Casey Kelbaugh

Astrid S And The Journey Into Vulnerability

'It takes strength to be vulnerable, to be honest to yourself and everyone around you,' she tells MTV News

By Elizabeth De Luna

A hundred feet below New York City's Bleecker Street, in a dressing room the size of a large elevator, Astrid Smeplass is getting ready to put on a show. The Norwegian pop singer stands in front of a large vanity mirror, surrounded by cotton rounds, a bottle of purple nail polish, her silver in-ears, and a mic pack with her name on it. Her stylist, Karen, speaks in hurried Norwegian and unwraps an eyelash curler and gold bobby pins she bought from a drugstore around the corner. The two are so close that they have matching gold Chloé handbags, laid out in front of them on the counter. They're rushed for time, but Astrid isn't phased. "Det er perfekt!" ("That is perfect!"), she exclaims as Karen hands her an eyeshadow palette. Then she turns to me and smiles. "OK, I'm ready!"

Through a door behind them, past a craft services table spread with the fixings for Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches, sits Le Poisson Rouge. The performance space has been transformed into a theatre-in-the-round. At soundcheck an hour earlier, Astrid and her band sat in a circle warming up, their silhouettes stranded on an island, engulfed in the briny mist from a fog machine.

The venue's enchanting intimacy feels tailor-made for Astrid's confessional pop, which openly airs out the kind of doubts and insecurities people save for their weekly therapist visits. Her music has always reveled in vulnerability, but tonight's show will be her most stripped down yet. She'll perform both hits like "Hurts So Good" and her newest tracks like "Trust Issues" — also her most lyrically mature — with pared-down accompaniment. Her voice, high and sweet and clear, will hang in the air like the echo of a church bell.

Astrid's road to Le Poisson Rouge began at 16, when she competed as a contestant on Idol - Jakten på en superstjerne ("Idol - Search for a Superstar"), the Norwegian equivalent of American Idol. In auditions, she accompanied herself on an acoustic guitar and stared down the camera with a determined intensity, as if challenging it to a fight. The top 10 contestants were required to write and record original music, and Astrid co-wrote her first-ever song with Melanie Fontana, now a frequent collaborator of BTS. That track, "Shattered," was a hit, peaking at No. 4 on Norwegian charts and getting certified Gold.

Astrid placed fifth on the show, but "Shattered" made clear she had potential as a songwriter. She dedicated time to learning the craft before releasing her first single at 17 under her stage name, Astrid S. "The first thing I did after the show was to just spend one or two years writing, because it was so new to me," she says. "I was really lucky to be able to experiment with who I was as a songwriter."

Since then, the 22-year-old has become one of Norway's most celebrated artists. She's toured with Troye Sivan and Shawn Mendes and racked up more than a billion streams on Spotify. In 2018, she won Artist of the Year at the Spellemannprisen, known as the Norwegian Grammy Awards. That night, as she was celebrating the most exciting moment of her career, several critics published op-eds critiquing the Spellemann committee's choice to honor her. She was deeply hurt, but didn't show it.

Casey Kelbaugh

"I used to pretend towards everyone else, but mostly to myself, that I'm not affected by those comments," she says as Karen rummages through two small suitcases of stage outfits on the floor. That experience made Astrid re-evaluate her relationship with expressing emotion. "It's such a cliché, but I'd always seen myself as the strong girl that's like, 'I don't care what anyone else says as long as I know who I am and the people around me know what I stand for.' And now I feel way more comfortable being vulnerable. It takes strength to be vulnerable, to be honest to yourself and everyone around you. And now I don't have a problem being honest about feeling shit after a show or if someone's said they don't like me or my music. That gets to me and it's better to be honest about it."

This shift is reflected in her recent releases, EPs Trust Issues and Down Low, which more openly express anxiety, doubt, and regret than any of her previous music. On "The First One," co-written by hitmaker Justin Tranter, Astrid sings with aching candor, "To all the ones I ever loved / Not your fault I gave too much / To the first one" and "I was stupid, I was ruined, I was healing / But the healing never happened, and I'm sorry that I did you wrong."

Backstage at Le Poisson Rouge, Astrid seems to have evolved with her lyrics. She is notably more at ease than the serious young woman on Idol. She is easy to talk to and answers questions with a charming enthusiasm that lights up her bright blue eyes. She's also taken on a more relaxed approach to writing. "I stopped making music when I'm on the go," she admits. "In the past, I always had to capture every melody and lyric. But now, if I get ideas on the bus or hiking, I let them go. And then when I'm in the studio, it's work mode."

In work mode, Astrid is in control. Though her manager is on site, Astrid is the one leading soundcheck and guiding me back to her dressing room for an interview. At one point, her drummer and collaborator Eivind pops his head in and asks, in a mix of Norwegian and English, if she can please return to the stage to rehearse one more song. She makes the executive decision to pause in the middle of an answer and bounds out of the room, apologizing profusely for the inconvenience. Soon the chords of "Closer," a smooth, swinging winter single, float through the door. When the music stops, small, hurried footsteps start and grow louder before Astrid bursts back in, smiling, ready to pick up the interview where she left off.

"I definitely have the most say in my career, which I hope is the case for the artists that want it to be that way," she confirms, buffing Glossier's Stretch Concealer onto her cheeks. It turns out that she also does her own makeup. She pulls a new brush from a shopping bag, unwraps it, and begins applying shimmering shadows to her eyes. "It's my name and my lyrics and thoughts and feelings that are being put out there, the least I could do is have the most say in it."

Later that night, she opens her show with an admission of fear and doubt. "Before a concert I'm always 100 percent sure that not a single person will show up," she giggles. "I don't know where I'm going with this! I feel like I just have to say these thoughts out loud because I'm trying to cope with them." Later in her set, she shares that an early release, "Jump," was written about her experience standing at the edge of a cliff, during a bout of deep depression. As she threw Oreos over the side and watched them crumble in mid-air, a dark thought came to her. "I started to wonder what it would sound like if it was my own body that jumped over the cliff, but that feeling made me sick to my stomach."

The audience is rapt, and she takes a deep breath before continuing, "but I wrote down everything that went through my head in a notebook that I brought to the studio. And I wrote a song about it."