Interviews

Jenny Hval Finds Vitality, Musicality in Blood

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
PHOTO: JENNY BERGER MYHRE

Jenny Hval: "These songs now represent resistance, the lives that are invisible to the mainstream. And blood can be transformed into tears.”

The title of Jenny Hval’s latest album, “Blood Bitch” (Sacred Bones), to some fans might evoke the Norwegian singer’s past in a goth-metal band, or perhaps signal a Diamanda Galas-like plunge into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human soul.

It bears elements of both possibilities, but it’s notable primarily for the way it weaves its evocative imagery and music into a more textured, contemplative landscape that at times verges on melodic pop music. The layered concept album links Hval’s love of horror movies — vampire tales in particular — with the mundane rituals and intimate revelations of her last tour.

“It wasn’t anything that happened in particular on that tour — it had more to do with the people I was with, a bigger group than usual,” she says. “Two years ago after the ‘Apocalypse, girl’ release (her 2015 album), I was touring with three or four women, and the amazing conversations we had worked their way into the music. It was very collaborative on that tour, and it liberated me when writing this album.”

Hval never saw herself as musician, though she plays multiple instruments and writes and co-produces her albums. Instead, she sees music more as an extension of life experience, an art project akin to her interests in film, performance and literature (she has published a novel and numerous articles). Her half-dozen solo albums, she says, are an “extension of what my life was like while making them. I always had a secret desire to do music, but I didn’t see myself as doing it professionally. I love doing it, but I never expect it to continue. I feel that what I do is more interesting to me if I see it as part of a bigger picture, a part of studying the world, a need to express something rather than a technical education in being a musician or this huge desire to be a performing musician on stage.”

It’s an ever-evolving approach that rarely hews to formulas. She cautions that her stint with metal band Shellyz Raven in the ‘90s and her horror-movie fandom shouldn’t necessarily be equated with loud or violent music. Despite its evocative title, “Blood Bitch” is never so easily pigeonholed.

“I was reminded as I was watching all these horror films that they often have a lot of beautiful melodic music,” she says. “There are so many delicate, sexual elements. So much is everyday life. You can also say that about Diamanda Galas music — it has delicate elements with synths, drums, spoken word, whispering. You can forget that in this tabloid era of having to strain to express everything. We become very set in this most potent memory of a genre, or most extreme parts of a film. In talking about my music and black metal, it can make perfect sense even if the music is widely different than how those things are generally perceived. It’s not that simple. A press release (describing an album) always has an element of a joke. You can describe the music, but it can mean a thousand different things depending on who you ask. I had a lot of fun presenting what the album was going to be, but then that will be subject to countless interpretations.”

The notion of blood can be both disturbing and mundane — an everyday presence in some people’s lives — a tension that she aimed to explore more fully in the album. It stands in contrast to the Hollywood film industry that, she says, “makes violence beautiful — in a lot of horror films, the gore is made very aesthetic, violent but also very unreal. What I wanted to do in the songs is follow the blood, instead of the mythology and the symbolism. Blood in itself can be seen as so many flowing things. You don’t see it as giving death or life. It has a musicality to it. I didn’t want to do the same thing as the mainstream movie industry. I tried to be in a different space, more psychedelic, hallucinatory. Maybe vampires are just hallucinating. It must be boring to live that long. “

In the same way that a tour can feel endless.

“I don’t like touring very much,” she says. “I like traveling, and I always enjoy the playing. But the repetition, the packing of your suitcase every day after sleeping not nearly enough and getting in the same car, it’s really draining. You are so far removed from the world, and the world you should care about, and not being with your community and participating in society. It’s depressing, but you get close to people you tour with. You find yourself together in this fragile space, and that fragility creates a closeness. You show people things, your vampire personalties, the stuff you don’t want to show most people back home. A vampire can be an aging female musician on tour. When you tour for a month, you can see very quickly how this could be like an unwanted eternal existence. It’s like you create your own world with a few people.”

Now that she’s touring again, this time behind “Blood Bitch,” Hval says the music is being transformed yet again. The songs were conceived as a reflection of a particular experience filtered through the lens of horror films and traveling at close quarters. Now the images of blood and vampires have taken on a new context.

“I’ve changed a lot now,” she says. “Last year was terrible politically for the world, and it felt different to be playing these shows about blood and vampires. It became more about politics and the possibility of a different, more hidden existence that can avoid surveillance, social control. These songs now represent resistance, the lives that are invisible to the mainstream. And blood can be transformed into tears.”

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