I’ve been musing on it for the past hour and I’m delighted and frustrated to say that I can’t think of a single musical collaboration since Lou Reed and John Cale rekindled their relationship to record 1990’s Songs For Drella to strike me as being as profound as Jenny Hval & Susanna’s Meshes of Voice… a collaboration that occurred, well, actually, quite some time ago. The two Norwegian singer/songwriters, who both embody quirk and sincerity in their hyper forms, came together half a decade ago to compose music for Ladyfest in 2009. However, until now, the project has remained largely in the minds of those who experienced it first-hand. However, next Tuesday, August 19th, the performance will be released as a relatively unconventional live album on Susanna’s record label, SusannaSonata. Meshes of Voice plays like a soundtrack of polarities: bliss and horror, empowerment and impotence, deafening and non-existence. The album is largely inspired by things outside the realm of music. They cite some of the work’s most significant influences as the architecture of Antoni Gaudi and Maya Deren’s 1943 film, “Meshes of the Afternoon.” The two ladies (whose intellect and innovation both slightly intimidate me… and who have also each played mesmerizing sets in Philly this year, Jenny opening for Swans at Union Transfer and Susanna at the International House) were each recently kind enough to take some time to chat with me about the project.
Izzy Cihak: So I know that this project started as something to do for Ladyfest in 2009, but what is it, in particular, that compelled the two of you to collaborate?
Susanna: I was asked by the festival, alongside many others I think, if I wanted to do a commissioned work for the 2009 festival. I had never been asked that before, and was honoured and took it as a sign to do something new with someone I hadn’t worked with before. Jenny came to mind quickly as I highly admired her work and also see her music as quite different than mine. So it was an exciting idea to try to merge these two musical worlds.
Jenny Hval: When Susanna asked me if I’d be interested in composing a project with her (2008), I had been playing Susanna’s first solo record to death and was extremely interested in the depth and slowness of her music. It was something that moved me beyond, I was so happy to join the project, and the first few months of working together.
Izzy: How would you characterize your process of collaborating together?
Jenny: We started with exchanging a lot of ideas, and talking — about films and architecture more than music. I gave Susanna a CD with a ton of ideas, probably way too much. Then we built ideas slowly, gradually stepping into each other’s artistic worlds. In the end it became something entirely its own, which doesn’t always happen, but I’m very happy it did.
Susanna: It was very inspiring to be welcomed into Jenny’s universe, to hear ideas rather than the finished product, and it started so many new processes within me, new ideas — a good creative space to be.
Izzy: What do you remember of that performance at Henie Onstad Arts Centre? Were there particular highlights? Would you consider it to be a highlight of your career?
Jenny: I don’t remember much, actually. In general I don’t have a very good stage memory. I get lost in the moment, and if I remember things, they might be something like «I couldn’t see my lyrics» or something. So the highlight for me has been re-listening to this music, coming back to it. Highlight of a career — I never think about that. Music isn’t in the same part of my brain as career.
Susanna: I remember it to be very intense — it was first almost a week of rehearsal and production, and a great musical collaboration together with Jo Berger Myhre and Anita Kaasbøll. The performance was extremely focused, and it felt like it mattered a lot. We had exceptional visuals by artist Guri Dahl and light designer Tor Ditlevsen. And it also felt like a big deal to perform the piece like we planned to, with the three 15-20 minutes parts floating from one song into another.
Izzy: And what is it that inspired you to make an album out of it, as it has been quite few years? Or, was the album in the plans from the beginning?
Susanna: When we had done the performance I remember we talked about making an album out of it. “We must,” we said, ‘cause we liked what we had done. But we planned to do more of a studio album, and was very critical towards the recorded performance. And then all the other albums and tours kind of swept us away from the whole Meshes-project, at the same time as people (except for the ones who experienced the two performances in 2009) didn’t really pick up on it. I have been listening to the recording from time to time, and the idea of releasing it as it was started growing. We are also performing a new chapter at the Ultima festival in Oslo in September.
Izzy: In retrospect, do you have a particular favorite composition, or do you only view the work as a cohesive whole? “Milk Pleasures” really stands out for me as one of the best things I’ve heard in recent years
Jenny: My favorite moments are the moments where I can’t separate one voice from the other. Where we manage to create an unseen body. And I love Anita’s use of noise (and all the noise together). I learnt so much from working with noise and vocals.
Susanna: It is hard to pick only one song, the different parts have different qualities I like. Have to agree with Jenny that I really like the togetherness of this performance.
Izzy: I understand that the film “Meshes of the Afternoon” was a big inspiration behind the album. What was it about the film, specifically, that resonated so profoundly with you?
Jenny: The structure, the repetitions, and some of the images, especially an image where the face of a woman has been replaced with a mirror. I find its surrealist form more connected to a musical expression than film.
Izzy: Since this is technically a live album, I’m curious if you have any particular favorite live albums of your record collection, whether because you think they capture the artist at their most pure, or just because the performance was particularly inspiring?
Jenny: I don’t think I own a single live album. I’ve never been interested in that format. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy live music, or live music clips.
Susanna: Same here, I don’t think I own any live albums. And as a concept, yes this album is recorded live with an audience — but it is not really the traditional live album. To me the artists that have done the most interesting live albums/recordings are Björk and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy — in very different ways and approaches, but still. Absolutely love the Björk live DVD series.
Izzy: You each recently toured the US. How was that experience? Any highlights?
Jenny: I toured all over the US this year, and still haven’t processed it… so much nature, so many miles travelled (in a car), so many wonderful people… so much everything. This is a hard question to answer. Musically, I had some obvious favorites (being at Big Ears festival, talking about Laurie Anderson on stage in Iowa City, unaware that she was actually in the audience, playing the Swans tour, which was one of the most intense musical experience of my life — they are fantastic, and have the most fantastic audience, too) and some less obvious favorites (Spokane!).
Susanna: Same for me! US has been an adventure this year. Hope to return at some point to do more concerts, hopefully net year?
Izzy: And what do you have planned for the future? Any chance the two of you may collaborate again, even in the distant future?
Jenny: I’m hoping this concert at Ultima festival in Oslo is the beginning of a new Meshes collaboration — and because we’re not a traditional band and there’s been a five year gap, we don’t have a continuous sense of where we’re heading. That’s exciting.
Susanna: Yes, looks like there is an interest in different places for us to play this Meshes-project and keep on evolving it, so I hope we get to do that.