girl in red may just be about to release her debut album, but it already feels like it might be something important. With the much anticipated ‘if i could make it go quiet’ imminent, Marie Ulven is ready for what comes next.
Words: Ali Shutler. Photo: Kristine Wathne.
I’m not trying to prove anyone wrong. That’s such a bad reason to make an album,” says Marie Ulven. The artist known to the world as girl in red made a name for herself with fuzzy bedroom pop anthems that tackle heartache, mental health and youthful want with a trembling, introspective gaze. At 22 years old, though, she’s still figuring herself out. Chasing excitement and wary of conforming neatly to the expectations of others means there’s nothing quiet or delicate about her debut album, ‘if i could make it go quiet’. A stunning blast of intense emotion and maximum volume, there’s no ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’ did really well, so let’s do that again’ or ‘bedroom pop is having a moment, let’s double down’. As Marie explains, “It is an ambitious album, I’m throwing myself in every direction I can possibly go. Whenever I’ve listened to this record, I know this isn’t what everyone has painted me to be.”
A few years ago, there was no girl in red, with Marie releasing dark indie-pop songs in her native Norwegian tongue, but in 2016, she turned a dose of heartbreak into something positive and with a lot more scope. The fuzzy longing of debut single ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’ wasn’t an overnight success but, in just a few months, it had been streamed millions of times. The following string of achey, heartbreaky singles were just as popular, while a pair of self-produced EPs (2018’s ‘Chapter One’ and 2019’s ‘Chapter Two) provided a yearly snapshot of an artist making good on all that hype and heartfelt connection. With a smirk, she promised world domination to anybody who would listen.
“I was really pumped for 2020. We worked our ass off in 2019 to make 2020 a really good, important year,” she says, speaking via Zoom from her home studio.
Our conversation is delayed by a few minutes while her dog Luna demands some much-needed attention (“I’ve already done a 50-minute interview, so she’s not very happy with me, but I’m giving her everything she needs right now. You know when you look a dog in their eyes, it releases oxytocin for both of you, which is a love hormone”), but after some scratches and paying the puppy tax, Marie explains that despite shit going down, she’s thankful for the past twelve months. “I honestly don’t think I would have this record if it wasn’t for everything being put on pause for a minute.”
“I’m really happy with the album, but if I think too much about it, I’ll worry it’s all shit”
Like the rest of the world, she lost a lot (a busy touring schedule, connection with her fans, a sense of normalcy), “but fortunately I didn’t lose any loved ones, and I’m happy that I was able to make something that might be good.” Marie takes a rare pause. “I’m nervous and excited about the album coming out, but in my mind, I’m already jumping into album two,” she admits. “I’m not sure if that’s just a coping mechanism if everything goes wrong, though…”
Our first proper taste of ‘if i could make it go quiet’ was the marching thunder of ‘Rue’. Inspired by Marie seeing a lot of herself in the titular, troubled Euphoria character who struggles to adjust to life post-rehab, it’s a bold guitar-driven track that sees girl in red distancing herself from the pencil-drawn pain of her earlier tracks. The whole thing is delivered with fearless confidence. Then towards the end of the song, it all goes quiet as she whispers the chorus line, “Don’t wanna make it worse, I’m gonna make it work,” before everything comes back in loudly and proudly. We’ve no idea what the technical term is for it, but it sounds fucking cool.
According to Marie, making the album was “a roller coaster of confidence and self-esteem,” which isn’t over yet. “It’s been very up and down. Sometimes I know this record slaps, and ‘Serotonin’ [produced by FINNEAS] is the best song I’ve ever made, but I do worry that no one is going to like it.” It’s why she’s putting so much energy into what comes next. “Not being busy feels very meaningless right now. I can’t do anything about this record, I’m really happy with it, but if I think too much about it, I’ll worry it’s all shit. I don’t really know if I ever had a bunch of confidence making this record, but I always felt excited making these songs.”
Marie was always happy to admit that on those EPs that she was still figuring out what girl in red was. Despite the evolution that’s all over her debut, “I’m still figuring that out. I’m just going with the flow because it’s all self-discovery, and it’s happening constantly. I do feel like I’m growing though, as an artist, as a writer, as Marie. I went from 19 to 22, and a lot of shit happens in those years,” she explains, especially when you spend it on the road and in the spotlight.
girl in red is used to racking up plenty of streams, just shy of 7 million people listen to her every month on Spotify (The 1975 get 10.3), but Marie finds the numbers game somewhat surreal. “I can’t really wrap my head around it because it feels so far away. When you see 100 people at your show though, that feels mindblowing.” After spending the majority of 2019 on the road, 2020 was a weird adjustment. “I need my fans to function. Connecting with them during a live show gives me so much life. It’s super cheesy, but I have a heart, and they’re the beat. I’m not myself without the fan interaction; meeting someone after a show, hugging them and talking to someone who’s had their life changed because of you is so special. I can make that person happy by just being there with them, and it goes both ways.” Right now, her biggest ambition for her debut is to just play it with people. “That would mean so much to me.”
Despite the numbers, the fans and all that early success coupled with a scoop self-doubt, Marie doesn’t really feel pressure to deliver. “I’ve been lucky not to start out with one big worldwide hit where it feels like I could never make anything better but also, I’m not that type of artist either. It’s just about making shit that I’m happy with, then putting it out. I don’t feel like I have to compete with myself. I also wouldn’t ever put out anything that I think is bad, so that takes some pressure off.”
Making ‘if i could make it go quiet’ last year wasn’t always on the books; Marie doesn’t really do plans, but “it felt like a natural next step. Ideally, it would have come out last year as well, but that obviously didn’t happen because making an album took a lot longer than I thought it would.” Written and recorded over a six-month period, Marie worked on it every day. Ideas were formed in the same home studio she’s sitting in today (guitar, cello and piano all visible in the background) before being driven eight hours to a studio in Bergen, where she’d spend three-week blocks with producer Matias Tellez. Even those long drives would be soundtracked by her own work in progress.
The delay was because “2020 was not a very inspiring year at times,” so she had to turn on this other, unexplored side of herself. One that meant she could make inspired music while not being struck by inspiration. It’s apparently something that “takes a lot of practice. 50% of making music is fun, 50% is blood, sweat and tears.”
But all that work reaffirmed the lessons she learnt on the road. “This is going to be a long journey. This is something I’m going to have to work constantly hard for, to always be the artist I want to be. That’s humbling but also, holy shit.” Last year, she watched Shawn Mendes’ documentary In Wonder and realised how hard he works. “Same with Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and any artist at the top of their game, you’re manifesting your life and working your ass off. I know now that nothing is just going to happen, you have to work for it, and I want to put that work in. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I definitely want to try my best to do some cool shit.”
“50% of making music is fun, 50% is blood, sweat and tears”
From the woozy electro haunting of ‘Body And Mind’, through the bratty punk-pop of ‘You Stupid Bitch’ to the rumbling cinematic emo of ‘Apartment 402’, girl in red pulls from all over for ‘if i could make it go quiet’, but none of it was deliberate. “I didn’t have any inspirations for this album… my inspiration was making good shit. I was just chasing what feels good. That’s the vibe.” And it ties the whole record together. “There’s a loudness to it all. It’s a very blown out album, and I’ve maxed out how many energetic songs you can fit on one record.”
“’if i could make it go quiet’ is about all this very intense shit going on in my head,” explains Marie who felt like she had a lot to say with these 11 tracks. “I’m still writing about my mental health and love, but now I’ve got a deeper understanding of what I’m feeling,” she says. “Then there are songs like ‘Serotonin’ where I’m talking about OCD, intrusive thoughts and feeling scared of my own brain.” It’s something she’s never sung about before. “I’m going into some deeper shit on this record because I’ve been going through deeper shit. The album had to reflect that.”
Despite living with it for years, it wasn’t until Marie went to therapy that she realised she even had OCD. The only time she’d seen the disorder spoken about before was Glee’s Emma Pillsbury (played by Jayma Mays). Constantly worried about germs and cleanliness, Pillsbury’s OCD is what most people assume the disorder looks like, but it’s much broader and more destructive than that. Marie has it alongside health anxiety, so she’ll believe she’s caught a disease, which starts a long, deliberate process of trying to find reassurance that she isn’t going to die. First, she turns to Google, then speaks to her friends, family and then a doctor. “I have to go through it in order so that I can finally feel like I’m going to survive.” Elsewhere on ‘Serotonin’, she lists just some of the intrusive thoughts she deals with – “cutting my hands off, jumping in front of a bus, burning my hair off, hurting somebody I love.”
Marie finds it pretty cool that her lyrics, direct and without a sugary Disney coating, could help dispel romanticised ideas of OCD and mental illness, but she didn’t go in with some grand plan to change the conversation. “It has just been on my mind. Those types of intrusive thoughts have been present my entire life. I’m constantly scared of losing control, and I felt like I had something to say about it.”
With no desire to give her art “all these reflections that you don’t really need to have,” she hasn’t really thought about the impact of her words. “’What do I want people to feel when they hear my music?’” she asks. “Bitch, I don’t know. I just wrote that shit. Once it’s out in the world, I can’t control it anymore, and it’s all about letting go.”
“Lyrics are a mysterious thing for me,” she continues. “I don’t really know where they come from. The only criteria is that I feel connected to them, they feel real to me in the moment, and that I haven’t heard it a million times before. I could easily sing ‘oh baby, I think of you all the time, can’t get you off my mind’ (bonus points for rhyming), and there’d be nothing wrong with it; I just don’t connect with it as much.”
‘if i could make it go quiet” also features lusty pop songs like ‘hornylovesickmess’, which is a love song about Marie ruining a relationship because she was away on tour, going through a sudden life change. Despite making references to her face being on a billboard in Times Square, it’s not your typical, bragalicious ‘look ma, I made it’ track. It’s grounded, tragic and heartfelt. “It’s important to have songs like that and the lovey-dovey ‘Stupid Bitch’ because there’s more to me than feeling like I’m going crazy.”
Despite the direct, confessional nature of the record, Marie has said plenty of times that she doesn’t find writing songs cathartic. “That romanticised image of an artist hunched over a piano, holding a whiskey glass and writing about their trauma doesn’t sound very sustainable for you or your own mental health. Pouring my heart out isn’t the cathartic part, it’s being able to spend time occupying my mind that feels cathartic. It’s not sitting down in the dark and writing these words that feels good, it’s more being excited by something that I make that gives me life.”
The last track on the album, a delicate, peaceful instrumental called ‘it would feel like this’ finishes off the album’s leading question. “If I can make it go quiet and empty myself of all this crazy shit, it would be as peaceful as that little piece of music,” explains Marie.
“Weirdly enough, I do think it’s a positive album,” she laughs. “I know I’m talking about some weird shit, but even the darkest songs on this album still have the belief that I’m gonna be okay. I didn’t want it to feel like I felt sorry for myself.” A lot of that celebratory survival comes from the urgent, excitable music. “The graphic directness of ‘Did You Come’” – lyrics include “I’m not upset, I’m fucking pissed… did you do the things you know I like, roll your tongue, make her come twenty times” – “is balanced out by the production, and can you imagine if ‘Serotonin’ was an acoustic song? ‘Girl, you need some help’.”
“I’m going into some deeper shit on this record because I’ve been going through deeper shit”
girl in red stands alongside artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish who are connecting with people in a really authentic way just by being themselves. “That’s what Gen Z and late millennials are thirsty for. We’re tired of all the other shit. We just want to feel connected with people who are down to earth and grounded in a way that feels like we’re standing on the same Earth, rather than looking up to the sky and seeing this cloud-shaped idol. We want the real deal.” These pop rebels are doing things on their own terms, but they’re not deliberately standing against the industry norm. “I don’t feel like I’m constantly not doing something else. I’m not deliberately choosing to go down this path; it just feels like this is my path.”
Because of how fresh it all is, people are struggling to find a label that fits, but Marie believes “terms like Queer Pop or female-fronted don’t say anything about the music. I don’t really want my music to be labelled as anything, it’s just pop music.”
As for being a voice of a generation? “That’s a bold-ass statement,” laughs Marie with her whole body despite hearing the claim before. “I don’t think I’m the right person to ask because I will constantly talk shit about myself. I will constantly downplay the importance of my music in other people’s lives, and unfortunately, I will constantly degrade my own value. I would never say anything like that about myself, for sure.”
Marie isn’t sure what success really means in 2021, but she’d consider it a victory “if this album opened any cool doors so I can continue to grow as an artist.” She ignored the outside world while making this record, getting lost in her own music on those long drives, but that’s changed now it’s done. “I can lie to you and say no, I don’t care what people think of this album, just so I don’t get disappointed, but I do care. My mission is to become the best musician I can be.”
“I mean, I’m already starting shit, and I’m going in a completely different direction, but I want to take my time. I don’t want to rush the process, I want to experience some shit, and I want to get to know myself better. The thing is, I don’t wait too long either.” With the album finished but touring still a big question mark, Marie is in “this weird space where I’ve got a lot of time to make an album two,” but poured everything she had into creating the first. “I definitely want to spend my time wisely, but I need to figure out who I want to be. As this record shows, I can go in all of these different directions. I’m not just me and an acoustic guitar,” she pauses and grins into her phone’s camera. “I’m also still going for world domination, obviously.”
Taken from the April 2021 edition of Dork, out now. girl in red’s album ‘if i could make it go quiet’ is out 30th April.