Girl in Red, the Norwegian alternative musician whose debut album arrives on Friday, is drawing a growing Gen Z audience thanks to her yearning songs about infatuation, heartbreak and mental health.
The new album, “If I Could Make It Go Quiet,” comes three years after the rising artist, whose real name is Marie Ulven, wrote a song about unrequited love, “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” that went viral on YouTube in 2018. Since then, the 22-year-old singer-songwriter and producer, who is gay, has gained close to 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify and collaborated with Billie Eilish’s brother and producer, Finneas O’Connell. On TikTok, the question “Do you listen to girl in red?” has emerged as a way for teen girls to feel out someone’s sexuality.
“Gen Z as a whole is really gravitating toward her,” says Ned Monahan, Spotify’s head of global hits, who oversees playlists like “Today’s Top Hits” and “New Music Friday.” “She is defining a style and a genre kind of unto herself.”
Ms. Ulven’s popularity reflects a subtle shift in pop music in recent years: Gen Z indie acts are bringing a rawer, more intimate sound that emphasizes introspection and emotional honesty. These artists, many of them women, are influenced by Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish. They write songs with a directness and vulnerability that contrasts even more starkly with the polished stardom and bombastic empowerment anthems of an earlier pop-diva era. One of the most famous is Olivia Rodrigo, who releases her own album May 21.
Among this group, Ms. Ulven has emerged as a gay symbol, placing her among a new generation of queer pop musicians who are making LGBTQ art more mainstream. Historically, the music industry has been inhospitable to openly gay, lesbian and bisexual artists. In recent years, that’s shifted as acts like Frank Ocean, Brandi Carlile and Lil Nas X have pushed the envelope. Ms. Ulven knows LGBTQ musicians still face challenges, but she doesn’t want to be exclusively defined by it.
“If I write a song about love, I write a love song,” she says. “I never think about my sexuality when I’m writing a love song.”
Girl in Red has been working toward her debut album for half a decade.
Ms. Ulven was raised about an hour from Oslo. Her parents divorced when she was 5. In 2015, she started releasing Norwegian songs online under her own name; after a few years, however, she turned to English.
She adopted the name Girl in Red in 2017. It initially came to her at a music festival. Ms. Ulven had been trying to find a friend—someone she was in love with—in the crowd and spotted her red sweater. She sent her a text, “girl in red.” The friend, who did not share Ms. Ulven’s romantic feelings, inspired “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” Ms. Ulven says. A few months later, she realized “girl in red” should be her artist name. “I was just really heartbroken,” she says.
“I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” took off on YouTube after someone reposted the song, a video that has since attracted more than 20 millions views. Fans clamored for it to be placed on Spotify. “I was like, oh my God, there’s momentum here, this is my chance,” Ms. Ulven says. Soon, record labels and artist managers were calling.
Ms. Ulven played it cool. “I feel like I’ve heard so many horror stories about artists just working with the wrong people and ending up in a bad place,” Ms. Ulven says. “I was like, ‘What can you do for me?’ ”
Instead of signing a traditional deal, Ms. Ulven continued to release music independently. In 2018, Spotify’s Nordic and North American teams started putting her music on niche playlists, including “Lorem,” which is popular with Gen Z fans. This March, she joined Spotify’s “Radar” program for emerging artists, which included placement of her music on 127 editorial playlists. One of Ms. Ulven’s popular songs, “We Fell In Love in October,” has generated more than 200 million streams on Spotify. On TikTok, it has spawned over 400,000 video creations, says TikTok label-partnerships manager Brandon Holman.
On her upcoming album, which Ms. Ulven is releasing with the help of AWAL Recordings—an alternative to traditional labels—she has a fuller and more pop-oriented sound. New songs like “Rue” and “I’ll Call You Mine” vary from each other considerably, and often blur genres and rely more on piano than guitar.
The single “Serotonin” was co-produced by Finneas O’Connell and has hints of the frenzied “hyper-pop” style associated with artists like 100 gecs. After toying with seven or eight versions of the song, Ms. Ulven and her co-producer, Norwegian musician Matias Tellez, sent “version three” to Mr. O’Connell, whom Ms. Ulven had met in 2019. Mr. O’Connell liked the song—especially Ms. Ulven’s rapping—and wanted to play a role, Ms. Ulven says.
On “You Stupid Bi—,” one of the album’s standout tracks, Ms. Ulven revives the direct lyrics and indie-rock feel of her song, “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.”
In the song, Ms. Ulven expresses frustration that her beloved doesn’t realize how perfect they’d be together. It’s a timeworn, universal theme, appealing to all, whether gay or straight. But by treating queer love like any other love, Ms. Ulven is seen by some as capturing the reality of many of her LGBTQ fans.
It’s “secondary for me,” Ms. Ulven says of her sexuality. “Because it’s so normal.”
Write to Neil Shah at firstname.lastname@example.org
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