There’s a particular colour that heroines seem to wear. We’re talking Wonder Woman, Sabrina Spellman, Elastigirl. It’s Hermione Granger’s house colour and Black Widow’s hair. Consider a version of Little Red Riding Hood where the girl eats the wolf instead. Consider girl in red.
The story goes that Norwegian 20-year-old Marie Ulven started the girl in red project in 2017, inspired by a heartbreak at the hands of… well, a girl in red. In the approximately two years since, she’s built up a massive following from her bedroom studio in Oslo – at the time of writing, she is clocking up over 3.3 million streams on Spotify every single month. For context, that’s more than one-third of the way to The 1975 -levels of streaming. (Here at Dork we measure everything in units of 1975s. Let us tell you, it’s a nightmare when we’re trying to bake birthday cakes.)
That’s an impressive feat from any angle, but it’s made all the more giddying by the fact that in the last few months things have gone truly stratospheric. By the end of 2019 girl in red will have completed four full tours in twelve months, taking in the US and Europe, all of which were underway while she was also writing, recording, producing and releasing her second EP ‘Chapter 2’. Did we mention Marie does all of this by herself? Because she does. Every instrument, every line, every minute in the mixing booth, is a one-woman operation. In short, she says, and in something of an understatement; “this has definitely been the craziest year so far. Definitely.”
In a year where she has packed so much in, it’s hard to imagine when exactly Marie had any time to do the quieter, more internal parts of the project. Such as, you know, the actual writing itself.
“It was over the place really, because it was sort of writing as I was going along this year,” she explains. “It wasn’t like I had this whole EP waiting around. I finished ‘watch you sleep’ in late December last year, and then I finished ‘i need to be alone’ in February, and I sort of just finished all the songs like a month before they were released. I just went along with it and continued producing stuff in my room like I did last year.”
Thematically speaking, ‘Chapter 2’ picks up the threads of heartbreak and its effects from 2018’s ‘Chapter 1’ EP and keeps unspooling them, teasing them out across five emotive tracks. From the love song lullaby ‘watch you sleep’ through to ‘bad idea!’, ‘Chapter 2’ is by turns vulnerable and tender, morose and rueful.
“There’s a lot of the same themes [as on ‘Chapter 1’], but in different scenarios, I guess,” Marie says. “Because I think in life you have a lot of the same feelings all the time, but regarding different situations. You know? You might feel shocked by things all the time, but it’s different things that shock you. It’s still just what’s going on in my life.”
‘Chapter 2’ might be inspired by specific events, but the emotions they evoke – and the broader experiences that they speak to – resonate widely.
“People [come up to me, and] say ‘Oh, my God, this is so me’,” Marie says. The reaction doesn’t necessarily surprise her because, she explains, “I’m pretty sure the things that I write about are really human things, so it makes sense that people relate to it.”
“It’s very relatable, being a human being,” she laughs.
Being human, as we know, isn’t always a good time, and girl in red doesn’t shy away from showing a darker side of her life in her songs. Quite the opposite, in fact. On a lot of her tracks, like ‘Chapter 2”s ‘dead girl in the pool’ and ‘i’ll die anyway’, she leans into it.
If ‘dead girl in the pool’ is almost cinematic in its melancholy, it’s because as she was writing the track Marie was watching the whole thing unfold like a music video in her mind.
“I was writing from the perspective of seeing myself as the main character, and also having this very weird out of body experience. It was inspired by that confusion, and by just feeling weird, really,” she says. “Because I’ve been feeling very weird lately. This last year has been a very weird [time in terms of] identity growth.”
The period of weirdness has come tethered to a heavier sensation: one of futility and hopelessness. This has come through in traces on much of the girl in red output, but on the deceptively musically upbeat ‘i’ll die anyway’ it’s more present than ever.
“‘I’ll die anyway’ is very much based on how I perceive life. I have a dark take on life; I’m going to die anyway, so should I even be doing this music thing? Like, this music thing doesn’t matter, because I’m gonna die. I’ve had this super dark take, almost not wanting to live because I don’t understand why I would want to live,” Marie says matter-of-factly.
“So that was a very therapeutic song. It’s so dark I wasn’t really sure that a lot of people would relate to it. But apparently a lot of people actually feel the same way, which is sad, but also it’s nice that people know that they’re not alone.”
In a lot of cases, this sense of hopelessness, both broad and specific, isn’t exactly lessened by the 24-hour news cycle. It can be difficult to feel as though a brighter future lies ahead when disasters and instances of climate breakdown are being broadcast directly into our minds at every moment of the day. As time goes on, more and more artists are speaking out about taking action, while also acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling being a touring musician with being climate-conscious. As girl in red has, erm, ‘taken off’ (sorry), Marie has been wrestling with those issues herself more often than not.
“I’ve been feeling guilty about travelling so much, flying everywhere all the time,” she says. “[In Norway] people shame people for flying nowadays, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. But obviously, it’s not good to feel ashamed of what you’re doing.”
To alleviate some of the turmoil and take steps towards making a positive impact on the environment, Marie has found a way to eradicate – and invert – the carbon cost of her recent tours in the US and Europe.
“I’ve partnered with this company called Chooose that has basically made all my touring carbon positive, which means I’m not leaving a footprint. I’m actually creating a positive footprint, by making less carbon dioxide,” she says. “A lot of musicians talk about this, [saying that it’s] important, but they maybe don’t always do it themselves because they don’t know that the possibility is there, but hopefully people will. It’s on my mind all the time, the climate and being aware of your actions, and that it actually matters if you throw a straw on the ground or not.”
“Everyone matters in a weird way even though I say in all my songs that nothing matters,” she says.
She might suggest in her songs that nothing matters, but even there girl in red’s nihilism isn’t the type that comes without consequences. The glittering, explicitly anthemic ‘bad idea!’, for example, is all about the ramifications of the titular mistake – a series of hookups with a girl that, as Marie says, “wasn’t really a healthy thing for either of us.”
The song, she says, “is about booty calls, and about sleeping with someone when it’s not really good for you, but you still want to do it.”
Even songs about the emotionally unhealthy hookup habits can have a surprising emotional resonance coming from girl in red. In the not too distant past, songs about LGBT relationships – both the good and the bad – were a little hard to come by. There were always exceptions, of course, and in more recent years acts like Marika Hackman, Frank Ocean, Hayley Kiyoko and Anna Cavli have also joined an ever-expanding list of queer artists singing explicitly queer songs, but they’re still in enough of a minority that each addition to the canon feels precious. Right from the release of her first single ‘i wanna be your girlfriend’, girl in red has been turning up for people like her. It’s partly because this is her life and these are her experiences, so of course, her songs reflect that, but that doesn’t make her any less aware of the importance of hearing a song that speaks to your still marginalised love life. After all, she’s lived that, too.
“I haven’t really thought about, like, oh, no one’s really done this before or no one’s really put this type of music out about this specific topic,” she says. “But I definitely noticed that people are reacting well. In a way, it feels like it’s been something that’s been needed. And it’s been missed for a long time, I think.”
She thinks about this for a second.
“I know it’s been missing. And I felt it as well, I felt that this type of representation has been lacking in music and in movies, and in any type of art really. So I feel like it’s about time that we’re getting more space to put this out in music and films. Everyone can relate to a love song, but it’s also way easier to connect to something when it’s like, ‘yes, that is exactly me’.”
So, after two years of constant growth and non-stop work, what’s next for girl in red? A nice holiday, perhaps? A little lie-down? Well, maybe one day. First, though, there are things to be getting on with – like the debut album currently in the pipeline. Like everything else she’s released up to this point, on LP number one Marie Ulven is going it alone.
“I don’t want anyone else to be touching my music or anything like that. Because I like to write all my songs, and I like to produce them, and I like to record it. Singing and playing all the instruments gives me the feeling of ownership. And I’m so, so proud. Sometimes I go to Spotify, and I look at the credits, and I’m just like, ‘yep, that’s my name on everything’.”
Marie’s plan going forward, her campaign slogan for 2020 if you will, is this; world in red. She’s going global.
“We’re going to make a really, really good album in my eyes. Hopefully. Fingers crossed, I’m gonna make something that I’m proud of,” she says. “And then I just want to continue world domination, really – do everything I can to just take over the world.”
Ready or not, planet Earth. girl in red is coming for you.
Taken from the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Dork, out now.
Words: Liam Konemann