Jenny Hval’s music sneaks up on you. Her latest album, “Innocence is Kinky” (Rune Grammofon), may at first seem pristine and icy, but give it time and it morphs into something more ragged and confrontational. The Norwegian artist uses her music to confront topics that people aren’t all that comfortable with, especially sexuality and gender issues, and the bite comes through. In a recent phone conversation with ARTINFO, Hval talked about why she started recording under her own name, being labeled “transgressive,” and an album of sonnets that she never got around to.
When did you start working on the new album?
I released my previous album and had no shows booked, so I thought, “Oh, I have to do something.” That was the start of it, just having a bit of time. And then, I got offered to do a silent film concert — this is two years ago — and I had to compose all new music, so that was when a lot of the material started happening. I think a lot of the material has gone through different stages because I’ve been working in different mediums — I’ve been playing with my band for a long time, and working on my own for awhile doing sound installations, and writing a lot of text for a book and catalog. This project has just sort of kept coming with me to all those things.
At what point did it start to take the form it was released in?
I think that was probably the sound installation work. That was about a year ago. It was also called “Innocence is Kinky,” but it was a different entity from the album, and some of those ideas are still changing. I don’t really like when things are not changing. A lot of my old music I can’t play anymore. It’s become boring. I like to keep alive the experience where something is happening, the creation of something.
You’ve released four albums, but the first two were recorded as Rockettothesky. Do you consider those separate from what you’ve put out under your own name?
No, it’s the same project. It was just something I needed to get rid of to move on to more confrontational material. I got very sick of that name and it also felt like I was putting on some kind of armor by using a name that was very cutesy. It also had a bit of a phallic issue.
Do you feel like you have more freedom recording under your own name?
Using my own name, there’s nothing more and nothing less; it’s just what I do. I think it makes me think less about image. When I started recording stuff, which was kind of when I started to feel like a musician, I started recording and I didn’t just record songs — I recorded a myriad of other things too, like spoken word pieces and sound design and lots of different things that didn’t fit in a large setting with a band, or on an album that was a pop album.
How do you feel about being labeled a transgressive artist?
I’ve always kind of reacted to any kind of label with a bit of disgust. I used to hate being a pop artist. I don’t really mind what other people think of my music, but it’s just that kind of labeling thing is easy to accept when it’s someone else, and so hard to free yourself from when it’s about you. I don’t actually mind being called transgressive, although I’m not sure I can follow up on the label with what I do next. I don’t feel like I need to.
Do you feel like people are trying to trap you in a box?
Well, people do that all the time. But I guess that’s a lot to do with how you trap yourself. I’m always getting sick of what I’ve been called for awhile, then I feel I need to do something that’s not that. But as I grow older I hope I’ll care less about it. I don’t really think there’s a hierarchy between forms. I used to think that pop music was on the lower end, and that being an experimental artist was higher up. It’s not a sign of any kind of quality to be called experimental — it can be the opposite, it can just mean, “I don’t understand it.”
Regardless of what it’s being called, it seems like your music makes people feel uncomfortable. Is this your intention?
I think if I’m trying to confront something, I do it as I work. The only person I’d be confronting when I make things — unless it’s in a live setting — is myself. So if there’s a problem there, I probably have it as well. I guess at a certain level, I do want to confront. I’m always torn between kind of creating a flow that’s nice to listen to and interesting, and breaking that down and putting up a mirror — “Look at yourself!”
So you like making people uncomfortable?
I do like that emotional response. And I like having that emotional response to other things as well. To other art. I think those moments are really valuable. And I really like experiencing them myself as a listener. At the moment I’m really enjoying the YouTube comments to my latest video [for the title track]. I’m constantly reading the comments. It’s like a giant collective therapy session. I sometimes wonder why people comment when they just have this emotional outlook, but in this case I think it’s very interesting, because people are showing a type of vulnerability. Some of them are of funny. Some of them are just kind of like, “I hate it,” but some of them are showing insecurity.
How have you noticed a change in yourself as an artist since the beginning of your career?
I’m making things that are more like the way I am, and less what I want to be like. When I started out, a lot of the songs were quite pretty. And I couldn’t live with it. I think I have become freer, but it does take a lot of time. I kind of think, why didn’t I do riot girl, because I’m becoming more and more aggressive in my work.
Where do you go from here?
I’m at a point where I’m just doing stuff. I have no idea what it’s about. We’ll see. I’m not very good at following up. When I say that I’m doing something, I usually do something else afterwards. I once told a journalist I was about to do an album of sonnets, which I’m very glad I didn’t do, and probably will never do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.