Girl In Red’s Marie Ulven writes perfect songs. Yes, that’s subjective. But put on any song from the Norwegian songwriter's recent EPs and try to find a flaw. Ulven’s songwriting feels, in this writer’s humble opinion, like some of the most airtight pop songwriting you’ll find left or right of the dial. She’s capable of penning powerful anthems like “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” and tender reflections like “Watch You Sleep” with the same level of precision finesse. It’s no wonder the 20-year-old songwriter is amassing such a passionate following (seriously, go on Instagram and search “Marie Ulven” and you’ll find roughly a bajillion fan accounts).
Ulven writes her songs in her bedroom, but her shows feel arena-sized in her live performances. We witnessed this first hand when she performed at the Kex Hostel stage at Iceland Airwaves 2019. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the vivacious energy she exudes on stage, channeling punk rock charisma with a life-affirming attitude. See for yourself in the video below.
After her set, we caught up with Ulven to talk about how her passions for fingerboarding tied in with the start of her music career, her love of pop music and Taylor Swift, and her overwhelming desire to just chill and have a good time.
KEXP: I read that before music, your primary outlet was finger boarding. How did you make the leap from fingerboarding to music?
Marie Ulven: I actually had a fingerboard Instagram where I posted about my music. I was like, 'hey, guys, I also do music!' And so I was posting videos and then I would put links in the bio to my SoundCloud and stuff. So fingerboarding was really where it started for me, with my music. So when my music started to get more recognition, then I made my own Girl In Red Instagram. And that's sort of how it was. I still have a fingerboard with me right now, I haven't really stopped. It's still going strong.
How did you get into music? I know you got a guitar when you were 13 or 14.
Yeah, I got a guitar for a Christmas from my grandpa when I was 14 years old. At first, I didn't like it at all because I wasn't able to play a guitar solo right away, which was very surprising for me [laughs]. But after a while, I started really getting into it and I started making my own songs. And then I made some really bad English songs and then some really bad Norwegian songs. I made a lot of bad songs. Then, eventually, I made a few good songs. And here I am in Iceland!
The project was born out of heartbreak from what I understand. Your first song, "I Want to Be Your Girlfriend," was inspired by unrequited love for a straight friend. And themes of heartbreak and anxiety still show up in your music often. Do you find it easy to be vulnerable in your music? Or is that what comes out naturally for you?
I think it definitely comes out natural because sometimes I've tried to like maybe write about a mood that's far away from how I'm actually feeling and then the lyrics just automatically feel disconnected from me if that makes sense. I can tell that I don't believe these lyrics myself. So all the lyrics I have in my songs are lyrics that I truly believe are true to me and that have some sense of... obviously, some things are exaggerated to make a story and to make a whole song. But I feel like it always roots in something that I've experienced or felt. So they all feel really honest to me. That feels like the only way I can have it. Because it makes me really uninspired when I make a song and I don't really connect it in a real way.
You often get labeled as a bedroom pop artist because of your home recording and DIY methods. But you've kind of pushed against that, saying that your music is pop music. Tell me about that distinction and what draws you to pop music specifically?
Taylor Swift. Yeah, I really like Taylor Swift and the reason why I like Taylor Swift is because I really love melodies. And that's why I think my music is pop music and because there's an intro and there's a verse and there's a hella good chorus and then... it that has everything that pop music has but I just made it in my room. It's not made in like one million dollar studio. I mean, I don't really have anything against the term bedroom pop. I just feel like I don't like labels that are like niche labels or small cause I don't like being put in a box. I feel like pop is such an umbrella term. It's literally everything. There's so much different kind of pop music. Pop music isn't just the shit you hear on the radio... my song is on the radio sometimes... So it's not just shit on the radio either. I remember when I was a bit younger, I always looked really down on pop music because I thought making a pop music song was like pressing a space button and then [makes zoom sound] the whole song came out, which it's not like that at all. There's so much craft into making one of those songs. I think I really like pop music because of Taylor Swift to come back to where I started and because she has really good melodies, really good lyrics. I listened to a lot of Taylor Swift when I started playing guitar. Which I feel like is every single girl with a guitar is just like, 'I wanna be like Taylor Swift.' I didn't want to be like her, though. I think she probably inspired me.
Your music has especially resonated with queer kids say they finally feel represented when they hear your music. How does it feel to get that sort of response? And do you feel any sort of responsibility to use your platform or are you just kinda going with it?
I'm just kinda going with it because I don't really know what I can do differently. I'm just trying to be a good person and not promote racism and like bad shit [laughs], which I would never promote, like get that shit off the planet Earth because I fucking hate that. But yeah, I'm just not stressed about it, not be like, 'oh now I need to be a good role model' and stuff because I don't worry about those things because I think if you're just gonna be a good person, people are going to gravitate towards someone who's just a good person. And I don't feel a lot of responsibility. I guess I feel the only responsibility I would feel is that I want to use my platform because... I'm getting a platform now. I got Instagram, I got YouTube and I got these things where a lot of people are following. I only want to use those in a good way, to promote things that I think are really important and crucial for everybody to have a good life, environment and, you know, equal rights for men and women, all that shit. I sounded really interested in those things when I said it like that, but I am [laughs]. I just want to chill out and then people can chill with me and then we can all be gay and happy.
You've been releasing a ton of singles lately and you just released your second E.P., Chapter Two. Given that title, are you building to a larger story with your music and why did you want this package these specific songs together on the new E.P.?
Do you mean like if I'm gonna have like a chapter three or something like that? No, not really. Because I feel like Chapter One, that was like 2018. Chapter 2 is 2019. And then I put these two EPs together like in a vinyl that I call Beginnings, 'cause I feel like this is just the beginning of something that's gonna be like way bigger – hopefully, fingers crossed. I don't think I want to continue making EPs because all the ideas I'm getting right now are album ideas. All the ideas I get, I see them in a bigger piece of work. So I definitely think that my next project is gonna be an album.
The themes on your songs are very like melancholic, but your live performances are so energetic and full of life. Do these songs feel different live than when you're writing them and recording them in your room?
Yeah, because when I recorded them I think I feel... I mean, I'm excited because I'm like, 'Yes! I'm in a good mood to write right now and I'm in a flow and that feels good.' But it definitely feels more, I don't know, more soft and more vulnerable when I'm at home and I make these songs. But then when I go on stage, they've sort of already been out in the world and there's a lot of jumping kids right in front of me and I can't be sad when I look at that shit because that looks so cool and it's so much fun. The live performance and the recordings are like two different worlds, 'cause I think a lot of people if they never heard about how my shows are, they would probably think that it's like [I] put the tracks on and it's the same thing as the recordings – it's gonna be a sad little bedroom pop show. But it's not. It's a whole different sort of world, a super energetic rock show. I love that.
You've had such a fast, prolific output with your music. You mentioned an album. What else is next for you? What do you hope to do next with the project?
I obviously want to take over the world. I'm just very humble. I just want things to continue. I'm always really scared that things are gonna stop and that this isn't gonna last because I always think that nothing's really going to last. So I just hope that things continue to go well and that I can make music until I die, which I hope is older than 27, and that I can have a good life and do fun things and play cool shows. I really want to make good music and I want to learn drums.
That's really what's next for me. I want to be a better musician. I want to learn. I don't want to think that, 'Yeah, and now I don't need to do this,' or 'I don't need to learn more.' I just want to learn. I want to put myself back on the school bench and just to learn from other cool musicians. Maybe meet some cool musicians, that would be really cool. And then make this hella bomb-ass album and then hopefully be able to make a really good second album as well. And then a third one and fourth one.
Watch the band's performance from Iceland Airwaves 2019.
Watch the Icelandic composer's performance at Kex Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland for Iceland Airwaves 2019.
Watch the band's performance from Iceland Airwaves 2019 and read an exclusive interview .