Norway’s most candid pop star Girl in Red: ‘One journalist asked me what meds I’m on’

It’s been six years since Marie Ulven’s lovesick anthem ‘I wanna be your girlfriend’ anointed her not just the next big thing in pop, but a queer icon for Gen Z. Over a hearty breakfast ahead of her stellar second album, she chats with Annabel Nugent about insecurities, nosy journalists, and finally crawling out of her ‘depression rabbit hole’ – for now, at least

Saturday 13 April 2024 06:08 BST
Girl in Red (aka Marie Ulven Ringheim) shot to fame after her lovesick tune ‘i wanna be your girlfriend’ was discovered on Soundcloud
Girl in Red (aka Marie Ulven Ringheim) shot to fame after her lovesick tune ‘i wanna be your girlfriend’ was discovered on Soundcloud (Isak Jenssen)

What do you do when, having made your name writing sad indie-pop songs about depression, you find yourself suddenly happy? This question niggled at Norwegian singer-songwriter Marie Ulven as she began work on her second album. After all, it’s her music about mental disturbance, queer yearning and macabre intrusive thoughts that racks up 17 million monthly listeners on Spotify, her songs about feeling unloved and unwell that took her from Soundcloud obscurity to on tour with Taylor Swift.

“All of my music has been these sad mental health-y songs so when I was in a better place, it was like… Oh no, I’m happy,” the 25-year-old says. We’re chatting in London over a “champion’s breakfast” of sausage, hash browns, mushrooms, beans, bacon, and toast. “There’s no avocado, right?” she says, turning to the waiter in a quiet corner of an east London hotel. “It’s a new allergy. I ate a ton in Mexico and s*** my pants for three days.”

Approaching her new record, out today, Ulven – who records music under the moniker Girl in Red – attempted to tap into her tried-and-true headspace of despair, but to no avail. There was no denying her newfound happiness. “It is what it is, ya know?” Ulven rolls her vowels out into a California skater drawl to match her oversized plaid shirt and baggy jeans. Happily, it turns out the whole tortured artist shtick is a myth, anyway. I’m Doing It Again Baby! is an excellent follow-up that builds on the arena ambitions of her impressive alt-pop debut while never sacrificing emotional specificity or textural oddities.

Ulven floats in on the wistful opener: “I’m back, I feel like myself,” she sings, voice light as helium. “I was gone for a minute ’cause I went to get help.” The mood is drifting and uplifting, all delicate strings and a fairy dusting of percussion. “I was so far down in my depression rabbit hole that I didn’t see the beauty of having fun, and then this song is about coming back to myself after years of not feeling like myself,” she tells me. “But honestly, I’m kind of entering that era again. I feel like I’m back to not knowing who I am anymore.”

It’s a surprising confession, given that backsliding doesn’t quite fit into the neat PR narrative of recovery and redemption accompanying the release, but Ulven is all about messy emotions. Depression isn’t something you can be done with. You can’t just tie it up with a bow. “I wish,” she laughs.

At times, Ulven seems to be the most confident person in the room. She has a natural ease to her, evident in the way she sits and how easily she’ll tell a stranger about her three days of avocado-induced diarrhoea. There is an ironic confidence, too, in the way she confesses her deepest fears without hesitation.

Her new album isn't unlike her personality, in fact. It swings wildly between the cocky strut of its grandiose indie-rock title track and the bone-deep insecurity of “Pick Me”, which more closely recalls 2021’s If I Could Make It Go Quiet, an album that wore its sadness like a bruise for all to see: tender and tough.

Ulven wrote that first record followed after a Norwegian music site cottoned on to her Soundcloud page and featured her song “I wanna be your girlfriend”. Like much of Ulven’s early material, it fits more squarely with the gauzy lo-fi bedroom pop of the time: a lovesick two-chord guitar tune played in 4/4. What differentiated the song was how casually Ulven deployed female pronouns. In a soft six-inch voice, her lyrics pulsed loud with desire: “I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips.” The track’s Bandcamp page offered a piece of advice: “Don’t fall in love with a straight girl.”

‘My upbringing in Horten was really safe and privileged, but I never felt I belonged until I finished high school and moved to Oslo’ (Isak Jenssen)

It never occurred to Ulven to change the gender for the sake of personal protection or mass relatability. “I did have multiple messages from my grandpa telling me how it was going to narrow down my audience, but I didn’t give a s***,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s the case. I think I will narrow down my audience if I make bad songs that aren’t authentic.”

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Ulven grew up in Horten, a small town an hour outside of Oslo: population 27,000. She started playing guitar when she was eight. Before that, she was more into fingerboarding: a niche sport in which participants perform tricks on tiny skateboards using their hands. In a 2013 video that still lives on YouTube, Ulven is seen competing in a fingerboarding battle. In it, she looks baby-faced in a graphic tee and blue overshirt as she squares off against a beanie-wearing rival.

“I didn’t really fit in,” she says. “It was really safe and privileged, but I never felt I belonged until I finished high school and moved to Oslo. It’s only in the last five or six years that I feel like I’ve been myself – or at least lived how I want to live.” Ulven did come out in school, though, when she was 17. For the most part, she says, Norway is a good place to be gay.

Girl in Red performing at Audacy Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park in 2021 (Getty)

“But like other countries, we have the so-called Bible belt,” she says. “For some reason, the south is so much more religious. Down there it’s still very conservative and people are very f***ed up in their minds, if you ask me at least. The further you’re away from the capital, the more you’re in your own bubble.”

Disinterring your worst impulses for public spectacle is a scary thing – like wearing your skin inside out and hoping your insides look like everyone else’s. It’s easy to imagine someone abusing that candour. “One journalist asked me what meds I’m on,” Ulven shakes her head. “I was like, wow that’s f***ing weird.” The chorus of “Serotonin” (about being dangerously low on the stuff) referred to “stabilising” medications that help to stop intrusive thoughts “like cutting my hands off”.

It’s only in the last five or six years that I feel like I’ve been myself – or at least lived how I want to live

Co-produced with Finneas, brother/co-writer of Billie Eilish, it was an early hit for Ulven – albeit with an asterisk. In an interview at the time, Ulven spoke about how the press had downplayed her role behind the boards alongside Finneas. “It’s the case every time there is a female name next to a man,” she says. “Even with [new single ‘Too Much’] all the write-ups I’ve seen say ‘production from Matias’ when really we produced it together and the original demo was mine.” But she is less fussed now, crediting her early angst to the fact she was “more insecure” back then: “Artistically my ego was bigger three years ago.”

Queerness in music has become increasingly more visible – desirable, some might say, even commodifiable. Ulven is not sure where she stands on the subject. “It’s not a bad thing if it means listeners are open to more queer artists,” she says. “In a way I feel like as a queer person, it feels weird to be like, ah they’re promoting queer artists – but is it truthful?”

Ulven lives in Oslo now, with her Saint Bernard and her girlfriend, who’s immortalised on “A Night to Remember”, a swoony track about their meet-cute, which started in drinks and ended in skinny-dipping. But it’s not love and puppies all the time. The release of this album has brought on a crushing wave of anxiety. “If it doesn’t go well, my life is over, which sounds very dramatic I know,” she says.

Ulven lives with her girlfriend and her dog, Luna, in Oslo (Isak Jenssen)

Her death anxiety has stuck around, too, kicked into overdrive by a recent near miss. “We nearly died. Someone almost crashed into us but instead they crashed into a tree,” she says. Ulven has a chronic fear of dying on tour, brought on by the tragic demise of Her’s – an indie rock duo from Liverpool – who were killed in a collision on their way to a show in Arizona in 2019. Ulven had been on her first US tour when it happened. “I think of them all the time,” she says. "There are no guarantees ever.”

Ulven isn’t the type to live on guarantees. The positivity on I’m Doing it Again Baby! is a welcome blast of sunshine, but Ulven knows any change in her internal weather is temporary. Her transparency about this and everything else is the point of her music. She has nothing to hide. Pulling up Spotify on her phone now, Ulven cringes over how awful her early music was. “It’s so bad,” she says. “Do you want to hear it?”

‘I’m Doing It Again Baby!’ is out now via Columbia

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