How Mø Finessed Anarchist Punk Life Into Global Pop Stardom
These days, pop stars want to be political. Growing up, Mø actually lived that life. But do punk ideals and pop music really mix?
There's something a little different about Mø, compared to most artists featured on songs with a billion views. You can feel it when she dances, the way she throws her limbs around and finds power in the fists, not the hips. You can see it in her stompy tomboy style, which favors gym kit or army surplus garms over the posh designer looks of most pop artists. You can notice it in the wild way she gesticulates in conversation, or how many times she says ‘Fuck!’ as she struggles to find the words for the thoughts in her constantly racing brain. Behind the sheen and sparkle of her songs, there’s a young woman who once lived in an anarchist commune and started her career screaming songs with titles like "Pussy In Your Face."
There were hints of this provocative past in her 2014 leftfield pop debut album, No Mythologies To Follow, which won Mø a cult audience in the U.S. and the U.K. Back in her home of Denmark, it made her the people’s champ: at the prestigious Danish Music Awards she took home Album of the Year and three other trophies, almost instantly becoming the country’s biggest pop export since Aqua. And then came Major Lazer. Their collaborative 2015 smash hit “Lean On” didn’t necessarily set Mø on an unstoppable trajectory for world domination, but it surely didn’t hurt. Now, with her sophomore LP due this fall, her challenge is to translate the fuck it up attitude that coursed through her early material into music that has a global impact. If it makes her a star, so much the better.
Mø, born Karen Marie Ørsted, lives in Copenhagen but grew up two hours west of the city, in a little town named Ejjlstrup (pop. 1327) on the island of Funen. For the past 30 years, the Ørsted family has lived in a spacious single-storey property, which is lovingly cluttered with photos, books, and the ephemera of their lives. Entering the home, you navigate past shelving stacked with hiking equipment and books on history and nature, as well as a world map with black marker spiderwebbing from Denmark to the family’s holiday destinations.
While Mø’s been traveling the world, her mom has diligently categorised her daughter’s press cuttings and promo materials in folders that read, in Danish, things like “Press & Touring,” and “Collages & Songs.” “I think later on she’ll be happy for it,” says Mette Ørsted, Karen’s cheerful and generous mother, who works as a teacher. Today, she arrives home from a day at a conference and, upon discovering that Mø and I forgot to eat lunch, merrily instructs us to sit at the garden patio table while she fixes plates of cured meats, Jarlsberg, hot rolls, a spiced cake, and homemade jelly made from local berries. It tastes like lingonberry, but no one can figure out the English word for the fruit.
Mø tells me that she didn’t quite fit in at school but she wasn’t a loner, either—as a kid, she had a tight knit group who shared her love for Spice Girls, Cher, and eurodance heroes The Vengaboys. After taking a few basic piano lessons from a family friend, she cajoled her mates into forming a band and staying after class to use the school’s music room. From that early age, she had an appetite for being in control. “It was mainly me writing a song, and then we would make a dance for it. We each had our own part to sing, like All Saints and Spice Girls. I was very ambitious in my dream of being a pop star.” Her songbook is still lying around the living room, next to the family’s upright piano, and she props it onto the music rack, laughing as she finds remembers the simple melodies, thanks to her fingers’ muscle memory.
“I always talk about the sausage factory. How the whole society is like a big fabric of people producing the same shit.”
When she was 13, Mø’s older brother Kaspar, now a doctor, introduced her to Black Flag and Sonic Youth. With her headstrong spirit duly stoked, she started spending a good chunk of her time at a punk cafe in the nearby city Odense. “I just felt like I was different,” she says. “A lot of times people ask me why, because I had a nice family. But I’ve always had a temper, so I think it was natural for me to be like, ‘Now I’m going to be against everything.’” After school, she’d head to activist meetings at the cafe, including a feminist group for whom she designed slogan T-shirts reading "Kvinde Kend Din Kusse" (“Woman Know Your Vagina”). “I really felt like I started getting my identity,” she says.
Mø’s childhood bedroom has barely an inch of wall space between its colorful posters for political demonstrations and DeviantArt-style paintings of dark-eyed women with smoking guns and lit cigarettes dangling from lipsticked mouths. “When I’m here, I just feel more like me,” Mø says. “The old me.” She hops up from her bed, knocking over a stuffed toy of a Moomin wearing a top hat. “You should see this drawing,” she says, and pulls out an old illustration she did of Kim Gordon in heels, surrounded by the lyrics of “Tunic (Song For Karen).” The 1990 Sonic Youth track is a whirling dervish of riffs and feedback, with lyrics written from the perspective of Karen Carpenter during her struggle with anorexia nervosa: I feel like I’m disappearing/ Getting smaller every day/ But when I open my mouth to sing/ I’m bigger in every way.
“I remember when I first heard her sing,” Mø says of Gordon, whose memoir Girl in a Band she’s currently reading. “I was like, ‘This is wrong in the best possible way.’ It spoke to me so much, because I was not a pretty girl at all. No boys would look at me. So I was like, ‘You can be fucking successful and badass and be yourself, no matter who you are.’ To me, secretly wanting to be a pop star, that was really nice for me to know: that there are other ways. You don’t have to be Mariah Carey.”
Among her old stuff, Mø finds an anti-fascist badge showing a red line through a swastika and attaches it to her bomber jacket—the same one she wears onstage. Like the posters on her wall, the badge is a memento from a time where she’d lie to her parents and hop on a 90 minute train to shows at Copenhagen’s iconic, now-closed squat venue Ungdomshuset (the Youth House). For 25 years, the venue was an activist refuge and hosted shows from international artists like Nick Cave and Björk. The building’s enforced closure in 2007 ended in a violent face-off between the authorities and activists, who hurled Moltov cocktails at police, sacked a school, and set cars ablaze in protest of losing their home.
A recent Business Insider report called Copenhagen the second-happiest city in Europe, but it's not without its share of problems. The country’s current prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has been accused by the UN of inhumane human rights policies, and in early 2016 implemented cruel laws to permit police to seize refugees’ possessions and keep them from seeing their families for three years. As journalist Hugh Eakin noted in a March 2016 article in The New York Review of Books titled “Liberal, Harsh Denmark,” “When it comes to refugees…Denmark has long led the continent in its shift to the right.”
“It’s not good,” Mø says glumly. “It’s never been good. And now these days with refugees coming in, all of Europe has been so ugly in handling it.” As a teenager, leftist politics played an increasing role in her musical interests, most prominently with her electro-punk duo MOR, formed when she was 17.
“I remember I saw her do a cover of ‘Just A Girl’ by No Doubt at a small festival in Odense,” wrote her bandmate Josefine Struckmann Pedersen in an email. “She sang beautifully and looked very angry—I wanted to be friends with her.” With MOR, named after the Danish word for “mother,” they toured small DIY venues throughout Europe and the U.S. “It was a very natural thing for us to do ‘political’ lyrics,” Struckmann said. “Of course you want to show your disagreement to the racist parties, and through music it’s very effective.”
Mø roots around her bedroom to find a box of the band’s first of two 7-inches, titled “Fisse I Dit Fjæs,” meaning “Pussy In Your Face.” It was recorded on GarageBand and released in 2009 through local label Mastermind Records, who also put out Danish punk band Iceage’s first 7-inch. “This was what was inside,” says Mø, pulling out a paper inlay with a drawing that resembles cupid choking on a frankfurter. “I always talk about the sausage factory,” she says. “How the whole society is like a big fabric of people producing the same shit.”
“I think the most radical thing you can do is be yourself.”
It’s not unusual for pop artists to draw from punk music and culture to rough up their style, but it’s rare that their connection to the culture that goes beyond aesthetic appreciation from a distance. Growing up in Denmark, Mø lived it, and for a few wild months in the spring of 2012, she brought it to New York, after Mø and Pedersen's teacher in art school helped them get an internship with the queer music icon JD Samson. During the day, they'd help Samson's band MEN with the marketing and promotion of their latest EP, then at night they'd play MOR shows at house parties and DIY venues around Brooklyn. “She was super kind, fashionable, independent, driven, and fucking cool,” recalled Samson via email. “My second ever Instagram picture was of them at Kellogg's Diner [in Williamsburg] while I bought them some terrible food. I remember laughing with them as I started learning about what all the kids were doing. In a way, having them around made me realize how old and unhip I was!”
When the internship ended, Mø moved back to Denmark and into a communal house in Copenhagen’s anarchist community of Christiania. After being hooked up with a cracked version of Logic by a boyfriend, she started making plans to strike out on her own. Inspired by the button-pushing of Peaches and the bratty electropop of French vocalist Uffie, as well as the brash electro-rap of Danish female MCs such as Lucy Love and Linkoban, she bashed out a bunch of songs in her bedroom with titles like “When I Saw His Cock,” “Grease Me Up With Gravy Baby,” and “A Piece Of Music To Fuck To.” She booked shows at local punk venues, performing under the name Mø for the first time, which means “maiden” or “virgin” in Danish. “I tried to provoke as much as possible,” she says, scrolling through dozens of unreleased demos on her MacBook. “For me it was a super political thing about youth culture gone wild, so I was putting on this alter ego as a crazy, insane, young bitch girl. I think people were like, ‘Are you being for real? Do you smoke crack?’ It also sounded like crap. But it was a time.”
Even so, it got her a manager, who was able to link her with the producer Ronni Vindhal. Vindhal wasn’t feeling her more audacious early material, he wrote in an email, but he was impressed by a 2012 a cappella titled “Maiden,” on which he said “she stopped hiding behind a rap alter-ego and showed some true feeling.” Over a subterranean beat and a knotty guitar line, she sang the strange, soul-baring lyrics: My desire is ravaging in me…Where can I start?/ When all of you find me crazy/ Cause I have a black heart. At the time, Mø was wrestling with the question, ‘Is it punk to be vulnerable?’ “I did not think so,” she says. “Now I think so a lot. I think the most radical thing you can do is be yourself.”
“Maiden,” Mø’s most personal track to date, became a blog hit, and suddenly she wasn’t scratching around for a gig but had her pick of the litter. At this time, she started to feel pressure to sandpaper down her style from some folks, who saw the trending DIY artist as a marketable cash cow. “There were still people around me like, ‘Oh, you gotta look hot,’ and, ‘Maybe you should bleach your hair.’” Was this the dark reality of the pop star dream? Mø was torn. “I still wanted to do it right because I wanted to do this, I wanted to be a musician, that's been my dream since I was seven. And I had a lot of fat back then—I was not fat but I was looking a bit weird, you know?” She wasn’t sure whether holding onto her identity and being a successful pop artist and were mutually exclusive, but was certain that she wouldn't compromise the former for the latter. If the public had responded to her sincerity on “Maiden,” then they would take her warts and all, or not at all. As she puts it, “I was just like, ‘Fuck off, society.’”
In 2013, Mø signed a multi-album deal with RCA, releasing the Bikini Daze EP and her debut album No Mythologies To Follow within the next year. Both were mainly produced by Vindhal in his Copenhagen studio (Diplo produced one track, “XXX 88”), but Mø found she missed the intimate vibe of her family home, and travelled back to Ejjlstrup to record and mix her vocal parts. In the corner of her bedroom, she hung patterned fabrics to create a den-like recording booth, and set up an old condenser microphone to deliver her heartfelt yet pugnacious lyrics under the watchful eye of her Moomin. “I was opening up to admitting that I'm scared, I feel like a little girl, I've never really done drugs, but I'm still like, ‘fuck everything.’”
Going to the hairdressers with Mø feels like hanging out with an old mate from way back, as she sits with foils in her hair, sips coffee, and gossips about boys and celebrity crushes (she’s into Michael Fassbender and Paul Bettany). When I describe an ex as having “more issues than Vogue,” she explodes in a fit of gleeful cackles. “I never heard that before! I'm going to use that.” In three days, she’ll fly to L.A. for Coachella, but Mø’s already planning another trip to Portugal with her friend Ellinor (better known as the pop musician Elliphant) to buy a house where they can go with musicians and friends to chill, and write if they feel like it.
Perhaps it’s a little surprising that Mø dyes her hair blonde now, but the effect is likely far from what those putting peer pressure on her back in 2012 had in mind. In contrast to, say, the face-framing honey-blonde styles favored by Hollywood scions, Mø’s platinum ponytail actually emphasizes the sharpness of her features, adding to her look of a high school punk who secretly idolises Sporty Spice and might just swipe your lunch money.
A couple of hours and a stack of tabloid magazines later, she jumps up from the chair to show off her freshly bleached hairdo. “I feel so CLEAN!” she giggles, twirling around in the salon and darting over to a display of hairbrushes for sale. "OK, you have to help me choose,” she instructs, seizing two Mason Pearson brushes. “Black or pink?” I suspect she’s already made up her mind, but I play along: the pink one. "Yeah." She says. "Black is boring!"
Mø had always resisted compromising her bubble gum-clicking tomboy style, but found it more difficult to stay true to herself when chart-topping artists came calling. In October 2014, she was in the middle of a 21-date North American tour when she was approached to sing the hook on Iggy Azalea’s forthcoming single, “Beg For It.” Mø had misgivings about being part of a track she “wasn’t a part of emotionally, artistically, or creatively,” but Azalea was riding off huge global hits with “Fancy” and “Black Widow,” and taking the feature spot seemed a smart—if cynical—move. “I was like, ‘Fuck, I want this career,’” says Mø. In order to realize her pop star goals, maybe she had to take one for the team.
Just three weeks after the initial outreach, Mø joined Azalea for a Saturday Night Live performance of the freshly recorded track. It wasn’t good: Mø’s vocal timing was off, her form-fitting black outfit was an oddly subdued choice, and she looked uncomfortable to be flanked by muscular male backup dancers. While Azalea is not a particularly gifted rapper, her performance emphasised everything that Mø’s was not: here was a manicured mainstream star, conceitedly confident, with attire and choreography both designed to show of her derrière. “I looked lost, and I sang like I was lost, and that was it,” Mø says matter-of-factly. “[At the time] I was like, ‘This is the end of my career.’ But it’s like, ‘Fuck you!’ You just gotta get on that damn horse.”
“I sometimes step in the hot mess because I don’t really think about it. But that’s something hopefully I’ll learn, maybe. I think it’s very important of course that you’re politically aware of what you do.”
After the hairdressers we head to her house. I’m slightly shocked to find that she lives in a quiet, residential neighborhood, an area so chill that residents leave their bicycles unlocked on the sidewalk outside their houses. It’s a world away from her previous place in Christiania, which she eventually had to leave after her room was busted open by drunk party guests who wanted to see where the singer slept. Her new place, a narrow three-story house, smells of fresh-cut pine. She’s lived here for less than a year with her sweet, puppyish boyfriend Mads, the vocalist in indie duo Reptile Youth. There hasn’t been time to decorate and she hates the beige textured wallpaper that came with the place, but Mø has customised with the few tchotchkes scattered around, like a couple of maneki-neko Japanese waving cat figurines, and a Ritz cracker sized small book of Spice Girls quotes and pictures (“Ginger Spice loves Bryan Adams: ‘Cos the only thing that’ll look good on him is me,’” reads one page in Danish).
Sitting on the sofa of her cozy living room, Mø recalls how Diplo sent her a bundle of Major Lazer beats to write over, in late 2013. The intention was to shop the spoils around to pop artists—but she had other ideas. “Of course I was like, 'I wanna sing [the demos] so well that they're gonna put me on it.” This plan wasn’t entirely successful: one song, “All My Love,” ended up going to Ariana Grande for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, and another was cherry-picked by the French singer Patrice.
Mø pulls out her laptop, which is plastered with stickers of Mad Decent, the bleeding heart logo of her old band MOR, and a picture of Posh Spice wearing PVC from the “Say You’ll Be There” video. She plays me the lovely, lilting demo of what would become “Lean On,” which is closer to a ballad and has the island-ish ease of Major Lazer’s “Get Free.” Mø had written it one melancholy night in a Belgium hotel room, as she was thinking about “missing my friends and how we all need someone to lean on, even though we are out in the world trying to be tough and conquer the whole thing.” A year and a half later—and after Rihanna and Nicki Minaj rejected the track—Mø was eventually told, “you’re on it.” It was for the best. “No one can sing it like her,” said Diplo, via email.
The song was a hit, but the video wasn’t without its problems. Filmed in Mumbai on a set of a Hindu temple, the clip shows Mø performing Bollywood-inspired choreography flanked by Indian dancers in sarees, and in other shots she lounges on a throne, or luxuriantly bathes as the dancers entertain her. It’s still an uncomfortable watch for its exoticized depiction of Indian culture.
Speaking via email, director Tim Erem said, “We were also a crew of 120 people with maybe 10 of us not being Indian.” Diplo added: “If there are rules to making music and art, I never read them. But I’m not sure where to peg a dancehall song created by Jamaican-Americans and sung by a Danish singer and an Algerian DJ with a video by a Swedish director.” Perhaps one answer might be: Jamaica, Denmark, Algeria, or Sweden.
When I raise the issue with Mø, she seems genuinely wounded that the video caused offense. “It makes me sad because I don't…” She pauses to consider her language, rearranging her arms anxiously as we sit on the couch. "We were so inspired by that culture and so just wanted to be a part of it…I'm always like, 'Hey I'm so open-minded and just think everything's exciting and great.' So I sometimes step in the hot mess because I don't really think about it. But that’s something hopefully I'll learn, maybe. I think it's very important of course that you're politically aware of what you do. Maybe I was sleeping in my mind, maybe I should have been more aware."
For an artist with a radical punk past, it’s odd that Mø participated in the culturally insensitive video. For what it’s worth, since then she has learned to be more meticulous, not least with her new album’s lead single, “Final Song.” “She sent me like a 10 paragraph email of things that she wanted to change,” said MNEK, the track's producer, speaking in his east London studio. “There was a rougher edge to [the song], and she was like, ‘Make it a little lighter,’” he remembered. “I made it really light and then she was like, ‘It's too light.’ Finally when mixing the two she flew over here, we worked on it together. It was dope. She really does give a fuck about the song.”
In fact, “Final Song” is so painfully personal to Mø that it nearly brought her to tears during a recent show. “I was almost crying because in a way I was singing to myself like, ‘Come on,’” she says. “Singing to that thing, that sparkle in me. Like, just fucking stay with me and let's fucking be happy together. I need a song like that, for me at least. I want that spark and that fire.”
In addition to MNEK, the album features a clutch of twentysomething autodidacts, who, like Mø, are currently making the charts more interesting. Cashmere Cat produced some songs, and so did BloodPop, most notably on “Drum,” co-written by Charli XCX and Noonie Bao. It’s a tropical outsider anthem that ramps into a squelchy hook of Dance to the beat of your heart/ To the beat of your drum, punctuated with “Hey!”s similar to Mø’s early single “Pilgrim.” Like most great chart songs, you can instantly picture it blaring from the flotilla of a gay pride parade. Other tracks, like “True Romance” and “Goodbye My Lover,” stick closer to No Mythologies To Follow, sprucing up the beats-driven sound of her first album into songs that soar.
Life happens; we evolve. Most of us are in flux throughout our twenties, if not for way longer. To an outsider, though, it can be hard to reconcile Karen—the young woman who lived and breathed feminist punk and anarchist politics—with Mø, the pop artist. Her old friend and bandmate from MOR, Josephine Pedersen, put Mø’s moves down to maturity. “She’s grown a lot. She always used to excuse herself if she did something wrong with ‘I’m young and confused,’ but now she’s more responsible. She knows she’s a role model for young people all over the world. I think she wants to do a good job, and she does.”
When Mø needs a break from her “chaotic brain,” you’ll often find her a few miles from her childhood home at a body of water she calls The Therapy Lake. It’s approaching late afternoon ‘magic hour,’ and the sun casts a golden glow as we navigate the muddy little capillaries of trails spinning off from the water's edge. “I feel so happy when I’m here,” she says. A few months back, her boyfriend carved “Karen + Mas” into a bit of disused decking, and while we can’t find it today, she promises that next time she’ll look properly, and carve a heart to frame their names.
Walking through the undergrowth, Mø tells me of her faith that she can tell her story in a way that keeps it just as real as “Pussy In Your Face”—but also gets played on the radio. “For me, it's all about making a song that communicates something to a big crowd, but you still feel like it's authentic to who you are,” she says. “That's that kind of pop that I hope and wish to do. And I hope that my new album is gonna do that.”
She recalls one moment at a festival in The Netherlands last summer, when looking out into the joyous crowd she thought, “‘Oh my god, is this really happening?’ It was like I was a different person, like, ‘This cannot be me, this cannot be true?’” Mø frowns, thinking about it. “But it's not because I made a decision to compromise everything becoming a big pop star. Then, I also think I would fail. People can smell bullshit from thousands of miles.”