“It’s like ‘mooer’. Or Mo. Or Moo. Or anything.”
MØ may not mind how you say her name, but you’d better start practising your Danish pronunciation. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter is about to finish her debut album – a unique blend of bedroom beats, soul-punk-electro-R&B and pop harmonies – and if there’s any justice in the world, she’s about to break big.
Karen Marie Ørsted grew up on Funen, one of Denmark’s largest islands, and she wrote her first song when she was seven years old. “My parents had a piano in their living room that they got from my great grandmother, and then I wanted to write songs, in English, cos I was a massive Spice Girls fan.” Even then there were traces of the bittersweet heartache that forms the backbone of her current skewed pop: the first single was called ‘Don’t Believe What People Say’. “I didn’t have a boyfriend or anything when I was 7, but it was about a girl talking to her boyfriend saying, don’t believe what people say about you. I don’t know where I got it from!”
Karen was a pop obsessive until she became a teenager. “I guess everybody feels that way, but a lot of things happen to you and you get your eyes opened to different stuff. I became very involved with politics and punk and anti-fascist demos and stuff like that. My number one favourite was and is still Sonic Youth, but also Black Flag, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs…”
At 18 she formed a band with her friend Josefine. “We were called Mor, which means mother.” She played noisy, trashy electro-pop punk with Mor for five years, travelling all over the world, from New York to New Zealand. “We were both singing and programming the music. It was very weird, I think. I still like it very much because that whole period was just crazy. We were touring Europe with another punk band from Denmark, and we played all kinds of squats, weird places, everywhere. It was very much fun. Actually we only finished the band because I got too busy with this.”
Karen had started to write songs on her own – “It’s always good to have a side project and I wanted to try some things out for myself.” So in 2009, MØ began, with Karen trying out a variety of sounds and styles on her laptop in her bedroom. “I had some friends who gave me trashy beats, and I was rapping, and making these big R&B choirs… it was totally different back then, but that was the beginning of it.”
At first, MØ was almost a character, a larger-than-life exaggeration of Karen’s attitude. “It wasn’t very personal. It was me taking on a mask. I was trying to be this loudmouth. I was about ‘yeah, fuck that, smoke weed’ – and I wasn’t even smoking a lot! I just wanted to be provocative. It’s always easier to put a mask on and be something else, than to be personal.”
But slowly MØ began to take shape. “I started to sing more than rapping – I was horrible at rapping, terrible – and I started to make the songs a little more personal.” It was at this point that Karen met Ronni Vindahl, a producer & guitarist whose work Kendrick Lamar used on “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”. Suddenly everything fell into place and the sound of MØ was born. “I’d sent Ronni an acapella song, he worked on it, sent it back, and it was like: oh my god, this is the sound we’ve been looking for. We threw that out on the internet and that was Maiden.”
The singles Glass, Pilgrim and Waste of Time soon followed, all characterised by an upbeat, skittish pop melody combined with surprisingly sad lyrics about heartbreak. “Yeah! Bittersweet! That’s a feeling I love to have, this, ‘ah, everything is so tough and hard but I’m making music and getting pleasure out of it.’”
MØ’s first EP, Bikini Daze, continues that theme. “It’s a lyric from a song on the forthcoming album,” she explains. “In my songs, there’s a lot about youth and boredom and recklessness. I’m very happy that I’m born in Denmark, because we are privileged young people – you get money if you’re studying, you get money if you’re sick. But Bikini Daze is a critique for this whole bored youth, who don’t know what to do because we’re so privileged. We have all the opportunities in the world and we just don’t know what to do. Bikini Daze is about being in a big blur: everything should be good, but you can’t appreciate it.”
Anyone who’s seen a MØ live show will know that Karen lets herself go completely when she’s on stage: she whirls around as if she’s dancing in her bedroom mirror, with nobody watching. “It’s important to let go and go crazy!” she says. “When I go to a concert, I want to see the lead singer go fucking crazy, be wild and get into the music, you know? I want to see some fire burning! That’s what I try to do when I perform. People don’t just wanna see me standing there. They want to see something in my eyes.”
Then there are the visuals, distinctive homemade videos on YouTube and projections Karen uses when she’s performing, which were created out of practical necessity. “We started doing that two years ago when it was still the trashy rap thing, because I had so many backing vocals in my songs, and we couldn’t afford a choir, so I needed to film myself singing those vocals. It makes the project nice because it’s so rough.”
Karen has already picked up the support of Diplo, who co-produced the Bikini Daze track XXX 88. “I was interviewed and they asked me who my dream collab was, and I said Major Lazer. So a conversation started on the internet, we hooked up with Major Lazer when they played in Amsterdam, and started collaborating. It was very, very cool. I’m very honoured.”
For MØ, life is about to get not only very, very cool, but really, really busy. She’s finishing her debut album (“I’m already making music for the second, you can never sit back and relax”), she’s touring Europe and Australia before Christmas, and the States after that, more touring, more recording, and more fun. Is she ready for what’s coming? “Everything’s blurry!” she laughs.