7 Influences on girl in red’s Debut, From (Yes) Taylor Swift to a Serious Lack of Serotonin

Photo: Jonathan Kise

“Serotonin,” the lead single on girl in red’s debut album, if i could make it go quiet, is a near-perfect eardrum rush of “chemical imbalance” and emotion. A portal to indie pop’s past and a skip ahead to its future, the song has become both a career rocket-launcher and representative of the next phase of the prototypical girl in red sound and tone. “It’s such a statement track,” she tells me over the phone from Norway. “Girl in red 2.0 is here is what that song says to me. I think it’s unexpected from me; that’s kind of why I wanted to put it out [first], because it just didn’t feel like the next natural step.” The song sounds like an acid trip compared to others by girl in red, and for this new album, it’s a perfect opener: It runs multiple genres (indie, pop, even EDM) through a blender, reinventing them into one concoction that works all too well.

The blare of the 22-year-old Norwegian singer, un-alt name Marie Ulven, might ring familiar from either of her first pair of viral 2018 singles, “i wanna be your girlfriend” or “we fell in love in october” — the latter a shoegaze-y anthem in praise of the simple things that make romances feel bigger than they ever were; in it, girl in red sings: “Smoking cigarettes on the roof / You look so pretty and I love this view / Don’t bother looking down / We’re not going that way / At least I know, I am here to stay.” But three years later, girl in red — once again — takes off.

if i could make it go quiet makes a roller coaster of the human experience. Some moments plumb the depths of darkness (on “midnight love,” her vocals haunt like growing shadows: “I hope that the right time one day arrives / So I’ll be willing to let this die / Able to look you right in the eyes / Say I’m not your consolation prize”). Other, more upbeat tracks hold their listener’s hand on the way to something or somewhere brighter without sacrificing brutal honesty (at the chorus to “.” she sings: “It’s been so hard / ever since you broke my heart / But I’ll never tell / Honey I’m not doing so hot!”) In her own words, girl in red “started writing [if i could make it go quiet] when I was really depressed,” and she finished when she “was okay” and after she got her dog. Her processing the travel between those two poles of mental health is present throughout the record. And that’s another key quality of girl in red’s music: her transparency, specificity, and world-building has the ability to bridge her lyrics to anyone’s personal life experiences, which in turn puts them in deeper touch with their own processing.

“I really hope [fans] get what they need from the album,” she says. “If they need comfort, I hope they find comfort in there. If they want to dance, I hope they can dance. If they just want to chill, I hope they can chill. I really want people to like it — I hope it means something to someone. I just hope it matters. I don’t want to make something that just takes up space and sucks ass.” if i could make it go quiet doesn’t “just take up space” — it creates more of it. To celebrate its release, girl in red spoke to Vulture about the influences, both minor and monumental, that shaped not only her debut album but her trajectory in music thus far — from social media, to her friends, to being queer, to (yes, duh) Taylor Swift.

Fredrik Wiig Sørensen

Photo: AWAL

I found this artist’s [Fredrik Wiig Sørensen] painting, and I was like, Yo, this painting is fucking dope. Who is this guy? I found his Instagram, and then I just started scrolling and kind of stalking his art portfolio, [which] I guess Instagrams are kind of like. I just stumbled upon that picture and that painting, really, and thought, Oh my God, this is so captivating. I absolutely love this. Truly, it looks like a portrait of me in a hoodie and in this mind space — the kind of headspace that I constantly feel like I’m in. So I asked him, “Yo, can I buy this, is this for sale?” And he said, “Yes.” I went into the studio in Bergen [Norway] where I recorded my debut album, and he was also randomly there. I saw the painting in real life and absolutely loved it. I bought it. It was like, Oh my God, this should be the cover of my album. We asked him and then that kind of just happened.

Taylor Swift

The one that has stayed with me from the beginning and even up until now is Taylor Swift. Like, I’m such a big Swiftie. She’s one of my core musical inspirations. But also, in my early teens, I really started getting more into that kind of indie wave for young people my age at that time. Oh my God, I sound like I’m fucking 50 — I’m not 50. [50-year-old voice]: Young people my age … Like seven years ago!

I’m inspired by Taylor Swift on so many levels. She’s been in this industry so long, gotten the worst that any artist can get when it comes to how the world talks about them, but she still always bounces back with great music. It’s so obvious for me that Taylor Swift is in this business and industry because she’s a great songwriter and a great musician, you know? That is so inspiring. That she’s been in this industry so long and has remained [with] this strong sense of Taylor Swift in every single song she writes is so admirable to me. She’s now 31, still putting out records, and fucking killing it; folklore came out, and it saved my entire year. Even at seven months in, even though it had all been very weird and bad and cheerful and sad, literally everything was okay when I heard that album. From a younger point of view, Red was a very big influence for me, especially when I started writing music and playing guitar. I remember when I was learning, I was covering one of her songs called “Begin Again.” It had just a few chords I was able to play and that gave me this sense of achievement. Red and folklore: iconic.

I also admire her making country music; she has always progressed musically, but it always has remained Taylor. I feel the same way about my music. What I made in 2017 was very much guitar-based, very much just drum, bass, guitar. And now, my music isn’t just drum, bass, guitar, but it still feels innately like girl in red on my record, to me at least. Taylor showed it is possible to do, and that has allowed me to sort of let go of any type of concern that I need to make another “i wanna be your girlfriend” or another type of song that I made before.

Queer identity

I first and foremost consider myself a musician, and then I’m a person who happens to be queer. I think that [duality] has been preserved in my music just because it’s made by me, essentially. [Editor’s note: The album’s two other collaborators include FINNEAS on “Serotonin,” and Matias Tellez.] I like girls and that’s something that’s a part of me. And I love that part of me. I fucking embrace that shit. You know, girls do be fucking hot. Any song here about love or heartbreak or whatever, it’s there because it was all with girls. I feel like I’m talking about it in [from a] very single [person] experience. Right. SO MANY GIRLS FOR ME. No, I’m joking. One day, though, I’m going to be that Bachelor.

Her former tourmates (Conan Gray, Clairo, and Isaac Dunbar)

I toured with Conan and I toured with Clairo, and Isaac toured with me and we became friends. So it’s kinda like I just met these people on my journey and on their journey. Conan has given me great advice when it came to struggles with social media, and I love him for that. Claire, she’s just a sweetheart, such a warm person. And Isaac is a very, very talented dude — I think he’s going to go really far. I’m just so happy that I’ve gotten to know other musicians who are queer and doing their best thing.

“Social-media self-esteem”

[My relationship with social media] is very ambivalent. I think I’ve come up with a new word for it: social-media self-esteem. Sometimes I just feel like a very simple person on social media — like, I give them real life. So, I have a very weird relationship with it. I love it. I hate it. And then I love it again. And then I’m like, This is where I get to connect with my fans; that’s awesome. I get to, like, comment shit on peoples’ posts and they go insane. Making people happy and [doing] small things like that, I think, is really fun. So, it’s weird.

[On TikTok], I’m also figuring out I want to show more of who I am as a person, just be goofy and not take it too seriously because it’s just a very fun app. I love hanging out there; the comments sections are hilarious, that’s where I get my serotonin. I don’t think my music process has changed from being on TikTok — it’s my new favorite app to be Marie on. There isn’t really a difference between girl in red and Marie, but other platforms aren’t that personal. TikTok, that’s life stuff.

Mental health

I feel like you can hear this journey on the record: I was very depressed and then I was okay. Because a lot of the songs I started writing when I was really depressed, and then I found this hope when I got my dog. It was like, Oh my God. I might actually be okay soon. I had most of the songs’ verses and choruses done — I wrote those when I was really sad — and then I kind of finished a lot of those songs where I talk about my mental health after that. All the songs I finished after I got my dog, lyrically, are a lot more positive. There’s even this breakdown in my song “Body and Mind” — I’m like, “I can’t live like this anymore …” I need to comfort myself and shit. Yeah, the state of mind [when I was songwriting] was a very weird journey.

“we fell in love in october”

I’ve definitely never been like, Oh my God, I need to make a new “we fell in love in october.” I never want to make a new “we fell in love in october.” There can only be one.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

7 Influences on girl in red’s Debut Album and ‘Serotonin’