Meet Girl in Red, the Norwegian DIY Pop Savant Plotting Her 2020 'World Domination'

Girl in Red
Julie Pike

Girl in Red

Marie Ulven is excited that she finally has a tour bus — on her last tour of the United States, the singer, better known by her stage name Girl in Red, was traveling across the country in a van. But this time around, she can actually sleep on the road as she travels to bigger venues this year. "It feels like a big step up," she says.

There's good reason why Ulven is seeing an upgrade as of late; as Girl in Red, the 20-year-old Norwegian up-and-comer has seen her bedroom pop songs gradually gain more and more attention throughout the world, culminating in her latest EP Chapter 2. A collection of lo-fi  jams she's released throughout 2019, Chapter 2 sees Ulven coming into her own as the latest in a long lineage of Norway's pop prodigies (a la Sigrid, Aurora, Astrid S and many more), while also standing out from the crowd with her guitar-driven pop-rock sound.

But for her, the only thing that matters is making soulful pop songs that are 100 percent her own. Not only does the singer make extremely relatable music about everyday emotions (feeling anxious at a party and needing alone time are just two examples), but every song Ulven releases is self-written, self-produced and self-released. "I don't feel like I own my music if I haven't made it," she says. "I could never do that to myself, because then it's not directly from me. If I do all of the things on the song, then it is mine."

Ulven spoke to Billboard ahead of the release of her new EP about owning her sound, why she loves Twitter, her dream of working with Billie Eilish and much more.

This is new EP is called Chapter 2, after your Chapter 1 EP. Why did you want these EPs to be called "chapters"?

I think I came up with the idea last year for Chapter 1. I made songs that whole year and put them out, and it didn't really feel like an EP in the sense of like, “I've made this as a cohesive sort of body of work.” So I felt like Chapter 1 was a nice way to sort of wrap a year up.

This year has sort of been a continuation of last year, because I have just been producing and writing and putting songs out now, and it doesn't really feel like I’ve been in an album mode, or that idea of an EP that is very conceptual. It's just the music that I've made, and so I just called it Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, because that makes sense. Like, this is one year, this is the second year.

You've said that Chapter 1 dealt mainly with heartbreak and its consequences in life. With this being a continuation, as you said, how has that message evolved?

It's all about what's been going on in my own life, you know? So, Chapter 1 was a lot of being sad because I was in love with this girl who didn't like me back. Theme-wise, I feel like a lot of the songs have similar themes, because a lot of things that happened this year are pretty similar things to what happened last year, but in different situations. So it's some love, and some mental health stuff. Like, "I'll Die Anyway" is about how I  have this dark take on life. "Watch You Sleep” is about loving someone really deeply. So it's all kind of the same things, just in different situations and head spaces.

Something I love about your work is that you are truly independent -- you write, record and produce all of your own music by yourself. Is that by design, or would you be open to signing to a label?

How I am working now as an artist is all by choice. There has definitely been labels saying that they really want to work with me, and [my manager] has gotten messages from some of the biggest labels out there. But I still choose to continue working as I do right now, because it just feels right to not have all of these people telling me what my sound should be. To be honest, I don't know what Girl in Red is yet, and I don't want other people to try and tell me, "We know what you are, so we're going to help you find out who you are." I just don't like having that noise from other people. 

We found AWAL [Kobalt Music's recorded music company], where you can release music on your own and they don't have a say. They just help you put it out, and that feels really good. It all still feels like me, then -- because if it doesn't feel like me, then what's the point?

Is there any part of you that views that ownership you have over your work as a business decision as well as a creative one?

I've never really thought of it that way, to be honest. I don't feel like I own my music if I haven't made it. If I wrote a song with 10 people -- some people do that, and that works for them, but for me, that just feels not true at all. I could never do that to myself, because then it's not directly from me. If I do all of the things on the song, then it is mine. I made this and I put time and effort into it. I really connect with my music because of my ownership of it, and it feels very real to me. Like "Bad Idea," I wrote that, I produced it, I recorded it, I released it. And that's so powerful to me! 

Authenticity seems really important to you, and you've made a name for yourself as someone who makes very authentically queer songs. What has been the best thing you've seen come from your very real, very frank portrayals of queerness in your music?

There's this whole wave going on where people are connecting to people because they're real people. You get what I mean? My connection with the people listening to my music feels more real, and I feel like it's going to last more than just, like, some superficial sort of glittery, fancy personality. Being honest always lasts! Isn't there a term for that? There's a Norwegian phrase about truth lasting longer than something that's not authentic.

What's great is that [my fans] know who I am now. So if they like who I am now, then they're gonna like who I am even if things start to change. I feel like I can just be whatever now, because they know me, and then they can join the journey! It's so cool.

Well my favorite way you do connect with those fans is on Twitter -- you are hilarious on Twitter. How do you feel about Twitter as a tool for an artist, and as a platform for self-expression?

Twitter is basically another state of mind, and I actually really like the energy on Twitter. There, I can just say the most spontaneous things. But Twitter in Norway is dead! There is nothing, Twitter basically doesn't exist in Norway. So since it's not really a thing in Norway, I have this weird approach to it where I just don't really care what I put out there. There's no pressure there -- Instagram is a place where I shouldn't care, but it's so easy to care about what you put out. I don't have that relationship with Twitter. It's also really fun to see people saying things about me that they think I'll never see. [Laughs.]

From your point of view, how do you fit into Norway’s music scene today?

There's definitely some more interesting bands now out there -- I have some really good friends and they have a band called Brenn., which is a little bit, like, almost rock-pop, which is so exciting. Because everything in Norway right now is hip-hop, and I don't really like hip-hop, to be honest. So, I don't really know where I fit in there. I feel like I'm the new girl on the scene in Norway.

I feel like I'm in a weird limbo state right now. We have people like Boy Pablo, and we have this other cool artist called Jakob Ogawa who makes really soft, synth-y, guitar/bedroom pop right now. I actually don't know what to call their stuff -- I don't really like labels, or any things that are putting people in boxes. Like, when people ask me what music I make, I'm just like, "I don't know!" That's why I say pop, because that's just such a big term, it could be anything.

Yeah, the idea of "pop" has definitely become a very subjective genre, where you can pretty much put that label on almost any sound. 

Yeah, plus, pop music is the only term that I have ever understood, because I have never really understood genres. I don't know about music theory or anything, I just know that pop music is good for my ears and I like it. It has melodies and harmonies which is what I'm into.

But yes, anyways, music in Norway! I don't know what's going on there, I'll just say I am the greatest, most exciting thing that's ever happened to Norway. [Laughs.] That is not a serious statement, by the way!

What artist in the world are you dying to collaborate with at the moment?

Oh, definitely Finneas and Billie Eilish. I met Finneas at Pukkelpop, which is a festival in Belgium. He is so nice, and he smelled really good, also. He was wearing pajamas... well, they're not pajamas, but they kind of looked like them, he wears them on stage. His production is next level! He puts a lot of real-world sounds in his songs with Billie, and that's so cool. Like, on "You Should See Me In a Crown," there's like a sword sound throughout it, and it's so rad. He's super cool and super exciting, and Billie Eilish is rad as fuck. I would want to work with both of them, or either.

So with Chapter 2 out and your U.S. tour kicking off, what's next for you?

Oh, I had a creative epiphany this year, man. Next up, I've got some next-level shit. I'm gonna... I can't say much, but it is at least going to take over the world. It's so good, my idea is so good. I have a worldwide hit song in my head, so I'm fully planning on world domination, it's gonna be World in Red, album in 2020. You can quote me on that.