As bedroom rock alter-ego girl in red, Norwegian musician Marie Ulven has become a firm Gen Z favourite for straight-from-the-heart songs dealing candidly with mental health and sexuality. Starting back in 2018 with queer anthems “i wanna be your girlfriend” and “girls” — dealing candidly and relatably with the giddy, desperate highs of adolescent love — the singer-songwriter quickly became a favourite with a young wave of LGBTQIA+ music fans, all looking for lyrics that speak to the wonder of first romance and unrequited love.
At the time of writing, the 22-year-old musician has almost two million followers on TikTok, a social media platform where the question “Do you listen to girl in red?” became a shorthand (and inside joke) for “Are you queer?”. However, Ulven’s debut album if i could make it go quiet, dealt less with traditional lyrical themes of love and romantic longing and more with the storm of anxiety, depression and self-esteem that the young artist had come up against at the time of writing. For many it would be hard to bare these innermost thoughts — mental health-wise, romantically or otherwise — to the world but, for Ulven, it’s all a part of the process: “Being honest is just part of making a good song.”
Good to meet you! I hear you’re fresh from playing ACL Festival over in the States. What’s it like being back playing live after such a long time in lockdown?
It’s been really cool and fun. It’s kind of weird to not be home, I miss my dog and my girl. My mom and my sister just moved into a new apartment without me, which feels weird, but it’s really cool to be able to be on the road, see my fans and feel that this is real and isn’t just a weird thing that I talk about but [which is] not really happening. It’s good to be back and live life.
What’s your favourite thing about touring?
Probably playing a show where the crowd goes absolutely [wild], that’s always really fun. And I just like seeing cool buildings and stuff that inspires me that I would never be able to see back home. It gets static and flat if you don’t do other stuff. I love my life back home so I’m very happy with the static parts of that life as well, because it’s stable, and I think structure is really important in a person’s life. I might be starting to become a person who likes to stay home and who enjoys that stable life. Because I was really thriving throughout 2020 and in 2021, I’ve also been thriving like crazy, building my life back home.
And what does thriving look like to you?
For me, it’s just not spiralling into shit, into a mental breakdown or into feeling like I have a lot of anxiety. I still have anxiety but I’ve been a little bit more stable now, which I really appreciate. I don’t take that for granted. Every day that I’m not spiralling, I’m thriving. I set the bar really low…
Mental wellbeing is certainly an important measure of success, for sure. On a different note, you’ve maintained your independence throughout your career: why is that important to you?
Being independent hasn’t really been something that’s been important to me. What’s been important to me is not being tied down and still being able to have flexible deals and make music at my own pace. I own all of my music, I own all my masters, I own everything. [With] remaining indie to this point, it’s really just what the options have been for me and what my values are, and my core values are still all the same when it comes to my music project. It’s really not that I want to be indie because I think it’s cool to be indie. It’s more like what are my options, what’s my ambition and how can I keep this as real and as true to myself?
What are some of the lessons that you’re learning as you get older and you’ve spent more time in the industry?
One thing that I haven’t been so good at is just saying no and being like, “I don’t like this” or “No, I don’t want to be put in the situation again.” Saying no is the most valuable thing you can do to remain true to who you are but being able to say no is really difficult. In some ways, I’m a people pleaser, because I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. It takes a lot for me to be like, “I don’t like this.” So that’s something I’ve learned and something I have to re-learn and never forget.
You’ve mentioned struggling with anxiety and staying true to yourself so, I’m wondering, how do you relate to your fans? Having that kind of following must come with a lot of pressure and expectations.
I want everyone to like my stuff and everyone to listen to my music. That’s the main focus. I’m not feeling any pressure from my fans or from other people, but from myself. Typical imposter syndrome, [the idea] that I don’t know how to make music, the type of pressure that I’ve always had. Even before I had anyone listening to my music, I thought that I didn’t know how to make music and I would never ever be able to make a good song again. Since then, I’ve made probably four albums of music that aren’t out yet. I just need to stop having so much self-doubt, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because I feel like I’m always going to doubt myself.
Where does that imposter syndrome come from? From having an unconventional route into the music industry?
I think it’s just me being scared of not being able to make music. When I listen back to my album, I’m like, “Who made this? It wasn’t me because I don’t understand how I made it.” The fact that I’ve made [that album] and the fact that I wrote everything, is just so insane to me. It’s just a part of being a creative person.
Of course, sharing your creative work is always going to be pretty nerve-wracking. Amid the anxiety, what brings you joy in your life?
Making music brings me joy. Hanging out with friends is like my new hobby, I’ve never had that. I’ve never felt like I’ve had any really good friends up until the past four years. I know one person from my hometown, he’s not even from my hometown, he just went to the same high school. I don’t really know anyone from that period of my life. I just didn’t connect with anyone in the way that I connect with people now. People I meet now bring me so much joy and I feel like they like me for who I am. My dog also brings me a lot of joy. I really miss her right now so it’s bringing me a lot of pain that I can’t see her. Honestly everything in life brings me joy, pretty much. I love morning coffee. I love dinner. I love a good night’s sleep. Yeah, I love everything.
Finding joy in the small things is a good approach, definitely. As a final question, I’ve been wondering what it takes out of you to be so raw, lyrically, particularly on the last album and with the mental health themes there. Is it hard putting your innermost thoughts into a song and releasing it out into the world?
WhenI wrote those songs, that’s what came to mind. When it’s just me writing, I’m not thinking about anyone hearing it. I’m thinking, “How can I make this the best song?” Or, “How can I feel interested by my own song?” Then I just write about stuff that feels honest and true to something that I’ve experienced or something that I’ve learned. Being honest is just part of making a good song, in my opinion.
Stay tuned across the rest of this week where girl in red will be sharing culture faves and more.