Jenny Hval & Jane Siberry In Conversation: Poetry, Religion & Music Biz Frustrations

Jenny Hval
Lasse Marhaug

Jenny Hval

On her first-rate new album, The Practice of Love (Sept. 13 on Sacred Bones Records), Norwegian artist Jenny Hval ruminates on existence and intimacy -- a solitary pursuit made more so by her decision to self-produce the record. Her alone time was well spent: The result is contemplation at its most sensuous and exhilarating.

It’s a major departure from 2016’s Blood Bitch, on which Hval combined her interest in the corporeal with the horror films she was watching at the time. Now, Hval sounds fresh and alert as she observes nature -- her own and that which surrounds her -- and sets real conversations to moody synthesizers, evoking the deliciously bleak highways once traversed by Bronski Beat. The Practice of Love begins in a forest with “Lions,” a current of crystalline, rafter-skimming harmonies, and ends with “Ordinary,” where Hval’s voice ribbons above whispered words and a clanging, joyous melody -- a late-night gift to a small, cool club that isn’t so much the place to be as your place to be.

Courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Jane Siberry

Hval’s affinity for layering vocals, reciting poems and relaxing into her otherness recalls the Canadian artist Jane Siberry, whose gorgeous upper-register warble and unfettered imagination have enraptured listeners since 1984’s No Borders Here up through 2016’s Angels Bend Closer. If Siberry wants to go country with her music or create a film around a song, she’ll do it. If she wants to sing of the contentment she has found through God, she’ll do that, too. But no matter where her mind and music alight, human connection is the top priority. With The Practice of Love, Hval has entered that heightened but accessible territory.

Hval and Siberry spoke to Billboard, and each other, about their music and their lives as multimedia artists.

Jenny, this is a truly collaborative album, with spoken word by three additional women featured in many songs. How did these collaborations arise?

Jenny Hval: I am the sole producer on the album, and having that solitude was part of how I needed to hear more voices than my own. I have known Laura [Jean] since 2001. I used to live in Australia at the time, and we used to play on the same bills in pubs. Vivian [Wang] I know through friends; I now know her much better, but she is someone I admired for a long time. Felicia [Atkinson] and I have still never met; she was completely new and introduced by a friend.

The title track is one conversation between me and Laura, and there is a recording of Vivian trying out another lyric. And they’re happening at the same time. It became more of a collaborative process as I gathered recordings from them, and it became more of a conversation than it started out as.

What comes through is a sense of solitude that everyone can understand.

Hval: I’m glad to hear it. I was hoping to bring forth that feeling, and that’s all you can go by when you record or write something -- the hope that it will connect.

Layering vocals and combining spoken passages with vocals is something both of you do so effectively. What draws you two to those techniques?

Jane Siberry: I think it’s because what you’re trying to capture can best be captured in layers. If it’s not layered it’s more linear, and our lives are more impressionistic than linear, so it’s an important way to work with things. It’s truer, more precise in some ways. At the right time.

Hval: When I was working with words and they weren’t meant to be in the realistic universe, they needed to sometimes come across as, like you say, Jane, more impressionistic. Not escaping reality but extending, augmenting it, or just different dimensions. I like to think in 3D when I think of music -- it’s like you’re digging out holes in the ground. There’s a song called "Ashes to Ashes” in which the narrator is dreaming that her way of dealing with music or her instrument is digging in the earth. That’s how I think of production and music and the actors doing art.

Siberry: I relate to the 3D thing. That’s to me like what poetry can do. I can have a line, but when it goes into the imagination it becomes 3D. And if you’re the kind of person who can capture that in words, it’s closer to the truth of it. And that’s poetry. Poetry, to me, is a natural, organic thing. It’s for when you just can’t say what you need to say, so finally you slip into poetry. And layering is very close to poetry.

Jane, your last album, Angels Bend Closer, came out in 2016 and combines earthly concerns with God’s wisdom and love. What headspace are you in with music right now?

Siberry: I feel there’s a real urgency for our lights to burn brighter. An extra thing about God’s love -- on the record and in my heart -- is that God’s love is somewhere in us, and our life’s journey is to access our own god. In my own journey now, that’s where I’m at. It’s even more of a bee under my bonnet than when I was younger, although bees in bonnets is sort of a natural state for me.

Jenny, your last album, Blood Bitch, was also released in 2016 and addressed skin, bodies, blood. The Practice of Love is more philosophical: asking and attempting to answer some big, personal questions.

Hval: [This time] I was trying to not explain but ask clearer questions with music. I was writing a novel in between those two albums which was questioning the religion around me as I was growing up. I got into this kind of voice that I wanted to explore in music as well, but in a much calmer way, because the book had quite an angry voice. I wanted to hear this voice being very soft.

I was also interested in doing something that was more poetic, because my last album was inspired by horror films and I was writing words based on scenes I could see, and not so much from wanting to find a voice. The voice was already there, in the colors and imagery from various horror stories and films I’d been watching. This time I was looking at the sky instead of the screen. 

Now that The Practice of Love is completed, have you reached any new conclusions about love? Has it led to answers or even more questions? 

Hval: I find it quite interesting to be at ease with what I’ve made and being comfortable with saying all the things I’ve written about and all the questions I’ve asked. I have some kind of feeling of clarity that I didn’t have before, although I’m not sure what to do with it or what I’m going to do next.

Jane, “The Bird in the Gravel” is one of my favorite songs, The Walking is my favorite album --

Hval: Mine too!

It’s so good. Could you explain how that song came to be?

Siberry: Jenny, you may relate to this. I found that by my third record I had three records that were almost blurring into each other because they were all wide-spectrum: like, fast, slow, different sides. They were the same because they were so wildly different within. When I did “The Bird in the Gravel,” I was very moved and disturbed by autumn and the geese and the sense of loss, knowing full well that spring would come again, but that feeling, and then the dark water. I try really hard to keep the left brain out of it, just to let the magic flow.

Hval: I love listening to this. I’m taking notes! It almost sounds like describing migrating birds. There’s a festival here in Oslo right at the time when all the birds are leaving for winter. Everyone ends up looking at this magical movement of the birds flying over the [performers].

Does where you live, or how you live, influence your work?

Siberry: I live in northern Ontario. I have a log cabin that’s off-grid, which I never talked about for years because it was my most precious thing in my life. I’m there as much as I can be, but it’s snowed in for the winter, and then I’m in Toronto. But because of that I get to leave with the birds, so to speak.

Hval: They always talk about [Norway] in black metal interviews: the dark forest and the mountains, and this kind of thing. I’m interested in removing myself from the place I’m from. I grew up in the south, which is, to me, kind of a Bible Belt of Norway, and I keep coming back to this strange relationship with religion that I’ve grown up with. It’s a very complicated influence. Influence is not something that you’re necessarily inspired by; it might be something that’s there for you to reject or to expand upon, or remove yourself from.

Jane, about a decade ago you started selling albums as you saw fit -- first by instituting a self-determined payment system, then offering MP3s for free. A few years after that, you put your live efforts into salons: If someone wanted to see you live, you’d establish the terms and perform in that person’s living room or a small rented space in their town. How do you want to share your music now?

Siberry: I’m interested in releasing music as soon as I can after I make it instead of waiting so long, so it might be one song at a time. But how to honor the music is still a question. To honor it, you pass someone a vinyl record. “MP3” in a text line doesn’t hold the [same] charge, so you have to find other ways to do it.

As far as performing goes, when I realized I’d probably never play Italy because I didn’t have a following there, and why would a promoter bring me there unless I was already selling, I wouldn’t want them to lose money either -- that made me feel stubborn. The salon thing has opened the whole world. Now I can go anywhere; the seven months I just did was a great example. And more important than that: removing the gatekeeper.

I want to be in the world. I don’t want to be a hermit. It’s so important to go out see and feel how people are feeling. It’s such important information for my creative side and as a human being. I really want to continue making performing a big part of my life.

What about upcoming projects?

Siberry: For about 10 years I’ve seen it clearly in my head: a talk show I wanted to see that I wasn’t seeing, interviewing musicians with questions that I have that aren’t asked. Jenny, we might have a job for you as a reporter from Oslo. It’s all about words and raising the vibration of the words we use. So charge up your iPhones, I’m making a TV series.

Jenny, will you be touring this album officially?

Hval: I’ve made a bigger project [around it]. It’s more of a piece than a concert. Not theater but performance, video work. [Additionally] I have a collaborator that I’ve worked with for many years, and we made a film called The Practice of Love. It’s not coming out as part of the record campaign because we wanted it to be its own art.

I’ve been thinking about how to present something that is valuable, a gift to the audience. And I find it very hard within the regular sort of touring cycle to present something that could be truly valuable. I don’t really want to tour that much, a little bit because of environmental concerns but also because I feel most at home with writing, and I find that I don’t have the time for it when I travel too much.

I have my doubts about the industry -- not necessarily the people I work with, because I’m in a very small part of the music world, but I find that the structures are not working, and it’s depressing.

Siberry: But who better than musicians and artists to come up with a way to break through that?

Hval: It’s more about a shift in how to think, and how to negotiate how art should be presented. I’m very intrigued by a longer career and how it’s been shifting for you, Jane, like presenting things at salons and going through several phases at a record label, and different systems of releasing music.

Siberry: If you get over here and want to play in Toronto at my sister’s house, we rent 30 chairs and treat you like VIPs, and the networking is great. So let me know if you make it to North America, and you can do a salon at my sister’s place.

Hval: It’s very likely we’ll be in Toronto. I would think we’ll definitely be there!

Siberry: I relate to what you said about frustrations with the music industry. So I hear that your conversations in your heart are with the outer world. The way that’s given me most peace is, my conversations are now just between me and God, or whatever you call the greater power, and it’s created a flow of energy in me. I feel like I’m in service to music, and wherever I can help create a connection so people can connect with themselves, which is the power of music, it sends out this beautiful energy. That’s just something I wanted to pass on.

Hval: Thank you. I wish that we could meet. I wish we’d done this in person. It would have been so nice to keep discussing this kind of thing. Maybe some other time.

Siberry: I’m serious about being on [my TV] show. I’ve created room in it for talking about things that are important to people. We’ll stay in touch and see what happens.

Hval: Excellent!