girl in red Is Alive
Marie Ulven on her imminent debut album and making the leap from lo-fi DIY sensation to queer pop icon
“I think my schedule is the closest thing to real life Tetris right now,” Marie Ulven, better known as girl in red, tells me when I ask how her day’s been. She goes on to talk about rushing in between interviews, photoshoots, and other press stuff, all in Oslo, Norway. “It feels really weird.”
“I’m sure that’s especially weird for you because you’re only 22,” I say.
“Yep,” she says. “Just a young gal.”
She’s preparing for this Friday’s release of her long-awaited debut full-length, if i could make it go quiet. The album follows a thread of beloved, warm singles that she’s been unveiling for a couple of years. Ulven was in high school when they blew up. Her hits “i wanna be your girlfriend” and “we fell in love in october” — lo-fi love ballads that infiltrated my teenage romances upon their release in 2018 — have respectively accumulated 165 million listens and 209 million listens on Spotify (and counting). There’s a timelessness about them that will probably keep pushing those numbers up.
One of the main reasons Ulven’s songs have resonated so heavily since the beginning is because of their openness about her queer identity. Those two aforementioned hits are very obvious in portraying affection towards girls (e.g. “My girl, my girl, my girl/ You will be my girl”), and she even has a song just titled “girls,” which reckons with coming out: “I’ve been hiding for so long/ These feelings, they’re not gone.” What’s great about it is that they all range from wholesome and cute to horny and lovesick. It’s especially perfect for young people on TikTok, who find comfort and humor in the way girl in red has naturally become an icon for being transparently queer. Just her name has become a form of communication, a code in Internet lingo.
Ulven watched this all unfold while trudging through high school. “17th of June,” she says, reading off of her finsta, “I have a screenshot of ‘girls’ getting 200k streams in a week.” And that’s right next to all of her old posts of being in class and complaining into the void. “Here I have a picture of my neck and I’m like, ‘I fuckin’ hate eczema.’” Next to a picture of a D- she got on a math test.
Math test aside, Ulven got into her dream college, Westerdals Oslo School of Arts, Communication and Technology. She enrolled and was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in songwriting and production, “but that really doesn’t mean anything,” she says. She balanced both by sometimes turning down music opportunities and other times asking for extensions on assignments. Eventually, she asked for a year off. They said touring wasn’t an appropriate reason. She dropped out.
“Then they kept calling me for months after I won a few Norwegian awards. They were trying to get me back. That’s so awkward. Imagine being that school,” she reminisces, laughing. “I won this award and then they posted on all their socials, ‘Our student Marie Ulven just won this really great award.’ And that was months after I dropped out and they wouldn’t let me stay in the school. I commented, ‘I quit,’ and I got a bunch of likes. Everyone was like, ‘Marie, that was so savage.’ They deleted all their shit.”
She reiterates how happy she is that she dropped out — now fully immersed in the weirdness of the music industry, still adjusting to the “meetings and emails and planning and scheduling,” which she says is all “a part of the ‘game.’” She plays ball because she wants her music to be heard everywhere, and that ambition and bold attitude show on the record. Her music has always been a way of reckoning with hopelessness — in love, in mental health — and these new songs do that, but in a totally different way. It’s bolder, it’s louder, and it’s produced better. For the quirky single, “Serotonin,” she worked alongside Finneas, the producer who is, of course, also Billie Eilish’s brother. It’s safe to say this album was a big deal and that girl in red is entering a new era.
“Serotonin” is a prime example of the kind of mental health struggles Ulven deals with. Even with all of its dancey, electronic bombast, her voice is clearly enunciating serious thoughts: “I’m running low on serotonin/ Chemical imbalance got me twisting things/ Stabilize with medicine.” It still might be too edgy to play at normie parties or dance clubs (though it’s still too early to tell).
The pandemic, like it has done to probably everyone, had a massive impact on her mental health. “I have a lot of health anxiety. When suddenly the entire world started caring about health as well and being really worried about their well-being, things just got really bad for me,” she says. “I thought I had a tumor every single day and thought I was gonna die. I was dysfunctional for about four months.”
She’s doing better now, especially after she got a dog last year. This record, though, captures the ups and downs. “Body And Mind,” a sonically laid-back, synthy track, is actually an anxiety anthem: “I’ve been in the deep end since I realized/ There is a difference between body and mind/ I’ve been at my lowest for the longest time/ Knowing my existence is not one of a kind.”
“Noticing pains and noticing uncomfortable things in my body became so much more prevalent,” she says about the pandemic. “My therapist — or my old one, who I ghosted — said that the moment where you don’t have any symptoms for anything is when you’re dead. It makes sense. You’re always gonna have some weird pain or an itch. I’m just happy to be alive. This shit is so fuckin’ fragile. This shit that is my life. And your life. We’re just fuckin’ tiny, smushable fuckin’ things.”
She adds: “I think a lot of people live like they’re not gonna die sometimes. I think you should live like you’re gonna die.”
if i could make it go quiet really thrives in this intensity of feeling anything at all, whether it be a strong sense of yearning like on “hornylovesickmess” or a relentless jealousy on “You Stupid Bitch.” What separates these songs from the old ones is this tension of life, the simultaneous fear and gratitude that coalesce to spark a thrill. The lyrics are transparent in all of their pain and angst, but the bouncy, animated sound conveys that she’s trying to have a good time nonetheless. And she is — she dropped out of college for this. She’s playing the game, and she’s winning. She’s so victorious that she doesn’t have time to ruminate on death anymore; she has to do radio liners with her PR person.
“I gotta go now. Thanks for talking. I hope you have a good day. And take care of yourself and, shit, look twice when you cross the street, etcetera. Don’t die. OK, bye!”
if i could make it go quiet is out 4/30 via AWAL.