Like Scarlett Johansson’s femme fatale in the sci-fi film Under the Skin, Jenny Hval sings as if her mind and body are not her own, as if she is performing the will of an alien being in strange and wondrous ways. Norwegian vocalist and songwriter Hval uses her delicate and often searing four-octave range to create well-formed, original characters. Playfully bent, knowingly sensual, and intensely erotic, Hval’s music can also take you places you’ve never been before.
“Did you learn nothing in America?” she speak-sings in “Kingsize,” from her latest album, Apocalypse, Girl. “In New York I don’t dream/I always wanted to be less subculture-ly lonely/But here I see no subculture, no future, no big science, no big bananas/I move the bananas/I rock them gently back and forth/I sing to the bananas, the skin is getting thin and brown… ”
Produced by Norwegian noise/metal/jazz artist Lasse Marhaug and recorded at several Oslo studios, including his The Best Studio in Oslo, Apocalypse, Girl brims with Marhaug’s subtle sonic experimentation, from cassette tape-distorted drums and sinister found sounds to no-name reverb units purchased in India from an 80-year-old amateur electrician. Marhaug proves the perfect foil for Hval’s rich musical world, which includes her previous albums, To Sing You Apple Trees (2006), Medea (2008), Viscera (2011), Innocence Is Kinky (2013), and the collaboration with Susanna Wallumrød, 2014’s startling Meshes of Voice.
Over streamlined beds of nocturnal and eerie sounds, Hval’s vocals form rich rivers of precisely pronounced, immaculately enunciated words and phrases. Unlike most vocalists who rely solely on a song’s message to carry the weight, Hval concentrates on the sound of the words.
“Lyrics and production go hand in hand with my work,” Hval notes. “A lot of the music is produced already, just by the way the words sound. When Lasse and I discuss production, we focus not only on the words, but how I say them and how they can be presented in a recording. More than anything we were trying to figure out how to make the vocals sit within a specific type of production that we were developing.
“I worked with a Gefell UM70 mic some,” she continues, “but I don’t like it because it sounds very natural [laughs]. I don’t really like naturalsounding microphones. I don’t like my voice very much; I want it to sound unnatural. Also, I am creating characters with my voice, so natural is bad. That’s why I like lo-fi because it doesn’t sound natural and pristine. Natural-sounding mics lack that texture of being super close.”
Working at The Best Studio in Oslo, which Marhaug says is “situated over a bicycle shack,” Hval and Marhaug conducted microphone shootouts, settling on her favorite U67 clone.
“We recorded Jenny’s vocals with her Wunder Audio CM67,” Marhaug explains. “That, into a Neve 1073 mic pre, API 550B EQ, Drawmer DL251 Spectral Compressor, Neve 8816 summing mixer into a Lynx Studio Technology Aurora 16 AD/DA. But after the initial tracking, I didn’t feel comfortable with the recordings. So we went to Tomas Oxen’s proper studio and recorded everything over so I didn’t have to wear both producer and engineer hats. Jenny’s voice is so rich and incredible and has so many nuances. The way she uses her voice—which is very delicate and has so many variables—I need to hear it all immediately with full attention.”
And with a voice as idiosyncratic, delicate, and sometimes beautifully freakish as Jenny Hval’s, full attention is a necessity. “We were trying to create a world for the voice and the words,” Hval adds. “We spent a lot of time making the words fit. The production for my vocal is specific in both how I think of creating characters with my voice and how everything was produced with lots of layers of found sounds and synthesizers. We had to record the vocals many, many times.”
There are moments in the songs “Sabbath” and “The Battle Is Over” where Hval’s voice turns into a buzzing bee, its squirming tone splitting in two and criss-crossing like chemtrails arcing across the sky.
“I’m just doing it, no effects,” Hval explains. “I have always done those kind of timbre things on my own. People who are interested in doing vocal tricks, you have stuff you just do. Like how some people fiddle with their hands. I have a lot of those things I do with my voice and with other people’s songs that I don’t usually make part of my actual work. This album was a lot about trying to take those elements into my artistic practice rather than thinking, ‘This is just for the shower.’ Because a lot of those elements are quite soft and feminine. I really felt like going back to childhood with my lyrics and also with the way I sing.”
Hval’s voice is one of the most stunning sounds since Bjork’s seminal howls, but with an intimacy, tactile closeness, and sensuality that is thoroughly her own.
“In my singing there are many consonants,” Hval says. “In most pop music it’s just a bunch of vowels compared to what I am doing. I love using consonants, they’re very sensual. You can create a lot of different energies with them. It doesn’t have to be just too wordy or annoying it can also have elements of sensual sound that you just can’t get without them. It’s like having a very detailed image of a body, one that includes all the wrinkles, how that can be more sensual than a body that is airbrushed. There are elements of airbrushing even down to lyrics and what people to do with their mouths in lots of pop music. At the same time, everything is presented as hypersexual but they lose out with language. For me it’s about pronunciation. That is more important for me even than singing in key. I think pronunciation is very emotional.”
After working up demos using Reason and her Universal Audio Apollo Twin interface, Hval went into The Best Studio in Oslo to cut vocals where Marhaug works in the relatively new editing software program, Reaper. Hval’s vocal tracking process includes multiple complete takes, punchingin, and comping.
“We worked with mostly digital software, rather than hardware,” she says. “The instruments are mainly analog, [but] we did some tracks on my Juno 106. I forgot to tune it, so we got some interesting results when we added instruments later. There was a lot of tuning going on. I also have a small Casio keyboard; it’s three octaves and has a lot of sounds like flute that doesn’t sound like flute, but it sounds good—that ’80s sound.
“Sometimes we put things through pedals that Lasse bought from India and China. Lasse’s a noise musician, so most of his stuff is really unusual. When we started, he said, ‘Oh, you have a keyboard, with keys on it.’ He doesn’t work with melodic music. That was an interesting experience because I write melodies and pop songs, and although they sound strange they’re still pop songs. He hears textures instead of music tones. That added to the record’s sound-scapey qualities and made it more of a narrative experience than an experience with songs and parts and musical terms. To me this record is completely free of musical terms.”
Keyboardist Øystein Moen also contributed to Apocalypse, Girl, bringing old- and new-school technology to bear. “I mostly added on top of what Lasse and Jenny had recorded earlier, and replaced some of the synths Jenny had recorded,” Moen says. “Jenny asked for the synth sounds to be analog and warm, so I brought a SQ Prophet 600, Korg MS20, Moog Voyager, and a Mellotron M4000D. We often ran them through a Roland RE-201 or/and a Strymon Timeline, to get some room to the sound. I think Lasse used a RME Fireface 800 for recording it to his Reaper DAW. We didn’t add much FX to the synths after we recorded them, because we spent quite a lot of time tweaking the sounds in preproduction.
Jenny Hval’s vocal mic is a Wunder Audio CM67. “Lyrics and production go hand in hand with my work,” she says. “A lot of the music is produced already, just by the way the words sound. When Lasse [Marhaug, producer] and I discuss production, we focus not only on the words, but how I say them and how they can be presented in a recording. More than anything we were trying to figure out how to make the vocals sit within a specific type of production that we were developing.” “I just started putting out ideas on each track, both in terms of melodic/harmonic stuff but also the sounds itself, so when we found something that worked, we recorded it. My musical suggestions were merely based on me improvising, as this is something I often do in my more experimental bands.”
Additional recording was done by Thomas Oxem at The Worst Studio in Oslo, as well as by performed by Rob Halverson at Halversonics Recording, Austin; Sam Grant at Blank Studios, Newcastle upon Tyne; and Hval at MoE HQ, Oslo. Apocalypse, Girl was mixed by Marhaug and mastered by Marcus Schmickler (aka Pluramon) at Piethopraxis, Cologne.
Apocalypse, Girl also features the work of many musicians, including Hval on effects and keyboards; Håvard Reite Volden, guitars and bass; Kyrre Geithus Laastad, drums; Okkyung Lee, cello; Rhordri Davies, harp; Lars Myrvoll, beats, and Syster Alma, sampling. But the instrumental accompaniment sounds more often like gasping synths and eerie, rustling rhythms than like anything conventional. The apparent sound of a casket being dragged across a floor is actually cellist Okkyung Lee manipulating her strings. Whirring tones in “Heaven” are the detritus of an ancient pump organ. Apocalypse, Girl overall is the sound of Hval’s vocals soaring from consoling to scary (“Heaven”) with accompaniment that could be blood curdling and vocal jabber (“Why This”), symphonies squashed and streamlined (“Heaven”), deep-space alien surgery (“Some Days”), or an alternate Phantom of the Opera soundtrack (“Sabbath”).
“My background is in experimental and noise music,” Marhaug says. “This is the first time I produced a pop record. I’ve mixed and mastered a lot of experimental and jazz and improvised records. The idea for Jenny’s record was to bring my manipulation techniques into the world of pop music. The drums, for instance, were recorded properly with a bunch of mics in a nice studio, but when I mixed it I dumped the drums onto a cassette recorder then back into the mix. We tried all these things just to give the sonics color. Plug-ins didn’t work.
“You can’t hear it,” Marhaug continues, “but I also distorted sounds and placed them really low in the mix to give the music texture and color. Often Jenny would do other things so I would sit for a week adding texture and color. I would run stuff to guitar pedals or echo machines to distort it. I used a Japanese pedal from Far East Electric quite a lot. They have many wonderful hand-made fuzz pedals that I love. I would also take one recording and copy it, add effects to that, then put it back in the mix. I’d bring everything way down in volume then slightly up until you can just hear it. Or you might not hear it—that gives a texture.
“There’s also a lot of atmospheric sounds: recordings from outside the studio at the end of some songs. Just so you feel ambient sound seeping through. It’s more like a movie. Every song was not recorded in the same room. It’s the same movie, but with different scenes; that was the idea. A cinematic use of color and sound was our goal.”
Marhaug also ran various hardware effects through old reverb units, a cassette deck, and a TEAC X2000 reel-to-reel. “I have a digital echo I bought in India, built by this guy who is 80 years old,” Marhaug says. “He’s been building effects for use in Indian music and he has a store in Mumbai where I bought it. Everything I run through it sounds amazing. But if I leave it on too long it gets smoky and warm. I ran a few tracks through it to get it sound rich and colorful. We put a lot of drums and synths though the Teac.”
Marhaug’s effects kit may be ancient and obscure, but his Reaper DAW is modern. “I went from Pro Tools to Logic to Reaper,” Marhaug recalls. “I find it incredible. I was frustrated with Pro Tools and Logic. Reaper is very intuitive and everything works. That’s what I like about it. I saw the new Logic Pro X, and like everything with Apple it’s more big-market friendly. You open something and it asks ‘Would you like to publish your song on iTunes?’ They added all these features aimed at the broad audience of people recording at home, which is great but then it becomes just too much stuff I have to push away to get to what I want, which is working with audio. It’s like inviting someone into your house and they rearrange the furniture when you’re away.”
So, in the end, is Apocalypse, Girl pop music? There are slivers of Joy Division, Tangerine Dream, and Phillip Reich in some songs, strains of Bjork’s anthemic swirls in others. Hval is both a vocal innovator and a production pioneer. There are no easy comparisons to Apocalypse, Girl and its unique journey through emotions and female identity. Sometimes Hval sounds as if she’s experiencing an identity crisis, with lyrics about the “death of the body,” and “getting paid, getting married, getting laid, getting pregnant,” her childlike/bird-like/trance-like vocals, and her spectral, minimalist songs. Perhaps Jenny Hval belongs in a different world, one where art and music are one, where borders don’t exist.
“If I manage to be influenced by the arts, I am flattered,” Hval says. “I sometimes feel like I fit more into an arts scene than a music scene. I constantly hear from others that my music is not immediate but to me it’s super immediate. Maybe that’s a Norwegian thing. I think of immediacy as in the art world where you reach out to someone very directly and that’s immediacy. In pop music immediacy means easily recognizable parts: four chords, drums, guitars— that premeditated structure. But structure can often kill a good song. A lot of music is being ruined by structure and formula. In the pop songs I love the structure doesn’t take away from the song or the joy of listening to the song.”