girl in red
Photo: Jonathan Kise
Girl In Red On New Album 'If I Could Make It Go Quiet,' Why The First Thought Isn't Always The Best Thought
Why is "first thought, best thought" a goalpost to strive for?
To authors like Allen Ginsberg, it meant letting go of the conditioned mind, seizing the truth before inner or outer biases alter it. This might be helpful for forms like, say, free-verse poetry. But when it comes to crafting pop songs, it's potentially a different story. How does Marie Ulven Ringheim—the Norwegian singer/songwriter also known as girl in red—craft tunes that lodge in people's hearts?
"I would say rewriting is a good way—to not settle on the first thing you write," Ringheim tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. "Say you wrote something personal: Ask yourself the question, "Could I apply this to someone else's life?" I usually don't ask myself those questions, but you could do that, maybe. You've got to not be too specific."
By straddling the spheres of the personal and the universal, girl in red has won over millions of fans, even securing a direct support spot for Billie Eilish in 2022. And as per her comments, Ringheim's latest album, If I Could Make It Go Quiet, is the work of a meticulous craftsperson.
Still, even this is a balance: Tracks like "Serotonin," "Body and Mind" and "I'll Call You Mine" required killer ideas at their core before Ringheim and her collaborators—including co-producer FINNEAS—went about futzing with them in post-production.
GRAMMY.com caught up with girl in red to discuss the making of If I Could Make It Go Quiet, her process as a songcrafter and what fans can expect from her on stage in 2022.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mental health is kind of the focal point of If I Could Make It Go Quiet. Is it challenging to make something scary and negative into art?
I guess, a little bit. When I was making that song, "Seratonin," I knew you have to talk about it delicately. You have to talk about it in a way that's relatable for everyone to understand it—and also not make it too personal. I feel like songs that are too personal—about a very specific topic—aren't relatable.
But it wasn't really that challenging, because I've been going through intrusive thoughts for a very, very long time. When I wrote this song, I felt like I was able to deal with them a lot more. It was like writing any other song, but it was also a very cool song to write.
As a lyricist, how do you achieve that balance between the personal and the universal?
That's the magic. I really don't know! I would say rewriting is a good way—to not settle on the first thing you write. Say you wrote something personal. Ask yourself the question: "Could I apply this to someone else's life?" I usually don't ask myself those questions, but you could do that, maybe. You've got to not be too specific.
But that's also limited. Phoebe Bridgers is super-specific in her songwriting and that makes her Phoebe Bridgers, if that makes sense. I'm not sure if you're into her songwriting, but I think it's really dope—it's really cool.
I don't know. I feel like songwriting is such a mystery to me. I feel like I don't know how to write songs. But, apparently I do, and I've done it many, many times now. I wish I had a more sensible answer.
What do you think it is about Phoebe that resonates with so many people? What is that ineffable something?
I don't know—it's just her vibe. I'm really coming to terms with even the word "vibe" recently. I'm not that much into analyzing what works or doesn't work, but she has a vibe that's good and tangible. It's relatable. It just feels good. She's very human. She's just cool.
I think people just like listening to music that's cool and feels like it wasn't made by 100 different people. There's something about her. I usually don't think too much about what makes people different. I just think "There's something cool about that person."
On the topic of intrusive thoughts, what tends to stick in your craw? Are you a big-picture worrier or do you sweat the small stuff?
I mean, I've thought about dying a lot before. It's actually less of that now. Honestly, I'm actually doing really well lately when it comes to my anxiety. I have GAD [generalized anxiety disorder], so I've been sweating the small stuff. I've been worrying about everything. But I've learned great techniques that I'm using in my everyday life to just get by.
I'm not constantly thinking about death anymore, which I used to. I used to go to a concert and go, "We're literally all skeletons here. We're all just dead people." I used to think everyone would just be dead all the time. It wasn't a very positive thing. Now, anxiety- and intrusive thoughts-wise, I'm actually dealing with them instead of letting them control my life.
As common fears go, it's said that public speaking surpasses death. As somebody dealing with anxiety disorder, what's it like to sing in front of thousands of people?
I don't feel any anxiety when I'm onstage, in that way. I always end up nervous before I go on stage, which is incredibly human. But just because I have anxiety doesn't mean I'm scared to go on stage, if that makes sense. And I'm not scared to talk in public.
I actually really enjoy rambling on stage. I really love talking about my day and making jokes and making 20,000 people laugh. It feels amazing to have all those people in front of you and make 20,000 people sing. It's an anxiety-free space when you're on stage because it's just fun, you know?
You've said that If I Could Make It Go Quiet is your most ambitious work to date. In which sense of the word do you mean? Lyrical ambition? Production ambition?
I feel like my ambitions for the album are everything. Lyrically, it's on a whole other level than all my previous work—and the work I hear, also. I just think it's a really, really ambitious album lyrically. It's smart and, melodically, I think it's really cool.
I think the production is really ambitious because I've never made a record that sounds like this. I've actually never made a record in my life, other than this one. I'm not trying to sound like anyone. I'm just trying to create my own lane. That, in itself, is an ambition: To stay true to what I want to say in my music.
I also want to take over the world with it. I want everyone to hear it. That in itself is also very ambitious—my mom, maybe, would say naïve, but I don't know!
Was most of the heavy lifting in pre-production, rewriting and rewriting songs? Or was it in post-production, trying to get it right behind the board?
The main idea can sound more demo-y, but I think the coolest ideas are the ones that are really clear from the beginning. You can tweak them a lot, but they'll sound good stripped back as well.
But in terms of creating, I'm all over everything, all the time. I've been turning the knobs and geeking over the sound of the entire record for a year and a half to make it feel like something new and exciting and different for me.
How do you craft melodies? Are you the type of melodist who works them out on the piano? Do they just come tumbling out of you?
They just come out. I just improvise. I just sing into my microphone and play some chords, and then I start improvising and seeing what's cool and hooky. I think I have a good ear for melodies because, sometimes, they come out really quick.
I feel like I wouldn't ever say "I wrote those melodies," even, because I just sang those melodies. Does that make sense? For some people, maybe that's writing—I don't know. But I feel like they come out of me quite naturally and quickly. The lyrics, obviously, also dictate where the melody goes.
Do you labor over little details like the number of syllables in a phrase?
Oh, yeah. Syllables and starting a word with a v or a d or a w sound. A "we" sound or a "he" sound, and making it so the articulation comes through perfectly. The melody amplifies that articulation. I'm a huge nerd when it comes to words and rhythms and syllables.
girl in red. Photo: Jonathan Kise
How did your path lead you to connect with Billie Eilish?
I mean, I wouldn't say we're that connected; I feel like I would be saying it's something it isn't. I'm a huge fan of Billie and I know she's heard some of my music. I guess my path has just been to keep going and do what I think is cool and what I like. She's heard some of that and that's been the connection, but we don't know each other or anything.
Well, what can fans expect from you on stage with Billie in 2022?
We have a connection in that sense. We've met very briefly and she knows me. She and her team, obviously, invited me to [open at] the O2 Arena next year.
What can we expect? It's going to be f***ing lit—that's all I can say. I haven't started planning it yet, but I want my one shot at the O2 Arena to be f***ing cool. I don't want to blow that s***. I definitely want it to be really cool. Even though there will probably be 20,000 people there, I want to do something really special and intimate.
If I Could Make It Go Quiet is your most substantial work yet. Do you think your best music is ahead of you?
[Face visibly lights up.] Dude! As a musician, that's exciting as f***! I mean, I hope so. I can only hope so. That's all I can do. Fingers crossed: The best music I will ever make is still ahead of me.