Girl In Red: “Gen Z expect more honesty, intimacy and rawness”

Girl In Red, aka Marie Ulven, joins NME In Conversation to discuss her debut album 'If I Could Make It Go Quiet', queer culture, TikTok and Billie Eilish

“World domination. That’s what I want”. That was the bold mission statement from Marie Ulven, aka Girl In Red, when she appeared as our first Big Read cover star of 2020 after heading up the NME 100, the annual list of new talent set to dominate the year.

Well, she’s not far off now. After racking up millions of streams and inspiring TikTok trends, her status as a queer-pop icon in the making is set to be cemented with her long-awaited debut album, ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’, arriving at the end of this month. Just don’t expect an album that deals directly with her ever-increasing fame.

“I feel like the theme of the record is just having a bunch of feelings and letting them out. It’s about life. That shit is intense,” Ulven tells NME. “I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with me becoming a person that a lot of people perceive. That’s a very long way of saying ‘famous’, but I just don’t identify with the word ‘famous’.”

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Ahead of the release of ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’, we jumped on Zoom for a long chat with Girl In Red, discussing her journey so far, what to expect from her debut and what Billie Eilish thinks of her lyrics. Here’s what we learned.

Her debut album is more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘bedroom pop’ 

Despite not having an album out yet, Girl In Red has had more multi-million-streaming hits than most. In 2019, she released ‘Beginnings’ – a vinyl compilation of her two EPs ‘Chapter 1’ and ‘Chapter 2’. Featuring the likes of ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’, ‘Girls’, ‘Bad Idea!’, ‘Summer Depression’ and ‘Dead Girl In The Pool’, it was wall-to-wall indie-pop bangers. Still, she knew she had room to grow.

“‘Beginnings’ was the start of me getting to know myself as a musician and a producer,” Ulven tells NME. “What role do I play in music? Who am I as an artist? I didn’t want to rush a debut album because people had heard my songs. I needed to figure this shit out.”

With a combination of widescreen, cinematic sounds (‘Rue’, ‘Midnight Love’, ‘Apartment 402’ ‘It Would Feel Like This’) and truly blockbuster bops (‘You Stupid Bitch’, ‘Serotonin’, ‘Did You Come’), ‘If I Could Make You Go Quiet’ retains all the intimacy and honesty she’s become known for, but sounds far too huge for her old label of ‘bedroom pop’.

“I didn’t go into this album saying, ‘Let’s stray away from my previous stuff’, it’s more about saying, ‘This is who I am now and I don’t make that type of music anymore’,” she admits. “I mean I could, but I made that music at the time because that was the shit I was hearing at the time and that was the shit I was hearing in my head. Now I don’t. Now it sounds a lot bigger and it could be on one of those bigger Hollywood stages!”

Billie Eilish thinks she’s “bonkers” 

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Girl In Red’s recent single ‘Serotonin’ was co-produced by none other than Billie Eilish’s brother and collaborator Finneas. Having started out as a clip on TikTok, the song then took on a life of its own on the video sharing app, but still needed “fresh ears and a fresh take”. Cue Finneas, with his inimitable “extra energy” and “weird suggestions”. Soon, they had a trap-flecked wonky pop gem on their hands, that deals with “intrusive thoughts like cutting my hands off” and coming to terms with the darker corners of the mind.

Of course, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t ask if Billie heard the track during the writing process. “She did hear it,” replies Marie. “Billie said that the lyrics were bonkers, and that’s insane. I’m so stoked.”

Could a Billie Eilish collaboration be on the cards now?

“No! I think that’s a pretty far-out question,” laughs Ulven. “I would love that one day, never say never, but right now I don’t know who I am when it comes to working with other musicians in that way. It was OK to have Finneas come on board because it was my track and my story. Doing a song with another person and having both our names on it is something I need to figure out, but luckily I have time – unless I get hit by a bus.”

TikTok is a much happier place than Twitter

“Being an artist in the social media era is kind of strange because I feel like people have a difficulty separating the artist from the art sometimes,” says Ulven. “That’s a very recurring question. Picasso did some weird shit, but should we still be promoting his art?”

It’s questions like this and the knee-jerk, reactionary nature of Twitter that led to Marie “distancing herself” from the platform. “There’s so much weird shit that goes down on there,” she tells us. “None of my artist friends have Twitter any more, and I know why – it’s just not a good place. That’s a real shame because there are probably a lot of cute people there who would love to hang out online.”

Away from the complications of cancel culture and incessant bickering, Ulven feels more at home getting her “dopamine hit” of “light-hearted fun shit” on TikTok; and it turns out TikTok’s a fan of Ulven too.

Last year the question ‘Do you listen to Girl In Red’ became code on TikTok for users seeking other like-minded queer friends, this trend later inspiring a global billboard campaign.

“I think it’s pretty dope! It’s rare that art can affect culture in that way,” says Ulven. “That’s everyone’s dream to make that kind of impact. We put up posters all around the world because I thought it was cool to take this TikTok culture thing, put it into real life and make it tangible. To see people hanging by the posters like they were standing in line for a concert was really cool during a time when no one could do that because there are no shows.”

Not only is she honoured to be part of the language of TikTok’s queer culture, but she’s only too happy to see the baton passed along. “What’s really fun now is that [teenage YouTube sensation] Jojo Siwa came out as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and now people are like: ‘Do you listen to Jojo Siwa?’” smiles Ulven. “Now it’s counterculture and people know what that means because it came from another place. That’s so cool. The comments are fun because everyone’s like, ‘Girl In Red is crying now, she lost her job’!”

Girl In Red
Girl In Red (Picture: Jonathan Kise / Press)

She’ll never censor herself in her music

Ulven explains that ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’ sees her “diving a little bit deeper into my mental health” and “fighting against the way I’m always talking down to myself”. She recognises that it’s impossible to realise any kind of truth if you’re censoring yourself, with her lyrics about depression, queer relationships, doubts and modern life portraying a brutal honesty.

“Gen Z crave and expect more honesty, intimacy and almost a rawness,” she says. “There’s an increasing amount of people who aren’t connecting to music that’s too polished. The world is so saturated with content right now, so to even care about anything you need to connect. No one has the emotional capacity or even the attention span to connect with something that they don’t truly believe in.”

Ulven adds: “I overthink a lot and I also have a really rude inner voice that just hates me and says, ‘Oh Marie, you suck! You shouldn’t say this! What the fuck?’ I try not to think too much about what people are going to say because I feel like otherwise I’ll start filtering myself. It’s art. Art doesn’t have trigger warnings.”

Girl In Red is already about to start work on a new album

Although ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’ hasn’t yet been released, Girl In Red is already planning her next project. “I just want to sit down and make a new record,” she tells NME. “I think records are pretty hot, man. Records are sexy. Putting out a record is such a big statement nowadays. You gotta have something that’s worth checking out and I’m lowkey tired of singles. I am lowkey tired of just getting a song here and there.

“I just want to get a body of work from someone. With anything in the Girl In Red project I just want to be thoughtful. With the music, I just want to put out a record because that’s what I want.”

Girl In Red releases ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’ on April 30.

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