Cashmere Cat & MØ on Their Nordic Roots, Unlikely Paths to Stardom & Joint MEØW Tour

Karen Marie Ørsted Andersen and Magnus August Høiberg grew up, respectively, in Ejstrup, Denmark and Halden, Norway -- only 350 miles apart. But a recent conference call with the left-field electro pop stars better known as and Cashmere Cat linked them from a distance of 5600 miles and nine time zones.

Ørsted is at home in Denmark, where she’s spent the holidays visiting family and friends, while Høiberg is in sunny Los Angeles. Billboard is in something of a geographic midpoint -- New York, where it’s 20 degrees outside and at least six inches of now-grey snow is piled up on the ground. They both love that. “It’s colder in New York than it is in Scandinavia!” Ørsted tells me, while Høiberg has a laugh. “I feel your pain, man,” says Høiberg. “I lived in New York for so long, but now I’ve become that guy. I’m actually one of those guys on the phone, wearing one of those little wireless headsets pacing outside a coffee shop in L.A. right now, waiting for my girlfriend to order some crazy coffee concoction. I’m that guy in flip flops.”

The snowbird and his fellow Scandinavian had to rustle up their warm coats over this weekend, though, for the Jan. 20 Montréal launch of the cleverly named MEØW Tour of North America, which unites the longtime friends as co-headliners. The show will showcase a string of hits on which Cashmere Cat and MØ have appeared, either as lead artists, featured guests, writers, producers or remixers. The two are kindred spirits -- outsider envelope pushers who’ve each found themselves at music’s A-list table thanks to a series of connections and collaborations over time.

MØ is the very embodiment of pop-punk, who proudly cites the Spice Girls and Kim Gordon among her formative heroes. The reflexively free spirit released her debut album No Mythologies to Follow in 2014, and last October, a moody, follow-up EP When I Was Young. In between? A dose of rocket fuel was added to MØ’s career compliments of Diplo. With appearances on Major Lazer’s gigantic, ubiquitous singles “Lean On” with DJ Snake in 2015 and “Cold Water” with Justin Bieber in 2016, MØ was suddenly in the realm of stratospheric streams and views, and racked up huge numbers with her own singles, “Final Song,” “Drum” and “Nights With You,” as well as Ørsted’s 2017 collaboration with Snakehips “Don’t Leave."

For his part, Cashmere Cat first made his mark representing Norway in World DJ Championships as turntablist DJ Final, turned toward bedroom electronics with his affecting debut EP Mirror Maru, but he too found a champion in Midas-touch writer and producer Benny Blanco. Blanco opened some doors, but it was Høiberg’s gifts that carried him through, and as he morphed from insular into a more alt-R&B and hip-hop space, his resume became ridiculously star-studded: he has collabs with Ariana Grande (“Adore”), Kanye West (“Wolves”), Halsey (“Hopeless”), Charli XCX, The Weeknd, Ryn Weaver, Francis and the Lights, G-Eazy and Tory Lanez. For his long-awaited debut album 9, out last spring, Høiberg called on many of those friends and others for features, including Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello, and, on the single “9 (After Coachella),” the genre-bending SOPHIE and his old pal MØ. They’ll soon be doing the song live night after night, and we talked to Høiberg and Ørsted about the MEØW tour, their Nordic roots -- similar, but different -- and navigating their winding careers in millennial pop.

How did you two first meet?

: I don’t know, I think the first time I met Magnus was in Australia, maybe at the Field Day festival or something. I got some beats from you in 2012 and stuff, right? But I don’t think we met until the end of ’13? At the festival?

Cashmere Cat: Yeah I don’t really know. You know, like those people you have in your life who’ve kind of always been there and you’re not sure how they even found their way to your house? They just keep showing up at your house? I feel like that’s the way it was with Karen, I can’t even tell when it was. It was just a constant.

: Yeah, I just remember knocking at your door and saying hi and I was super nervous! And like just knocking at a festival somewhere, and I think it was Field Day. Again it was something where we had been communicating and I just wanted to say hi. Or maybe you did it to my room, I don’t remember but it was something like that.

CC: And then I remember you came to my house once and we were both kinda nervous and it only lasted like 15 minutes! But then we’ve just been hanging out a lot since then.

Is doing a tour together something you’ve talked about for a long time?

CC: Me and Karen talking about working together is something that goes back almost to like the very start of my career as Cashmere Cat. I remember like in the first six months I was talking to Karen on some like weird shit like MySpace. And me and Karen had songs like five years ago that we did together!

MØ: I still have some on my computer! I think I’ve always wanted to do a collab tour with Cashie, but I think I was always just too scared to ask about something like that. And so luckily our management was like, “Hey, let’s do it!” And then I was like, “This is a dream come true. Let’s do that.”

There may be no single question that Karen Ørsted has had to answer more since her debut single as MØ five years ago than “So, how do you pronounce your name?” That Scandinavian ø is a tricky one for Anglophones, and it’s an issue once again with the stylization of the name of the MEØW Tour. Høiberg (who, despite having a feline stage name, says he is decidedly not a cat person) has his ongoing issues with having the letter in his surname -- particularly when he travels.

CC: It’s a little confusing, how to say it. But in general the way you say this letter is “uu-ah." Karen, is it really bad for you when you go to the airport? Like when you go to check in? Because the ø looks really cool, but they can never find my reservation anywhere. So it’s a nightmare whenever you try to do anything where you have a reservation and you have this letter, your life sucks.

: Oh, well, I have another last name, Andersen. So I just use that.

A Norwegian friend of mine said recently that he thinks that Norway sees Denmark as kind of cooler and more European. Would you say that’s true?

CC: Well, Norwegian people are really stuck up. Danish people are like our cooler brother. He’s having sex, he’s drinking lots of cheaper beer, having like naughtier food, but he’s happier than Norwegians.

: But Norwegian people, you’re tough. You have all the muscles, and you know how to survive in the cold without anything!

You’re both from smaller towns, right?

CC: Yeah and I think there’s like somewhat of an understanding of the world that you have when you grow up in like -- cause even though we make fun of each other, like Danish and Norwegian people, it’s so similar, and it’s so different from like where I live now, where I am now. And I think there’s something very easy and safe to connect with someone who comes from a similar place, like Scandinavia. You have some weird thing in common that lets you know that who you are is really absurd.  

The connection between the two is apparent in the witty video for Cashmere Cat’s “9 (After Coachella).” Released last April, its inspired, droll subtitles offer a window into their outlooks and backgrounds. It also was a rare look, for many fans, at Høiberg, who’s famously kept a low profile over time -- in his early days as Cashmere Cat he barely showed his face at all. But for someone with such a shy reputation, once you get him going, he’s a talker, and he’s often hilarious.

CC: I don’t know why I felt so comfortable in this video. Usually I’m so shy, like I don’t want to show my face, I don’t want to do anything. But for some reason with the people involved, and then when Karen agreed to do it too. It just felt really easy and natural, you know? But I’m super happy with it. And I’m happy Karen did it too, she showed so much of herself too. That’s like the most intimate thing you can show about yourself is kind of where you come from, and what it looks like, and some kind of funny, embarrassing story from when you were kid or something.

: Yeah, it was so nice that we did that together in way, because then it felt like, it didn't feel intimidating. Also because we do come from sort of the same kind of background.

From 2013 on, Cashmere Cat’s collaborative schedule became increasingly packed, and it wasn't until three years later that he was able to finish his excellent 9, which besides “After Coachella” included such highlights as the sublime “Quit” with Ariana Grande, and “Night Night,” featuring Kehlani. Likewise, MØ’s When I Was Young EP revealed a more personal, grittier side, but she’s had to back-burner a second solo LP, as opportunities for more collaborations, tours and festivals abound. But neither artist seems pressed to a hard and fast schedule to get out their “own” records out.

CC: I guess I haven’t put that much thought into it. I guess I try to do whatever feels right. And for a really long time the thought of getting away from just me and my own computer and working with other people, and people I’ve looked up to for so long, was definitely more exciting than just sitting down and making like really beautiful harp and flute music on my own. But I really just try to do whatever feels most exciting in the moment. I think it’s all really exciting. I think I am just as excited as when I have a song of my own come out, and I think the fact that you can be an artist on the internet where it’s not this thing where it’s just all about your big projects. But it’s more just a constant flow of creativity. I think that’s where my head is more at, and I think that’s where every listener’s head is at and I think that’s why music is so exciting right now.

: I think for me, after the whole success of “Lean On” I think in a way I was kind of a bit paralyzed. You know, in a good way, but it was like all this stuff happened, and all of a sudden all these things happened and I although I do write a lot of songs all the time, but I’ve never been like, “The album’s almost done. I’m almost there.” But the things is, and I’m pretty happy that I feel like this actually, but I don’t wanna put out something unless I feel it with like every fiber in my body. And I think I just wasn't ready. I wasn't there quite yet. It took me a bit longer. And I guess with the success of all these things, all of that just put a bigger pressure on the whole thing. And being under pressure is not a good place to be when you make music. So that also made me not stall the process, but that just made the whole thing take a little bit longer. For better or worse, because I am happy with all these things that I have done in these years.

CC: I think also that being an artist these days is a very different game than it was a few years ago. I think listeners now are a lot smarter in that they don’t just go look up your album. It’s like, when I produce a song for someone, the people that listen to my music will go and listen to that song as if it’s one of my releases, or if I’m featured on a song, they will still listen to the song as if it’s a Cashmere Cat song. Or when Karen is featured on a song, all her fans will go to and listen to and love a song she’s featured on as much as her own. I think the thing with collaborating is it allows you to have a lot more consistent output than just putting out an album every two years. I think kids these days don’t give a shit if it’s track number 8 on your album, of if it’s a song featuring three other people. They’ll just listen to it, and they’ll hear Karen’s voice and go, “Oh I love Karen’s music,” you know?

Cashmere Cat and MØ’s MEØW Tour runs through Feb. 18.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Billboard.