Singer-Songwriter Marie Ulven, Known As Girl in Red, Stays Open-Minded

As singer-songwriter Marie Ulven, better known as girl in red, prepares to release her first LP, she asks her fans to stay open-minded about where she is now and what might come next.

Zach Schlein

Portrait by Isak Jenssen.

When Marie Ulven picks up the phone, she apologizes for not answering a FaceTime call just minutes earlier. Although it’s become near-second nature to communicate via video chat in the age of social distancing, the Norwegian singer-songwriter is forthright about not being all that into it at the moment.

“I’m having a bad face…time this year. Well, that wasn’t intended as a pun about bad FaceTime, but my face is not having it this year,” Ulven says. We both agree no one’s had much of a great anything in 2020.

Ulven is as candid in conversation as she is in her music. As girl in red, she’s built an international following on the back of plucky, guitar-driven songs grappling with depression and navigating sexual politics as a young queer woman. Though her debut album hasn’t yet been released, singles like “we fell in love in october” as well as EPs chapter 1 and chapter 2 all carry the bearings of a fully-formed artist. Listen to chapter 1 standouts “say anything” or “4am” and you’ll hear the clever, sullen storytelling of Morrissey and the jangly guitar playing of Johnny Marr, all emanating from one singularly talented performer.

Comparisons to The Smiths’s powerhouse duo never come up in our conversation. Even if they did, it’s possible Ulven would balk at them; when asked about the artists that drive her crazy, the ones she follows with the utmost devotion, her answers are unapologetically pop-skewed.

“I literally said two days ago ‘I want to be the next Taylor Swift’ as a joke,” she laughs. “She has gone perfectly from being America’s sweetheart country girl to making banging pop music and then sliding a little bit back over to country vibes. And now, she’s like fully indie!”

Ulven also name-drops Justin Bieber and indie songstress Phoebe Bridgers, but Swift is a particular focus of her enthusiasm. She’s grown smitten with the pop star’s latest record, Folklore, during quarantine, calling it “the indie album I didn’t know I would love,” or expect.

“I wouldn’t say I am the next Taylor Swift because that’s obviously a joke,” she clarifies. “But I am really inspired by her way of evolving and keeping her feeling. You can always hear that it’s a Taylor Swift song, even though the production and the composition can be completely different. It still sounds like her. And I just think that’s so cool.”

If anything, Ulven is reverse-engineering Swift’s sonic trajectory. She’s known for guitar-centric music—although she resents how she’s so often described as “bedroom pop”—but is fully cognizant of her capacity to move beyond it and flex her creative muscles, beginning with her forthcoming LP world in red.

“There’s a lot of piano on the album,” she says, citing the lead instrument on recent single “midnight love.” “I really love piano songs and I like the instrument, so it’s fun to include to also show that, ‘Hey, I’m not just a guitarist,’ or ‘There’s actually more to me, so please don’t put me in a box just yet.’” It’s impossible to say when she’ll be able to tour world in red. Ulven spent much of 2019 traipsing around the world, with sold-out shows across the US and much of Europe. 2020 was slated to be even more ambitious, with appearances scheduled for some of the world’s most prominent festivals, including Coachella and Primavera Sound in Barcelona.

“I felt like a superstar for a year; it was great,” she jokes. She admits to going through the same routine many have endured in lockdown—a wash, rinse, repeat cycle of fruitful creativity followed by profound depression and boredom—but remains steadfastly committed to making the most of her newfound free time to work on world in red. Paraphrasing a book she recently finished, Ulven says, “Amateurs work when they’re inspired, but pros, they work when they’re not inspired. I want to be able to still deliver shit when I’m not in a good place, also.” For someone who’s barely scraped the surface of their twenties, it’s an awfully disciplined perspective.

“I just want to plant some DNA for every single direction I can go and be like, ‘Yo, I can do all this stuff. I hope you don’t know what I’m gonna do next, because I think it’s going to be lit.’ If that makes sense?”