“Society waits for nobody” – Pop’s newest outsider MØ interviewed

Words by sanderamendt

Photo by Frank Bauer.

Danish pop star  is fast becoming the darling of the music and fashion press. In the Summer issue of Electronic Beats Magazine she told us about growing up with the Internet, her previous life in a squat punk band and the enduring influence of Sporty Spice. Interview by Sander Amendt.

 

Karen Marie Ørstedt, better known as MØ, has moved beyond her initial, foul-mouthed Peaches-esque productions into the terrain of soulful, pop-trap accessibility. On her debut LP, No Mythologies to Follow, the former hobby-squatter turned to producers Ronni Vindahl and Diplo (the latter initially an Internet acquaintance) to help her pimp her metamorphosis. Indeed, shifting identities comes naturally to the native of Odense, Denmark, who was raised on point and click self-discovery.

Karen, you were one half of the punk band MOR before you went electro with your new band MØ. How long have you been a punk and what does punk mean to you?

I grew up very isolated in the suburbs of the Danish city Odense on the Baltic Sea. I remember my upbringing in the best possible ways. My parents are great, I love my brother, our house was nice, we even had a piano. But when I became a teenager I suddenly became rebellious against everything my parents stood for. I just suddenly had this urge to be an outsider. I remember that my classmates thought I was mentally ill because I started to wear black one day, including mascara. They would wear colorful clothes and my style must have seemed so weird to them. In hindsight this seems so distant and so strange to me. You know, I was a tomboy before, a boyish girl, but they didn’t tease me. It all started when I began to wear black. And from there it was a small step to becoming a punk.

And then?

I actually would like to rewind a bit. It all started with the Spice Girls. I had fallen in love with Sporty Spice. I was seven years old and I had this epiphany watching the Spice Girls on TV. I have them and only them to thank—or to blame—for becoming a singer. Watching them on TV was the first time ever that something really appealed to me. Don’t get me wrong: Every little girl at that time went mental because of the Spice Girls. But I took it really, really serious. And that’s why I started to make music as a teenager. I started to write songs because of the Spice Girls. By doing so, I learned to let off steam. Writing songs became my platform for expression. You are a man and you probably saw it differently, but for me as a teenage girl, the world hadn’t really opened up yet. And I didn’t know how to handle it.

How old were you when you started smoking and drinking?

I was fourteen. That was when the hormones came through. From one day to the next things really started to change inside my head.

What books did you read then?

In all honesty, I didn’t read that many books. I never did. I am a slow reader. But certain music would trigger me. I started to get hooked on Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Bikini Kill and other bands. Sporty Spice basically got replaced by Kim Gordon. I began to print out the lyrics of all the Sonic Youth songs on my parent’s computer. Actually I printed out all the lyrics of all the songs that somehow have touched me. From the Sonic Youth lyrics alone I could have made a book. I mean, it didn’t even occur to me that they may have released a songbook of their own. I just needed to print everything out immediately because it was accessible on the Internet. My brother on the other hand was playing computer games all the time when he wasn’t roleplaying Tolkien scenarios in the forest. And my brother had this friend who was always wearing black trench coats and had black hair. All I remember is that I wanted to look like him. I was listening to “Youth Against Fascism”, and my classmates thought I was mentally ill.

Tell me about the squats you frequented at the time.

It all started when I changed to a school in the city. And there were other people who also dressed like me. I started smoking with them and they took me to their punk places. Suddenly it was all about left-wing politics, anti-fascist engagement and drinking in squats. All these different groups were gathering there. There were feminist groups too, but first and foremost anti-fascist groups.

Why? Were there a lot of neo-Nazis around?

No, not that many. But I was against them anyways. I soon started to get into the squatter’s environment and finally I started this punk band called MOR—Danish for “mother”—together with my friend Josefine. We immediately had what we’d define as success: We played in squats all over Denmark, Europe and even in New York. We had recorded music and would shout and perform to our self-made playback show. You’re from Berlin, aren’t you?

Yes, why?

Well, we played at this squat Köpi in Berlin. We were drunk for five years, played every weekend in squats—basically we were being young, I guess. We just felt this huge energy. From the stage we’d preach about political things that were important to us. And be it a stupid slogan like, “Fuck the government!”, “Fuck Nazis!”, fuck everything. I mean, we were only seventeen. What counted for us was the fact that we were seeing the continent and that we had an audience. I think it’s important to always balance out the seriousness and the overreaction. Some of the political bands that I appreciated at that age were annoyingly serious.

So it was a pretty quick development from Sporty Spice to Kim Gordon.

Well, for me as a seven-year old, Sporty Spice for sure was the Kim Gordon among the Spice Girls. Growing up and remembering my childhood fascination for the Spice Girls, it surely helped to inject pop ideas into my music. I mean, I still love perfect pop music. And everything suddenly made perfect sense when I went to Fynske Kunstakademi—the Funen Art Academy. I realized that I could combine everything and form some kind of an artificial character who is part me, part Kim Gordon and part Sporty Spice. After all, Kim Gordon went to art school too before she founded Sonic Youth, didn’t she? I started MØ during my time in art school in 2009. Actually, my alter ego then was rapping. Everybody thought I was crazy. But the fact that I could think and act conceptually liberated me. It has an ironic edge to it so that I called it MØ, which means “virgin” in Danish. I liked the idea that my alter ego had a bizarre name and was constantly agitating. It wasn’t about letting off emotional steam anymore. Everything had changed.

And now you have a proper band. 

I have to admit that I have since dumped the rapping alter ego. It was a progression. I started to sing more and more. And this led to another coincidence. Ever since then I have been working together with the producer Ronni Vindahl. He always liked me, but he never liked my sick raps. When he noticed that I had started singing he immediately asked me if I could record some vocals for him. He then produced some music around it, and we called the track “Maiden”. Eventually we’d constantly be exchanging files. I remember receiving his first email with music when I was doing an internship in New York. That moment changed everything. I liked the idea of becoming a pop musician, and that also meant that I had to form a band, play Roskilde, play the game. But that’s what it is: a game.

What kind of internship did you do in New York?

I was helping JD Samson of Le Tigre. She’s the girl with the moustache. So, me and Josefine were JD Samson’s interns—interns in girl power and feminism.

It’s one of the blessings of our times that you can effortlessly send music files back and forth to collaborate. Do you agree? 

Absolutely. And that’s exactly the way Diplo works. I really like it that you don’t have to necessarily meet in person to do music nowadays. I grew up with this idea that I can do music in every hotel room, in every train or friend’s apartment. I don’t listen to the people who say that this way of making music is supposedly impersonal. I don’t think that way. To me it’s totally normal.

Hans Ulrich Obrist has a project called 89+. It features the thoughts and opinions of the generation that was born in 1989 or later—basically the generation that grew up with the Internet, that doesn’t know a world before the Internet age.

Damn! I was born in 1988.

You can always say you were born in 1989.

Not if you print this. Anyhow. As I said, I embrace these times. And you could call Twitter impersonal too. But a Twitter post actually led to Diplo and me finally meeting in reality. Someone must have read an interview in which I mentioned Diplo and how much I adore his music and tweeted it to Diplo. But he had heard of MØ before. He contacted me, and we met. And for me it paid off that he is so open-minded. He’s really into new sounds and new people, constantly traveling and collaborating. We ended up writing the song “XXX 88” together in 2012. In that sense I’d say our times are sick in a good way, no matter what the people say.

Do you remember a time before the Internet?

For sure I remember the times before I got my first mobile phone when I was thirteen. Until then I could have easily imagined a fulfilling life without one. Somehow our world was more peaceful and less self-centered then. I really love social media, but many people misunderstand it as an invitation to preach how great their life is supposed to be.

But you use social media as well.

That’s true, but I try to not overdo it. I mean, society waits for nobody. If you don’t use social media, you are probably going to be left behind. You have to communicate. I don’t question that. But there’s a lot of people out there who use social media to boost their egos.

Andy Warhol would have loved social media, don’t you think?

I think he predicted it. I just object to people using social media to show their friends how good they look, how great their job is and what fancy things they can buy. I mistrust a perfect veneer. I can really get upset about the glorification of perfection. There is a thin line between proto-fascist advertisements that portray an idyllic world of consumerism and self-advertising on Facebook. I mistrust all the Miss Perfects. They are sick people. That’s just not how the world is.

I heard you are a fan of Jonathan Meese.

Yes I am and I would love to meet him one day.

You probably just have to get more famous. Or someone has to give him a copy of our conversation . . .

That would be so great! I really like the way he agitates. I discovered his performance work in art school. I admire him for the irony he shows in his performances. And I heard that he got sued for performing the Hitler salute.

That’s true, but they closed the case. The court rightfully judged that the freedom of expression in art is more important.

That’s good to hear. I love him because he is crazy. But besides Jonathan Meese, my biggest idols are from North America. I love Grimes, I love Karen O. and I love Kim Gordon. They all stand for a kind of posture that I admire. I generally adore people who stay true to themselves, who are building something up over the course of several years. I think the real person manifests themselves in such efforts. And I’m saying this also because I was always bad in school. I couldn’t concentrate. And that’s why I basically felt so attracted to music.

Have you ever met any of your idols?

I actually met Peaches once at a festival in Slovakia. You shoudn’t underestimate her influence on young women in Denmark. My rap alter ego was very much inspired by Peaches. She taught me how to swear and be vulgar in front of other people! By the way, did you notice that almost all of the huge solo artists in the world today are women? Madonna, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Lana del Rey . . . You could easily extend the list. I know that most of them are produced by male producers. But still, it’s all girls! Girl power! At least in the Western world. I first noticed this in art school. We were two-thirds girls. And didn’t Lady Gaga go to art school?

No, not visual art. She—her real name is Stefani Germanotta—created Lady Gaga at NYU’s school for performing arts.

Either way, it shouldn’t be about what sex you are.

But “girl power” is all about what sex you are, no?

I think it’s great that women like Peaches, JD Samson or Kim Gordon have become role models for my generation. Girl power to me means that I’m allowed to show my flaws as well as my strengths.

What would happen if you ever met Sporty Spice?

I actually met her this past April. I won an award from a Danish radio station, and they flew her in to give me the award at the ceremony. OMG. At first I thought it was an impersonator. I almost said something like, “You almost look real.” I was totally flattered, I almost cried. After the ceremony I took the chance to talk to her. I explained to her that she basically was the reason why I became a musician in the first place. And she told me that she felt flattered that I had recorded a cover version of the Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There.” She even had paid for her own flight, because she liked my song so much. This world is so fucking crazy that I sometimes don’t understand it. ~

 

This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 38 (2, 2014). You can purchase the new issue, and back issues, in the EB Shop.