Exclusive: Six Questions w/ Henriette Sennenvaldt About Rapture, Harmony + the Paradox of Ecstasy

If you somehow managed to let Under Byen escape you during their fascinating 18-year existence (1995 – 2013), we strenuously suggest you make the discovery now, perhaps starting with their haunting 2010 single ‘Unoder.‘ But in the meantime, BlackBook has the enigmatically cool, jazz-inflected new track “Clumsy,” from founding member Henriette Sennenvaldt.

The Danish songstress (from Aarhus, specifically) is known for her matter-of-fact deconstructions of song structure and time signatures. But the jarring yet alluring rhythmic crawl of ‘Clumsy’ is particularly audacious. Add to that guitar, flute and sax blasts that flit in and out of the proceedings seemingly randomly, with hints that it may just all fall into pandemonium at any moment. Yet it all holds so perfectly together as to even possibly inspire one to sway along. One also shouldn’t be surprised to be reminded a bit of James Chance and his Contortions, but without all that confrontational ideology.

The accompanying video finds her by her lonesome, navigating and/or wrestling with both a wall and a very nicely designed chair (it’s a Scandinavian thing)—surely poignantly conceived for our new isolationist era of psychological tumult.

It’s taken from her upcoming album Something Wonderful (we agree with that as a value judgment), which she describes as “being very interested in the space in between things. As trying to stay within that space.” Similar words which have been uttered by the late, and very great Mark Hollis of Talk Talk.

We sat Ms. Sennenvaldt down long enough for six questions, and the same number of particularly thought-provoking answers.

Where have you been and what have you been doing during quarantine?

I’ve been in Copenhagen, working on finishing the album, doing final edits, and mixing with Peter Barnow—and [doing the] cover art with Amanda-Li Kollberg and Siri Lindskrog of Studio Jetz-immer. This work was done by sending stuff back and forth, and so although the process was perhaps slower than it would have been had we been able to meet, it was still doable. I’ve also been writing new songs, and this also is doable alone and within quarantine restrictions.

What would you say is different stylistically and philosophically between your music and that of Under Byen?

Under Byen was very much a collective effort, and so the stylistic choices were a function of our individual expressions, combined and altered by the dynamics of the space we made together. Avoiding the premise of your question, I would say that the idea of having an explorative method—of not doing things I have already done, of not being too sure—was important to me with Under Byen and it still is.

What was inspiring you during the writing of Something Wonderful?

Light. | Early Walt Disney and other childhood experiences that idealized innocence, rapture and sentimentality. | Anger, shame and bitterness. | The feeling of becoming absolutely disintegrated as an individual, of dissolving into the wider world, and how this feeling was at the same time ecstatic and problematic. | Traveling. | Light, again.

Is jazz regarded very differently in Europe than it is in America?

Honestly, I don’t know. This is a question that on the surface looks simple but in reality is very complex. Even just the term ‘jazz’ is difficult to demarcate, since so much music today is making use of the formal musical developments that have roots in jazz—just this fact makes the question difficult to answer. I feel we should have someone with real knowledge about jazz and history and the whole socio-cultural/economic context in which jazz has been made and listened to, both in the US and Europe, in order to do justice to this topic.

In ‘Like Real Power,’ you croon, “Things were so interesting / We almost fainted”—it’s kind of one of the greatest lyrical couplets ever. Is it possible that you could elaborate on it?

Thank you, I like it too! So much so that I stole it from my friend who said it one day, on the phone I think…not exactly that, but something very much like it. He was describing some great news he had gotten, and getting really into it he burst out, “It was so exciting I almost fainted!”
So I stole it, or quoted it, used it, gathered it, discussed it, like I do most things—from people who did the same with something from someone else and so on. I do feel like any utterance I make, any sentence, any melody, anything, is a reference or a quote. I would like to think of this as tradition and engaging in a conversation.
The sentence stands pretty well on it’s own, balancing between possibilities, but I don’t mind elaborating: I guess it wants to speak to the paradox of any rapture or ecstasy—be it amorous or intellectual or otherwise— how you so want it, while at the same time you can’t bear it…how any engagement with something outside of yourself is always just difficult, tempting, threatening, and how that threat might also be somewhat exaggerated, even based on a falsehood, and that such exaggerations are part of the temptation.

It’s possible to hear echoes of Tom Waits, Björk and New York No Wave in ‘Clumsy.’ How would you describe the song?

I hadn’t thought about any of those references, but I would certainly be happy to.
New York No Wave as understood as a will to emphasize texture and attitude over harmony or any other conventions or idioms of composition absolutely does speak to me, as well as the honest disappointments and struggle with rock ‘n’ roll and its limitations. I grew up with access to a vinyl collection filled with ’70s and early ’80s music, like prog and kraut and punk and post-punk, and I believe the whole ethos of such scenes has become part of me.
As for Björk, I spent many hours of my young life studying her vocal style, and took comfort in the generosity of her work’s courage and confidence.
When thinking of Tom Waits I take pleasure in the way his work is willing to expose a struggle with balance, and how his style is steeped in those staggering experiences, and yet has elegance.
How would I describe “Clumsy?” Long! But thinking on your references, I do hope that it speaks on the subject of the willingness to fail, on questions of sanity and aggression and desire for knowledge. I would describe it as dealing with confusion on different levels. I wanted it to be shaped around repetition and the opposite of that. I wanted it to feel like almost waking up but then being dragged back into sleep again, facing the same dream over and over. I wanted it to be awkward somehow, not strong enough to be strong, not fragile enough to be fragile…clumsy!

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