For former punk rocker MØ, topping the charts with Major Lazer was easy. Deciding what to do next was the hard part.

By Nolan Feeney
November 09, 2017 at 12:20 PM EST
Fryd Frydendahl

MØ is swearing so loudly that I’m worried other patrons in this restaurant are starting to look over at our table. It’s mid-morning on a surprisingly non-sticky July day in New York, where the Danish singer is in town to perform at the Panorama Music Festival, and she is enthusiastically dropping F-bombs about all kinds of topics over breakfast at her Flatiron hotel: her desire for a pet (“The older I get the more f—ing obsessed with animals I get”), the volumes of new music she’s finished for her upcoming album (“I have a big f—ing pool of songs”), and how being dismayed by the state of the world in 2017 can actually be kind of liberating, if you think about it (“The world is so f—ing f—ed, why shouldn’t I just do whatever the f— I want?). When she gets stuck thinking of the English word she wants to say, she often moves her hands through the air like she’s physically searching for it and lets a string of profanities rip in the meantime. S—t! F—k!

It’s been a little more than 24 hours since she flew in from her home in Copenhagen, but MØ, 29, has shaken off the jetlag with expert ease. And though the cutting-edge dance-pop she makes is more suited for nightclubs than brunch, she is happy to have a productive start to her day. MØ, it turns out, is a morning person. “I love those days when you get up super early and get stuff done,” she confesses. “My job just f—s it up.”

Wait a minute — MØ, a morning person who lives for vanquishing to-do lists and hunkering down with a pet? This is perhaps not the MØ you might have expected to meet if you only listened to her music. In the video for her Major Lazer and DJ Snake collaboration “Lean On” — which has been streamed more than a billion times on Spotify and topped charts in more than a dozen countries — her wild dance moves gave her the air of a pop star from another dimension. Her songs often find her desperately pleading to someone in the wee hours, whether she’s cheering up a down-in-the-dumps BFF by dying her hair “in crazy colors” on “Nights With You” or convincing a partner she’s “not just a f—k-up [but] the f—k-up you need” on the “Don’t Leave,” her joint hit with U.K. duo Snakehips. Lately, she’s been writing a lot about what she calls “Peter Panning”: avoiding the call of the real world and refusing to grow up. And she delivers all of these songs with such commitment and urgency (not to mention a raspy yelp from her years singing punk rock) that listening to MØ often feels like she’s reaching through your headphones to grab you by the lapels and confess a bottled-up secret.

“Her voice makes you really feel something,” says friend and frequent collaborator Charli XCX. “Whenever I hear a MØ song, I instantly know it’s her.” Producer Benny Blanco, who’s helped craft hits for Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Halsey, is even bolder with his praise: “Her voice is the most unique, interesting, hypnotic voice in the world.”

All of this has led to considerable success, both commercially and critically. Like “Call Me Maybe” singer Carly Rae Jepsen, another artist who emerged from the shadow of a worldwide smash with a body of work that attracted immense, almost cult-like acclaim, MØ’s output after “Lean On” has been remarkable: a string of near-flawless singles — including the twinkling rave-up “Final Song” and the trop-house workout “Drum” — that against the odds are just as good (if not as a big) as the song that made her famous. But it also means she is still drawing listeners into her world. “People find it hard to place me,” she says. “I’m doing pop, but I’m this weird quirky Dane that used to be in a punk band. And she’s singing about being messed up but at the same time she seems normal? I don’t know.”

(They also don’t know how to pronounce her name: MØ, like the French word bleu, falls somewhere between muh and mooh, but she’s cool if you just say moe, as she does when speaking English. It’s a difficult vowel to say if you didn’t grow up with it, she explains, and sticking to the proper pronunciation requires her to make a slightly harsh face that can disrupt the flow of conversation. You can see it on display in this mesmerizing supercut of MØ introducing herself on camera — a kind of Scandi-pop ASMR.)

MØ thinks her recent accomplishments, as psyched as she is about them, still haven’t given listeners, especially those who discovered her through “Lean On,” a complete picture of who she is and where she’s at since releasing her 2014 debut album, No Mythologies to Follow. That’s why, instead of releasing its long-awaited follow-up — at one point slated for the fall of 2016 — MØ surprise-released October’s When I Was Young EP to ease listeners into what she calls her “weird artistic” side. She’s saving her second studio album for next year, possibly in the spring. “You’ve got to redefine yourself in a way,” she explains. “For the past couple of years, people have known me from all the collaborations and only singles. I want to put people into my universe.”

* * *

Becoming an international pop star in as short a time as MØ has suggests ambitious planning. Yet the singer (real name: Karen Marie Ørsted) describes her career as though she stumbled backward into the spotlight. Growing up in a small town a few hours outside of Copenhagen, MØ was a Spice Girls-loving child who took to music at an early age. The video for “9 (After Coachella),” a collaboration with Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat — with whom she’s embarking on the MEØW Tour this winter — presents an origin story worthy of a pop diva: In elementary school, MØ formed a band with her friends and signed them up for the talent show. When her bandmates didn’t show up for the performance, she took the stage alone anyway.

Her tastes evolved in her early teens, however, when her older brother introduced her to Sonic Youth and punk rock. The music became an outlet for the kind of angst that is universal to teenagers. “I was a tornado,” MØ says of her adolescent years — lying to her parents about where she went, throwing house-trashing parties when they were gone for a weekend, immersing herself in the anti-fascist and radical-left activist circles that overlapped with the punk community. “I remember coming home when I was 14 and being like, ‘Yeah, I’m a communist now!’” she recalls. Apart from the house wreckage, her parents were happy she found something to be passionate about. And her teen turmoil proved to be a wellspring of inspiration. “I’ve been through so many times when you’re confused and don’t know who you are and how the f— you’re going to interact with the world,” MØ says. “That’s where the music is to be found.”

At 17, she formed an electro-punk band called MOR with a friend and recorded songs like the lo-fi “Fisse I Dit Fjæs,” which translates to “Pussy in Your Face.” Her early music as a solo artist, which she released while attending art school, had a similar bite. (See: the almost rap-like delivery on songs such as “When I Saw His Cock” and “Oh Mah Gawd,” which are thankfully preserved on YouTube.) But after writing 2012’s “Maiden,” a dreamy, otherworldly electro-pop tune that sounds much closer to the MØ we know today, both her manager and longtime producer Ronni Vindahl encouraged her to pursue a more emotional and melodic sound. Encouraged by the crossover appeal of artists such as M.I.A. and Santigold, MØ also recognized the power of pop songs to convey her politics and ideas to the masses in more subtle ways. “I don’t want to shove the message down people’s throats because I know it’s going to strangle them,” she says.

She first linked up with Diplo, an early M.I.A. collaborator, after the two formed a mutual admiration society in interviews and on social media. In 2013, they released their first collaboration, “XXX 88,” which was eventually included on No Mythologies to Follow. Later that year, he started sending her a series of beats to write to, and their partnership was absurdly fruitful. During this time, MØ contributed to not only “Lean On,” but also “All My Love,” which Ariana Grande later recorded for the Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 soundtrack. Since then, MØ and Major Lazer have also teamed up for 2016’s “Cold Water,” a collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber that peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100.

Like Diplo, MØ’s collaborators tend to be repeat customers — few work with her just once. That’s partly because of her cheerleader-like enthusiasm and try-anything attitude in the studio. “Aside from basically being a rock star, she’s just a really really cool girl,” says Charli, who co-wrote MØ’s “Drum” and featured her on this year’s “3AM (Pull Up).” “I want to be around people who make me laugh and are kind and give me positivity.” MØ is also simply overflowing with ideas. When she starts working on a song, “within seconds she’ll just freestyle the whole thing,” says Blanco, who worked on “Cold Water” and “Nights With You.” “You just can’t help but sit there in awe of her. It just falls out.”

Take “9 (After Coachella),” which features one of the more bizarre, over-the-top bass drops of the year — listen closely and you’ll hear the sound of one of Blanco’s dogs barking. Yet thanks to MØ’s unexpectedly moving hook, the track is way more emotional than it has any right to be. In the accompanying music video, Cashmere Cat reveals that he wrote the song following a missed connection with a woman at Coachella. But MØ says she didn’t really know the backstory when she startled rattling off heart-tugging lines like “I know, I know, you’ll never be mine.” Says Blanco, “She can just tap into something where it’s exactly what your heart wants to feel.”

* * *

When I Was Young is MØ’s first collection of songs in three years, and it’s the result of a long process of figuring out how to reconcile her worlds. MØ the punk rocker just wants to be herself and make art that pushes boundaries. But MØ the pop star? She wants to make songs that reach and connect all kinds of people, which requires thinking of herself as a brand — a word that would probably be out of place in many of the circles she used to run in. That now means turning down collaborations that don’t make sense or risk diluting her artistic identity. It also means occasionally watching what she says: Often during our conversation, MØ would express an opinion — about, for example, not wanting to chase trends or become a singles-only artist — then add “But don’t get me wrong” and launch into a case for the opposite approach, as if to not alienate or offend. While discussing the idea of Katy Perry’s “purposeful pop” and whether stars can really integrate bigger messages into their radio hits, I mention that some outlets used their praise of Perry to take digs at Taylor Swift, who didn’t comment on the 2016 election. “Taylor didn’t say anything?” MØ asks, and when I tell her no, she hums as if she’s about to speak, then says nothing. Later in the conversation, she tells me, “It’s strange to suddenly have to be this businesswoman.”

MØ’s journey from punk to pop hasn’t been without missteps. In 2014, MØ performed alongside Iggy Azalea on Saturday Night Live, singing their duet “Beg For It.” It was hardly Lana Del Rey-levels of disaster, but MØ looked like a fish out of water on stage and struggled to keep up with the track, citing “technical issues” in a handwritten explanation on Twitter the next day. (“Sometimes it sucks to be an anti-hero,” she wrote.) In retrospect, she thinks the performance would have gone differently if she hadn’t decided to forgo in-ear monitors, as she was used to doing. “I felt very bad afterward, like I hadn’t done the proper preparation,” she says. Now, she’s trying to take those moments in stride: “I tend to learn from mistakes that I’ve made. Even though it sucks to make bad choices, sometimes it’s good to fail.”

In the wake of “Lean On,” the scrutiny — and the number of voices in her ear — intensified. “All of a sudden people want to change you,” she says. “I don’t want to badmouth anyone. Everyone has been super understanding about what my deal is. But, of course, you do get people saying, ‘Maybe you should be blonde, maybe you should get hair extensions, maybe you should wear something more feminine — the fans would love that.’” MØ has been open to testing out the suggestions: During the “Lean On” era, you could often find her performing in just a sports bra and what looked like gym clothes, but she’s experimented with dressier looks in more recent performances in order to present herself as “very pop star-ish or whatever the f—k you call it.” At Panorama, she leaned toward her punk roots, with denim cut-offs, a cropped black t-shirt and a choker — not far from what she wore to breakfast, either.

“I do need advice, but I need to be myself,” she explains. And she believes the two aren’t mutually exclusive, either. Listening to people doesn’t have to come at the expense of your integrity, if you try hard enough. “There’s always a space for you if you take it,” she says. “Be sweet, of course. Don’t be a dick about it. There’s always a way to do something in your own way and make it work.”

Her music, however, is one area where she’s less interested in compromise. After “Lean On,” she was unsure of her next direction. She admits that her follow-up single “Kamikaze,” released that same year, was an effort to stay close to the sound that took her career to the next level. She’s a people pleaser, MØ explains while placing her hands over her heart, and she was feeling the pressure to deliver a sequel that would satisfy expectations. At the same time, she knew she didn’t want her next album to sound like a Major Lazer album that just happened to feature her. “[‘Lean On’] opened all these doors,” MØ says, but “I wanted to find my own sound as well.” She wrote another track, 2016’s “Final Song,” as a pep talk to herself — a reminder to follow her gut and focus on why she makes music in the first place. To casual listeners, it sounds like a Hail Mary to an uncertain lover at last call, but to MØ, it represented a real crossroads: “For me, it was [inspired by] my whole battle of, ‘Who am I? What is my single going to be?’”

With When I Was Young, she’s found an approach that works for her. The title track starts off as club-ready as any of her other singles but morphs into a surprisingly jazzy drop. Other tracks are less sneaky about their sonic departures: “Roots,” with its foggy synths and ornate instrumentation, has all the ominous grandeur of the Game of Thrones theme song, while the bluesy “Run Away,” built around little more than a guitar, is a fitting showcase for her chameleonic voice. “I don’t want to stand and sing a song and feel nothing — that would be the worst f—king thing,” she says. (Spoken like a true punk.) “If I’m singing a song and I don’t feel it, then I’m like, ‘Why am I even singing?”

After finishing breakfast, we head toward a nearby park, where the conversation turns to architecture — she’s been filming a lot of videos in Eastern Europe, where she gets “so f—king psyched” about the neo-brutalist buildings’ sci-fi feel — and Dua Lipa, whose face is on a nearby billboard and whose viral “New Rules” video has recently reminded her of the power of simple music videos.

As we walk down the street, a fan named Emily walks by MØ, recognizes her, and doubles back to introduce herself. “Excuse me, I’m sorry,” she says, pulling out her earbuds, “but I’m listening to you right now, and I’m going to see you for the third time on Saturday.” She holds up her phone to show that she’s playing “Glass,” a song from MØ’s first album about trying to hold onto your youth. “Keep on doing you,” Emily tells her. MØ offers to take a photo with her, and Emily obliges while worrying aloud about overstaying her welcome.

“I’m so sorry, I’m crazy,” she says, her voice shaking slightly.

MØ smiles back. “No you’re not, you’re wonderful.”