Forgive the cliche, but 2020 was set to be the most jam-packed year of Marie Ulven’s life. The Norwegian indie-pop performer – better known as girl in red – devoted the final months of 2019 to her first major international tour, traversing much of mainland Europe and skipping abroad to the UK, Iceland, USA, Canada and Australia.
Ulven had spent the previous couple of years dishing out one viral single after the next, beginning with 2018’s, ‘i wanna be your girlfriend’. The New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica named ‘…girlfriend’ the 9th best single of 2018, but Ulven wasn’t about to bask in the nominal glory and delivered an even more pervasive single before the year ended.
The song in question, ‘we fell in love in october’, remains girl in red’s most popular track. But instead of taking a moment to plot out her next move, 2019 saw Ulven pumping out new singles and videos with extraordinary consistency, all the while becoming an icon of queer identity and mental health awareness. But then came the standstill of 2020. Ulven’s plans for more extensive international touring were put on hold and there she was, stuck in her apartment in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.
However, in contrast to many musicians around the world, this wasn’t exactly a setback for Ulven, whose MO already revolved around home recording and penetrating self- examination. And so she started rummaging through the various song scraps she’d amassed in recent months, including ideas for a number of bigger, more dynamically varied and emotionally raw songs than anything she’d put out previously.
Watch the music video for ‘Serotonin’ by girl in red
Released in late-April 2021, girl in red’s debut album, if i could make it go quiet, is the ultimate consequence of Ulven’s rummaging. The album’s genesis brings to mind a recent blog post from Nick Cave in which he describes “lockdown’s near forbidden secret and terrible truth,” as the fact that “at the heart of grief, and midst mayhem, carnage and deep sadness, people do beautiful things.”
Ulven might’ve spent close to two years working on material for if i could make it go quiet – writing and demoing in her bedroom studio before making frequent trips to the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen to work with co-producer and engineer, Matias Tellez – but the album simply wouldn’t have existed in this form if Ulven’s plans for 2020 had gone ahead.
if i could make it go quiet boasts a more colourful and muscular sound than either of Ulven’s two EPs, but the sonic heft hasn’t diluted the potency of Ulven’s songcraft. To the contrary, if i could make it go quiet includes the 22-year-old songwriter’s most emotionally raw and lyrically revealing songs to date.
Tone Deaf spoke to Ulven about her trademark vulnerability, the autobiographical accuracy of her songwriting and her reflections on fame.
Tone Deaf: 2020 didn’t go to plan for you, but were you grateful for the chance to take stock and focus your energies on making if i could make it go quiet?
Marie Ulven: I really feel like that was essential. Like, I don’t think this would’ve worked out if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m stuck in Norway because of the pandemic. So yeah, I’m really grateful for all the extra time and energy I was able to put into it. I honestly don’t even know if I would even have an album if it wasn’t for that.
TD: The lyrics on the album include more intimate revelations than anything you’ve put out previously. Did you make a decision that if you were going to do an album, you had to go deeper into your feelings than you had before?
MU: I don’t think it was deliberate, but it’s just been a natural progression. The songs I have out already, they are reflections on my feelings and stuff like that. But on this record, I’m still feeling the same things, I’m just diving deeper into having new realisations within those feelings. So it kind of just came naturally that the reflections I had now were evolved or a little bit deeper.
TD: There are a number of songs, such as ‘hornylovesickmess’ and ‘midnight love’, that look at mistreatment in romantic relationships. Do you ever have to run things by the people who’ve shared these experiences with you?
MU: No, I haven’t done that. My songs always have a spark from something that I have been feeling or maybe something my friend has felt and then I’m like, “Oh, I remember I felt that once,” and then I look back and think of things. So my songs are very specific, but what everyone else experiences also plays a big part. Everyone around me knows that it’s not completely autobiographical.
TD: There’s a level of emotional and thematic intensity to most songs on if i could make it go quiet, but they remain very melodic and relatable pop songs. How important is it for you to make songs that have the potential to speak to a wide audience?
MU: That has always been a priority to me, but I never thought about it like, “how can I make this song mean something, but also be a pop song?” It’s always just like, “how can I make this make me feel really excited? And how can I make this sound really catchy? And how can I make this make me want to sing along and put it on repeat?”
TD: You recorded in Bergen with co-producer Matias Tellez. Were you thinking about producing songs that would repeat the success of your earlier releases?
MU: I didn’t think of that really. I had been working for like a year and a half pretty much without people hearing any of the new music and then I just picked all the best ideas I’d had throughout that year.
I tried not to think about the stuff I’ve put out and how that has been successful because then I’m going to get trapped into this mindset of being like, “OK, make another ‘we fell in love in October,’ because that seemed to work.” I don’t want to get trapped creatively inside something that stops me from creating new music.
TD: You rocketed to fame in 2018 and then toured all over the world in 2019. How have you adjusted to becoming a recognised public figure?
MU: It’s been weird, because I don’t see myself that way at all. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that fame is not something you feel about yourself; fame is when people have this collective perception of you. So it’s still something I have a lot of weird feelings towards because I’m confused by it, because I just see myself the way I’ve always seen myself.
I remember when things started taking off for me, I used to have nightmares about becoming a diva. I was so scared that because of my music getting more recognition, I would automatically turn into a douchebag. I had “diva anxiety” as I called it, but I’m pretty sure I did not become a diva.