Taylor Swift favourite, Girl in Red: ‘People have tried to cancel me for the craziest things that have no root in reality’

Swift hand-picked Ulven – a lifelong fan – to open for her in Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh during the North American leg of the Eras Tour

Last June, Marie Ulven stepped on stage at Soldier Field, in Chicago, and took a moment to breathe. Gazing up at the 61,000-capacity amphitheatre and the clear blue sky above, she experienced a swirl of emotions: excitement, nerves and a tingle of Swiftmania.

“I was at the soundcheck, and [the stadium] was massive,” says the Norwegian songwriter, who performs as Girl in Red and spent the summer of 2023 opening for Taylor Swift. “When I played the first show there were so many people. Then, when I got to see Taylor play, it was so grand and huge and gigantic. It was peak American pop culture.”

Swift handpicked Ulven – a lifelong fan – to open for her in Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh during the North American leg of her Eras Tour last year. She would play eight dates with Swift, performing to a combined audience of more than 500,000 people. “It’s, like, the coolest thing that has happened to me,” Ulven says from her home in Oslo. “It feels like a very special and iconic time in my life.”

The Eras Tour confirmed Swift’s defining place in our culture. Yet those dates last summer were equally significant for Ulven, who a few years ago was a shy teenager who had barely toured outside Norway. (Her first overseas show was at the Academy in Dublin, in September 2018.) Fast-forward to today and she is on the brink of stardom, with the release this weekend of her second studio album, I’m Doing It Again Baby! to be followed by a debut arena tour, including a return to Ireland.

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Who better for Ulven to take pointers from than the once and future-queen of confessional pop? “She has set such a cool example for all the young girls out in the world. She has definitely inspired me from when I was younger. She has been torn apart by the world, but she’s always bouncing back and putting out new music,” says Ulven. “That’s what it’s about for her – it’s about the music. And being able to be a musician for the rest of her life. I admire her for all that. Most people who come that far and have such a great reputation, it’s because they are great people.”

Ulven’s new album is a riotous love letter to songwriting. It marks the exciting latest chapter of her artistic life, which began when she was still at school in small-town Norway. In those early years, she was pigeonholed as a purveyor of “bedroom pop” – a genre lazily caricatured as music made by introverted young women for whom laptops and duvets were a refuge from a cruel and uncaring world.

She has never been comfortable with that label. What artist wants to be defined, deep into adulthood, by their teenage rituals? In any case, she has left the bedroom behind and isn’t looking back. Inspired in part by the happiness she has found with her girlfriend of three years, I’m Doing It Again Baby! pings between loved-up synth-pop (A Night to Remember) and headbanging emo (Doing It Again).

“It’s very energetic – I feel it’s packed with the production. I went all-in,” she says, explaining that she wanted to expand on the joy and excitement she felt with the release of her first album, If I Could Make It Go Quiet, from 2021. “It’s trying to capture the feeling of doing it and doing it again. We have feelings of love and then feelings of heartbreak, feelings of not being accepted ... It’s packed with life.”

Ulven was born in Horten, in southern Norway, in 1999. Her father was a policeman, her mother a technology worker. When she was 14 she was given a guitar. She taught herself to play and began to write songs, which she posted to SoundCloud on her mother’s recommendation, initially as “LydiaX”. “Girl in Red” came later – the name comes from a text she had sent a friend to identify herself in a crowd.

Changing her name worked wonders: within a few months of becoming Girl in Red she was clocking up thousands of hits a month. Her early music had a hushed, vulnerable quality that singled her out as a special talent. It was a sensibility she shared with other Gen Z songwriters who, like her, recorded from home, largely on their laptops – hence bedroom pop, a genre that also included Clairo (who later worked with Swift’s producer Jack Antonoff) and Beatrice Laus, aka Beabadoobee.

“The reason I was making music like that was because that was the circumstances I was in. That was what I was able to do,” Ulven says. “Having had the opportunity for the past six years to pursue music and create songs and further my artistry, it makes sense I’m not perceived that way any more. Other people that started with smaller productions have all become these big artists. Clairo started with some beats and stuff, but now she has two albums. And Beabadoobee had some smaller songs. Now she is playing support for Taylor Swift and is supercool.”

Ulven has always been frank about her sexuality, and fans were quick to gravitate to her early tune I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend and its beautifully raw lyrics (“I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips/ I wanna kiss you until I lose my breath”). Her stage name was quickly adapted as online slang – “do you listen to Girl in Red?” was a coded way of asking if someone was attracted to people of the same sex.

But if the internet was where Girl in Red found her voice and identity, it has been a sometimes torrid environment for her, too. Like many, she is ambivalent about social media. Although it has given her opportunities, she is all too aware of its toxic side. “I’ve probably been affected by it subconsciously,” she says. “People have tried to cancel me – for the craziest things that have no root in reality. You have to remember it’s pointless and doesn’t mean anything.”

Emotional openness has always been her most powerful asset as a songwriter. In 2021 she released her biggest hit so far in Serotonin, a storming synth-pop number produced by Billie Eilish’s brother and collaborator, Finneas O’Connell.

If catchy, the single was also a bracingly frank meditation on her struggles with intrusive thoughts, which included visions of self-harm and suicide. She fretted about releasing it. Today she is proud of having done so – and appreciative of the special place it occupies in the hearts of many of her fans.

“The lyrics are quite graphic. I’m talking about cutting my hands off. I was, like, ‘Maybe this is too much.’ I feel people embraced that song and took it into their hearts. Which is cool. At the time I put it out, it was different to all my other stuff. It’s very special to see the numbers – that sort of thing playing into real life when you play a show. When you play your songs live for people you get to see the results of the life that the song took on, and I think it’s special.”

She continues to share her innermost thoughts on I’m Doing It Again Baby! The album is also hugely playful in places, however, including on a collaboration with Sabrina Carpenter, the former Disney Channel star whose background could not be more different from that of Ulven (and who has become a person of interest in Ireland by dint of her relationship with Barry Keoghan).

“I’m leaning into my cringiness. I’m leaning into things that aren’t cool but are fun,” says Ulven. “I’m being more theatrical, more dramatic. I’m having fun with things – not being hung up on what’s cool and what’s going to perform well. It’s about taking a chance on what I think is fun and cool. Hopefully, people like it.”

I’m Doing It Again Baby! is released by Columbia Records