Finding inspiration in Rushmore is apt considering the Norwegian singer’s own highly stylized sensibilities and quirky charm. She writes polished songs that run the gamut from the seductive to the experimental, each burnished with an electro gloss and, frequently, a sense of whimsy. On her most recent release, the “Rescue Song” EP, she marries the sun-stained pop of the title track—a honeysuckle tune that seems tailor-made for road-trips—with “Valentine,” where heartbeat drums, dirty synths and breathless vocals create an ecstatic sort of anxiety. Her earlier EP, released through New York City indie Neon Gold, offers another set of contrasts: sweet vocals and fuzz-rock guitars (“Angel”); an almost a cappella Beyoncé cover (“Single Ladies”); and the piercing, recriminatory lyrics of “Faking Gold,” where she sings, “Like a song on the radio / on repeat and predictable / come clean / a senior still 17 / can you walk on water?” If that sounds like catharsis, it’s meant to. She’s a fan of big pop hooks, and has a knack for nailing emotions that will resonate with audiences.
Those skills are being put to work now in Los Angeles, where the singer is living and recording her as-yet untitled debut with producer Tim Anderson (Ima Robot, Dead Man’s Bones), among others. But Hollywood is a long way—physically and spiritually—from Birkenes’ roots. The singer was born and raised in a small maritime town on Norway’s southern coast. The daughter of a ship-builder and secretary, she describes her rural childhood as sheltered: “I grew up in the middle of the woods. My parents’ house doesn’t even have a number.” The town’s entertainment options were limited and her father discouraged television, so Birkenes performed in the town’s family-oriented plays and musical events. “I was doing it from when I was a little girl,” she says. “It changed direction when I was in my teens, when I discovered proper music. I became a big fan of Björk, P.J. Harvey, Stina Nordenstam—strong female singers.” At 14, after winning a local singing competition, she traveled to London and visited, among other attractions, MTV—and fell in love with the city. She says she would have moved right then and there, if she could. London promised the freedom for her to define her musical persona, and besides, as she puts it, “I’m not really a woods type of girl.”
She waited another four years before moving to London for good. Initially, she attended drama school there, but dropped out to pursue her own music, which wasn’t easy. “I was just waitressing, working, hustling, answering ads in NME, trying different things. It wasn’t going so well. It was confusing. I’m not from a big city. It can be hard to get to know people.” Circumstances changed after meeting her manager, about two years ago; he brought her into contact with musicians and producers she admired. Since then, Mr. Little Jeans songs have been remixed several times, including by the indie power pop troupe Passion Pit, Remix Artist Collective (RAC), New Zealand’s the Naked & Famous, and fellow Scandinavians Pacific. “Rescue Song” provided the soundtrack for Hewlett Packard’s “Create Amazing” ad; and the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs used “Angel” as the soundtrack to a video the hospitality brand posted to the web. In the meantime, Birkenes founded a production company both to ensure her music would stay true to her aesthetic principles, and so that she’d be able to choose her collaborators. “I’m a bit of a backseat producer,” she says with a laugh. “But I know what I want.”
The exposure has helped teach her how best to handle both performing and promoting, she says, recalling her first live gig, which she played at an upscale gallery-bar-restaurant in Stockholm. (She was living in student housing at the time.) “I went there two weeks before my performance and saw an acoustic show,” she recalls. “There were only like three people clapping. I was thinking, ‘We need to get some ‘applause’ buttons or something, because if that happened when I played, it would seriously depress me.’ So I asked the students and just about everyone I met in Stockholm if they’d come, if they’d clap, if they’d cheer, go wild for me, please! Everyone did. The atmosphere was great.”
If you’re thinking that the “little” in Mr. Little Jeans couldn’t possibly refer to Birkenes’ charisma, you’re right. But that is the one part of her stage name that is, she admits, technically correct. She’s just over five feet tall, but she’s proud of it. “I guess I’m little. I’m not really that tall. Do you know centimeters?” she asks. “I’m 161 or 162. So I’m a little bit taller than Kylie right?”