Less than a minute into the existential and experimental musician and writer Jenny Hval’s brilliant new album, Apocalypse, girl, she asks a question for the ages: “What is soft dick rock?” She answers clinically: “Using the elements of dick to create a softer, toned-down sound.” She even put it on a t-shirt. A classic Hvalian mix of soft and hard if there ever was one.
Still, I was left with questions. Namely, was there a specific soft dick that inspired soft dick rock, and how can we make this genre a thing as expediently as possible?
Hval — whose 2013 album Innocence Is Kinky is an intoxicating and raw rock’n’roll rumination on sexuality and whose new one explores identity (gender and otherwise) through mystical freak-outs for orchestra and Bjork-style belting — obliged me these questions and more. Over the course of a lengthy Skype chat from her sunny, CD-filled apartment in Oslo, we discussed the Spice Girls, filmmaker Todd Haynes, reality TV, Norwegian feminism, outsider culture, and making St. Vincent fans feel freaky.
Flavorwire: OK, so what is soft dick rock, and where did it come from?
Jenny Hval: The phrase came up when I was doing a project [The Dark Passenger’s Rituals] a few years ago with a group of guys. An Oslo-based composer [Jessica Sligter] and I wanted to write vocal music for this group of guys who are all good friends of ours, but they don’t usually sing. We also wanted to write music with them, by having workshops that consisted of conversations about male sexuality and male vulnerability. It’s something you don’t hear about, so we talked about things like hair-loss, various sexuality-related insecurities, shyness, and male stereotypes. There’s a much bigger palate for women with regards to visual identity; growing up, there are a lot more clothes you can experiment with. Somehow it’s more limited for guys.
It was really interesting and rewarding for me to work with them. In the middle of that I wrote ‘Take Care of Yourself” [off the new album], which was written from a male perspective, but “cunt” sounded better than “dick,” so at that point I changed it. I also kept thinking about soft dick rock as something that was vulnerable but had nothing to do with success. In a way, it’s anti-capitalist sexuality. It’s also a universal vulnerability symbol, instead of fertility or phallus. It’s something that speaks to me, just as a phrase. I’m not trying to constantly impose the female perspective on everything, for me it’s more fluid than that. In my head, music makes intimacy transcendent.
Apocalypse, girl is full of these wildly complicated ideas about the self, not just these deep gender explorations people have come to expect from you. Where does one start with a project like this?
I started writing it just after my previous album came out. It was summer, and I just wanted to do something that felt good. It was very basic. I’ve been doing music for a few years now, and I’ve become tired of thinking of myself as an artist and having an artistic voice. I was watching a lot of YouTube videos at the time, getting into videos where people are singing but not with any sort of artistic intention, demonstration videos for musical equipment, videos of people doing bad karaoke. When I say “bad,” it’s still interesting to watch but it’s not meant to be artistically interesting — it’s just meant to be someone who’s really happy about singing or even doing something very mechanical. It all sounds horrible — don’t do it!
I was singing on top of tracks that I found in my music software, that was finished music. It was a weird starting point that was more about approaching writing from a destructive and liberating performance mode, exploring reasons to be singing in the first place. I connected things to growing up in the Christian Bible Belt part of Norway, looking at the gospel choir from afar — things that I’d almost forgotten were part of me at all. There’s definitely some punk happening on the album, just not musically, more like an outsider attitude and reconnecting with the longing to be part of a group and then letting go of that. When you’re on your own on the outside, it’s easier to think of the rejection of the group than to connect with the longing to be part of it.
I was also listening to Norwegian jazz albums from the late ’60s, singers who were experimental years before people knew it was experimental. I was really taken aback listening to these records that I didn’t know about growing up even though they are quite famous Norwegian records, at least for nerds. What really stuck me was that the musicians didn’t think of identity. There was something very freeing about listening to these people doing experimental vocals, and then the next song might have been something extremely traditional, like a jazz standard. It didn’t matter to them. So I wanted to sing and perform without starting from this identity that I set myself up to be. When I considered this to be some sort of project, my first title was Ruining My Reputation. Everybody is doing artistic work on social media so everybody’s an artist now. There’s always a mirror there, it always has to reflect back on you. This is why I have such trouble doing even one tweet — it takes hours because I think about the philosophical implications of things.
I was also been influenced by lots of movie-watching because that’s what I do when I have nothing to do.
What were you watching?
I was watching Safe by Todd Haynes. Also, I’ve never been a big fan of reality TV, but it’s something that’s been brought to me by others, so I kind of know which world it exists in. I’ve never watched Hollywood Housewives or whatever it’s called, or even the Norwegian version. But Safe, to me, is the opposite of those shows; it’s the portrayal of female loneliness in modern life through this passive housewife whose rich existence turns her into this allergy sickness mode. It’s what I would call a very soft apocalypse, and a beautiful depiction of fear and how it’s put together with gender. I watched Safe over and over. I had the DVD for years, but for some reason I’ve been too afraid to watch it. I sort of knew that the day I watched it, it would have this huge impression on me — which it did.
I’m remembering something that your frequent collaborator, video director Zia Anger, brought up in a statement about your recent “That Battle Is Over” video, where she mentions the Spice Girls as a jumping-off point for feminist ideas. The feminism you project is fairly radical, but I’m wondering what your gateway was for these kinds of ideas.
It definitely didn’t come from the Spice Girls. Zia is five years younger than me; if I had of been her age I would’ve probably loved the Spice Girls. Instead I was too old and already lost to alt music. I just really hated them because they presented five very limited roles to play. For Zia, I think it was something creative because they were these differing ideas of the female experience. The power of age: something to her that was powerful and to me was very limiting.
For me, I think feminism goes back so far that I don’t even know it — it’s my inner limbs, my inner secret genitals. I think I had feminist ideas come from almost a misogynist way of thinking, growing up and becoming intellectual. Always the outsider, typical goth reading too many books — the missing character of the Spice Girls, really.
I was always thinking that girlie things were less intellectual and worth less. I grew up learning that Real Art was made in a masculine way, even if it’s by women. I was taught that art had to be done in a way that represented masculinity: hard-hitting breaks with reality, books that were really thick, that thinking big would be something hard and impenetrable. I was reading Ulysses when I was 15 and thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I get it” [sarcastically].
I was very pretentious, but I also made this huge distance between myself and my more gendered qualities. I had to constantly negotiate within myself, which I think is very important to challenge. I was growing up in a very misogynist culture, even in Norway — intellectually, there is this very patriarchal ways of looking at creation. Becoming older, I had to turn to feminism to exist; otherwise there would have been no reason to do this stuff at all. It was out of necessity. My definition of feminism isn’t important, it’s constantly changing and in that way it’s powerful.
It’s funny, people here always say Scandinavia is more progressive than America when it comes to gender politics.
Norway is a very homogenous culture. But, people still think in very old-fashioned ways, even when you think of liberal legislation, so it’s very complex. We have a lot of suppression. People here are always saying, “Why do you need to be a feminist? We’ve come so far,” or, “Why do you care about being a feminist here, when people are so much worse off in other countries?” All these defense mechanisms and ways to put people down. It’s a society where it’s difficult to be different and necessary to be different. Maybe that’s why we have such a flourishing underground scene, because all the freaks turn to expressing musical ideas. We’re all-time in the world for passive-aggression, but we’re also friendly at heart. I don’t want to put us down too much, but we’re not as liberal as we like to think we are.
Up until a couple years ago, you hadn’t really performed in America, but you recently toured with St. Vincent. You both have strong observations of the world around you, but you do very different things with those ideas. How did you find her crowd to be?
When an artist gets bigger, you get more of a diverse crowd. Suddenly a bigger proportion of your audience will be astounded by just experiencing your show — they’re not just the nerds that come to see peculiar artists. With St. Vincent, some people were cheering every time she played guitar. For some fans, she is the most outrageous thing they’ve seen but they’ve grown to love it. She’s changed them in a way, and that’s quite humbling to see.
Even if I’m quite uncompromising when I write and produce music, I’m also really interested in people’s reactions and what I can take from that. Both me and Zia, who’s on stage with me now, love to confront audiences and present things that expand their borderlines a little bit from what people think you can do. For us to do something that’s a little unfamiliar for these people, with a whole visual set-up of the new material with costumes and video screens, was pretty amazing. People commented that they’d never seen anything like it. Even if they hate it, they’ve gotten something from it. So it’s better to think big than to discredit audiences. When I say “think big,” it also means that you can reach people without just stepping in other people’s footsteps.
Apocalypse, girl is out June 9 through Sacred Bones.