Ida Maria: Seeing Red

Norwegian singer Ida Maria has a voice that demands attention. It's powerful and commanding, and harkens back to a time when Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and even Courtney Love ruled the hearts and minds of teenage girls.

"I started out singing very girly and nice," Maria tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin. "But I was a big fan of Janis Joplin, I was a big fan of Paul McCartney, and after a while I discovered Led Zeppelin. And I just really wanted to try and sing like my rock idols."

Maria has a new album called Katla, and it's easy to hear the rage in her songs of love and heartbreak. What's not obvious is that Maria was literally seeing red — among other colors — when she recorded them. Maria was diagnosed at an early age with synesthesia, a rare neurological condition that allows her to experience sensations together, rather than separately.

"For me, words are colors. Letters are colors. The sound of a certain string on the guitar has one color, one shape. There's a myriad of colors coming towards me when I hear music," says Maria.

Having lived with the condition for years, Maria says she's mostly gotten used to it. But in her creative life, it has meant taking special care to make herself understood.

"When it comes to music, I had to learn all the tools to explain what I want," she says. "I can't stand in a room full of musicians and say, 'Play yellow.'"

Live performance is no exception. Maria says that her experience of a good or bad show doesn't manifest in one specific color or another, but rather in the way the many colors in her mind are arranged.

"If a show goes well, it's like a proper Pollock painting hanging on the wall," she says. "But if a show doesn't go that well, it's like somebody poured out all the colors, and you just have the empty buckets left."

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MARTIN: Ida Maria has a voice that demands attention. Take a listen to this song. It's called "Bad Karma" from her new album called Katla. Powerful, commanding, it's a voice with some serious 1980s Joan Jett quality.


IDA MARIA: (Singing) I believe in karma. Baby, it's gonna sting, the wheel of life's gonna do you in...

MARTIN: Ida Maria is not your run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter. Yeah, she writes with metaphors and tries to paint a picture with her lyrics. But unlike most of us, Ida Maria sees colors in her music literally.

As a teenager back in Norway, she was diagnosed with something called synesthesia. It's a rare neurological condition that causes her to see letters, numbers and words as colors.

MARIA: When I make music, it's kind of like painting a picture. And I have first some ideas of what colors I don't want to have and - or I will be very aware when I'm using that certain color.

MARTIN: So when you hear something like "Bad Karma," does one color come into focus for you, or does it become an image with a lot of different shades of many colors?

MARIA: It's a lot of different shades of many colors, because for me, words have colors, letters have colors and, you know, the sound of a string on the guitar has one color, one shade. So basically, it's just a myriad of colors coming towards me when I hear music.

MARTIN: It's really intriguing. I guess, I'm curious, does a certain note always correspond to a certain color? Like, is an A chord always red to you, or does it sometimes change? Is it sometimes blue?

MARIA: Yeah. Well, it depends entirely on what kind of instrument I hear it on. And of course, also the letter A, it's always got the color red. So in that way, I could say, but not the note itself, not the sound.

MARTIN: So how does that effect how you hear conversations?

MARIA: Well, I've lived with this my entire life, so I am used to it. And I kind of have two different ways of communicating. I translate things into channels, in a way. When it comes to music, for instance, I had to learn all the tools to help explain what I want - how I want it to be, because I can't stand in a band - in a room full of musicians and say, play yellow, you know?


MARTIN: Have you tried that before?

MARIA: Yeah, I have. You know, I had this long turn where I tried to explain and like, you know, there's no way people understand that kind of talk. So...

MARTIN: So you've got all these colors running around in your head that define your experiences, and there's a song on the album that's named after a color. It's called Cherry Red. Let's take a listen to that.


MARIA: (Singing) Run to my arms tonight comb your hair like Elvis Presley. Put on those blue suede shoes and your leather jacket. I'm gonna be your girl tonight. I'm gonna make you apple pie. I'm gonna wear my cherry red. I'm gonna give you lotsa, (beep). I'm gonna be your Stepford wife.

MARTIN: I mean, you have to talk about the title, "Cherry Red." I mean, there's a color in there.

MARIA: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did that come to - do you often write about colors?

MARIA: It really doesn't make any difference for me if I mention a color in song or not because for me, the songs are colorful so maybe that was - that just came out like that. And I really feel like it's red in all it's symbolic as well. It's strong and sexual in a way, and, yeah.

MARTIN: It's interesting. I wonder if there are moments when you realize, oh, no one else just experienced that, that these colors are happening in your head and you almost have to name them for other people because they weren't privy to what just happened for you.

MARIA: Yeah. And I think that's also a challenge for me with music. I really have to paint with strong colors, to put it that way.


MARTIN: We're talking with Norwegian singer Ida Maria. You - we should say you're from Norway. You were born in Nesna, Norway in a small university town. Norway has this amazing black metal scene that's really big.

MARIA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Even though we don't hear a whole lot of black metal in your sound, I do hear a lot of punk, especially in songs like this one, which is off your new record. It's called "Let's Leave."


MARIA: (Singing) Let's leave the music hurts my ears. Let's leave the party's out of beer. Let's leave I'm seeing two of you. Let's leave the things I think that's my cue.

MARTIN: Your sound has this raw quality to it. Have you always sung that way?

MARIA: No. I started out singing very girly and nice. But I was a big fan of Janis Joplin. I was a big fan of Paul McCartney. And after a while, I discovered, you know, Led Zeppelin, and I just really wanted to try and sing like my rock idols were singing. And I think I will always had that goal, in a way, try to figure out how to sing like that.

MARTIN: There's a lot of what can only be described, really, as girl power. There's like a girl power vibe to this record. You do write a lot about gender roles and the power dynamic within romantic relationships between men and women. And there's one song on the album with a title that definitely has a message to it. It's called "I Eat Boys Like You for Breakfast." Let's hear a little bit of that song.


MARIA: (Singing) I eat boys like you for breakfast. Where's my salt and pepper now? Oregano, basil and thyme and my tapatillo. I eat boys like you for breakfast.

MARTIN: So pray tell. Who was this poor boy who was your breakfast on that faithful day?


MARIA: Yeah, you know, cannibalism.


MARIA: No, I am - I think it's - because you say that I'm coming with this girl power message, and I can agree with that. But I also think it's very important not forget about the men in all of this, you know? I actually have three guys playing the instruments on the record and a male producer. And it's a lot of demand on the males, too, you know, and it's not to be forgotten. So I want to make music that is also including that, the rest of half of the planet.


MARTIN: You're on tour now in the States, in California, but you have a very international following. What songs get the biggest response from your American audience? Is there something about the American sensibility that resonates with a particular song that you play?

MARIA: I've noticed that they - especially here in the south of California, people love "Boys for Breakfast" because it's got this kind of Mexican tint. And San Francisco audience love that song.



MARIA: (Singing) I eat boys like you for breakfast.

MARTIN: Do you see certain colors when a concert - when a show goes well and another color when it doesn't?

MARIA: Yeah, definitely. It's kind of like, if a show goes well, it's like a proper Pollock painting or something, and it's just hanging on the wall. But if the show doesn't go that well, it's more like somebody poured out all the colors and you just have the cases left or the boxes.

MARTIN: Empty paint buckets.

MARIA: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's Norwegian singer Ida Maria. Her new album "Katla" is out now. Ida, thank you so much for talking with us.

MARIA: Thank you. It was a pleasure.


MARIA: (Singing) Am I so weak, tell me am I so weak 'cause I feel alone. Am I alone, tell me am I alone 'cause I have no home.

MARTIN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at We post a new episode Sunday nights. Guy Raz is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.