ost Americans have probably heard Marit Larsen’s voice before. She was one-half of the teenage pop duo M2M, whose “Don’t Say You Love Me” was a minor-hit stateside (helped, no doubt, by its inclusion on the Pokemon: The First Movie soundtrack). After the break-up, and years out of the spotlight, Larsen emerged with 2006’s stunning Under the Surface, a record that received both overwhelming critical acclaim and massive sales in her native country and throughout Western Europe.
Far from flirtatious teenage love songs and digitally enhanced bubblegum, Larsen has a knack, thanks to her pixie-ish range somewhere between Gillian Welch and Bjork, for crafting saccharine sweet melodies. Under the Surface boils over with rich and sophisticated pop music; a cohesive document spotted with country accents as on the banjo led “Only a Fool” and soaring piano hooks, found on her biggest hit, “Don’t Save Me,” that could translate in any corner of the world. Stylus caught up with Larsen at the South By Southwest Festival to talk to her about Under the Surface, its possible release in the States, and the next album.
First of all, why are you here playing South By Southwest?
Basically, I’m looking for a label. My record is a really weird pop album and I’m hoping to find someone here that is enthusiastic about my music and doesn’t have enormous ambitions sales-wise. I just want it to be available.
Not to bring up M2M that much, but I wanted to talk about the period where M2M broke up and you decided to become a solo artist. Were you always writing your own songs?
I was always writing my own songs. I started writing when I was thirteen, and I’ve always been writing my own songs just for myself. It’s my way of getting things out of my system. I just never had the courage to share the ones that I wrote all by myself.
So M2M was mostly…
We co-wrote all of that, but when you have two names on a song you can never tell who owns the story.
You and Marion?
Yes, so we co-wrote them, and we wrote with a lot of different people. I mean, we traveled the world for two years and wrote with like 50 different co-writers. It was a good learning experience, but I learned mostly what I don’t want, which is important as well.
Do you find yourself regretting your time in M2M at all?
No, not at all. I play a country version of “Don’t Say You Love Me” but that’s basically it, and that’s a song that I’ve always held close to my heart. But even then, I’ve always had my own songs, and some of the songs on Under the Surface, like “Solid Ground” I started writing when I was 14.
You were talking about what you didn’t want to do as a solo artist, what did you learn the most from being in M2M that has carried over to now?
I think the most important thing I learned is that when you’re standing on that stage and you’re so alone and so naked, it doesn’t matter that the producer was so stubborn or the record company wanted it to be this way or that way, because all the audience sees is you. They’re going think that it’s your opinion, your choices in melodies, and if it sucks it sucks. People won’t buy it.
Was the break-up of M2M amicable? Was there a happy ending?
Let me put it this way: when we decided it had to end, it really had to end. The ending was very peaceful, so it was not dramatic at all, but the time before it definitely led up to that. It was basically a result of our relationship being based on us playing great music together, and we started to pull each other in different directions, because I wanted to make really good pop music and Marion wanted to go rock, and do our little things.
In Norway are you at all in competition with her now?
No, because we are in different genres and we have completely different audiences. We sell different things.
What do you think of her direction? Did you have the option to go in that direction, from teen pop to a more rock oriented solo career?
A lot of people go that way. There were several offers for me to just jump on a new train and start over. I’m not going to say I was heavily bruised, but I was not even sure I was going to do music anymore as a job [after M2M]. The second you release an album and go on tour, it becomes a job. It’s the best job in the world, but it’s not just your music anymore. It’s heaven and hell at the same time.
It’s really interesting how you picked the arrangements for Under the Surface, considering how varied they are and how cohesive the album is as a whole. Given that you wrote most of the songs on piano and mandolin, how did they eventually take shape in the studio?
I had so many songs, too many songs, so I just focused on making a great album. I want people to listen to the whole record, not just put fifteen songs on there so people can shuffle it on their iPod. To be able to make an interesting album, I believe you have to allow your songs to go in different directions. My producer and I had a great time in the studio, playing around with so many ideas, and we tried them all out. Some of them didn’t work, but I’m proud of the results.
Did you find it difficult to write your songs around a number of other players? Or did you already have that studio experience with M2M?
The good thing about getting your record deal when you’re fifteen is that if you learn one thing, it’s to be stubborn. I have no problem talking to people that are 20 years older than me and telling them what to do. It’s pretty important. Like I said, at the end of the day, my record has got to sound like me. Even if they play great, if it’s not right for me, it’s not right. I just wanted to show that, at the end of the day, a good song is a good song.
To me, with the lyrics, it sounds a bit like your shedding your past, confessing things that you never got to say, whether it be to past boyfriends or past professional partners. Some songs, though melancholy throughout, are even spiteful, but for the most part remain optimistic or overwhelmingly sunny. Was that an intentional angle of how you wanted the record to sound?
It’s not that I’m a miserable person. I have things that I want to say and I have an agenda. I use my music to get it out. But I think it’s 50/50, you can’t just have great lyrics and boring melodies. The magic is when both things work at the same time. So I think that if you have a bubbly package, then people will listen to what you saying. You can’t pity yourself and you can’t drown yourself in your misery. And it’s not that much misery either; it’s just that I want my melodies to invite the listener in so you can discover a new instrument every time, a new angle in my lyrics, new layers.
What’s your impression of American pop music? Do you have any aspirations to be a part of what’s considered Top 40 here?
I think my answer to that is that if music is melody driven and has a message, it’s good no matter what. But often when I’ve turned on the radio here, I find it very beat-driven and repetitive, somewhat hypnotic, and that’s not up my alley.
What do you have in store for your next album?
Well, I’m writing it right now. I’m spending a lot of time finding my own sound and I think that I [occupy] a gap in the market right now, though the word “market” sounds so sales oriented. But I think listeners will buy my record because nothing really sounds like me right now. I’m going to start where I left off and write more good pop songs. Maybe I’ll even go crazier next time.
Marit Larsen @ MySpace
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