A teenage queer icon for queer teenagers, Marie Ulven is breaking out of the bedroom as girl in red.
The Norwegian, who last week released brand new single "We Fell In Love In October", is fast developing a fanatical online fanbase - quite an achievement for a musician who's hardly played a handful of shows and makes rough, ready and direct music from the comfort of her home.
“I’m just making some tunes, yo” laughs Ulven as we greet each other. Given her already burgeoning reputation for DIY thanks to her debut EP, the fantastic Chapter 1, I assume that the Norwegian is actually in her bedroom as we speak. “Yes, exactly,” she confirms. “I got a little studio here, it sounds pretty dope.”
Ulven continues. “I’ve always written stuff in my bedroom, but I haven’t always produced it in my bedroom. I only started doing that a year ago.” Ulven explains that girl in red hasn’t always been a bedroom project, and hasn’t always sounded quite like she does right now. “When I did Norwegian music I used to go to this guy who had a proper studio,” she reveals. Yet Ulven felt there were some drawbacks to making music this way. “It just goes so slow because you have to wait, to book studio time. It’s such a slow process so it’s nicer just to have an idea and then record it straight away.”
girl in red has a singular sound. Sure there are echoes of other classically "indie" artists (early Mitski for example) but these short, direct songs found on Chapter 1 about love and obsession are quickly becoming a trademark to make Ulven stand out from the rest of the indie rock crowd. And to stand deliberately apart, as well. “At the moment I’m most comfortable doing stuff on my own,” says Ulven of being shut away in her bedroom. “I just want to develop my sound and not have any other noise telling you what it should be. I think it’s always good to have what you do developing so when I’m more sure of what direction I want then I’ll probably bring in some producer.”
Having mentioned it in passing, I ask Ulven about her past music written in Norwegian. “I started writing in English when I was quite young,” she begins to explain, “but then I switched up to Norwegian until last year...but then I switched back to English. I’m pretty decent in English, it’s not that foreign and I do feel most comfortable with it.”
I say that Norwegian-language music is having something of a renaissance, but maybe more in the rap and hip hop scene than in indie music. I ask Ulven if she has any thoughts why that might be. “I have no idea!” she admits. “I think it’s maybe because there’s more people in Norway making that sort of music right now? The Norwegian scene has really grown in the last couple of years. Indie has been going down but it’s sort of on the up again. I think it’s just more popular to make hip hop and rap right now.”
“I just want to develop my sound and not have any other noise telling you what it should be."
Trying to trace the origins of girl in red is a series of hints and happenings. There’s no fantastic origin story, no defining moment which pushed Ulven on to making music. It’s almost mundane, everyday...yet that feels somehow perfect for a musician who is still living her life away from the rush of the industry. “My grandfather played piano and guitar, but we didn’t have any instruments at home so I didn’t start playing until about 2013,” says Ulven. To give you some idea of a timeline, Ulven is 19 so girl in red truly is something which feels brand new and still developing. “I started pretty late,” agrees the Norwegian. “Yeah I was 14.”
In keeping with all this, Ulven can’t really pinpoint a moment listening to music that blew her mind. “I didn’t have a specific taste back then,” she says. “I wasn’t really interested in music so I was just listening to what everyone else was listening to. I was not some cool indie child listening to Led Zeppelin or whatever...but that came a little bit later that year haha.”
However, there was something that moved Ulven, and turned her on to music. “I watched this movie called The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is my favourite movie. I listened to ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie in that and also I discovered The Smiths...these people, they were just super cool to me. I had just started playing the guitar, I think for about six months, but I just thought these people were so cool.” I mention Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500 and New Order’s “Temptation”, and Ulven excitedly interrupts saying “Oh! That’s what got me into indie music.”
As much as Ulven insists that there was nothing in particular which lay the ground for girl in red, she still admits to living out her rock star fantasies in the privacy of her own bedroom. “For a while, in 7th grade, I was playing on my hairbrush in the mirror before I got ready for bed at night,” she laughs. Then protests: “I just don’t think there was one particular artist who inspired me so directly...I think that shows I just really wanted to play the guitar!"
Ulven grew up around an hour south of Oslo in “a really, really small town called Horten” where there was barely a scene to speak of. “There was this public space,” she begins to explain. “I don’t know the English word for it but it’s kulturhuset - it’s set up by the town you live in so it’s a community thing [a sort of hub for the arts, a library, a performance space generally]. They had this open mic thing every now and then and that’s sort of the only thing...there was some stuff going on but it wasn’t crazy haha.”
Although Ulven/girl in red is rather set apart from any scene now (recording in your bedroom and playing hardly as much as a handful of shows will do that) the younger Ulven did get drawn into something in Horten. “As I got more into the ‘scene’ I found edgier teenagers to hang out with,” she laughs. “Back then I had a boyfriend [more on this later] and he was a drummer, I had friends who played the guitar so I found more of a music scene to be around.”
It’s interesting to note that all these little anecdotes really don’t prepare you for girl in red’s music. There’s nothing to hold on to here, no hints at what you might hear when you play Chapter 1 for the first time. Ulven writes honestly, conveying deep sincere emotions in short songs. Her music sounds a little C86, a little slowcore, a little early Mitski but avoids being placed firmly in any box - despite sounding like classic indie rock. What really makes girl in red stand out is her obsessional lyrics and forthright feelings about being in love.
All the currently available girl in red songs are products of the last eighteen months, when Ulven has been able to openly write about being in love, and being in love with women. “I made them all this year, apart from ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’,” she explains. “I made that last year. It’s definitely a process [to create a body of work]. I mean, I have some other stuff on Spotify that I definitely don’t want anyone to find! But that’s the Norwegian stuff and I’ve definitely developed a sound and sort of ‘found myself’ quotation marks when it comes to music. But it’s been a long wait!”
Chapter 1 has five songs and lasts not much beyond fifteen minutes, yet Ulven’s songs are so direct they convey more emotion and feeling than a whole bunch of albums combined. I ask if there’s any reason why girl in red’s songs are short, and often feel like unfinished sketches. “Ummm, sometimes it’s because I feel like I just don’t need anything more,” says the Norwegian. “Sometimes I think ‘this is what I wanted to say’, sometimes I don’t have an intro or I don’t want an intro and I’ll just cut it off right here. But sometimes it’s also like….umm, I don’t have any ideas but it sounds cool so let’s just put it on Soundcloud!”
Love and obsession are the two themes which stand out on Chapter 1; from the repetitious “I wanna kiss you til I lose my breath / Oh Hannah / Oh Hannah / Oh Hannah” of “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” to the can’t-shut-off-my-brain “I’m thinking too much again / I can’t sleep / it’s 4am” of “4am” it’s clear that Ulven isn’t afraid to express what’s on her mind - but is obsession a theme in her songs? “Yeah I think so,” she admits. “They all come from my mind so I guess that’s why? Nothing is really planned.”
The obsessional nature of girl in red’s songs translates to her fans. Fiercely loyal, amassed online and willing to travel hours and hundreds of miles to see Ulven perform, as evidenced by a performance at Oya festival which might one day find itself central to girl in red folklore. “That was the best crowd,” laughs Ulven. “It was really crazy, they carried me when I stage dived.”
"I’m like everyone else, I’m like the people who listen to my music. I’m just a teenager and they are too, mostly.”
Ulven tries to pinpoint her listeners’ devotion. “I think the foundation is that they relate to the feeling that I’m singing about, or the incident,” she begins to explain. “Feelings are universal and we all have them. We all feel sad and we all feel happy. I dunno, maybe I’m phrasing it in a certain way and I’m super lucky that they understand it and relate.”
“I really want to be connecting with the people who listen to my music,” asserts Ulven. “That’s a conscious choice I make. Everyday. I’m like everyone else, I’m like the people who listen to my music. I’m just a teenager and they are too, mostly.”
Ulven is one of a number of artists, generally new(er) to the industry, who deliberately cultivate a bond with their listeners (Ulven doesn’t like to use the word ‘fans’). Love is communicated both ways. “That connection is everything, in the end,” states Ulven. “I remember when I was a bit younger and I DM’d someone I was a huge fan of. At the time they were quite small, but still known, but they didn’t reply and I was like ‘holy shiiiit’. I dunno, I just put someone on a pedestal I guess. And I don’t like that. I don’t want people to have that same feeling towards me.”
The connection really comes with Ulven being as open and honest in her lyrics, and her listeners being just as open in response. “People might be really open with me - and sometimes it can be hard to be emotionally invested in so many people because in the end I’m still a human being,” she says, cautiously addressing emotional investment. “Things like when people want me to be their shrink or something…..what I mean is I know when I need to take a step back haha”
Ulven believes in online community. “I mean I’ve sort of grown based on social media so that’s the main thing,” she admits. “And also I haven’t played a lot of gigs so I haven’t got to meet a lot of people or listeners….so I feel that social media is the best place or the only place to connect with people at the moment.”
The Norwegian continues: “When I go on tour it’s going to be in person and that’s super powerful. I met some people in Dublin and Paris and they were like ‘yo, we traveled five hours to see you’ and you know, when people start crying in front of you because they came out to your song...holy fuck. You’re a real human being and this is really cool and really weird.”
I ask if Ulven feels a responsibility to her fans when things like this happens, like she really has to give something back, to not be the artist on a pedestal. “Yeah, spending time with them is the least I can do!” she confirms. “I love being with people who just come up to me - I remember in Paris I was literally pushed up against this car because I was surrounded by 30 people or something, and it had only started with two people! And I was like ‘I’m not leaving until I’ve taken a picture with everyone!’ But then my manager came, and dragged me away. All I could do was say ‘I am so sorry, I love you.’”
Honest feelings are one thing, but it can’t be ignored that Ulven is writing about being in love as a woman, with women. There’s no doubt that girl in red is becoming a teenage queer icon for fellow teenage queers. She’s aware of her position: “Yeah, honestly. Coming out - even though I don’t feel people should have to come out, it’s such an outdated term - it was really hard for me,” she reveals. “So honestly if I can help anyone with not having those feelings I had then that’s the best feeling and maybe the coolest thing so far. That is so amazing really, it’s out of this world.”
Given that her listeners have a girl in red song to help with coming out, I ask Ulven if she has a coming out story of her own. “I came out to my mom; I was on a train home and I was asking if I could visit this girl,” she begins. “My mom said I had to be home in an hour so, no. I told her I would be home in an hour but I had to visit this girl first but she said no again and asked why I had to go there first before coming home. So I just told her I was in love with this girl and she said ‘Yes, I know. But get home!’ She didn’t really care about that haha.”
Ulven makes the point that the coming out story itself was mundane, the main thing to overcome was the struggle to be at peace with herself. She continues: “It was more the internal battle, accepting myself. I had literally denied those feelings from eighth grade for four years. So, my actual coming out story, telling someone, went really smoothly but the whole keeping it to yourself….I used to turn my back against the door in seventh grade to watch coming out videos just in case my mom came in and saw my computer. Having those feelings and not telling anyone sucks, so I’m really happy my songs could potentially help someone.”
"Honestly, you don’t need to tell me that you like my music and that you might not be gay or queer AT ALL.”
girl in red’s story seems to be full of love and acceptance; it seems unlikely that Ulven might have experienced resistance but the world is a terrible place sometimes so I ask if she’s had any negative comments. “Have I gotten any hate? Honestly, not that I’ve read,” she confirms. “Most of my comments are just pure love and that’s really cool. I’ve probably had one message that said ‘you’re really ugly’ or something but that just doesn’t affect me because there are so many positive messages. So I don’t really care. Even though everyone should be accepting and stuff it’s obviously something that still needs to be talked about so I’m really happy that people bring that up about my music. There are definitely more queer musicians and queer icons at the moment. But they need to be talked about because that’s when they get more attention.”
We talk more about acceptance and while it’s cool that Ulven can sing these songs and have them sung back to her, or gain a passionate online following, there’s a realisation that unless being queer or gay or having a coming out story remains in focus then there will always be a vocal minority trying to push back.
“My grandpa said this: ‘maybe tone down the lesbian stuff because you might exclude straight people’,” Ulven laughs at the thought. “People might be like ‘oh I don’t like this because it’s gay’ but honestly I think that’s so weird because the main core of the song about being in love with a girl and being a girl is the fact that you’re in love. I get messages from people who say ‘woah i love girl in red but I’m not gay’. Honestly, you don’t need to tell me that you like my music and that you might not be gay or queer AT ALL.”
Ulven is on a roll and her final point is forthright and powerfully simple: “People are still saying things like ‘you’re a fucking faggot’ and that’s one of the most used swear words at elementary school in Norway,” she says, the passion in her voice palpable. “Obviously it’s still connected something negative, but that’s just people being scared, man. They lack information!”
Now that Chapter 1 is literally out of the way, I ask where Ulven sees girl in red heading next. Her answer is simple - she can’t stop. “That’s what I have to do. I can’t stay here forever and I can’t live off these songs forever,” she insists. “I need the second EP to be something different, it can’t be a copy of Chapter 1. It needs to have a different essence to it. I’m definitely going to move away from these songs but hopefully the core, the main girl in red thing - whatever that is - will still be there on the second EP.”
I make the point that if Ulven changes her sound at all (again I use the example of the development of Mitski) it will still be identifiable as girl in red thanks to her singular voice. The Norwegian agrees: “Yeah because it still comes from my mind and it’s still me writing the songs. I think I shouldn’t be too hung up on trying to be Chapter 1. That limits my creativity and I’m already feeling that!”
Ulven continues: “People are messaging me saying ‘make another song like Summer Depression’! That is neeeever going to happen! There is only one ‘Summer Depression’ and there is no way I’m gonna make a new one. Maybe that’s writers block because I’m scared I’m not going to live up to this EP...but it’s not the end of the world if the second one doesn’t go well. I started telling myself that today; honestly, if something goes bad then it goes bad and I continue making music. Then hopefully I make something good that brings it up again.”
As our chat draws to a close, I try to get Ulven to picture girl in red’s future; where does she want to end up with the project? Ulven laughs, refusing to take the question too seriously. “I just wanna make something that lives on when I die! I’m so pretentious haha!”