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Jenny Hval
Jenny HvalPhotography Lasse Marhaug

Jenny Hval on her new album that celebrates clichés and confronts taboos

The Norwegian multidisciplinary artist discusses The Practice of Love, her most accessible and self-affirming release yet

I’m deep in the forest, where there’s no phone signal and no connection, and I’m beginning to feel bored. A voice is telling me to “look at these trees”, to “look at this grass”. It’s not a mindfulness audiobook, but rather the first line and instruction of Jenny Hval’s fifth solo album, The Practice of Love. And so I take a closer look at my surroundings. I “study the raindrops on the leaves”. I’m still bored. Everything here works in ordinance with one another, the wind finds the leaves, the molecules say yes to it, the forest is gently moved. Is it strawberry season too? Yes. I’m incapable of disturbing it. I take a look “at the ants on the ground”, as the voice directs. I feel like a sullen teenager. The universe’s indifference to me is too much for my ego to contend with. I live, with nothing to say yes to. I’m bored. Then, the voice says: “Study this, and ask yourself, where is God?”

Throughout the nine years she’s been releasing music under her own name, Jenny Hval has been prone to auto-critiquing and questioning the concept of ‘connection’. What am I doing here? We're almost done now. What are you doing here? Are we communicating? Am I promoting?” the Norwegian multidisciplinary asked towards the end of her 2018 EP, Spells. Hval creates art to question where the impulse comes from, how thoughts work in ordinance with the body and text and voice, like a forest. The Practice of Love sees Hval taking these ideas to their most cosmic, using 90s trance music and landscapes – particularly forests and oceans – which have been plumbed from Hval’s memories and imagination. Instinctively, as nature mingles with imagination, Alice in Wonderland appears – a grown up version of her, anyway. In the forest, Alice finds her rabbit hole and combs through “centuries of art”, as Hval relates Carroll’s character to her own experience of writing and creating art – her practice of love.

Hval is joined by three other voices throughout the album: Vivian Wang, an artist formerly of the Singapore band The Observatory, whose takes on art, politics, and ownership expand the album; Laura Jean, a New Zealand-based musician and old friend of Hval’s who shares an ongoing “life conversation” with her; and finally French composer Félicia Atkinson, who recorded her voicework for the album while heavily pregnant, and who Hval’s still yet to meet.

From her home in Oslo, she speaks to Dazed about her most accessible and immense album yet. 

Where does this album take place? Is it in a singular forest?

Jenny Hval: Well, I think it’s an alternative landscape, one that can shift between an actual forest and a vague memory, a fantastical forest full of beings that don’t exist in real life.

Are elements of it drawn from places you’ve been to?

Jenny Hval: Lasse Marhaug, who helped produce this album, wanted to make a film. I agreed to write something and then I think he came up with the idea of a forest that was too far north in Norway to be consecrated back in the day when Christianity came and took over. So it’s like a forest untouched from our modern ideologies. He’s from the north, so he grew up in this forest he was describing to me, and I just wrote something and it’s much longer than how it ended up. It was like an investigation of place, in that way. What can a place contain if you empty it of a lot of society’s baggage?

You come up against the problem of language on this album. Vivian Wang says on the title track that language doesn’t fit”“it doesn’t work”“it’s blackened”Yet language is really the only tool we have to connect with the landscape – all of the living things.

Jenny Hval: And dead things. I was trying for years and years to create something and start a parallel to the human story. How can you do that with dead elements? There are these old ideas about language not necessarily being dead, but having to do with truth and some kind of steady meaning, and the voice being unsteady, unreliable. Maybe more alive. I remember writing in my notebook, ‘language’, ‘voice’, and then under it, ‘dead’ and ‘alive’. I never really expanded very much, but I do think that these materials, for me at least, makes me strive for connections to things that I don’t understand, the life aspect of it.

“It’s an alternative landscape, one that can shift between an actual forest and a vague memory, a fantastical forest full of beings that don’t exist in real life” – Jenny Hval

What’s your first memory of singing?

Jenny Hval: I remember singing for a long time every night with my dad. He was trying to put me to sleep, but in the end, he fell asleep – but I was still singing. So I remember definitely not getting tired from singing. And I know what I was singing, which was a Norwegian, quite well-known folk artist, from a children’s book of music. So maybe that was the forest I wanted to have in several of these songs.

How does Alice in Wonderland facilitate the themes of this album?

Jenny Hval: I don’t know if it does, because I never really read it as a child. I always found Alice so annoying, because she was like, “this doesn’t exist”, “this is stupid”. She was like a very old lady, no imagination – yet she was sort of taken by it. She appears in a song (on the album), but as a grown-up. Maybe it’s like if you have one thousand images from different things, like a visual collage. It’s a rabbit hole to go down, one of the many stories about imagination, and I think imagination in itself is quite important for this type of album – for me, also, to be able to go into this very synth-heavy production.

I love how the 90s trance music is kind of shamanistic and cheesy at the same time.

Jenny Hval: That was my interpretation of this rave culture, as someone who was too young to go and didn’t live anywhere near any raves. I was never very interested in the drug aspect, or being with one thousand people, but I definitely connected and understood that aspect and saw the repetitiveness and the euphoria and the synth as very sort of light sounds. It was all very fascinating to me. I recently watched the Norwegian Billboard list programmes from the 90s, and I was really surprised, not just by how much dance music there was in the charts, but also how they would only show the dance videos in this program. It was a very defining aesthetic, visually.

When you’re singing on this album, are you embodying yourself, or are you trying to become someone else, like an imaginary character?

Jenny Hval: I think I’m always doing both, but not so much trying to become a specific other character. I think on this album, I’m so interested in being fully myself, being someone who can open myself to communication.

I feel like there are moments on this album where you really get to explore your teenage and child selves, particularly on “Thumbsucker”.

Jenny Hval: Well, I was sort of hoping that I was exploring my grown-up self (laughs). But your grown-up self is all the kinds you’ve been before. You see your life as a million moments of being. The older you get, the more you have. And the lens changes, so what used to be just memories of things happening now have a larger canvas. That’s why I remember things like forests – imaginary places. And I would probably have told you the story of my memories, or non-memories, of singing differently when I was younger, because I would have less experiences to connect it to. 

In “Thumbsucker”, I think I’m connecting with some kind of thumb spirit. I’m not sure if it’s my childhood. I think as a child, I remember being obsessed with finding spaces I fit. I also remember I grew up with a lot of animals and dogs that I connected with, and the dogs also have this fascination to get to the smallest place they can fit and then sleep there. So “Thumbsucker” is maybe a little about that, how we’re very concerned that when we’re very young, our whole lives will be about fitting in, and (fitting in) physically also. I guess sucking your thumb is about finding a place for your thumb, like a womb thing, or a sucking a nipple thing. I’m trying to make a machine out of the human, as though a machine inside you creates the process of fitting in, or creating space.

What’s your relationship with clichés, and what role do they play on this album?

Jenny Hval: I think I’ve always seen certain themes as clichés in themselves, and I’ve also seen clichés as being something positive. I’ve learned that if you avoid something because it’s a cliché, you’re not going to learn anything. Everything can be a cliché if you don’t work through it, or have good questions for it. When you write, there will always be clichés, so you might as well try to not to censor so much. It’s not always about the themes or the metaphors or anything, it’s about what you do with them. So I let it be. I decided to name my album The Practice of Love just to have that cliché (of ‘love’) in the title, just to put it right up there and challenge myself a bit, and to have a bit more fun.

“I always found Alice (from Alice in Wonderland) so annoying, because she was like, ‘this doesn’t exist’, ‘this is stupid’. She was like a very old lady, no imagination – yet she was sort of taken by it” – Jenny Hval

On “Six Red Cannas”, a gorgeous song that references Georgia O’Keefe and Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”, you sing a series of dates. What are they, and how are they connected?

Jenny Hval: Different years of different artworks by Georgia O’Keefe. Also Joni Mitchell’s birth, the year Hejira came out, the year I was born, then the year Georgia O’Keefe died, and the year I recorded my first EP. That’s the first chorus. Then the song recounts the history of New Mexico and back to when there was just an ocean in North America. I wanted to connect myself to the beginning of it all, or some ancient period where nothing existed.

Sort of like how you sing about Alice looking “through centuries of art”?

Jenny Hval: Yeah, it’s very connected to that.

“Ashes To Ashes” seems to be a full convergence between art and life and your own subjectivity – or maybe not.

Jenny Hval: Well, I think art is really a convergence with death in that song. I think that also, as someone who’s been creating things for many years, occasionally you’ll have these questions of “What does this mean?” Do I actually create anything, or do I just dig my own grave with it? Am I just constantly creating my own funeral service? But this is my hope, that I’m managing to create layers of existence that I can drag my fingers through. You asked me about “Thumbsucker” and connecting with my teenage self, and I said hopefully I can connect with a lot of different places, a lot of different points in my life and in my existence. I like the counting of the years in “Six Red Cannas”, too. I hope that I’m not just digging towards death, which is sometimes what it feels like when you’re investigating something. It’s always bringing you down, in a positive but also in a very destructive way – always uncovering, always digging up shit, but also trying to create a grave that is a place where you fit in, a place where you can be dead and it’s OK. That is also a leaflet of existence, where you can just go through pages, and it’s like different parts of the soil. The urge to connect with the Earth, basically, and not try to force nature to be real, but rather to make yourself into nature.

Does making yourself into nature require you to be dead?

Jenny Hval: Dead or dying. I’m not sure. I haven’t reached the bottom yet.

Jenny Hval’s The Practice of Love is out September 13