The Big Read – Girl In Red: “World domination. That’s what I want”

As we launch the NME 100 – our pick of the 100 essential new artists for 2020 – we meet Girl In Red, the 20-year-old Norwegian whose lo-fi indie-pop bangers are already changing lives. With "world domination" on the agenda for the year, Andrew Trendell meets the Billie Eilish and Matty Healy-approved star to talk about anxiety, queer representation, hardcore fandom and her love of fingerboarding...

Marie Ulven, aka Girl In Red, bounces down the canal path into the artsy and industrial Hackney Wick cafe, baggy skater jeans dragging along the floor. In the midst of a whirlwind day of press as she wraps up her European tour, the 20-year-old Norwegian is excited as fuck just at the prospect of ordering a hot chocolate. It stands to reason then that her enthusiasm at the prospect of world domination is off the scale. “All the shows are sold out!” she beams. “It’s fucking lit!”

Her energy is both infectious and totally understandable. Her first London show at Camden Assembly in January 2019 was to around 200 people, but on this November night she’ll end her year at the sold-out Electric Ballroom with a crowd of 1,500. Across two EPs – ‘Chapter 1’ and ‘Chapter 2’ – her self-produced, honest and arresting lo-fi anthems of teenage anxiety, everyday depression, queerness, lust, heartache and confusion have amassed millions of streams, legions of fans and approval from the likes of  Billie Eilish and The 1975’s Matty Healy. But that was just 2019. It’s 2020 that she’s calling ‘The Year Of World In Red’.

We can see it too. That’s why we’re kicking off the NME 100 2020 – our tips for the year’s essential new artists – with Girl In Red. With massive tunes, religiously rowdy gigs, and a dedicated young fanbase hanging on to her shameless message of fun, progress and acceptance, she’s the hero that the decade needs – and one to win over indie kids across the planet. Among the peers of her generation rewriting the rulebook of what it is to be  the rockstar, 2020 is hers for the taking.

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

Born in the quiet North West Norwegian town of Horten in 1999, Ulven enjoyed her childhood with her sisters and divorced parents, curious about music but more obsessed with The Simpsons and fingerboarding (the latter is an obsession that still consumes her to this day… more on that later – but you can check out some footage of her fingerboard battling as a youngster below). Still, she sensed that she wanted to be “a superstar, a pirate, or a pirate superstar”.

At 12 she was gifted her first guitar, and four years later, inspired by The Smiths and other “cool bedroom artists”, started releasing her own songs on Soundcloud in her native tongue and under her real name. You can still find Marie Ulven material on Spotify that shows the embryonic elements of the Girl In Red sound, but she insists that her early music was “not good”. To prove her point, she gets her phone out and plays us some. We don’t speak Norwegian too well, so we ask her to translate.

“You’re running away from me / Far away ahead, you’re turning around…” she says with a shrug and a cringe. “That song was about a boy. Since I started releasing all my Girl In Red music, I’ve pretty much been out. My first song for the project was ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’, which was totally about a girl.”

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

Girl In Red came to be in 2017 after Ulven realised she was in love with her best friend and tried to find her at a concert. She spotted her wearing a red sweater and texted her the words ‘girl in red’. Nothing came of it, but that feeling of romance and excitement tinged with a little longing set out the direction for Girl In Red’s music from that moment.

As Girl In Red, Ulven sees no need to code her thoughts and feelings. They’re pretty direct, and that’s what her fans buy into. “They’re so pretty it hurts / I’m not talking ’bout boys / I’m talking ’bout girls / They’re so pretty with their button-up shirts,” she sings on the bristling rush of ‘Girls’, while on the tender ‘We Fell In Love In October’ she recalls days lost to “smoking cigarettes on the roof” and vows “You will be my girl / You will be my world.”

The first time NME spoke to Ulven was during her first US tour last April, where she’d already found an audience so devoted that they’d “just run right up and scream in my face”. She was already changing and saving lives. “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,” she told us. “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’.”

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

Back in London, she tells us how her fanbase is growing larger and louder by the day.

How does it feel seeing more and more of your fans in the flesh, instead of just streaming numbers?

“I’ll see two million streams on my new song, which is awesome but it’s also this number that I can’t understand. To see 1,000 people in front of you singing to that song is when it really gets cool.”

How would you describe your relationship with your fans?

“Right now, I feel like it’s really healthy. In the beginning, I think I got too close to some people. Not in a weird way, but they would pour their entire emotional life onto me and I would try to help them and give advice and stuff like that. Eventually, I realised that I don’t have enough emotional capacity to also take care of all these other people.”

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

But there’s a little more distance now?

“I’m in some group WhatsApp chats and still connect with them, but it’s not like I’m a shrink to them. It feels more healthy to me now. I still get a lot of messages from people asking me to help them, but I try to stay away from that kind of stuff because I know that it’s harmful for me. I wish I could help everybody, that would be ideal. Now it’s really good and I feel really close to everyone I meet. Everyone’s like, ‘We wanna grow with you!’ and I’m like, ‘And I love you!’”

Do you feel as if anything is out of bounds when writing a song?

“I don’t feel like that. I think that everything I experience is pretty normal stuff. It’s not like I’ve killed somebody and am trying to hide it. I have a song called ‘Dead Girl In The Pool’, but that’s not actually about killing anybody. My fans are genuine, and we connect because I’m honest and real with them.”

Marie’s publicist tells us to wrap up so they can Uber it across town to soundcheck in Camden. We bundle in to continue the interview, and wind through North London joking about how ‘showbiz’ all this seems and how the paparazzi could chase us at any second.  “I’ve never understood that whole side of the press,” she says, recalling how being playlisted by Billie Eilish saw a Norwegian tabloid suddenly writing about her. “I was like, ‘Oh now they care!’” she laughs.

“She’s the woman that’s dominating the whole world,” she says of Eilish. “I met her when I was at a festival in Belgium. She’s just killing it.”

And how about that shout-out from The 1975’s Matty Healy? “He took a picture of a poster that I was on and commented with a little heart,” swoons Marie. “I was like, ‘Wow! He knows I exist!’ My sister messaged me like, ‘WHAT?! WHY IS MATTY HEALY TALKING ABOUT YOU ON HIS INSTA STORY?’

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

As the journey continues, Marie begins quizzing NME about the travel logistics of Taylor Swift’s ‘London Boy’, before professing her love of Swift albums ‘Red’ and ‘1989’. All the while, she’s practising a pretty great mockney accent and working the word ‘mandem’ into almost every sentence.

After soundcheck we nip outside the Electric Ballroom to find an army of teenagers who’ve been queuing for hours on this freezing Tuesday afternoon. Screaming and waving rainbow flags, they form a line that snakes around the block. When they pile into the venue they quickly clean out the merch table, then the real party begins – the show is as far from ‘bedroom music’ as it comes, with a moshpit, flags flying and Marie sailing over their heads crowdsurfing. A few kids fall down and get carried out, but good vibes remain. This isn’t just a show – it’s a community.

A few weeks later, we catch up again at a photoshoot in Willesden Junction. “How’s it goin’, mandem?” she greets us. It seems to have caught on. “After that show, I was just like ‘MANDEM! MANDEM!’ Now it’s becoming a problem. It’s becoming more of a part of my daily life.”

During the shoot, Marie swoons along to The Japanese House’s 2019 album ‘Good At Falling’ (“I’m obsessed with this record,” she says, “I listen to it every day on the road”), crushes on her PR’s dog, Larry, and makes the most of the curved, ramp-like edges of the room to pull off some of her best fingerboard moves. Remember those tiny, palm-sized skateboards that were big in the ’00s? Marie wants to bring them back. Honestly. “This new one that I bought in Berlin was €140. No regrets!” she beams, proudly showing off her new board. She plans to start selling official Girl In Red fingerboards on her merch stand, too.

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

What’s it like making these songs in your bedroom and then taking them out to bigger and bigger venues?

“That’s super, super weird. From being home and living with my sister in this normal sort of life to seeing people outside the venues losing their shit just at me walking by – I never thought anyone would do that with me. I never thought I’d be that person where someone is like, ‘Oh, I want your sweaty towel!’”

With your music being so raw and full of energy, do you get pissed off when people pass it off as being ‘cute’? 

“I’ve seen a few things calling my music ‘cute bedroom songs’. I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? My single ‘Bad Idea’ slaps ass! It’s a rock n’ roll tune! It’s a pop song!’ I don’t really care what people label my music as. As long as they like it. Labels don’t really mean anything. It’s what you feel about the song that matters.”

Yeah, ‘Bad Idea’ is about as real as it gets… 

“That’s a pretty direct song. Nobody asks me what that song is about because everybody knows. When I wrote it, I saw these red colours in my head and was just seeing me and some other girl going at it. I just wanted this really intense video of these two girls doing something that they probably shouldn’t because it’s not a good idea in the long term. I like that song, it goes so hard live. That’s fun.”

How does it feel to read that you’re a ‘queer spokesperson for your generation’? 

“I’m not. I just happen to like girls, make music and have a platform. That doesn’t mean I’m saying, ‘Yo, I know everything about queer culture, and now I’m always gonna speak about it and it’s gonna be right’. I don’t think people think of me as some kind of sensei who knows everything about being queer and queer history. All I can do is say ‘from my perspective’ and think about how it might be from other perspectives, but right now I don’t even know what I’m saying. Still, when someone is hateful and homophobic I’m like, ‘You’re wasting your time honey! We are gonna win this representation war’!”

Admitting that there’s still “not enough” queer representation in pop culture in 2020, Ulven wants art to normalise the conversation. “We need more queer art and movies,” she tells us. “Let’s get rid of terms like ‘coming out’ and just make it normal”. If there is going to be a wave of work to reshape and modernise perspectives in all fields, it’s going to come from Generation Z – who are already shifting the boundaries of what it is to be and how to become a ‘pop star’. Look at Billie Eilish, Clairo, Cuco, Beabadoobee, Conan Gray, King Princess, and Snail Mail – all born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, all self-made stars via the internet and who speaking directly to their own generation about unique experiences and shared values.

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

“I think with artists like Billie Eilish, Clairo, King Princess and myself – if I’m allowed to put myself in that – people are getting into it because you can see that it’s real and that they mean it,” says Marie. “No one’s trying to be something that they’re not.”

She continues: “Maybe we’re all just chillin’ and vibin’. We’re all just doing what we want, and maybe it’s the way we’re doing it. There’s an authenticity.”

It’s the generation that’s fighting to be heard, in no small part thanks to teenage climate change activist and icon-in-the-making Greta Thunberg. “Legend!” shouts Marie at the mention of her name. “She is leading the biggest revolution of our time right now. She’s going to be in the history books like Martin Luther King.”

If there’s a political element to Girl In Red’s music, she claims that it’s her existence as an artist that sees her fighting for representation, rather than singing about it. “I would rather write about feelings,” she admits. “Feelings are universal. I don’t want to write a song about politics, I don’t want to write a song about the right to love. I just want to write about loving.”

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

After our interview, Marie will fly home for some much-needed time off during which she plans to spend taking photos, drinking coffee, finding ways to avoid “mindlessly scrolling Instagram” and yes, fingerboarding. There’s also the small matter of finishing her debut album – which she hopes to have out by autumn 2020. Quizzed about the record’s progress she pulls out her phone and asks “Do you wanna hear the best chorus I’ve ever written in my life?”

Sure! Why not?

What follows is an embellished take on the Girl In Red sound, with summery hip-hop beats bouncing over post-punk guitars and – yes – a chorus that absolutely slaps. “I feel like this is going to be the first song on the record,” she tells us.

She plays us another demo with the working title of ‘Love You Stupid Bitch’ that has a catchy, love-struck refrain: “The perfect one for you is me”.

Fresh sonic directions aside, Marie tells us that her new songs are turning out to be “very grown up and very dark”. This is an artist who thrives on real life drama to act as her muse. “I need to find a girl that can break my heart and then do some stuff. I need to experience something. I need to start living.”

Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden
Girl In Red, shot for NME. Photos by Fiona Garden

Despite craving a little more heartache, Girl In Red is pumped by what’s around the corner and we’re convinced 2020 will be her year. As is she. “World In Red, man – it’s coming,” she concludes. “World domination, that’s what I want.”