Karen Marie Ørsted doesn’t want to grow up. The debut single from her upcoming album – titled ‘Forever Neverland’ – is called ‘Nostalgia’. It’s been four and a half years since her last record, 2014’s ‘No Mythologies to Follow’, so she’s done some considerable growing up since then – but the fear is still there.
In that time, she’s also collaborated with Major Lazer, Justin Bieber, Snakehips and Charli XCX, cut all of her hair off, played some of her biggest shows ever, including a support slot on Sia’s (conveniently titled ‘Nostalgic for the Present’) Australian stadium tour, and released an EP and numerous solo singles.
With a history like that, there’s no wonder Karen can’t stop reminiscing about the past. But let it be known, she’s always thinking about the future too.
“Notoriously all my life I’ve been scared of getting older,” she says. “I don’t know why. Probably because I feel so immature in my brain. And sometimes I see that that’s a really good thing because it’s good to have a childish optimism and a carefree feel, but at the same time, it’s… I don’t know.”
‘Forever Neverland’ may be an obvious nod to J. M. Barrie’s classic, but just to clarify: “I myself identify with, you know when you say people are Peter Panning? They don’t wanna grow up, they just like move to LA and they pretend they’re young forever.
“I think ‘No Mythologies to Follow’ was so much me in the beginning of my 20s, feeling a bit lost and rootless, and that I felt like the environment I was in was in that no one really had any clue as to what path we were supposed to take. We didn’t feel like there was any guidance, and I feel like with this one, it’s the same but it’s the end of my 20s, and I’m shit scared of what’s next.”
Approaching your 30s as a pop star can be a terrifying time. Unless you’re in the big, big leagues – Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Beyoncé, et al. – it can feel like pop stars have an expiry date. New ones cropping up every day, or hitting the big time before they’ve reached the end of their teens. The thing with MØ, is that she’s never gone fully stratospheric. Sure, she wrote and sang the most streamed song of all time (‘Lean On’), and hit that milestone before Ed Sheeran and Drake (who now occupy the Top 3 most streamed songs ever slots), but she retains some anonymity, and it works in her favour.
“I feel like we live in a generation where – it’s probably been like this always, but – I feel like we glorify youth and being young. I think a lot of people, and a lot of my friends, even if we don’t say it out loud, sometimes there’s this weird unsaid understanding that once you reach the end of your 20s and you get into the 30s that life stops, you know? And it’s so wrong, but it’s this weird anxiety that I feel for it all over social media, so it was on my mind when I wrote this record.”
And where do you go to record an album about wanting to stay young forever? The land of eternal youth, Los Angeles, of course. “I’ve been a lot in LA, and I love Los Angeles so much, but at the same time I feel so alienated, and it’s again, me talking about this whole thing of being scared of becoming an adult because I feel so hopelessly immature, on a personal level it became my own sort of neverland a little bit.
“But it’s like, it’s so bright and right on the outside, but actually the question is whether it’s good for you, and that’s for you to find out. It has a bit of a double meaning to me, personally.”
It’s a widely-believed notion that in order to ‘make it’, creatives should move to LA, or London, or New York (one of ‘those’ places) but, ever the rulebreaker, Karen rejects that notion.
“I never actually bought a place or rented a place because at this time I was also travelling all the time, but I feel like LA was a place where I came back, and I stayed for a long period because I was writing and all these things.
“Everyone that I work with, almost all of them live in LA. I also wanted to move there because I felt like I have to move there and everyone says that I should move there, why am I not moving there? And I kept on pushing it, and again this relates to my fear of taking grown-up decisions sometimes, because I’ve always just postponed it.
“It’s weird because there are parts of me that also would love to move for my own personal adventure. I fucking love LA, and I have lots of friends there, but I guess, to be honest, I’m so scared to lose my identity if I move there. It’s so stupid because it’s my responsibility to not lose my identity, but I think when I wrote the album, this is something I was thinking about a lot and I wanted to hold onto myself a lot.”
The carefully crafted identity of MØ has become muddled in recent years. When she released her debut in 2014, she was heralded as a pop warrior; making electropop with a punk spirit. She grew up with parents who were a teacher and a psychologist, and her brother became a doctor – so instead she got involved with the Danish punk scene and released an EP called ‘Pussy In Your Face’.
If you’d have been told that this was the artist who’d later be picked up by Diplo and end up doing vocals for a bunch of club anthems (‘Cold Water’ with Major Lazer and Justin Bieber, ‘Beg For It’ with Iggy Azalea, ‘Don’t Leave’ with Snakehips), you’d be surprised. But it’s almost second nature for Karen to surprise us, and in the years that followed, a lot changed. As she became increasingly involved in features, most notably ‘Lean On’ with Major Lazer and DJ Snake, it started to feel like we’d never be getting a second solo record.
It seems that one of the most crucial elements of creating ‘Finding Neverland’ was Karen finding herself again. “It took me a couple of years after the success of ‘Lean On’ to find my voice again and find the sound and find the team of people that I wanted to work with and find my identity.
“We go through life, and we change all the time, and obviously a lot of things happened that changed me a little bit as a person, so just finding your sound again and finding your style and finding everything again, you know.”
This isn’t to say she regrets anything that happened in the years between records; things just got a little complicated.
“I think already before I had the song with Major Lazer that became a big international hit, I was at a point where I was starting to experiment with a new sound, and again just trying to find myself. Because you know, obviously music is my biggest passion in life and it’s so dear to me, and it’s such a personal thing for me, so I really wanted the next album to be right.
“I was already having a crisis at the beginning of 2015, only a year after the first album because I wanted it to elevate. But then with ‘Lean On’ happening, that was a dream come true, and all of these producers I wanted to work with, all of a sudden there was an interest. But then you know, in an ocean of opportunities, when you’re already a little bit in doubt about what your sound is going to be, sometimes all these opportunities don’t help.”
What happens after you’ve been part of one of the only songs to ever hit 1 billion streams? Surely it ups the pressure to deliver an absolute smash of an album? Surely the expectation is there to capitalise on that one hit and push a record out as soon as possible?
“Definitely in 2015 and 2016, and even halfway through 2017, I did feel a lot of pressure but not only from the world, even more so myself. Music means so much to me so having an identity in the music does mean a lot, but I’m just so happy that the album’s done and I’m myself on this record, and I love the sound of it.
“No one knows how it’s gonna go. Maybe it’ll go well, maybe it’ll flop completely, like who knows? But the fact is that I’m just so happy that it’s done and I feel good about it. So pressure or no pressure, there’s always pressure in this industry, you’re always under pressure, but I’m kind of used to that now. Not that I’m saying it doesn’t matter, but I’m just like well whatever, I chose this business myself.”
‘Forever Neverland’ has been in the works essentially since Karen wrapped ‘No Mythologies to Follow’. If you’ve been following her since then, you’ll know there have been about fifty different incarnations of the ‘first single from MØ’s upcoming second album’, but none of them made it onto the record. (“I feel like [those tracks] already had their time,” she says. “With everything being as it is right now with the music industry, I don’t see why I would put it on the album.”) That finally changed with ‘Nostalgia’.
“It’s been so long now since I put out a proper body of work, I’m just super, super excited to get it out there, no matter what people’s reaction is gonna be to it. The most important thing to do is be honest and true in the creative stuff you produce and not try to impress anyone with cheap tricks. It’s really important to try and be yourself, and I feel like I finally accomplished that.
“I know this maybe sounds weird but I’m so excited for a new chapter of my life and to start working on a third album now. I’ve been saying to people for so long, ‘Oh yeah my second album is almost done, it’s coming up, it’s nearly there’. It’s been taking for fucking ever!”
The process of creating the record has been as wide as it has long. And by wide, we mean worldwide.
“In my mind I started the second record right after the first. Then a lot of things happened and all of the songs I had written in those years – well, I released an EP last year, and some of the songs from that period were actually on that – but then I think these songs are kind of a mix of songs that I started writing one and a half years ago.
“The vocals were recorded all over the world. I travel with my little recording kit, so it’s in my basement, it’s in hotel rooms, it’s in Stint’s [her executive producer] studio, it’s in LA, it’s all over the place. The same goes for productions. A lot of it is Stint, some of it is Diplo, some of it is Illangelo, Hudson Mohawk. It’s been a big patchwork.”
She’s keeping it in the family when it comes to collaborators too, working with long-time pals Diplo and Charli XCX, as well as finally getting to finish off a track with Empress Of. “With Charli, I’ve worked a lot with her, and she’s a friend of mine. I fucking love her, and so I just really wanted her on the album and lucky me she was up for it.
“And Empress Of, I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time, and a couple of years ago we were collaborating on a track, but then we didn’t finish it. I love her music so much, and I love her as a person so much. Ever since then, I’ve been kinda eager to do something with her at some point, and I asked her if she wanted to jump on ‘Red Wine’. I was so happy when she said that she would.”
There’s totally a reason she keeps going back to the same people time and time again, and it’s not because they eat bangers on toast for breakfast, it’s because she just loves her pals, man.
“When I find someone I bond with then I won’t let them walk away. You know what I mean? I’m like that in relationships and with friends and those kinds of things. I don’t know if it’s so much feeling comfortable, it’s just that if I get attached to someone, I want to keep working with them.
“I like even on a personal level to care for each other and to develop a relationship because that makes you work even better together. It makes you feel much freer, and making music is all about being free and feeling like you can say what you wanna say and do what you wanna do and not being judged for it.”
It’s important to Karen to keep thinking about the future as much as she’s thinking about the past. It’s the reason some of her older singles like ‘Final Song’ and ‘Nights With You’ didn’t end up making it onto the record, but it’s also the reason for choosing certain collaborators.
“This is probably a total cliché, but it’s so nice to collaborate with people who are not only thinking about right now but also thinking about pushing the borders of music, like they’re thinking about the future of music and what it is to be an artist nowadays.”
The record itself has a pretty stark juxtaposition between its future-forward sound and the lyrical themes of nostalgia and the past. That’s because she finds it hard to ‘live in the present’.
“That’s very much how I am. Obviously, as the songs tell you, I am a very nostalgic, dreamy person, but at the same time, I’m always thinking about what’s next, always thinking about the things to come. I’m never in the now.
“I find a lot of creative people are like this actually. They keep on reminiscing about the past, but they’re constantly moving forward with the speed of time. It’s a weird relationship between the two.”
The mark of a lot of great pop records though, is that they can draw from the past and spin it into something, not only forward-thinking, but that will stand the test of time. Karen has already proved she has the songwriting chops for that. Yes, we know we keep banging on about this streaming milestone, but ‘Lean On’ was the most streamed song of all time in 2015, and it hit the 1 billion mark two years later. It’s gained at least another 1.5 million streams since then. If you can write a proper floor filler that has longevity past a couple of months, you’re probably onto a winner.
So with a new era comes a new sound. For MØ, that includes a bit of tribal instrumentation (reminiscent of early Major Lazer stuff) and showing off a more vulnerable side. Tracks on the second half of the record like ‘Hollywood’, ‘Mercy’, ‘Trying To Be Good’, and ‘Purple Like The Summer Rain’ lean more towards ballad than banger.
“I’ve been working with this producer, Stint, throughout most of the album. From the moment we started to work together I felt like I loved everything about his sound, and his influences were so right, and we would agree on things. He was fast and had his finger on the pulse.
“I loved that contemporary feel for sure, and he loved pop music, but his background was like me in punk and hardcore. He likes to have a darker element in there, but at the same time, keeping it accessible to a certain level. That’s why I think I fell in love with his sound, and he 100% helped define the sound on this record.”
It was clear from the start that this was going to be a more emotional record. Even the more banger-worthy tunes like ‘Blur’ have pretty heartfelt lyrics. “I love to sing about emotions and shit, so it felt nice to put those on. It felt right to me.
“Some of the songs that I remember that were starting to define the album and the theme and what it actually was that I was singing about were songs like ‘Trying To Be Good’ and ‘Purple Like the Summer Rain’ because they are very personal and very much talk about the centre of the theme of the album. And ‘Blur’ is a defining track for me for the album, and ‘Nostalgia’, of course.”
‘Blur’ seems to be the track Karen is the most excited for us to hear. Funnily enough, it’s also one of our favourites on ‘Forever Neverland’ (the first half of the record is bangers dot com, you’re in for a treat). “I think my favourite song is ‘Blur’. But of course, they’re all my babies. It also depends on the day, but today I think my answer is gonna be ‘Blur’.
“I like that it takes me back a little bit to the Pixies, it has that grungy vibe, but at the same time, it feels contemporary. I love the lyrics to it; they’re personal, and they’re kinda dark but also not dark. And I love the melodies in the pre; I’m happy with that song.”
So how is Karen feeling about what the future holds? With festival season practically over, and long-postponed tour already done and dusted around the release of ‘Nostalgia’, what’s she up to for the next four years?
“You know I daydream so much, and I have big dreams, many dreams, and this is not to sell you off, but I don’t wanna jinx things. I don’t wanna say what they are, because I have a list of things, shit that I really want to happen. I never really talk about it too much. It’s weird because I’m not very spiritual but with these kinds of things, I don’t wanna say it out loud.”
Your guess is as good as ours.
Taken from October 2018’s edition of Dork. Order a copy below. MØ’s new album ‘Forever Neverland’ is out now.
Words: Abigail Firth