Cherwell - Oxford University's Independent Student Newspaper since 1920

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En Liang Khong has published 13 articles

Saying No(r)way to cliché

Norwegian singer Jenny Hval talks to Cherwell about working within the feminist tradition and making music on the margins
En Liang Khong on Sunday 12th June 2011
Photograph: Karl Edwin Scullin

I'm definitely working in reaction to the perception of the female subject', says Jenny Hval, 'which is so often reduced to photoshopped, perfectly shaven parts. I find this a very evil part of modern society, obsessed with perfection and imperfection even more. So I really want to make music where there’s room for lots of imperfections’.

Hval, a vocalist, songwriter and novelist from Norway, has been rapidly establishing herself as a potent force within experimental music. She revels in her multiple artistic activities which include the publication of a mildly controversial novel, Perlebryggeriet (The Pearl Brewery). Her recent recording, Viscera, released under the great Rune Grammofon label, has attracted significant critical attention with comparisons being made to Kate Bush and Patti Smith. The first album under her own name (she has previously performed as Rockettothesky), Viscera weaves graphic, fantastical and feminist traditions through a haze of zither, church organ and psaltery. 

Hval sweetly opens the record with the provocative line, ‘I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris’, subtly playing with the idea of explicit language. Speaking from her Oslo home, Hval reflects upon this lyric’s inherent instability. ‘It’s very interesting when I play it live because the audience reacts very differently. In Norway everybody laughs while in other places people tend not to. I’m trying to make the listener unsure - is it ironic or is it not?’

Hval’s music, revolving around her feminist explorations, finds itself mostly concerned with lyrics. ‘I’ve been wanting to find a way to express that language naturally’, she explains, ‘instead of seeking a more visceral quality of expression in a more punkish delivery. I’m not naturally like that in terms of the way I sing and speak so I wanted to use the more literary feminist tradition’. 

For Hval, lyrics guide her music. This literary focus, almost reversing the traditional creative process, stretches back to her experiences studying creative writing and theatre at the University of Melbourne. ‘I wrote a lot of monologues that I also wrote into songs in my spare time. When you have music, the lyrics get very focused on following that structure. I really loved the energy in going about it the other way around’.

Given the endless clichés of frozen landscapes and melancholy that insidiously creep into discussions around Nordic music, Hval’s intense relationship with the English language is particularly interesting. ‘I didn’t really start writing properly until I started writing in English,’ she reflects. ‘Getting away from the paradigm that decides what is good art in my country has always been very important for me. English was very liberating for me and allowed for a much more explicit language musically. I had the distance within myself to think of the words as sound instead of just meaning’. 

For Hval, it is entirely relevant that she is a Norwegian artist who does not fit into Norwegian pop music. She grew up listening to as much English folk music as she did to the Norwegian (Sami) folk tradition. An obsession with the English language and intonation courses through her music.

Above all, Hval’s music still sits defiantly on the margins. With her 2006 debut album To Sing You Apple Trees, Hval started out being near the mainstream, ‘which wasn’t what I wanted’, she observes. ‘Over the years I‘ve become more interested in the ephemeral quality of music and a lot less interested in the pop music repetitive form’. So where does Hval find herself now? ‘I think there are many ways of being in the margins’, she concedes. But tribal fandom and the cult of personality, which defines much of non-mainstream music, is not for her. ‘I think I will always stay a loner artistically’, she ventures. As Norway’s once very diverse musical output becomes increasingly commercialized, Jenny Hval’s lone voice could not be more timely.

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