“We're most likely doing this interview at Capitol Records,” says the manager of the mysterious electro-pop crooner Mr Little Jeans, who is nothing like the groundskeeper in Wes Anderson's Rushmore – where her musical moniker originates.
For one thing, her real name is Monica Birkenes. She grew up listening to Mariah Carey and Simon & Garfunkel records in her hometown of Grimstad: a woodsy village in southern Norway where she developed her vocal range singing in church choirs at the age of five.
Her roots are quite the opposite of Hollywood, where we meet for the first time (in the Capitol Records Tower) in a room that has a sign that reads in bold letters: In Session: Mr Little Jeans.
]We sit down near a mixing board, surrounded by various musical instruments (even a ukulele), and chat about the much anticipated Mr Little Jeans debut, Pocketknife, released this week after three years of anticipation.
A pocket knife pendant dangles off her neck, hanging over her shiny black leather jacket; it's a good luck charm (she says) very similar to the one on the album cover.
So why the long wait for Pocketknife's release? Other than an EP she released in February, the Norwegian native has been busy securing a visa to remain stateside. The indie buzz around her dream-pop cover of Arcade Fire's “Suburbs” in 2011 has kept her relevant, but also hidden behind the shadows of indie rock royalty. But she's finally ready to break out.
Far removed from the suburbs of Los Feliz (where she once lived), Mr Little Jeans now resides in Downtown L.A. – three years removed from her brilliant cover of “Suburbs”. She adores her new surroundings, even defends it. “L.A. has an odd reputation in Norway,” she says. “So when people visit, I make it a point to show them a good time.”
L.A. has been her home for the past four years, where she's been busy recording and building a hoard of obsessed followers on Facebook (37,525 “Likes” and counting). Not bad for someone who was discovered on MySpace in 2008.
“MySpace, remember that?” she says, chuckling about the archaic social network that landed her a recording contract with EMI's Harvest Records last year.
Since that time, her sound has solidified into something special. Mr Little Jeans' vocals contain a childlike, almost mystical sweetness that's absent in most of the icy productions of Northern European electro-pop. Early Mariah Carey, more than any of her other influences (including Charli XCS and Lykke Li), spurred her interest in pop music (with St. Vincent being another salient influence).
Pocketknife's “Oh Sailor,” first released last year, is perhaps the best showcase of her distinct style. The opening melody from “Oh Sailor” is played on a toy piano, its metal bars ringing over the sound of footsteps and a synthesized flute. It's the dream-pop equivalent of a Legend of Zelda song, with a much more personal touch. The song also features a chorus from the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Youth Chorale, which blends perfectly with the spirituality of the track.
The song is about an elderly woman Mr Little Jeans has a special connection with. “She was stuck in a bad relationship,” she explains, “and then she was suddenly all alone. I wanted to write the song for her.”
That's part of the reason why we don't expect Mr Little Jeans to perform at an Ibiza boat party or desert rave. She's more in tune with the intimate side of her craft. Bootleg HiFi is more her vibe – where she'll perform on Saturday, April 5 during a much-anticipated record release show. A rare gig for Mr Little Jeans, who's more of a recording artist; a confident performer, but hesitant to embrace the label of “pop star.”
She even comes off as shy during our interview, whimsical at times, and a real contrast to some of the heavy themes she explores in a song like “Good Mistake.” “Blow out the candles on your cake,” she sings. “It's another year due with the same mistakes.”
The video for “Good Mistake” shows a pill-popping truck driver trapped in a haunted nightmare, tortured by a life he cannot escape and stalked by Mr Little Jeans behind the fog of seedy truck stop phone-booth.
Her striking, elfin features and gimlet-eyed stare, especially behind the thick fog, only add to her mysterious allure. Mr Little Jeans looks like she belongs to an enchanted world described in works of fantasy. It's a magical quality that's also found in her voice, a lithe falsetto that soars across starry skies of forgotten woodlands and rolling hills.
With a possible tour in the works, Mr Little Jeans seems poised to blow up in 2014 – going beyond her cover of the “Suburbs” and delivering her moody-yet-catchy songcraft via Pocketknife. Her fans have waited long enough.
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