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Jenny Hval On Coming Down With A Classic Case of Puppy Love

The Norwegian songwriter digs beneath the surface to rediscover the colours of her true identity on new album, Classic Objects.

by Yasmine Shemesh

Photo by Jenny Berger Myhre

The windows framing the room Jenny Hval is sitting in are slanted and dusted with snow that also frosts the green trees beyond the glass. Hval was out there earlier today, in the Norwegian forest, walking her dog, Cleo. The singer-songwriter stops mid-sentence a couple of times to pinch Cleo’s wispy hair as it floats through the air. Hval and Cleo found each other towards the end of 2020 and the union very much defined Hval’s writing process on her new album, Classic Objects, which came together in two distinct phases: Before Puppy and After Puppy.

Life before Cleo was calm, boring, and restless, marked by Hval asking herself if she works purely to feel productive or because she wants to say something. And after Cleo came chaos. Cleo, Hval says, is a wild puppy, the kind that will scream if you leave her and dig into the recording studio floor. “She’s still quite frustrated, but much older now. She’s doing so well,” Hval says, speaking from her home in Oslo. “But I think that that enabled me to write a bit differently, explore the world a little bit more.” 

Hval is, outwardly, very many things: a prolific musician with seven solo albums; an author of literary fiction, 2018’s Paradise Rot and 2020’s Girls Against God; a theoretical thinker whose creative work is intellectual and heady and singular. But who is an artist without their art? Who exists beneath the facades of titles that can define so much of one’s identity? Who is Jenny, just Jenny? This is something Hval thought about a lot as she wrote Classic Objects, which she began just before the pandemic. A question Hval felt pressured to consider amid the lockdowns, cancellations, restrictions. At the same time, there was something both interesting and confronting for her about being confined to the house. Hval came to realize that the idea of “just her” is a construct. She thinks of the bare concept of herself as flickering coloured light, something that is never concrete or constant. One colour represents herself as a child, fearful that she would be stuck in the small town where she grew up. Another is someone who jumps off a cliff, metaphorically, leaving everything behind: career, identity, gender, the way their mind works. And then there’s a person with no face in an empty room—“something that’s maybe more fictional, something you can paint on, something that’s more indefinable,” she describes. 

Hval often blurs the lines between real and abstract, both in conversation and in her work. It’s a way of making sense of things, a natural tendency as she works out thoughts and ideas. On Classic Objects, the abstract moves unexpectedly through her lyrics, in between lines that search for meaning in everyday minutiae and tell seemingly autobiographical stories about her life. Like the artist she describes in the title track who puts her own hair into her paintings, Hval inserts herself into Classic Objects and colours around different strands of self with celestial keys and crystalline vocals to create airy, existential soundscapes. “I find spiders everywhere, they show me cracks in the corner of the expanding universe,” she sings on “Year of Sky” over rippling synths and swelling percussion. Elsewhere, on “American Coffee,” Hval is a baby with a scared face, and then suddenly, a university student listening to a group of nurses—her roommates from art school in Australia—quoting French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. 

But the more Hval writes a so-called simple story about her life, the less she believes it’s actually an account of something true. With Classic Objects, little surreal things started to materialize like the language equivalent of melody. “I feel like I write straightforward a lot of the time, but then there’s something that happens that allows me to peek into something else,” Hval continues. “Like if you can’t stay awake in conscious reality and just keep telling a story, eventually you’ll fall asleep and the dream will keep speaking, you know? And those existences are equally true. They coexist and they both explain the world to us.”

Hval has explored what she describes as “undressing concepts” before, particularly with her 2013 album Innocence is Kinky which was written in the wake of the 2011 terrorist attacks on Norway and examined the intersection of sex, violence, and capitalism. Then, as now, a collective crisis prompted self reflection. Although, Hval implores, doesn’t it do that for everyone? “I feel like I’m not very unique. I am just one of millions of artists in the same position, trying to think the same thoughts and make them more special,” she laughs, “trying desperately to validate the fact that [I am] an individual and then thinking maybe I’m not.” 

“Undressing concepts” is also Hval’s reaction to how times of crisis are processed and distributed in the media, and the way that can impact the arts. She remembers how, in 2011 after the Norway attacks, radio stations dedicated airtime to 90s ballads like Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” which is about the loss of his son. “It’s like saying that one person’s experience, one very popular song about someone’s death, could somehow explain something completely different, something very political, something very tragic—which I find very brutal and extremely commercial and very dangerous,” Hval says. “And I think it happened a little bit with the pandemic as well, everybody going back to these safe narratives that explain things to us to take away all the uncertainty. And is that really what we want? I don’t think so.” 

When taking walks in the forest with Cleo, Hval noticed garbage like banana peels and used masks, and got lost in the vague details of them, these banal everyday things—united trash, she calls it. It made her feel closer to both nature and people during a time where the outside world felt empty. Banana peel, gum, cigarette butts, and sticks appear in a monologue at the end of “Cemetery of Splendour,” in which Hval, as Cleo, gleefully and meditatively lists her surroundings before becoming engulfed by a breathing forest alive with crickets and birds and rain. “It’s completely post-pandemic, but it’s post-pandemic where everyone died or it’s gone on so long that nobody is outside,” Hval says. “So nature’s really taken over. It’s like the world becomes slightly closer to sci-fi.” 

The sudden chaos Cleo brought to Hval’s life is maybe why Hval really wanted the album itself to feel calm. She wanted it to feel like people in a room together, enjoying the act of performing, with the music having a timeless quality and as if someone added vocals to it later. She imagined herself finding a tape of ecstatic band instrumentals in 20 years and thinking, “Well, I have to sing over it.” Uplifting, she says, is somehow underrated. Hval also wanted the lyrics to exist in a world that somehow contrasted them. Like in “Year of Love,” which deconstructs the concept of marriage—“In the year of love, I signed a deal with the patriarchy”—but its use of percussion, guitar, and twinkling instrumentals make it lively, fluttery, and joyful. When thinking about her vision for the overall sound of Classic Objects, Hval continues: “I needed something quite groovy in order to drag the words out of me and sort of make it possible to not just go on telling a story about one thing. I didn’t want it to sound as if my brain was thinking too much.” 

Classic Objects is a pop album, structured as such with catchy melodies and choruses, but it doesn’t consciously try to sound like anything in particular. Hval barely plays any instruments here and plans to play nothing at all when she performs live, focusing instead on her hand gestures while using her singing voice as her primary tool. And while Hval says that all of her projects change how she sees herself as an artist, she approached Classic Objects with the intention to allow herself to fully submerge into a role of writer and singer. “I feel like maybe I’ve become a little bit more of a musician,” she considers. “I think it also then comes full circle with the ‘just me’ concept—although I don’t want to end on an easy conclusion. But I do think that, if anything, I just want it to be closer to the more indefinable parts of my work and my discipline.” Hval pauses and smiles. “Still just me.”