In 2015, MØ, whose real name is Karen Marie Ørsted, became a bona fide pop star. Her track "Lean On," with Major Lazer and DJ Snake became the most streamed song of all time, for a while. It led to a 2017 track, "Cold Water," with Justin Bieber and Diplo. Now, MØ is releasing her follow-up to her 2014 debut. This newest album, Forever Neverland, is her most mainstream work yet. And her most political.
Ahead, MØ talks to Refinery29 about how pop music has changed for women in the last two decades, how she's dealing with the insanity of the news cycle by writing songs, and why the Spice Girls mattered as role models.
Refinery29: I understand that you’re a big Spice Girls fan. Looking back, how did seeing them as female role models play a role in your idea of being a pop star?
MØ: “I used to be a really big Spice Girls fan. I remember being drawn into the image they projected of 'fuck the boys!' It was about them being good friends, having fun, and girl power. At the time I was 8 years old and my whole world was about friendships and expressing myself. I always wanted to perform and make music. They were the reason I wanted that, they inspired me to go from it even though I don’t come from a family of musicians. I loved the phrase 'girl power,' it was encouraging. Why would it ever be a bad thing to be a girl? Why would it not be as important as being a guy? That appealed to me. I never, at any time growing up, thought that being a girl would put me in a worse position than being a man. That idea influenced me from an early age, knowing that girls could be as or even more successful than guys. Not to make it about a war between the sexes; it was about equality.”
“We’re living in a time where it’s considered important to be yourself and not having to fit into the old-school mould of beauty standards or what a woman is supposed to look or act like. I think that’s really great. Obviously, it’s also easier said than done to just be yourself, for both men and women. When so many people have opinions it can be stressful to know what your ground is, let alone stand your ground. But it’s much more accepted to be searching for whatever answers you find to be true.”
Have you found that after the success of your song “Lean On,” the industry gives you more leeway and freedom to do what you want?
“It was a thing where all of the sudden, from one day to another, things just changed. For me, it was about finding myself. I used to be active in punk music for 10 years before my career took off. When that happened, it was more in the indie pop sound. Going from that to be catapulted into the mainstream with “Lean On,” that was a process I went through to find my voice. People definitely had opinions, but at the end of the day, you are the one to carve your path.”
Based on your experiences so far, what do you think it will take to increase representation for women artists, as musicians, songwriters, and producers?
“In my experience, the media and people in the industry is trying to encourage women to be who they want to be — to make music, do production, and tell them you can do it. There’s room for us all, and that’s good. Sometimes these things take time because it’s been male dominant in the music industry and in culture for a long time. There are many things happening right now, but this has to happen organically. It’s going to take a while for the interest to be more equal. But there are many good things being done to make an effort for equality right now. There are just no female producers, and it’s strange. I wish there were more. I’m optimistic, I hear about young female artists starting to produce more. I think it’s going to come. I have thought about producing, but at the moment, I feel like I’d need to take off a year to learn to do it properly. I do produce my own work, but when it comes to finalising songs it would take me way too long and I don’t have time that I just don’t have. It would, in the long run, make my life easier if I could produce everything myself, but I need to go back to school to learn. I could do that! I just don’t have time right now."
The way you look at politics on Forever Neverland is so unique. No one else has taken on the idea to comment on the need for escapism in these times. What made you think of it that way?
“Around the time when Trump got elected, and I’m not an American but that influenced everyone, I remember I couldn’t talk about anything but that with my friends. The conclusion was always: ‘Fuck! What should we do, what should we do, what should we do? Shit!’ It is overwhelming. We don’t know what to do. We want to do something and its frustrating. Everyone is trying to escape, it’s too crazy to let the reality sink in so there is a tendency to pretend nothing happened when things get too serious. It’s classic human nature. In taking that angle a little on the album, it’s, of course, a comment to the fact that it’s wrong to just escape. That’s cheating! You can’t just be like, ‘Oh, I’m Peter Panning to this Neverland and I’ll never look back. Fuck you! I have no responsibility.’ It is ironically viewed.”
What did you decide to do? Is making this music your activism?
“Yeah. A lot of these songs were written two years ago, with the most recent one being only 8 months old. Throughout that time was when I was feeling like everything was chaotic and disorganised, we don’t know right from wrong, alternative facts, what the fuck is going on? That’s why, at that time, I took that approach. Things were fucking crazy. I couldn’t see the way, I didn’t know what they way to deal with the politics of the world or how to use my platform. I was asking how I could help the situation. I didn’t want to contribute to the madness, throwing all my thoughts out there like blah, blah, blah. That’s a fine way to deal with it, but I think it's important to talk about the fact that it is a bad thing to close our eyes and pretend ourselves away to Neverland. You have to try. You have to read and earn knowledge about what’s happening in the world so you can speak with depth and be aware rather than produce a meaningless stream of fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Do you think pop music as a whole has an obligation to speak to the current political landscape? Mostly because right now it is so extreme, with nationalism rising all over the world? Or is that asking too much of pop?
“It’s important to be yourself, but also that pop stars try but not necessarily by only writing songs about how fucked up the world is. We all know that if someone is preaching to you too much, trying to shove a message down your throat it’s like, ‘No, get away from me! Don’t tell me what to think.’ So for me, it’s about a subtle, organic message and being truthful to who you are as an artist. Sing about things that matter to you, but put your message about the world in an undertone so you don’t preach too much. I feel the best when I express myself in a truthful way. The best thing I know is writing a little song on my own, not to make a pop hit, but just because it feels good. It’s a nice way for me to reflect on things.”
This interview has been edited for style and length.