Has it really been only five years? Marie Ulven started releasing her first Girl in Red tracks on Soundcloud in 2016 and her songs I wanna be your girlfriend and we fell in love in October attracted so many fans that Marie Ulven’s career sky-rocketed quickly. The first time NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION writers noticed her unique skills was three years ago when Summer Depression was released. Her debut album on AWAL (the independent label was purchased by Sony Music in February 2021) revolves around lesbian love and psychological struggles and so do the interviews that have been published since. Almost every article praises the Norwegian artist as a “queer icon” and the honesty about her experience. When googling ‘girl in red interview’, there are over 998 000 000 results – in comparison to another artist who is about to release a new album and has been well-established for many years ‘st vincent interview’ gets 54 000 000 results. But maybe that’s a all a bit too much to handle?
Marie Ulven appears to be tired when the virtual phone rings. I talked to the buzzing arist one day before if I could make it go quiet was released. The interview opened with her asking the PR person present in our Zoom-call if she’d be finished by a certain time that day so she could do something else. When asked about her future, she often jokes about world domination and in the weeks before the release it seems like she is quite close to achieving it: There are billboards at many major advertisement spaces all over the world which her fans post relentlessly, the latest single Serotonin was created with Finneas, Billie Eilish’s brother who is also signed to AWAL whose decisionmakers most likely instigated their cooperation and shortly after the record’s release Girl in Red was endorsed by Taylor Swift in an Insta-story with the caption ‘entire album on repeat’ – Marie Ulven has named both, Billie Eilish as well as Taylor Swift, on many occasions as her greatest inspirations in music. Instead of only focusing on Girl in Red’s success and her new album, this is also reflection on the materialisation of hype and fame and its effect on the humans it projects on.
I had around four weeks to prepare for my conversation with Marie Ulven. The date and time were pushed several times and the more time I had, the less I knew what to ask her. Each day I checked, there was at least one if not several new articles or videos published from interviews to reviews over random opinion pieces. Therefore, this was also how our conversation started. She said that “every single day for the past few months have been kinda crazy PR days so I’m trying to keep my head above water.”
A call for radical honesty
The conditions of our call (no video, maximum of 20min and a PR person constantly listening) didn’t give enough room for a more personal exploration which I was hoping for, especially with an artist who is known for her openness. Ulven has stated her view on the universality of emotion and how it is basically impossible to expose anything because each person on earth has felt the things she has felt. Listening to if I could make it go quiet and the vulnerability with which the songs are presented, I wondered if Girl in Red thinks the world could be a better place if everyone would be radically honest:
“Honestly, I don’t think so. I think there are some things that – I’ve been in situations recently where I had to figure this out and I’m trying to figure out what is best but sometimes, you know, saying something to get it off your chest might not make someone else’s life better but then again – what is better in that situation? Honestly, I really don’t know if everyone is brutally honest 24/7, I don’t know what’s best, really!”
“It really depends on what kind of relationship you have with certain people. If it’s someone you barely know and they ask you: ‘Do you like my new shoes?’ Just be like: ‘Yes, I like them’, you’re not gonna see that person again. But if it’s my friend that I know very well, I’m always honest – I’m say: ‘Your shoes are awful’ but then I don’t even know, it really depends on what person you’re talking to. I don’t think objective honesty is always the best thing, like everyone being honest all the time.”
The discussion about separating the personal and the public image has changed rapidly since the internet offered the opportunity to a (or many) digital selves. By now, it is too often assumed that if one is not actively pursuing their social media following, there is no chance for success as an artist and that generally, more is more. There are many platforms which promise recognition, community or wealth, and the way we use them determines how they will develop. Ad preferencing, cookies, and data collection govern what we purchase, who we connect with and for some, what we believe or promote in our analog lives. This gives everyone, to an extent, the opportunity to create on own terms, yes, but it also too often categorises us into certain stereotypes. In Girl in Red’s case, she has now been branded by her homosexuality and mental health. I’m yet to be convinced that this is the way it has to be. My conversation with her only confirmed the theory that Marie Ulven could exist just as victoriously in this world without impressive amounts of PR and hype accumulation.
I asked her what her ideal universe would look like and it has one main feature:
“I think world in red is, it’s not even a real thing – it’s more this concept – [it’s] this place where I can create anything that I wanna make and I can do it all within world in red. Obviously we made a website and on that website there is this world in red spinning around. We’ve also made it a physical thing, but it’s more the ideology.”
But isn’t the world now already a place where Marie Ulven can create whatever she’d like? She has already proven her song writing, instrumental and producing skills which will only be refined in the coming years so now that I’m writing this I wonder what the limitations (except for financial ones) might be.
Life lessons of a dog mum
Since I wanted to avoid the so far established associations with Girl in Red, I ask her about her life as a dog mum and if it changed her sense of responsibility towards herself. Her Saint Bernese, Luna, is often seen in her Instagram stories.
“Being a dog mum is really great, it’s also sometimes really uncomfortable picking up dog poop in front of teenagers. I had to do that this morning and I’m always like very scared that they’re gonna be like ‘Oh I saw Girl in Red picking up dog poop’ which is a very stupid, irrational fear but you know….
But yeah, she has really improved my life quality. I feel like I get so much more out of my days now. I wake up hours earlier than when I used to and I’m just so happy I have her. It’s weird how much joy she brings me throughout the entire day and how I was able to live life not being so happy every single day from seeing a dog.
I feel like I’ve been taking better care of myself. I need to have the ability to fulfil her needs. I can’t always do what I want but yesterday we went, I went on a run and I ran away from my dog, I left her with my sister and wouldn’t say that it was very responsible of me to run away from my dog. My dog got really scared with my sister in the woods so I’m still learning as a dog mum, I’m still figuring out that this dog doesn’t know how to navigate around in the world without me and I gotta have her by my side but she’s so big and so slow and I had to run from her.”
This is a long quote but it is there for a purpose. First of all, it shows how much Marie Ulven cares about the way she is seen in her daily life. I told her that people who poo-pick should actually be cherished and that she can celebrate herself every time from now on. The more success she’ll gain as a musician, the more situations arise in which she could feel self-conscious, though I hope that eventually she will not give a shit about neither poop nor being seen this way or the other just living her life. The story about running away from her dog is what stayed most vividly with me after the interview. There are responsibilities in life we can run away from but we will feel their repercussions for a long time. Most of the time, we can choose who and what we are responsible for but we cannot necessarily change our feeling of responsibility towards something, even when it wasn’t a choice.
I don’t know if Girl in Red chose the responsibility that comes with being called a ‘queer role model’ but I know that she has been asked many times how she feels about it. To me, it often feels like journalists want legitimisation from the artist themselves to portray them in a certain light. In the FAQ the PR send before the interview, Marie Ulven wrote:
“I think it’s really cool and really special! Because I’m just living my best life and making music and it’s great that people can have someone to look up to if they need that and I’m happy to be that person!”
Each response she has given is very similar to this one and if it’s truly how she feels I’ll be content and happy for her. But I also think it is the responsibility of writers to choose their words wisely and not hype up the next star before they had a chance to fully realise the marketing strategies of labels and the music industries and find their individual artistic positioning in the world.
I’m not suggesting that every artist can live such a brilliant and illusive life as, for example Joanna Newsom who does not engage in any social media or digital-publishing of her music, nor do I assume that Marie Ulven is unaware of what is happening and knows that she can find a healthy way of integrating it into her life. But I am certain that the burden that comes with being crowned an icon from a young age is a heavy one which does not further the creative development but limits it to the extent of its fixed definition.
A: “Are you excited about the release tomorrow? How do you feel?”
M: “I’m really, really nervous but I’m also really excited but I just really hope that people like it!”
A: “Is that why you’re nervous? Because you hope people like it?”
M: “Hmm I mean, I don’t know – I actually, I’ve never put out an album before so I feel like there are so many things to be nervous for. I don’t know what’s gonna happen after that, obviously I have a long plan but then again, I just feel like, you know, it’s just, just – I don’t know. I’m just very excited to get tomorrow over with… in the best ways possible. I’m gonna celebrate, I have so much beer on its way but yeah, I am very stoked but I’m very nervous and I’m very proud and excited so we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
A: “I think you should be proud and I think the fear of excitement or of nervosity is a different one to ‘Oh this is going to be terrible’ like the fear of failure but I think you’re gonna be fine. I think you’re gonna be alright!”
If I Could Make It Go Quiet is out now on AWAL.