If I were to introduce someone to MØ’s music for the first time, I definitely wouldn’t start with the earworm that was once the most streamed song of all time.
I first discovered the Danish alt-pop star as a teenager surfing YouTube one Saturday afternoon, stumbling across the video for ‘Waste of Time’ as a teenager back in 2013. Her blend of catchy, experimental pop and incredibly trippy visuals immediately had me hooked and it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with her music and DIY approach. I watched every single one of her ‘behind-the-scenes’ videos – in a pop music world dominated by egos, her spontaneity and simplicity were refreshing.
MØ (‘maiden’ in Danish) isn’t just an overnight phenomenon that took over the world with Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’. When I found her, Karen Marie Ørsted was already an emerging artist in her native Denmark with a strong online following (boosted by a collaboration with the late Avicii). She was signed to Sony and had a small but dedicated fanbase in Europe and worldwide. The year I discovered her, she’d played Roskilde Festival in Denmark (one of Europe’s largest music festival) and Reading & Leeds. The next year she released her critically-acclaimed debut album ‘No Mythologies To Follow’, which included ‘XXX 88’, her first collaboration with Major Lazer’s Diplo.
An appreciation of her DIY approach to her music is crucial to understanding her burgeoning appeal in the early years. In the 2013 documentary ‘MØ: New Blood’, we see her recording her vocals for her debut album ‘No Mythologies to Follow’ in her childhood bedroom, using her own microphone and laptop, and her mother’s old blanket to soundproof her DIY studio. The cameraman asks what we’re all wondering: ‘You’ve signed to Sony. You’re doing an international album. And here you are in a vocal booth, made with blankets?’ Laughing, she replies that she’s tried recording in a professional studio but it doesn’t sound as good as when she does it herself: ‘Then I can be in my own universe’. Making her own collages for the ‘No Mythologies To Follow’ cover art, the contents for the accompanying booklet and flyers for future gigs are all part of that same self-mythologising.
Over the next few years,I continued following MØ and saw her grow as an artist as I was changing from a teenager to a young adult. And then 2015 came.
I was scrolling through Facebook late at night when the ‘Lean On’ lyric video hit my newsfeed. I knew instantly the hook was enough to guarantee the track a hit, and that she was about to get the recognition she so well deserved. The song was all over the radios and TV screens during the summer of 2015, quickly becoming Spotify’s most streamed song of all time (a record subsequently broken by Drake’s ‘One Dance’). Very quickly she became a worldwide superstar and her post-Lean On era kicked off with a series of collaborations with major pop artists – including another with Major Lazer and with Justin Bieber, Snakehips, Diplo, and Noah Cyrus.
Her new releases were undoubtedly catchy, but while every artist changes their sound as they evolve, that DIY feel that ‘d liked so much about her was missing. I listened to ‘Kamikaze’ and ‘Final Song’, but just like MØ’s sound had changed, my tastes in music had too. When she released 2017’s ‘When I Was Young’ I was in no hurry to listen.
So it was by chance that I came across her once more this year with ‘Forever Neverland’, released on the 19th of October 2018, four years after her debut album.
The first half of the album did have that ‘weird’ quality that I liked so much about her early music. ‘Way Down’ and ‘Beautiful Wreck’ were both really catchy songs, but they did sound like she was still trying to ride on the ‘Lean One’ wave. However, I appreciated how she had experimented with new sounds throughout the record. ‘Blur’ caught my interest as her first every acoustic track, and the chords reminded me so much of ‘Where Is My Mind’, by The Pixies, that I was almost waiting for her to sing ‘Your head will collapse if there’s nothing in it’. The spoken word in ‘Nostalgia’ was also novel, with the choir in the chorus breaking from a tradition of non-collaboration in her solo work. ‘Red Wine’ had an interesting reggae vibe. But the tracks that caught the most my attention were the last three of the album. The weird pop of ‘Imaginary Friends’ reminded me a lot of her early work. ‘Trying To Be Good’ had a pleasingly jarring contrast of rhythm between her vocals and the beat. ‘Purple Like Summer Rain’ was experimental enough that it felt like it could have been lifted straight from ‘No Mythologies To Follow’.
Despite changing her sound, MØ has always been thematically consistent, almost fixated on the concepts of youth and growing up. As she explains in ‘MØ: New Blood’, her debut album was about ‘the post-teen, mid-twenties crisis which is lurking round the corner’. Her 2017 E.P ‘When I Was Young’ is about growth, about the recklessness and carelessness of being young but also about leaving some of it behind as you grow older.
As the title suggests, ‘Forever Neverland’ is not an exception. The album’s main theme is growing up and feeling lost. MØ is now 30 years old, and in her post-Lean On era, she has experienced worldwide fame and Hollywood. She talks about feeling lost in this world alien to her. On ‘Blur’, she sings Let me out, I’m trapped in a blur / Started out the way I wanted but it’s weird now. On ‘West Hollywood’ she just wants to call her mom and ‘get her ass out of West Hollywood’. The last song of the album ‘Purple Like The Summer Rain’ (also the intro) ends on a more positive note, where she seems more accepting of being in Hollywood, the place where she wanted to be all her life, Where the skies are blue, let me float, echoing her first collaboration with Diplo, ‘XXX 888’, Where did they all run to? / Where the sky is blue forever.
‘Forever Neverland’ was a gentle reminder that even though the pre-Lean On magic that I fell in love with is over, the Danish native is in the process of trying to re-create herself in the middle of the post-Lean On craze. MØ has never stopped growing – sometimes awkwardly, haltingly, but nonetheless progressing – and the ending of the album hints at the possibility of a new era of experimentation. We should all be looking forward to what comes next.
Words by Iris Jaouen