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Party girl or deep thinker?

Rising punk-pop star Ida Maria is a little of both, in a big way

(willie davis for the new york times/file)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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There's a buzz building around Ida Maria, a 24-year-old musician from Norway, and that's a fine thing for a young artist angling to stand out amid the throngs. But the buzzing bees don't have it quite right.

"Caffeinated rock songs about one-night stands, drinking, and general craziness," is one recent assessment of Maria's debut album, "Fortress 'Round My Heart," which was released digitally this week in the United States (the CD comes out April 14) and is already a hit in Britain. It pretty much sums up the emerging story line.

The caffeinated part is spot-on: Maria's tunes are fast, strong, and sweet, some of the most irresistible punk-pop to come along in years. She's an uncorked performer, not above cracking a rib or bloodying a knee in the service of a song. As for the party-girl reputation, Maria's first single is called "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked," so it's easy to see why the rap is starting to stick.

But don't be misled by all the talk of whiskey (OK, she likes to drink) and bare flesh ("Naked" is more psychodrama than come-on); a bit of digging reveals a thoughtful songwriter with a feminist agenda. Take "Stella," a shredded ditty about God trading his power for one night with an aging prostitute. "I wanna give you the world if you just stay with me tonight," sings Maria, as the Almighty; later the hooker realizes "how much you want to give away just to feel loved." It's a vivid role reversal, an infectious inversion of male and female stereotypes that is an element in many of her songs.

Still, if you're in it for a good time, be Ida Maria's guest.

"There's lots of layers and I don't mind if you just take the top layer and enjoy yourself," she says in heavily-accented English from a hat shop in New Orleans, where on Monday she began a string of US dates opening for Glasvegas. Tuesday's show at the Paradise is sold out. "That's a very important part of my music. But maybe you'll discover more. Good songs should always have more to it than a dance rhythm."

Despite the small size of her hometown - Ida Maria Sivertsen grew up in Nesna, with a population of fewer than 2,000 - she heard a lot of music. Her dad, a jazz musician, played Miles Davis and John Coltrane around the house, although Maria's favorite as a kid was "the pink Diana Ross" album. A local doctor she babysat for introduced her to Hendrix, and opened her up to the world of rock music.

When she was 16 Maria moved to Bergen, a burgeoning melting pot of a music town, and she hung out at all the open mikes and recording studios. Maria says she's been influenced by everyone she's ever seen play, because you learn as much from a bad concert as a good one. A few years later she moved to Uppsala, in Sweden, to study classical composition and conducting at the university there.

Her list of heroes is long, but one name looms large: Lou Reed. "I love his way of writing simple words and simple chords," says Maria. "I was very inspired by that because I was writing in English but playing for a Norwegian audience. I couldn't use many words. So I tried to boil it down to the core in every song. I was very surprised when English-speaking people started listening because I thought it was too one-dimensional."

David Massey, the British-born president of Mercury Records (a Universal label) signed Maria shortly after seeing her perform in Brooklyn early this year. He says that "the world needs a strong girl like her. Everything about her is believable. I saw that show on a Friday and I felt 10 years younger all weekend."

Massey also believes that Maria's imposing persona is a good sign of where the music industry may be headed: away from the hyper-sexualized default mode for female pop singers.

"In this marketplace, in this online democratic world where people have access to everything, the more unique you are the more people will connect," he says. "Look at [Lady] GaGa. Look at Duffy [whom Massey signed to Mercury]. Interesting artists who don't fit neatly into categories are breaking."

In her videos, Maria is dressed conservatively, even primly, in long skirts and buttoned shirts. It's not a fashion statement, but a conscious choice to train the spotlight on her songs, not her curves. She says that she has broken ties with anyone who has advised her otherwise.

"I've been doing this since I was 19, and I've met a lot of people who have tried to tell me to change," says Maria, who now lives in Stockholm. "I appreciate my body, and I'm very proud of it, but I think that's the wrong way for me to introduce myself."

Yet she concedes that introducing herself to the world with "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked" is a bit of a calculated tease, and that complicates her image. But it's also part of what's so compelling about Maria: Hers isn't a simple or straightforward persona. The deeper you move into the album, the richer the hues - quite literally for Maria, who like her mother has a neurological condition called synesthesia, or sense confusion, which causes her to see colors when she hears music.

"Oh My God," the visceral howl of a lead track, is black and white with a dash of green. Skiffling "Louie" is bright yellow and pink. There are, she says, 15 shades between a D chord and an E chord.

"People thought I was an acid freak when I spoke about it," Maria says, "but when I realized what my diagnosis was I became a lot more comfortable, because I understood what was different about me. Everything is very, very colorful."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com

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