MØ a jumble of beautiful contradictions

The musical identity of Karen Marie Ørsted—aka MØ—was shaped by the Spice Girls and Sonic Youth.
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IN + OUT

Karen Marie Ørsted sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On her lyrics: “They are kind of dark, but I still feel like there’s hope in there, because that’s what I like to write about. Sometimes life can really seem hopeless, not only when you are a teenager, but also a grownup. But there is always hope—you just have to look for it, so I’m glad that people hear that in the record.”

On her formative years: “I grew up in the countryside, so I’ve always been very fond of nature, spending time just daydreaming by myself. But then as a teenager I got into the city and started hanging out in a really political punk environment. So I guess I’ve ended up with both sides being a part of me, and I think that both sides are reflected in my music.”

On Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon: “If I met her, I think that I would pass out. I almost had a blackout when I met Sporty Spice.”

Standing back and taking a look at all the pieces of the puzzle, MØ is a jumble of contradictions, that reality making the excellent debut disc No Mythologies to Follow all the more fascinating.

The 25-year-old Danish singer known to her mom as Karen Marie Ørsted is usually filed under the umbrella of dark electro-pop, yet she most frequently cites alternative renegades Sonic Youth as the band responsible for her making music. There’s nothing she loves more than losing herself in nature, yet there’s a decidedly urban quality to her songs. And, as much as she cherishes her downtime, life right now is a maddening rush, with the singer crashing in hotel rooms between a blur of interviews, sound checks, and live performances.

Reached on her cellphone at a Philadelphia tour stop, Ørsted isn’t, however, complaining about any of this. “There’s always a dark side to everything,” she says. “There’s a lot of pressure—you don’t get much sleep, and there are all kinds of things that you have to do each day, so it is hard—very hard. But, every day I wake up knowing that this is what I want to do, and that no matter how hard things get, that I have to find a way to make it work. I hope all this makes sense, what I’m saying. I’m so happy, and so honoured that I have got this chance, and that people are interested in my music, so I have to give it my all.”

MØ (pronounced “moo”) is off to a fine start on that front with No Mythologies to Follow, a record that’s been praised for its combination of powerhouse vocals and urban soundscapes. Working with producer Ronni Vindahl, Ørsted has crafted a collection of songs that manage to be slick and sultry without coming across as playing things safe.

Great touches include old-school Stax sax powering the otherwise forward-thinking “Don’t Wanna Dance” and tranced-out techno colliding head-on with unvarnished Afrobeat in “Glass”. While hazy synths and metal-heartbeat percussion colour much of the record, you’ll also hear flashes of ’50s doo-wop (“Dust Is Gone”), coke-dusted Laurel Canyon rock (“Fire Rides”), and classic hip-hop (check out the breakdown in “Never Wanna Know”).

The road that led to where Ørsted finds herself today—namely, her status as a newly minted critics’ favourite—has been a winding one. She had a decidedly nonmusical upbringing, with early family vacations tending to be of the nature-focused variety, that instilling in her an enduring love of the great outdoors. The Spice Girls got her hooked on music at age 7, to the point where she’d stage elaborate home dance routines in homage to the group. Her life would then change forever after she discovered Sonic Youth in her teens.

“I had a very, very lovely upbringing—good parents and a lovely brother,” Ørsted relates. “While it was nice, it was also isolated because we were in the suburbs, quite far away from everything. At the school that I went to, they thought I was having some sort of mental disease when I started wearing black clothes.”

It’s not like she was completely misunderstood, however. At the same time she had an electro-punk project titled MOR on the go, she was enrolled in an art program.

“At the art academy, one of the teachers told me that I should try and create something for myself,” Ørsted remembers. “He thought that a lot of the stuff that I was doing—not just music, but all the creative things that I was doing—was in groups with other people. The whole vibe of the academy was ‘Find yourself in your own work,’ which is why I decided that I was going to make a solo project on the side.”

MØ (a Danish word that can be loosely translated as “virgin”, thus referencing Ørsted’s tentative beginnings as a solo artist) took a while to find its footing.

“To begin with, it was rap and I was swearing all the time,” she says. “I was very much about attitude and trash, rapping in this very clumsy and kind of, um, bad way. I was just looking to provoke, you know. It was all about provoking. But then, slowly, in that process I remembered that when I was a little child I would sit down and write cheesy pop songs where I would let out all of my feelings. Still, I was initially all about attitude and hiding my true self.”

Gradually, that changed.

“By sitting down and writing songs on my own again, I started to find that I could really express myself,” Ørsted notes. “But it was hard for me—I didn’t know how to, how do you say it, tear down the filter. But eventually, as I started to wash away the filth, everything started to make sense. And it made sense to my producer, Ronni Vindahl, who I started working with. He liked what I was singing. So we started MØ together. And everything finally started to work.”

And that kind of brings things back to the contradictions of MØ. As much as No Mythologies to Follow is the kind of bold-and-beautiful record that seems made for cool-kid Scandinavian clubs, vocals were mostly recorded in Ørsted’s childhood bedroom—the look of that room decidedly thrift-shop boho rather than high-tech studio. Beneath the glitch-pop R & B tone of the material lie lyrics (“Oh, what a world I was born into,” from “Pilgrim”) concerned with exploring millennial angst and the fact that Denmark is awash in unemployment and cultural malaise.

Predictably, though, Ørsted doesn’t sound like she’s counting down the days until the darkness descends for good.

“Life is always hard—no matter what you do, or no matter what your work is,” she says. “Right now I’m in the middle of trying to pursue a dream, and every day, even though it sometimes seems hard, what I am doing makes sense to me.”

Ørsted pauses and then, with a laugh, adds one final thought that’s fittingly at odds with her completely pleasant demeanour: “So, you know, fuck everything!”

MØ plays Fortune Sound Club on Saturday (May 31).

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