As the political world becomes ever more inward-looking, at least in music multiculturalism is all the rage. “The borders are opening up more, in terms of music. I love that it feels more like one world,” says Karen Marie Ørsted, who as MØ is right at the centre of the idea of the pop song as a global language. The biggest hit that she has been involved with, Lean On, was a collaboration between this Danish 28-year-old, Frenchman DJ Snake and the trio Major Lazer, who comprise an American, a Trinidadian and a Chinese-Jamaican. It was the most streamed song of all time until Drake’s One Dance topped it, but the group got Drake back in August when their next effort, Cold Water, became the single that finally dislodged One Dance from its seemingly permanent position as the UK number one.
Justin Bieber sang most of that one, although MØ has only met him once, at a French awards show, and recorded her part separately in a remote cabin in Iceland. She gets around. However, his lyrics suggest that even on a song that went to number one in 16 countries, not everything translates. I put it to MØ that Bieber’s idea of a declaration of deep commitment, “I will jump right over into cold, cold water for you,” wouldn’t actually be very impressive to a Danish girl. “Yeah! So what. We do that all winter,” she agrees.
After an hour in her company I can see why all these different people want to work with her. Her energy could power a tower block. She’s late to meet me at her record company’s London office, after other commitments overran, and I have to insist that we talk through her much needed lunch break because I need to dash to another thing myself and she’s heading for Stockholm in a few hours. Her lamb and couscous goes untouched as she chatters and shouts and swears with barely a breath. “Major Lazer have been keeping what they do very credible and cool but super relatable – easy to listen to but cool sounds and weird artists from all over the world. For me that’s fucking perfect, having personality but still being relatable for a lot of people. That’s my dream place to be,” she tells me.
She knows that she’s not your typical pop star. After she wrote Lean On with Major Lazer and sang on the demo, they pitched it to Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who both turned it down before the job was offered to her for real. She’s grateful for this turn of events rather than insulted. “I do feel like a little bit of an outsider, but not in a negative way. I was in a punk band for five years! There is a stereotype of a female pop star and I definitely don’t feel like I fit that role.”
Ah yes, the punk band. They were a duo called MOR, which means “mother” in Danish (MØ, pronounced a bit like “myrrh”, means “virgin” or “maiden”) and had an EP called Pussy in Your Face. They toured Europe in a van performing in squats. It’s not the obvious route to a Justin Bieber duet. “Was it more fun than what I’m doing now? No, it’s two different things and both are fantastic,” she says. “At that time I was so overly excited about touring and performing. I’d always wanted to do that. And it was so nice to get our political frustration out, like…” She makes a furious roaring noise.
She’s still political, which is what’s holding up the release of her second solo album. She thinks she needs to add at least a couple of songs that acknowledge what’s going on in the world right now. Her current solo single, Drum, has an easygoing beat and a freaky synth effect that makes it very 2016, but its lyrics about a finishing relationship could be a break-up song from any era. “I don’t think it’s a good thing to shove politics down people’s throats all the time, but I do want to try to influence a little bit, to say some things here and there. It’s time for young people to realise that it’s really fucking cool to be politically aware. I hope, with everything looking as bad as it looks, that some new flowers will grow.”
She sees as clearly as anybody that with her sharp angled looks and rowdy past, she shouldn’t naturally be nestled in between Olly Murs and Maroon 5 on the new Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation – yet there she is. Her first album, No Mythologies to Follow from 2014, featured the kind of innovative electronic music that gets praised on hip blogs but doesn’t conquer the world. “Before Lean On I guess I was a small indie artist. That song opened a whole new world and so many doors for me. It is a weird kind of place, where many people tell me I’m a big world star now but I’m not really. What I want it just to make music that I’m proud of, and get it out to as many people as possible. Now I can communicate even wider and that’s a good thing.”
But dig deeper into her past, before the squats and anarchy, and you can finally understand why she’s so at home in the pop landscape. Turns out she’s the world’s biggest Spice Girls fan. “You have no idea how big a fan I was when I was eight. They were the reason I started making music. I put all my love and energy into them. I was like, this is what…” She roars again. Sometimes when she has too many things to say at once, she just shouts an unintelligible noise.
In October she performed a headline show at the Roundhouse in Camden and was joined on stage by Melanie C to sing Say You’ll Be There. It’s obvious Sporty Spice was always her favourite. “That whole concert I was so emotional, because I knew she was coming. I was freaking out! I couldn’t believe it was happening! There are big stars nowadays of course, but don’t you agree, back then no one was talking about anything else but Spice Girls for about two years. They were so special to me.”
So this eccentric, shouting woman, from a country whose last huge pop export was Aqua and Barbie Girl, has a valid blueprint for mainstream pop success after all. What would Sporty do? And while she stays at the top, the charts will always be a more interesting place.
Drum is out now on Chess Club/RCA Victor.