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Girl in red is growing up

08 April 2024, 09:00

Norwegian songwriter and producer Marie Ulven tells Laura David about finding her way towards her a new sound for her music as girl in red on her own terms.

“I really feel like things are maturing,” Marie Ulven says of her latest record as girl in red, I'm Doing It Again Baby!

As one of the breakout stars of the DIY indie movement that peaked between 2018 and 2020, many still associate girl in red with that lo-fi, stripped-back, grainy, airy production style that Ulven and others of the era brought back into vogue. It was a sound born from teenagers experimenting alone at home who were invited into the world of producing and writing not by label execs but by cheap (ish) laptop music software and YouTube tutorials. Tracks like “i wanna be your girlfriend,” “summer depression,” and “girls” became quick classics, and girl in red’s following ballooned along with the rest of the bedroom-pop/indie genre.

But when an artist becomes the poster child of such a distinct moment in musical time, it’s easy to get boxed in by fan expectations. Ulven’s 2021 debut LP If I Could Make It Go Quiet was received with some apprehension and while the record got co-signs from the likes of Taylor Swift (who later brought Ulven on as a supporter for The Eras Tour) and her devoted fanbase, it also got pushback from critics who felt it lacked cohesiveness and a singular sonic vision. Such criticism is perhaps one of the great Achilles heels of the music industry, that pressure it puts on trying to get artists to reproduce “lightning-in-a-bottle moments” rather than giving them room to innovate, change, and breathe. After all, it was that innovation and sporadic creativity that buoyed them in the first place.


“I think a lot of people really thought, ‘Oh, she’s making this kind of music [now], and she’s gonna make that kind of music forever,” Ulven muses. “But like I was just making that music because that was my ability. I was making music to my ability, and my abilities are maturing and changing and growing. So now, things are sounding a lot different.”

“And, I’m older now…. I’m 25!” she jokes. Ulven has dialed in from her home in Norway, where she sits on the floor petting her great Bernese Mountain Dog, Luna, who Ulven tells me just got out of a major surgery. Part of being 25, she laments, is dealing with the hard stuff, too: “But, you know! Gotta keep it profesh,” she says, cracking a smile. In some ways, Norway has allowed Ulven to keep a safe haven and home base away from the craziness that can be the art scenes of New York, London, and LA. “This is a very hidden, sheltered place,” Ulven says. “I’m not really like a part of that sort of scene... it feels like such a typical thing to move to LA the minute you start making music.”

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By staying in Norway, away from “the scene,” she’s had the breathing room to focus on levelling up her craft without feeling pressured to create the same way as everyone else. “When everyone is making music in the same city, all the impulses and the environments are quite similar. Everything that’s inspiring people is quite similar,” she explains. “I think me coming from the outside with my more European perspective, there’s something different [there].” So, for now, she’s happy where she is, though she admits she might consider spending more time in the US because, in her words, it feels like she’s “really doing this music thing now.”

For Ulven, “doing the music thing” has always been about more than putting out strings of singles to make it big (though the success is certainly an added bonus). Rather, it has been about purposefully pouring herself into her art to build the world around the girl in red brand. In this spirit, you can find bits and pieces of each project bleeding across Ulven’s different creative eras, as if it were all a paper trail connecting the pieces of herself she’s put out into the world over the years. The back cover of the vinyl edition of her new album, for example, features the artwork of its predecessor hanging in a gallery, a tasteful nod to where she came from as she acknowledges where she’s going. To bring that concept to life even further, she tells me she’s also planned a gallery exhibition full of handmade objects that will premiere in New York City around the album’s release.


As she speaks about the creative crossfade between her first album and the second, it’s clear that Ulven truly does think of her artistic output as an extension of herself. As she says, there’s no real difference between girl in red and Marie Ulven. At times, that ethos can be at odds with an industry that measures success in streaming metrics and units sold — a theme she explores through a clever reference to Andy Warhol’s studio collective, The Factory, on "Stars", the closing track of of I'm Doing It Again Baby! — but Ulven seems able to overcome those external pressures and focus instead on simply creating what makes her tick. “It’s like, I saw that James Blake thing, how he said the brainwashing worked and now people think music is free,” she says. “Music is now just being demanded as entertainment in a different way.” Still, of all the problems in the world, Ulven acknowledges hers is a good one to have. As she says: “I’d rather have people be like, ‘Oh we want more music,’ than like, ‘Oh, we don’t care.’”

But on the theme of the girl in red “world,” perhaps no project of Ulven’s has delighted fans quite so much as the lore around “October Passed Me By,” a 2022 single released as a follow-up to her 2018 fan favourite, “we fell in love in october.” “I find the whole ‘we fell in love in october’ phenomenon so interesting,” she says on her decision to put out the track. “It starts charting every year, so I just thought it was cool to lean into it. And, it’s such a familiar story in the girl in red world. So, I wanted to build further on it without ruining the first one and try delicately to reference the first one but also make it its own little thing.”

Ulven had written the song in 2021 while messing around in the studio with Aaron Dessner. At first, the track got shelved, but a year later she revisited it and saw something different. With a fresh perspective, Ulven realized revisiting “we fell in love in october” could become not just a marketing gimmick but a meditation on the evolution of first love, one that drew, as all of her most successful songs have, on very real emotions left over from her own experiences.

“I mean, the opening letters are like: ‘I keep the letters that you wrote in a secret place / every now and then I go down memory lane.’ I have all the letters from my first girlfriend, and I don’t want to get rid of them, because it was from such an exciting time where I was discovering my own sexual identity,” she tells me. “So, the song is really just about celebrating first love and being grateful that she changed me in such a big way.”

Part of Ulven's edge has always been her own unique take on confessional songwriting. Her initial connection with fans came from candidly writing about depression and anxiety or penning unabashedly sapphic love songs that felt earnest and true rather than tokenizing. As her career has progressed, she tells me she’s still in awe of the relationship she’s been able to have with audiences: “It’s super rare and super cool that I’ve been able to affect people emotionally through music. It’s really rare, considering how much music comes out all the time. […] So, the fact that people are really sticking around to see, like, what’s happening with the new music, or they’re circling back to the old music. And also having that label of [queer icon] is just insane.”

This candid and empathetic voice remains on I'm Doing It Again Baby! High points of the album such as “Pick Me” and “Ugly Side” deal unflinchingly with anxiety and insecurity. “Pick Me,” in particular, stands out, dealing with that singularly queer-femme worry of dating a girl who you fear you might not be enough for because, well, you’re just not a guy. “I was so upset I could never be a guy, and I was so scared that [the girl I was seeing] was going to leave me,” she explains. “She was really giving me all this validation, but it just didn’t work because I still had these issues, these insecurities. Like, it didn’t stick with me, but she hadn’t done anything. It was all my fault — I just had to work on myself.”

And yet, while songs like “Pick Me” have rallied queer audiences behind girl in red and provided important, ground-breaking representation for the community, Ulven still hopes her messages will resonate universally, too. In the case of “Pick Me,” that message is simple: “Let the loser win!” she says and laughs.

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Ulven is careful to note, too, that this record isn’t all “sad girl” tracks, even though that’s what she may have once been primarily known for. “Thematically, it’s not like one storyline,” Ulven tells me on her inspirations behind the record. “It’s just been what’s going on in my life.” As she explains, she hopes this project will be something of a “status update” and window into what the three years she’s spent away from the spotlight have been like. Much of that time, she tells me, has been incredibly positive.

“A lot of that time started when I got my dog,” she says, taking a moment to pause and look down into the eyes of her pup, who’s still sitting on her lap. “I think that was like, being able to channel all my love into a dog at a time when I hated myself. And then also, when I met my girlfriend, that also made me realize that I can also be loved — and not just by dogs,” she adds and laughs. During the years she took off after the release of her debut, she spent a lot of her time allowing her to just be. “I just started saying yes to someone asking if I wanted to go out and have a drink instead of being like, ‘No, I have to go back and I have to go home and work and I need to make music,” she explains. “I [was] just a normal twenty-something-year-old instead of, like, punishing myself for not being creative enough. I know that sounds really harsh, but I used to be so far into my depression that I was just cutting people off and thought I deserved to just work and not be with anyone. I just stopped doing that.”

That personal trajectory helps explain why so much of the new record sounds not only upbeat but triumphant, jubilant, and liberated. “Something I’ve been thinking of a lot is the moments on the album that are very exciting and very happy and very, like, ‘I’m on top of the world!’” Ulven smiles, acknowledging that she feels excited to be in a place where she can make those kinds of records and have them come from a genuine well of contentment within her. Now, all that’s left to do is share them with the world. “I just really hope that [the album] finds its place somewhere in the world and latches on to people in a nice way.”

As we wrap up our conversation, Ulven tells me she’s got to go get ready to embark on her tour rehearsals soon. Between canine emergencies and packing for the US, she’s had a lot on her plate. Despite the hecticness, she tells me she’s excited for what’s to come. “I definitely got inspired by The Eras Tour and kind of wanted to amp up the production a lot,” she says of her upcoming North American dates. “That really just inspired me to level up my own stuff and see if I can make something that’s more interesting than just a concert. It feels like, in this day and age, you just have to push the boundaries a little bit, push the boundaries of what’s interesting and fun, because it feels like everyone’s attention spans, even during concerts now, are quite short. So, I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes!” When I ask if she can share what some of those plans look like, she smirks before responding: “That’s a secret.”

I'm Doing It Again Baby! is released on 12 April via Columbia

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