Jenny Hval is a busy woman. As I reach her in her hometown of Oslo, Norway via Skype, she is about to set out on a North American tour in support of her newly-released fourth LP, Innocence is Kinky, which will bring her to the Church of St. John the Evangelist on Thursday, Sept. 26, for POP Montreal. In the meantime, her creative output shows no signs of slowing down. Hval’s video feed is turned off, and, as our interview begins, she quickly explains why. “I’ve just walked in the door from doing a [live performance] project last night, so I’m a bit tired and […] video is probably best left off,” she laughs.
Hval’s inexorable productivity does not come as a surprise, given her wide range of accomplishments at the modest age of 33. Besides boasting a Master’s Degree in Literature from the University of Oslo, Hval is also a prolific music journalist, poet, and fiction writer whose published works include two free-form novels. But it is her music that has attracted the most attention worldwide, with critics praising her striking, ethereal voice and unconventional songwriting. On Innocence is Kinky, Hval appropriates a dizzying array of genres and moods, often within a single song. “Oslo Oedipus,” for example, transitions from a pastoral lullaby, to a brooding choral soundscape, to a thought-provoking spoken word poem, all in under three minutes.
Just as striking are Hval’s lyrics, which probe complex and contentious issues that musicians rarely address.
“When you discuss topics like sexuality in academic writing,” she says, “You’re very guarded, very controlled, and you have to make a point. With music, I’m able to take a more spontaneous, and maybe more honest, approach.”
Hval’s frankness is apparent in her lyrics—Innocence is Kinky begins with the words “Last night I watched people [having sex] on my computer”—but it strikes her how poorly critics misinterpret her intentions. “I’m surprised people think [Innocence is Kinky] is [just] about porn. It’s about everything, all types of images […] how everything, especially on the Internet, is ‘pornified.’”
At the same time, Hval says she wants to work on letting her music develop more naturally. She credits her producer on the album, long-time PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, with helping her to avoid getting too cerebral in the studio.
“[John] was very focused on exploring each song, which to me was fantastic because I tend to get hung up on the concept of an album, the idea that ‘all these songs belong together.’ It’s good to kind of get away from that, to not think so much about the brainy part of things and just perform the music.”
In fact, Hval sees performing live as having a dynamic role in the creative process. “I like to play things live before I know what they are. The audience appreciates it because they get to see something that I don’t understand yet. They become part of the process of [developing] it.”
Accordingly, she informs me that on her upcoming tour, she will be trying out brand-new material on stage. “I never rest,” she laughs.
Whether live or in the studio, Hval is determined to never stop exploring new musical territory, especially with her voice. “I notice whenever I sing with professional singers that I can’t really do that kind of genre stuff that a lot of the more trained [professionals] can do. So I try to do things I can’t do, and it sounds different from what I wanted—but interesting. That’s central to my music, going into those awkward situations and seeing what you can find there. Going out on a limb, in a way.”
Jenny Hval performs at the Church of St. John the Evangelist (137 President Kennedy Ave.) at 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 26. Tickets are $16 in advance, and $20 at the door.