Culture Trips

Girl in Red: ‘If my songs can normalise queerness, that’s amazing’ | Pop and rock

“I’ve never heard a song with people screaming they want to cut their hands off,” muses the Norwegian singer-songwriter Marie Ulven. Recently, she decided to rectify this with Serotonin, a joyfully effervescent pop-punk track about her long-standing battle with intrusive thoughts (produced by Finneas, Billie Eilish’s brother and collaborator). For Ulven, writing about her mental health is an act of both catharsis and public service.

“Just saying that you have intrusive thoughts is very liberating,” she says, hovering her phone camera close to her hoodie-encircled face. “I think at some point pretty much everyone will get some weird thought. Not everyone has them so intensely; I have OCD, so when I’m very sick I get them a lot and go crazy.”

The 22-year-old – better known as Girl in Red – first made waves in 2018 with her lovelorn indie earworm I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend (the New York Times deemed it one of the 10 best songs of the year). She followed it with another, We Fell in Love in October, which featured a “my girl” refrain that was incantation-like in its longing.

Girl in Red in concert in Oslo, 2019.
Girl in Red in concert in Oslo, 2019. Photograph: PYMCA/Avalon/Gonzales Photo/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The tracks soon elevated Ulven to Gen Z queer icon status. On TikTok – where she is followed by 1.7 million people – users began using “Do you listen to Girl in Red?” as code for “Are you gay?” Ulven cottoned on to the trend, putting posters with the slogan in countries such as Brazil, Poland and Russia, “places where gay rights are not moving in the right direction, and we made it a really cool moment,” she enthuses. “If my songs can in any way shape or form normalise queerness then that’s amazing.” She is optimistic on the subject, foreseeing a future where “coming out” – a duty only queer people are lumbered with – is no longer necessary. “I think in the next 40 years we’re going to see a big difference. I listened to this podcast that said a lot of people feel like there’s no threshold [any more], there’s nothing to come out of. I think we’re moving in the right direction for that, at least in some places in the world.”

Ulven is thankful that she grew up in a liberal country, but her home town of Horten, in eastern Norway, felt stifling in other ways. Excitement was hard to come by: she occupied herself by writing songs after being turned on to guitar music in her mid-teens by the film The Perks of Being a Wallflower (“I went from full-on basic bitch to full-on indie girl”), although she also attributes the lo-fi, C86 style of her early work to her limited production abilities. Now, however, Ulven’s music is free from restraints and her superb upcoming debut album If I Could Make It Go Quiet – which she wrote almost entirely herself, and also produced with help from Matias Tellez and Finneas – flits between synthpop, R&B, new wave, rap and piano balladry: “I don’t fuck with genres, but who does any more? I made it, that’s the uniting thing.”

Whether her theme is desire or depression, Ulven’s personal voice is characterised by stark, specific honesty. She belongs to a new wave of young artists determined to counter empty empowerment anthems with warts-and-all vulnerability – not that Ulven likes the term’s connotations of weakness or exposure. “I don’t feel like I’m being really vulnerable because these are things that we all go through. There’s nothing to expose about feeling heartbroken.”

In person, Ulven’s openness doesn’t translate into heart-on-sleeve earnestness, but rather a constant stream of droll, self-effacing humour. She cracks jokes reflexively, peering wryly out from beneath a cap-and-hood combination, and veers between accents: her own impeccable American one (learned from her mother, who grew up in Seattle); typical Norwegian-English; and an impressive if slightly regionally confused British. It’s a characteristic, too, of her Twitter feed, where she shares offbeat stream-of-consciousness admissions, such as the fact that she wore nappies at night until she was seven. She shakes her head at the mention. “I used to tear myself down over that shit, I was like: ‘I’m not worth anything because I wear diapers.’” She feels sharing something like that means “you’re owning your embarrassments. It’s good to make fun of stuff that was uncomfortable at some point. It’s the same way about heartbreak, it’s so much easier to talk about when you’re way past it. I’m past diapers now, I’ve come to that point.”

These emotional exorcisms have paid dividends commercially. Ulven was recently announced as Spotify’s latest Radar artist: cue huge support and publicity from the streaming giant, where her monthly listeners are almost at the 10 million mark. But there are drawbacks to the ballooning popularity. It means she can no longer engage in one-to-one therapy sessions with her devoted fans: “I don’t have the emotional capacity to help 1,000 people with their broken hearts, unfortunately.” Plus, she is so in-demand that a day of back-to-back interviews has left little time for toilet breaks and we circle back to urinary issues. “I feel like I’m about to pee myself,” she groans. “Oh my God, my bladder literally hurts!” No matter where her music takes her, you get the impression that Ulven will always remain her relentlessly, gratifyingly candid self.

Girl in Red’s album If I Could Make It Go Quiet is released on 30 April on World in Red/AWAL.

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