Orla Gartland has come a long way since she first started uploading original songs on YouTube in 2014. When Hudson Taylor, the folk duo she played with as a teenager, moved to London to find a manager, the Dublin-born singer decided to follow them and found herself part of a community of fellow musicians, including dodie, for whom she plays guitar in her touring band. After a string of singles and EPs, including 2019’s Why Am I Like This and 2020’s Freckle Season, she began working on her debut full-length album, Woman on the Internet, which is out this Friday. While her previous EP focused on the dissolution of a long-term relationship, here Gartland widens her scope to examine the effects of growing up online and “the chaos of my 20s,” as she puts it. Sonically, Woman on the Internet is a culmination of her earlier influences, including pop-punk artists like Avril Lavigne, and the singer-songwriters she cites as inspirations now, such as Phoebe Bridgers, Laura Marling, and Fiona Apple. The result is a varied and emotionally direct collection of alt-pop that mirrors the ups and downs of her journey, alluding to personal events without dissecting them to the point where they lose their wider resonance.
We caught up with Orla Gartland for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, the making of Woman on the Internet, and more.
When you think back on yourself as a teenager, discovering your passion for music and uploading your first tracks online, what are some of the things that come to mind? How do you reflect on that time in your life?
My relationship with music was such a pure thing. I think when your hobby becomes your job, it does change your relationship with it. There’s a little bit more pressure when you’re expecting the thing that you love to also pay your rent and keep you alive, like it can shift the wholesomeness of that relationship. Whereas when I was a teenager and I was picking up guitar and I was busking a lot in Dublin and doing gigs here and there, it was so new and it was so exciting and so terrifying. I was just surprised by how much I liked it – I don’t really have any formal musical training, I don’t really have a musical family, it wasn’t in the stars for me to want to do something like this. I don’t think it was until I was 18 or 19 that I thought that I would do it for a job. When I started doing YouTube, the relationship was so pure, because the internet was so different back then. No one had really made a job of it at that point.
There’s a band at home called Hudson Taylor that I used to do a lot of stuff with, and they got me into YouTube as well because we were all just busking on the streets in Dublin. That was just something that we did for our pocket money and how I started doing any kind of performing. And then when it came to YouTube, they just thought about it in such a – they had this clarity where they were like, we’re busking on the street corner and singing at people that don’t want to hear. YouTube just feels like that but it’s international. Like, it is just busking, you are just singing for your supper and still being like, “Hey, look at me, want to come and linger on this video for a little bit longer?” When I think of that time, I just think of being really bright-eyed and sort of curious about the whole thing. I had no idea how the music industry worked, but I was probably better off for it. It was way more like, “Oh my god, this is so sick!”
Do you ever find yourself clinging back to that purity and innocence, or trying to reconnect with that way of thinking when you’re making music now?
Yeah, I think trying to recapture that playfulness and almost childlike curiosity is something I’ve been trying to do more so with writing the last couple years, where it’s like, I want to start with a drum loop, I want to start with an instrument that I don’t really play, I want to start with something out of my comfort zone so that I can go back into just being playful about it and capture some of that innocence with it. Because I think it’s so important. I think if you don’t make time and space to be playful like that, that’s how you just become sort of cynical and weathered with it, and I don’t want to become like that.
I know with this album, it was important for you to be involved in every part of the process. What do you feel you learned about yourself as a musician and as a producer by working this way?
I mean, I learned that I’m a complete control freak. [laughs] And getting better at the other processes that I wasn’t confident in before allows me to become that ultimate control freak. Because I can get obsessed with playing and every instrument myself, I can get obsessed with “This is my production and no one’s allowed to come in and do it,” I can be like that – and I was like that for sort of 80% of the process – I was like, down in my little writing room down the road from where I live and it was a very solitary process. But right at the end of the album making I went to the studio in Devon, which is where I brought the band, and that was the fun bit really, but it was also the point at which I had to kind of let go. And that is so in conflict with my control freak nature, so I think what I learned about myself is, just because you can do everything doesn’t mean that you should do everything. Surrounding yourself with people you trust and who really care about your project, delegating those roles and just doing a good job of your bit, is the sweet spot that I tried to learn to find.
You mentioned before that this isn’t exactly a concept album, but I’m very intrigued by the idea of the woman on the internet, and I’m wondering how you imagine or experience your relationship to that character. It feels to me like something that’s both external to yourself but also a part of you.
Yeah, 100%. And the narrative of a lot of the songs, it jumps between songs I’m singing about someone else and songs I’m singing to myself. There’s a lot of that self-awareness and self-reflection. In my head, the woman on the internet, she’s sort of – I mean, she’s no one in particular, but she’s almost this like Wizard of Oz, a faceless, nameless figure who has all the answers, and is much more exciting for the fact that you have no real access to her. And yeah, it was just a lyric that appeared in two of the songs kind of accidentally, I didn’t really realise until I picked all the songs that the lyric was in both. In one song, she’s someone I turn to for a makeup tutorial, in the next she’s more of like a seedy, self-help type, giving very unsolicited advice. So yeah, I think of her as some kind of fairy godmother, but kind of seedy; it’s like you’re turning to her when you feel vulnerable and lost and no one in your real life can help you, but she’s also not really giving you the answers either.
So, I liked the idea of her as the title, and then I also knew that there’s a duality in it, and that it would sound like I was talking about myself, which is also totally fine because the internet has been a huge part of my journey, really. It’s been the centre in some ways of a lot of things that I’ve done. So I kind of liked the duality of, it sounds like it’s about me but in my head it’s about this character.
Do you feel like that also made you more comfortable talking about the experience of being a woman on the internet in a way that was more universal but also personal at the same time?
Yeah, there’s a separation that it creates that I do like. But I think it’s like, in my head she’s no one in particular, I turn to her for help, but then also maybe to someone else, like, I’m their woman on the internet. It sounds silly, but to me, you know, there’s loads of people that I watch on all sorts of platforms, I know so much about their lives, I’m obsessed with the idea of them, I would buy everything that they told me to. The obsession is so real. But then, although it’s strange to think about, there’s a lot of people that have messaged me and said, “Hey, I listen to your songs every day, I’ve looked at your videos, they got me through a hard time.” So it’s like, I think whoever that is is a different person to everyone, and maybe it isn’t even a woman at all. It’s just someone. But yeah, I liked the idea of it being a little bit more open like that.
I wanted to touch on two specific things that you mentioned – one is self-awareness, and then there’s vulnerability. I feel that those two are obviously connected, but there’s also a distinction between them, especially in the way they’re expressed on the album. When you’re in the writing process, are you conscious of which side you’re leaning more into?
Yeah, I agree, I think the two are totally linked. And I think self-awareness, for me anyway, when I write is just totally inevitable. I think it’s often, with these songs or other songs in the past, writing is the thing that makes me aware of what I’m feeling. Because I’m actually not very communicative in real life, and I hate conflict, and I am so bad at telling someone if I have a problem with them. But I have no problem with going and writing a song about it, so sometimes the self-awareness thing is interesting because if I write a song about self-comparison, it doesn’t mean that I have all the answers about how to eliminate self-comparison. None of the songs are really a solution, but what it is is making myself aware of something that I’m feeling.
So, I think self-awareness for anyone that writes songs about themselves in the first person is almost inevitable, but I think that it can be counterproductive as well, because you can write a feeling into existence. You can be mildly sad about a breakup, for example, but writing a song or five or 10 songs about the breakup, can really drive things out of you that are potentially not even there, because there’s always a little bit of embellishment, there’s always a little bit of exaggeration. That’s just kind of how writing is, and you can then be singing those songs on tour for years of your life. [laughs] So the feeling that you had that really was quite small is milked and dragged out and suddenly is a big thing. I’m grateful to writing as a way of processing the things that I’m feeling and the self-awareness comes from that, but it can be counterproductive in terms of ruminating because you’re actually taking a feeling and making something external from it, and then living with that and producing that and finishing the writing on that.
I think one of the ways in which the album is successful is that you always seem to be aware of when you’re being true to yourself and when it’s more like you’re playing a role. But there’s always an emotional honesty to it. Is there a moment on the album that stands out to you as the most honest, or were you were surprised by what you discovered while writing it?
I think the last song on the album is probably that – there’s one called ‘Bloodline’ and there’s a little other track at the end called ‘Difficult Things’, and that’s a song about my family. I’ve wanted to write songs about my family for years, but I’ve never really known the right way to do it. It started with a musical thing rather than a lyrical thing. A lot of the samples in that song and in another one called ‘Do You Mind?’ are just field recorded drum samples; having way too much time during lockdown I just made a percussion pack of things down in my studio – the kind of thing that you’d never have time for in real life. So I was just making little drum loops from that pack, and then started mumbling some verse stuff and kind of realised after a while, like, “Oh, this is about my family.” That was probably one where I was surprised at how stream-of-consciousness it was.
I’m glad that you mentioned the final track in particular, because it does feel like you’re kind of coming full circle. You go back to singing about your childhood and how we turn into our parents, and there’s that universal sentiment in the end, that “we never talk about the difficult things.” Do you feel like that’s kind of the driving force in your songwriting, to talk about the difficult things and to share that vulnerability?
100%. I have such an amazing family and that’s kind of why I never wrote about them before, because it’s not like I have some awful dad to sing about – my family are the best. But the only thing I feel I didn’t have growing up was a kind of free-flowing honesty, open conversation-type environment. And I knew that when I left home at 18-19, I didn’t even know what I wanted for my future, but I just remember making a point of being like, I really want when I have family for it to be like – I want to be open, I want to tell my kids I love them all the time, I want difficult things to be discussed, because that’s how you make them less difficult, rather than like brush things under the rug. That’s more what I’m used to, and it was just a very classic Catholic upbringing where no one spoke about being depressed, no one spoke about being anxious even though a lot of people around me were, it was just all brushed under the carpet. And so, for me, writing is like the antidote to how I was brought up. It’s the way of channelling the things that I will just naturally struggle to talk about in real life.
And most of the songs on the album are that in some way. Like, ‘Zombies!’ is obviously quite a raucous, fun track, but it kind of touches on this toxic masculinity thing and it touches on being with someone who can’t express themselves, and you’re seeing it right there and you’re so frustrated. And again, it’s easy to sing about that situation after the fact, but in the moment, I totally struggle to have a conversation with that person about how it was affecting me. So, the criticism of “we never talk about the difficult things” is on me as well. I’m terrible at that. I’m better at singing about things, but that’s why writing is such a powerful thing for me in that it makes me aware of what I’m thinking and it makes me process what I’m thinking. And if that pushes me to then talk to that person in real life and sort it out, then even better. I don’t think writing songs about situations is always the way to solve them, but it certainly helps you work through them in your head.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Orla Gartland’s Woman on the Internet is out August 20 via New Friends.