MØ Talks ‘Lean On’: ‘You Can Make a Hit Without Following the Rules’

By Brian Ives 

Having a conversation with Karen Marie Ørsted, better known as the Danish singer , is a blast: she’s like a walking, talking blast of adrenaline. She speaks with lots of sound effects (“Eeeeee!” “Whoa!” “Blah blah blah!”) and hand gestures, and is equally excited to discuss her punk rock past, her love of pop music, her new song “Kamikaze” and the collaboration with Major Lazer that changed her life (surely you’ve heard “Lean On.”)

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In America, a lot of people know you from your collaboration with Iggy Azalea, “Beg For It,” or “Lean On” with Major Lazer, two big pop hits. But you used to be a punk rock kid, right?

Well, yeah, I guess when I became a teenager, and the hormones started to [screams]… for some reason I really felt like wanting to rebel. And I’m from the suburbs, and out there it was like really weird if you were dressed differently. And I started dressing in black clothes all the time, and people would think that I was like, they were like, “What’s wrong with her?”

But then I moved into a school in the city and met other people who were also like, “I wanna be different! I don’t know why!” And so I started attending this punk café in the city where I moved to. And yeah, that’s how I got into punk music and the left-wing environment and politics, and stuff like that. And I was there for many years and was into activism and the whole punk rock thing.

And then when I was 17 or something, I started this punk band with my friend, and we had so much fun with that band for five years and toured and played all these squats all around Europe and Scandinavia, and even in New York too, actually. And it was just a really great time for me. I met so many people and learned so many things about myself and about who I wanna be, and my role models, and blah, blah, blah. But it was a great time.

And you were very into Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth, they were just like my heroes. I’d draw Kim Gordon, and write the lyrics down, and was just so obsessed with Sonic Youth, for some reason.

Obviously, because I was young and trying to find myself, and you need people who can inspire you and be like, “Oh, I wanna be like that; I wanna strive to be like that.” And she was just like my role model of all time. And I’m really happy that I had a role model like her in these years where you… form. And yeah, I was so into her and that, and Sonic Youth, yeah.

One great thing about Sonic Youth: they were never embarrassing. Some albums weren’t as good as others, but they never put out a bad album.

That’s true, she did it right. And she was just so straight-up cool. She was just one to watch.

Have you met her?

No. Actually, I went to an artist’s talk with her former husband Thurston Moore in Denmark a couple of weeks ago. But no, I haven’t met her. And I think I would pass out if I did anyway.

Back in the day, many Sonic Youth fans might find mainstream pop uncool, but that’s not the case with you, and it doesn’t seem to be the case with your generation. You can enjoy both left-field stuff and also pop.

Yeah, I think the thing with that is that before I got into punk and alternative and all these things when I was 13, 14… before that, I was the biggest pop-head in the universe. I was so into Destiny’s Child, Binga Boys, Spice Girls, and all these really, really, really pop pop pop pop pop things.

And I really loved it, and I started writing music because of pop music. I sat down as a seven- or eight-year-old and was like, “How do I make a pop hook?” And so that was such a big influence on me, too, before my teen years and the whole [makes punk rock sounding noises] “Aughhh! Wauf wauf! Boosh!” So that’s a very natural part of me as well. And I think that’s why, at some point, I started doing the music I’m doing today, because I still really f—ing love pop music so much.

But what I need for pop music to have, is this kind of edge or darkness or whatever, some kind of “difference” to it. You have to try to strive to push it, to make it different, like to put in a kind of message that will change something, because otherwise, it’s just like repeating itself and repeating itself, and that’s not exciting. Everything in the world, we need to always try to move forward. So that’s the thing.

But sometimes punk rock can get restricting with its rules…

I think it’s like that with everything. You can’t make everybody happy, and there will always be “If you claim this, then blah, blah, blah you can’t do this, and if you claim this, then blah, blah, blah you can’t do that.” And that’s just how it is. I don’t really care about that, actually. You just gotta find your own way to be happy.

A lot of people, when they move on to punk rock, pretend that they never liked pop music.

Oh, yeah, back then I pretended I never liked the Spice Girls, obviously, of course! But I think it’s much cooler and so much more radical to just be yourself.

So what’s your music-making process?

It’s very different processes, because sometimes I get a beat. Like, for instance, Diplo sends me some beats, and I’ll be inspired and make a track: “blah blah blah woo!” But sometimes it’s also just me working in Logic like “boop boop boop,” and then a scratch track comes out. But most of the time at some point I’ll give it a producer, and he’ll work on it, rework it. Sometimes I’ll do these scratch tracks where it’s like, I call them “night versions” where it’s just me and a piano and like a little Logic instrument, and add weird blah blah blah’s, and then that’s it. So it changes, it variates.

You and Diplo seem to have a nice partnership.

I love working with him. I really love it, because it’s always such a free and fun and open process. It’s never like you’re being put into a room and “Now you make a hit, and you have to follow these rules and do like this.” When working with him it’s just like, “blah, woah, yeah, cool, okay, blah, blah, blah, blah woo!” you have a track.

I love that. It makes me feel so happy, and that’s also what’s so nice about music. It should be a free thing. And when I started writing songs so many years ago, it was because it made me feel so happy and made me discover things about myself. When we work, it’s like this “ahh!” exciting place where everything is possible. And that’s just how it should be I think.

How did you get involved in doing “Beg For It” with Iggy Azalea, and how much did that change things for you in America? 

That happened so fast. I remember I was on tour in America, and I was just, at that time, on a feature with Elliphant on this song called “One More.”

And then we were in New York, and Iggy Azalea’s team contacted my manager and were like, “Hey, can Karen go in the studio and record this song like in two days?” And we were in New York and did it here. And so we were just like, “F— yeah! Yeah, of course! Okay.”

And so we did that, and the song was already written. I never actually had sang a song that I had had no part of writing.

So we did that, and then some weeks later we did Saturday Night Live, and woah, it went very fast. But I’m really appreciative of that experience, because I think I learned a lot from it, and it’s always exciting to try and do new things and see what happens.

How much did the SNL performance change things for you?

I think not as much, compared to “Lean On.” That was a change you could really feel and see and appreciate. I wasn’t too happy about that performance on Saturday Night Live, because I was so nervous and stuff.

Talk about the writing of “Lean On.”

Well, it actually started with a beat that was totally different than what it sounds like now. I got that [beat] like, maybe one and a half years before it was done. And back then it was like this reggae kind of thing, a much more slower vibe.

And I was on tour somewhere, I think I was in Germany or something like that, and I’d just played a concert, and I got the beat, and I was sitting in the hotel room and just starting to write the lyrics, and I actually think I sat all night and just did a very slow version.

And I did the verses and some stuff on that, and then I sent the vocals to Diplo, and he was like, “Oh, this is cool.” And then they worked on it and reworked it and back and forth, and a long time passed. And then I remember at one point they were like, “Hey, DJ Snake!” He had done some stuff to it also [He said] “Check out this new beat,” and then it was much faster, and then we were like, “Okay, how do we do this?”

And then we hooked up in the studio here and there and another place, and it was like, very free and open and fun, and then suddenly it was there. And we were like, “Oh, this is cool.” But I never thought that it would go as big [as it has].

So “Lean On” was the song that really changed things for you.

Oh, yeah. I’m so thankful and so happy for that song and for Diplo and Major Lazer for trusting me and taking me with them on that adventure. It’s hard to describe. Again, it was not forced: “Oh, this has to be a big hit; this has to be like this and this and this.” We just made a song and thought it was cool and nice.

And it makes me really happy to see that you can actually make a big pop hit without it having to follow all these classic rules or like “do like this.” That song just, from my end and also from their end, I imagine, just came out of pure love for music. And that’s nice.

Talk about doing the video for that song.

That was so nice. It was actually, I think one of the most hectic video shoots I’ve ever been to, but definitely the best. I’ve been a big fan of Major Lazer, ever since they released that “Get Free” song, and that was one of the songs that inspired me to do my very first song as MØ.

So to be there in India, to stand there on top of that bus and look out over that land and just be like, “Right now I’m shooting a video for the next Major Lazer single,” that was just one of those moments where you’re like, “Oh, my f—ing God, my dream just came true.” Like seriously! Because I’ve been dreaming about that so hard. So even though I didn’t get any sleep in two or three days, I was just so high from doing that. It was just magical, yeah.

And you worked with Diplo and Major Lazer on your single “Kamikaze.”

I started writing the song when I was in LA in April or something like that. It was me and my boyfriend, actually; we were just playing around with this song. And then I hooked up with Diplo here in New York, and he was like, “Hey, if you need something for your next single, just let me know.” And so I sent it to him, and then a week after I had this really, really cool track and I was just like [claps] “Yes! This is the direction for sure, yeah.” And yeah, the song is about wanting to let go and seek the limits and just like not really caring.

It’s very “you.”

Yeah, it is, it is very me, actually. I think so too.

When you were going through your punk rock phase, were you rebelling against your family?

No, the rebellion, it wasn’t because of my family or anything. When people asked me why I wanted to rebel, I’m like, “I don’t know. I just needed to.” I don’t know, maybe I’ve always felt like a bit… I don’t know. I’ve always felt it, but I guess we all walk around at some point in the early years when we’re children and before we become teenagers and feel weird and alienated. And that was how I felt too, and so I just wanted to shout, and that’s why. But no, my family’s great. I love my family. There’s nothing there. But finding yourself is a very hard thing.

You’ve described your parents as hippies, what did they think of your music?

Both my parents are very open minded. I think they thought it was funny that me and my friend, we did something different. And obviously, I think actually they were kinda proud that we went to places like to these squats and played concerts in different countries and did it ourselves and did all these things. I think they just were like, “It’s nice that you have a passion, that you have something that you love to do.” It’s so important for people to have something to care about. It’s good.

Do you think you’ll ever do punk rock again?

I would love that. I’ve said to myself that when I turn 30 I wanna start a punk rock band. When you say “punk rock,” it’s hard to define what that is now. But I would love to start a band at some point, in a couple years. Just on the side maybe. It’s good to have different kinds of music projects going on. Unless you’re too busy. Hopefully, I’ll be too busy. But we’ll see.

You have a very distinct sense of fashion, talk about that.

Thank you. I’m glad to hear that. Well, the thing is I guess, sometimes if I get put in an outfit that I don’t like, then you can just tell on my face and my whole like—because I’ll just be like [scowls] “I don’t feel good, get me out of this.”

But actually, it’s funny though, because a lot of people say “You’re very good with fashion and stuff.” And actually, I’ve always considered myself as kind of bad at it.

But yeah, I like to mix. Again, it’s kind of the same with music: to mix something that looks nice with something that has some kind of punkish and sportish kind of vibe to it. And then also being natural is very important to me, because again, if I feel like “eeeeee!” then I cannot be myself, and then I just feel bad. It’s so important to feel like you’re yourself.

And it’s the same with music; you can’t perform a song if you don’t feel like you’re being yourself in it. With outfits, it’s the same thing. And with artwork for music and videos; you need to feel like “This is me.” At least I need to, I’m very bad at faking stuff. So that’s very important to me.

How’s your next album coming?

It’s obviously a process. Right now I’m working on it. It’s a bit different from the last one, because on the first album I was almost always just working with one producer, and then also a little bit with Diplo, but mainly it was Ronni Vindahl and I who did the album.

And now I’m working with more producers, so it’s a different kind of process. But so far I have a lot of songs that I really like. They’re not all defined, and there’s still definitely a way to go, but it’s going well I feel. I guess that’s all I can say.

When will it come out?

I want it out next year, definitely, but I’d rather not put too many dates and months and stuff on it.

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