Nude on Sand Strikes a Pose: An interview with Jenny Hval

Nude on Sand is one of many projects for which Jenny Hval, Norwegian singer-songwriter is responsible. Håvard Volden is responsible for the experimental guitar work that backs Hval’s vocals, which are always intimate and original.  Their album, Nude on Sand,  was released on Sofa in March 2012.  Hval is also responsible for a sound installation, “Innocence is Kinky,” debuting June 3rd near Oslo.  More information about that is available on Hval’s website, http://www.jennyhval.com.

How was Nude on Sand conceived?

Nude on Sand started out as a series of concerts where Håvard, who comes from playing free improvised music, and I, coming from pop music, were invited to present new music. Håvard plays in my band, but for those concerts we decided to compose together and base the compositions on improvisation. It very quickly became a band.

When we started out, I’d wanted to improvise more on stage for a long time – I just didn’t know how to do it. The acoustic duo format allowed us to do so. I’m really interested in improvisation, although I must admit I find a lot of free improv music reductionist and dull (I mean, when you say you play FREE music, how come you sound like everyone else playing FREE music? I suppose you could say the same thing about any kind of music, and I also suppose free improvised music shouldn’t be judged harder than any other so-called genre. That would be creating a hierarchy, wouldn’t it? END OF RANT)

That said, the experimental scene here in Oslo is fantastic. Musicians love – and play – all kinds of music.

How does your process differ for Nude on Sand than for your own solo work or your prior work in a band?

The main difference is that we compose toghether. Sometimes I bring words to improv sessions, but if I do, I have rarely planned how to use them. When I compose my solo stuff, there is also a lot of improvisation, but I always start out on my own, and stay really attached to the songs and lyrics – they are my phantom limbs. Nude on Sand, on the other hand, is a different sound body. The music only exists when Nude on Sand play together.

Are there any performance artists that have inspired you? “Bring it Back” makes me think of performance art.

That’s interesting! I think that song, and Nude on Sand in general, is actually more inspired by people than performance art, though. When I was writing lyrics for Nude on Sand, I got into these teenage girl characters – very unlike myself as a teenager – perhaps because the music was so spontaneous and guitar based.

I am really interested in performance art, though. I listened to Diamanda Galas and Annette Peacock from I was very young, and I think of them both as both musicians and performance artists. Also, Kate Pendry, a British performance artist who lives here in Norway, is absolutely amazing. I could go on, but my performances with Nude on Sand are probably more inspired by wonderful teenagers than performance art.

Can you tell me about “Enough With the Breathing” and its sequel song?

It’s a sister song to the title track of my album, Viscera. We decided to record different versions of playing around with the lyrics, and one became a quite traditional song, whereas the other (Enough With The Breathing 2) became a spoken word and guitar improvisation. I enjoy how the two songs make the lyrics seem quite different. As well as the titles – whereas the Jenny Hval title, Viscera, stays inside the body, Enough with the breathing is between inside and outside, focussing on the movement of breath. It deals with the fear and joy of losing oneself, I guess, and that anxiety, for me, is also a part of the structure – in and out of the song form. A verse which then breaks down, then becomes another verse…

Do you think Nude on Sand will ever become less minimal in the musical arrangements?

We’re already less minimal. Actually, we started out using electronics and vocal f/x. The album became extremely sparse, but we don’t have the patience to stay within that context for too long – we are definitely not purists, or even minimalists. And I don’t think a recording sound more “true” or “natural” if there are no reverbs or overdubs. If I’d limit myself that way, recording albums would be documentation. I don’t like that approach, unless it’s on Youtube.

I hate the cliche that some people “use their voice as an instrument,” but I can’t think of another way to phrase it–I’m thinking of people like Meredith Monk who even sing without words.  You have words, but you similarly weave and wend your voice in a way that makes it transcend the words themselves.  How did you develop this style?

t’s an instinctual-sensual thing I think. This is what I’ve always been doing with words. Some people are great with wordplay or storytelling. Some people are great singers with long notes and full vibrato. I’m more interested in the sonic space of words.

There are only 7 songs on the album. Why is it so short?

We didn’t do any more recording. And our sets are always short when we play live. I like it that way. Listening to Nude on Sand play for 90 minutes would be excrutiating.

When I interviewed you before about Viscera, you described Nude on Sand as “poorly played blues.”  What makes you call it that?

I think that was what I was thinking at the time, but it was a poorly thought description… Now that we’ve played more Nude shows, I think it’s more like instinctual blues. My father described it very accurately: “When I listen to jazz solos, you can hear that they know how to play, even if it’s dissonant. When you play solos, it sounds like you don’t really know how to play.”

What’s the live show like for Nude on Sand?

It really depends on the room and audience, but generally it’s more extrovert than the album. Sometimes it’s much more improvised, too.

What influences do the two of you share?

We have incredibly different backgrounds – sometimes I wonder if we have any similar influences - yet we tend to appreciate and dislike the same things. We both really dislike macho playing, macho music. We love sudden shifts and spontaneity.

What made you choose blues as the musical genre for this project?  

I don’t think we chose any genre, but there is a lot of blues in the project. Even more now than on the record, actually.

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