Orla Gartland: ‘I’d much rather be considered a newcomer than old news’

Dublin musician on life in London, growing a career online and her debut record

Orla Gartland: ‘I thought that I was the most talented songwriter on a road in Drumcondra, and now I’m like, bottom of the food chain, starting from scratch.’

Orla Gartland: ‘I thought that I was the most talented songwriter on a road in Drumcondra, and now I’m like, bottom of the food chain, starting from scratch.’

 

When does an artist stop being referred to as a newcomer? Orla Gartland is an old hand at this music game, so the cut-off point should surely have come before now.

The Dubliner should be a familiar name to many, thanks to her success in the online realm over the past decade. Even so, she seems resigned to being designated as a “new artist” – perhaps because it has taken the 25-year-old until now to release her debut album.

“I get excited when I’m on those lists or someone hasn’t heard me before, because I think ‘Oh wow, there’s still such a huge amount of people to reach’,” the bright, bubbly and articulate musician says over Zoom from her family home in Drumcondra.

When I was finishing school it felt like everyone that had opportunities in Ireland had an uncle that worked at MCD, or an aunt that worked on The Late Late

“And I actually don’t think it stops at all; I remember Bon Iver winning the Best Newcomer at the Grammys on his third album.” She shrugs. “I’d much rather be considered a newcomer than old news.”

To call pop-rock purveyor Gartland’s debut album Woman on the Internet “long-awaited” is understating the case. Although her output over the years has been prolific, with plenty of EPs and singles in her discography, she waited until a pandemic struck the world to make an album. 

“I toyed with the idea of doing an album two or three times over the last six years,” she admits. “There’s been different crossroads where it was ‘maybe this is the right time’, but I’m so glad now that I didn’t do that. Equally, I think if I’d told myself when I moved over to London ‘it’s gonna take you six years to get an album together’, I would have been really disheartened. But I’m glad I didn’t try and force it when I was 19 or 22. I don’t think I would have been ready.”

In the early part of her career, Gartland – who has lived in London since 2015 – was referred to by one journalist as “Ireland’s most influential teenager” thanks to her large online following, mostly generated by the cover versions of songs performed in her childhood bedroom that she would upload to YouTube. Today, she has conflicting feelings about her online presence, despite some still-impressive figures: 21.7 million combined YouTube views, 267,000 subscribers and almost 780,000 monthly Spotify listeners.

Gartland’s debut album ‘Woman on the Internet’ drops in August.
Gartland’s debut album ‘Woman on the Internet’ drops in August.

“But you don’t really sign up for that, do you?,” she says of the baggage that comes with being a YouTube “personality”.

“I have a love/hate relationship with the internet in general, because I’m so grateful in general for what it’s done for me but I also think it’s hugely damaging. It’s a weird part of the job. In a world where we could be more aloof and less online, I think that would be easier – but it’s very hard to imagine being a musician now without doing all that stuff. Unless you’re Enya,” she adds, laughing.

“I think of people like Enya, Kate Bush; that earlier generation of artists that could maintain that aloofness and have that be part of their mystery and their value. I think people would be a lot more cool and intriguing if we didn’t know what they were having for dinner.”

I’ve been working up to this moment for so long that I just refused to have songs that were about – or even influenced by – this slow pace of life. But it did take an effort

Although her career quickly gathered momentum and her fanbase grew exponentially thanks to her online presence and her quirky covers and original material, she admits that moving to London was a shock to the system – “kind of like when you’re really good at something in school, and then you go to college and realise that everyone in your course is also good at it,” she smiles.

“I thought that I was the most talented songwriter on a road in Drumcondra, and now I’m like, bottom of the food chain, starting from scratch. I have so much to learn.’ I’m glad that I did it now, but I realised in that time how many different skillsets there were that I hadn’t even started on.”

Her time in London has ultimately helped her songcraft, she says, as she found it difficult to make the right connections in Dublin.

Orla Gartland: ‘I’ve definitely put a foot wrong here and there as I’ve tried to figure stuff out.’
Orla Gartland: ‘I’ve definitely put a foot wrong here and there as I’ve tried to figure stuff out.’

“I think the thing I struggled with here is that I didn’t know anyone in the industry,” she explains, shrugging. “It’s changed since, but when I was finishing school it felt like everyone that had opportunities here had an uncle that worked at MCD, or an aunt that worked on The Late Late. I didn’t have anyone like that, and I didn’t know how to get into any of those circles. And London is not easier by any means – in fact, it’s probably harder. But it feels a little bit more equal: it’s hard, but it’s hard for everyone.

“I went over with zero money and did my fair share of shit jobs to keep paying rent, but I think it was a good place for me to go. I could have stayed here and really lived off the fact that I was ‘the most talented songwriter on my road’, but it was definitely good for me to feel a bit shocked, and to be in rooms with people that were much more talented than me, and earn my place.”

Given all that she has learned, and all that was going on in the world last year, it was important that her debut album not be a dour, depressing reflection of lockdown life. Instead, songs like Zombie!, Codependency and More Like You are bustling, upbeat pop-rock songs with a quirky twist that has see Gartland compared to everyone from Haim to Regina Spektor, who remains one of her biggest influences.

The title of the album, meanwhile, is both a nod to her own journey, as well as something more character-based; the “woman on the internet” is a fictional influencer-style figure that she turns to at vulnerable moments.

“It was so easy last year to write slow, sad songs about being inside; I could just churn them out for hours,” she smirks. “But I thought ‘That’s not going to age well.’ I’ve been working up to this moment for so long that I just refused to have songs that were about – or even influenced by – this slow pace of life. But it did take an effort: there’s one song on there that’s about being at a party and pretending to be something you’re not. I was writing that, trying to remember how it feels to be social,” she chuckles.

Orla Gartland: ‘I definitely could have done things differently, but I think it’s fine.’
Orla Gartland: ‘I definitely could have done things differently, but I think it’s fine.’

“I did think it would come out earlier, though; I thought we’d be releasing it earlier this year so I didn’t know whether we’d be in or out of lockdown. It didn’t really matter, but I much preferred the idea of it being a soundtrack to a more hopeful time for everyone.”

The album deals with what she calls “the chaos of your twenties” as well as relationships, finding your identity and coming-of-age – all things that she has had to do publicly in recent years, rather than behind closed doors. That reflects her own songwriting journey, which she claims has progressed from hiding behind metaphors to something more honest and open.

“I feel there’s a lot more to say and I have a better understanding of people than I did when I was younger, so trying to write songs from their perspective – that was interesting to me.,” she says. “Just navigating being an adult, whether you’re willing to accept that you are one, or not.”

There are plenty of things that she could have done differently since uploading that fateful first YouTube video that set her on her path all those years ago, but she has come to accept that some things are beyond her control. Her sage demeanour, once classed as ‘precocious’ when she was a teenager, has clearly paid dividends, both musically and personally.

“Doing this as a job and being an artist – it is just a series of choices, small and big,” she says. “’Should I stay here or move to London?’ ‘Should I get this manager or that manager?’ ‘This kind of music video or this one?’ And I’ve definitely put a foot wrong here and there as I’ve tried to figure stuff out. It’s a cliche, but I don’t think you get there without doing all the other stuff, and it gives me so much more to say and so much more to sing about. I definitely could have done things differently, but I think it’s fine.

“Like, I used to get so anal about going through my YouTube and deleting old everything, thinking ‘Oh my god, what if people find this video where I’m singing out of tune’. Now, it’s like ‘Who cares!,” she shrugs, smiling. “If someone sees that and it’s unflattering, then they’ll see the timestamp on it and go ‘Oh. She got better.’ ”

Woman on the Internet is released on August 20th 

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