Blood is as complex as it is simple. It’s a romanticized color, the color of fear, the image of injury, the suggestion of intensity. It’s scary, and yet it’s beautiful even when brought about by the smallest pinprick. In many ways, so is the work of Jenny Hval.
The Norwegian singer, composer, and writer looks into it all on her sixth album, Blood Bitch, to make connections most of us fail to interpret. Songs like “Female Vampire,” which takes its name from Jesús Franco’s low-budget horror film from ‘73, Female Vampire, pry into the dynamics of the liquid and what it means to find comfort with your own body. Then there’s others like “Ritual Awakening,” one that plays off fears, anxiety, and the ways in which we quell both.
An album so tightly focused on blood started out abstract, but so abstract that Hval didn’t know what she was doing when writing it. “I wanted to make something where an urgency kept running into the next track, not as a concept album, but in the way that when you go to the cinema you feel captivated throughout,” she says when we discuss Blood Bitch over Skype, her European location allowing her to talk at ease instead of from the back of a car on tour. “Because I decided to keep an open mind throughout the recording process, influences crept into the album from various types of films. My brain is not very organized; it just takes stuff from everywhere. It’s like a garbage bag full of everything that’s been thrown into it. I think it’s important to mention the absurd, surrealist, and abstract way the mind works when you write something so it doesn’t sound like you’re an academic writing something. That sounds very controlling.”
So she went about pocketing themes and sounds from various films: a clip of a car driving where no other sound pours out, a vampire chase scene where her victim’s pulse can be heard, the calm pooling of blood. Female Vampire opened these connections for her and, pretty quickly, they crystallized into connections between horror themes, courage themes, and the role of blood. It’s an important overlap, particularly because most choose to separate them in an outdated fashion.
“The lack of dynamics in the film was interesting to me because I like a lot of drone art, really long synthesizer drones, to get hypnotized by art,” she explains. “When something is boring, you drift off. Sometimes I think that’s the best work — things that let the spectator drift off a bit.”
Because really, there’s a lot more to that red liquid than horror films project. For half of the world’s population, blood pours out of their body each month, signifying a healthy body and the role of copulation. “Menstrual blood is the blood of life, but it’s also the blood of death,” says Hval. “The reason why you menstruate is because you haven’t conceived. A potential life died inside of you, you know? You’re carrying out possibilities that weren’t. That must be the most powerful image of ourselves and the lives of our souls. So why haven’t I seen more about blood beyond these cult horror films — and why, even then, is blood so cleaned up?”
She pauses to reflect, and then picks up once more, talking with pauses between words. “Blood symbolizes death in a lot of ways, and then it becomes this taboo feared thing — and things don’t become taboo unless they’re fascinating,” Hval continues. “I was drawn to the blood that’s okay, like in violence, and the blood that’s not okay—menstrual blood, sex blood—and why we place them in those categories. Blood can symbolize numerous things while still being the literally same blood. And at the end of the day, it all looks the same.”
The type of feminist power that lays in Blood Bitch is something bigger. Hval isn’t just singing about goop in a toilet or gashes in a Dracula’s throat. It’s an extension of art as a means of awareness. It’s balancing the field, and leveling our interpretation of various forms of blood in the process. It’s demanding attention for equality but also attention for an appreciation of life. Hval is sticking an IV into the world, turning to viewers, and shouting, “Look! Look at what we choose to ignore, but really, it’s magic in real time!” She’s the nurse who slips you the pill you never knew you needed.
Live, she pushes that art into a performative experience. Hval brings clowns onstage. She plays up the sexuality of a freshly-picked banana. She brings theater to life until the two seem to be one in the same. It seems like viewers are being intentionally pushed out of their boundaries, but from Hval’s perspective, it’s about utilizing all the space onstage, about exploring the possibilities of said space and exploring the possibilities a member of the audience could have.
“When I perform, I really want there to be a strong idea of what this ritual is,” she explains. “I like to think a lot about what is a concert and why we perform these sets of six songs or whatever. People clap in between because this is good and this other thing is not good. And if you sing a high note, then that is great and people clap to show they are impressed. It’s great to be pulled out of those conventions. I think that’s essential. I come from a non-musical—or not formal, at least—performance art of playwrights, poets, and more, so I never stop thinking about where art stops and whatever else is in the world begins. The format of the pop concert is very rigid, but it doesn’t have to be.”
Of course, audience members are never required to be a certain type of person. They can choose to stand in the back of the venue and focus on keeping it together — a phrase that appears in “Period Piece.” It’s a nod to artist Caroline Bergvall and her “Keeping It Together” performance. In it, she repeats that phrase for minute after minute. The words sound hallucinatory. It becomes frightening. “You realize that’s what you’re doing your entire life. And when you ask yourself what exactly you’re keeping together, there’s no good answer,” says Hval. “Art has this amazing ability to make you think and feel this possibility of something else — or giving yourself up to another thing entirely. I’m not trying to say art replaces religion or anything, but rather just that I think it’s nice to give up morals of being a good person or what we’re forced to think is good or ought to think is good.”
When it’s all boiled down, Jenny Hval didn’t create Blood Bitch to toy with shock value to parade the feminist agenda of normalizing menstruation (though that does play a small role). She lets her brain mellow out so that it can point at various objects and ask why they never interact — and why we don’t interact with them, too.
“My aim is always to help people think a little bit differently, to arrive at a place where we can think about things less frequently that I think aren’t as important, like morals,” she says with a smile. “We need to lose the roles we play every day a little bit, and blood is a fluid image of that.”
JENNY HVAL, OLGA BELL. TUE 10.4. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 10PM/21+/$15. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM.