edited a lot out. It’s interesting, you make one context and then it actually works when you chop it up and put it back together.
How did you first come to work with Lasse Marhaug on this album?
It was pretty intuitive. I’ve got to know him because he’s working at an arts center outside of Oslo which has given me a bit of room to do some projects also he’s a fantastic noise artist. I’m not that familiar with the harsh noise community — but I’ve always known that whenever he plays I like it. He has this fan zine that he puts out and he wanted to interview me for it. We had this long conversation, that was the interview, and after that I kind of thought “I want to keep this conversation going, I wonder if he would produce my album”. It was a collaboration that came out of talking about things which is also what the album came out of.
I’m more inspired by film and literature than I am by music, so to have someone to work with who could connect to me on that level, but coming from a very different background with music, was really interesting. Seventy percent of the time was devoted to art criticism, which is quite unusual, but we both live in Oslo so we could work for several months. I think we had coffee and talked about art criticism more than we were recording, but we were very productive when we did record. I work in very short stints. I enjoy working with something really intensely while I can hear the freshness in my head — then I’m dead and I can’t hear anything without knowing what I’m doing. He’s the same and that was really great.
“I don’t take much interest in leading.”Jenny Hval
In terms of the other musicians you worked with, people like Okkyung Lee and Thor Harris, did you feel like you had to step up and direct everyone? What’s the ebb and flow with that collaboration?
The only one I gave directions to was the synth player because he was in the studio and had to do much better versions of what I had done previously. Apart from that, it was mainly, “here’s the song, do what you want”. I find it’s the only way I can work because I’m not a director. I don’t take much interest in leading. I like people to do what they want and be challenged by that. I’m not sure I know what I want out of other people’s playing. I just have a good gut feeling. If something works for me, I hear it. I’m not a trained musician; I have more of an abstract approach to music.
There’s so much spontaneity in these songs. What was an average day working at the studio like? If there was such a thing as a typical day.
There was definitely a typical day. It usually consisted of coming to the studio early, listening to stuff we’d done the previous day, setting up a little bit, not getting much done and having coffee. Then coming back and quickly doing something and getting really hyped about that, and then leaving [laughs].
So it was very much about building up to this one scene every day, transitioning a song, getting one step further with something. It took us several weeks to find the right order of the tracks. Every time we changed the order, we needed to go back and look at the songs from a different perspective. We even recorded new vocals and different transitions. I’ve never been happy with a track listing ever before this album. We managed to do something that does play like a movie, with all those discussions of movies and scenes and visual cues.
What were some movies that were burning in your mind during this?
Well, it was anything from talking about big films to talking about things we hated to YouTube clips to films that don’t exist. I brought in Safe by Todd Haynes quite early. We even recorded a track called ‘Safe’ that’s not on the album. That had been part of the compositional starting point for me. It came in as something that I was very obsessed with. Lasse brought in Persona, which is a movie I’ve watched maybe 20 times; I kept returning to something in that film.
“Vulnerability is for everybody, regardless of sex and gender.”Jenny Hval
Did you come in with a lot written or were you reacting to what you were hearing? I’m curious how you kind of fit your lyrics around these sounds, or these sounds around you.
We spent a lot of time learning how to get the voice in the right place for an album because some of these I’ve been singing live for a while and some were kind of spontaneous things that I’d recorded. So there was a lot of work with some songs just to be able to perform them in the studio because when you’ve been singing something live it tends to get a lot louder to interact with a room and that’s not always interesting in an album context. So I had to tone down a lot of these vocally. My voice is difficult to place because it’s so dynamic. But to me it was all about small changes, making an album out of this collage material. There were a lot of changes going on and things like which gender is this person singing this song and this all that.
That ebb and flow makes me think of ‘Take Care Of Yourself’.
That was originally from a male perspective but we changed it because it felt better to sing “cunt” than “dick”, at least it was at that point. We discussed these things a lot in the studio. In the end, it was actually a song choice than a meaning decision to make that a female voice, because vulnerability is for everybody, regardless of sex and gender.
It’s so organic at that point. I’m so curious about the reaction between the lyrics and the music.
‘Kingsize’ was an interesting early experience because I realized early on that Lasse has an incredibly good ear for hearing music and all sounds which is what I was interested in anyway and I really wanted to learn from that. I’d recorded vocals for ‘Kingsize’ and it was just me speaking and we thought, “what should we do with this”. He said to me, “just pack down your synth in your flight case” and that’s the backing track. Then Okkyunh Lee came in and she naturally just played along with the packing and made more kind of a musical quality, little parts of dissonance. She made more of a soundtrack and to me that was really beautiful. So that was really interesting to me to make a really immediate piece of music with the arrangement of sounds.
I think when you’re a vocalist, especially when you’re really nerdy about sounds of words and sounds of the mouth and just sound art in general, learning the frequencies and all the frictions of the instruments you’re working with when they’re layered already just teaches you a lot about how to put your voice down. It’s like a touch. Everybody has a different hand shake. You just have to get to know what hand you’re touching. Or you could say it’s a kiss.