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girl in red: “It’s Important To Me That My Music Means Something”

Norway’s girl in red, aka Marie Ulven, is the indie-pop star the world needs in 2021. The 22-year-old prodigy has delivered a much-anticipated debut, if i could make it go quiet, of expressive queer emo-pop songs that have Suzi Quatro’s rock clout, Avril Lavigne’s punk verve, and AURORA’s Scandinavian spaciness. Marie has already found a super-fan in Taylor Swift, who declared the album “spectacular” in her Instagram Stories.

The neo-rocker grew up in sedate Horten, her parents divorcing when she was five. Marie started composing bedroom songs seriously as a teen after being presented with a guitar by her grandfather one Christmas. Initially, she uploaded material on SoundCloud, using aliases and singing in Norwegian. However, the openly gay musician would go viral with 2017’s anthem ‘i wanna be your girlfriend’, about an unrequited crush on a straight bestie, under her new project name, girl in red. Marie became a streaming phenomenon, airing multiple singles and two EPs (chapter 1 and chapter 2). She even contributed ‘kate’s not here’ to the curated soundtrack for The Turning, Floria Sigismondi’s gothic horror. Marie has established a dedicated fanbase by candidly chronicling her anxiety, desire, conflicted emotions, and existential panic – all with a droll and dramatic flair (cue: ‘dead girl in the pool’).

Now living in Oslo, Norway’s capital, Marie began cutting if i could make it go quiet in late 2019 – continuing as COVID-19 shut down Europe and the music industry (she missed Coachella and stalled her planned album release). In many ways, if i could make it go quiet is a coming-of-age record, but it feels zeitgeist. In a presser, Marie describes her debut as “me simply trying to understand what the fuck is going on.”

Though previously self-contained as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and producer, Marie worked on the album externally with Matias Téllez (who was once signed to Modular Recordings as Young Dreams). She made eight-hour road trips between Oslo and Téllez’ base in Bergen, Norway’s music hub. A guitar pop boffin, Marie creates a bigger, more expansive sound for her happy/sad bops – the first single ‘midnight love’, in which she empathises with a neglected partner, featuring her piano and a quiet storm balladic vibe. But the opener ‘Serotonin’, a dynamic trap banger about OCD and intrusive thought patterns, also has input from the Grammy-winning producer FINNEAS, Billie Eilish’s older brother.

While today Marie is a Gen Z LGBTQIA+ icon, inspiring the coded phrase “Do you listen to girl in red?” as a communal identifier on TikTok, she’s challenged those labelling her music as ‘queer’, determined to normalise queerness in pop culture (“MY BOPS ARE FOR EVERYONE”).

Gigging internationally, Marie hit Australia three years ago, performing a Sydney show ahead of Spotify’s Front Left Live in Melbourne alongside Sweden’s Tove Lo – and it was here she resolved to prioritise self-care. Still, Marie, leading her own “World In Red” movement, will return to the road in April 2022 for a sold-out European tour.

Music Feeds spoke to Marie via Zoom on the eve of her album roll-out and major TV premiere on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (https://youtu.be/d4IoZuP5mCw).

Music Feeds: It must be quite early in Oslo – I think it’s 9.30am or close to that. Are you a morning person?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): I’m definitely not a morning person. If it was up to me, I would be sleeping a long time. But I have a dog [Luna, her rescue Bernese mountain dog] now, so I kind of have to wake up. Yeah, actually, I like the idea of waking up early, though, ’cause then I can be a part of the world and not just be a zombie all day.

MF: Congratulations on your debut album, if i could make it go quiet, coming out in just a couple of days. It must feel incredible to be this close.

Marie Ulven (girl in red): Yes – I’m so, so nervous. Thank you so much. I’m very nervous. But I’m also really excited. I don’t even know what to do with myself at this point, other than not cry – ahhh… OK, sorry.

MF: Well, you signed a worldwide deal with the UK distro co AWAL Recordings in December 2019, just before the pandemic hit. But I wondered if this era has seeped into the album in any way, just the turmoil and the fact that people were locking down?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): I don’t think it has fed directly into my music – like how it sounds. But, then again, I think it has because I don’t think I would be able to make this music if it wasn’t for the lockdown – because I was supposed to be travelling. So the fact that I was in one place, making it all, I definitely think had a lot to say.

MF: You travelled between Oslo and Bergen to record. What were you thinking about on those long road trips? How important was it to have that time to yourself when making this album, just being away from other people – unless, of course, you had a travelling companion?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): I was just travelling with my dog mostly. But, you know, she hears it from me, ’cause I’d be talking to her like she’s a person sometimes… But, yeah, I was thinking about a bunch of weird stuff. I was just paying attention to the road, I was thinking about my future, I was thinking about the songs. I was listening a lot back to the songs and coming up with new things I wanted to fix and things I wanted to write and stuff like that. So I feel like it was actually quite an essential part to always start the trip with this long journey, but then also end the trip with a long journey. I kinda like being in my own headspace. I love driving – driving is the best. I love cars; I love driving – it’s really great. So just doing something like that for many, many hours – that’s like meditation.

MF: I was actually quite surprised because I thought Oslo would have studios – though we hear a lot about Bergen, when we read about music in Norway. But what did Bergen have that Oslo didn’t?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): Bergen had Matias Téllez, who I met for the first time last year in February-ish or end of February, beginning of March. I absolutely fell in love with that man – in a friendly way. Yeah, I really love that dude. We got chemistry right away. You know like sometimes you just meet someone and you’re instantly comfortable around them? He was one of those of people. We had great creative chemistry. He understood all of my ideas. We got along very well. He had a lot of respect for me; I had a lot of respect for him. It was just a really good collab.

MF: I wondered what the process was in developing your demos into such spacy, big pop songs, because this album is so atmospheric. It really feels like something you’d listen to driving on a long road trip. Did you have a specific sound – or aesthetic – in mind as you were writing or was that something that came later?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): I’ve been producing all the demos in my apartment. I was also working on the road while I was on tour. I had my computer with me all the time. I’ve been working all over the place, really. I was left with 11 to 12 demos, but I was like, “I wanna work on these more.” Then I worked on all the verses and choruses and kind of finding the song ideas and the DNAs. And then some songs were more finished; some songs were just the core idea. But I brought those to the studio. And, since I’m a producer, I’ve just been producing individual tracks that have their own direction. So the songs all stand on their own but, soundscape-wise, they all have a little bit of different energy. But I think they sound really well together. Yeah – I feel like I’m rambling right now, I’m sorry!

MF: Not at all. Your lyrics are so clever and observant. What did you learn about yourself while making this music? Because I imagine it was a reflective process. Did you have any interesting insights?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): Mmm. I feel like lyrically on this record, I’ve really been elevating – I don’t know, I feel like it’s really been some craftsmanship in the songwriting process. I feel like, because of the way I’ve sort of evolved emotionally, my songwriting has also matured in a way on this album.

I have a better understanding of like, “How can I make words rhyme that don’t rhyme at all?” That was something I always thought of when I was writing this album. I feel like I just had this better understanding of how you can have something sound like it rhymes with something. I don’t even know what that’s called – but maybe ‘near-rhymes’… Anyways, yeah, I’ve just been geeking on words for this album. In one song [‘Did You Come?’], it’s like, “I’m not upset, I’m fucking pissed” – I spelled it out, “You’re illiterate.” That blows my mind. That “fucking pissed” and “you’re illiterate” rhymes in a song is really cool. I just have to say that – sorry!

MF: It’s funny because I was going to ask if there was a song on this record that you were especially proud of or if you were even close to a particular song. Maybe that is the song. But is there one that you’re really looking forward to performing live?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): Oh, I’m really excited to play ‘Serotonin’ live, because I just feel like it’s gonna go hard. I’m so stoked to see how everyone is gonna be in the crowd. Honestly, I was thinking of myself: “How am I gonna be on stage?,” when I step on stage, because I really don’t even know how to be on stage anymore. Hopefully, that’s like riding a bike and it’s just gonna come back instantly, but I feel like I’m really gonna need some practice. Yeah, ‘Serotonin’ probably.

MF: You worked with FINNEAS on ‘Serotonin’. How did you hook up with him? Because I know you’ve met Billie Eilish and she’s a fan of yours. But what made you decide to work with FINNEAS? Was it just an organic thing? Or was it something you sought out?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): I was working on ‘Serotonin’ and I had this really great song – like I had really cool guitars, I had a really cool rap part, and this chorus. It was a strong song. But I felt like I needed a new set of ears on it. I think we sent it to a few people, but we decided to work with FINNEAS, ’cause he had heard the song and he absolutely loved it. He was like, “This is so cool.” And it is really cool to hear that from someone you look up to and admire. So that’s just how it happened. We sent the song and he said, “I want to work on this.” Then we did a few Zoom calls – just like this, back and forth – and sent the song back and forth. And we just ended up with what it is right now. So it was a very remote process, but it was still very cool.

MF: You have an incredible fanbase and your songs are just so relatable – even a 60-year-old could listen to your music and it’ll put them in a certain headspace, they’d be able to relate to something. How important do you feel it is to represent and give visibility to young queer people, but also to reach a wide audience and bring them into your world?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): I think that is really cool, because my grandpa really likes my music – and my grandma really likes it. I actually have a lot of older people listening to my music as well, which I think is really interesting. For me, it’s just about making the best music I can make. Anyone can listen to it and anyone can like it, regardless of their age or their sexual orientation or anything like that. I just wanna make music for people who can hear, really! That’s unfortunately not everyone… Also, honestly, I could make music for people who can’t hear, either, because maybe they can [feel] the beat and they’re like, “Yo, this beat is fire,” because they could feel it in their chest. But, yes – I do not know what I’m saying right now! Other than that, it’s just really important to me that my music means something.

MF: You’ve performed in Australia in the past – in 2019. You played a Spotify event. What memories do you have of that time? It seems like a lifetime ago now!

Marie Ulven (girl in red): Yeah, that feels really, really long ago. That was for the Spotify Front Left [Live] and then I did a little show in Sydney. I was really ill when I was in Australia. I had just been on a month-[long] tour in the United States and I was really, really exhausted. Then we flew to Australia – and that trip over to Australia really killed me. So everyone was out; my friends and my band went out and saw the koalas and shit. [But] I just had the longest Harry Potter marathon in 2019 that week and watched all the movies and I ate Coles’ Australian liquorice. That’s literally all I ate. You know that one? That is so good!

MF: I didn’t think you could get good liquorice here, so I’m really pleased to hear that. I’m sorry that you weren’t well, though. It’s a long trip – very long.

Marie Ulven (girl in red): It is a long trip… So I can’t really remember much from that trip. I just remember being in a hotel room, crying, having to get my bandmates to sleep in my bed with me – because I was too scared. I was about to have a breakdown at that point… But I’m really excited to go back and then be happy and be stoked about being alive and stuff. That’s gonna be great!

MF: You do have a huge European tour – it’s about a year away. But people are already looking forward to that. Have you missed touring? Because you can go from one extreme to another, in a way. It sounds like you’ve experienced that: really intense touring and then really intense lockdown.

Marie Ulven (girl in red): Yeah, I definitely felt that at the beginning of last year and that things were very, very slow for me. But there’s so many weird, intense feelings in this life. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with ‘the middle thing’. Even from when I was not touring, life kind of felt like lockdown here in Oslo, because it was so slow – and I was here before lockdown even existed… I’m fading out right now – sorry! Can you help me back on track?

MF: Oh, you’re good. We were just talking about how you could go from one extreme to another with a very hectic tour schedule and then suddenly nothing on the live front. It must be a strange feeling.

Marie Ulven (girl in red): Yeah. OK. That’s good… But I honestly think [the change] was a little bit needed. It’s weird how the industry doesn’t value breaks as much for the musicians – because it’s obviously like you want to tap into all the different touring markets all the time to stay relevant and stuff. But it’s definitely a very, very intense experience. If it was up to the industry, how everything works, an artist would never stop touring, you know? But I think this year was really important for me, at least, to take care of my mental health and to become happy and to make more music and get inspired, I guess.

MF: I’ve got one minute, but is there anything else you’d like to add, Marie – anything I haven’t actually covered?

Marie Ulven (girl in red): I mean, not really – just world domination! And I hope people like my album. That’s all.

‘if i could make it go quiet’ is out now. Stream or download here.

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