Smile Politely

Jenny Hval: Friendly, unstable, scary, and funny

My conversation with Jenny Hval was my first experience using Skype. Admittedly it was even more nerve wracking for me than a phone interview, but Hval was kind and thoughtful in her responses. After a temporary delay due to some tangled headphones—a “spaghetti situation” as Hval called it—we talked about an array of things, including her approach and thoughts on her music, language, her upcoming appearance at Pygmalion, and embarking on her first North American tour. If you make it through, you’ll read Hval’s fascination with sound and how she once became entranced by a voice on a GPS. I felt the same interviewing her and, even though you won’t be able to hear her reading this, you should get a good idea of what she is about. Don’t miss her appearance at Pygmalion.

Smile Politely: What brings you to North American this time around?

Jenny Hval: I’m glad I’m speaking to you because the reason this tour started coming together was the Pygmalion festival contacted me and Seth from the festival really helped me a lot. So I’m extremely grateful for that kick start. I guess my album got a bit of attention and then I started sort of talking with people in your land so it was kind of opportunity but I’ve wanted to come in tour in America for a long time but it’s so hard because of the visa situation that you kind of need to have somebody helping you. So I’ve not really been able to go before. So now I’ve got a visa and I’m extremely excited. Borderline silly.

SP: So, will this actually be your first trip to North America?

Hval: I’ve been to New York twice so I’ve seen a place that isn’t very much like the rest of the United States, I guess, so I’m really very interested in seeing everything else, although I’m not seeing that much this time. We’re driving so I’ll stay awake.

SP: You’re hitting New York, Boston, in Canada… Urbana will be a little bit different feel then those places so maybe you’ll get a feel for the Midwest.

Hval: I’m looking forward to seeing that too. I’ve actually been reading a bit too. I’m not sure if it’s Smile Politely or something else but because I got to know Seth [Fein] a little bit I’ve been reading… is it like a twin city?

SP: Yeah, Champaign and Urbana are joined by the University really.

Hval: I was reading this article going through all the pubs and I feel like I got to know the city by the listings. So that’s all I know of the city: there’s a festival, some really nice people, and a lot of student bars… which we won’t see.

SP: What things do you try to do in your down time on tour? What are your habits outside of performing on stage?

Hval: I think for me it’s really depends on where we are and whether we’re travelling or staying in one place in our time off. There are lots of things I really like. I actually like finding really good coffee and going to cafes to sit and read. I’m kind of not so much, maybe, adventurous because we’re usually quite tired and just kind of want to pretend we’re having a day off at home. If we’re in a place that we can go do something…going out into nature and seeing something more or, if it’s summer, going swimming or something. I think I tend to be pretty boring. If I travel a lot by plane I’ll always be very much immersed in a book. So maybe that’s what I’ll be doing. [Laughing] I actually never have that much time off.

SP: Is there a book that you’re reading that you will be bringing with you?

Hval: Actually I just started reading Das Kapital. The good ol’ very thick classic. There’s an election coming up in Norway so I thought I’d start at the beginning.

SP: Nice light reading for your trip.

Hval: Well, actually it’s not so bad. I’ve never read it. I recently got a favorite writer, a new favorite writer. It doesn’t happen very often anymore. But I’ve now finished all her books. Her name is Chris Krause. She’s American, more like New Zealandish going American. She’s an artist, but mostly known as a writer. So sometimes I get these spurs of reading. I don’t know whether I’ll be taking Das Kapital or not.

SP: I recently found my favorite contemporary author too. It’s cool when you find someone that you really connect with.

Hval: I tend to not read a lot of novels. I really enjoy reading contemporary poetry. It’s kind of weird and kind of nice to bring because sometimes I really just want to read one page and then…think. I’m not sure if it’s the on the road type of reading.

SP: Do you find yourself reading a lot poetry that inspires you? What are the elements that come together to help you find your sound?

Hval: I think I very much get inspired. If it’s something that has been recommended to me then I put a lot of energy into the reading…Maybe that’s why I like to read one page as well because I can run off and record something. It’s the kind of reading where I almost can’t read because I start writing in my head. It depends on the language. I do get inspired by things that I don’t write like or sound like. There’s so much music in poetry that it’s sometimes a shock to read something that’s so much in it’s own concept or in it’s own rhythm so that it’s thrown into its own world with very strong senses at work. For me that’s incredibly energizing. Kind of an awakening to read.

SP: In terms of your writing process… you’re bilingual…

Hval: I speak English but my Norwegian is far better than my English. I guess I do feel like I’m between languages because, even though my Norwegian is better, I find it very hard to sing in Norwegian. One language isn’t working and then the other one isn’t. Then it’s this battle of the words that’s going on. I tried other languages in school, but I failed. I never learned proper French or proper German. I learned a little bit about pronunciation and I guess that was my best (Hval laughs). My skill was how to sing it, not to learn the meaning.

SP: Do you vacillate between Norwegian and English in your thoughts and what you write?

Hval: Sometimes it’s both and that’s difficult. I’ve written some songs this year that have both languages but that was because I really wanted to try that. That was interesting. I found that I started singing like I was doing Indian traditional singing when I was singing in Norwegian. I found this weird, very ethnic, very un-Norwegian sounding voice (Hval laughs). I think I’m into the sound of things. Recently we went on a trip. We were playing in Sweden and we were driving and I got very very interested in the voice on the GPS. So when I say I’m very inspired and energized by poetry it can happen with a GPS as well. It was just the way that some words stuck together (makes noises describing the abruptness of it). It’s kind of poetic sometimes. At least this woman’s voice was very nice and surrealist (sic). It’s very much about sound, for me, and I can get really really interested in words because someone is saying them in an interesting or beautiful way or in a different accent than I’ve heard before. That’s really something that always becomes significant in my brain. It repeats, repeats, repeats. But I used to live in Australia and that’s how I learned how to speak better English. To just memorize how people said things, and how they made jokes, and how they, you know, phrased things. All these phrases I’d never heard…”Aw, that’s like the ant’s pants” (laughing). What does that mean? Then I was repeating it thinking I have to learn that expression: Ant’s pants…ant’s pants…ant’s pants. So that’s how I learned all of the stuff that your English books won’t tell you.

SP: Sometimes I’ll wake up with a random word in my head. And sometimes I need to re-familiarize myself with that word or self-analyze. Do you ever just get a word stuck in your head? Maybe that you then use creatively?

Hval: Yes. I’m just now reminded of growing up when I listed to, like everyone else in my generation, pop music with English lyrics. And I had no idea what they were singing so I kind of invented my own language and I always imagined that whatever I played with would speak English. Then I picked up some words that had lots of meaning but I had no idea what the real meaning was so I invented the meaning. So there was this puzzle. This was maybe when I was eight, before I started learning some English, and I remember the word ‘commercial’ probably because we had Sky TV and there were commercial breaks and that was really exciting word that had lots of meaning but nothing to do with actual commercials. So yeah, yeah. It’s great to hear words in languages you don’t understand because you get really stuck on what they sound like and think about what these words mean. I guess a lot of people do that when they listen to bossa nova with Portuguese lyrics.

SP: That’s really fascinating.

I’m not familiar with your live shows but you’ll be playing a late show at our Art Theater Co-op for Pygmalion. It seems like a good fit because of the eclectic mix of art that you bring to your work. What can we expect from your live show?

Eds. Note: Jenny Hval’s show has been rescheduled to an earlier time slot on Saturday at Memphis on Main, due to Perfume Genius’ cancellation.

Hval: We have to travel light so we can’t do much visually. I talk a lot about different types of memory, different types of art form, but I think, generally, when you see what we do live it’s all there but it’s in the music. So it’s very eclectic and I guess it’s a bit rougher than the album. If people have heard the album it will probably be a bit more dynamic. Maybe a bit more scary, but maybe also a bit more friendly. Sometimes I talk on stage and sometimes I start getting funny. It really depends on the venue I think. I was recently playing at a church and I found that very hard because there was this big Jesus figure hanging behind me and I kind of felt this need to talk to him, about him. But the audience didn’t hear a word. It was all (Hval makes echoing reverb noises)…It’s maybe a bit unpredictable.

SP: I did want to go back to the travel thing before we wrap up. You said you have to pack light and I was wondering what your necessities are for traveling. Is there something personal that you have to have when you go away that brings you comfort?

Hval: I think one of the best things I’ve learned to bring is a hat because then you don’t have to wash your hair all the time. It’s wonderful to just be able to cover as much of your head as possible. And it’s a good little home as well. It’s a little palm to curl your head in. Hmm, let me think, it’s all very practical actually. I don’t really allow myself to bring much that isn’t practical but I really hate bringing CDs and vinyl. They’re so heavy so I always try to forget to pack them. And then somebody in my band will say, “Did you pack the merchandise?” “OK, I’ll go find it.” I really like packing and travelling light. When I went backpacking for the first time, when I was 19, I was backpacking with some friends of mine and I had half of what most of them had with them. So I was walking with this light backpack, wearing the same pants for a month. They had lots of nice things with them but carrying these heavy backpacks. You don’t need much.

SP: Just a hat, I guess.

Hval: Just a hat. And maybe a hooded jacket. Warm clothes. It can always get cold. This sounds like travel advice like you read in the in-flight magazines.

SP: Maybe you can record some sort of travel advice for airline passengers.

Hval: [laughs] Well, I’m not sure if there’s a manual for that.

SP:  When you travel places do you try to get a sense of them through food? Do you seek things out?

Hval: I must say, I’m not a foodie. But it does depend. A lot time, actually, we don’t have the time when we travel. So you’re lucky if you just find something that’s okay. I’m much more into coffee and how different coffees taste in different places. So maybe I’m more like a drinker. But you know, maybe I’ll find out something.

SP: Well, we have quite a few of those around too. Put on your hat and go.

Hval: [laughs] I might not be wearing my hat. It’s just so good to have. Instead of bringing something from home, you’re bringing a little home. Something to just lie around and sleep on a train or just comfort yourself and be a bit hidden. It’s good to hide a bit.


You can catch Jenny Hval at Memphis on Main with Nat Baldwin and Justin Walter. Her set is at 6:15 p.m.

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