As a bass tone took its first stabs into the void, Norwegian songwriter Jenny Hval challenged it for attention: "At night, I watch people fucking on my computer."
Those moments of sudden shock—whether musical, lyrical or a perfectly rendered pair of the two—characterize last year's Innocence is Kinky, Hval's daring exploration of blurred mores and amorphous relationships.
Innocence was Hval's fourth album, but it earned her long overdue American attention. That came in part from a string of recognizable referents, such as Laurie Anderson and PJ Harvey, David Grubbs and Joy Division. But the praise also stemmed from the ingenious way Hval mixed moments of unabashed effrontery with a presiding sense of multivalence, where meanings had to be teased out and surmised.
Temporarily based in New York, where she was rehearsing with a small band before beginning an American tour, Hval spoke about those dueling senses of provocation and pontification. And though she's known for her depictions of Oslo in songs, Hval also described Tvedestrand, her small hometown on the southern coast of Norway that made her feel forever like an outsider.
Yuck. I would love to have my next set of press photos taken with someone else in them. I just hate selfies. I don't hate all kinds of self-portraits, but the culture of it. There's something really dirty about it. After Innocence is Kinky, I'm trying to get over this will to analyze what's happening in the digital world. I've thought about it so much that I have to move on. I went down deeply into the early days of selfies on Innocence is Kinky, and funnily enough, that meant the thing I avoided depicting was myself. I looked at all these images of others, like Paris Hilton. I went into these incredible details with her sex tape, which I was watching a lot when I was writing Innocence is Kinky. I was watching all these people's self-portraits of a different kind, and I managed to veer away completely from thinking, "Where am I in this? Where would I be?"
That's something the Americans think of me. Ever since I got a little attention in America, I've been this provocative musician. To me, this is interesting, but it's probably only half of the picture. I'm quite a quiet person, but then all the sudden, I'll burst out and say something that's quite more rude than I thought. There's probably some perversion in my personality, but I think that's to be said of anyone. I rarely write to provoke, but I do like to use language in a very direct manner when I write. Things need to jump out for me to find it interesting. Maybe it even comes down to remembering the lyrics, which I'm very bad at.
That's something I've never mentioned in a song, something I've avoided so much. But I'm writing a new song at the moment, as of two days ago, and it's got my hometown in it. I've been very opposed to go to the genre of writing that I find connected to using a hometown—we call it heimstaddiktning in Norwegian, when you write about your home. I've never been comfortable in my home. I always wanted to get away, and my writing always wanted to be away from it. My town felt very restricting, like a little prison but cozy. Maybe because I am now more away than ever, I am returning to it in my writing. Your hometown seems like something you need to be far away from in order to be reunited to it in an interesting way.
More than finding sounds in the real world, I love to find YouTube sounds. You can convert YouTubes to MP3s, and I love to do that—not with songs but with other sounds. I love voices in rooms, bad recordings of dialogue, everyday sounds recorded with a bad microphone, when a recording is destroyed by wind noise. I usually start a song like that—I find a sound, and then something happens on top of it. Instead of silence, it's like a sheet that's very dirty instead of blank. I've recorded over so many bad films. Because I was bored watching bad movies, I would play around with recording and not turn off the TV. How can you ever start from nothing? I like to start from noise.
I love to jump around with different parts and sounds, and I love when I'm able to bring different versions of songs together. I never manage to stay on a clear path. I'm only clear on certain levels, like writing. I want to write something that jumps out, so that when you hear it, it's not background material. But at the same time, I'm not very good at working with a good pop structure or clear subjects or perspectives. It always jumps around, in part because I use these noisy sound environments when I write. That adds ambiguity.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Piercing the noise"