Entertainment & Arts

Meet MØ: The voice behind Spotify's most-streamed track

MØ Image copyright Thomas Jou
Image caption MØ won critical acclaim for her debut album in 2014

A household name in Denmark, MØ achieved international fame earlier this year as the vocalist on Major Lazer's smash hit Lean On. As she prepares to play the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony on 11 December, she tells the BBC about her incredible year.

Last month, Spotify announced that Major Lazer's Lean On had become its most-streamed song to date.

According to the Swedish company, the infectious dancehall record has been heard 526 million times in six months. Played consecutively, that would take 2,709 years.

"That's so insane," says MØ, the song's vocalist and co-writer. "I can't wrap my mind around it.

"I think I'd go mad if I heard it on a loop for that long. I think anybody would go totally mad."

The success of the song has blindsided the Danish singer who, until now, was maintaining a steady career on the fringes of alternative pop.

She's been flown around the world, filming the music video in India and performing the track at festivals, awards ceremonies and chat shows. Later this week, it's up for best song at the BBC Music Awards.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The singer recorded Lean On with Major Lazer's permanent members (L-R) Jillionaire, Diplo and Walshy Fire

The 27-year-old literally can't find the words to explain it. "Lean On made everything blow up like euurghherrar," she says.

"I'm still in that whirlwind. I'm still so busy. I try to reflect but it's hard. I'm still processing it."

And what of those infamous Spotify royalties? With dozens of musicians complaining about the service's remuneration rate - can she shed any light on what it pays?

"I know I should have a lot to say about this but I haven't really thought about it," she says.

"I don't see money from anywhere because I never look at my accounts. But if I wanted to make money, I should probably have chosen another career."

Spicy start

MØ was born Karen Marie Ørsted in Odense, the third largest city in Denmark, 27 years ago.

Raised in the suburbs, her parents were both teachers who encouraged the family to learn about art and culture wherever they could.

"They never used money on buying a television or replacing the couch or getting the kitchen done. They wanted to go to Rome or to London or to Paris and see interesting, cultural places.

"I hated it! I was like: 'I want to go to a resort in the Mediterranean' because that's what all my friends were doing. But they were like, 'no, we're going to sleep in a tent for two weeks in the mountains'.

"But now I appreciate it and I'm totally going to do that to my kids, too!"

She discovered music through the Spice Girls - indentifying with Sporty Spice but playing Posh in a school tribute band "because I had the same haircut".

"When Geri left, I cried such a big pool of tears," she recalls. "I was sitting at the desk in my room and I had my head in my hands and I was crying and crying and crying.

Image copyright Thomas Skou
Image caption Work on the singer's second album has been delayed by the success of Lean On

"But from the day I saw them, I wanted to be like them. Then I discovered that writing songs and expressing yourself is a good way of gaining confidence."

Her first effort, at the age of eight, was a song called Seven Days - a musical daydream about a permanent school holiday. She can still sing its naive, but charming, melody today: "I wake up in the morning/And I heard the birds singing/I knew it was today it should happen/I wanna be free, free seven days."

But that sunny disposition suddenly disappeared when she hit her teens.

"I started wearing black clothes, dying my hair purple and being a punk," she says. "I don't know what I wanted to rebel against, but I started to be like 'grrr, I don't want to be your friend!'

"People thought I had gone mad."

Ensconced in the scene, she played in grunge and punk groups throughout her teenage years, achieving a certain degree of success with the duo MOR, formed with her friend Josefine Struckmann.

When they split in 2011, the singer returned to her pop roots, writing songs on a piano in her parent's house and fleshing them out with producer Ronni Vindahl.

Her scratchy, leftfield approach to pop reflected her love affair with punk, with no melody too pretty to scuff up with a jagged synth or a blast of white noise.

"I like it when things sound like a screaming animal. That's always a good thing," she laughs.

Rihanna rejection

The music brought her to the attention of her beloved Spice Girls (Melanie C presented her with an award at last year's Danish Grammys) and, more importantly, to super-producer Diplo, who makes up half of Major Lazer.

"Working with Diplo is so nice because he's so curious and fun," she says. "He loves pop but he's always about making a difference and pushing the borders and changing the world with music."

The two rarely meet - pinging tracks back and forth via email and slowly building songs from beats and scratch vocals. I prefer to work on my own and he's travelling all the time, so it fits well," says MØ.

Image copyright Louie Banks
Image caption The singer is up for a BBC Music Award for song of the year on Thursday

That's how Lean On came into being - initially as a slow-tempo reggae song, before constant revisions turned it into a modern-day party anthem.

It was initially offered to Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who turned it down. Diplo called their rejection "a blessing in disguise," telling Time Magazine that MØ "sounds better than anybody was going to sound on that record".

"I remember when we had the final version, I thought it was so cool," says MØ. "But I've never had a hit, so of course I didn't expect a hit."

At first, it seemed she was right. The song entered the UK charts at 77, taking seven weeks to climb to the top 10. Once it got there it took up permanent residence, eventually peaking at number two, four months after it was released - thanks, in part, to the eye-catching video, filmed in India and featuring the singer's unusually bendy approach to choreography.

The song's success has distracted MØ from finishing her second solo album, originally slated for release this year.

"It's going well," she says. "I have a lot of songs. I actually think I have all the songs... But it's one thing having the songs and another to have finished all the little details. That's so important."

Image copyright Chess Club/RCA Victor
Image caption "To take something that's delicate and high fashion and mix it with something trashy - that's what I'm going for."

She recently released the record's first single, Kamikaze - a worthy successor to Lean On, with a twisted instrumental hook and a restless lyric about escaping mundane everyday life.

The video was shot in Kiev, Ukraine, using a cast of local extras - much to the singer's relief.

"Sometimes when you do videos, you cast all these fancy-looking models and you have to pretend to be friends and it's so awkward and so fake.

"But with this, all these people were so authentic and we bonded so well. They reminded me of my old friends back in the day."

Filmed in dilapidated buildings and burnt-out wastelands, MØ says the video is the perfect synthesis of "grit and glamour" that she's trying to achieve with her music.

But that doesn't mean she wants to retreat to the relative safety of underground pop.

"You always want to touch as many people as possible," she says. "Something I experienced with the success of Lean On is how extremely happy people get when you play that song. Seriously, they are so happy. And that love, all that love, is so addictive.

"Of course I want to have that feeling with as many people as possible because it's a very nice feeling. Making people feel happy makes you feel you're doing something important. even though it's just music.

"But, you know, music and art and expression - that's life, that's important. Blah, blah, blah. I'm just rambling now. Whatever."

Kamikaze is out now.

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