“It’s not until you go on tour that you realise how big this thing is,” Marie Ulven, aka Girl In Red, tells NME during some downtime on her pretty full-on US tour. “I’m usually mostly in my room and isolated from everything, so seeing all the online numbers and followers shows you that things are growing but I don’t really understand it sometimes. Then I go on tour and have fans hugging me, writing letters and crying in front of me.”
This only became possible when she started writing in English instead of her native Norwegian, because she found it more “interesting and universal”. Ulven’s lo-fi tales of modern boredom, teenage depression and making sense of her sexuality have landed millions of streams. If there’s one thing that Girl In Red does well, it’s connect.
“The other night in Salt Lake City this girl just ran right up to me and screamed right in my face,” laughs Ulven. “It’s moments like that when I realise how intense it really is.”
She continues: “I don’t want to get like ‘Oh, there’s people paying attention now! What the fuck am I gonna do?’ That’s pretty typical, but I don’t want it to stop me creatively. It sucks when you make something and nobody listens. I had that for a while.”
Not any more. As the hype becomes manifested ahead of a London headline show and an anticipated showcase at new music festival The Great Escape, we catch up with Girl In Red to talk about finding her voice and helping other young people theirs.
Does anything ever feel out of bounds in your lyrics?
“You need to find a balance for it. Sometimes I write songs that are too personal. I’m not like outing a person or anything like that, but the songs will be about very specific incidents. I don’t think that anyone would relate to that lyric, so I have to find a different way to say it sometimes.”
Do you feel any kind of pressure to be a ‘spokesperson’ for queer teenagers?
“I feel like there are more artists like this now. When I was ‘a kid’, which wasn’t that long ago, I didn’t really have any queer icons to look up to. Now there’s like Hayley Kiyoko, King Princess, Snail Mail and all of these queer kids making great music. I think that’s awesome. It’s what we need. We need more queer representation in music and art.”
Is that why you have this relationship with your fans?
“I feel like the last couple of years have been lacking in honesty and authenticity. That’s why people are clinging on to this wave of artists just being themselves. My fanbase is sort of like that too. I have a bunch of queer kids following me because they see themselves in me and the lyrics, because they need that direct ability to relate to something.
“I have people messaging me all the time to say like ‘Yo, I came out to your song’, or ‘I’m in the car right now and I just played ‘Girls’ in front of mom and I told her I’m gay’. There are so many amazing reactions like that I get every day.”
Have you faced much opposition?
“I also get messages from people saying ‘I’m not gay, but I like your music’. I hate that, because it kind of sounds like ‘Disclaimer: I’M NOT GAY, but I like Girl In Red’. I wouldn’t go up to Ariana Grande and be like ‘Yo, you’re probably singing about a boy but I like this song’. What? ‘Thank U, Next’ is a bop either way. People need to stop putting labels on music.”
“I occasionally get messages from people saying ‘Stop writing songs about lesbians, it’s so annoying’. I’m like ‘Fuck off, I don’t give a shit’. It’s just pointless when people say stuff like that. I ain’t ever gonna stop this gay shit!”
‘Summer Depression’ gets some pretty profound comments on YouTube. Why do you think so?
“I don’t want to say what this song is about, because it’s harder for people to make it their own. For me at least, summer is full of expectations. Life in general, too – you’re expected to be happy all the time. What we see on social media is just a bunch of highlights of other people’s lives. When you’re not happy and looking at all these people, it kind of sucks.”
Do you still feel isolated?
“I often feel really disconnected from people. As a kid, I’d be so alone during the summer because everyone was just travelling and doing all these things. I still get that feeling now during summer. I’m just in my head, laying in bed all the time, imagining that you’re waiting for school to start. Summer is just a floating existence. You don’t have to be anywhere and no one is waiting for you. My life is like that now. I have to make my own day. My life is always like a summer depression almost.”
“It’s just pointless when people say to stop writing about my sexuality. I ain’t ever gonna stop this gay shit!” – Girl In Red
How does it affect you now you’re on tour and writing?
“Even though I’m in different places, I’m always me and always have my head with me. A couple of weeks ago I was on my way to Atlanta and I wrote a song about Tinder. I also wrote a song about how ‘gay stories’ never seem to have a happy ending. Someone either dies or takes their own life because it’s so hard being gay. That was an inspiration from a comment on YouTube.”
What are you working on right now?
“I have a folder on my desktop that says ‘ALBUM 2020’. I don’t know if I’m gonna release an album in 2020. I’ve fallen in love with ‘Good At Falling’ by The Japanese House and have been listening to it three times a day, every single day. Listening to a body of work like that all the way through makes you realise that an album can just be so wholesome. That’s what I want to do. I’ve just been releasing stuff as I write it because I don’t have a very long attention span.”
How do you measure success after everything that’s already happened?
“Sometimes I underestimate myself. I tell myself, ‘Marie, you’re not going to have any goals, you’re just going to go with this’. I always put goals too low. My goal in my entire career would have been just going on a US tour, but I’ve done that now. In school I never imagined that happening. The best way to measure success is be happy with what you create and get it out there. You can’t take it for granted that someone is listening.”
As well as performing at The Great Escape 2019, Girl In Red headlines Heaven in London on Wednesday May 8.