ABOVE: CARMEN VILLAIN IN LONDON, FEBRUARY 2013, STYLED BY ISABELLE KOUNTOURE. T-SHIRT: RAG & BONE. PANTS: MARKUS LUPFER. NECKLACE: VILLAIN’S OWN. RING: PAMELA LOVE. COSMETICS: ESTEÌE LAUDER, INCLUDING SUMPTUOUS EXTREME IN EXTREME BLACK, AUTOMATIC EYE PENCIL DUO IN JET BLACK, AND PURE COLOR IN TEASE. HAIR PRODUCTS: AMPLE ANGORA MOUSSE BY SHU UEMURA. HAIR: PETER GRAY FOR SHU UEMURA ART OF HAIR/HOME AGENCY. MAKEUP: ARIEL YEH FOR ESTEÌE LAUDER.
When Carmen Villain steps onstage for a set at the Kulturhuset—a tiny, overpacked club near the city center in her hometown of Oslo, Norway—she manages to make a potent impression before ever actually playing a note. The 29-year-old front woman is 5’10” and rail-thin, with razor-sharp features that remain mostly hidden behind her mussed blond hair, and both commands the room and looks good while doing it. But Villain’s beauty is beside the point: as soon as she straps on a guitar and lets loose with a brief barrage of reverbed-out rock songs, her sound takes over—messy, melodic, and, at times, vaguely frightening.
Being in front of people is nothing new for Villain, who was born Carmen Maria Hillestad and spent the majority of her teens and early twenties traveling the world as a model—even appearing on the covers of Vogue in Spain and Japan. Feeling the need to forge a creative identity not based solely on her looks, she started writing songs and recording them at home. “I felt like my brain was turning to mush,” says Villain. “I’d been modeling for about 11 years and was living in this weird bubble. I felt like I was standing around being told what to do while being touched by strangers; I didn’t feel like I was adding anything to the world.”
Villain wrote her first songs in her bedroom four or five years ago. “I made my friends listen to them on headphones because I couldn’t bear to be hearing it with them,” she says. “And then I was too scared to play guitar in front of people, so at the first show I just stood onstage with a tambourine. I still get nervous, but I like it. It feels great when the audience connects with you. It’s fucking amazing.”
Recorded in both Norway and her current home in London (“I moved there for love—stupidly—at the age of 20,” she says), Villain’s recently released debut, Sleeper (Smalltown Supersound), steers distinctly toward psych rock more than your typical female singer-songwriter fare. On the track “Lifeissin,” she croons, “How does it feel to believe that I’m going to hell?” with all the spooky conviction of a spurned ghost. When asked if her music conveys a typically Norwegian sensibility, Villain shrugs it off. “There isn’t much sunlight here,” she says. “Then in the summer you have sun for nearly 24 hours a day, which to me is almost worse.”