Ask singer Karen Marie Ørsted about the Spice Girls and you unlock the key to her heart. The Danish singer, who records as Mø alongside producer Ronni Vindahl, was raised on the British group’s girl power and pop. And even though she spent her teen years and early 20s in a crust-punk band situated in Copenhagen’s leftist underground, the Spice Girls are still very much a part of her heritage. Just last month she released a moody electro cover of “Say You’ll Be There” that blends her gritty past with her current alt-pop sound. It’s a good sonic primer for her ambitious debut full-length No Mythologies to Follow, which works through feelings of aimlessness, isolation and heartbreak in songs you can dance to. “The good thing about pop music is that you get to bring your message to a lot of people,” Ørsted says, by way of explaining why she ultimately opted for pop over punk. “It’s important that music should want to change something.” With cosigns from Diplo, who produced “XXX 88,” and Avicii (she contributed vocals to “Dear Boy” on his recent album True), she seems poised to take her pop to a mass audience.
Marissa Muller phoned the singer while she was at her apartment in Copenhagen to talk about adding humanity to pop, Copenhagen’s DIY scene, and still feeling starstruck around Diplo.
Where did you record the album?
I recorded the vocals at my parents’ house, where I grew up, on an island two hours away from here [Copenhagen]. I really love to be outside of the city where there’s no noise and I can be one with my music when I record my vocals. It was great to escape to the countryside.
The songs have a warm, DIY feel that you may not have gotten if you recorded in a studio. Why did you go after this aesthetic?
My producer, Ronnie Vindahl, likes to work on his own and I like to work on my own. We like adding grittiness to the clean pop. When I was a little girl, I was a big Spice Girls fan, but then when I became a teenager I was involved in left politics and listened to punk. So I guess this edge is something that comes natural to me. It’s the same with Ronnie — he likes deep, relatable production, but wants it to have a sophisticated, DIY feel. We want the music to feel like it was made by human beings with flaws. It shouldn’t be too perfect, that’s boring.
How do you feel about pop music as a whole?
There are some great up-and-coming artists who I guess you could call pop, but who have an edge to them. I really love Grimes and Santigold, who are good examples of pop music that is relatable to a lot of people, but still has grittiness and balls. There are a lot of people who are making pop music now that don’t want to be too polished. I think people like to see flaws, and like to see the humans behind the music, because we’re living in a world where we’re always glorifying everything that’s perfect. People need something more real.
When did you start dabbling in music?
I know it sounds a bit silly, but I started making songs when I was seven because of the Spice Girls. It was the first time that I felt a band was really appealing to me and all of my girlfriends. Spice Girls were made for little girls. They reached out to so many little girls with cool messages like girl power, don’t let a guy let you down, stick with your friends and be nice to your parents. Those are some good messages to send out to little girls. I know that they were constructed by a big label but I will always have some love for them no matter how cheesy their music is considered. I wanted to honor them for making me want to be a musician when I was seven years old.
You cover “Say You’ll Be There” on your record.
On my album, a lot of the songs are kind of serious, about being young and confused and wanting to find yourself. So I thought [I'd cover the Spice Girls] so people wouldn’t think I’m this super-serious girl. There’s some irony in the cover, and I thought it could be funny to try to make the Spice Girls dark and take it into the universe of Mø.
Was your high school punk band your first proper band?
Yeah, it was the first time I got to tour and had fans. We actually got some attention on a small level in the underground. We got to New York on our tour. We started the band when we were 17 and stopped when we were 23, when Mø started to take off because I got so busy.
We have a very strong DIY scene in Copenhagen. Iceage comes out of this big, trashy scene. A lot of things are happening in the underground, and that’s something I’m super happy about. All of the Danish pop bands going somewhere, but what I love the most is to go to a punk show, where there’s this attitude of letting go.
As far as the messages on your album, you’ve said parts of it are about feeling restless, lost and young. Who are you speaking to?
I’m speaking to my friends and family and those around me. I’m post-teenager now. I’m 25. But I can still relate to my feelings from then and I can see in my friends that they still deal with these issues. I can see it in the teenagers nowadays, too, and I feel related to that and want to be like, “We’re going to make it, even though it sucks to be young and confused and not know what your dreams are or how to achieve them.” It’s so important to have something in your life that you’re passionate about, because that gives life a purpose.
What were some hardships that informed the lyrics?
Obviously, the first time I fell in love as a teenager and it went wrong. The first heartaches. When you’re a teenager, things feel so strongly because it’s the first time you’re experiencing things. A lot of the lyrics and inspiration come from looking at society and how people treat each other. Not to be too political, but also about social media and how everything is wrapped in plastic — wanting to escape the craving of being perfect and having all of these expectations. The lyrics in “Pilgrim” are about wanting to escape this crazy society with all of the noise and just go somewhere quiet and nice. A pilgrimage is a journey to discover some inner truth. When I’m in the big city, I’m always longing for the countryside so I can hear my own thoughts but when I’m on the countryside, I’m always longing for the big city. It’s in human nature to always want what you can’t have.
Was that actually you in the cover artwork?
I asked my parents to look up a picture of me from when I was in my Spice Girls band, but they couldn’t find one, so this is actually a picture of my bandmate from the punk band. It’s her group when she was a little girl.
Tell me about working with Diplo. Did you meet up in person to do the song with him?
The first time we hooked up in Amsterdam was April of last year, then we met again when he was in Copenhagen, and then we went on tour with Major Lazer. The songwriting process was very modern. We sent vocal parts and beats back and forth. I really adore Diplo for what he does because he’s so grounded and I think it’s so cool that he helps up and coming artists. A lot of the times I’ve been hanging out with him I’ve been silent because I’m so starstruck.
Where do you hope to be in a few years?
Not to sound like a hippie, but the most important thing is to give something to people, and if I could do that then it would be perfect. Of course, you always want to strive for bigger achievements. What I wish for is to keep making better songs and tour the world.