No Mixed Signals: An Interview With Girl in Red

19-year-old singer-songwriter Girl in Red doesn't want to be a queer icon, she just wants to be honest.

girl in red
Direct from Artist

Photo by Jonathan Vivaas Kise

girl in red

Girl in Red is trying make sense of everything: heartbreak, mixed signals, finding any sort of meaning in the mundane. A listen to her first EP chapter 1 (2018) says it all. With singles like “i wanna be your girlfriend” and “summer depression,” her project reads like the diary of any queer teenager hoping for reprieve. It’s what makes the 19-year-old Norwegian singer-songwriter’s music so poignant—it’s for all of us who couldn’t sing our own songs growing up, who hid behind hetero ballads we put on mixes to our same-sex best friends, hoping that they’d get the hint. But rarely did they ever, because they weren’t the right words. 

But as Girl in Red, born Marie Ulven, will tell you: she didn’t set out to be a queer icon—she just wanted to be honest. And it’s that unabashed authenticity that makes her one of the most exciting new artists to watch.

Here, the star on the rise gets candid about the pain she turned into DIY pop, being her own hero, and learning how to protect personal boundaries in the process.

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So I want to start off not just by asking what got you into music, but what made you so open right off the bat.
I’ve always been singing and improvising, but what really got me into this music is just good ol’ heartbreak. [Laughs] I started making my way through GarageBand in 2017 and just recording all these feelings I was having and putting them on SoundCloud. That’s how I started—feeling really bad and then trying to do something about that.

Were you dabbling in music beforehand, or was channeling that heartbreak the impetus for everything?
I have been playing guitar since I was around 14, so that’s I guess when I started making music. It was just in 2017 when I [told myself] I need to do this because I’m not gonna wait for some random ass guy to help me. I tried that two years previous. I tried to record some Norwegian music that I was making that was really bad.

What kind of music was it?
I didn’t really have a sound. I was working with other producers and I was very young and I didn’t—it was really bad lyrics. It’s all shit to me, at least. It’s a part of the process. Without that music, I probably wouldn’t be here. But that summer it clicked. I started writing English songs. Just three weeks before that, I actually released a Norwegian EP, but that was trash. 

Did you feel any hesitation being that vulnerable?
No, not really because I had 200 followers on SoundCloud. “I wanna be your girlfriend” was one of the first songs that really sparked this project. I remember I showed it to my mom and she was like, “Yo this is pretty good.” I was like, “Yeah thanks.” But I wasn’t hesitant. I didn’t really give a shit. Back then I didn’t really wanna post it because I thought it didn’t have any value to it. But then it got like 5,000 streams, so that was the peak before someone posted it on YouTube. Then things just really started snowballing.

We don’t need fake sh*t. People are searching for authenticity because there’s so much filtered stuff everywhere. It’s boring.

Was your family always supportive of you? Were you always out?
I wasn’t really until really really late 2015, beginning of 2016. I wasn’t suppressing my feelings and denying everything for a long ass time—how I came out was just really me saying, “Yo, can I visit this girl?” And my mom was like, “Curfew’s in one hour, why would you just be out for an hour?” I was like, “I really like this girl. I’m in love with her.” She was like, “I know but you need to get home.” It wasn’t anything special. So then I’d been out, I suppose.

Your catalyst for this project—was it a breakup or a friend that was an unrequited love?
Unrequited love. That’s also what “i wanna be your girlfriend” song is about. It’s about me falling in love with my straight best friend and how I just really wanted to see her that summer, but she had a boyfriend, and I didn’t meet her once and I was so fucking sad.

I feel like every queer kid kind of has that story of falling in love with their best friend.
Yeah. It’s like, you’re obligated almost. [Laughs] It sucks man. Straight girls, man. They're difficult.

Oh my god. Story of my life. [Laughs]
I don’t know why. That girl, she held my hand. There’s two ways you can hold someone’s hand. When your fingers are between each other. Then sometimes it’s the friend way, which is like when you went to elementary school and you had your friends almost pulled. So it’s like, I slept over at her house, and she held around me. Who does that? No friend does that.

Did she know you were gay?
Uh, yeah. I had had a girlfriend before I met her and so she knew that I had a girlfriend. She was cool with that. She didn’t give a shit. 

Aw man. That’s even worse when they know.
Yeah! It’s terrible. 

Does she know you wrote a song about her?
Honestly, I don’t think so. I didn’t tell her because I didn’t want to ruin our friendship, but I still hadn’t seen her since high school so probably wasn’t that important. I don’t know.

It’s inspiration though—a lot of queer kids have that story. Has your inspiration evolved since then? Have you fallen in love again?
I don’t really feel like I have. Maybe. I don’t know. It’s really hard for me to fall in love. It’s such... I haven’t really felt anything as special or as big since my first girl crush ever. Okay, not my first girl crush, but my first girlfriend like that. That shit was strong. I felt it in my entire body. I haven’t really felt anything like that since that girl. But I don’t even know what inspires me.

You said that you made music because you needed it. What do you think about that idea of providing that for queer kids today? Just by you being who you always needed when you grew up.
I just think it’s really cool to be honest. It’s important and the music I’ve made so far is music that needed to be made and music that I feel like needed to be heard. There’s some music that just takes up space that doesn’t have any meaning to it. 

I just wish I would [have seen] someone when I was 13 when I was turning my back against the door so that my mom wouldn’t see what I was watching on YouTube, which was coming out videos and stuff. I wish I didn’t have to feel like that back then. I wish I could have just gone on Instagram and seen some random ass girl from Norway being okay with being who she is. You know what I’m saying? I just really wish I had someone like me when I was young.

It’s awesome that I’m so lucky to be able to do that for other people. I get messages all the time. People saying, “Yo, I came out to my family through your song” and “Your music helped me accept who I am, and I’m growing up in a really religious place, and people hate gay people but your music makes me feel safe.” That’s just incredible. You can’t ask for more, honestly.

Where do you find the strength to do that?
If I was a straight girl and I was writing openly about an encounter with boy, there’s no difference. I feel like that’s what I’m doing right now. It’s completely normal for me. I’m totally okay with my sexuality. I love girls. I love that I love girls. Girls are fucking hot. I could never write about a boy. It’s just the only thing that makes sense. It’s the way I have experienced my life, and I can only write about what I know. We don’t need fake shit. People are searching for authenticity because there’s so much filtered stuff everywhere. It’s boring.

girl in red

Where did your name come from?
It came from that first girl I mentioned who caused my heartbreak. Everything sparked from that girl. I was at a festival and she was at that festival. We were gonna meet up at a gig there. We weren’t together—not together as a couple but we weren’t with each other—so we were looking for each other. We were texting: “Where are you? Raise your little finger so I can see you in this massive crowd.” Which obviously wouldn’t work at all. Then suddenly the crowd opened up a little bit, just like in a movie, and then I saw her. She just came a little bit closer. She was wearing a red sweater. I just said, “girl in red.” I texted her, “girl in red.” I have a screenshot so I have proof that it happened in 2017. Then a few months later, I bought a red sweater. A red turtleneck. I just took a picture of myself at school saying, “girl in red.” I was like, “Holy fuck. This is it man.”

Do you think she’ll ever put two and two together and reach out?
No. We’ve casually talked since. She doesn’t know. I’ve said this in other interviews, so obviously if she’s read any of it, she should’ve known for a long time. But I don’t care if she knows, ‘cause I’m over it.

How are you feeling about the generation of music that you’re coming up in?
What’s most exciting about the time that we’re in right now is streaming and online distributing and just the fact that major labels and record labels in general are losing so much power because you don’t need all that stuff anymore. Also just production. Not everyone unfortunately, but a lot of people can have their own studios because equipment is so affordable. You don’t need a whole big ass studio to make music. Also the fact that a lot of honest musicians are getting a lot of recognition, that’s cool.

I wish I could have just gone on Instagram and seen some random ass girl being okay with being who she is... I wish I had someone like me when I was young.

Are your friends stoked for you?
Obviously they’re excited. But I don’t really wanna talk about it that much even though obviously I tell them when cool stuff happens. I show them my music, but I just wanna chill you know? 

I was at a bar and then two girls—they didn’t even know each other—they came up to me and it got pretty intense. One girl sat down and started talking and said some weird stuff maybe. This other girl, she added me on Facebook with my phone. She took my phone and added herself on Facebook from my Facebook. Then afterwards my friend, who’s also in this room, she was like, “No, no.” We had to leave. She was like, “You’re not Girl in Red, you’re Marie!” The point is, I’m just me and they also just see me as me, so that’s good.

As you get bigger, that’s just inherently gonna be more of an issue. Is that something you think about already?
Yeah. I thought about this earlier today: being an artist that becoming right now is 25 percent making music and then 75 percent doing a whole lot of other stuff. That includes talking to people like you and doing all these photo shoots. 

I don’t wanna be “famous” because number one, I hate that word. I think it’s gross. It puts people on a pedestal and I’m just not into it. I just had to leave that bar cause I’m really bad at setting boundaries and letting people know that I’m not comfortable with talking to strangers right now because I’m a super angsty person and this stresses me out. I’m not really prepared for those things, and they’re happening a lot more often. 

It’s super weird cause I don’t feel any different and strangers treat me different. The moment you turn into a little bit of a public person, people treat you a little bit different.

I feel like your awareness of that might be key right now because that way you have this time while you’re gaining more momentum to be able to set your personal boundaries.
It’s so important to set boundaries. It’s just super important to say no when you’re uncomfortable, and I get really easily uncomfortable. My stepmom’s a shrink, so she sat me down and was like, ‘What causes these feelings? What are you scared of? Why do you not say no? Why do you not tell people to not sit down and talk?” The point is, I’m trying to just get used to it.

girl in red