Girl In Red on the mental health struggles that inspired her debut album
As she prepares to release ‘If I Could Make It All Go Quiet’, the queer Norwegian musician discusses getting diagnosed with OCD and GAD.
Photography Jonathan Kise
Marie Ulven is having a weird day. The 22-year-old Norwegian musician better known as girl in red just got shat on by a bird… twice. I suggest she might have been blessed with some sort of good luck, but she's not so sure. “Maybe one poop undoes the other? Maybe I don't have good luck anymore?” The self-taught multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer is calling from the Oslo apartment where she lives with her roommate Luna, a Bernese Mountain Dog who’s currently shedding aggressively. “I’ll touch her and end up with like, a scarf in my hand,” she says. “She’s on her period and so am I, we’re synched, so I feel like there’s a really hectic energy in my apartment right now… a very unsettling energy.” With emotions already running wild, what better time to catch up with Marie and dive deep into her self-produced debut album, If I Could Make It All Go Quiet?
We first encountered girl in red at Oslo's waterside venue Blå during By:Larm festival in early 2019. She had just released Chapter 1 (the EP’s hit single “i wanna be your girlfriend” now has almost 170 million plays on Spotify alone) and local fans crammed together with international music industry types to watch her perform a raucous, raw and sweaty set that climaxed in an almighty stage dive. “A lot has changed since then,” she says. “Life is happening and it's happening really fucking fast.” The rest of 2019 saw a slot opening for Conan Grey, her second EP Chapter 2, and a sold-out headline tour of the US and Europe aptly named ‘World In Red’.
Then 2020 happened. Against all odds — the global pandemic and the onset of the worst period of mental health she’s ever experienced — Marie’s career continued to blossom, to the extent that midway through the year, kids everywhere adopted the phrase “do you listen to girl in red?” as a queer identifier. She is, after all, very vocal about her sexuality in her songwriting. Cue billboards posing the question to unsuspecting passersby around the world.
Marie started writing If I Could Make It All Go Quiet at the end of 2019 and worked on it right through 2020. “It’s about a bunch of shit that I’ve been going through this past year,” she explains. “I’ve been having a really, really tough time struggling with my mental health and sometimes it just feels like everything is so fucking loud — every feeling and thought takes over your entire body, all of your mind capacity. This album title is about wanting to deal with that noise and for it not to be so loud, or not to be so hard.” Across eleven emotional tracks (that doesn’t mean they’re not bops) she breaks this down. “Midnight Love” and the Euphoria-referencing “Rue” lead the way in 2020, eventually followed this last month by “Serotonin” and “You Stupid Bitch”, the latter being a hooky song about a friendship that could’ve been more.
What’s If I Could Make It All Go Quiet all about then, Marie?
“Serotonin” is me talking about my intrusive thoughts and my OCD. “Did You Come?” is about me being cheated on. “Body and Mind” is about realising that I’m just a person and calling myself out for not loving myself. “Horny Lovesick Mess” is about being on tour and being really fucking horny on a bus with a bunch of dudes and being really lonely and feeling like I messed up my relationship. These things are all really, you know… I think maybe I downplay the honesty in my lyrics sometimes? That I don’t realise how honest I’m actually being because I’m just like, well yeah, of course, there is no other way. Maybe I should be more like, yeah! That was good of me for being so honest! But I’m in that bubble all the time, so I guess I lose track? I need to start appreciating that because I have some tendencies to not think anything good about myself.
Talking of which, you were diagnosed with OCD and GAD [Generalised Anxiety Disorder] this year. What did it mean to you to get a diagnosis?
Getting a diagnosis, especially with GAD, was so… it just put so many pieces of the puzzle together. My entire life I’ve been so worried and so scared about absolutely everything. As a kid, my mom would be like, this is just a normal kid being scared of weird things. But I’ve been scared of swallowing food! I’ve had so many weird hang ups throughout my life, so getting diagnosed just made a lot of sense. I felt like it was easier to compartmentalise that part of me. Getting diagnosed with OCD made sense too. I have a lot of behavioural patterns that I’ve never actually thought of as OCD because of the way we view it — if you say ‘OCD’ people think about the need to have it clean, the need to wash every door handle. That’s one way to have it, but that’s not the only way.
And what’s your way? How does OCD look for you?
Well, I have a lot of health anxieties. I get a thought or feeling that I’m sick and that I have to go through a very long process and do very specific things to try to feel like I’m not going to die. And of course they’re always terminal diseases and it’s like three diseases every single day. But I’m a lot better now! I wasn’t able to function at that point; I was completely dysfunctional and I had to go home because I couldn’t do anything — I was grieving my own death every single day.
That sounds incredibly full on. You document the use of medication to control such things on “Serotonin”, which you collaborated with Finneas on. How was it working together?
He DMed me saying ‘this rap part is so cool!’ and we sent the song back and forth, did a few Zoom calls, and he gave it extra energy with some double kicks and a really cool snare. It was cool to have one of my favourite producers involved. It’s definitely one of my favourite tracks I’ve ever made. I’m so proud of that song.
The lyrics are about your intrusive thoughts and I wondered if you’ve developed any coping methods for that?
My number one method of coping with intrusive thoughts now is simply knowing that a thought is just a thought, and that what you’re thinking does not need to dictate who you are and what you do. Knowing that is so important when it comes to, you know, thinking you’re gonna jump out of a window or just take an axe and go loose on everyone in your apartment. You don’t have to do those things! You don’t want to do those things! And the reason that you’re thinking about these incredibly crazy things is because they’re so far off from who you are. And knowing that was such a relief for me, to be able to be like, oh ok… I’m not crazy.
And everyone has wild thoughts sometimes.
Yeah, everyone has like 8000 thoughts a day or some shit — every now and again you’re gonna get a weird one.
The song “Body + Mind” touches on similar topics. You’ve said that it’s about discovering the difference between the two. Could you tell me a bit about that process, that discovery?
I was going through a lot of weird things happening to my body that created a dissonance between who I was and what I felt like was happening to me. That dissonance allows you to realise that there’s a difference between who you are as a person and the body you exist within. And while your physical body is very much affected by what happens in your head, it’s that different level of separation: the core essence of who you are is different than how you feel and how your body reacts. Something happened to me that made me realise that. And that realisation made me really depressed. I was so depressed last year. I was hating myself and I had never hated myself ever, and I had always struggled with understanding how somebody could. But I developed this immense and overwhelming feeling of self-hatred and this song is me calling myself out for that. The chorus is like, “I’ve had my deepest cries for now,” like, I’m gonna be okay and look forward. I wrote this song when I was starting to get better.
This album tracks this low period in your mental health but it’s also tied to a very high point in your career, with “Horny Lovesick Mess”, about a time you’re on a headline tour of America — seeing billboards of your face around New York. Do you think the two are linked? Do you think your mental health might have been impacted by your career?
I think it got affected by touring and the fact that I didn’t take care of myself. I didn’t have any boundaries and I just kept going, kept going, kept going. So I think in that way, my mental health was heavily affected. But I’m a lot better now. I take care of myself, and now I just really want to go back on the road and try again but with this other mindset. I just feel really lucky.
And you do have a tour coming up, in 2022 you’ll be back on the road around Europe!
I do! That’s the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m so happy. I just hope that it makes other people feel hopeful too; that we’re actually gonna see each other again.
Could you tell me about track 9, “.”, which sort of has no name?
Full stop! I literally had nothing else to say than what I had just written, so putting a title there felt like I would be saying too much. No title felt right. Also the song is about something ending, and this full stop felt like it was marking that.
Talking of endings, why end on the instrumental track “It Would Feel Like This”?
A couple different reasons. I feel like the album is very full, very eclectic. It was good to give it some time to breathe. Also, it joins to the album title, If I Could Make It Go Quiet… “It Would Feel Like This”. It feels like what it sounds like, for it to all be okay. It also feels kind of like the ending of a movie and there are so many stories on this album, it just had to have a slower ending.
Is there a moment on the album that’s particularly meaningful to you?
There’s one that really sticks out to me and that’s on “Apartment 402”. I really like the lyrics: “But there’s a crack in every wall / Is there a way out after all?” That, to me, is really beautiful because I live in apartment 402. I have a very weird relationship to this place: sometimes I feel like I could die here and nobody would know. That’s actually a lyric in that song: “The place I call my home / I could die here and nobody would know” or some shit. I think a lot of people have felt that, like, what if I died now? Would anybody even notice?
I think Luna would notice.
Luna would definitely notice, but you wanna know some bizarre shit I read?
Dogs eat their humans?
They fucking do! I fully believe it. I follow this scientist on Instagram and she posted a picture of a man who had gotten his face eaten by his dog. He fell down the stairs and he died and the dog was like, well, what the fuck am I gonna do? So he ate his owner’s face! If my dog ate me… fucking hell. But yeah, I love those lyrics about the cracks in every wall because they feel hopeful.
And we all need hope right now. Marie, what’s your post-pandemic plan?
Hugging my fans! Jumping into a crowd of my fans! I just really, really miss my fans. I’m getting a bunch of sweet messages from them all the time, but I wanna be on the road and I wanna be sitting in the back of a taxi on the way home from a concert, feeling absolutely exhausted but very much fulfilled.