Do You Listen To Girl In Red? You Should!
While growing up in the small town of Horten, Norway, like many Gen-Zers who are now in their early 20s, Marie Ulven listened to “whatever was on the radio, a lot of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber.” Once she was in her early teens the singer/songwriter better known as Girl In Red started getting into moody indie rock and finding her own music – bands “like The Smiths and The Shins” – but Ulven’s admiration for Swift has been a constant.
“I really looked up to Taylor Swift when I started writing songs and I still look up to her. I feel like I talk about her every time anyone asks me who my inspiration is,” Ulven tells Pollstar.
With the release of Ulven’s debut studio album, If I Could Make It Go Quiet, the 22-year-old now counts Swift as one of her own fans.
Swift posted a screenshot of the album cover on her Instagram stories the day the LP was released in late April and proclaimed, “Entire album on repeat.” She added: “Okay everyone, drop everything now and support, stream and buy this album because it is spectacular. Congratulations @GirlInRed!!” In response, Ulven tweeted, “I will never be able to recover from Taylor Swift saying my album is spectacular.”
Like Swift, Ulven has built a fanbase around songwriting that explores personal stories while maintaining relatability. Ulven’s lyrics that candidly reference her sexual desires and relationships as a gay woman have earned her praise as a queer icon and it’s easy to see why fans both LGBTQ+ and straight have connected with Girl In Red’s raw, emotional music. Whether singing about her struggles with mental health in tunes like 2018’s “Summer Depression” and her 2021 single “Serotonin” or the intense ups and downs of love – from the sweet romance of 2018’s “We Fell in Love in October” to the heartache of a bitter breakup in 2021’s “Did You Come?” – at the heart of Ulven’s songs is unflinching, refreshing honesty.
“With so much of Marie’s music, what makes it brilliant is she does it in such a way that allows other people in,” Ben Blackburn of Twenty Ten Management says. “I think it’s the frankness, the directness, it’s the clearness of ‘this is what I’m going through.’ … And I think that allows people to be like, ‘Oh, wow, if this person can say these things and say them on such a big platform to so many people, that legitimizes my own experience and makes me feel a lot safer and a lot more welcome in figuring out my own problems and my own place in the world.’”
Jonathan Kise – Girl In Red
who just released her debut album, If I Could Make It Go Quiet, says she’s “still constantly finding my voice.”
Ulven initially gained fans via her Instagram account dedicated to fingerboarding, with a link in her bio to her SoundCloud. Blackburn was first introduced to Girl In Red’s music in early 2018 after she was causing “a bit of a buzz in Norway” with the song “I Want To Be Your Girlfriend.”
“I was just blown away,” Blackburn says. “The recordings were quite low-fi, quite DIY, but the songwriting was just second to none. It was incredibly direct and visceral and emotional in a way that felt like [it was] speaking to a particular group of people, but it wasn’t exclusive to the point of separation.”
Blackburn met up with Ulven and was instantly impressed by her demeanor, charisma and sense of self. He notes that while she was getting interest from labels and other parties, he was the only person telling her not to sign anything.
“I was like, ‘You know, you’re three songs in. You don’t know what this is going to be yet. Why let anyone else define that, other than you? Let me help you figure that out with you,’” Blackburn says.
Ulven and Blackburn started working together to employ a sense of strategy in how she released music, spacing out singles and determining which songs deserved a video and what the video should be. Blackburn points out that while it was “baby steps to begins with,” that resonated with fans because it felt like they were part of the journey and were growing with her.
Girl In Red opened a few shows for Clairo in Europe in fall 2018 and then received an offer to support Conan Gray on the road in North America in spring 2019.
“When your artist is on a support tour you never know what to expect because ultimately you expect that it’s the headliner’s crowd. But when Marie started playing, it was almost like the back of the room started to clear out because everyone was crammed so close to the stage and really just wanted to be as close to her and the songs as possible,” says agent Carly James of CAA about seeing Girl In Red open for Gray at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles.
“I’m standing far back at the balcony trying to take it all in. She had just released the single ‘Watch You Sleep.’ It was super dark in the room and all the fans pulled out their iPhones with their flashlights on and started doing the wave back and forth. And it was just this massive singalong. It was a moment, for sure. … With that energy you just know you’re dealing with something special. And a person and an artist who is not stopping any time soon.”
The team then tested Girl In Red’s ability to headline in North America by putting small shows on sale in May 2019 at the 250-capacity Moroccan Lounge in Los Angeles and Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn.
After playing European festivals in summer 2019, Girl In Red kicked off her debut headline tour, “World In Red,” in September with a show at the 650-capacity Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The sold-out tour hit major markets in North America, followed by a European tour in October and November. Reports submitted to Pollstar’s Boxoffice include a Sept. 16, 2019, show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago that sold 530 tickets and grossed $9,450 and an Oct. 28, 2019, gig at The Green Room in Dublin, Ireland, that sold 850 tickets and grossed $12,063 (euro 11,050).
Girl In Red self-released her debut EP, 2018’s Chapter 1, and rather than signing with a major label she went with British music distribution company AWAL for the release of her 2019 EP, Chapter 2, and studio album in 2021, with Blackburn explaining that AWAL has been very respectful of Marie’s autonomy and creative vision.
“AWAL [made] an agreement that was in Marie’s favor and allowed us to compartmentalize the next step of her career over the course of one album as opposed to three- or four-album deals that a lot of major labels demand from an artist,” Blackburn says.
If I Could Make It Go Quiet has seen Girl In Red’s music evolve from the low-fi, bedroom pop of her earlier recordings to a bolder, more produced collection of indie rock / pop tunes that matches the high energy of her live shows. Ulven wrote all of the songs on the album and produced the LP with Norwegian singer/songwriter and producer Matias Tellez. Finneas co-produced the opening track “Serotonin,” a frantic, hyper-pop anthem, complete with Ulven rapping, that details her experience with OCD and intrusive thoughts “like cutting my hands off, like jumping in front of a bus.”
“I’m still constantly finding my voice,” Ulven says. “My earlier songs, like my Chapter 1, Chapter 2 songwriting has its own kind of voice. And then my album narrative feels a little bit different because obviously I’ve evolved and grown as a person so naturally the narrative and my songwriting changes with that. I’m kind of figuring out my narrative and who am I and how do I want to say this?”
She adds, “My goal, as an artist and as a musician, is just to be the best musician I can be. And the music that was from 2018 and 2019, and also 2017, a lot of it was dated, really. I had grown away from it for a long time … and so I made a lot of new stuff. And my ambition with the album grew linearly with all my ideas and productions. It was gradually just evolving. And then I was also working with Matias, who has amazing abilities for making all my sloppy snares sound really poppy and really crisp. It felt really natural. I wasn’t like, ‘Now I’m going to do this sound’ or anything. It definitely just happened.”
Prior to the album release, a meme started popping up on TikTok in spring 2020 with “Do You Listen To Girl in Red?” used as a code phrase by gay women to identify if the other person you were speaking to was also gay.
Girl In Red’s team responded to the viral moment with a billboard campaign featuring the question “Do You Listen To Girl In Red?” posted around the globe including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Berlin, along with locations where her queer fanbase is not supported or is repressed including Brazil, Poland and Russia. (For more context on queer coding and Girl In Red’s connection with Taylor Swift, see Q&A with pop music scholar and professor Nadine Hubbs.)
“Ultimately the beauty of it was that as a code phrase it rang true with her fans but read literally it’s quite an innocuous question. So it had that double-edged benefit that allowed us to expand Marie’s world,” Blackburn says.
Isak Jenssen – Girl In Red
is set to return to North American stages with an appearance at Firefly festival in Dover, Del., in September.
On being regarded as a queer icon, Ulven says, “I feel like it’s just a huge compliment, honestly but I feel a responsibility, just like any other person should feel, to just be the best person they can be and just be a good person. That’s kind of where I feel pressure.
“But I’ve always felt that way, regardless of people listening to my music or not. I just want to be a good person and be the kindest I can be. And if I can be someone’s role model or, you know, someone calls me a queer icon, those are just extremely good things and that are positive energy, that are needed in people’s lives. And if I can be that, I want to be that.”
Girl In Red just announced dates for a 2022 North American tour that starts at Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville in early March and includes shows at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.; two nights at Brooklyn Steel; House Of Blues in Houston and Dallas, and The Showbox in Seattle. The trek wraps with two nights at The Regency Ballroom in San Francisco April 11-12.
Ulven says she’s “really stoked” to be back on the road again, describing her live show as feeling “like a hang out but that’s absolutely insane because we go crazy.”
Up next, Girl In Red will take part in Spotify’s new virtual concert experience with a livestreamed show June 24 in Oslo, Norway. She’ll also take the stage in September at Firefly festival at The Woodlands in Dover, Del.
“We’re definitely going to be developing a very cool lighting scenario,” Blackburn says. “What’s important to Marie more so than anyone is making sure it that it doesn’t turn into anything too theatrical.
“You see a lot of artists, whether a lot of the show isn’t live or a lot of it is track, the production is there to make up for the lack of performance. Whereas with Marie, she’s going to be stage diving and moshing and being very engaging. So the ideal production needs to just amplify and galvanize that energy more so than directing away from it.”