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Jenny HvalPhoto by Jenny Berger Myhre

Jenny Hval and Adult Jazz chat gender, faith and blood

The Norwegian singer-songwriter discusses identity, religion, and whether vampires have periods with the UK experimental pop band

Adult Jazz are amongst the most distinctive bands in the UK, crafting playful pop songs with lyrics that approach masculinity, religion, and morality from a unique perspective. Their debut album Gist Is earned them fans from Björk to David Byrne, and earlier this year the Leeds-based four-piece returned with Earrings Off!, a mini-album for Tri Angle Records (home to experimental acts like The Haxan Cloak and Evian Christ) that saw them embrace a more electronic direction, marrying rubbery, Arca-esque beats to their leftfield songwriting.

The record’s title track is, in the words of singer Harry Burgess, about an idealised gender archetype “that we all carry around in the back of our minds”. “Even to subvert it, the archetype has to be firmly present in you,” Burgess says, “No one is immune to gender shame, immunity is curated and learnt, and often arrived at intellectually through lots of unlearning.”

When it came to remixing the song, a natural pick was Jenny Hval, the Norwegian singer-songwriter and composer who has interrogated the perceptions of gender, devotion, and self across a handful of records released both under her own name and previously as Rockettothesky. “I tried to make a remix by restructuring of the words, to just go: I wanna see what happens if I look at the lyrics and restructure it and then put the vocal together in that order,” Hval explains, “But that sounded crazy, and not very interesting. So I took these moments that I really like the sound of and I went from there.” Her forthcoming album Blood Bitch takes a more improvisational approach to last year’s apocalypse, girl and is loosely informed by vampire movies and exploitation films.

Listen to the remix below, and read on for a discussion between Hval and Adult Jazz’s Harry Burgess about writing music, gender identity, and vampire menstruation.

Harry Burgess: I noticed that you’d done a feature on Genius where you annotated your words. That’s something I’d love to do, but there’s also this idea that you should say everything you need to say within your art; that it should be self-contained. How important is your intended meaning? Is that a sacred thing to you?

Jenny Hval: No. Even my meaning isn't sacred to me, unless there’s some kind of reference to some poetry or some artwork or some kind of memory that I really love – that’s kind of sacred. But it stays sacred no matter how people interpret what I do. I didn't really have a problem with doing the Genius annotations, mostly because I was interviewed by Sasha Frere-Jones, who’s an amazing writer. I’m in two minds about doing tonnes of interviews – I always end up thinking, ‘Wow, is this now becoming the way I think?’ – so this Genius conversation that I had with Sasha was very well-researched and really interesting. Some of those annotations are not really my thoughts, but the thoughts that came up between the two of us talking.

“Everyone is vulnerable and that’s a big part of art, so why not be in it?” — Jenny Hval

Harry Burgess: It was illuminating to me. I’ve still got quite an immature attitude to what I’m writing, because I’m very surprised by what I say. I want to nip that feeling in the bud of wanting people to get my intention all the time. I do have a strong idea of that intention but it’s still a learning curve about how much explanation I need and want. I think it’s a maturity thing – having got a few records behind you, you probably have a neater relationship with that? Having other people hear what I’ve written is all quite new to me.

Jenny Hval: It’s really scary having people hearing and interpreting and reacting to what you do. You’re incredibly vulnerable when you expose something so personal the first few times. When I started releasing things I had no idea that people would think anything; I really was so stupid that I thought that nobody would interpret the artist moniker that I used at the time and nobody would interpret the lyrics. I had no idea. Maybe this would have been different if I started out now, because everyone’s used to that first confrontation of being on Instagram or something like that, where you realise ‘Oh, people are seeing me so I should start posting or something.’ I remember I was so scared of seeming vulnerable at the beginning. Now I think ‘It’s okay to be vulnerable, that’s what you are anyway.’ Everyone is vulnerable and that’s a big part of art, so why not be in it?

Harry Burgess: Does writing ever feel worthless or useless to you?

Jenny Hval: Yes. But sometimes even emotion seems worthless, and then sometimes I feel like I’m desperately trying to validate useless emotions – or emotions where I can’t figure out what’s going on – through writing. Sometimes I have to go through this long period of everything being worthless, and then something happens that changes it. I usually have a period of writing where I don’t really feel like I’m doing music – I’m just this crazy person walking around a garbage dump, like ‘Woah, there was once music in this, but it’s empty now.’ Empty containers resembling former art, this junkyard full of worthless ideas all digested.

Harry Burgess: I wonder if I approach music in a less ideal and inherently artistic way than I do with writing. Why make pop music? It’s a product and it’s a limited form, and it’s a doctored expression.

“When you think of gender, do you remember the school playground?” — Harry Burgess, Adult Jazz

Jenny Hval: I have this world of imagery (in my head) that’s developed around your music – you have a song that’s its own word, and then you have this amazing movement where it transforms through an independent sound piece into the next song. For that reason the ‘Earrings Off!’ video makes sense to me – this animated, stretchy, bouncy kind of world.

Harry Burgess: Sam Travis made that. He’s a really good friend of ours. That brings us to the one thing that, come on, we’re all dying to talk about, which is gender. Sam really connected with this record. I asked him the question that I want to ask you now, which is: When you think of gender, do you remember the school playground?

Jenny Hval: I remember it in general, yes. but I don’t remember the gendering of it.

Harry Burgess: It might be a British thing, but every time we think about this stuff it brings up these memories of the self-regulated division of children. I’m a teacher, and with reception children, if you wrote down their behaviour, you wouldn’t be able to assign a gender to it. And the children come back in Year 2, aged six, and they self-regulate gendering. They police each other. It’s a really shocking change. Sam just connected with that and we kept coming up with these images. So maybe I want to talk about what memories you have of being a woman or a girl?

Jenny Hval: I knew from early on that I was sort of in between, or outside of, the perfect gender play that was going on. I remember I moved to where I’m at at the moment, in the south of Norway, when I was nine. Up until then, I think I was much more conforming; I was fitting in a bit. From nine onwards, I realised clearly that I was not a girl like many other girls. I was definitely not a boy, but I was just failed material (laughs). There’s something in me that says it would have been a different experience if I’d been a boy. I was crazy – I was the city girl coming to this tiny school, I was obsessed with horses and told everybody that I wanted to marry a horse… I was really resisting any conversation that dealt with gender. I was so angry with it.

Harry Burgess: Would you rather have been born assigned male or born assigned female if you were given the blank question before birth?

Jenny Hval: Well, who knows what I’d have been like before birth? I could’ve decided to be a dog. I would love to know what it’s like to be a boy, so maybe just say that – to have two lives.

“I knew from early on that I was sort of in between, or outside of, the perfect gender play that was going on” — Jenny Hval

Harry Burgess: I would love to know what it’s like to have just literally loads of lives and compare. Talking about conformity and the desire to fit in, can I read you something I wrote? This isn’t nice artistic writing, it’s just diary stuff. ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about change – I feel there is a funny pull in two directions in current discourse about how to feel happy. One is the right to change yourself and be self-directed and empower yourself through who you want to be, and one is the need to completely avoid transformation and accept yourself for who you are right now and be authentically happy with your current state of being.’ I wanted to ask, is the body special? Can we do what we want with it? Is your identity and your personality special and you do what you want with it?

Jenny Hval: I think that’s where art comes in for me. Art is the only thing where I can turn my body and my identity into whatever I want. And I’m not really interested in turning either of those into whatever I want outside of art. I don’t know how to explore anything outside of writing and art.

Harry Burgess: You grew up in the bible belt in Norway, and you were intrigued by devotion when you saw it. There’s a lyric in ‘Heaven’ from apocalypse, girl that goes “From the very back of the church choir I am standing, lone alto range. Girl in Black. The front row clasp their hands now, they're singing with devotion.” We’ve written a couple of songs from the perspective of a church service, and the idea of longing to be moved and wanting to feel the God-ness and specialness, but also being acutely aware of the mechanisms through which you’re experiencing that specialness. How does the idea of God and faith sit in your writing?

Jenny Hval: Well, it was something that returned to me when I was writing apocalypse, girl. I was one of the ones who was not religious. I was not a Christian like a lot of people in my class. I didn’t get to think of it too much as a singer in high school. I was faced with this incredible philosophical dilemma that other people had when singing, which is ‘Why do you sound?’ I had this one girl struggling to learn how to sing the classical technique – she was used to singing in the gospel choir with a very airy voice. And I think she thought she was losing the specialness, the devotion – she lost Jesus. That must’ve been horrible for her. I remember she was really torn. I didn’t understand at the time – I just thought the gospel elements were stupid and went back to listening to the Cocteau Twins – but what an existential crisis! 20 years later, I really, really feel for her.

“Does a vampire menstruate?” — Jenny Hval

Harry Burgess: Your new album is called Blood Bitch, right? Can I ask you about blood? Blood, for me, (is something) I never wanted to sing about. We redacted some lyrics from the first record that were to do with it, because that was one of the things that was really present and real because I was really sad about not being able to have kids as a gay person, and blood is like fertility and continuation. What does it mean to you?

Jenny Hval: It has many meanings. There’s a bit about my experience – the more practical aspects of actually being female, this monthly reminder of fertility – but there’s also failure, and as soon as something’s a failure, I’m interested. Menstruation is about you having failed once again to conceive, or be impregnated. It’s this distressed, unhappy body, in a way – I failed again, even if I didn’t try. The title Blood Bitch, there’s probably something to do with vampires in there. Vampire blood and the blood of menstruation, for some reason I see them as tied up, at least when I was exploring this album. I was inspired by a lot of vampire movies and exploitation movies from the 70s; trashy movies with stories that were bad excuses for having lots of women naked. I watched tonnes of these movies, particularly vampire-themed movies. Vampire blood is about fertility, but it’s also really dead – the blood is in a dead body. Does a vampire menstruate? I don’t know.

Tri Angle Records released Adult Jazz’s Earrings Off! on May 20. Sacred Bones release Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch on September 30