“What would it be like to be purified to death?” The singer/songwriter from Oslo, Norway, Jenny Hval, asks the question. She’s sitting between two tiny, tenacious humidifiers, spewing new and better air throughout the austere Midtown apartment she has settled in for the couple of days that she’s in New York City.
“It’s the pressure of late capitalism coming through,” Hval says, and laughs, referring to the humidifier steam. She explains that she isn’t the type of person to have something like this in her room.
“I enjoy understanding or just trying to emotionally go through what’s happening in the mainstream, like interpretations of femininity, or what’s being thrown in your face—misogynism, sexism—because trying to see what’s in it is a more interesting way of dealing with it than trying to be pure because that would be just like this again.” Hval points, once more, to the humidifiers.
After we speak for an hour, she comes back to them, the humidifiers, joking about their salubrious steam—and tells me that the idea came to her from Todd Haynes’ film, Safe. Its protagonist, Carol White, played by Julianne Moore, loves clean spaces and milk. She can’t get enough of it: milk. In a few scenes she sits patiently among humidifiers and purifiers in her freshly dusted ranch-style home, impassively sipping, never slurping, on that cold glass of refreshing milk. Milk-drinking makes for surreal cinematography—could it be that God loved Abel more than Cain because he was a cow herder? Milk-drinking, here, creates an otherworldly pureness, a domestic situation that looks too good to be true. Carol White looks as if she’s caught in the purifying purgatory of a Laurie Simmons dollhouse photo; her pressed linen pants, expensive robes, so Barbie. But here, Barbie’s a milk-a-holic, can’t get enough, until she’s told all of her problems may be sourced in lactose intolerance, and she has to give it up—despite milk’s deep-rooted history as the wholesome American cure-all—along with a long list of other potentially harmful foods and household products that she believes she may be allergic to.
So much good film and literature allows their characters glasses of chalky white milk. Frank Stanford does it in more than one poem. So much of it in Alfred Hitchcock. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. I swear, every single Andy Griffith Show. So it goes with Carol White. She’s perpetually sick from all of that milk, smoke, vapors, fruit, she can’t be sure. Her symptoms are real, sort of, but also not, or at least they don’t make sense to anyone else; so they’re only partially real. And this is what we see, so keenly, in Hval’s most recent album, Apocalypse, girl, part truths: individuals living within structures. Her politics and art are in step with other feminist writers and artists who question labor and reproduction—such as Laura Mulvey and Mary Kelly—by simultaneously illuminating what is seen and unseen. She gets bloody noses, hyperventilates, vomits, can’t seem to live or cope. When she sees a sign that reads: ARE YOU ALLERGIC TO THE 20TH CENTURY?, she stops and nearly nods a disc loose in her neck. She attends the conference advertised, which is for people in the San Fernando Valley who are getting sick off society’s fumes. The speaker instructs them on making their homes safe, germ-free spaces. “Your oasis is your safe place,” the speaker says, and the audience sighs, content, basking in the warm glow of relevant information. “Do you want to get better?” And the audience says, “Yes,” in unison. It’s a New Age catechism.
“There’s a phrase for all of this,” Hval says to me, regarding the humidifiers. “It’s like wellness. It’s quite popular.” She snaps her fingers to think of the English word. I try “safe space” and that isn’t the word either, but it’ll do. “Something like that, yes,” she says. “Safe space. This is something that I’m very critical of.”
Hval is an artist of multiple intelligences. She’s released several albums; her writing has appeared in many magazines and newspapers. She has also published two books and produced sound installations, along with other hybrid performance work. Her abilities and proclivities are capacious and it’s for these reasons that I’m intrigued by her latest album and trajectory, not only as a musician, but as an artist of dexterity.
With no formally accepted notion of song, Hval relishes in the incisive “cut through”—slicing through one layer and plugging it up with something else, something that surprisingly always fits—piling noise on top of sound, which results in large swaths of discordance and intersections of choral-quality harmony.
“I think the way that we approach lyrics was very much like cutting on [Apocalypse, girl],” says Hval. “We wanted [“That Battle is Over”] to end with buried, like, we wanted it to die. For that we needed to cut in some really dark drones, which that track ends with. And I think that we were doing a lot of that with other tracks, too. But most of the time, it didn’t always make that much sense. It was often just the joy of language…and then we cut in different sounds based upon what felt right. So, it’s a mixture of pleasure and thought.”
Hval tells me that the early-released, “That Battle is Over” has been often misinterpreted by a didactic reading of the lyrics: “That battle is over…Feminism’s over…Socialism’s over.”
“And of course, I don’t think feminism’s over,” she says, “that would be ridiculous. I’m letting those people sing for a bit, the people who say that the battle is over…and then I bury them in noise.”
At her March 19th show at Studio 88 in Hells Kitchen, Hval drops her voice to a low rumble, channeling a lighter, more self-aware version of Nico: “Who does the feeling?” she asks, right before wielding a banana like a knife and using it to prod, tease, and seduce two women behind her on stage, who are prostrate in front of a camera, behind a thin scrim—onto which their ludicrous game is being projected. The women bow their bodies like cats and crawl to their knees, brandishing plastic yellow chains, as if they were lassos, twirling their pink and red-gold mermaid wigs with their fingers. It’s nothing, if not girly, toggling between antipodes: dirty and clean; raunchy and sweet. Hval is letting those people sing for a bit; she’s enlarging and engaging. Her performance is all about teasing out the female identity, which is, by Hval’s interpretation, desire. They’re interchangeable, identity and desire.
As we speak that afternoon, I’m aware that I might not be conducting this interview as I should. We’re both prone to digressing and circling around these topics—of feminism, of power—but I can’t help it; Hval’s too good at it. If our conversation that afternoon had a shape, it’d be an undulating accordion. Later I’ll find it impossible to not remember these conversational shards and her performance compared to Gertrude Stein’s relationship with Alice Toklas in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Kate Zambreno also writes of this dynamic in Heroines. And I now often use the phrase to describe it: kitchen talk. The men stay in the living room; the women congregate in the kitchen and conversation is deep and light, respectively.
“The geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me,” Stein ventriloquizes Toklas in The Autobiography. Stein embodies the patriarchal power suit and insists that Alice keep on the apron, in order to maintain an accepted male-female power system, one that everyone could recognize, one in which her perch among such masculinity would not be jeopardized. “Not, as Gertrude Stein explained to [her college classmate] Marion Waler, that she at all minds the cause of women or any other cause but it does not happen to be her business.”
“We’re told to be powerful,” I add, “but in a power suit, capitalistic sort of way, one which mimics the patriarchy.”
“People started saying that feminism is over as soon as it started,” she says. “That’s a well-known technique of suppression; but I think that a lot of people are saying it now because capitalism has taken up some of the more marketable elements of feminism and made this sort of ‘strong consumer woman’ or reduced them to stereotypes. To me “The Battle is Over” is just another way of saying: ‘Look, we’ve created, it’s inside capitalism now. We don’t need the battle. It doesn’t have to be ugly anymore.’”
Hval was born to a church-going family, whose influence is still felt within some of the distinct choral elements in Apocalypse, girl. In these tracks, particularly in “White Underground” or “Why This”, there’s a current of some electronic gospel choir mash-up among Meredith Monk, Fiona Apple, Björk, and Laurie Anderson. The compositional choices in these create a sense of layering, an additive structure that becomes more complex and increasingly cohesive as you listen. Each sonic phoneme seems to have been chosen specifically, to elicit singular and direct emotional responses; but then there’s that dragging and rising of the vocals, repeated organ keys and circular reverberations. All together, the emotional resonance of the chorus is acute, but not without allowing each element within the composition its moment to shine solo.
“I always hated gospel singers when I was little,” Hval says, “not the American gospel artists, but the young white girls singing in the gospel choir. That’s everything I didn’t want to be, growing up in a region of the Bible belt.”
“But when I was making this album,” Hval continues, “this image of all these gospel-singing girls that I went to school with came back to me. It’s a part of me that I’ve never really taken seriously in my music, but really wanted to. I’ve always been very much informed by seeing myself as the alien, but I thought: what if I tried to reconnect? Because there’s always a part of everyone, growing up, even if they’re outsiders, that really wants to be on the football team or popular. I found it artistically rewarding to go back into that wanting.”
But this dipping back into gospel wasn’t for the want of big sound or virtuosity, a quality Hval disavows, if for no other reason than necessity: she doesn’t consider herself a virtuoso musician; it’s just not in the cards. So her allegiances lie within the experiment, the everyday emotive mess. Gertrude Stein “always said she dislikes the abnormal, it is so obvious. She says the normal is so much more, simply complicated and interesting.” Jenny Hval relates. She is mostly karaoke queen; she remains both outside of, and complicit with, the quotidian Everywoman. “[Karaoke is] the person who can’t really sing trying to sing beautifully, trying to take on this persona, voice of a well-known artist, ostensibly a skilled singer, but they fail. The emotional content in trying is really gripping to me. I wanted to try. I wanted to have that element of trying something, to be part of a new thing. And I did that with my lyrics, too. Rather than distance, I used closeness and intimacy.”
We both love Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura and in talking about why it’s so good, we come around to why some thought it was so bad, and we found ourselves with the word indulgent. “Unfortunately, the first thing that comes to mind when you say that word is The Eagles,” Hval says. “The Eagles are my least favorite band, but I was watching this Eagles documentary that was three hours long…and I was thinking about that word, indulgence, the whole time. There are two uses of the word: the cool rock star indulgence, like Jim Morrison. Or tearing down hotel rooms, like The Eagles. And then there’s another kind of indulgence: the self-obsessed female artist. And I think that in many cases it’s a matter of people not wiling to go into the space, where the artist is, to find what’s interesting. Women have been given their own room, but no one wants to go in there. It’s terrifying, so they keep the door shut and let them be in there alone, in their girly space, to do their girly things. And then that’s indulgent.”
“The female enigma,” I say, “the unknown, and you either must ignore or conquer the unknown between the legs.”
“Yeah,” she nods her head, her hair bleached and closely cropped. “I’ve been noticing in a lot of movies that often there are men sitting between the legs of women—because they’re giving birth, or it’s an erotic film—and it’s always terrifying. The scene is always about death, and this made me start thinking, yeah, that’s the room, that girly room that you don’t want to enter because you find it so terrifying.”
Embodying Toklas, Stein says: “I always say that you cannot tell what a picture really is or what an object really is until you dust it every day and you cannot tell what a book is until you type it or proof-read it.”