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Take Me Back:
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The Hall of Mirrors

Imaginary Sounds Feature: Jenny Hval

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Name: Jenny Hval
Genres Associated With: Folk, Experimental Pop, Avant-garde 
For Fans Of: Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins
Country of Origin: Norway
Age: 32

If you are reading this from Europe, you may have already heard Jenny Hval's name. Maybe it was only in passing, but for those of us in the States the name is relegated to obscure music blogs where, even then, her amazing 2011 album Viscera was largely slept on as a year best contender. And it sure as hell was not because it wasn't good enough to be one. She is, according to Wyndham Wallace, one of the most powerful and distinctly feminine voices at work in music today, and I agree. If you're not entirely convinced with her early stuff (I'll be going in chronological order) stick around till later: you won't be disappointed.

Scandinavia, the northern land of Europe, where, between Sweden (The Knife/Fever Ray, jj,  Lykki Li), Denmark (Mew, Under Byen, Efterklang), Iceland (You should already know), and Norway (Sondre Lerche), there's been a renaissance of experimental pop music happening over the last 5 to 10 years. Hval is from Norway, but started her musical career playing in a folk band while studying creative writing in Melbourne, Australia. Norwegian was, of course, her native language, so to help learn the English langugage better, Hval began writing poetry and recording her own voice reading passages. She became fascinated with sound and how intonation and diction could be manipulated into an art itself. Language, and her experimentations with it, gave her a new creative outlet. Upon returning to Norway, in 2006, she recorded her first solo album under the moniker Rockettothesky titled To Sing You Apple Trees.

Rockettothesky - Barrie for Billy MacKenzie 

Lead single Barrie for Billy MacKenzie made a nice (and surprising) splash in Scandinavian radio, thrusting her into the popular consciousness and grabbing a nomination for best new act at the Norwegian Grammy's. The song is a fine introduction to Hval's bi-polar falsetto and vocal quirks. Lyrics are faily obscured, making her voice more instrument than anything, calling to mind Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser, from whom Hval takes obvious influence.

For all intents and purposes, Apple Trees is a pop album, it's sonic palette not unheard of in alternative rock at the time, though there already seems to be a little of the magic that would flourish in her songs later; the lush instrumentation and moody atmosphere, her study of pronunciation and diction influencing the way poetry floats from her lips: often she hums or makes playful sounds with her mouth, percussing the melody along.  

Rockettothesky - A Flock of Chestshire Cats

Rockettothesky - A Cute Lovesong, Please 
Another of the elements that sets Hval apart early in her career is the sexual subject matter that many of her songs take on. All love songs are really about sex, but she speaks frankly of the awkward and private parts of copulation that most people would not even let on to their best friends. "When you think of me / do you masturbate", she asks right out of the gate, "I want to know / that I can make a man ejaculate".


Hval's voice can be quite divisive. Comparable to Joanna Newsom by way of PJ Harvey or a darker Kate Bush; all singers who are incredibly talented, hit their notes, and sound like nobody else, but still have been described by many as "grating" and "annoying". Perhaps Jenny said it best herself: "Why sing about broken hearts with powerful, controlled voices? The voice is so much more than control, restraint and perfection." 

There are so many other facets of her music that can be appreciated outside of a particular voice; especially the evolution taken toward the album Medea, the second and last release under Rockettothesky. It is here that the songwriting becomes more experimental; unpredictability arrives, born of improvisation. Medea explores the legends of mythical greek vindicator Medea in search of the sounds and stories of the deceased body. Where Apple Trees was whimsical, Medea is subliminal. The songwriting becomes looser and often calls to mind the icy-dark experimentalism of late-80s 4AD artists like the aforementioned Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and This Mortal Coil.

Rockettothesky - Song of Pearl
Jenny opens the album with her haunting spoken word poetry that doesn't always follow logic. It's more about what they convey than their literal meaning. Words are strung out like a long pull by the bow of a violin and transcend speech based singing. A pattern is created where some colors and shapes glow with clarity, "not yet, she says", and others are hiding between consonants. The song blooms suddenly into melody, and shrinks back in as if it's ashamed by the beauty and continues to float on aimlessly.

Rockettothesky - The Dead, Dead Water Lily Thing
Obvious inspiration is taken from Swedish electro-pop group The Knife on this track, which should not be surprising to anyone familiar with their stabbing synths and vocal manipulations. Hval has this way of treating her singing of melody in song with complete unpredictability in meter while always adapting to stay within the confines of the song. It's madness, but it's also logical. The combination, here, of non-traditional singing and dramatic spoken-word poetry make for an experience that, even if you don't like, you won't forget. 

Rockettothesky - Grizzly Man 

Grizzly Man hangs right on the edge of a beauty that's almost unsettling, as if there is a ghost haunting the space between her mouth and the microphone. Jenny tells the story of a woman who finds a "feotuslike" creature on a riverbank and nurses it back to health before taking the creature into her own body as a forever unborn child. Bizzarre, right? As dark as the song may be, it is framed in a densely romantic atmosphere. The music video features one of the most perfect marriages of sound and visuals ever.


While recording Medea, Jenny continued to work with her background in literature on a book that melded her love of experimenting with language and of telling stories. Perlebryggeriet (translated as The Pearl Brewery in English) was finished and published in 2009. She says of the project: "I wanted to create a world which follows the rules of sound, that was only partly a written novel, so I could have space for this other part of language, the part that is music and sound." Click here to read and excerpt. The book is a brief and subtle tale of love, brewery operations, and the relationship between art and the body that takes inspiration from writers and feminists such as Anne Carson, Jeanette Winterson, and Angela Carter.

Hval's first album under her own name, Viscera (2011), shares many of the same inspirations and is the first album with a concrete and well executed concept. Viscera claims the body a living city and explores how that idea relates to sexual desires in the frank and honest ways she has mastered thus far in her career. If Apple Trees was organic, Medea subliminal, Viscera is dark, primal, and a much more organic affair. Viscera ramps up the hyper-sexual content. It is far from pop music, but even in the world of the avant-garde and indie music, sex is not a common topic of interest. Even when it is, it is passed off to metaphor and subversion, as, most indie musicians are more focused on credibility and coolness and most avant-garde musicians on...being avant-garde. 

Even pop and rap music, lyrically, can tend to be very quaint and most of the time teases sexuality, leaving all the work to the music's provocative avatars to be carnally appealing. It is in these titillating sirens that Hval finds catalyst for her sound: "I'm definitely working in reaction to the perception of the female subject which is so often reduced to photoshopped, perfectly shaven parts. I find this a very evil part of mordern society, obsessed with perfection and imperfection even more. So I really want to make music where there's room for lots of imperfections". 

Jenny Hval - Engines in the City 

One minte and twenty-five seconds into Viscera opener Engines in the City Jenny Hval has said the word "clitoris" and is singing about masturbating. Improvisational sounds from a guitar and other percussion mock the sounds of a busy city street. Our Victorian values force us to ask if such beauty should be cast alongside such vulgar themes, but our post-modern minds tell us that this does not have to be, and is not vulgar.

Jenny Hval - Blood Flight

Relentlessly dark, Blood Flight grows into a beast, and you can hear it's groans from the beginning underneath the poetry concerning senses. Trumpets honk like vehicles in traffic. It is a spiritual successor of Song of Pearl with it's blooming into beauty at unpredictable periods of intensity with Hval's characteristic bi-polar falsetto, and then sheepishly retracting back into the dark primal land this album inhabits.

Jenny Hval - Milk of Marrow

Jenny Hval - Golden Locks
Personally, I feel like Golden Locks has go to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. At her most uninhibited and honest, Jenny compares hair and fingernails (objects of bodily vanity) with "waste products of the body", referencing "piss" and "golden showers". It seems by the end, after we've traveled through several different song structures, that Hval realizes that the body is composed entirely of these "waste products" and that no part is necessarily more special than the other. This is a perfect example of legible lyrics playing a greater importance. Somehow, though, the music has increased in production quality and finesse as well.


Jenny continues to tour and work on music. On January 6th, 2012 she released an album of improvised free-form guitar/spoken word work in collaboration with Håvard Volden under the moniker Nude on Sand. As of March she was creating a sound installation art piece for the Norwegian Henie Onstad art center. Commenting on her next album, she's stated that it could be a heavier, even darker trip. Her poetry, feminism and experimentations are a continued commodity in the world of music, no matter what country. Check out an incredible full live performance (below) of some Viscera songs and the brand new opener The Seer, composed in commemoration of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday. Stay tuned to news at


Anonymous said...

just kidding! Awesome article. Btw, who are some good artists from Iceland? Did you just skip listing them because there aren't any from there?

Delia Zelada said...

I loved this article, Jenny Hval fascinated me at once.
About the previous comment :) it's because the most famous northem artist are from Iceland: Björk and Sigur Rós. Also Mum, Amiina,Ólafur Arnalds, etc... just beautiful


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