Interview: Jenny Berger Myhre

Interview: Jenny Berger Myhre

In certain circles, it’s a faux pas for the recordist to be present in their own recording. It disrupts the illusion of first-hand experience by illuminating the mediator between the recorder and the recorded, while opening up the possibility that the artist may interfere with the naturalistic behaviour of their subject matter. On the other end, 99% of all studio music is recorded and edited in a manner that eradicates unintentional sound, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in the deliberate acts of musical composition.

The debut album of Jenny Berger Myhre, titled Lint, resides somewhere in between: a constant swirl of ego and unhampered chance, where songwriting bleeds into recordings of friends in casual conversation, or wanders in and out of collages of fluctuating room acoustics, or floats between situations and recording fidelities. In this way, it’s an authentic depiction of life and experience; a mixture of observation, mindful intervention and memories of varying clarity, threaded together to form the continuum of personal experience. Jenny is central throughout. Instead of placing me in her shoes, Lint puts me on the outside where I observe through an open window. The record will be released on March 1st via both The Lumen Lake and Canigou Records, with release shows taking place in both London and Oslo. It’s easily one of my favourite records of the year so far. Below, we discuss her interest in documentation, nostalgic distance and the creation of a transparently personal sound world.

When the email came through about your album, I had a feeling that I’d seen your name somewhere before. And then I realised that your photo credit is against several Norwegian artists I’ve covered on the site already, like MoE and Moon Relay. In fact, yourself and Lasse Marhaug seem to appear in the background of so many of my articles at the moment. 

[laughs] That’s cool. It’s a small scene in Oslo, especially in experimental music. I was lucky enough to shoot photos for a lot of really cool artists.

My partner and I went to Oslo a few years back and paid a visit to Café Blitz, where we saw Noxagt, MoE and Aiming For Enrike. That was a fantastic night. You seem to have such a good music scene over there. 

Yeah, it’s really grown on me. I remember moving back to Oslo after living in London; it felt a bit like moving back in with your parents or something. But it’s a super-nice community and I think the music scene here is absolutely great. There are so many nice people and they’re all doing interesting stuff, especially crossing genres and crossing into the pop scene. It’s really good for that.

As soon as I realised that you did photography as well, your album made much more sense to me. I feels like documentation is a big part of your work; would that be fair to say?

Absolutely. I think that’s spot on. It took me a while to actually start composing, but I’ve been gathering the material for the album through the years. I’ve always been really fascinated by listening back to a specific situation, and how it triggers memories in a very specific and immediate way. I guess it’s a parallel to taking photos or doing documentation visually.

Do you always carry a purpose when you’re documenting in pictures or sound, or do you do it for its own sake?

It goes on or off. For certain periods I might bring my camera or recorder and always have them in my bag. It’s rare that I go out to seek for a specific thing. I do that more when I’m travelling. Otherwise the camera and recorder are tools that I really like having mobile for small moments or just for capturing things, I guess.

I did an interview with Bethan Kellough last year about how field recording affects our relationship with listening. It’s seems a particularly pertinent topic at the moment given that people are documenting their lives more than ever, and often it’s associated with the idea of displacing oneself from the situation they are recording. Bethan made the point that having the recorder in the first place is what drives her to listen more intently and actively pay attention to sounds. Is this something you think about?

I think it’s one of the challenges when recording sound, especially when around friends and family. It removes me from the situation and I become passive. It took me a while before I turned the recorder on and then actually joined the situation, because it’s harder to listen back to it – I don’t want my own voice in it, or I don’t want to be a part of it. It’s a shame because it becomes artificial in a way, so I’ve now got used to using it more casually so that I can be part of it as well, just how people use their camera phones these days to document everything. It doesn’t ruin the moment when someone takes out their phone and takes a picture. Well, usually it doesn’t. I’ve tried to find a way to make it more natural, and not let it affect me taking part in the situation.

Of course, when it comes to other types of field recording – “classical” types of field recording – it heightens the experience somehow. Listening through headphones can make you notice things you wouldn’t normally notice if you were just trying to listen with your ears.

There’s a moment on Lint where it sounds as though you’re sat with friends or family, and one of them says, “yeah – I’m just here with Jenny”. Suddenly I remembered that you must have been sat there as well with the microphone. I don’t normally consider the presence of the recordist in their own recording.

It’s highly personal. I try not to remove that or make it more objective, or hide the fact that it’s actually me as a person behind it. It feels embarrassing in a way, but I really like the embarrassment and I’m trying not to escape that somehow.

Like the first song, “Jordan”, is based on a recording of me playing it in a room with friends, because I’m trying a friend’s guitar. At the end of the recording they were starting to talk about the song and saying, “oh – so it’s your song?” Before they say that, as friends usually do, they give me compliments about the song and the singing. I felt really embarrassed about keeping that in the recording, but I felt that it made it more real and personal. It was a turning point where I tried thinking the opposite – not removing that stuff and keeping it clean, but leaving the small conversations in. Even if it feels like I’m exposing myself more or being in danger of bragging about myself. [laughs] Which feels really strange as it’s not something you’re supposed to do.

What’s interesting is that you start to play the guitar unannounced. It’s not like you’ve asked everyone to be quiet; the guitar just emerges into the room, almost like another voice entering and sharing that situation. Were your friends aware of the fact that you were going to start recording and playing? 

I was actually recording my friend Jo David Meyer Lysne, who plays the guitar at the beginning. He plays so nicely. We were just in a friend’s living room and he was playing, and I wanted to record that specific situation. But he was kind of done playing and I thought that I might as well play that song myself, as I already had it in my head that I wanted that song to be on the album. I wanted it to be multiple recordings of me playing the song in different rooms and making a version with all of these situations mixed together somehow. Nobody knew I was recording until after, when I told them that I’d been recording it.

Bilde tatt 11.09.14 kl. 20.17

It was quite striking the first time I heard the recording switch from one situation to the next. I guess I’ve always associated acoustic music with a solitary time and place, and the intimacy and authenticity that comes with that. It was amazing to have that flipped, and quickly I realised that I had those expectations embedded within me. Why did you want to present the song like that? 

It’s a recurring theme throughout the album but with different techniques. With that song it’s very specific as it’s the same song played in different rooms, but also it’s about juxtaposing memories or putting things together that didn’t happen at the same time or don’t really belong together, and how that makes different images in your mind compared to something very…authentic, as you say. It was about playing with that idea. It’s also an idea we were working on at Goldsmiths – this “worldizing”, or putting things into the world that it doesn’t necessarily belong. It’s also a technical task, I guess. I was thinking, “would this even work? I don’t know.” I think I could do the same thing in a more extreme extent too, but to me…it’s difficult to talk about music I know so well as I’ve heard it so many times, but to me it’s like pulling up a curtain and behind the curtain there’s something else, and there’s a curtain in front of that too. It’s this going deeper and deeper into something, with all of these levels behind that I wanted to try and create.

I like the observation made by one of your friends at the end of “Jordan”, when she says that it should be a man doing the whistling in the song. How does a man even whistle? 

Exactly! [laughs] It’s such a funny comment.

Again, I guess that’s the beauty of making recordings like that. It’s clearly the result of a thought springing up in someone’s mind at a particular moment. It must have been really nice to capture it.

Yeah. I was recording “Jordan” and “Speak Softly” in the church where my mum works. It was just before this tea and coffee lunch, and usually at that time a lot of retired people come and have a chat and hang out. I was just going to record it one last time, and this old man walked in and said, “can you play a song for me young lady?”. In a way it was perfect, but I thought it was almost too perfect.

No one would believe that it just happened without prompt.

No, exactly. It was also in Norwegian, so it would be a mystery to the English listeners.

Speaking of which, do you contemplate how your record might be comprehended by listeners who don’t have a personal connection with the recordings? You’ll never be able to hear it as I do, and while I think it’s clear that the album is comprised of intimate moments, the listener can ultimately never be sure about that.

I wanted it to be transparently personal. I wanted to be honest with it and leave no doubt, but at the same time I know that there will always be doubt. People are very using to recordings on an album being planned. Whenever I listen to an album, I always think that’s exactly how that album is supposed to be. It could be bad or good, but that’s how that artist meant for it to be. With this one, I feel that some of the music has almost made itself, like with point-and-shoot photography. It’s always the artist that has chosen to press the button or capture that moment, but the moment just happens. This mix between me having made the album and the album having made itself. I feel that it’s part of the personal aspect; it’s as personal as my life in a way. It’s just what happened.

I haven’t thought too much about it or tried to convince people about it. When it’s actually true, it shines through or it becomes something else for someone else, which I also really like the thought of. Someone else can listen to it and get completely different images in their head. They’re obviously not going to see them as I saw them, or experience them as personally. I don’t want to impose the idea too much but I just hope that it will shine through because it is authentic and personal.

You mentioned how a lot of the album arises from capturing moments that happened by themselves. It feels like a lot of the creative decisions made on the record relate to how the moment is captured, and the filters between the moment and the generation of recorded audio. There are a lot of contrasts in fidelity, or microphones with different pick-up patterns. 

I think I’ve always been interested in that. It’s like trying to use different aesthetics in one form. It’s very challenging, and I think that it’s possibly more challenging than it is rewarding. I know that some of the music was super-difficult for Lasse to master, as it’s all so different in character. In the space of one song it can completely change in frequencies. The song “Heyrðu” features my niece speaking in Icelandic and was recorded on my iPhone; it’s a completely different recording from the others, which were captured with a Zoom recorder and have a lot less compressed sound and a greater diversity of frequencies. I feel like it’s a fun thing to explore, because it’s like using different types of paint or film. You get all of these different qualities from the different types, and I think it’s nice when they meet instead of having a clear or very holistic thought about the technique I want to use.

I’ve always seen you talk about how the record relates to nostalgia, and how contemplating the past pushes you further and further from the actual event. Am I right in thinking that you’re a similar age to me? Born in the early 90s? 


I feel like I’ve been too young to feel anything resembling nostalgia in any profound way, although now it’s starting to play a more prominent role in my thoughts. What’s your own relationship with nostalgia, and how prominent is it in your life?

I started doing photography at age 14 or something, and at 16 I got interested in analogue photography. I would have the distance between the time I took the photo and got it developed and looked back at it. Nostalgia became very present in my life at that point. I started getting nostalgic about things that had recently happened. When you get used to seeing things as a possible photo, you see it with this distance, which is also a nostalgic distance I think. So it became quite prominent in my teenage years, also because I was having such a good time – I had really good friends and was very present I think, which also led to me quickly getting these feelings of nostalgia and even melancholia for the past. In the beginning it was a nice feeling, but after a while it prevented me from making new memories sometimes. I’d rather look back than look forward. The prospect of using those memories in a different way, without worshipping them or thinking that they were better…I think it was healthy for me to start to think about them as moving or changing, just like everything else. I guess I was a “too nostalgic” teenager.

I’ve chucked out a lot of materials from my childhood; it feels great going through them, but often the experience is followed by feeling rather low. I’ve kept one exercise book. On one page, bearing in mind I’m doing an experimental music website now, I’d written something like, “how does noise get to you when your ears are on the side of your head?”

That’s incredible. It’s good to keep some. I was a super-super vampire fan when I was a kid. I was a member of the Goosebumps club so I read lots of horror stories. I also had such an empathy with vampires; I saw them as victims of a curse, as they were so old and wise but they were also cast out of society. I drew a lot of vampires as a kid. Just after I’d done the photo shoot and video for Jenny [Hval] last spring for the “Female Vampire” music video, I found this page from a notebook where I’d drawn one vampire at the top that looked like a male vampire, and I’d drawn an “X” over it as though it were wrong. Underneath there was a vampire with long hair – apparently a female vampire – with a check mark next to it. Jenny and I thought it was obviously meant to be that I would make this video.

Jenny sleeping

You must have been psyched when Jenny asked you to work on that.

Yeah. I really expressed my enthusiasm for the project.

I wanted to ask about your approach to playing live. I’ve seen a video of you playing “Jordan” where you seem to be slipping in and out of the original recording. There are several points where the song is playing but you’re not physically doing anything. What’s it been like bringing this material to the live setting?

It started out as an improvised project. The idea was to have it as domestic as possible, and finding the equivalent to making food. So I was thinking about it like “cooking” music, starting with something and then going somewhere else to stir the pot, and then going back to cut the vegetables, then boiling some water…so I’d have a vinyl player, a cassette player, a computer and homemade instruments, and I’d place them so that I had to walk around. I couldn’t just stand still. The first time I did it, I got lots of feedback where people said it was like a performance piece instead of a concert. I thought that was quite funny, because for me I was just playing a concert. They said it was like performance art but it was not pretentious [laughs], which is good feedback I think.

The first time I played “Jordan” I just played back a recording of the piece and didn’t join in, but it was also a rehearsal recording that started with me saying, “I don’t know if I’m going to play this song at all because it might not fit with the rest of the set.” So that gave some context, as it was an actual thought I had before the concert; I wasn’t sure if I was going to play the song. It worked surprisingly well I think. Most of the people I spoke to afterward said it made sense that it was played through speakers and not through me. But then I’ve also played concerts where I’ve brought along a guitar and done a little bit of both. Now I feel like I’ve found a middle point: it’s a concert where I’m playing together with the other instruments. I can start and stop them and they play themselves, and I can join at different times. It’s things drifting in and out of eachother like the other, with situations going from one space to another room, and then possibly back again. I was also using multiple sound sources, so instead of just using a PA system, I’d also have a cassette player with its own amplifier and my singing in the room. I think it works really well, when you hear something coming from somewhere, then the same thing is taken over by another source. That’s something I want to explore even more.

That’s cool. When artists generate recorded music that involves a lot of studio manipulation and arrangement, the live version often becomes a “straighter” and more direct iteration of the material. It’s nice that your live setup stays true to the aesthetic of the record.

Yeah. In some ways I think that both the live performance and the record were made at the same time. Some of the material on the album was made on the back of a performance. Some things made sense in a performance, and I would try and do the same thing on the album or mix it in a similar way. They’re parallels I think; one doesn’t imitate the other, but they’re two sides of the same thing.