MØ may have been back home, but she was still slightly disoriented. It was 11:30 a.m. on the first day of Copenhagen Fashion Week, when the singer, born Karen Marie Ørsted, peeked into the hotel suite where a team was prepping a rack of six looks from some of her favorite Danish designers.
“Is this it?” she asked, sticking her head into the room, sporting a tight yellow vintage band tee, a blue Levi’s mini skirt, red boots, and Pikachu socks that a fan gave her in Tokyo. She spots the colorful wardrobe. “Ah, yes it is!”
Ørsted, whose stage name comes from the first initials of her middle and last names, is one of Denmark’s few breakout pop stars. Unlike other indie artists who hail from the region like Oh Land and Trentemøller, Ørsted has gone mainstream—and she’s damn proud of it.
“I’m a mainstream artist but I come from a background of punk, so I try to rebel a little,” said the 28-year-old. Her songs, a mix of pop, synth, and punk, have millions of plays on YouTube and have landed her gigs on Coachella’s main-stage, the Latin Grammys, and the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, among countless other high-profile performances. Her song “Final Song" was viewed by over 88 million people on YouTube—or about fifteen times the population of Denmark. And this, it seems, is just the beginning.
While you’d never guess from her edgy ensemble and pixie cut (a look she says was inspired by Juliette Lewis in the '90s), Ørsted maintains that one of her biggest musical influences was, and will always be, the Spice Girls.
“When the Spice Girls came about I felt that they were for me and my friends, we were obsessed,” she explained, recalling how she would memorize the lyrics and choreograph dances to their songs to compete in school talent shows. “My friends thought it was just about fun, but I was like, ‘no guys, we’re working hard and really doing this.’ From the beginning I was super serious about [music].”
And by "beginning" she means the tender age of 8—but money was tight, and any music education meant driving from her hometown of Ubberud to the nearest city, so she had to figure out another way. By a stroke of luck, her family inherited a piano, and Ørsted spent days and nights practicing scales, sounding out songs and studying music theory.
“That’s all I cared about to be honest, but we couldn’t really afford to make it happen, so I just started to write songs on my own,” she said.
She spent her teenage years navigating the local punk scene, fronting multiple grunge bands, dressing in black, and swearing by Kim Gordon and Karen O, who remain major influences to this day. But she felt far-removed from her core.
“I was between a punk and this suburban girl trying to be different," she said. "I was kind of a mess.” Things changed when she enrolled in art school to study performance and sound installation, where she imagined “this weird art project." Thus, MØ—yes, pronounced like the sound a cow makes—was born.
“When I started MØ in 2009, it was more like me experimenting with the borders between art and music, and trying to figure myself out as a creative person in the universe,” she said. She e-mailed beats and samples back and forth with her schoolmates, rapping over some, and harmonizing over others. Three years later, during her last year of college, she decided to give it a real go and write a song from scratch. “I finally wrote a song that was stripped down and me. My manager was like, ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever done,’” she recalled.
The song was “Maiden,” which, helped her land a contract with RCA Records in 2012. “When that song came out everything changed," she said. It also taught me that for years I’d been trying to be something I’m not. I was trying to get attention for my music, but people only started listening when I took away all the facades and alter egos, and did a song that was very personal, and true to who I am.”
Ørsted followed "Maiden" with another solo hit, “Pilgrim,” collaborated with Iggy Azalea on "Beg For It," and shortly thereafter released another single titled, "Don't Wanna Dance," which debuted on BBC in 2014. In a radio interview to promote the song later that year, Ørsted was asked what her dream collaboration would be and she answered Major Lazer, Diplo's side project.
“Someone on Twitter tweeted at Diplo and said ‘Please work with this girl, she loves you,’ and Diplo wrote back, ‘Yeah, we love her too.’” Ørsted and Major Lazer started sending samples back and forth, and in 2015, they released “Lean On,” an instant international hit. “[It] was the craziest year of my life," she says. "I went from being an indie artist and then suddenly there was so much pressure on me.”
Calls flooded in from producers, record labels, and artists who wanted to collaborate with her, such as Ariana Grande and Charli XCX. "Lean On" continued to climb the charts and hit the Billboard Top 5 in five countries, including the U.K. and the United States, eventually earning over two billion views on YouTube which made it one of the top-watched videos of all time. She still remembers the first time she heard her song play on the American radio.
“I was driving around in Ubers in California and it would come on and I’d be like, ‘That’s my song playing on the Uber radio!’” she recalled.
Despite the fame and moments of surreal fanfare, including Usher declaring he was a fan and meeting Rihanna after they performed back to back, she is still that punk-obsessed girl from Denmark who still gets nervous before every show.
“The worst thing that can happen on stage is when you overthink what you’re doing; the best shows are when you let go.” To prepare herself, she’ll play cards with her band (which consists of a drummer and guitarist), take shots of vodka, and huddles with her group to calm the nerves and get pumped for the gig. She says she “lives on a plane,” and has hired a life coach to keep her grounded and de-stressed.
Is it hard to remain unaffected? She is close with her family and through it all, has managed to maintain a three-year relationship with a fellow Danish musician. To unwind, she plays "The Sims," watches Netflix, and keeps a diary.
But that doesn't mean she isn't ready for superstardom. And if her quick ascent already is any indication, it's all but inevitable.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” she said, laughing. “But I have big plans.”
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