Girl In Red On Why She’ll Never Buy Clothes Again

PHOTO COURTESY JULIE PIKE

Whatever melancholic vibes that emit from musician Girl In Red‘s heartfelt, hazy pop music are quickly rerouted by Marie Ulven’s frank outlook on a range of topics, such as sexuality, politics, and climate change—and, like most of her generation, how they’re intertwined. Over Zoom, writer Owen Myers spoke with the Norwegian artist on creating during quarantine and her green approach to merch and touring.

INTERVIEW BY OWEN MYERS

In the hands of Girl In Red, bedroom pop’s most well-worn traits feel fresh. Recently, she had to clarify that the sounds in her new single “Midnight Love” are not synths, but in fact a plucked guitar, distorted to pulse like the neon lights of an ’80s arcade game.

 

She laughs while telling me this over a Zoom call from Oslo this May; she didn’t mind the mistake. The Norwegian artist (a.k.a. 21-year old Marie Ulven) has attracted a devoted following for her honest, melancholic DIY pop, which she writes and produces alone. Her music dovetails between indie styles but is rooted in a deep understanding of melody; she once wrote a college paper on the Scandi pop demi-god Max Martin.

 

Ulven’s Super-8 style music videos and jangly guitars have put a nostalgic filter on the music of her two EPs to date, which she put out digitally as well as on eco-friendly recycled vinyl. But her lyrics chronicle mental health struggles, the search for identity, and queer lust with an ultra-modern flair. (It’s no surprise that her music has blown up on TikTok.) The sun-kissed “Girls,” perhaps her catchiest song, describes the knotty feelings around confessing a lesbian crush, even given that Norway is one of the world’s safest countries. “I shouldn’t be feeling this / But it’s too hard to resist / Soft skin and soft lips,” she insists, her voice piercing through jangly guitar. Later, she is decisive: “This is what I like.”

 

Her new single contains the racket of construction sounds; the sample mirrors Ulven’s searching lyrics and renders self-improvement as a multi-sensory panorama. (You think of Billie Eilish using a dental drill sample to evoke destructive thoughts.) With her debut album due next year, Girl In Red chatted with Atmos about creativity in quarantine, her green approach to touring, and her determination to make her music “global.”

Owen Myers

How has your time in quarantine been, Marie? Is it a time that you can be creative and work on music or do you feel consumed by the weirdness of the time?

Girl In Red

It’s been fairly good. Norway is sort of, like… I was about to say “letting loose,” but that sounds very party-ish. Things are being less restricted now. We’re opening up bars again, which is [for] some reason the first priority here. Things are getting better and quarantine has also been better for me. How are you?

 

My life in general isn’t that far away from what this is right now. Obviously, I had a lot of touring planned, and this whole year is canceled in a way. But I’ve definitely been turning it into a positive energy rather than being like, “Oh my god, 2020 is canceled.” I’d rather just be grateful for this time so that I can make more music. Also, I’ve been getting into a lot more types of clothing, and I’ve been getting into different styles of photography. I’m embracing it in a creative way rather than focusing on what I’m missing out on.

Owen

I heard that you were making different merch for every song on your new album?

Girl In Red

Well, that’s a work in progress idea. But I definitely want to do an outfit or something that can capture the feeling of the album, or do some cool pieces. So, it’s not going to be merch necessarily, because I want to make one-of-a-kind pieces that are made out of recycled materials. It’s more like, I want to make a collection, a clothing collection—because I feel like music and clothes, and all the different art forms are so connected, really. You know, there’s deconstructed clothing with [an] industrial feeling, [with] different fabrics. You can do so much of that with music. Like, my new song has, literally, construction sounds in it. I just feel this weird connection between everything. So, that’s the main theme: exploration.

Owen

Why is it important for you to use recycled materials?

Girl In Red

Because the food industry and the fashion industry are [among] the two worst factors [of] global warming. And I just don’t want to contribute to that, even though I don’t think I would ever be able to, just because I’m not a big fast-fashion house. But I want to leave a small carbon footprint—or maybe nothing.

 

All my clothes are used. I’m getting rid of every single new piece of clothing I had. Like, “new” that I bought four years ago. I’m not intrigued by new clothes for some reason.

Owen

I liked what you said about your new song “Midnight Love” having imperfections, like construction sounds. How did they come about—were those sounds just happening while you were making music?

Girl In Red

The process for this song has been really interesting because the lyrics are about working on yourself. It’s about trying to get out of depression, and to work on yourself, and realizing how much hard work that is. I think that’s some of the hardest shit ever. And there are some lyrics that are like, “I’ll make it work / Brush off the dirt / Get off the kerb / I’ll do the work.” I just realized that working on yourself is really hard work, and therefore I was hearing construction sounds; I was just hearing sounds that represent working. There’s also these cool distorted elements to the sounds, and I think that also aligns with the distorted mind I tend to have.

Owen

You have songs with dark, soul-searching themes like “Summer Depression” and “I’ll Die Anyway.” Is it clarifying for you to write about those feelings?

Girl In Red

Definitely post them happening; post-experiencing them. “I’ll Die Anyway”—that’s something that comes back to me sometimes, that type of feeling. But it definitely feels clearing to understand something and writing about it feels like it’s more tangible. [It’s] like writing a journal, writing about what you’re about to do today. I think something written down is automatically much easier for a brain to process. So even though I’m usually writing about something when I’ve already processed it and I know why I felt that way and understand myself more, it’s still good to get it out of your system.

Owen

Your single “Girls” came out during Pride Month last year. For me it felt like a breath of fresh air because Pride Month can be quite commercial and heavily branded.

Girl In Red

Definitely.

Owen

Are you conscious of wanting to provide an alternative to the more commercial side of Pride?

Girl In Red

Not really. “Girls” actually came out two years ago, but it wasn’t until last year that I came to that realization of how people are trying to make money from a movement. And actually not doing anything [to help] apart from in the month of June. So, at that time, I only put it out because I felt I had something to say. And I didn’t know that Pride Month was a concept before… I set the date for the song to come out, but I was a baby gay! I didn’t know that Pride Month was a thing, although I definitely knew there was Pride. So that was just random for it to come out at that time, but it was also a fun coincidence. I mean, I had a silly pun, like, “My new song is coming out on June 8, 2018!” But I definitely don’t want to make money on [it].

Owen

You don’t want to exploit the movement?

Girl In Red

No. And I think that’s impossible for me anyway, because I’m not a big corporation. I don’t have a logo that I can make Pride-colored.

Owen

Is it nerve-wracking to put out music and videos that are explicitly queer?

Girl In Red

No, it’s not nerve-wracking at all. It’s the most normal thing for me ever. I think the only time I’m scared about my loud queerness is in the U.S., and I’m just scared because there’s a lot of lunatics there. And I mean, there’s lunatics everywhere! But they’re being really fucking loud in the U.S. I mean, I don’t ever think about being gay… So it really isn’t a big deal for me, which is a privilege itself. I’m just really privileged to be in the safest country in the world, where I’m able to not think about being gay.

Owen

Is it frustrating to be a queer artist, and have “Queer Artist Girl In Red” in a headline?

Girl In Red

In the beginning I was like, “Fuck yeah.” But now I’m like, “Fuck, no!” I know I’m a queer artist, but it’s getting old. If I could have a message about this, it would be: “Sexuality, or your sexual orientation specifically, doesn’t matter.” I hate genres, I hate labels—I love fluidity. I just love existing. Stop trying to put everything in a box. That isn’t a very new or wild thought. A lot of people think the same. I just feel like when a lot of people focus on my sexuality rather than my music, that literally contradicts what I want to say.

Owen

You’ve touched on so many personal details in your music, like mental health, queerness, love, and trying to figure out your own identity. What other parts of yourself do you still have to share?

Girl In Red

There’s still a lot more coming out. I mean, a person is so complex. You really can’t narrow a person down to 12 songs, which is what I have on Spotify… I’ve had a lot of different realizations in the past year that I’m putting into my music.

Owen

What kind of realizations?

Girl In Red

This past year I’ve had some health issues, which I’m not going to go into. But that made me realize—and it sounds so silly—that I’m a person. Like, I’m actually a physical human being on this planet. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that. Like, they know they’re a person, and everybody knows they’re human, but I think that’s the type of realization you get when you get older—when you start getting wrinkles, and your body starts feeling different to who you really are. You don’t really feel like a person with wrinkles, because you feel like Marie (or you feel like Owen). If you have cancer, you don’t identify as a person with cancer. You’re still Owen, but something is happening to your body that you can’t decide… But that has been really hard for me.

 

I’m working on a song right now called “Body and Mind,” and I literally just have the instrumental and the first line, which is like, “I’ve been in the deep end since I realized / That there is a difference between body and mind.” It’s just really scary knowing that you’re a person, and shit can happen to your body and you still feel the same. So that’s something that I’m exploring right now.

Owen

You’re passionate about the environment and partnered with CHOOOSE last year to offset carbon emissions from your touring. What do you think is preventing more musicians from doing this?

Girl In Red

They don’t know the opportunity is there, I think. Most musicians right now are fairly young, hip people. I feel like musicians in general are not the conservative type. I’ve never met a musician that’s like, “I fucking vote for Trump.” I don’t think that person exists. Maybe it does, some Republican writing about Trump and Jesus… I don’t know if that’s a thing. But there’s still a lot of weird shit going on in the world. I just think that people need to be educated and informed. You know, I made my vinyl out of recycled material… People just need to actively search for opportunities.

Owen

What’s the most rewarding part of being Girl In Red to you?

Girl In Red

All the millions of dollars! No, the most rewarding part is probably making music. It’s a super easy, cheesy answer, but I just love making music so much. And even though inspiration comes in ups and downs, it’s not always an easy job, and there’s a lot of different sides to being a musician that you don’t really know when you start getting into it. You think you’re going to go on tour and it’s going to be really fun, and you’re going to be with your friends, but it’s actually really hard work. You burn out and it’s tiring as fuck. And at the end of the day, I know I will get home and be able to make music, and make something that truly excites me and gives me meaning in my life. I think that’s the most rewarding thing.

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