She’s Becoming the Gay Musical Role Model She Never Had

OSLO — One evening in December, Marie Ulven was riding a tram through Oslo, remarking on just how unremarkable she hoped her music might someday be.

“We need queer art to make it normal,” she said. “We need protagonists who are just, like, living their best life and gay — that’s just part of their character.”

For the last couple of years, Ulven, 20, has made spiky, emotionally tactile indie-pop songs about the panting urgency of new love, and the sharp pain of when it’s unachievable, under the name girl in red. In short order, she’s emerged as one of the most astute and exciting singer-songwriters working in the world of guitar music, with a laserlike melodic instinct that verges on the primal and lyrics that capture the sweat of real life.

“Some people are just like ‘How did you dare to do this?’” Ulven said of the fact that she’s singing about women. “And it’s like, I’m just out here being a [expletive] normal human being, falling in love and writing a song about it, just like that other straight girl writing a song about love.”

In the last year, girl in red’s music has bubbled up from sporadic uploads on SoundCloud and Bandcamp into a growing phenomenon; Ulven has more than a million monthly listeners on Spotify despite having only 10 songs posted there. She’s opened for the bedroom electro-pop singer Clairo in Europe and is currently on her first American tour, warming up crowds for Conan Gray, a 20-year-old esoteric pop singer who has over a million subscribers on YouTube and is signed to Republic, a division of Universal. (They play this week in New York, at Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday and Music Hall of Williamsburg on Thursday.) On May 14, she’ll return as a headliner for a sold-out show at Baby’s All Right.

In part, she said, that rapid success has been aided by a more welcoming pop music climate for gay artists, a radical shift in recent years that has seen the ascent of mainstream stars like Sam Smith, longtime gay performers like Tegan and Sara, and rising artists like Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko and King Princess, among many others. (“#20gayteen is real,” Ulven said, referring to Kiyoko’s term for last year’s cultural moment.)

But also, Ulven’s songs are sinisterly effective, with echoes of the D.I.Y. punk of the last few years, crisp Scandinavian pop and dry early 1990s shoegaze. “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” pulses with desperation: “I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips/I wanna kiss you ’til I lose my breath.” “Girls” and “Watch You Sleep” are ethereally sweet, and “Say Anything” posits her as a romantic antihero: “You’ll be the good girl/I’ll be the guy to change your mind.”

Growing up about 50 miles south of Oslo, in Horten, where her father was a police officer and her mother worked in technology, Ulven, who’s naturally boisterous and exuberant, “suppressed my feelings for a really long time,” she said. “I used to have dreams about girls, wake up and be super guilty.” Moreover, she didn’t see herself reflected in the art of the time: “I didn’t have a me back then.”

“The dream scenario is that you don’t have to come out and that coming out, that’s just an outdated word,” she said. “The fact that we still say that we have to come out of something means that we can’t live as something from Day 1, just like a straight person.”

Last summer, she relocated from Horten to Oslo, moving in with her sister in a fourth-floor walk-up in the artsy Grunerlokka district and attending Westerdals, a college where she studied music production and songwriting.

But her career soon outpaced her schoolwork. In December, she’d just completed her first semester (with a paper on the era-defining Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin) and was spending a day perusing thrift stores — “I don’t know why but I always like grandpa stuff” — and upgrading her personal technology. At the cellphone store, she was recognized by the salesman, who’d seen her perform on Norwegian television when she won Urort, a national juried music competition. (Though when Ulven first made music, it was in Norwegian, she now sings in English.)

Throughout 2018 and the early part of this year, Ulven released a handful of songs on her own, without a label. She eventually gathered the best of them on an EP, “Chapter 1,” and she expects to do something similar, a “Chapter 2,” this year before committing to a full-length album. “Let’s see what girl in red is,” she said. “Let’s see what we have here.”

Indeed, the project is evolving in real time. Her earliest songs were punchy and urgent, but some more recent ones, like “Watch You Sleep,” have an elegiac, dreamlike quality. She produces her own songs, and films and edits her own videos, and recently bought herself both a cello and an OP-1 synthesizer/sampler, which she’s planning on teaching herself to play.

At times, her songs change midway — she arrived at the melody for “Girls” while working on a different song, about an accident her father suffered a few years ago: “Someone I love died today/When he came back home he was not the same.” But a bright melody kept forcing its way to the front, and Ulven grabbed it and remade it as a proud anthem for loudly claiming who you love.

It’s that directness that has earned her particularly fervent fans, many of whom are looking to Ulven for guidance and understanding. The night before the interview, she’d spent an hour or so on Instagram Live, eating guacamole and talking with several fans: “I appreciate you appreciating me appreciating you guys!” Their reactions ranged from ecstatic cool to speechless awe. Ulven is in several group chats with her fans, with names like “Girls in Red” and “Your Children” — she pops in frequently, encouraging them but also answering silly questions.

“I can’t help everyone come out — I’m not some gay sensei who can help everyone out,” she said. “But, to an extent, I feel like some of them are my responsibility.”

Being direct about her feelings in her songs has been crucial for her but also sets an example that Ulven herself didn’t have when she was younger. “Even though I can’t be there for everyone as, like, a shrink,” she said, “the music can be.”


Source link