Jenny Hval’s Labor Of Love
The art-pop star on 'The Practice Of Love' and her heady, experimental reputation
Over the course of this decade, Jenny Hval has built up a catalog of boundary-pushing, thought-provoking electronic music that’s rightfully earned her consistent acclaim and fascination. Two months ago, she released her latest collection, The Practice Of Love, the culmination of that decade’s worth of work. The immediate impact on first listen was hearing the realization of a Jenny Hval that was ever so slightly poppier, who could write songs that were gorgeous and celestial but also could try her hand at true bangers.
It’s an often strikingly beautiful album that lost none of the conceptual heft of her past work, with meditations that, as always, encourage her listeners to upend their preconceived notions on topics from childlessness to aging. Some songs sound born from dreams, others from history, and one even seems to recalibrate the language of a self-help book or mindfulness exercise into a secular space-age prayer. It’s a powerful work of art — one that grabs you immediately but still triggers new ideas the more you return to it over time.
Last week, I caught up with Hval at a cafe in Utrecht, during this year’s edition of the Le Guess Who? festival. Hval was there to perform, but also served as one of the festival’s guest curators this year. (She wryly noted that the initial list she submitted to the festival was something like 70 names.) Ahead of her own show — which turned out to be an art piece as idiosyncratic as her songs — we sat down to dig into her new work and this moment in her career. What followed was a sort of abstract post-mortem on The Practice Of Love and how people received it, with Hval digging into her writing process but also musing over pop music and why people so often talk about her as a challenging artist.
STEREOGUM: The first thing everyone noticed was the album felt more accessible. A bit poppier. Some reviews mentioned ’90s trance music.
JENNY HVAL: I think I said it, but I said it more as an inspiration than a result. It’s funny how — I can only say things I was thinking about. I try to think back to what I was interested in, and sometimes that doesn’t really gel with what the album sounded like in the end. So it’s interesting to see how my initial inspirations or themes I was thinking about, before I even knew what I was doing, is then rewritten into “the album is trance.” That’s just how internet writing works, I think. But it’s kind of a magical transition, because I would never listen to my album and think, “Oh, it sounds like trance.”
STEREOGUM: Right, neither would I. But the reason I’m still interested in it is you’ve said The Practice Of Love didn’t feel that different from your other work to you, personally. There was no conscious realization that like, “Ashes To Ashes” was so much more of a direct song for you?
HVAL: I might’ve been lying a little bit. I’ve been thinking about this lately. I think what was different for me was not the sound of things, because my demos have sounded a little like this since the dawn of Logic Pro.
STEREOGUM: And then they just manifested differently this time?
HVAL: I wanted to work more on my own. I have this feeling that I wanted to stay closer to the writing process, but at the same time the songs themselves are a little different. Not sonically so much, but in the sense that I really wanted to … close them. So a song like “Ashes To Ashes” does end up sounding more accessible than a lot of my previous work, because I was really set on writing something that would be its own piece.
So it’s not like something where I start often, where there’s a theme and then I rant away on lyrics. It’s more like, I wanted to play a little bit with rhyme — or, I mean, this all just happened. But I did have an intention, that wasn’t so clear to me but was still there, that I wanted to focus on really nailing some words that it could be its own piece, so in the end that’s a finished poem. At least for some songs, not all. I think that did manifest. Just me trying to have more clarity with the lyrical form.
STEREOGUM: Despite these winding up as “closed pieces,” there’s still ways in which certain elements are similar across the album, or have throughlines. Was that more difficult to put that together in the end? To close it but still have these recurring ideas?
HVAL: That happened very naturally. I think the hard part is to discard. Two of these songs were there six months before I was finished, and the other ones came because I could not finish other ones. The other stuff became what was much more centered. Repeated themes, a word that appears in different songs.
The links for me were lyrical. Previously, like say with Blood Bitch or especially Apocalypse, girl, those took a long time to gel because it was gelled sonically, it was gelled by recording tons and tons of material that was completely abstract and then gelling the songs together with that. It was a lot of gluing happening. With this one I wasn’t interested in having that, because I had done that so much on the last two albums, I had done so many transitions from one piece to the next. I just wanted to write, instead, basically. It was OK for me that it then became an album where there’s a song and it’s finished and then the next song.
STEREOGUM: There’s another thing you said about these feeling complete once you had the lyrics and the demos, which makes sense since you just said this is how your demos often sounded in the past. Did lyrics come first for you before?
HVAL: I think most of the pop songs, the lyrics [came first]. Like “That Battle Is Over.” Definitely lyrics, or an essay. Sometimes I have lyrics but they’re other people’s lyrics. Like, “Conceptual Romance” I had a page of Chris Kraus and then I changed the words somewhat. I struggle when I don’t have lyrics first because then I don’t have a guide. For these songs, there was one song that was bugging me for about three years and that was “Thumbsucker.” It’s still not finished, but, I mean, it’s out. That one I could never finish. For many of the others I have lyrics and then the songs exist because of those.
STEREOGUM: That’s what I was curious about with the new album, in a big-picture way. In a lot of ways, at first glance, the words are still grappling with heavy concepts. It feels no more resolved to me, necessarily, than the other albums. But because of the way it interacts sonically — all these silvery sounds and big euphoric builds — the cumulative effect makes it feel more at peace to me than the preceding two albums, especially. Do you feel that way about it?
HVAL: I did, I did, and I felt that way before I wrote it too. And I’m very curious now. Because when you say “grapple with heavy things” and “unresolved,” what do you mean by “heavy things”?
STEREOGUM: I meant, it’s not as if the work got any slighter by virtue of that accessibility. And like, the album’s called The Practice Of Love, you’re going after cliched topics like love and death and the ocean, as you’ve discussed and people have noted. It’s very purposefully not an album that’s an obvious love album being called that.
The two songs that talk about childlessness and how that interacts with human identities and bodies — these are still complicated things to be worked through, and they’re now, in the context of your work overall, being worked through in music that’s very catchy and very pretty. One of the things that knocked me over the first time was in the exchange during the title track, the line about not being the main character in the story, that was very fascinating to me.
HVAL: It’s very fascinating to me too, because it’s not my line. I didn’t write that, so I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s not something I can take credit for or even say I agree with. Laura [Jean], who is saying that — she’s been teaching songwriting a lot, and she’s worked a lot with archetypes, like Joseph Campbell archetypes. She’s invested a lot of time in writing and thinking about what character is, which I think makes her a very strong songwriter and makes her able to say these things in that song, that conversation she gave to me. It knocked me over, too.
But for me it relates as much to things you realize throughout your life, regardless of whether you have children or not, because definitely all my friends who have children are not the main characters. [Laughs] They’re very minor characters in the family. But it’s just in a different way. This is about not being the main character in the human story, the virus of humanity and bringing it on. I think, to me, that’s a very universal idea of getting to be a full-grown human. Realizing you’re unimportant.
But I’m curious, because I’ve read so many times that people think I’m heady, intellectual, writing about heavy topics. And I ask myself, what is a heavy topic? Because I think everyone is — I mean, people are releasing albums about suicide, that’s much heavier. But I think it’s about the tone I use, and the way I use words. It’s just slightly more … for me, this is not very heady, this is an experience-based type of writing. [That main character line is] a thing you don’t read about, you learn through living.
STEREOGUM: You’re not wrong. When you consider something like Nick Cave’s new album, about the death of his son: Plenty of art is heavy, yes. I think the reason it stands out with your work is the amount of layers and inspiration points. You’re pulling from all these tropes and literary canons and critical theory, songs originate as essays. It’s not how a lot of music in the pop sphere operates, and that’s why I think it’s interesting that you’re pushing back against how people have characterized your music.
HVAL: Through Apocalypse, girl, I had several essays. “That Battle Is Over,” particularly, was a sarcastic essay. For this album, no essays at all. I felt very over with this essay writing, because I did two albums that were very essayistic, which were Innocence Is Kinky and Apocalypse, girl. After that, I really wanted to step away from that, which was Blood Bitch. That’s where I had a lot of words coming after the music because I was writing movie scenes, though I couldn’t stick with it throughout.
For this album, I was studying poetry for myself, as I was writing, so I guess my writing habits and interests have changed in terms of form, over the last few years. I don’t care if people find my work intellectual or heady, but sometimes I just wonder if what comes across then is a distance, and that I find unfortunate. Because when I encounter other music that is very wordy or complex, I would never really call it cerebral, because that’s also an emotional thing for me. I find this divide very strange.
STEREOGUM: This is probably a reductive notion based on those binaries, but I feel like maybe with this album the conversation shifted a little bit. People still talk about it being conceptual, but with the accessibility or the themes, people seem to be focusing on the community aspect of it. With the specific way the voices interact this time, the thesis of love insofar as it exists on the album is sort of a plurality, not a love letter to a specific person. For better or for worse, I feel like this would be a moment in which people give you credit for being a human being, as well.
HVAL: I think people can write what they want, and language is really difficult. I tried music writing myself some years ago, and it was really difficult. When I read what I wrote then, I think, “I was trying to say the opposite thing!” But I ended up saying what came naturally, which was a type of language that’s obsessed with these binary oppositions. So I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just always curious about challenging language a bit.
Pop music is an interesting place to be as well, because there’s a lot of pressure on things being immediate. Sometimes, you don’t have to do much before you’re avant-garde. I mean, I have no references to avant-garde in my work. I reference a lot of art forms, but not so much the avant-garde. And yet, I see when my album is reviewed it’s “experimental.” That’s just a label. At the same time, I know a lot of other artists from other art disciplines and for them I do pop music with a big P. It’s a very immediate artform, which I love.
STEREOGUM: So do you think of yourself that way, too? Even with the more challenging albums, operating in this broader sphere of pop music?
HVAL: I think pop music is just something working with immediate forms. Making records. Working with spaces that are small like a recording space, where you work with a microphone instead of projecting. But also pop music can be a team in a room writing toplines.
STEREOGUM: We just finished looking back at albums and songs of the decade, and we wrote about some of your music. And I’m curious, as you’ve gotten into those albums that got more attention and acclaim, culminating with The Practice Of Love at the end of the decade, do you feel like there is an arc across them? Or do they feel like discrete projects to you?
HVAL: I think there’s an arc, but I think for me it’s like, a life arc, or a writing arc. A way of developing as a writer. They’re very different projects and eras to me, but I do think the decade has been … we talked about essay writing and the “unresolved,” where I think I started off, and [now] returning to something I might’ve been interested in earlier, before my music was very known.
It was probably more poetic forms, where you actually try to resolve something and take care of those words, instead of writing from a character’s perspective. Creating a space for the words, the repetition of images manage to move somewhere, so each piece of music starts somewhere and you manage to get a little further. It’s no longer an aria situation where I’m like, “I’m just expressing my emotions right now!” and that’s it. But something that digs with that shovel, a little further into the earth maybe. There’s a lot of digging on this album. We’ll have images of digging in the show.
STEREOGUM: Aside from wanting a different way of working than the preceding albums, did you reach some change or a point in your life that made you feel more drawn to writing that way?
HVAL: I think it’s a little bit about responsibility. If I write something, I think there should be responsibility in how you continue. After a while, I realized, “Ah, I want to have some kind of idea of love on this album.” Going there is also some kind of responsibility. Which is then also trying to take responsibility for some kind of getting older. It’s a constant process, you could say this at any age. But the more choices you’ve made, the more dirt you’ve got, the more covered you are, the less innocence you have, the more that’s on display.
At some point, I felt like as a writer, I needed to express the responsibility. I don’t really know how to follow up that thought, except: On this album, I wanted to sort of have the other voices in there partly to think further. When I talk about community, I’m maybe talking more about the idea, wishful community. Albums are sort of lonely. I didn’t invite people to do major collaborations, except this conversation that happened, which is a very major contribution. But I didn’t invite people to write songs or a lot of lyrics for me.
STEREOGUM: It started with you wanting to work alone more.
HVAL: Right, which is also about taking responsibility, because then I could take the blame for everything and then I could also go back and take responsibility for my … what can I say. My memories of the synth sounds, or the stuff I really loved as a teenager but maybe dismissed as being mainstream and belonging to, I don’t know, maybe even a social class? Those dismissals are also about privilege and me not realizing how I was splitting them up and saying things like, “Oh, arpeggiated synth in this kind of pattern, that is trashy! Whereas this clarinet line is high art!” You know? So it’s not about me re-approaching trashy music as much as actually enjoying it and seeing it as more universal.
STEREOGUM: There’s an aspect of The Practice Of Love that feels like discovering a new sound for yourself but coming to terms with origins, a comfort that feels like a result of a certain passage of aging. I imagine it’s far too early to talk about this kind of thing, but would you continue to push forward in that mold rather than seek out new reference points once more? Or maybe you’re not thinking about it at all yet.
HVAL: I’m not thinking about it … I guess I’ll just keep pushing that, regardless of whether I have new inspirations or not. I feel like I haven’t had a lot of … I had a lot of new inspirations for Blood Bitch, because I had not seen the type of films I was trying to recreate. But a lot of my references are pretty old. I’m not discovering too much new stuff now, I’m too old. Maybe I just want to look closer at what I’ve got.
The Practice Of Love is out now via Sacred Bones.