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“I Give You Something You’ve Never Heard”: Jenny Hval on Her New Album and the Grand Puzzle of Existence

On ‘The Practice of Love,’ the Norwegian musician tackles the bizarre and banal realities of the 21st century, from Spotify algorithms to the taboos of childlessness

Photo by Lasse Marhaug, courtesy of the Artist / Ringer illustration

Jenny Hval is calling me from the third happiest place on earth. Not Disney World—no, not even Disneyland—but from her home in Oslo, Norway, the capital city of a country that recently placed no. 3 in the annually published World Happiness Report. (Norway topped the list in 2017, but, alas, has since been surpassed by its jovial Scandinavian neighbors Finland and Denmark.) “It’s an interesting place,” the 39-year-old experimental musician tells me, explaining that grants from her country’s government make it easier for her to make a living as an artist than she might be able to in the States. “It’s not somewhere that you would necessarily choose to go, but it’s nice to live here.”

And yet the “World Happiness Report” is precisely the kind of looming, semi-absurd modern institution that Jenny Hval might skewer in one of her songs. Hval has a knack for putting everyday phenomena under a warped microscope, asking us to reexamine the bizarre and banal realities we take for granted in the 21st century. Whether she’s tackling the algorithms of Spotify playlist culture, the false promises of late capitalism, or the empty commodification of self-care, listening to Hval’s music makes everything seem newly strange. “What is it to take care of yourself?” she asked on her great 2015 album Apocalypse, Girl. “Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market?” The questions tumble out as an avalanche of modern anxiety; the quest for “self-care” turns out to be just another source of stress. Like much of her work, the song is both playful and challenging, fueled by her wicked sense of humor and the full force of her intellect.

“Sorry!” Hval says, reanswering my call after she leaned too hard into her phone and accidentally hung up on me. “My ear does things.” She has so far spent her day drafting an artist’s statement that will accompany her new music video, “Accident,” a surreal and evocative clip directed by Hval’s frequent collaborator Zia Anger. (In addition to many of Hval’s videos, Anger has also directed Mitski’s “Geyser” and Maggie Rogers’s “Alaska,” to name just a few.) Like much of Hval’s engrossing new record The Practice of Love, “Accident” is a pulsing, synth-driven meditation on motherhood, work, technology and the grand puzzle of existence. “Once she was a mystery of life,” Hval sings in a wispy voice. “Now she is Skyping with her friend.” (Among other magic tricks her music performs, it can make the supposed wonders of technology seem laughably dull.)

Some of Hval’s previous songs contained abrasive sounds that borrowed textures from noise music. For The Practice of Love, she wanted a softer sound, and looping, meditative tracks that feel indebted to ’90s trance music. “I wanted to have some kind of clarity in the sound,” she tells me, “not to make things muddy and deep, but to have things very light and clear, almost like the element of the transcendental in trance. It’s sort of an elevated state, a very receptive state, I find. I can write things that wouldn’t happen with other sounds.”

Indeed, the idea for The Practice of Love began as a bit of a dare. Someone once told Hval, half-jokingly, that there are three topics an artist should never write about, because they’re too big and cliché: love, death, and the ocean. The Practice of Love tackles all three. “It was nice to put them all in there and see what I could do from this perspective of being very small,” Hval tells me. “Because I think that one thing I’m really enjoying about becoming older is just realizing you’re very small and insignificant. And there’s great potential in that.”

Her work is uncommonly transparent about aging; by the end of a Jenny Hval record, you will often know exactly how old she was when she made it. “I keep growing older, eight years since 25 now,” she sang on “That Battle Is Over,” a slyly catchy single from Apocalypse, Girl. Another song on that record riffed on the then-33-year-old being “Jesus’s age”—albeit the age when Jesus died. Hval’s music is refreshingly skeptical of the cultural pressure to accomplish things by certain arbitrary ages. “Part of the reason is that I’m in a line of work where age is so important for the opposite reason,” she says. “You’re not supposed to be aging, you’re supposed to be young. And that is so weird to me. It’s so unnatural. So there’s subversion in just saying how old you are—that’s already subverting something.”

“It’s also a fascination of how much I can find in thinking about changing and aging and how I feel about the world in different stages of my life,” she goes on. “There’s just so much to find there that I’m more interested in than trying to reminisce about the time in your life that’s supposed to be pop-song-like, which I guess is like 13 to 18 or something, maybe 20.” She laughs at this limiting notion dismissively, as though she’s figured out a more invigorating way to live. “I just refuse to let the world of fiction and song and imagination end with the end of childhood,” she says.

Hval grew up in Norway’s so-called Bible Belt, in the southern town of Tvedestrand. She immersed herself in dream-pop and goth music, specifically records put out by the cult indie labels 4AD and Warp. “Words taught me to sing,” she told The Quietus in 2010. “I have always been writing and uttering words, and I sang along with my favorite bands to learn languages. I remember listening to Lush to learn to speak in a British accent, and Stereolab to learn French.” After high school she wanted to go “as far away from Norway as possible,” which is how she ended up attending college in Melbourne, Australia.

In the mid-aughts, Hval began putting out music under the name Rockettothesky. Her off-kilter, falsetto-driven art-pop garnered some attention at home—Rockettothesky was nominated for the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy in 2006—but it wasn’t until she started putting out more confrontational music under her own name that she broke out of Scandinavia and into the awareness of a wider, global underground. The first record of hers I heard was 2011’s avant-folky Viscera, which contains one of the more eye-popping album-opening lyrics of recent memory: “I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris.” So began Hval’s era of fearlessly (and humorously) exploring the unspoken taboos of the female body, each release paradoxically catchier and yet more provocative than the last.

Apocalypse, Girl, her breakthrough, was in part a recollection of a strange year spent in America. “When I went to America I found myself to not be myself,” she recites on the album’s final track. “I could not align with the landscape.” She explains it to me in a more literal sense. “I tried being in New York for a bit in 2014, but it was a killer. Terrible in every way!” she laughs. Coming from Norway, she says, where economic inequality is not nearly as stark, the United States was a culture shock. “It was tough, just seeing how different the system is from what I’m used to seeing,” she says. “How often I would come to the conclusion, ‘Ah, these people can do this because they have money. Everything works here because of money.’ So much depends upon old money, family money, both for institutions and people in general, in their personal lives. It’s just so harsh. That’s my American interpretation!” she says. “I know a lot of people who think differently. I know a lot of fantastic people who all kind of manage to get by, so it’s not all gloomy. I think my mistake was to try and be in New York.”

Not that this detour slowed her down. The following year Hval released the excellent Blood Bitch, a loose concept album about menstruation, vampires, and campy 1970s horror movies. Somehow, given all that, it was her most accessible release yet. The ethereal Blood Bitch single “Conceptual Romance” became her most-played track on Spotify—an achievement made meaningless when viewed through Hval’s signature magnifying lens.

“I get emails about how I’m playlisted. I don’t know what they mean,” she tells me. “But Spotify is all about hundreds of different ways to plaster any track into a Tetris[-like] playlist. So it goes maybe with the algorithmic interpretation of the stuff that it will sound the most similar to, and then other things.” The mechanics of playlist culture bemused her; she was also inspired by the work of the journalist Liz Pelly, who has written extensively about Spotify’s tendency to rebrand ambient and experimental music as “chill,” life-hacking background music to enhance capitalist productivity. She found it bleakly humorous that, as Spotify informed her, the song of hers that was featured most frequently on playlists was an instrumental track without any words. “I was thinking, what does this say about voice? What does this say about story?”

Hval did what she does best: She staged a live performance that tackled all these questions from oblique angles. When I saw her perform at MoMA’s PS1 last spring, she sang a song with lyrics composed of a conversation she had with the artificial intelligence program Cleverbot, and also played a driving electronic track while a robotic voice read off the names of Spotify’s many “chill” playlists until they sounded like some droll Dada joke: chill vibes, chill tracks, chill-hop, chill jazz, chill reggae, and so on. It was odd, funny, and thought-provoking. She was going to release it as an album, but then she realized that would be beside the point, because she’d have to put the album on Spotify.

“Bringing that into a live performance was, in the end, more exciting for me than trying to record it,” she told me. To put a work critiquing streaming services on streaming services would have defanged the message. “Because that’s how capitalism works,” Hval sighs. “It just kind of incorporates all kinds of subversion that can exist within it.” Not recording the music meant that fewer people got to hear the work, but, she reasoned, she would much rather “prevent it from just being sucked in.”

The Practice of Love confronts a topic that is quite possibly more taboo than love, death, and the ocean combined: childlessness. “Why do we call it that?” Hval asks, rhetorically. “Why is this so connected to the body? It’s more than being bitter about whether or not you’re having kids, it’s more about investigating the gendered language of it.”

When she wrote “Accident” in particular, she admits that she thought to herself, “This will make for some really sweaty interviews.” The song takes the form of a conversation between two women in their late 30s who do not have children. One says to the other, “I wonder how I have managed to avoid conceiving, you know, by accident. So many years. So little fruit. You know, maybe I would have just kept it.” Earlier in the song, Hval paints a comedic image: “She found stretch-mark cream in an Airbnb bathroom,” she croons. “It was just cream. Rubbing it on her belly, she felt nothing.”

On the phone, she still chuckles at the notion. “This idea that some kind of magical thing is supposed to happen, or that the stretch-mark cream is supposed to burn you because you’re a witch because you’re not pregnant,” she says. “Because, we’re taught, that’s how shame works. Shame works for a lot of people for various reasons. Some people have chosen not to have kids, some people can’t, some people couldn’t see themselves doing that for a variety of maybe quite traumatic reasons. So I feel like it’s a very universal topic that is not really discussed beyond ‘Will you or won’t you?’ Which really limits what it means to be a human.”

At some point in our conversation, I point out to Hval that, although this is ostensibly her record “about” love, there is no fixed love object to whom she’s singing. We traditionally expect “love songs” to be about someone else. Hval’s are more diffuse, and in some ways that makes them even more powerful. She wanted the record to have a kind of plurality, to feature dialogue, recitations, and the voices of some of her friends, like the artists Vivian Wang, Felicia Atkinson, and Laura Jean Englert. Their contributions give the record a sense of warmth and community. “It became a labor of love for me, the idea that I can write this all into being,” she says. “I can write communication different. I can write the world different.”

The most stirring example of this comes on the title track, a dreamlike sound collage containing two overlapping conversations, one in each channel. (“I just decided to do the Velvet Underground thing,” Hval says.) In the listener’s right ear, Hval and Englert are discussing their places in the world: “One thing that I kind of felt, becoming someone who’s in their late 30s who doesn’t have a child,” Englert says, “I have to accept that I’m part of this human ecosystem but I’m not the princess and I’m not the main character. Because I feel like maybe the main characters are the people that have kids. Because they literally keep the virus going.” She and Hval both laugh; they agree this is tough for their egos. Then Englert arrives at a moving conclusion: “But I thought, maybe I’m the talking tree. Maybe I’m the witch.” Hval offers another option: “Antagonist?” “I could be an antagonist,” replies Englert, “but antagonists are imperative for a virus to survive, because it makes it stronger.”

Maybe it’s because of algorithms, or the cultural pressure on women to reproduce by a certain age, or just the regular old pressures of capitalism, but Hval tells me, “I don’t really like being very efficient.” Although she likes some aspects of touring, she finds that it can keep her from writing and making new music, so she would rather stay focused on one thing at a time. She’ll tour The Practice of Love in the States eventually (she’s performing a bit around Europe this fall), but she’ll do so on her own time. “You wanted the hits, I give you something you’ve never heard,” she laughs. Then she grows more thoughtful. “I really want art to be about giving. … I’m just trying to do less but be more focused so that I can give people something that is not necessary. Because I think that’s where the art lies. In doing something that you didn’t have to, but you’re giving it anyway.”