After moving from Los Angeles back home to rural coastal Norway several years ago, rock singer-songwriter Ida Maria turned to other pursuits to break her out of a musical rut. She turned to farming, built a personal recording studio, hosted a musical variety show, started an open mic night series, kickstarted a festival, tried her hand with an entry in the “Eurovision Song Contest,” and even got into politics by starting a chapter of the Green Party in her village.
“I didn’t know much about politics, really. I just kind of threw myself into it because I was interested in learning about it,” Maria said in a recent video call from her home. “I didn’t know, for example, that if you your name is on the No. 1 spot on the list for the candidates, you’re automatically turned into the mayor candidate. I found out that in newspapers when they were like, ‘Ida is running for mayor.’ I was like, ‘Am I?’”
Ida Maria Børli Sivertsen broke out in a big way in the late aughts with 2008’s Fortress Round My Heart (with the hits “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” and “Oh My God”) and 2010’s Katla. The albums highlighted her empowered bravado and male-gaze-reversing feminism, which were then thrown into a punk rock stew. Iggy Pop noticed and jumped on a reworking of “Oh My God.”
But like many women in the music industry, she got pegged a certain way, when what she wanted was to experiment. After going indie, Maria released another album in 2013, and a record of American spiritual hymns, Scandalize My Name, in 2016. She’s released a few one-off singles since then, but EP Dirty Money will be her first collection of music since then.
“Part of my process of getting out of this blocked state as a creator was to open up to try other things than just music, or just songwriting and performing,” said Ida Maria, who turns 37 in July. “I felt confined within those frames… Personally, I’m not a great farmer, but I got interested in the politics behind it. I’m just in the process of learning. … I need something else for my brain to think about than chord structures and lyric writing. I was exploring different things.”
From her very first international tours and onward, Ida Maria realized that playing the same songs the same way every night was bound to get boring. Eventually they stopped scratching her creative itch. She realized that her passion wasn’t writing any specific type of song—though of course she loved her hits—but it was about developing new ideas. She missed her previously easy access to pursue impulsivity.
That’s when she became interested in writing music that she could extend in any number of directions live. And for that to happen, she had to first restructure and then leave her record label that wanted her to continue writing pop-punk songs because that’s what the revenues dictated.
“I needed it after many years of repeating the same things a lot. I took the time for myself to just develop myself as an artist and songwriter,” she said. “I was on my own trip of exploring music. I wasn’t really busy thinking about writing hit songs anymore. … I was doing sessions with Katy Perry at the same time I was making these extensive electronic experiments down in Silver Lake with some friends. We were experimenting with bass and vibrations and stuff like that. … I felt blocked in many areas of my life. I wasn’t free in my expression.”
In 2013 Ida Maria returned home to Norway, which she said was both a humbling and enriching experience. Enriching because after living in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, she came to appreciate the natural landscapes of her home—as well as the need to protect it.
While Norway is not completely untouched like much of the western world, it still has beauty that’s missing in so many places, she said. It’s something that she’s experienced going between L.A. and her small town on the coast of northern Norway. That’s partly what led her to learn about agriculture and politics.
On the musical front, 2016’s Scandalize My Name originated out of another partnership with a Norwegian jazz pianist and fit the bill for challenging her in different ways. The album included a hand-picked selection of American spirituals, which they reworked. She was pregnant at the time, and views that record as an ode to her son.
“It was songs that meant a lot to me lyrically and musically at the time. It was the things that I kept very close to my heart, and the lyrics were very carefully selected,” she said. “For me, it was a very poetic and extremely emotional and interesting experience. I’m very proud of it.”
More recently, Ida Maria jumped into two seemingly contradictory projects, for different reasons. She’s hosted a music reality TV variety show on Norway’s public broadcast station. Unlike most such shows, this one didn’t include anyone being eliminated or voted out, which she said was important for her.
“I don’t believe that music is a competition, and I don’t believe that you should treat it like sports,” she said. “I think it was a really beautiful showcase of some of Norway’s young talents. They got to perform their stuff to the end of the season. … It was a positive musical experience in the middle of COVID lockdowns.”
In 2018, she competed to represent Norway in “Eurovision,” though she didn’t make it to the national finals, which precede the European competition.
“It’s one of those things that’s on the checklist that you have to do before you die,” she said. “If you’re European, you have to be in the ‘Eurovision Song Contest.’”
While Europe takes the competition seriously, Maria said she related more to Will Farrell’s caricature in the movie “Eurovision.” And like Farrell’s character, she handled her televised performance, performing original song “Scandilove” with tact: “I stumbled on the stairs, and I fell with my ass on the floor, and I think it was perfect; punk rock.”
In Europe, the competition is like the Super Bowl of music, and she had to do it while she had the chance—even if she doesn’t see music as a competition.
“It’s a guilty pleasure! Guilty pleasure,” she said, laughing.
Dirty Money is Maria’s way of reconnecting with her earlier songs; almost as a tribute to listeners who’ve stuck around since the beginning. Its five songs are acerbic clap-backs to those who’ve screwed over her or the things she holds dear.
“My way of writing comes a little bit from this northern Norwegian weather, where we have to have to shout very loud if we’re gonna get through to each other in a snowstorm,” she said. “We develop this very direct language, and I think, maybe, that has something to do with it.”
The title track, for example, is a raucous mid-tempo scream-along that blasts the music industry for exploiting young female artists.
“This kind of, let’s say, packaging of female artists in the major label industry isn’t always corresponding with my own idea of how I want to present myself,” she said. “That’s always been the case—doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about labels or whatever. There are beauty standards for women out there that sometimes can be handicapping. … I remember a phone call between labels and managers about how many centimeters they could cut off from my hair; was it 2 centimeters or 3? I was like, ‘This is a waste of my time! I have better shit to do.’ And they wanted to glue plastic nails on me because that’s what all girls are supposed to have now, and I’m a guitar player. I can’t have these long nails.”
For good measure, “Dirty Money” includes conversation about the exploitative nature of capitalism in general, as well as its role in climate change, and even how Maria benefited from oil earlier in her career. Meanwhile on “California,” she addresses her decision to leave L.A. and the U.S.
The snarling “Sick Of You” (picture Ida Maria fronting The Hives) comes with a video in which her face is superimposed onto the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Lana Del Rey, Emilia Clarke as Daenerys in “Game of Thrones” and Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill,” among others.
The video was made by director Santiago D.A., a fan who made it before pitching it to Maria, who said she thought it was on-point.
“It’s all women speaking in the video. You can just wonder what it is that they are talking about. I love that it’s kind of a collage of pop art, punk rock, glamorous ladies, and the content of the lyrics in juxtaposition to these glamorous ladies,” she said. “Any woman who’s able to stand on her own two feet, look wonderful in a dress and has endured show business for more than a couple of hours, I think, deserves an award.”
Only once did Ida Maria have second thoughts about her upfront lyrical choices while making Dirty Money, on “I’m Busy,” an ironic track that takes misogyny and mirrors it back at men. She cowrote it with Anthony Rossomando (who won an Oscar for “Shallow” from “A Star is Born.”). Mark Ronson co-produced it with EP producer Ryan Spraker. The song name-checks friend Katy Perry as well as Paul McCartney and Beyonce, and includes lines about having meaningless sex in a pool of blow.
“I was putting Jay-Z there in a hotspot,” she said. “Somebody said to me, ‘You know that he is a real person, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t.’ He’s the biggest star in rap, [who] I honestly have a lot of respect for. … But in art, you can sometimes paint with big colors, bright colors.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.