"Intimacy is beyond rules," writes Jenny Hval, in a review of Bjork's Vulnicura. That is the very nature of it. If it's pretty, maybe you're not close enough." It may have been written about another album but it also works as an introduction to the sonic-scapes that Hval creates.

The juxtaposition of hard and soft, pretty and coarse has always been present in her albums, but none more so than latest record Apocalypse, girl. Whilst on the face of things a slightly more subdued record than Innocence Is Kinky - which traded heavily in spiky guitars - it takes just as much influence from noise music and production as it does pop. In that sense, the ideas Hval expressed in her Vulnicura review seem like an ideal point of entry into the music she creates.

"I think that what happens," Hval says during our Skype conversation, "and I find this really interesting - when you say something, or present a sound that's very coarse, because it's something quite close that's quite loud, or its consonants are very harsh sounding but upfront - to me that is intimacy." Hval expands on this explanation saying, "When you listen very closely to something and then something is slightly too loud so that it hurts your ear a little bit - that's when something reaches out and really manages to touch you, because you're damaged by it."

"If we're never touched, and we keep thinking that intimacy is something beautiful then we create a distance. Things that we find truly beautiful, do they ever really move us?"

Photo by HoJun Yu

The way Hval sees it, real intimacy is impossible without pain. It's not a barrier or a wall being established to keep people at arm's length, but rather a way of replicating the pain that comes as a result of being truly moved by something. "If we're never touched," Hval continues, "and we keep thinking that intimacy is something beautiful then we create a distance. Things that we find truly beautiful, do they ever really move us? I wonder. If there's no texture can you really touch it? Is it really there?"

One of the coarse sounds from Apocalypse, girl that I list is Hval's usage of the word "cunt", a word which still carries an incredible amount of weight and power for shock (at least in Britain). It's something I raise with Hval.

"There's a reason why I use it quite a lot on this album," she tells me. "It's a word creating trouble, and I'm interested in stuff that creates trouble for myself and for others. That something is problematic is to me, interesting."

I mention that the word's first usage comes during this quiet personal moment on 'Take Care Of Yourself', which perhaps adds to the shock of hearing it. "It's a personal cunt," Hval says by way of explanation. "When I say 'cunt' in that song, I say 'I grab my cunt' and I really wanted to just put it in in a casual way - like you grab something. Our sexuality is something that's just there, like our kitchen, or all kinds of things, it's very close to us and sometimes when you grab it, it doesn't mean that I'm saying something about myself having a sexual hang-up."

Hval tells me how she started writing songs based on personal experiences, partly because she had "got a bit sick" of the writing she had predominantly done for Innocence Is Kinky. "When you've made something like an album, it's very important to just see it as something that's another layer of what you're doing, so you need to dig further. I needed a different starting point." Hval talks about how she took a more basic view of her music, taking this through to the composition and writing songs which, even without lyrics "felt good". The intention was also to use a lot of loops and soft synths, which Hval would play herself - though things didn't exactly end up working that way. "I'm not very good at staying within an idea or a concept. I work too much with improvisation I think. Things happen and I tend to go with what's happening rather than erase it and go back to square one."

"How you express something through the voice when you're an artist recording albums is sometimes a bit limiting as you're meant to express yourself."

As this happened the music began to get more expansive and Hval assembled a band, including a number of people she'd never played with before in the studio. The result was a collection of musicians including cellist Okkyung Lee, Thor Harris of Swans, harpist Rhodri Davis, Øystein Moen of Jaga Jazzist and Norwegian noise artist Lasse Marhaug (who co-produced the record). "They improvised and just did stuff really fast," Hval says, "and to me that was a new way of working because it reminds me of how I work solo but I don't have the abilities to play all those instruments so it was very joyful for me to have other people play things that I couldn't have, but within the way I would work on my own."

That improvisational approach is apparent on the very first track, 'Kingsize', a spoken word piece that was written in the studio as recording came to an end. Lasse Marhaug had suggested to Hval that she create an instrumental track to open the album - though Hval ultimately ended up adding words. "I think for a while I had the idea that for something I would write words and then just make music instead of using them," Hval says. She'd been reading the work of Danish poet Mette Moestrup, whose words form the album's opening line of "think big girl, like a king / think kingsize." The track's discordant backing was created by Hval performing random actions in the studio, to which Okkyung Lee later added cello. "Okkyung Lee came in and instantly she was just playing along with the background noise, which was great. She's very good with that," Hval says, "she can just play along with and make things musically interesting - whether it's a melody or it's somebody taking down some equipment."

This fluid, ever evolving approach to music making extended to the lyrics, which Hval admits rewrote themselves to match the more expansive sound. The personal songs that Hval had initially created took on new lives and embraced broader sentiments - none more so than early single 'That Battle Is Over' in which Hval sings statements uttered by a variety of characters, often at odds with her own viewpoint.

"To me it was very important to not just do a song performance but also think about the sonic textures of it because I really wanted those voices to die at the end, creating an apocalypse for them," Hval says, describing the deep, pitch-shifted organ sound which ends the track. The statements themselves, which Hval refers to as a karaoke, was inspired by the artist browsing YouTube videos of amateur singers, which encouraged Hval to question her own vocal performance. "How you express something through the voice when you're an artist recording albums is sometimes a bit limiting as you're meant to express yourself. So there's an element of this kind of karaoke performance, especially in 'That Battle is Over', that I really enjoyed and I think I needed to find that in order to then also be more personal than I had been before in other songs."

"It's a very popular technique when you want something to die very quickly, like threatening ideas--it's best to say, 'Yeah, this is not a conversation. Doesn't exist.'"

It might seem strange to regard a song with broad statements as personal, particularly when those statements are contradictory to the artist's actual viewpoint. "It depends on how you hear it," Hval tells me. "I definitely see that song as something that's kind of trying things on and then killing them, more than other songs on the album. I was getting really tired of people saying that the big social battles are over, because people have been saying that for a long time... probably since these battles began. Because it's a very popular technique when you want something to die very quickly, like threatening ideas--it's best to say, 'Yeah, this is not a conversation. Doesn't exist.'"

'That Battle Is Over' peaks with Hval shooting down such rhetoric. "It's about freeing what sexuality is and freeing it from capitalism," she says. "I think that it's necessary because you can't say that women are equal if you haven't freed up sexuality from gender and stereotypical ideas of gender." She continues by pointing out that there are other social battles to be won, referring to an article she'd read around the time of the Ferguson protests in which White, conservative Americans complained that they were tired of hearing about racial issues in America. "There's just so much," Hval says, "and there's only so much you can cover on an album. I don't make albums to say all those things because they need to be said in a thousand different ways, by a thousand different people of different experiences."

"I grew up on the verge of the Bible belt in Norway," Hval says as the conversation moves to her childhood and its influence on her music. Raised by atheist parents, but sent to a high school filled with people Hval describes as "charismatic Christians", she remembers being desperate to leave the town behind. Whilst she never felt alone--she was friends with Christians despite their idealogical differences--she wanted to be free of the pervading mentality of religion running your life. "Thinking back at it now I realise that I was --and realised as I was making this album--that I was actually really intrigued by the way that they had some kind of community and belonging, and so much opportunity to show devotion, whereas I was kind of with the ironic kids in the corner." She laughs at this image of youthful rebellion. "I think I kind of reconnected with the weird envy of something I couldn't have, which I like because I did have that through music but it was different and I really kind of loved exploring it."

A cursory glance at the album's trac listing reveals a number of songs with religious allusions in their titles--'Heaven', 'Holy Land' and 'Angels and Anaemia'--further examination of the album's lyrics reveals more references, including a line in which Hval states, "I want to sing religiously / airy more than necessary."

"There's always so many melismas in church music," Hval explains. "I went to music high school. I didn't sing then, but I was very fascinated with how many notes the gospel girls had to put in to one phrase, it was just so much. I grew up thinking that it was bad, that it was uncool, it was unnecessary, because it had nothing to do with the meaning. It was just being self absorbed it was almost... it was like masturbation or something. But then I think I was also--without ever admitting it--I was really enjoying this kind of half-sexual, half-religious, half-masturbation practice that was going on before me." Hval tells me how she recognises within that act of singing it provides the choir members with a spiritual connection, one that's freeing and much more about the spirit. "Which is completely lost in our everyday life of today," she says. "Everything is just body, body, body and then we're just afraid of the body because there's no spirit."

"More than anything, I think I've really enjoyed watching movies and listening to how dialogue is recorded."

One of the biggest influences on Jenny Hval's music is cinema. Her previous solo record, Innocence Is Kinky, was born out of an art installation that focused on representations of the female face with Carl Theodor Dreyer's close-ups of Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc being the visual starting point. Meshes of Voice (Hval's collaboration with Susanna Wallumrød) was partly inspired by Maya Deren's experimental film Meshes Of The Afternoon, whilst the involvement of Lasse Marhaug on Apocalypse, girl came about as a result of the two discussing film in an interview. "When I see a film," Hval says, "I am always interested in how sound influences the way I see it, because it has so much impact on the images. I've always been really obsessive with dialog, how people say words, but also soundtracks - although I really hate most film scores, like the Hollywood kind - but there are so many great uses of sound in film."

By watching movies and seeing the interplay between sound and vision Hval says she's learned to understand music in a different way. "Sometimes I even learn to appreciate music I don't like when I hear it in a film. But, more than anything I think I've really enjoyed watching movies and listening to how dialogue is recorded, because it's recorded really close." Anyone who has listened to Hval's records before will be able to attest to the influence that insight has had on her sound, as Hval's records are notable for the way in which her vocals are pitched clearly and so close to the listener that at times it's as though the singer is stood next to you, whispering the lyrics into your ear. "There are so many great voices and sounds of voices in films... and I mean all kinds of films. I've been obsessed with everything from the voices of the kids in Harry Potter, to the most weird underground movies. A big inspiration for this album was Safe by Todd Haines, which has a beautiful synth soundtrack, which reminds me a little of the soundtrack for Under The Skin." Hval was also full of praise for recent horror hit It Follows, a film which takes an aural influence from John Carpenter. "I've seen some Carpenter films so many times. One of my favourites is They Live, although I don't remember whether the music was particularly good," she laughs.

"It's kind of frightening, thinking about this death-like image of somebody being unconscious and then being able to turn into other sexualities and creatures because they're unconscious."

The editing of a film has also encouraged Hval to reconsider the way she approaches music production, something she says is "really liberating" due to the way the two disciplines--making a film and making a song--have different logic to one another. These alternative ways of editing, which Hval brought to her music allowed her to try new ways of grabbing her listeners' attentions and maintaining intensity. The album itself is also structured in such as way that it feels like one narrative, whilst there aren't set characters, there's a steady progression, with songs segueing through different movements, like scenes, lending the whole thing a cinematic quality, but without it feeling 'big'.

"Well, I think that was the intention," Hval says. "We had to try and cheat recording until we were completely happy with the track order because we really wanted to have movements and [the sensation of] a character moving through different rooms and scenes and developments. Even if the songs aren't like scenes in a movie, I just really love that feel and the way that you can then have a lot of abstract elements work with all kinds of voices and lyrics. Also it enabled me to step out of lyrics for a few songs and do completely wordless parts, parts that are almost like instrumentals, parts that don't make sense lyrically. A lot of vocal textures happened because of that [cinematic] thinking, or movie like structure."

The album opens with songs that are focused more on personal experiences, but as the album develops the songs become more surreal and dreamlike, with Hval's lyrics becoming more abstract and fantastical. "I think I really wanted to create something expansive because I wanted to have the intimate ideas and the intimate voices to go out and explore how diverse intimacy can be," Hval explains. "There's a track called 'Angels and Anaemia' towards the end, which leads into 'Holy Land', but that is sort of talking about dissolving and the pleasures of somebody disappearing. It's kind of frightening, thinking about this death-like image of somebody being unconscious and then being able to turn into other sexualities and creatures because they're unconscious." This transitions into 'Holy Land', in which Hval rises out of soft drones to announce, "I know why some people want to be reborn".

"If we go through our lives as listeners just looking for some kind of evidence of real life experience - it's kind of like porn isn't it?"

"We're ending up with everybody kind of realising that everybody wants to be reborn, or dreams about it, or dreams about being dead or unconscious," Hval comments. "There's a lot of death drive, but I think I also wanted to say something about love and the very vulnerable moments of different types of love and devotion. How close they are to death."

Despite the subject matter there does seem to be an optimism to Apocalypse, girl. Whilst Hval does talk about love and devotion being destructive, she also mentions the possibility of there being transformation at the end of it. "There's a lot of risk in living, I guess," she says. Back when Hval first started writing the album she set out to create feel-good pop songs. "I ended up doing the album very differently from that because I managed to find musicians and a producer that could bring elements that, to me, are really poppy into a universe where they get different meanings." This allowed Hval to create something she felt was more emotionally striking than a conventionally produced pop record, and became its own interesting creature.

Throughout our interview Hval refers to Apocalypse, girl as her most personal record yet, though she's quick to point out that this doesn't mean that her previous records--which focused in on icons like the Medea, Oedipus, Joan of Arc and the male gaze--aren't personal, but just take a less direct route. "It's all still very personal. The thing is that there's no difference between being personal with life experience and with artistic, film and academic experience it's all extremely personal. It just depends on how you present it." Hval returns to the idea of how music can touch us, stating that if a personal experience is presented but without saying anything with meaning, or that touches us, what is its purpose? "If we go through our lives as listeners just looking for some kind of evidence of real life experience - it's kind of like porn isn't it?" she says. "If something real is only the events of your life, then we risk making art just superfluous because if I'm not being personal through talking about other art, then how can my art be personal?"

"I've just thought about this a lot because I'm a big fan of Chris Kraus and she writes a lot about this," Hval continues. "But I also thought a lot about this when I chose to put a lot of more personal stuff into an album, because that was kind of a taboo for me." The other important factor was removing the gaze from her work. "I enjoyed that for Innocence Is Kinky but this time I really wanted to try to not just be looking but really be there. Like I'd rather focus on being in that body and changing it, than going into that very destructive gaze world." It meant that she could inhabit other bodies, other sexualities and perspectives whilst still retaining the personal edge she wanted the album to put forward. "I don't have to be specifically in a female body all the time or in female body imagery all the time to say these things about sexuality. I can speak for everybody. I can be everybody," she says. "I really had a good time with taking on different shapes and different body parts without necessarily objectifying them so much as actually carrying them with some kind of responsibility."

"That's my perspective," Hval says as our interview draws to a close. "I'm fine with other people who hear it having their perspective--that's also part of the transformation."

Apocalypse, girl is out June 8th on Sacred Bones. Check out her forthcoming tour dates below.

  • Wed. June 10 - London, UK @ Royal Festival Hall w/ Perfume Genius
  • Thu. June 11 - Manchester, UK @ Gullivers
  • Fri. June 12 - Brighton, UK @ The Hope & The Ruin
  • Sat. June 13 - Cardiff, UK @ Clwb Ifor Bach
  • Sun. June 14 - London, UK @ Cafe Oto