IN CONVERSATION WITH JENNY HVAL: “THE MUSIC INDUSTRY IS DEFINITELY A VAMPIRE”
If you’ve listened to Jenny Hval’s latest album Blood Bitch, you’ll know the joy of the record is in the multitudes it contains: interludes about cake, old horror movie references, copious references to blood and capitalism jostle up against each other for air. In short: it’s an album that demands to be discussed, which is why I was so elated when Hval agreed to be interviewed. While the below has been edited for clarity, it’s mostly been left untouched. Deep breaths. In this age of clickbait and listicles, this is a deliciously long read. Reader, blame Hval: she was far too eloquent to cut down.
Can you explain the themes of the album?
No (laughs). I can’t. But I can tell you why I can’t. The themes I’ve been talking about if you’ve read other interviews or the press release came much later than the album itself. And that I find is something I need to say as a disclaimer before I say things I think the album is about. And when you say “themes” so much is missing, so much of the dreamy quality that can’t really be reduced to themes. All the longing that comes with making an album. It’s an album that I made pretty much playing on my own so there’s a lot of longing for company and for other people and just general themes of desire and maybe not loneliness as a direct theme but as some kind of basis for that longing.
The vampire is a sort of lonely figure but my vampire dreams of others and company. If there is a vampire character in the album, what it wants isn’t to kill, but to find company with others, like sisterhood or borderline crossing over into romantic relationships or maybe something indefinable. But yeah, it can be seen as a fictional narrative album and it can be seen as a lot of blood themes.
It’s funny, because it reminds me of this brilliant piece in The Quietus about this girl listening to Blood Bitch and trying to reach an understanding of the album and she’s really wrestling with it. At at the beginning of “Untamed Region” you’ve got a male voice saying “It sums up the strange mood of our time when nothing really makes any coherent sense.” I read that as being about the narrative of the album itself, a guide to listening to it. What is the best way to reach an understanding of the album: is it quite subconscious?
Yes, I’d say so. I’d say the best way is you have to surrender to it. That’s certainly something I try when I play it but also something I try to do when I listen. I like that you said “subconscious” because I think that’s how I’d naturally assume the listener would listen to Blood Bitch. I mean, how can you listen to an album and truly be listening to it if you’re thinking about deciphering it? That’s not really listening to me, that’s more like reading. And I think it’s really necessary to be able to take things in, especially nowadays. So it’s a hopeful answer. I understand that’s not how everybody listens to music but every artist is making music because she or he or they want to say something about how to concentrate and surrender and love things. So you know, big things.
I guess it’s just that you leave these breadcrumbs in your music, it definitely creates a temptation to read your music in some sort of academic or literary way, because there are always these grand concepts structured around personal details in your work and –
Yeah, but I think that academic reading doesn’t have to be so distanced but can be part of the emotional side of responding to art. And I think sadly we’ve come to a place, maybe hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of years ago, where we decided that an academic way of approaching anything is separate from our emotional response to it, which I don’t think is true.
And so in my work I can’t help but put in these things that I think lots of people see as contrasts, like a theory of blood and then on the other hand, this subconscious, spiritual listening and lots of emotion and heartbreak and personal details. I don’t think they exist separately but I think we try very hard to make them separate. I’ve certainly learnt to do that in my academic education so maybe I’m trying to unlearn some of that in my writing.
I’m nervous to pinpoint specific influences now but was the album influenced by menstrala or the conversation surrounding menstruation? I feel like this movement is so prominent at the moment — over the last few years we’ve had Rupi Kaur posting pictures of herself with a period stain on her clothes on Instagram and Kiran Ghandi running the marathon while on her period without a tampon. Were you influenced by that?
I don’t think I could say I’m not influenced by that because I certainly did see it and discuss it with people but I do think I wasn’t thinking about it when making the album. It was a part of a bigger interest in things that were naturally coming together. So this was on my mind, as [was] touring with lots of women for a year really changed how I looked at trouble and touring and playing live music. This was when I started performing in a very different way from previously onstage so I think all of these things happened at the same time for me.
And then there were all these horror films that I was watching and really wanting to investigate how they sounded and there was all this blood in them obviously. So all of this happened at the same time and for me there was a really magical link between what was being discussed and the need to discuss it in a different way. But I could not see these social media discussions and political discussions as being influential in how they were being talked about.
How what’s talked about?
The language that’s used for menstruation or free bleeding. That’s definitely not so inspirational to me. Because it’s talked about in this language that’s not my creative language so I need to find a creative side to it. I certainly dream of menstruation having a big mythical power that’s not seen as this taboo power but more as a variety of different creative interpretations rather than being this black hole where nothing can exist and it’s just some hidden horror. But I also think watching a lot of horror films with tons of blood and many female villains, I think there is a lot of really creative and great stuff in there. So maybe I wanted to connect with it a little bit.
Is the album connected to your own personal experience of menstruation or is this you approaching menstruation from a more cultural angle and trying to push it beyond the territory of taboo?
I can’t really say I thought about myself so much but that doesn’t mean it’s not connected to my personal experience. I made a link between my subconscious memory of being younger and getting my period and various stages in my life, various bleeding stages, and saw that through the filter of these young heroines in the various films that I watched. There was this one film called A Virgin Among The Living Dead, a quite beautiful Jess Franco film, and I think me writing about being in a hotel room bleeding is more related to that young girl horror experience than me being on tour, but still, that’s been my life so much over the past few years and so being in a hotel room bleeding is me as well. It’s many things all together. But I don’t think I could say I ever had a conscious moment of my own personal menstruation.
“I think the problem there is that the female subject is still not really seen as a subject, because a subject can speak for everybody”
I suppose that’s the tension of the album for me. I feel women get shamed a lot for making confessional art and if a man does it — like, say, Ben Lerner did a few years ago with Leaving The Atocha Station — he’s this poet and he writes fiction that’s either autobiographical or self-conscious about autobiography and he’s very much praised for it. But it feels like when a woman does the same thing it’s viewed as her being uncreative or lazy and I guess I sometimes feel like female artists have to use concepts in order to gain permission to write about emotions and their personal life. I even saw on “Female Vampire”, you wrote this lyric “I’m so tired of subjectivity, I must justify my presence by losing it.” And I very much read that whole spiel about women not being able to write confessional work in that. Is that why you use the vampire concept?
I think that’s a beautiful interpretation and I won’t take credit for it because I think it’s yours. I think the flipside of it though, and it’s very connected also, there is also a problem with a lot of women’s more autobiographical writing, being received as if there’s no concepts in there, it’s seen as lazy instead of being existential and speaking to everybody and being able to transcend the self. And I think the problem there is that the female subject is still not really seen as a subject, because a subject can speak for everybody and so there you have a huge problem with anyone who’s not seen as the subject in power, which is the white male subject, and when a woman speaks about her life she’s not able to speak for everybody.
And so I’m thinking if I say something about menstruation for example because we’re talking about it, I want it to be concerning everybody, not just the women who are currently in cycle, I want it to speak to so many other people, too, the human is no longer divided into two separate comfortable categories, the one category is bleeding, the other is not, so I want my language to concern more people. I think the subjectivity bit is me getting a bit sick of the subjectivity I talk about in Apocalypse, Girl, trying on the normcore but very anxious subjectivity of woman. Maybe that is the subjectivity that the vampire character can escape and maybe that’s why I thought of Orlando, this wonderful character who is human but not human. Or superhuman. But more interesting than the superhumans of comic books.
And is Orlando superhuman to you because he or she is free from gender?
Not freer, but fluid. It’s not the same, I think. But none is better than the other or worse. And both interpretations are very possible. Yeah, I think that is certainly a more interesting quality to the vampire than just the taking of human life and being so sexy and mysterious and good looking and male and powerful and stalker-ish.
In an interview with the Fader you talk about the vampire figure in relation to work and you say “She’s more like a touring musician. Just stuck. Stuck in Groundhog Day but on tour. Same city every night. It reminds me of being stuck in capitalist structures, being stuck in jobs that don’t pay.” I feel like Orlando isn’t just free and fluid in terms of gender, but the beauty of Orlando is that Orlando seems to live out one aspect of Virginia Woolf’s life in that they are a nobleman. Were you using Orlando not just to move fluidly between gender but to explore the fluidity of class that the artist has? The artist isn’t totally part of the capitalist structure in a way. You’ve got a certain freedom – I know you’ve got a job and a schedule but you’re deciding what your work is, you’re fluid in terms of place.
I couldn’t say I used the Orlando figure for anything, really. This was an afterthought. I see it a bit differently, I think that is one part and I think that’s important to me, the fluidity of it. I certainly do not see myself as stuck. But the emotions around being a traveller, a transient worker, it’s linking you with the world in a way that is otherwise quite far away .You’re free in a way but it’s also the opposite. Most of the time you can’t just do what you want. The music industry is definitely a vampire and the way that artists work, just like freelance journalists, capitalism has completely swallowed what we call artistic work and freedom and joy and energy and used it for what it can which is producing precarious workers who will say yes to anything and that’s probably what my song “The Great Undressing” is about, though most of the lyrics were dropped from the album, so that was a song that started out as a love letter. Then it became what is a love letter and then it became what is artistic energy of this insane writing that is a love letter, and then it moved on to how did capitalism steal this energy and make it into a reason for not paying people for working.
I read this book or article about modern labour, I don’t remember, talking about how everyone’s supposed to love their work now and every job interview is about are you completely as a person perfectly suited for this because everything needs to be a calling, not a job. There’s a lot of depression about capitalism in there as well as what you’re saying.
Finally, what is the album’s take on femininity? Or womanhood or femaleness? Femininity sounds perhaps a little too delicate.
I believe what I was thinking a lot about when making this album. It was a lot about connecting and sisterhood and covens. Female companionship. Friendship between people who are made into being so lonely, like the precarious workers, always made to think that we are competing against each other. You know, women are often set up to compete with each other. I remember growing up and realizing how women’s bathrooms in clubs were all about competition, competitive zones, which completely freaked me out and made me totally disinterested in going out at all. Just by being an artist I’ve realised a big part of the masculine view on femininity is that as soon as you have some extremely talented female artists taking up space, these arguments about how many do we have room for come up. You very quickly put female strong voices in competition with each other instead of letting us co-exist. And so I think that’s not a part of my album so much but I do think that my album is a lonely woman longing for companionship, friendship, connection and finding that maybe in something like the lines in the song Period Piece, it’s kind of jokey but it’s also about connecting, even through seeing your vagina as a portal to the cosmos to connect with all people. (laughs)
Does that come from experiencing sexism in the music industry?
I think I’ve been fortunate but also too shy to experience the worst of sexism. I’ve never wanted to be in much contact with the big industry. I just found people gradually or they found me. I’ve been working very slowly for a long time getting my music out and I’m not that ambitious, career-wise, I’m more interested in the work, which has also led me to be not so interesting to the industry so I haven’t seen that much, but I’ve still experienced my share of sexism.
I see it when I read, I see it in people’s words, I see it everywhere. It’s such a big part of almost everyone’s life whether you see it or not. For me, feminism came before sexism. I didn’t need sexism to be a feminist. Because that’s a worldview for me, that’s cosmic, how I see life, how I see all people.
Jenny Hval is playing Kantine am Berghain on 26th October.