MØ on a stage with her band at the Aerodrome festival in Prague, 2018. Matejknezevic / Shutterstock.com.
by Lauren Pitts
PERFORMING YOUR OWN SONGS MUST BE SUCH A FULFILLING FORM OF SELF EXPRESSION. SO LET’S HEAR FROM DANISH SINGER-SONGWRITER MØ ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE, AND HER ADVICE FOR OTHERS WHO ARE LEARNING ENGLISH.
Do you recall, not long ago, when Lean On was the most streamed song of all time? (2015-2016 in fact.) If you picture the music video, or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to see a live performance, you’ll recognise MØ. But did you know she also co-wrote the lyrics? MØ grew up in Denmark and started songwriting, in English, when she was just 7 years old.
When MØ was growing up, her mum was an English teacher. While she may not have found dinner table English lessons riveting at the time, she now firmly believes that her mum had one of the most amazing jobs out there.
MØ has gone on to provide the lyrics, vocals and personality for huge hits and is now known for the freedom she exhibits on stage.
Creativity through language
Growing up in Denmark, why was it important for you to learn English?
I’ve always had a desire to travel and an admiration for international pop culture. The love for travel probably had to do with my parents spending their savings on taking me and my brother on vacations outside of Denmark during school holidays. It was never the all-inclusive vacation in Mallorca like my classmates – it was either an outdoor thing (hiking in Norway) or a cultural thing (visiting London on a budget), but I was living for it.
How did you go about learning English? Did you learn in school, or did you also use it outside school?
I started learning English in 4th grade, but I think kids in Denmark start learning it in 1st grade now. My mom was an English teacher when I was growing up, so from a young age she would teach us English around the dinner table. I wasn’t amazing in school or great at English in an academic sense when I was a kid, but I definitely think all of this played a part in my general understanding and use of the English language today.
When did you start songwriting? Was it because you wanted to become a singer, or initially a creative outlet?
I was around 7 or 8, and it was both. I think I started because I had a desire to become “a singer”, but I soon discovered the pleasure of having a creative outlet. I found that through expressing myself like this, I found a greater understanding of who I was and who I wanted to become, along with the special and healing feeling of describing an emotion.
When you write a song, do you think of the lyrics in English, or is there an element of translation in the process?
No, for some reason I’ve always written in English for my own project. I think it has to do with the fact that I was in third grade when I started writing songs and I was obsessed with the Spice Girls. Since they were singing in English, I naturally thought I should write my songs in English too. So I started writing in English (very poor English in the early days) and have kept with it ever since.
The language of songwriting
How does writing songs as well as performing the vocals help you define your voice as an artist?
In the studio, it’s all about capturing a feeling or a mood. I sometimes picture myself as one of my icons. Remembering how I feel when I hear Kim Gordon’s aggressive whisper, Bjørk’s untamed emotional vocals, or Santigold’s effortless energetic phrases. It’s all there with me when I record vocals, and I draw from all my memories and emotions until I find the right mood.
On stage it’s different – it happens much more automatically. I don’t think, I just sing and hope the feeling I found in the studio is there with me on stage, becoming its own thing.
What is it about a song that makes it so personal – such a good way for someone to tell their story (regardless of whether it gets recorded and turned into a hit)?
We all have different ways of telling our stories, whether it’s through painting, teaching, or constructing a building. We humans have a tendency to be hungry for strong authentic narratives in which we can reflect ourselves, and for me, it was always music. It’s hard to say exactly why, but as a kid I was just so captured and drawn to the language of songwriting.
Music offered this fantasy (that was still connected to reality) that I could dig deep into and find guidance, and hope. I could find that I wasn’t alone in these feelings I had. When starting to write myself, I found that describing a feeling, a mood, or a situation through a song could be the most cleansing and empowering thing. Still to this day, nothing makes me higher than writing a song where I feel like I’ve captured a very real moment, wrapped in a matching fantasy.
When you begin to write a song, do you know what you’re setting out to write, or just go with the flow?
I think in my case, the good songs usually come if I have something I strongly feel like writing about. A story, an emotion, a stream of thoughts that I feel connection to and want to express. Sometimes it just happens out of the blue though, as you say. I follow the flow and all of a sudden, I have a song. Sometimes I don’t know that I have a desire to talk about a certain thing, but then all of a sudden – through songwriting – I realise I do.
Sometimes I write songs without any real personal connection though. It happens when inspiration is low. A manufactured idea of something I think I need to express, but don’t really feel. Luckily those songs usually don’t get released.
Putting yourself out there
When a song is released, it’s no longer just a song; it’s a whole performance. How does it feel to bring songs to life when you sing them?
It feels fantastic. I’m so privileged to have had the opportunity to perform to people who actually bother to listen to me. I feel the most free on stage. To me, it’s a space to let out all that’s inside of you – put it into the songs and out to the crowd – and let go of yourself. Live music generally seems to me like such a meaningful way to connect with other people.
How do you prepare yourself for a performance? Do you ever get nervous?
I get nervous at every show. Some more than others of course, but generally I’m always nervous right before a show. I prepare myself by stretching, drinking water, warming up the vocal – all the usual things I guess. But there’s no way to truly calm my nerves – the only cure is getting out on stage.
For me, learning something – whatever it is – is all about passion or about an amazing teacher who awakens this passion in you.
MØ live at Utopia Island Festival, 2015.
We humans have a tendency to be hungry for strong authentic narratives in which we can reflect ourselves, and for me, it was always music.
You’ve collaborated with some huge names in the music industry. For example, Justin Bieber, Iggy Azalea, Diplo, Major Lazer and DJ Snake. You co-wrote Lean On (the most streamed song of all time from 2015-2016!) and provided the vocals. How is working on your own song and a collaboration a different creative experience? Do you approach them differently?
I love collaborating, because I find myself playing a lot when working on other people’s music. It’s like it allows me to experiment – let myself free of all the dogmas I might have going with my own project. It also sometimes pushes me to perform better, or try new things, which is obviously good. Plus I also just love meeting new people and making friends with others who chose this crazy but amazing industry.
Lean On was a huge hit, as many more of your songs have been, such as Final Song. Would you say your most successful songs are your favourites, or do you have other songs you’ve written that mean just as much to you for different reasons?
I love some of my very successful songs. I would say Lean On is one of my favourites actually, but then this Ep track from 2017 called Turn My Heart To Stone, and my debut album song Pilgrim is also amongst my favourite tracks of my own.
A change of perspective
You grew up in a small town and are a great lover of the outdoors (me too – I get twitchy if I don’t at least get out for a walk!). Do you think being outdoors and doing outdoor activities helps your mindset and creativity?
I sure get restless, too, if I’ve been inside or in the city for too long. Being outdoors decreases my stress level. It resets me and allows me to sort out my thoughts and gives me new ideas.
You once said in an interview that if you weren’t a singer, you’d like to be a park ranger! What is it about that type of job that interests you?
Haha, that’s true! I don’t know if I would be any good at the actual job though. I just like the idea of being in nature all day – preserving it, teaching people about it, living in it.
But you could almost say I picked an industry in the opposite spectrum – the music industry. I often find myself falling in love with very contradicting things. When I’ve been in nature for two weeks I’m dying to go back to the city and the studio and the fast pace, but then when I’ve been on the work train and in the city for a while I find myself in desperate need of solitude and cornfields.
How important do you think it is for people to have an interest in and appreciation for the environment? And what role do you think education can play in this?
I think education plays a huge part in the climate crisis and in climate justice. I really think it’s through education that we push the world forward. I used to think teachers were boring (sorry!). Both my parents were teachers when I was a kid, and I always wanted them to have more “exciting” jobs. But as I have gotten older, I’ve realised how awesome my parents’ jobs were. And how big an influence one good teacher can have on dozens of kids and ultimately the world. A good teacher is priceless. It’s one of the foundations of our society.
I think it’s important that we care for the environment and each other. We’re long overdue, so the more we can do (whether that’s cutting down on flying, reading up on environmental studies, or sorting your garbage) as individuals here and now, the better. But there’s no doubt that the government, the gatekeepers, and the leaders of the world have to change their priorities if we want to improve our planet’s chances for a bright future.
Pages of passion
Aside from career opportunities, what would you say are the benefits of speaking a second language?
Besides the wonderful benefit of career opportunities, I would say the possibility of connecting with people who don’t speak Danish (which is quite a lot of people) and the awesome experience of reading legendary books in their original language.
Could you give a word of advice to people learning English today?
For me, learning something – whatever it is – is all about passion. Or about an amazing teacher who awakens this passion in you. I was very average in school. But I think what it was that made me decent at English later on, was the passion for learning the language and this piece of advice my mother gave me: “Just read books in English. Everything you read, read it in English if possible. There might be words you don’t understand to begin with, but don’t worry, just read on. You will find that you understand the essence, and that will give you a fire to continue. And then one day you will understand almost every word.”
Lauren Pitts. Marketing Executive, Cambridge University Press & Assessment. The World of Better Learning blog.