“Spring is around the corner,” says Marie Ulven, sat tinkling away at the piano inside her airy Oslo apartment. “I really need that f***ing spring energy.”
Amen to that. We’re speaking towards the end of March as Norway, the home country of the artist known by the lowercase moniker of girl in red, edges towards some mercifully warmer weather. “This has been the longest winter of my life,” she sighs.
That may well be down to the 22-year-old’s chosen Covid hideout. In the deepest depths of winter, the Norwegian capital is cloaked in darkness for 18 hours a day — particularly gloomy during a pandemic — but it certainly hasn’t been helped by coronavirus pulling the brakes on an artist who, by most metrics, looked set for huge things.
Born in Horten, a small city some 30 miles south of Oslo, Ulven’s first release as girl in red was i wanna be your girlfriend in 2016, a slow-burn Soundcloud success that gradually racked up listens before the hype began to spread far and wide. It now has more than 160 million streams on Spotify. A string of singles and EPs followed, each one swelling her very online, very Gen Z fanbase.
Those early tracks were beguiling snatches of hooky, hazy, lo-fi indie, which inevitably lumped her with the “bedroom pop” genre tag (they were all made in her bedroom, to be fair). But that wasn’t the only label. Her lyrics about love and sexuality went straight for the emotional jugular — “I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips”, she sang on that breakout song, aching at a relationship with a female friend who didn’t feel the same way — and left no doubt as to their queerness. Since then, she’s often been called a “queer icon” in the press, with the New York Times headlining a 2019 article about Ulven with a suggestion that “she’s becoming the gay musical role model she never had”.
Ulven has spoken at length in previous interviews about the complexities of being crowned such a thing so early into her career, but the fact that she’s attracted these proclamations, and that her songs seems to resonate so deeply within the hearts and minds of her listeners, is an indication of the unshakeable authenticity in her music.
It’s something that very much carries over into Ulven’s long-awaited debut album, if i could make it go quiet, due on April 30. As Ulven says, the 11-track release “is still inherently girl in red” — there are lyrics about love, unrequited and otherwise, as well as mental illness, none of which is dressed up in any ambiguity. On lead single Serotonin, she grapples with “intrusive thoughts like cutting my hands off/ Like jumping in front of a bus”, while Rue unpacks the guilt of feeling like a burden on her family while going through a particularly challenging period.
She doesn’t hold back when it comes to doomed romances, either. On the second album track, Did You Come, she asks an unfaithful partner that exact question. “That song is a very direct one,” Ulven says. “That’s so dope in my opinion. Like, full on, ‘did you come?’ — I’ve never heard anyone say that in a song before.” She’s not sure how people will respond when they hear it for the first time, but if they appreciate the bare honesty of it, then that would be an “ideal situation”, Ulven says. “That song made me feel really excited about making music, and I feel like the music that really excites me is the music I want to put out. I don’t ever want to make music where I’m like, ‘What the f*** does this even mean?’, and I’m just singing some gibberish shit.”
It’s all about looking at these emotions dead in the eye, whether they’re the dark ones or the more hopeful kind, like those on the song I’ll Call You Mine, “a big track about opening up to someone”. “I would say that I’m kind of owning everything I’m feeling here,” Ulven says. “There’s no, like, ‘I feel ashamed for feeling this’. I just feel like I’m constantly calling myself out on this record.”
The biggest difference here, compared to Ulven’s earlier work, is the sound — there’s a far richer sonic palette, one that spans soaring power-pop choruses, thumping R&B beats, fizzy garage rock and even something close to house music. It’s pretty audacious when you consider all the success she’s already had working through those indie-pop stylings, but for Ulven, things have moved on.
“There’s always going to be some people being like, ‘Oh my god, make another we fell in love in october’” — her biggest track so far, with more than 200 million Spotify streams — “but like, obviously that’s not going to happen,” she says. “There’s only one of that song and it’s out there.”
The new sound also ties into that idea of ownership in her music. Ulven is the main producer on the album, charting this new genre-fluid landscape for herself, but when news broke that Finneas, Billie Eilish’s producer brother, had a hand in the studio work for Serotonin, it was his name that dominated the headlines. When I bring up how often women artists, especially the ones who take a holistic approach to their music, are overshadowed by the men who make smaller contributions, Ulven interjects with an exasperated cry: “I KNOW!”
“That focus just really keeps this [idea] that, like, ‘Oh, a girl is just a pretty face, and she has a great voice’. There’s something about it that just really sucks, man.” When she saw people giving Finneas the spotlight for Serotonin, Ulven was “like, ‘Yo, I’m the star here, for f***’s sake. I wrote this song, I made this song’.”
She adds: “I’m so proud of how it says ‘Marie Ulven’ on all the song [credits] on the record. It’s so incredibly important to feel that level of ownership. So, hopefully, people are going to be checking the credits and be like, ‘Yo, girl in red wrote every single song, holy crap’.”
girl in red performs in Melbourne in 2019
Fans will certainly have time to dig deep beneath the surface of the record, as they’ll have to wait until at least April 2022 for Ulven to embark on her European tour. She has “mixed feelings” about getting back on stage — “I need to get a personal trainer or something and just be like, ‘You need to get me ripped because I’m literally going to play shows for two months straight’” — but most of all she’s excited to “have that level of connection with my fans” again.
She takes a moment, and a broad grin spreads across face. “You know sometimes, when you get really happy and it feels like you’re smiling, but on the inside of your body? I feel that way when thinking about it now.”