The prolific multidisciplinary emerges from the pandemic with ‘Classic Objects,’ a new record that reimagines what it means to be subversive
Musicians are often said to bare their souls in the process of creating great work. But for Jenny Hval, this meant more than just pouring her emotions into song: “I wanted to undress the concept and the idea of myself down to the innermost cells,” she says, describing the process behind her latest record, Classic Objects. Created during the pandemic, the album sees Hval shed many of the experimental stylings she’s known for, in favor of a more straightforward and stripped-down narrative—an approach that was spurred by her desire to re-examine her identity during the pandemic, after being parted from the public persona and artistic practice that had previously reinforced it. “It felt as if you’re taking your clothes off again and again,” Hval writes in a description of the album. “Everyone thinks it’s you underneath, but then you realize, ‘Talking about the real story of myself is actually just another story.’”
In the past, Hval has undressed concepts: from societal structures like patriarchy and capitalism to universal experiences of desire and death. Her breakthrough album Innocence Is Kinky (2013) begins with a whispered confession—‘that night, I watch people fucking on my computer’—before deconstructing thorny topics like gender identity and sexual commodification. Equally brazen is her 2015 record Apocalypse, Girl, which sees Hval explore themes of capitalism and 21st century womanhood in provocative futuristic soundscapes, complete with warped choirs, sci-fi-electronics and interludes of spoken word. The next year, her concept album Blood Bitch drew inspiration from vampire movies and ’70s horror films, pairing these sources with lyrical references to the banal and often violent reality of existing in a body: speculums and doctor’s offices, menstruation and birth control. Told in the language of taboo, the resulting narrative brings the supernatural into contact with the everyday to challenge the imagined boundary between sacred and profane.
While Classic Objects is perhaps more sonically traditional, these interests remain embedded in Hval’s songs on both conceptual and lyrical levels, whether she’s writing about a bloody UTI or Deleuze-quoting nurses—two subjects that commingle with autobiographical detail in “American Coffee,” imbuing the otherwise straightforward narrative with a sense of dreamlike surrealism. This marriage of beauty and unease is perhaps less confrontational to the ear in this album than in prior works, yet to Hval, Classic Objects’s adherence to conventional structure and melody invites focus on the stories it tells: “I have not been opposing language in this record,” she says, referencing her use of experimental vocal effects on earlier albums. “Instead, I am working with it.”
Hval’s relationship with language is a complicated one. During the pandemic, she started working on what she thought would be the beginning of a book, and would later become Classic Objects. At the time, she was struggling to find words that felt meaningful and authentic—but that changed when she started writing music. “Sometimes, making things more abstract helps me get closer to reality. In this case, writing to music made me able to say something more personal,” she says. “People often think that personal means ‘revealing of personal details’—but in this case, I mean that I was able to find a more personal language for my experience, so it wasn’t just like anyone’s email to a friend. Music gave me more space to explore than the blank white page that kept staring at me like God, and saying ‘Confess!’”
That’s not to say Hval isn’t a writer. A prolific multidisciplinary, she has also penned acclaimed novels such as Paradise Rot and Girls Against God, a recent release featuring a time-traveling Edvard Munch and a coven of Norwegian witches. “Through writing that book, I was able to explore my own relationship with spirituality,” she says, describing her upbringing on the fringes of a deeply religious community, of which she was both resentful and deeply fascinated—especially when it came to witnessing their devotional relationship with music. She credits the fictitious aspects of Girls Against God with providing the freedom to reinvestigate these interests, without having to adhere to the limits of her own perspective. “I don’t feel like I’m completely one with the protagonist, but I do feel like I’m one with the spiritual search that is in the text,” she says, emphasizing that while elements of her life have shaped the story, the book isn’t about her life. “There’s a great demand for autobiography, because it’s seen as something more true than fiction—but the truth is, everything is fiction, as soon as you start writing.”
Camille Sojit Pejcha: It’s been such a pleasure listening to the new record. Can you tell me a little but about the process behind it, and what it’s been like to perform publicly after the pandemic?
Jenny Hval: I feel a bit childish saying this, but it’s just really fun to be doing music again. I just performed live for the first time in what feels like thousands of years, and someone came up to me afterward and said, ‘This is my first ever show.’ It was crazy to think about, never having been to a concert before. He was in a state of euphoria, and I think felt embarrassed for telling me, but I really loved it—it was the right thing to hear at that time, because after the pandemic, I did feel a bit like it was my first show, too.
With Classic Objects, I felt the need to build a record and a sound from the ground up—to have people playing real instruments, and to be performing words on top of these rhythms. Many times I use percussion that I don’t necessarily feel extremely comfortable with; it’s something unknown, so I perform a little bit like a person would perform karaoke if you didn’t know the song. Sometimes that lack of familiarity helps me write or find words that are more in the moment.
Then I invited some friends to collaborate, and we spent 10 days in the studio together. We didn’t have much time to speak and catch up, which of course we all wanted to do after the pandemic, but there is something fundamentally communicative about being in a space performing music together. I felt I needed a level of collaboration to create a really big world, for an album that is lyrically an inward-looking journey. The words are centered in a narration that’s quite straightforward, but also, it builds associations to the sublime scale of the desert sky, or just space, or the infinite cracks in the walls, and the afterlife, and other dreamlike spaces. I wanted to mirror that, also in collaborating with people who can do that when I can’t.
Camille: In previous work, you’ve addressed social structures like patriarchy and capitalism—conditions that are experienced collectively, but affect individual people to varying degrees. In this album, your critique of the system is more indirect—it feels like you almost reverse-engineer an image of the external world by documenting your inner landscape. What was it like to focus on your own individual experience and identity during this moment of global turmoil?
Jenny: I felt like I was describing something that was simultaneously my own experience, and one that was determined by circumstance. There was the sense that the pandemic made us all into this one individual: We’re all forced to experience the same situation on a global level, but at the same time, we’re all dealing with it differently. We all have different backgrounds, different amounts of money, different amounts of trauma. So it’s actually not in any way an equal experience, it’s the opposite.
The limitations of the pandemic also encouraged us to focus on ourselves in a way that made us even more individualized, which is a political problem and a structural hellhole. At the beginning, I felt like I was not quite myself—without being able to create or do my work, there was this feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m just a private person now,’ which is uncomfortable, because it reminds me of who I was before I knew what I wanted to do. It’s me, but the restless version of me; it’s the child version, the person that’s told who they are… During the pandemic, you’re told to stay home and follow the government restrictions, so there’s a lot of authority telling you your place. And after a while, I realized that this is actually not a very personal experience. You’re being told how to behave by the powers that be, so it’s a political narrative.
You can interpret Classic Objects that way, as well: Even if something seems more personal, maybe it’s still about the external structures. At the same time, I turned 40 between my last album and this one, and as an older person I’m not sure if I am the type of voice that is needed in political discussion. It made me want to sit back and listen, because there’s so much amazing stuff out there that’s attacking these structures in a more interesting way, and from a more needed perspective. So I wanted to tell a more personal story where I sort of turn inward to myself a little bit and undress myself, as much as I do the structural side of things. I thought, in this album, ‘Maybe I am the structure.’
Camille: In “Year of Love,” you excavate some of your discomfort about participating in the institution of marriage, which feeds into the larger patriarchal system you’ve critiqued but conveys certain practical benefits. I’m curious to hear how you’ve experienced this conflict artistically, as an artist in the streaming age?
“As an artist, I’m always asking questions—I guess I make music because I don’t have answers. And so I try to make myself, and then hopefully others, experience what those questions could mean.”
Jenny: There’s a lovely Norwegian word that expresses the experience of being forced into the structures that I’ve spent so much time trying to deconstruct. Something I’ve been considering is that I am part of the system in all these ways. By being married, I am, to a certain extent, complicit in patriarchal norms. I’m signed to a label, so people are listening to this through a streamed contractual clause. This album is something that I’ve made, and I love it—but at the same time, I have signed a contract for it with the industry. That doesn’t mean everyone in the industry is bad; I love the people I work with, but I’m still part of that broader structure, so it’s a compromised position. I wanted to highlight that.
Camille: It feels like across a lot of elements of culture, we’re grappling with how to change the system or create alternatives to it while still needing to participate in the dominant model to have your voice heard. So you’re working within it, and being compromised by that, or an uncompromised voice that maybe doesn’t circulate.
Jenny: Yeah, I think it’s one of the big questions of today. I don’t have the answers, but I’m always reading about alternatives to mainstream ways of perceiving what or who you are—finding new ways of explaining, or just experiencing, what it is to be human. As an artist, I’m always asking questions—I guess I make music because I don’t have answers. And so I try to make myself, and then hopefully others, experience what those questions could mean.
This latest album has more defined song structures, which I felt fit with that compromised position—allowing a musical structure to sort of form those questions better than I can, or trying to guide the listener into a way of experiencing them through this mode of personal storytelling. It’s more about the way I wanted to communicate, rather than something that needs to be logically understood.
Camille: I read that you did a master’s thesis on Kate Bush, talking about the relationship between music and lyrics. Does this fit into that line of inquiry at all?
Jenny: In the thesis, I was writing about the dislocated relationship between written language and performed language. At the time, song lyrics were very overlooked as works of poetry, because people still work with ancient things like rhyme, and structures that need to be rhythmic because they’re set to music. The potential for them to be truly contemporary was overlooked. But then, if you were to write the lyrics down exactly as Kate Bush performed them in an album like The Dreaming, it would look much more experimental. There are so many poetic elements that come into play, and so many theatrical elements—she has such a huge register of characters and different ways of using her voice to illustrate different dialects, different tones of voice, different effects, repetition… I was writing about things like, ‘How do you analyze uses of reverb in relation to the meaning of language?’ It creates associations, it creates space, and it creates texture. So when she uses things like animal sounds and various descriptive elements, and inhabits them with her voice, I was arguing that it is the poetic work to be analyzed, not the lyric sheet.
At the time when I was writing this, I thought my own musical work would be much more inspired by that, but now I’m less interested in experimenting with the voice on its own, while becoming more and more interested in writing. I have been very interested in the writing on the page for this album, instead of having simpler words and contrasting them with cuts and experimental vocal effects—almost opposing language, through these sort of extended techniques. I have not been opposing language in this record; instead, I am working with it.
Camille: This album has been described as ‘more sonically accessible.’ I was curious to hear how more about how keeping words legible to the ear might allow you to say different things, versus obfuscating language and creating a message through this more ‘experimental’ use of sound?
Jenny: I think being accessible means a lot of things. You could say that an album like Blood Bitch is accessible because it’s so direct, and it’s also mastered and mixed very differently, so it feels very close and ‘present’ in your ear. This album might be more accessible to some people, because the songs are more fully realized as melodies, or the words speak more directly to the listener, as if you were in the same room. What’s important to me is that the listener feels, ‘There’s room for me here.’ I don’t want to be the kind of artist that says fuck you in a cool way, so that you keep listening, but you’re kind of frightened. I always want my music to be inviting in one way or the other. But there are many ways of being accessible; to many, accessible means familiar. A band playing in a room is closer to what you’ve grown up hearing on classic albums. [More familiar] than—depending on what you’ve listened to—something that is cut and pasted, that abruptly shifts, where you can’t hear the words, sometimes really loud or unnaturally soft, and you’re experimenting with lots and lots of different things at once.
Camille: Speaking with artists, it’s interesting to hear how the question of what is experimental often changes based on your own artistic trajectory and interests—for a lot of artists I’ve spoken with, it seems like it no longer functions as a description for music.
Jenny: Yeah, these terms can be used to sound cool on paper, but I no longer feel like experimental means very much. It has become overused to mean something is edgy, or it’s got an attitude—but that something can be, like, a Pepsi commercial.
Camille: Right. And the trajectory of anything ‘subversive’ is for it to be reincorporated back into the mainstream, often through marketing. So then what is subversive?
Jenny: Something truly subversive is always unfamiliar enough to actually be uncomfortable. I think what I’m trying to say is that, at my age, I want to find new ways of discovering what subversive and experimental really are. And in order to go there, I need to stop thinking that experimental or subversive is just something that is loud or noisy, or uncomfortable in the way that we’re used to hearing something that we call uncomfortable in sound. Maybe it is quite comfortable.
Camille: In your piece of writing about the album, you likened it to undressing versions of yourself. Were there any moments that stood out as being really challenging, having to give up a previous way of thinking about your work in order to move forward?
Jenny: In the beginning, I was trying to write poetically—something that could be the beginning of a book, but it wasn’t working. I felt like the only thing I could do was undress myself, and write plainly in prose. When I compare it to undressing, it’s because it felt as if you’re taking your clothes off again and again. Everyone thinks it’s you underneath, but then you realize, ‘Talking about the real story of myself is actually just another story.’ I felt very disillusioned with that project. Then I started writing music, and I realized that I could take fragments of my manuscript and just shorten it down to its bare minimum. The music made me able to rewrite something more personal and real.
When you say something is personal, people often think that means ‘revealing of personal details’—like, ‘let me tell you about my first experience having sexual intercourse.’ But in this sense, I mean I was able to find a more personal language for it, so it wasn’t just like anyone’s email to a friend about an incident. Instead, I felt like I could go more into my own associative world with it.
“There’s a great demand for autobiography, because it’s read as something more true than fiction—but the truth is, everything is fiction, as soon as you start writing.”
I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but when you’re trying to write something, or describe something, and you want to get it right, you can write 10 very, very different descriptions of the same thing, and none of them will do. That’s my relationship with the personal. Sometimes, making things more abstract or inserting percussion helps me get closer to reality, so that when I undress, I recognize it’s my own body with its flaws that’s underneath those clothes. So I think what made me able to write these types of stories were the layers of music.
For me, writing music is about trying the words out by performing them. It’s about recording a vocal over and over until I find the right words and the right phrasing, and thinking, ‘Now it’s uncomfortable. Now I like it. Now the song sounds like someone’s being confronted with something on stage.’ I think I managed to say more—and more personal things—in the song lyrics than in prose. I needed context of music in order to write that.
Camille: I think so often that a mark of good art is that it needs to take this particular form or medium to say what it says.
Jenny: That makes sense. Music allows me to write very freely, and allows me to keep writing and keep searching from the beginning, whereas it might take me hundreds of pages on paper before I arrive at the same question. It’s more intuitive–like a conversation where you don’t even say hello before you start with the deep topics. I guess everyone has friends like that, the ones who just say, “Hey, let’s talk about the universe.” In this case, music gave me more space to explore than the blank white page that kept staring at me like God, and saying ‘Confess!
Camille: Totally. On that note, I’m curious to hear about your personal relationship with spirituality and religion.
Jenny: I come from a fairly nonreligious family. And then I moved to a small town when I was about nine, that was more religious—but it was a little bit sneaky, and kind of normal, so I didn’t always realize that’s what it was. I just thought I was at camp, and then I realized, ‘Oh, I’m in Christian camp.’ Then I moved to another town for high school that’s in the South of Norway, which was a very religious place. So that formed my relationship with both religion and subculture, into this glorious mess of Norwegian black metal and revolt.
I was very frustrated, but also a little bit envious of my many classmates that were extremely religious—speaking in tongues and like, their parents were leaders. It was a strange time. On the one hand, I was really angry with Christianity, and all the rules and regulations and norms that are the traditional, conservative, unnecessary sidekick to religion. But on the other hand, I hung out with these people every day. Going to a music-oriented school, I also got to experience how their relationship with music was intertwined with devotion, and singing to God. It was really interesting to stand on the side of observing and hating them, but also being extremely curious about it. It’s made me into this person who’s quite attracted to spirituality and not so afraid of it.
At the same time, I’m very Norwegian in the sense that I’m a natural skeptic, and I’m very grounded. I wrote this book called Girls Against God a few years ago, and I got to rediscover this double fascination with religion from my high school age, like my surroundings. My outside of school group of friends was more in the goth world. I was in a band, and it was an interesting time—just after the black metal movements, and all the killings and the various incidents. So it felt like I was part of something not necessarily dangerous, but subcultural. Returning to writing about religion made me make peace with it, and I just ended up being fascinated.
Camille: Do you feel that writing fiction allowed you to get at something more true?
Jenny: It’s not autobiographical, but in using elements of my experience, I think that it allowed me to reinvestigate that spirituality more than if I had to write about myself, because I would be limiting. I don’t feel like I’m completely one with the protagonist, but I do feel like I’m one with the spiritual search that is in the text.
All I’m saying is, if you read it, don’t interpret the book as being about my life. I think there’s a great demand for autobiography, because it’s seen as something more true than fiction—but the truth is, everything is fiction, as soon as you start writing.