It doesn’t take long to realize that Jenny Hval is extraordinarily self-aware, as she’ll share newly arrived at insights about herself with little forethought. But it takes longer to recognize the hard work she’s put into living with such transparency, a willful thematic rejection of sociocultural hangups about intimacy, vulnerability and submission.
Hval’s music most neatly fits under the vague umbrella of “experimental pop,” though that’s more a comment on the aesthetic of her presentation than the music itself. My first experience with her music came when she presented her then new album, Apocalypse, Girl at last year’s Basilica Soundscape, an annual festival of experimental music in Hudson, N.Y., accompanied by local women choreographing a performance that involved bouncy yoga balls, toilet paper, a wedding dress and fake blood. Also in the troupe—her longtime creative collaborator and artistic director, Zia Anger.
Such theatrics fit the theme of Apocalypse, Girl last year—a performance Hval described to me succinctly before it began, “Tonight I’m presenting human failure, loneliness and other things,” she said, laughing at her absurdity before picking up the iPhone I used to record her. “Because I think the iPhone is like a dead metaphor, a road-to-nowhere metaphor for many things in our lives. I think it’s a replacement for intimacy, because it’s just a way that, when you pull this closer it’s just a mirror for yourself. There’s a certain intimacy to it, but it’s lonely, it’s endearing, and there’s this kind of black hole there as well.”
“I think that music has a sort of sacred potential to say something else, to go outside or beyond the struggle or complexity that always just ends up in the same feedback loop of capitalist despair or whatever, being caught in the loop of the unpaid freelance journalist’s work.”
There was a ritual implied during that performance, something unspoken about the blood on that wedding dress, that Hval’s new record Blood Bitch, out September 30 on Sacred Bones, explores much more deeply. Even more so than Hval’s prior work, Blood Bitch is a subversive listen—it’s arguably her catchiest recording yet, enticing fans of pop and dance recordings to spend some time with it before revealing its deeper wisdoms and its true fangs.
Fangs have a pejorative connotation, sure, but Hval says herself that Blood Bitch is about female vampires, rituals and menstruation. This came up when we talked again over Skype a few weeks ago and she said, “menstruation is the blood of failure.” As with all iconography Hval incorporates, these images only exist at the surface of what she’s really interested in exploring.
Hval’s sense of self fascinates me in our conversations because she fully resonates—emotionally, intellectually, physically—with the themes she’s exploring on each release. Hence, her self-awareness never feels like a brand or a put-on. She’s wondrous, really, a wide-eyed kid diving headfirst into a pool of her own ideas. Those ideas that manifest on Blood Bitch—the outsider looking in at paradigms, re-evaluating the rituals of intimacy, and the endless value of cataloging failures—cannot be killed. And in her hope that menstrual blood will be seen as a universal symbol for creativity, a gendered stigma that I initially felt while time with Blood Bitch quickly dissolved—namely, the idea that this album isn’t for me, and if that all sounds a wee bit voyeuristic, that’s O.K.
You have interesting relationships with phones, they don’t always like you! Last year you told me you couldn’t remember your Facebook password.
Yeah, I couldn’t start using Tinder!
Maybe its for the best if you feel divorced from that sort of logic and stuff. Did the performance around Apocalypse, Girl embed in you some of the themes on Blood Bitch? I thought maybe we could start with something you said to me when we last met, that you’re interested in “telling the story of your body through language.” Is that still something you’re interested in?
[Laughs] No, I was flipping through [our conversation] and I think that was a really interesting time, because that was the clearest moment of expressing the Apocalypse moment, I think. It was a very clear moment, and it was captured really well because the music was taken care of really well at the festival. It was a magical moment. I’m probably just doing the same thing that I was doing then, and I’ve always done that and I’ll always be doing it. But it feels very different now. I was reading through some of the things I said in the piece, and I actually felt quite distanced from it, especially the phone thing. I had to stop using my phone onstage because I got really sick of thinking about it.
You called it a “dead metaphor.”
I did, it sounded very clever. I wonder who you were speaking with that day, because yeah…it was definitely a very lucid moment.
But you mention phones in the first song on Blood Bitch, too, no? You mention a screen, and then that’s it for the rest of the record. It seems like a dismissal or a thematic moving away.
I think it is, actually, it doesn’t mean much. I was reluctant to put if first for that reason, because it does mention a phone, but now I just forget the lyric of that piece and see it as, well, if there’s a phone in there maybe it’s just the burial of an image. It’s just like The Time Machine. The beginning of the film where the character goes back in time so the only time you see a mobile phone is the very beginning and then all of a sudden she appears in 1974 or something. [Laughs]
But you talk about the “coffin for my heart,” too, you’re clutching the phone and that void maybe turns into the coffin, the death of intimacy.
I think it does, yeah.
You also said that you’re not interested in stories so much as human processes. “Like how you discover something in language and place empathy to where you sympathize with the different characters.” That line really rings true on this record to me. I love it, but I’m not sure that it’s for me in the sense that I feel a little voyeuristic listening to it as a man. It’s good that it makes me uncomfortable. You also talked about the phone as “a lonely endearing intimacy” but you’re trying to recapture intimacy on this album in a way that doesn’t need technology, that’s ancient? Is that where the ritual comes in?
I think it’s a really good interpretation. I’m sorry it doesn’t feel like it’s for you and that it makes you feel uncomfortable.
“Even menstruation is the blood of failure, the blood that comes out of you because you didn’t conceive. And the vampire blood is blood that is no longer alive, that’s no longer in a living person.”
It’s a good thing!
No, no, I like being this person saying I’m sorry about that. We have a little bit of a ritual, me and the people I work with, Zia and Annie. If someone’s critical of what we do we say, “I’m sorry, I’ll change for you.” [Laughs] Just kind of submitting to it instead of being all defensive, you know? Especially with trolling. Then it seems so silly. I probably won’t change for you, and that also makes me feel a bit sorry, but also not.
Yeah, the voyeuristic…well I feel voyeuristic, too, and I think that’s O.K.! With this album, maybe I’m…“Hey! Let’s go back to where we look at naked women and feel good, and then feel bad about it because of the struggles of our time. Then maybe look at it again and not look at their bodies so much but look at this weird camera movement, look at how this gaze is so interested in the body in such a particular way. Well, that’s interesting, let’s move on to that desire and look at that, get comfortable or uncomfortable with that instead of just looking at this object of the body.”
What is looking at the object of the body actually saying? Why do we do it?
Yeah, or maybe how do we do it? How can we do it in a way that justifies desire without trying to own someone’s body? Is there a way? And can we not think about guilt and morals so much, and rather, maybe through music, explore eroticism without thinking about political correctness? There’s something being broken there in the way we talk about sexuality, even when we’re being progressive. Something is broken, something is repressed. And I think repression is a really big problem in society.
But I don’t really wanna talk about problems with society on this album. And I feel kind of ill-equipped to talk about repression in society in this interview because that’s not why I make music. Maybe I make music to have an outlet, and maybe I feel…well, I don’t want this to be about menstruation and vampires and have any person identifying as male thinking that this is not for them. It’s not about those experiences, but rather about much more universal rituals. You know? The ritual awakening of anyone.
You told Tiny Mix Tapes about a year ago, “In so much of our culture women have been imprinted with impurity in so many ways. But also then, because of that, they contain more purity. And it’s a wanting.” That really hit me as more of a universal exploration on this record. When we’re talking about ritual and purity in general, we’re talking what we associate with being pure and impure to some degree? Even [this lyric]—“The blood bitch’s tales/You lose yourself in the rituals of bad art and failure.” You told me last year that your performance was a collection of failures. How does that parlay into ritual for you? Is the act of performing different from the rituals you’re talking about on the record?
Well, I like the idea of failure, and I was watching a lot of movies while making this record that are considered huge failures. Failure of the technical aspect of filmmaking, failure of any political aspect, maybe, because they’re failures of narrative. I realized that I could love these movies anyway because I love flaws. I could love a movie for one scene or one image, for the colors or the soundtrack. I don’t care if it’s pieced together perfectly or not, and that realization has made me sort of revisit a lot of artworks that I learnt to not like when I was studying this kind of thing.
That was kind of happening when I was making Blood Bitch, and that’s definitely somewhere where I appreciate failure. I also think that a lot of what goes into my music is as general as Kurt Cobain, self-hate. And I really want to make it universal because I really don’t think this is my guilt, and this is my thing. It really is something that’s society, something that I’m being burdened with, and I need to sort of find a collective appreciation of that failure, then, an exploration of a collective ritual. Something that’s considered bad is also something that has been considered dangerous, maybe, like menstruation.
Yeah! Low art.
In the context of failed narrative I’m thinking of this quote from the record—“we live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can’t counter it with a coherent narrative of their own.” Just being able to not challenge anything, does this fractured narrative play out on the record through how we culturally approach femininity or aspects of womanhood? Or am I just projecting?
I think you are projecting, but very well. I wouldn’t say it that way. I would say that I was not thinking so much about femininity, but I was thinking about ways to escape, maybe objectifying, maybe ways of escaping the struggle. Because I think that music has a sort of sacred potential to say something else, to go outside or beyond the struggle or complexity that always just ends up in the same feedback loop of capitalist despair or whatever, being caught in the loop of the unpaid freelance journalist’s work.
Even if my music can seem complex, there are also really simple hopes and desires in it. And I think I’m acknowledging a lot of those on Blood Bitch. So that want or need or longing for music or art in general to have a potential that this quote about politics or news or general sensible thinking [addresses], where that ends something else might begin that can be a step outside it, or join the emotional and the intellectual in a different way. Like a different scene of association, maybe.
“I understand infatuation, rejection, they can connect and become everything.” You’re talking about a new narrative, not necessarily borne in opposition or reaction to politics or the world, but a ball of maybe failures still making something of value?
Yeah, and even menstruation is the blood of failure, the blood that comes out of you because you didn’t conceive. And the vampire blood is blood that is no longer alive, that’s no longer in a living person. There’s a lot of combined failures on this album, but they become a sort of different life, I guess.
Is that where the act of speaking becomes an expression of fear? Something like that is said early on, and I took it to mean that speech or someone not remaining silent is reactionary to fear or confusion somehow.
Was that from me? That sounds like me. When you speak instead of having the strength to be silent, and me trying then to say, “hey, let’s just speak differently and not see it like that.” [Laughs]
Well you mention in that Tiny Mix Tapes piece this film Persona that really hit you from ’66. “There are two women in it, one is silent and the other is speaking. The latter has fallen silent, I think, in reaction to the horrors of the world.” It’s that old adage about how the genius stays silent and the idiot speaks, right?
Yeah, yeah. You could also say that the idiot speaks because silence is like death. When nobodies speaking you think of death, so you constantly push it away by making noise. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but maybe you do, because you’re very clever.
Stop! This was really valuable to me and I hope to continue having these conversations.
Yeah! I learned a lot. I’m not being ironic when I’m saying you’re clever, but sometimes it’s good to feel stupid even when you’re quoting something I said, and I feel stupid in the moment because I sounded so much more clever back then.
Hindsight, man. You coming back to Hudson anytime soon?
I think I am, but I’m not sure I’m playing.
I guess my last question for you is, insofar as it’s the poppiest and most accessible moment to someone not familiar with your work, how do you unpack “Conceptual Romance” for somebody who’s not as invested in your larger body of work? The idea of a romance more theoretical and not so rooted in physicality. How does that tie into the theme of the record for you?
“Conceptual Romance” could be as easy as desire. Just imagining it, the dreams, the sort of adolescent craziness in the body when you desire someone or something. It doesn’t have to be more complex than that, but it also could be a justification of a desire that’s not realized.
Or not reciprocated.
Yeah! And taking the value of your desire without it necessarily being validated or not by another person. In that case it could be validating a lot of feelings you’ve had in your life [laughs], that you’ve seen as failed or empty, or bad, “period.” He didn’t call, you know, he didn’t call. But see it as a conceptual romance.
I think all romances are conceptual. Infatuation comes with a huge pile of theses as to what’s going to happen or not. It comes with a novel of expectation, but I think conceptual romance is as much about our relationship with art as it is about actual human getting-together or not. It’s also about how we perceive what is is good art and what is not.
And that’s all a projection, too.
Yeah! But how relative is it really? Because there are paradigms. When you apply to art school, you get in or you don’t. Sometimes the reasons for being accepted or not can have to do with so many things that are not necessarily about “good” or “bad.” It can have to do with what Western art considered “high” or “low,” what is a sublime emotion and what is dumb? What is distanced enough and artificial enough to be art?
That’s a really wonderful way to look at your work. You’re interested in those paradigms, is that fair to say? You can look them in the eye.
Yeah, I am interested in paradigms. I think on this album that’s one of the most personal statements, the outsider confronts paradigms. But also realizing that the outsider confronts paradigms because she’s outside them, they hurt her. So why do they hurt, and how can you validate your desires when they’re different? In that case I think Blood Bitch is very universal, but also contains the hope for menstrual blood to become a huge symbol in creativity that it hasn’t really been seen as. So it comes with that stuff, too.