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Escape Velocity

Jenny And The Jets: The Musical Universe Of Rockettothesky
Wyndham Wallace , January 12th, 2010 08:53

Rockettothesky’s Jenny Hval may have made little impact outside of Scandinavia, but that needs to change. According to Wyndham Wallace, she’s one of the most powerfully feminine voices at work in music today

Traena live pictures by Maria Jefferis/

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Jenny Hval, aka Norway’s Rockettothesky, offers unpredictable but powerful structures and arrangements. The intimacy of her lyrics – through which are scattered uncompromising references to physicality, decay, mythology, sexuality and carnal desire – have won her significant respect in her homeland (where she was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy), and word is finally starting to spread beyond Scandinavia.

Operating initially as a one woman band, Rockettothesky released her debut on Trust Me Records, To Sing Me Apple Trees, in 2006. A collection of quirky, off centre songs, it's notable for the conviction of its performances, its embrace of spoken word within pop’s confines and a succession of striking lyrics. ‘God Is Underwater’ leaves the listener breathless. ‘Cigars’ builds from a chiming piano towards a kaleidoscopic finale while Hval delivers lines like “Leaned against the bar like a straw in a cocktail glass / leaned out towards him like a spoon pulled out of a honey jar”. ‘Barrie For Billy Mackenzie’ is a masterpiece of sweetness deliberately undermined by lyrics like “I imagine all your hairs are fingers and it makes me cum”.

But these were no puerile pleasures, and its follow-up, Medea (2008), was a sparser, more enigmatic affair, calling upon Greek legend to explore the experience of being a woman. Born of improvisation and Hval’s growing confidence as a writer – she also works as a critic, writes and performs poetry and has just published her first novel, Perlebryggeriet [The Pearl Brewery] – it recalls the heady experimentalism of late-80s 4AD brought forcibly into the modern day. Opener ‘Song of Pearl’ sets the tone, Hval whispering its opening lines, her voice then reaching out awkwardly to a nighttime sky that explodes with light half way through. ‘Grizzly Man’ at last breathes new life into Wicker Man folk with a melody that would soften even the Medusa, while ‘The Dead, Dead Waterlily Thing’ gives recent electro-pop of late a poetic, Gothic makeover, and ‘Oh, Anna’ is as beautiful as anything Cocteau Twins ever recorded, even if one has to wait for its astonishing payoff.

With her next album in the planning stages, The Quietus hooked up with Jenny Hval days after she had returned from a second round of shows in Spain.

You have a remarkable voice. You allow it to explore its own vulnerabilities – the cracks, the occasional wavering off-key, the need for breath – and make them a feature of your style. How and when did you learn to sing like this? Did you meet resistance when you first started out for not performing in a more conventional manner?

Jenny Hval: Words taught me to sing – I have always been writing and uttering words, and I sang along with my favourite bands to learn languages. I remember listening to Lush to learn to speak in a British accent, and Stereolab to learn French. And after that it was Elizabeth Fraser, which just taught me the philosophy of pronunciation. Now I think of the voice as a sixth sense, exploring words as if language is tactile. So it’s natural for me to stretch out and touch everything with my voice. And a lot of the time, the sounds that come out are cracked and trembling. I mean, why sing about broken hearts with powerful, controlled voices? Of course a lot of people find my voice very strange, or think that I can’t sing because I don’t hit the notes right. Perhaps they are right, but I never had any training, no teacher told me to restrain myself, and I’m not aiming for perfection in my music. The voice is so much more than control, restraint and perfection.

Your first album was, relatively speaking, a pop record. Your approach reminded me of Kate Bush’s earlier work, uncontrived but nonetheless eccentric, accessible but far from disposable. Medea, on the other hand, is a far darker and more cryptic record, initially baffling after the offbeat melodies of ‘Billy For Barrie Mackenzie’ or the apparently whimsical likes of ‘Cigars’ and ‘Too Many Emmas’. What changed? And what can we expect from your next record?

JH: My first album was recorded in a studio after years of making secret demos while playing in other bands. Being in the studio made me forget the very core of those songs, which was the way I recorded them: a lot of the songs were written while I was in Australia, studying creative writing for four years. I was alone, in this new foreign land, with no possessions, no history, and far away from my family. Recording sound became my new home, history, family. And so, even though that emotion can be heard on the album, so much brokenness was lost in the studio version it became a general version of my music. With Medea, I wanted to display this home that music is for me. I moved from the general concept of an album to my own concept – the main character from the Greek Tragedy Medea. She is a foreign woman, like I was in Australia, but she is also both cruel and heroic. Through improvising and recording on my own, the album became very much related to my experience of being in a female body, and of experiencing literature (like the tragedy Medea) and music from that position. I think I tried to create soundscapes that felt like being in a body, a body that also connects with other bodies through singing: Jenny singing herself into Medea.

The way I write about Medea now probably says a lot more about my next album project than Medea, actually. When I was recording it, I was thinking about death and sin, and so it’s really my next record that will be about being in a body. This time I want to record as a trio – I play with two wonderful musicians who also work with free improvisation, and they understand the textures of the way I create sound. At this point I want it to be a more primal album, based on intuition and organic movement, like folk music for a non-existent people.

The last time I saw you play was at the Træna Festival in the Arctic, where your performance in the small island church seemed impossibly perfect. What other venues do you think would be appropriate for Rockettothesky?

JH: The church at Træna was amazing – the space, the wood, the wind: I could feel it all on my skin. A few weeks ago we played this really old theatre in Alcala just outside Madrid, from 1601. It was amazing. Full of ghosts between my mouth and the microphone. Really. Speaking of Træna, did you know that thousands of years ago they had a whole island just for the dead? A cemetery island! I’d like to play there.

Your lyrics seem unusually abstract and intense, almost reminiscent at times of Emily Dickinson’s verse. The meaning is obtuse but the images and language are suggestive enough to convey meaning subliminally. With English as your second language, do you work especially hard to create these lyrics or do you, like some who write in a foreign language, exploit the limitations of your familiarity with English in order to create new forms of expression?

JH: Before I learnt English, I used to learn the words to my favourite songs and create my own meaning – specific English words had specific meanings for me when I was five, and they had nothing to do with the general meanings of the words. Now I admit to myself that I’m floating in the margins of the English language, and at the same time, I work hard to find words and narratives. One thing that I truly love about pop music is that I can create colours and shapes with words – a pattern of sounds where some words glow with clarity, and others are hiding between consonants. A pulse of words that the listener can sense and feel. Kate Bush has written the best song lyric in the world about this: “Stepping off the page into the sensual world”. At the same time I think I wanted the lyrics to come slowly to the listener, like water dripping onto your head in a dark, scary cave.

Although they sit beautifully together, sometimes it’s hard to escape the impression that your music and lyrics were developed separately, and you then worked out a way to weave the two amongst one another. On Medea in particular, you ignore traditional line-by-line melodic structures and instead let words flow freely across the music. How loosely connected are music and lyrics during the writing process?

JH: I did a lot of improvisation, and a lot of the time I never really had a melody, just a pulse and some kind of background drone or effect, like a resonator. It felt like singing inside a container, and then breaking out at some point – out into fresh air. Like in the song ‘Oh, Anna’, where a melody comes in at the end and everything changes direction. I tried to let things flow – the lyrics weren’t always meant for verse and chorus structure, and a lot of the time I kept my first takes and then worked around these when I created soundscapes.

Your lyrics are sometimes very explicit, especially in their references to biological functions and physicality. On your debut’s somewhat drily titled ‘A Cute Lovesong, Please’ you sing, “When you think of me do you masturbate? I want to know that I can make a man ejaculate...” while Medea is full of images of bones, flesh, ribs and spines. Unlike much pop music, your approach to these subjects is graphic and, rather than erotic, gritty and realistic. Is it a clear goal in your writing to steer clear of the ‘soft focus’ of much contemporary pop?

JH: To put a soft focus on lyrics because of genre, even if it is pop music, is to not take the art form seriously. Some pop music is meant to be soft, but with my work, I need bones and flesh and fluids, and not just in the music – those words need to be sung. A lot of music is full of heavy beats and noise and dark sounds, and then there is nothing in the lyrics that really goes into that world. The way I see it, we live in a world of images, and the images aren’t enough. A lot of female artists pose like they are saying, “When you think of me, do you masturbate?”, but of course, when I actually sing it, I break the illusion, and people react in a very different way. They become visible. I look back at them. I have to look back.

We say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, it’s not true. We need those words. I need to articulate a response and not just accept all these images telling me what it is to be a woman, and what it means to be a performer. I find it hard not to emphasise my physical presence on stage. To sing from the heart is a bloody thing. It is to sing from the body. My music is from the flesh. As an artist, I have the ability to be both my own physical presence and a set of characters or voices at the same time. I can’t not do that. This really interests me. There is a potential there to think about the consequences of stereotypes and ideas about gender, which is so important for us at this time in history. I find that a lot of the time I use this perspective to think about my experience in a female body and as a female artist. And so, as I said, I write myself as a performer on stage into my songs, just like I write myself and my own emotions and sensations into the characters I sing about. When I say "write" here, I mean both writing and singing. I write and sing myself into Medea, into a grizzly bear that eats a man, into all the women who have been drowned in rivers by famous poets...

Your music manages to be dramatic without it being theatrical, making it far more personal than the likes of Jacques Brel or, say, Scott Walker. Are you a fan of such artists, or do you find they lack a true, intimate soul of their own?

I'm not so familiar with Jacquel Brel, but I really like Scott Walker. Are they theatrical? Theatricality seems such a negatively charged expression, and I don’t know why. I just discussed this with a friend the other day, and I'm not sure I really understand the way we use this word. Anyway, I love a lot of artists that have been described as theatrical. I love Diamanda Galas, I love Kate Bush and David Bowie. Are they soulless? These artists are all my mothers. A bigger problem is perhaps when there is no theatre, no drama, no conflict, in the music, just a lot of effects. A lot of rock seems this way to me – a lot of balls, but no body.

Who inspires you to make music, and who inspires you to write?

JH: I’ve been very inspired by choral music, anything with voices. Allegri and Monteverdi, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. Sheila Chandra made me compose like crazy in 2001, like five or six songs a day. Something just clicked. And Talk Talk’s last albums did the same a few years later. A lot of poets have inspired me to write: Anne Carson, a Canadian writer, and Nicole Brossard, another Canadian writer, have been very important for me. I also like to listen to recordings of voices. I just love listening to people speaking. It can be anything from Caroline Bergvall – a poet, her voice and work is beautiful – or lines from a Harry Potter film.

More than anything, though, movement makes me write and compose. Dance, physical theatre, watching people running. The films of Lars von Trier. Stuff that makes my body self-aware. Philosophy can also do that. When I was in Australia I used to study philosophy, and I would write songs for Gilles Deleuze and Luce Irigaray. Their theories inspired me.

Do you think it makes any difference where you come from? Norwegian music at the moment seems to be full of innovative talent that is capable of at least dipping its toes into mainstream waters, and on a per capita basis it seems considerably more adventurous than many other countries at the moment. Does geography affect art?

JH: It definitely does, but not necessarily in the most obvious ways. When I was growing up in Norway, I didn’t like any Norwegian music (except for folk music, perhaps). My room was full of 4AD, shoegaze and Warp records. When I finished high school I went to Melbourne – as far away from Norway as possible – and really enjoyed the indie scene there. I felt free to do whatever I wanted. Now things have changed. There are a lot of interesting things happening in Norway, and there is also a lot of support: festivals like by:larm, and a lot of financial grants for musicians. But more importantly there is interesting music - a strong jazz and experimental scene, and a lot of new artists doing their own thing.

Oh, that’s right – the goth scene in the 90s was good. I started out in a goth band. That was great. It was minor enough for me.

Outside of Rockettothesky you also juggle a myriad of other projects. Can you tell us a little about your two other main musical adventures, Nude On Sand and Meshes Of Voice? What separates them from Rockettothesky?

JH: Meshes Of Voice is a project that I composed together with Susanna Wallumrød (of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra). It’s inspired by Maya Deren’s wonderful film Meshes of the Afternoon, and was originally performed at Ladyfest 2009 in Oslo. I’ve never composed with anybody before, but it was a great experience, almost like a letter exchange. Some parts were almost improvised pieces, with a lot of vocal effects, and other parts were more song-like. Susanna is wonderful.

Nude On Sand was a side project I started so I could play really small venues and literature festivals without using the RockettotheSky name. I wanted to be free of all restraints and not do any songs, just improvise, so Håvard [Volden, guitarist in Rocket band] and I started this duo. It was great. Then a bunch of songs happened. It was a bit disappointing at first, but then I realized this was a good thing – a bunch of monologues with music, gradually bursting into song. It became very free, very charged, very ecstatic. We play a lot of it live with Rockettothesky now.

You also write a great deal: your first book has just been published, you write poetry that you’ve performed at various festivals, you work as a critic and columnist, and you’re involved with various literary publications. How do you manage and separate these various projects?

JH: I don’t necessarily separate the projects. I’m not good at that. The things I have written about my music here could have been written about my novel, too. And when I write my occasional music column, I write about stuff I listen to and work with, that I feel resonates with me. I’m a terrible journalist. I’ve never managed to be very objective, or pretend to be. So I don’t think I’m multitalented, I’m just very focussed. I just have a lot of senses, a lot of fingers spreading.