Lost Girls — Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden on “Menneskekollektivet” (The Extended Article)
Photography by Lasse Marhaug Web Exclusive
There is a moment during Under the Radar’s Zoom conversation with Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden where the couple (who were in the same room together) unknowingly inhabit the exact same pose together on screen: rolling deep reflecting eyes with the left hand resting on the cheek. It speaks of the fluidity in which the Norwegian duo-who together form the paradigm-shattering project Lost Girls -carry themselves, causing tiny rifts between existence and performance with their presence.
Even during the more mundane, small talk, Hval and Volden can’t help but carve out quizzical observations. When introduced to their newly adopted puppy Cleo-whose rather large frame enters the screen from time to time-Hval playfully inquires to which extent animals can perceive human expressions: “Pets probably understand a lot of things about us that we don’t even know that we’re signalling. A lot of emotional energies. At least dogs can read you, when your energy is nervous or something, they pick up on it regardless of what you’re saying to them.”
Right around the time of making Menneskekollektivet, their debut LP as Lost Girls, Hval and Volden moved from uptown Oslo to a more suburban area just outside of town, with “lots of parks,” as Hval mentions. This was March 2020, which was of course the time the COVID-19 pandemic caused everything to crash. On the question whether this normal shift in their lives made this transient period a bit easier, Hval weighs her words carefully. “I guess it’s therapeutic when a normal change comes in and blurs out the super serious worldwide crisis. It’s like that to be working as well. You forget many things that are really important but you can’t do anything about them anyway. Your health, or maybe something political. I’m really quite old and I’ve been doing stuff like recording something right after a terrible election.” She turns to Volden. “Remember when we did that?
Volden vocalizes with a vowel of approval, as he does often, while Hval continues to peruse with astute abandon: “It’s really amazing to be able to do work when everything’s falling apart. Just for that reason really. Just in the egoistic sense, to just get away.” That might sound naive from the lips of most individuals but Hval-an accomplished author and recording artist-isn’t really interested in narrating from an autobiographical perspective.
By removing the self out of the equation, she allows her work to become abstract malleable backdrops for her listeners. This literal act of selflessness has served her well: the critically acclaimed Blood Bitch used horror imagery to break taboos on sexuality and identity. Records like The Long Sleep and The Practice of Love pinpoint and obfuscate our inhibitions and self-imposed conformities. Even in the heaviest of times, Hval’s work has maintained its quixotic and coy quality: untethered from the gravitational pull of the events that preoccupy the masses, yet nevertheless urgent and concise in its desire to understand and unravel the collective human experience.
Menneskekollektivet, the Norwegian term for “human collective,” lifts Hval a little further upward in that quest. Her EP The Long Sleep was another concentrated effort to circumvent the boundaries of the modern listening experience, breaking down one of her most poppy tracks, “Spells,” to an almost womb-like ambience. It was an impressionistic dig against the codified listening experience that’s now largely dictated by algorithms. Through the music she imagines Spotify as a pretty lonely, unwelcoming void of space for more maverick artists such as herself. That despair was evident in the performance: “The Dreamer Is Everyone In Her Dream” ends with an intrusive segment where Hval’s vocal seems to resist the vertigo-like synth organs like water currents going down a drain. It’s as if the music swallows her whole, suppressing her voice in this passive, ambient state. Hval said that creating the music was a very solitary process, and that she secretly yearned for a “utopia, a place where the music talks back.”
On Menneskekollektivet, that yearning appears to be finally quenched. Volden, her collaborator for more than 12 years, stands on equal footing in both musical direction and production, creating a more conversational dynamic than Hval was used to in the past. “You wanted the guitar and the vocals to be on an equal volume, and I was like: ‘Are you sure?,’” Volden says, turning to Hval. “I’ve always seen the guitar more as a backing instrument.” When addressing his past studying jazz guitar at the Berklee College of Music, Volden lets out a demurring chuckle, one that reveals a bit of resentment towards the school’s rather competitive environment. “The first thing I did was to try and unlearn everything I learned there,” he calmly states. “I just played very, very quiet music with just a bow-without the strings even-for a couple of years.” He then sternly blinks his eyes, making it clear this act of rebellion isn’t some tall tale.
Earlier in her career, Hval too had experiences that felt counter-intuïtive to the way she wishes to create. She recalls one instance where she was invited to perform on a talk show, an environment that caused her to feel a sense of displacement. “I remember the mixing of the audio, I couldn’t hear my own voice. It sounded terrible and really dry, and later they told me that’s the ‘female pop’ mixing. That doesn’t even sound like music? It revealed something to me, back when I was a lot younger than now. It revealed something about the politics of mixing. The politics of what music is presented as in this particular format. You know that teenage feeling, as soon as you try something, tell someone you like them or whatever kind of situation? Or any type of situation, where you’re just going to be stripped naked. And getting laughed at.”
Hval is happy the dynamics surrounding Menneskekollektivet were the complete opposite of this. For the first time during their long-term creative pact, Hval and Volden rented a studio (Øra studios in Trondheim to be precise) to record music. Not with finished, fully formed songs, but with just a handful of scattered ideas. This situation forced the duo to sprawl from place to place with a lot of happenstance, improvisational sonic shenanigans. “A lot of the songs are longform,” Volden says. “I guess if we play the same song five or six times they all end up different length-wise. There was a lot of improvisation.”
The confined studio space forced Volden and Hval to react to each other directly. “For this project I had quite a lot of things to control, like sending midi signals to synths and drum machines,” Volden explains. “I also played some guitars. It was all very focused and intense. We were playing next to each other, maybe one, two meters apart.” He turns to Hval. “I could smell you, I could hear you.” Hval then gives him a playful deer-in-the-headlights glare: “You could give me COVID.”
Volden and Hval both thrive in creating performances that break down the stark hierarchy between audiences that arena-sized pop performances usually bring. Whether it’s using phones, stage props, or even their own bodies, the goal is to feel as if you’re actively creating. Hval admits this doesn’t always succeed, whether it’s because of her own inhibitions or situations like the one she mentioned earlier, when a vocal mix became a disruptive factor. “Speaking for myself: even though I’m interested in presenting something flawed, that doesn’t mean that I’m very self-confident about it. I’ll have shows where I find that what I’ve done is presented in a way where I’m channeling something that works. Other times it’s like watching someone fall over and it’s not funny, like slapstick that doesn’t work. What makes a performance feel really good for me is for me to feel like I’m creating something: the spontaneity is coming from the performance rather than the pre-written material.”
It’s fascinating to pry further on what Hval and Volden both consider to be a bad performance, given their unique integrity on this very matter. I had to think about the paradoxical nature of flaws after reading negative reviews of the Christopher Nolan blockbuster Tenet: is something flawed by default when it tries something completely new? For Menneskekollektivet, Hval and Volden explored different ways to capture the dynamics of their live performances on a record. It involved a lot of touching in the dark through words, sound, and melody, capturing both the chaos and the symbiosis in heartfelt, achingly human ways.
Instead of painstakingly editing recordings behind a laptop, Hval relished the opportunity to move around a lot. “I was standing up and moving around according to how I was vocalizing around the microphone. That was fun. Playing in a big room, you have more space. I knew sound would be picked up by anyone from one mic to the other, so I might as well move around. Because it wouldn’t be quiet anyway. It gives you a lot of freedom to use the body as well.”
The title track starts with Hval recollecting a conversation with two Jehova’s Witnesses. Normally apprehensive in such a situation, she instead let them in. “It was an interesting conversation, because they were trying to get me to talk. But I think they were trying to get me to talk so they could relate everything to themselves. We were walking about how they were basically lost girls. Because they were also a couple that was creating and touring. It was a bizarre conversation. But I think [the song ‘Menneskekollektivet’]was also informed by other, more long term thoughts about what performing is and what creating is. And what the difference is between religious singing and non-religious singing. The way we were told what art is might be very informed by The Bible. When you start with a clean canvas, it does sound like the different beginnings of The Bible.”
Having grown up in the Norwegian Bible belt, Hval is acutely aware of the notion of deities and prophets being a source of hope and comfort. During the lat e’60s and onwards, this kind of narrative has been assimilated by rock and pop stars as voices of a generation. As a counterpoint, subconsciously, Hval seems more intent on trying to make her art relatable on a larger level, but without attaching her person to it. Just being confronted by that in her own music, like during the talk show, has caused her to recoil and find different ways to make an impact with her music.
The most remarkable thing happens in “Menneskekollektivet” around the 7 minutes and 48 seconds mark. What seemed like a disheveled, chaotic assembly of drum computers, stream-of-consciousness vocals and synths, the entire song clicks into place by a timed hook repeating the word “together” several times. Though this rallying point doesn’t sustain, it’s such a moving thing once it happens: it sounds like a moment of magic after an elaborate blind shuffle.
The ending of the track might be equally moving; it’s as if the song turns sentient and cuts loose from Hval’s voice, which moves to the foreground almost like a karaoke performance. The music gradually fades out like a distant memory. “For me, that part was about my memories of actually performing the song,” Hval comments. “I remembered that I walked away and started screaming on the other side of the room, which I’m doing on one of the other tracks.” The track in question being “Love, Lovers,” the other longform piece on Menneskekollektivet.
Through collaborating and exploring, Hval and Volden seem to have embraced a new level of freedom and joy in a time when enclosed spaces feel more oppressive than ever. Within such an enclosed space, they devised a situation that compelled them to create in-the-moment just to get from one point to the next. Where some find comfort in religion, philosophy, or recreation, Volden and Hval uphold an almost shamanic devotion to the act of creating itself, and in doing so, have summoned a sonic space for all to connect within. A space where the noise and the poetry coalesce; the humming of everyday life. “It sort of reveals the joyful experience of Lost Girls,” Hval concludes. “Like how you start off wanting to say something but then you forget because you get drawn into something more exotic.”
[ Note: A much shorter version of this article originally appeared in Issue 68of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is an extended website version of the article that’s four times as long as the print version.]
Originally published at https://www.undertheradarmag.com on September 20, 2021.