The singer from Odense, Denmark takes on pop music from a punk perspective, but her lack of pretension about either keeps her honest.
"I'm clumsy. And [I'm] terrified of being perfect, because I'm just so fucking bad at it. I've always been the kind of person who, if you were talking to a guy you liked, would be red in the face, or would just fall into the wall. Clumsy. And nerdy."
It's hard to believe that Danish singer Karen Marie Ørsted, who performs as MØ, has any shortage of confidence. After debuting her solo project in 2013 with the EP Bikini Daze (which featured Diplo) and being hailed as the voice to bring girl power to a new generation by Sporty Spice herself, MØ has steadily gained a rising profile. She's the rare major label pop artist whose anti-fascist, punk background is just as explicit in her music as her love for the Spice Girls, both of which will be on display when she performs Tuesday at the Spanish Moon.
Though both influences are about finding power through a very specific image, MØ readily surrenders any persona and admits she doesn't have the answers. The name MØ means "maiden" or "virgin" in Danish, and her music hinges on a wide-eyed look on life.
"'Maiden' in the old Nordic language means a virgin," MØ said, "but not in a sexual way. It means you're a virgin to life, that you're young and pure and unspoiled. Like a child."
MØ's considered, stark depiction of youth and of her own naiveté as her music's central theme is interesting, especially considering that she signed to RCA in 2013. Next to the polished, constructed images of label mates Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus, her work is a bit jarring. She takes pride in these contradictions though, and it's when she strikes at a compelling dialogue between disparate feelings that she seems most comfortable. For example, contrast her major label recording to the literally homemade vocals for her debut album No Mythologies to Follow, which were recorded in a tent-like "booth" in her childhood room. She also finds other artistic outlets making both scrapbook art collages and crunk-rap with crude lyrics (a song from early in her career was simply titled "When I Saw His Cock.")
What makes her so charismatic as a pop star is that she is a virgin in the pop industry, having spent most of her musical life playing squats and grimy punk clubs throughout Europe. Once she shed her hardcore rap persona and started singing honestly about her experience as a young adult, she began to find an audience.
"Punk music is a part of me, and pop music--cheesy, cheesy pop music--is also a part of me. It's contradicting," MØ says. "There's so much you've got to figure out. So many things pushing in different directions, so you've got to be honest. It would be more scary if I had to play a character. I would always be afraid to fall out of character because it wasn't me."
On No Mythologies to Follow frustration with the world's musical and social expectations of her leads to a sound that uses pulsating rhythms, smartly placed horn sections, and multi-tracked vocals that have MØ singing from all quarters. The production never eclipses her syrup-free, soulful voice, however. Across the album, she covers the emotional spectrum from desperate, crushing loneliness on "Never Wanna Know" to the exultant, seductive "XXX 88". Even amidst the careful production, her raw, desperate emotion stands apart--innocent feeling without a filter. Her total lack of irony or ego is convincing.
MØ captivates in live performance. It's hard to explain the way she moves onstage, but to say that it is a cross between ballet and street fighting might suffice. She attacks her performances at a non-stop full sprint and never seems to tire. Dressed like a boxer-turned-pop-star, she thrusts herself aggressively across the stage, swinging her long braid in circles like a ball-and-chain. She doesn't stop moving for a second and seems ready to seduce or punch someone. Her physical performance is about youthful freedom, but it's also about how her she controls the presentation of her sexuality, and that it is hers alone. She's not backing down from what she can claim as hers, even in her self-proclaimed innocence. On "Maiden" she sings, "My desire is ravaging in me / Like a warrior's blade proud and fine / Let victory be mine." Though a bit overwrought lyrically, she balances the seductive and combative with confidence and pulls it off, with no intention of slowing down.
"I have actually tried concerts by telling myself, 'Okay Karen, today you have to take it slow. Don't be too rough.' But then as soon as we've been playing some tracks, then I mess it up and start dancing and everything."