Where are you going tonight? What are you doing out without a boyfriend?
I was 12, maybe 13 the first time a man tried to follow me. I was walking home from the library with a few new books in my bag, wearing a hand-me-down leather jacket and a pair of barely broken-in combat boots. My eyes were poorly outlined in black liner and I looked young, but not too young to be out alone at dusk. One of the books I’d borrowed that day was a young adult novel about a female vampire. Teen vampire novels were having a moment in the early-aughts, thanks to Twilight, and I’ll admit that I wanted to be one. Vampires were sexy, powerful, dangerous, volatile — all of the things that, as a just-barely teenager, I was sorely lacking.
What are you doing out without a boyfriend?, he asked again. In that moment I willed my (surely hidden) supernatural powers to take over; that man would’ve been in my arms, his neck broken. I’d be feeding on him the way his eyes fed on me. Instead, I stammered that my non-existent boyfriend was waiting at home and quickened my pace as the predator faded into the background. I felt my perceived power and agency thin to dust in that moment. It disappeared as soon as I recognized my place in the world.
I hadn’t thought about this incident in years, but I was reminded of it while listening to Jenny Hval’s new album, Blood Bitch, specifically its lead single “Female Vampire.” I must justify my presence by losing it, must not keep a steady gaze, when I’m near you become someone else. Based on those powerful lyrics alone, one can infer that interviewing the 35-year-old Norwegian artist is an intimidating task. Her work is complex, often theoretical, and at times, hard for even her to explain. At a certain point during our conversation, I asked a question that Hval couldn’t really answer. “You should be calling my subconscious, because my subconscious would know a lot more about that,” she said, laughing. Throughout the course of the interview, Hval and I parsed the themes on Blood Bitch, and at a certain point, she said one thing that made my anxiety fall away: “Choose your own adventure.” And so, this is where my adventure with Blood Bitch begins — on a street in my neighborhood over a decade ago.
Fleeting memories and points of connection are the best spaces to tumble off from and into a new Hval album. There are three parts of my story that intersect: the vampire novel I’d just borrowed, the man who followed me home, the fact that I had just arrived at that age when girls get their periods and become women, suddenly all too aware of their own bodies. You’re a vessel, you give birth, you give birth by letting men inside of you. When they ask for your number, follow you home at night, that’s what they want to do to you. It all becomes frighteningly clear at that age. And Blood Bitch attempts to mediate all of these complexities of “womanhood” by turning our perceived weaknesses to power. The album is a reclamation of “blood power,” a gesture of strength that has come to define Hval’s work over the years.
Hval’s music is dense and self-referential, a series of nesting dolls that pillage the personal, the political, the mythical, the surreal. She’s an experimentalist with an ear for off-kilter pop melodies, a performance artist who turns the stage into a place where all of her disparate ideas can coalesce into something thought-provoking, or just straight-up weird. Hval owns that weirdness, though, and on her new album she aimed to create something less rooted in critical theory. On this album, her lyrics were often written in the studio during the recording process like spontaneous verse: “For a long time, I thought lyrics were very, very bad,” Hval admits.
But Blood Bitch boasts some of her most easily accessible lyrics to date. This album tells a story. It has an arc in the traditional narrative sense, while her previous solo releases were more abstract. When Hval was recording Blood Bitch alongside co-producer Lasse Marhaug, she had been watching assorted ’70s horror flicks — she name-checks Spanish director Jesús Franco, and various B-movies in a recent interview — and some of those preexisting characters “crept into the lyrics” in ways that weren’t premeditated.
“Many horror films contain really beautiful images, even if they’re grotesque,” Hval says. “That’s the power and the joy and sometimes also the evil side of many types of movies. In a lot of mainstream cinema, you see all sorts of aestheticized violence. Pretty violence. Violence that looks really good. To me, that is really scary.”
Much of Hval’s work up until this point has been about The Body. Her last album, Apocalypse, girl, was an explicit exploration of gender and sexuality. Hval exploits the language of domination throughout, redefines what intimacy looks and feels like through her singular lens. She described that album as “soft dick rock,” an intentional effort to delineate toxic masculine hardness, to make the phallus limp and therefore harmless. Prior to that, she released Innocence Is Kinky, a softer, almost dainty meditation on soiled virginity. Blood Bitch uses The Body as its canvas, but Hval doesn’t see it as a continuation of Apocalypse, girl. On that album she sought to illustrate the struggles of modern feminism, the limited scope of our politics, the unending uphill battle women everywhere face. It’s the apocalypse, girl. By that she meant: There is so much more to be done. On Blood Bitch, however, she taps into the fantastical and exposes what true freedom from those seemingly endless restrictions might feel like.
“I wanted to show something else … and even if it sounds very, well, corny,” she pauses. “I do actually believe that the mystical quality of music transcends all those hopeless word struggles we have when we are locked in language.”
When Hval announced Blood Bitch, she presented us with a brief artist’s statement and a video that asks: I wonder… do vampires menstruate? It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma, an absurdist question designed to be unanswerable. Is this what being locked in language feels like? Having no vocabulary to explain whether or not vampires get their period? It brings up a perplexing point: If vampires feed on blood, if that’s what keeps them going, wouldn’t they be more inclined to hunt a woman on her period? Or would they be repulsed by her? Is it, as Hval pointed out to me when we got into the technicalities of it, “dead blood?” And by posing this question, Hval corners a very specific critique: that women are condemned for the same thing they’re celebrated for.
“Blood Bitch is an investigation of blood,” Hval writes in her artist statement. “Blood that is shed naturally. The purest and most powerful, yet most trivial, and most terrifying blood: Menstruation. The white and red toilet roll chain which ties together the virgins, the whores, the mothers, the witches, the dreamers, and the lovers.”
There is a song on Blood Bitch called “Untamed Region.” It begins with a clip of audio from a BBC special, an excerpt that Hval spontaneously included for no straightforward reason. The anchor’s voice dips out and is replaced by Hval’s, whose narrator wakes up in a pool of her own menstrual blood, and begins marking her territory with it, reclaiming that which “belongs to no one” for herself. “I dip my finger in it,” she states. “Smells like warm winter. Then I feel a need to touch everything in this room. Like a dog I’m marking everything that belongs to no one. Bringing it close to me, or life, or something.”
Blood Bitch is built along the perimeter of the human life cycle. At its center is the vagina; a space that Hval enters repeatedly throughout the album’s 10 tracks. That space is where all human life begins, a microcosm of our universe (as Hval describes it to me), the womb an incubator for all things to come. It’s referred to on “Conceptual Romance” as the “original wound, the origin of the world.” She reminds listeners that there is a reason that the Earth is classified as a “mother,” the giver of life. Hval’s main inquiry stems from this contradiction: If periods give life, then why are we taught that they’re to be kept hidden? Are we all born of something grotesque? Or is its stigmatization unwarranted?
Hval had a single goal in mind while making Blood Bitch: She wanted it to be beautiful. And she achieved that. It seems like a pointed irony — to make a beautiful album about an aspect of the female body that’s so often thought to be ugly, or shameful, or just plain painful. Being on your period is a subject to be avoided, as anyone who’s ever walked through the Feminine Hygiene aisle of a drug store can attest. Hval sees those technical, sanitized terms as a means of avoiding reality, of stripping that life-giving blood of its power.
“It’s the containment section,” she explains. “[Feminine hygiene products] give menstruation a solid shape. You need to soak that blood up with something that holds it and stops it from being fluid — that’s the goal. That’s how we control femininity. We make it solid. We make it have shape. We make it into some kind of object.”
“Objectification” is, of course, an oft-referenced word in any discourse of modern feminism. If we’re to generalize: Men objectify, women are objectified. Of course, those roles reverse; there are always exceptions. But Hval isn’t talking about objectification at the hands of an individual; she’s talking about the commodification of the female figure at the hands of The Man. Not just “a man.” And through this album, Hval attempts to free the body from that particular type of cleansing. As a recent article points out, Hval’s album is one in a series of recent artistic endeavors aimed at breaking down period taboo. There’s no better example on Blood Bitch than “Period Piece,” a song that explicitly narrates a trip to the gynecologist.
“In the doctor’s office the speculum pulls me open,” Hval sings over a massive, hollow drumbeat, as she readies the song’s conclusion. “Don’t be afraid, it’s only blood.” And then there’s the album’s penultimate track “Secret Touch,” in which Hval exchanges the words “Free!” and “Death!” intermittently, as if the two are one in the same, asserting that we cannot consider one without the other. Death, we’re taught, is the ultimate freedom.
Hval has always aimed to subvert and disarm figures of authority in her music, and most often that figure is classified as capitalism. Throughout Blood Bitch, Hval interrogates the language of desire, points out all of the ways that the romance we’ve been taught through film, art, poetry, and especially advertising, is a means through which to fulfill an agenda. “I don’t need money, I just need your love, or your approval,” Hval sings, her voice growing pitchy in the final syllable on “The Great Undressing.” “Like capitalism. It works like unrequited love that way, it never rests, just like I need the love I’m not getting from you.”
It never rests. There are a few vampire characters populating this album. There’s the female vampire, there’s Hval herself, there’s the listener, and then there’s “Orlando,” whom Hval addresses in her artist’s statement, that encompasses all of them. (“Orlando” is taken from Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending character from her 1928 “speculative fiction” book). As far as menacing, supernatural creatures go, vampires are special because they are both predators and former prey. In most lore, the vampire only becomes a vampire because they’ve been bitten. And so, the prey becomes the predator, the cycle perpetuated by a thirst. A desire.
But there’s another element of vampire mythology that’s especially pertinent to Blood Bitch. Vampires are the sex symbols of the undead — they seduce their victims the way a lover might. Dracula was infatuated with Lucy, so he pursued her. He wanted to feed on her, make her undead, and by default, she would be his. That story is an ancient one, but it clouds practically every modern vampire tale. Years after I devoured books on vampires, HBO debuted True Blood, featuring a 173-year-old vamp who falls in love with a young, human girl the moment he lays eyes on her. And then there’s the most obvious point-of-reference: the Twilight saga. Edward falls in love with Bella the moment he smells her. She doesn’t have to say a word — he knows they’re bonded. It’s instinctual.
That “instinct” adheres to the language of romance that Hval puts to use throughout Blood Bitch. She describes romance as being inherently capitalistic and driven by fantasy. “The heterosexual narrative of love that we’re presented with is a capitalist mythology,” she tells me, meaning that we use romance, sex, intimacy, to sell things. That bodies and hearts can be bought with affection, traded in for something of greater value once that form expires. That’s how vampires feed; they suck you dry, turn you into one of them, and then move onto a new victim. The desire to acquire motivates an unquenchable thirst.
Blood Bitch interrogates the notion that people are things you can obtain, possess fully, own as if you share a heart and your blood is bonded. It feeds the same myth that working hard will make you rich, that persistence is the key to success. That if you follow someone for long enough, if you ask for their phone number repeatedly, if you don’t give up, they’ll acquiesce to your request. Those stories adhere to a tired narrative of who’s allowed to be the hunter, and who by default is required to take on the role of their victim.
There’s a brief scene of pursuit on Blood Bitch called “In The Red.” It opens with a pitter-patter, the same synthetic swirl that underscores the previous track, “Female Vampire.” We hear someone walk up or down a set of steps, and through a door. Then the sound of their panting takes over. It’s heavy and labored, harmonized by a low hum — sexual and dangerous and terrifying all at once. As the panting continues, Hval’s voice surfaces. It hurts… everywhere. She describes this to me as a hunt, but not one that necessarily ends in tragedy.
“Maybe the two characters, the hunted and the hunter, find themselves really enjoying the run,” she says, never straightening the song into a singular narrative, instead relying on “maybes.” “It’s more like a jog, or a synchronized dance. It’s like a transformative moment in movement and energy rather than a hunt that ends in a kill.”
The way we interpret and misinterpret our actions, the language that we use to communicate our desires, to manipulate or take advantage, is at the center of Hval’s critique on Blood Bitch. The first line of every Hval album has always been paid great attention. It’s the moment that sets the tone for what’s to follow, and Hval’s opener for Blood Bitch is a requiem. I clutch my phone in my sweaty palm in my hand. I clutch my heart, and the coffin for my heart in my hand. Hval paints her cellphone as a coffin, a place where her heart goes to die. There are so many ways to interpret every song on Blood Bitch, but this introductory passage should be thought of as a mission statement. If the cellphone is to represent dialogue, discourse, communication, then the one Hval holds represents the way our conversations can feel so limited in the modern age, despite the fact that we’re supposedly so much more liberated. It’s so loud, and I get so afraid, so I start speaking. From there, Hval continues to pry at convention, to articulate why, in an era of “self care,” certain aspects of the body are OK to acknowledge openly and unashamedly while others are not.
To contrast that introduction, Blood Bitch concludes with a song called “Lorna.” The production on it sparkles as Hval sings her final questions. What is this desire? This biting, eating into another person. What is this that can’t be contained in you? I feel full of holes. This song mediates the fantasy of Blood Bitch with the reality of Hval’s surroundings, questioning what “desire” really means when we divorce it of the language that we’ve been taught all our lives. Does anyone have a language for it? Can we find it? There, she leaves us to define it, exposing the predatory potential — the lost and found again blood powers — in all of us. “Us” being the girls walking home alone at night, the virgins, the whores, the mothers, the witches, the dreamers, and the lovers.
Blood Bitch is out 9/30 via Sacred Bones. Stream it here.