Girl in Red and Finneas on the Brutal Honesty of Making Music
“Do you listen to girl in red?” has become something of an internet meme, a subtle way of asking another girl online if she’s queer. “Because if she listens to girl in red, she is most likely lgbt,” according to the Holy Bible of the Twitterverse, Urban Dictionary. But the girl behind girl in red, the 22-year-old Norwegian musician Marie Ulven, is no joke. A staple of festivals and teen bedrooms alike, Ulven is the unofficial voice of an anxiety-addled, TikTok-fluent, and gender-fluid generation. With her 2018 breakout hit, “i wanna be your girlfriend”—her song titles, like her name, are stylized in lower case, because of course—Ulven spoke to the pains of adolescent longing from a distinctly queer lens, singing, “I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips.” Three years later, her self-written debut album If I Could Make It Go Quiet expands upon these themes, chronicling her struggles with mental health, sex, and solitude; the record is the result of a long pandemic year, in which silence gave way to sound. “Serotonin,” the lead single off the album, is a confessional pop anthem that feels exactly how it’s supposed to, thanks to a smart collaboration with the Grammy-winning producer and brother of Billie Eilish, FINNEAS. Below, the pair touched base ahead of Ulven’s album release—FINNEAS while driving to his new studio in L.A. and girl in red at home in Bergen. If you haven’t listened to girl in red by now, what exactly are you waiting for?
FINNEAS: Yo, yo.
GIRL IN RED: Hello.
FINNEAS: How’s your day going?
GIRL IN RED: It’s good. I’ve just been doing regular stuff. Walking my dog.
FINNEAS: What kind of dog do you have?
GIRL IN RED: A gigantic Bernese Mountain dog.
FINNEAS: How big are we talking? Does it come up to your knees or your waist?
GIRL IN RED: Let me check. [To her dog] Come here! Maybe my knees. But I’ve seen Peaches. She’s a much fatter version of Peaches with a lot more fur.
FINNEAS: Dogs are the greatest. How long ago did you get the dog?
GIRL IN RED: I just counted on my fingers literally 15 minutes ago. 10 months really soon. We’re about to celebrate really big.
FINNEAS: So this is your COVID dog.
GIRL IN RED: Yeah, like everyone else. But I adopted her, so she’s four years old. I skipped the puppy phase.
FINNEAS: Oh, I love that. We adopted Peaches when Peaches was a little over one.
GIRL IN RED: She’s the cutest.
FINNEAS: She’s pretty cute.
GIRL IN RED: I follow her on Instagram.
FINNEAS: My girlfriend Claudia runs it and will come to me and say, “Did you see what Peaches posted today?” And I’m like, “Come on. Let’s drop the charade here,” but she really is committed to it. She’s like, “No, no, no. It’s Peaches.”
GIRL IN RED: She’s not breaking the fourth wall, even with you.
FINNEAS: Yeah, exactly. So I love your album so much. If I made your album, I’d be so proud of it. Are you so proud of it?
GIRL IN RED: I‘m so fucking proud, Finneas. The more that time goes on and I get more space from the very hectic, stressful mixing, mastering all that shit, I’m kind of just like, “Yes, this is actually really good.”
FINNEAS: The mixing and mastering process is so torturous because I only make music for pleasure. I make music because I love making it and then I love listening to it. And when you’re mixing it, you’re listening to your songs for what’s wrong, for what needs to be fixed. And I’ve found that to be so tiring and frustrating.
GIRL IN RED: Well, what I found tiring was that everyone else has an opinion on the mix that I’m not happy with. So I’m like, “Y’all are saying that y’all love this mix.” And I’m like, “Can’t you hear that this thing is too loud? Can’t you hear that this is not correct?” It’s a long thing to go through, but I’m now looking forward to diving into album two and going through it all again.
FINNEAS: That’s a good outlook. How long ago did you start this album? Were you always thinking of most of these songs as an album? Were you writing them on their own and then they became an album?
GIRL IN RED: January, February last year, that’s when I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go into the studio every single day with Matias [Tellez, the album’s co-producer] and then finish all these demos that I’ve made.” I made the demos in 2019, early 2020. So pretty much just the entirety of 2020 was the album year. It was a pandemic album.
FINNEAS: Even though I miss touring, I’ve found that it’s a great time to make a body of work. Because when you’re in and out of touring, it’s really easy to go two weeks without recording anything. I think this past year has been very fruitful, for me at least. It sounds like it was exactly the same for you.
GIRL IN RED: Yeah. I got a lot of stuff done, but I felt a little bit drained after it all. I felt like I had nothing to say, so I would sit down and just mess around in Logic. And then I had nothing. But maybe that’s going to come back. I just need to restore.
FINNEAS: I think that’s also just the sign that you made a really good album. If the album has everything that you need to say on it, then you made a great album, and a year from now, your piggy bank will be full again.
GIRL IN RED: You’ve got the Grammy, so I’m going to listen to what you say.
FINNEAS: That doesn’t mean I have good advice. Okay, so you’re not getting to play shows of this album yet.
GIRL IN RED: I’m making tours for 2022, but definitely not anything this year.
FINNEAS: Is there a song that while you were making it, you just thought, “Damn, this is going to be so fun live?”
GIRL IN RED: “Serotonin” is going to go so hard live.
FINNEAS: Yeah. I think everyone’s going to sing your rhythmic, rappy part. I think they’re going to just scream that stuff.
GIRL IN RED: I want to throw some shit. I’ve never had fire cannons, but I need to have that at least one time before I die. Are you excited to go back on the road?
FINNEAS: Yeah, I have a sort of a love/hate relationship with it. I liked playing shows a lot. I don’t love being away from home. I don’t love doing the same thing every day, but I really like being on stage. And I know we met at one of these, but I love outdoor festivals. That’s my favorite thing in the world. I just love the sort of environment of it. I love driving around backstage on golf carts and going up on stage.
GIRL IN RED: That one I met you guys at was insane.
FINNEAS: You killed it.
GIRL IN RED: What you guys did, you and Billie—I was on the side of the stage and it was so fucking cool.
FINNEAS: We really love playing shows. And I got to meet you that day. It’s so exciting to get to play these festivals and meet other artists that you’re a fan of.
GIRL IN RED: You know that picture we took? Everyone kept saying that I looked like your sister.
FINNEAS: Yeah, we do look related.
GIRL IN RED: Maybe somewhere a few centuries back. You have the looks. You could be a Viking.
FINNEAS: I definitely can’t be in direct sunlight or I burn. So when we were waiting to get on this call, there was this hold music, and Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” was playing.
GIRL IN RED: Oh my god.
FINNEAS: I never bought that song on iTunes and put it on my iPhone and listened to it—it was just one of those songs that I always knew. Can you pinpoint any song from your childhood that you feel had a real influence on your songwriting? What kind of music was young Marie exposed to?
GIRL IN RED: Pretty much whatever was on the radio. We didn’t really have a very musical home. It was just my mom working in a sort of bookstore and it wasn’t a very cultural upbringing. But I did get some good tunes there. Do you know Daniel Bedingfield? Have you heard of him? He’s the brother of Natasha.
FINNEAS: I’ve not. I know Natasha. I didn’t know she had a brother who made music. That’s so cool.
GIRL IN RED: He had a song called “If You’re Not the One,” which was a very early 2000s kind of ballad, that just really struck a chord with me because that song was just really fucking sad and beautiful. So I can’t say the same now, but definitely I would cry listening to it as a kid.
FINNEAS: I’m looking it up, as you say this. So they are New Zealand-English. I had no idea. And then there’s two other Bedingfield children. There’s Nikola and Joshua Bedingfield. Maybe we should listen to their music, too.
GIRL IN RED: That’s like the fourth Jonas Brother that no one heard of. Frankie, the therapist, he has a really fun TikTok now. I’m not sure if you’ve seen his TikToks.
FINNEAS: Frankie has a really good TikTok.
GIRL IN RED: He’s just joking about being the fourth Jonas Brother, not being a part of the band. I grew up watching them on Disney Channel. Did you watch Disney Channel?
FINNEAS: I did. I watched a lot of Wizards of Waverly Place. That was my favorite show on Disney Channel.
GIRL IN RED: Oh my god. I was in love with Alex, AKA Selena Gomez, who you’ve worked with.
FINNEAS: I have worked with Selena. I definitely had a crush on her. You and I, we share our childhood crush on Selena Gomez.
GIRL IN RED: How was that, working with her?
FINNEAS: Really great. What she does that I am inspired by, is she is very willing to be vulnerable. She’s very revealing, which I love. You know exactly what she’s thinking about, exactly what she’s feeling. To me, all the best music is the most vulnerable. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve loved your music is your willingness to talk about your insecurities or your frustrations with things. Even when I first heard the lyrics of “Serotonin,” I was just like, “Oh, my god. There’s just so many lyrics in this I’ve never heard anyone say: “It feels like my therapist hates me.” I just remember hearing those lyrics, and being like, “Wow.” Even if it’s a joke, I remember thinking, “This is so great and raw.”
GIRL IN RED: I feel like anyone must have felt that. You’re out there pouring your heart out to your therapist and you just have a moment of looking them into the eyes and you’re like, “How much of a shit do you really give right now?”
FINNEAS: Sure. And also the best is when you say something and then they’re like, “So are you around next week?” And you’re like, “Oh, my god, it’s over? I have another half of the story to tell.”
GIRL IN RED: Exactly. 45 minutes has never been enough to pour my heart out to a therapist.
FINNEAS: Other than Matias, who hears your work in progress?
GIRL IN RED: My mom, mostly. And my friends, if they are willing to take the time. I feel like I really just harass my friends with demos. I only have like two, three people, who I really, really trust their opinions. So they do be getting a lot of demos. Is your mom still that involved with your process?
FINNEAS: Yeah. My mom hears everything. Usually Billie comes over to my house and then works on stuff and then goes home and plays it for mom and dad. Sometimes we’ll send the final version of a song in our label group chat to our A&R Sam and Justin, John, at our label and our managers, and my mom’s on that chat. But Billie will be like, “Mom, you have to wait until I get home. I want to play it for you.” Because she wants to explain it first. You know how some artists will just send you a demo and it’s not even an artist you know very well? They’re just like, “Here you go.”
GIRL IN RED: Yeah, that happened recently.
FINNEAS: I’m always surprised because I don’t really send anything I’m working on to people unless it’s about to come out. I play everything for my girlfriend and I play everything for one of my friends. And then everything else, I just wait until it’s about to come out. And then if someone wants to hear it, I’ll send it.
GIRL IN RED: Yeah, I probably wouldn’t unless I knew that person. But maybe it’s just that they look up to you and they’re kind of like, “I just want to hear what you have to say about this.”
FINNEAS: It feels like a real privilege to hear someone’s music. And the last thing I would do is be like, “I don’t like the chorus.” And so if that’s what they were looking for, I definitely don’t feel like I’m comfortable enough to say that.
GIRL IN RED: No. You’ve got to have a certain relationship to be brutally honest about someone else’s creative work, because it’s really uncomfortable being like, “I actually don’t like your idea.”
FINNEAS: It’s horrible. I hate it. And what I do all the time is someone will tell me something and I’ll be like, “I love it.” And then I’ll call my management and I’ll be like, “I hate it. Please tell them I don’t like it.”
GIRL IN RED: Oh, no. Are you afraid of confronting?
FINNEAS: I don’t want to be rude. I just want to find a way to let them down easy.
GIRL IN RED: Yeah. Send the evil managers.
FINNEAS: So, you’ve made this album and Matias worked on everything on this album with you, correct?
GIRL IN RED: Yep. Just him and I in Bergen, kicking it.
FINNEAS: Has Matias worked on your music all along? Or was this album the first thing you had these sort of collaborators on?
GIRL IN RED: Yeah, that was the first time I ever felt like, I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to be alone in the studio doing this all by myself. I want to be with someone in this process.” Because it gets lonely, man.
FINNEAS: It gets so lonely. I’m sitting in my studio right now, alone. It’s lonely.
GIRL IN RED: It is.
FINNEAS: And when I work with Billie, I like that sort of collaborative nature. And I feel like we come up with ideas that we wouldn’t come up with if we were alone.
GIRL IN RED: It’s really good to just have fun in the studio. I feel like that brings a lot of good creative energy, to be able to have lunch and laugh and then go back to it. Any hangout is really good.
FINNEAS: Sometimes if I’m alone, I’ll go down and, and I’ll just be like, “Hmm. I don’t really feel like doing anything today.” And when I have someone come over, like Billie, it’s like, well, they’re here. So we might as well get something done. You can be more productive.
GIRL IN RED: Do you consider yourself very productive?
FINNEAS: I definitely love making stuff. I feel like I always think I could be working more or doing more. I just deal with that. I’m always thinking about music.
GIRL IN RED: What’s your main instrument?
FINNEAS: Piano. Now it’s production, but I’ve played piano the most of any instrument in the world. It sort of all stems from piano theory. I mean, you’re such a good guitarist, I don’t know if you relate to this, but I feel like I get really lost on guitar, and I like that. Because I don’t know as much guitar theory, I’ll play something on guitar and I’ll be like, “I don’t even know what that chord is, but I like the way it sounds.”
GIRL IN RED: There’s something kind of playful about not knowing what the fuck you’re doing and just kind of going with what sounds good.
FINNEAS: The way that your guitars interact with your vocals is so melodic to me. You can sing a guitar line of yours, which I love. That just means to me that you’re such a talented musician.
GIRL IN RED: That’s my end goal in this life, to be a really good musician, so that means a lot.
FINNEAS: When you hear that someone is inspired by your music, how do you internalize that? Is it too hard for you to grasp in some ways? Is it flattering? Does it make you inspired? Do you feel unworthy? I’m just sort of imposing my own feelings on you. Sometimes I hear that and I think like, “Oh man, I’m still being inspired by so much other stuff. How can someone be inspired by what I’m doing?” Does it flip you out at all?
GIRL IN RED: I’ve had a very weird relationship towards getting compliments from fans or just having fans in general. It is very surreal. I’ve had crazy imposter syndrome this past year, where I’m like, “You guys like my music? I really don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t know how to make music.”
FINNEAS: I totally get it.
GIRL IN RED: It’s very hard for me to think that someone can feel that way towards my music sometimes. But that doesn’t really reflect the world, because apparently a lot of people do be liking it right now, so that’s great.
FINNEAS: I feel like you’re going to come out of COVID a much bigger artist than you went into COVID. Is that going to be strange for you? Or are you just really excited?
GIRL IN RED: I’m just so excited.
FINNEAS: That’s good.
GIRL IN RED: Finneas, I want to be a rock star. I really just want to fucking scream. I want to growl. I had a performance last year where I ended up growling on a song. I just really want to live the rock star life, though it’s really hard work. I have so much respect for, let’s say, Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, Shawn Mendes. There’s all these really A-grade musicians that have been in the spotlight for so many years and they keep putting out record after record after record. They are the most hardworking people.
FINNEAS: They really are. It’s hard. They’re rewarded, and it’s maybe not as hard as like working down in a coal mine or something, but it’s definitely not easy. It’s its own thing.
GIRL IN RED: It is really special. Do you feel good about becoming a super A-grade producer and performer and musician?
FINNEAS: I love music. I love listening to it. I love making it. Like, I got sent your album to check out before this interview so that I wouldn’t be an idiot on the phone. I’ll take any excuse to get sent a great album. And I think that’s the privilege of my life. What a joy to get to hear great music all the time. I would love to just keep doing it forever, and so I’ll just work as hard as I need to to make sure that I can.
GIRL IN RED: You can.
FINNEAS: I feel like you treat it the same way. Like, “Wow, lucky me, man. I get to just work so hard. What a joy, right?”
GIRL IN RED: Yeah. I woke up yesterday and in the shower, I was like, “Wow, I went from going to high school to now actually living off making music,” which has been my dream ever since I picked up the guitar. So it is really fucking cool. Even through this fucking Zoom, I feel that your love for music shines through.
FINNEAS: I’m crazy flattered by that. And it’s such a privilege to talk to you today. I think you’ve really delivered on this album. And to me, all the artists that I’m the most inspired by are sort of wildly young. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but I think you’re shaping a generation of young musicians. I think you’re such a gifted songwriter and I just can’t wait for everybody to hear this album and I can’t wait to see you play onstage again.
GIRL IN RED: Thank you. Very big words coming from a dude who I look up to. That means a lot. I keep calling you dude. I’m sorry.
FINNEAS: Have a great rest of your evening.
GIRL IN RED: Give Peaches a good cuddle for me. She has a really cute mouth. I’ve told you this already, but she’s pretty cute.
FINNEAS: She’s pretty, pretty, pretty cute.