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How Girl in Red Summoned the Voices in Her Head

The Norwegian bedroom pop artist is finding the words to make things better.

by Ben Boddez

Thanks in part to the unrelenting power of TikTok, Marie Ulven’s recording project, girl in red, is one of the most definitive musical voices of Generation Z. The Norwegian indie-pop artist’s bedroom-pop love songs have racked up hundreds of millions of streams while soundtracking the latest challenges and trends on social media. She’s even inadvertently inspired the trending phrase for covertly identifying as lesbian: “Do you listen to girl in red?”

The presence of someone who so explicitly comments on their highly specific and relatable struggles with mental health and the queer experience has proven extremely important to youths trying to find their way. And while there are a number of rising artists who are lyrically open in these areas, none cut right to the core quite like Ulven.

On her debut full-length album, if i could make it go quiet, she combines her lo-fi bedroom pop sensibilities with a newfound grungy edge while lyrically addressing and overcoming the pesky and persistent voices in her head that attempt to diminish her self-worth daily while sending dark thoughts and graphic images to her brain.

On lead single “Serotonin,” assisted by production from Billie Eilish’s brother FINNEAS, she forgoes the typical surface-level platitudes about mental health and outlines the scientific reasoning for the chemical imbalance that makes her want to stay in bed all day, normalizing the notion of having impulsive and destructive thoughts. Ulven’s own thoughts are bolstered by a demonic vocal filter and unhinged scatting. “I’ve gotten so many people being like ‘oh my God, I didn’t know I was alone in feeling this,’ so I feel like it’s important,” she says. “I feel like people are very much open to anything nowadays, because the Internet is crazy, and songs are getting crazier as well.”

For a project that feels so personal, Ulven confesses that she often forgets the process of songwriting and becomes surprised by her own lyricism, drawing a blank on where she was or what she was feeling when some of her more confessional thoughts poured out onto the page. “It kind of feels like a magical experience,” she says. “The songs on this record, sometimes I’m like ‘I swear to God I actually wrote these songs,’ but I don’t know where they’re coming from. I genuinely can’t recall making or writing this.”

Some of the project’s most soul-baring moments are hidden behind a small degree of abstraction, making the listener do the work to uncover Ulven’s deepest secrets. There’s an audio recording of Ulven in the hospital after suffering a panic attack where she speaks in her native Norwegian, while the track “rue” sees her singing about being haunted by thoughts of self-harm – but on the surface, the song describes the experiences of a character from the TV show Euphoria that Ulven related to.

if i could make it go quiet
if i could make it go quiet
girl in red

“I feel like I’m in such a healthier place mentally, because I was able to realize that I’m not going to be okay if I don’t change the stuff that really fucks me up.”

Just as Ulven pledges on several songs to fight back against her mental health issues so that she doesn’t leave her family and friends behind, the character Rue, who the song is named for, goes through the same self-betterment process in her battle against substance abuse. Ulven also experiments with different voices and vocal tones, sounding like a different person on many tracks. This extra layer initially feels like Ulven hanging onto the last shred of privacy she has as a public figure, but she would disagree, seeing her character work as a key component to telling her own story. “Weirdly enough, I don’t feel like a public figure at all. I don’t feel like I was clinging onto any privacy on this record,” she says. “I definitely feel like you’ve got to go into the story rather than the character and put yourself in the story of whatever you’re writing. Writing a song is just telling a story, so you’ve got to find the words to make it work.”

The project closes with the song, “it would feel like this,” a bright and positive-sounding instrumental meant to signify what finally making the voices in her head “go quiet” would feel like. The story of the album sees Ulven coming to terms with her mental state and steadily working towards a healthier place, which almost seems like a conclusion that’s too much of a perfect, storybook ending for the tumultuous and up-front lyricist. Clinical depression, after all, is often a deep-rooted thing that many can’t simply put in the work to rid themselves of completely. It’s not easy to simply switch your mindset or “just be happy.”

“I feel like now I’m in such a healthier place mentally, because I was able to realize that I’m not going to be okay if I don’t change the stuff that really fucks me up,” she says. “Learning that you’ve got to do it is a heavy realization because it’s a lot of hard work. Nowadays, we have robots checking out our stuff at the grocery store, and phones – you don’t even need to know where you are in the world! Something or someone can fix it for you. So, it’s like, ‘wait, why do I have to do this?’ It’s hard but I’m definitely doing better.”