Standing in the PHOENIX studio, wearing a high-shine metallic shirt and apricot-coloured suit, Danish pop supremo Karen Marie Ørsted, aka MØ, cuts a striking figure. The 30-year-old moves with ease and assurance in front of the camera, oversized hoops swaying below a ruffled crop of blonde hair as she shifts to a new stance, but there’s a humility and lack of pretension in her manner of speaking. A member of the team spots a Moomin tattoo on MØ’s calf, and the singer explains that it’s an homage to one of her heroes, Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. “She was such a revolutionary woman for her time, I’m a huge admirer of her life,” she smiles.
MØ grew up in the suburbs of Funen, an island in the middle of Denmark, and was into “being a scout and being active, and boys and football”. But music was her passion. “I wasn’t really good at anything in school,” explains the singer. “I wasn’t really passionate about anything until music came around. My parents had inherited this old piano, but no one in the family is musical or could play it. I decided I wanted to be a popstar, so I started writing songs and then I realised it was something I was passionate about. I’m not good at stuff unless I’m passionate about it, otherwise I can’t keep focused.”
As a child, MØ “completely fan girl’d” The Spice Girls, but was later introduced to the music of 80s hardcore punk pioneers Black Flag by her politicised schoolmates. She formed a punk band, Mor, aged 18 and they went on to play gigs in squats across Europe and in New York. “It was when I became a teenager that I became active and got into the punk scene and alternative music, and everything rebellious that I could find.” MØ sees the punk spirit as a vital energy for the times we live in. “I’m definitely for more punk energy, for more rebelling against current political situations, which are pretty messed up.”
In the early 2000s MØ moved her attention from punk to pop, collaborating with the rising stars of a new global sound: Major Lazer, ALMA, Iggy Azalea and Avicii. Her debut album released under the alias ‘MØ’, No Mythologies to Follow, was a classy and confident serving of mainstream electropop with an alternative heart. Breakthrough track “Lean On” with Major Lazer and DJ Snake is one of the most successful songs of all time, breaking the record for the most-played track on Spotify.
Her second album Forever Neverland, released last month, expands on her favourite themes of youth and the desire to escape reality. “This album is very personal, it’s very much about my struggle with dealing with how the world is right now. But there is also the other side, looking more from the point of view of society, about escapism and the fucked up political situation in the world right now. We all want to escape it.” MØ explains that the album title is a reference to “Peter Pan and the lost boys – they are people who are in denial of reality. It’s an ironic title. When you deny what’s going on, it’s not going to change, and then it’s all going to burn in hell. This album is about me realising I need to wake up and come out of this bubble of escapism and take action instead of hiding. A sort of awakening.”
That’s the thing with music, if you want to change how things are you have to say it in a way that doesn’t scare people – so they can relate to it.
“We live in a really narcissistic time where it’s all about you and your own following,” continues the singer. “But in a way it’s just because people want to connect with each other. We put on a filter and don’t show the bad things, only the good. People tell me, ‘show me something beautiful, something fun’, it’s never ‘show me the real shit’. That’s what I love about punk because that’s like ‘no, fuck your rules’.”
Above all, MØ values authenticity in music. “I love listening to an artist when you can really feel who they are. Feel what kind of art they like, what kind of political opinions they have. Not from them shouting at you but just from them. It’s an undertone of who they are.” Her audio heroes include Lana Del Rey, Santigold, Julia Micheals and Grimes, who MØ would love to collaborate with, but she’s passionate about anyone who brings a raw honesty to their craft. “One person who embodies that for me is Lena Dunham and her whole thing of embracing yourself fully, like ‘fuck you, this is me’.”
It feels like MØ is riding a sizeable wave right now and relishing the momentum. She finds writing and performing music deeply freeing and enjoys nothing more than jumping from one creative project to the next. “I love being busy! There’s a big difference between being busy and being stressed. I like to have all this stuff going on,” she beams.
Perhaps those levels of calm derive from the Danish talent’s tendency to decompress with a long yoga session. MØ admits to not being “very rock ‘n’ roll” – aside from some late nights on tour, she’s too savvy to be self-destructive. She’s also mastered the art of turning down work opportunities when necessary. “Take some time to learn to say no. Stay in contact with people who are very close to you, and make sure what you do is something you like. Don’t do it because people are telling you this is what you should do.”
While MØ’s kick-ass attitude and political motivations stem from her punk roots, her pop production enables her to connect with the world. “That’s the thing with music, if you want to change how things are you have to say it in a way that doesn’t scare people – so they can relate to it.” She modifies the sociopolitical undertones of her music by keeping her message deeply personal, particularly on Forever Neverland. “I think the best thing you can do to inspire people is to just be yourself and be genuine, and hopefully your political point of view will influence people in a positive way,” she explains, adding that she has real respect and admiration for her young listeners. “I have eternal faith in the youth. I hope they will make a revolution and turn everything over so that we will get some sense into the world.”
Like her idol, Tove Jannson, Karen has strong views and has found an elegant vehicle to help them reach a great many people. Can pop music change the world? It can certainly help. “I don’t want to be alone in a world so cold” sings MØ on “I Want You”. At the very least, music like hers can serve as a mirror to the times we live in, encouraging us to engage with our surroundings with fresh eyes and ears.