There’s a twinge of sorrow to MØ’s Diplo-assisted track “Sun in Our Eyes,” despite its happy-go-lucky, forward-looking message. The chorus is all sunbursts, radiating out as the Danish artist sings, “And just ride that wave until we’re higher than life,” assuring whomever she’s addressing that they’ll have “no more tears for the night.” There’s a duality here—the joy of cruising with the top down, but also a lingering sense of loss. It’s what defines MØ’s sound, the one she executed brilliantly on her 2014 debut album, No Mythologies to Follow.
What followed that debut—which was something of a sleeper hit—was, in many ways, unpredictable; the next year, her collaboration with Major Lazer and DJ Snake, “Lean On,” flew to the top of the charts, becoming a ubiquitous Friday night anthem, but also marking an inflection point in MØ’s body of work, which had so far been made up of wobbly, brooding indie-pop and sparkly Spice Girls covers. The question of what came next for the previously little-known artist became an existential one, which MØ (born Karen Marie Ørsted) says felt too big to tackle at times.
Speaking over the phone from Copenhagen, the day before going on tour, MØ repeatedly talked about the year or two that followed the success of “Lean On” as a kind of mental block to creating anything new. She confirmed that she wrote her 2016 single “Final Song” as a kind of pep talk to herself, to get over the creative hurdles she kept hitting. (“But when you’re gone, the music goes/I lose my rhythm, lose my soul,” she sings on the track; later, “Don’t let this be our final song!”)
If Forever Neverland, released on October 19, sounds different from both her earlier material and from “Lean On,” it’s on purpose—to get herself out of the artistic rut she was in, MØ says she had to take a more experimental approach to making music, and keep writing with other people. “I remember thinking, Ahh, I don’t know, guys—I’d rather write on my own,” she says. The result is a “patchwork of different ideas” that comes through on the ominous “If It’s Over” with Charli XCX, the clubby “Red Wine” with Empress Of, and the wistful piano ballad “West Hollywood.” In this interview (which has been condensed and edited for clarity), MØ talks about the experience of making this record and how she got over the fear of making a bad song.
JEZEBEL: Can you tell me about your songwriting process for Forever Neverland? I know it was pretty spread out and maybe kind of jumbled, but when you’re writing, do you tend to start with the beat first or the lyrics? How did you enter each song on this album?
MØ: It really varies—sometimes it’s a lyric and sometimes it’s a melody or a chord progression on the piano or a beat. But with this record, it was very jumbled. It did take me so long to write it, and I think I really went through a lot of different phases as a person and as an artist during that time. My debut album was more of an indie pop record and then “Lean On” happened and all these opportunities suddenly opened up and everything kind of changed for me. Having to find my own voice and sound again, it made me curious about different methods of writing music, and that’s why I experimented so much on this album. That’s why it’s a mix-match, it’s like a patchwork of different ideas that somehow came together. But it can be much simpler than that. For my first album, No Mythologies to Follow, it was just me and a piano, and then my producer produced it. So it really varies from album to album.
Was there one song in particular on Forever Neverland that you had the most fun writing?
Or maybe a song that took you the longest?
I think “Blur” was a song that didn’t take long at all. We wrote it in four hours. At that time, I was feeling so artistically and creatively lost. I’d been traveling too much, and I was having writer’s block or whatever you call it, and then we wrote “Blur,” which is about suddenly not knowing how to express yourself. It’s so scary, and writing that song really planted the seed for this album. So that song means a lot to me. But I don’t know if it was particularly fun to write—it was eye-opening.
What were you listening to during that time? Were there other artists you were drawing inspiration from?
I gotta be honest—it was such a long process to make this album and figure out what my sound would be like, that there were some chunks of time where I couldn’t really take in any more creative input because I was so in my own head space [laughs]. I was so involved in figuring this stuff out. But around 2017, when I got out of this artist’s block or whatever—I don’t even know what I was going through, but you know, this thing—I started listening to some stuff that I was really, really excited about and still am excited about. I listened a lot to SZA; I think her songwriting is amazing and her way of singing and her lyrics are the best. And I always listen to a lot of Santigold when I need inspiration. I’ve always been a huge fan of hers. And Lana Del Rey, because she’s so good at creating emotional, I don’t know, awareness [in her songs]. I always find it nice to listen to newer stuff, even if it’s not a genre or artist that I’m familiar with, just to get a sense of what’s going on, and then combine it with older stuff and with my own taste.
One of my questions was going to be about how you get over writer’s block, if you ever experience it, and if you consider yourself a perfectionist?
It’s so funny because a couple of years ago, I would have said that I’m definitely not a perfectionist, but it’s actually not true. I do think I am a perfectionist but I also believe in happy coincidences and I also really believe that sometimes you have to let things go. But then all that being said, I’m still very much a perfectionist about what I choose to put out into the world—and about my vocal recordings, and all these little weird things I’ll obsess over.
And I think after “Lean On,” for all of 2016 or so, I was feeling a bit numb. I was traveling the world and you know, living my dream, but I was also so in doubt of what my next statement was going to be. And I just really didn’t know. I always feel a lot of things, and it’s from my feelings that I draw the most inspiration, but I couldn’t really get it out. “Blur” helped, because I was chasing a more mainstream pop sound [at the time], and I guess I was scared about talking about what I really wanted to talk about, which was that I felt like I wasn’t in touch with myself in the same way that I used to be. And I was like, Oh, that shit is too dark to sing about. And I don’t know why, it’s totally not.
I love No Mythologies to Follow. That’s when I was introduced to your music, and the songs on it are really sort of dreamy and not dark, but more vulnerable in certain parts.
I know what you mean—not dark, but maybe a bit melancholy but also uplifting in its own way. That’s my favorite kind of music.
Did you feel pressure to stay away from those kind of songs?
I totally felt that, and I think I put that pressure on myself more than anyone else. It’s strange because I’ve always been very much like, you should never change yourself just because that’s the norm or because people expect that from you. But I thought I should stay away from that; I thought I should imitate “Lean On”’s vibe. I don’t know why. I think I wanted to experiment with that [pop sensibility], since I had the opportunity.
Was it difficult to tune out all the advice you were getting back then? Or was any of it helpful?
I think in some ways I found it helpful. I felt like I wasn’t developing [after “Lean On”], and that was actually the perfect opportunity to try and challenge myself into writing with other people, which I’d never done before. I remember thinking, Ahh, I don’t know, guys—I’d rather write on my own. But I’m happy that I forced myself into it because I think, at a certain point, you cannot be stuck in your own stubborn ways. It’s really important to try things out. And so I did try it out and something good came out of that. But having all these people saying, “This is the way you do, this is how you make a hit”—which, don’t get me wrong, obviously at the time, I was like, “Ah fuck, this is an opportunity for me to make it.” But at some point, that was the problem. I got stuck too long into this whole [mentality] of “It’s all about making a hit.” When a song sounds like every other song that’s on heavy rotation on the Top 40, I mean, that’s not interesting to me. I feel like the artists I listen to have a strong artistry or a point of view. I think everything just went too fast in those years.
You felt like you took back control over your creative process at some point.
I think it happened around the beginning of 2017—that’s when I started to realize that I cannot just put out—like, I love pop music, but [this album] had to be different, or had to try to be different, at least. And [I had to] talk about something that means something to me, because otherwise I was just going to feel hollow.
Is your vocal style something that you’ve experimented with, or has that always been pretty clear to you, like the way you want to sing?
I’ve always been interested in expressing yourself with your voice, in that thing where you can really show people who you are. When I was a kid, I would always listen to some music—in school and stuff, like [girl groups]—and they had this control over their voices in a way that I couldn’t learn how to do. It was like, they could sing so perfectly and so controlled and I just could not. I really tried; I was sitting by the piano every day and singing and trying to manage my vocals in this perfect way, and at some point I realized, I cannot do it, I have to find a my fucking own way of singing. That’s why I was so [into] Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth; they had these—obviously not ugly, but it wasn’t, like, pretty. It was like [makes weird sound]. It was different and special and very expressive. I felt like that was the way I could sing. I didn’t feel like I could do that kind of perfect, beautiful, controlled, Christina Aguilera vocals, which I really wanted to. But I just couldn’t!
When you started playing bigger music festivals, did you ever get stage fright?
When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a musician, so I was in all of these bands throughout my life, and I was always super terrified [of being on stage]. I actually think I had stage fright throughout those formative years. But then I was in this girl punk band—this very political band from when I was 18 to 22, and I think that helped me deal with my stage fright because we would go on stage and just go crazy. Just let everything loose. And that was a great thing to learn; I still get nervous and [have] stage fright, but I’ve learned letting your guard down and giving everything, that’s the way to be free, and that’s a good space to be in.
I read that you gained a lot of political consciousness during that time in those leftist and political circles.
Yeah. We formed the band in the activist punk environment that we were in, so we wanted to make a political punk band; that was our agenda.
Do you think artists have an obligation to introduce a political element to their songwriting?
Well, I think you have an obligation to yourself to be honest and to be aware of the world that you’re living in and that it’s important to try and be politically aware. I think it’s very important that you don’t force political messaging directly into your lyrics if it’s not natural. I think the best political messaging in music feels very organic and very personal. Because if you truly believe in this person and wanna believe in humans, I think that’s a really good way of being political. I think we do have some kind of responsibility to do that.
I also read that you wrote “Final Song” about struggling to write new material. Is that true?
Yeah, obviously it sounds like a love song, but I was actually thinking when we wrote the song—I don’t know if you know this feeling, but sometimes I talk to myself—and it was for me, it was kind of like, love song or empowerment speech to myself. [It was like], Don’t let this thing break you, don’t let this stop you, don’t be your final song. Like, to myself. [Laughs]
I know some artists struggle with that feeling after their first big hit—and I don’t think of “Lean On” as your first hit, I think of it as a big commercial success—but were you afraid that you were never going to top that?
It’s definitely been something that I’ve been thinking about. But I remember thinking after “Lean On” that a lot of people were probably wondering, Oh, how is she ever going to come back after that? Or, Oh, is she just going to be remembered as a features girl? Or whatever. But I remember thinking—even if that is what people remember me for, then I can’t change that. But that’s not how I’m going to view myself. I’m going to view myself in a different lens. It’s all in your own head; you choose what you want to use negative energy on. Don’t get me wrong—I’m really proud of “Lean On,” so I don’t see it as a bad thing. It’s all about the tone of—the way people say these things. [laughs] You know?