Young, talented, and Irish – Orla Gartland is a red-haired musical force of nature. Since uploading a mix of original music and covers on her channel in 2011, she’s been steadily gaining traction with no signs of slowing down.
She’s released two EPs, her recent single I Go Crazy broke a million plays on Spotify, and she’s toured across the world alongside the likes of Nina Nesbitt, Bry, and dodie. She’s even co-written a song for K-pop phenomenon BTS. We caught up with Orla to chat about tour life, finding her way in the music world, and leaving your comfort zone.
Orla Gartland was immersed in music from a very early age. Even though her parents weren’t from a musical background, they wanted their children to be so. She’s not the only Gartland child with musical talent either; both her brother and sister are singers. However, she is currently the only one who has pursued it as a career. “I’m over here setting a fine academic example for everyone,” she laughs.
One of her earliest memories is attending a Coldplay gig with her dad at 12. “It was the first big gig I went to and I just remember it being the most exciting thing ever,” she says.
What she treasures most about this memory is being there with her dad. “I remember being so overwhelmed in the best way by that gig,” she says. “My dad was equally excited, and when you’re at that age you don’t see [your parents] as people yet, so when you can bond over something it’s quite a big deal.”
She’s now a multi-instrumentalist, but unfortunately her introduction to playing her first instrument wasn’t so joyful. “My parents brought me into a music shop and were like, ‘Go on, pick whatever you want’. I was way too young to make a decision like that!’”
Orla chose what she thought at the time was a ukulele, based on what she’d seen on SpongeBob SquarePants. She eagerly attended her first music lesson before the teacher instructed her to put the instrument under her chin. It was then she realised she hadn’t chosen a ukulele, but a violin.
“I just cried throughout that whole lesson because I was like, ‘Oh my god, my parents have spent all this money on this thing that I don’t even want’!” she laughs. Despite the shock introduction she ended up playing the violin for six years, mostly playing traditional Irish music.
Around the age of 11, she began teaching herself in order to learn the songs she was hearing on the radio. By 17, she had her first manager. Through this manager and her early outings on the Dublin music scene, Orla learned there was more to being a musician than talent and filming herself singing.
“You might find yourself in front of an actual microphone and freak out because you’re used to singing into your camera at home, editing it and doing it as many times as you want,” she says. “There’s a subset of skills that you need as a musician – you’ve got the live side and then the studio side of things.”
Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Orla moved to London at 18 to pursue music. For the first year and a half, she immersed herself in the music scene by co-writing songs with producers and fellow musicians, dedicated to pushing herself outside her comfort zone.
“In places that are a bit smaller, it’s easy to get complacent when you do something like music,” she says. “If I wanted to be the best singer-songwriter in this one road in North Dublin then I could have done that, and have had a few glory years and felt really great about myself. Or I could have come here and scared the shit out of myself, but hopefully end up better for it.”
While her parents were anxious about her decision to move to London, they were supportive and continue to be so today. Orla understood their concerns. “The well that they draw from as parents – the knowledge and wisdom that they pass on – doesn’t apply, because how can you know anything about this world?” she empathises. She is still grateful for their trust and support in her pursuing music as a career.
London is an oversaturated city, full of creative people and competition, so it’s easy to become weighed down by the anonymity of being yet another musician. Having lived there for four years now, has she found this intimidating?
“Suddenly you’re not special anymore,” she notes. “When I’m in my cynical frame of mind and I’m going to really small gigs where no-one’s showing up for people who I think are amazing, I think, ‘They’re so good! If they can’t do it, how the fuck am I expecting that I can do it?’”
However, she realises the importance of grounding herself, rather than getting caught up in calculating every release, doing all the A&R work, or writing more emails than songs.
“I’m always trying to bring it back to being about the music, as cheesy as it sounds. I think it’s so easy as a musician to get caught up in shouting your name into the void and self-promotion and all that,” she confesses.
Orla finds positivity in being surrounded by a community of like-minded and talented people to work with, talk to, and be around. “‘What a privilege to be doing this in any capacity’,” she reminds herself. “Once I remove my entitlement – just to live off of making music even for a year is so cool.”
Nonetheless, moving country at such a young age must have been daunting. On reflection, does she feel she was too young to be taking such a leap? “I always feel like I’m an old head on young shoulders, a bit of an old soul, but I also thought I was much wiser that I was,” she says.
“In hindsight, I’m like, ‘Jesus, what were you doing?’,” she remarks. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way now – there’s definitely been a lot of stumbling and falling along the way and making decisions that I would never make now, but it’s all part of it.”
“I was definitely patronised, whether it was for being young or for being a woman”
Orla’s old soul continually pushes her to remain fiercely independent and true to herself. She’s unsigned at the moment, but has built a small team of women around her, including a publisher and a manager who she describes as her “song mum”. She observes that this is quite rare as there’s “definitely a higher males-to-females ratio in management and higher up”.
We ask what else has surprised her about the music industry. “How much I wasn’t listened to – and that sounds quite sad but, looking back, I wasn’t very assertive about what I wanted,” she admits. “I was going in quite timidly and being like, ‘Oh I like playing songs in my room’. Other times I was definitely patronised, whether it was for being young or for being a woman, because there’s very few female music producers.”
Despite this, Orla entered a crash course in the world of songwriting upon arriving in London. “I didn’t go to uni or do any formal music education so my first year-and-a-half in London was my very accelerated, intense education in songwriting,” she says. She recalls being fascinated by the process, the hectic nature of working in studios, and enjoying the ability to meet so many people.
“I really value honesty, realness and authenticity [in music] – that’s what I listen out for. I’m feeling much more focused on it now, but so much of that was finding the right producers and the people who were up for that.”
Those people include her Patreon supporters. Her Patreon, which she’s named Orla’s Secret Demo Club, currently has over 900 patrons. Orla admits that she was cynical about the platform at first, based on her observations of other crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Pledge Music. She disliked the long weeks of pushing and spamming in order to achieve monetary goals.
“I always respected people that did it because it’s a very humbling thing to ask for help for anything. But my fear, before Patreon came along, was how it sometimes makes people feel like a charity,” she shares. “I didn’t want someone to be like, ‘oh poor girl, just throw her ten quid cos she can’t make an album otherwise’.”
Her initial fear and sense of pride meant she was uneasy about asking for funding. But since conquering her uncertainty, she’s found that the platform has given her far more than just money. Not only has she gained financial support, but emotional support and advice from her audience too.
“It’s unbelievable,” she says smiling. “Everything I’ve recorded this year and how I’m going to tour next year – that’s been entirely made possible by those people.”
She finds a sense of freedom on Patreon, a place where she doesn’t have to overthink her online presence, her Instagram theme, or the politics of being a public figure. Orla has also found a clan – with their own Discord server, she chats to her audience every few days and is able to get to know them as layered people.
Among her supporters are an artist in the Philippines and a coder from the States, who ended up talking to each other and surprised Orla with Bitmojis of her. Another supporter is a spacecraft engineer from Amsterdam, who plans to put the names of some of the Secret Demo Club members on a satellite panel to send into space.
“I am bowled over by these people and what they do. They’re all so creative in their own right. All my cynicism has melted away,” she exclaims.
With several years experience under her belt, Orla’s found her songwriting process has evolved. Now, she tries to keep a singular focus when writing a song, summing up her intention in one sentence and finds the rest of the song comes together easily. For her latest single, Between My Teeth, her sentence is “a song about the pressure of trying to save someone”.
“It’s about one of my friends who was in a bad way, and she was leaning on me a lot,” she shares. “I didn’t feel in a good enough place to help, so it was trying to balance the urge to help them and the urge to run away very fast.”
So, time for the dreaded questions: does she feel she’s found her sound yet and how would she describe it? “I feel very close!” she says.
Orla describes her wish to write songs on weighty topics that feel sonically light. To that end, she cites Robyn’s Dancing On My Own as a song that is a fun pop song on the surface, but has depth and is heavy lyrically.
“What I want is to have a gig or a live show that’s fun, energetic and you can dance to, but also cry to,” she laughs. “Dancing and crying, that’s basically what I want!”
No matter if her sound changes, Orla knows the constant in her music will always be her and her voice. Speaking of her inspirations – Joni Mitchell, Imogen Heap, and Regina Spektor – she always hears a sound that is true to them.
“I hear a completely undiluted essence of them and that’s regardless of sonics and instruments. That’s all I want from my music – to just feel like it’s very me,” she says.
And while Orla has written or co-written songs for many artists, the one that stands out the most is 134340 by K-pop band BTS on their album Love Yourself: Tear – a credit which surprised and confused many people.
“When it came out I got a lot of messages like ‘There’s someone with the same name as you on this BTS song’,” she shares, understanding the confusion as her name stands out among all the Korean artists credited.
Orla admits that she didn’t know much about the K-pop industry, which she has now rectified by watching many documentaries. Nonetheless, she threw herself into the challenge; creating songs, top lines, lyrics, and ideas at home before sending them on. Later, some of her work made it into the album and was translated into Korean.
“I could have just sung melodies, but I wanted them to be words I had sung even if they were changed,” she insists. Either way, Orla is grateful she got to be briefly part of the K-pop world. BTS are one of the biggest bands in the world, so they could have chosen any songwriter on the planet, but they chose her.
“I’d love to meet BTS,” she says. “They have loads of people on their music, so I’m not even sure if they know who I am, but I’d love to thank them for being so open to me, this up-and-coming girl from Dublin.”
“I’m always trying to bring it back to being about the music”
When she’s not writing songs, Orla can be found touring with dodie as a guitarist and backing singer. Their friendship began years ago, when dodie covered one of Orla’s songs. Not long after, Orla helped dodie put on some of her first London shows, and in September, they toured the US for five weeks.
Spending over a month on stage and on a bus with 11 other people in a foreign country can be quite overwhelming, but Orla loved the experience and is now extremely close to all her tour companions. She notes the importance of choosing a tour team not just for their musical talent, but on how well they all get along.
“You need people you actually like, and can wake up in the morning and not strangle them!” she notes. “It’s really intense, in the best way.”
And it’s not bad playing alongside someone you’re also a fan of. “dodie’s so amazing, I’m so proud of her. I’m like a proud aunt or something!” she exclaims. “She’s the queen of being honest and real in your music.”
Touring with dodie has helped Orla feel more confident on stage and has shaped her own visions for her live shows. But as a musician with anxiety, how does she balance it with creating music and performing, especially when touring across the world?
“Not always well!” she laughs. But she finds power in talking about her issues, she says – and surprisingly it’s on stage where she feels the least anxious. “Once you identify it and put a name to it, you’ve confronted it and that takes a little bit of the power away.”
It’s clear through conversation with Orla that she’s constantly pushing herself, striving to be a better musician. Despite working with lots of different producers, Orla always insists on being in the room, reluctant to just do vocals and leave the music to them.
She notes the importance of always identifying what you want and moving towards it. “It’s really easy to make very average music – there’s tons of it,” she comments. “It would be so much easier for me to just have an acoustic guitar and vocals, record it all in my bedroom and just hand it over. Not that that’s bad, and I love hearing that kind of work, but it’s inconvenient sometimes to want more.”
Currently, Orla is working on an EP and, despite her fears that albums will become obsolete as a format, she hopes to put one together towards the end of 2019.
“I think the singles culture has been born out of an incredible saturation of music – there’s about 2,500 songs that go up on Spotify a day now, which is kind of bleak!” she comments. However, she loves how albums have space for odd tracks like interludes and reprises, and how aiming to create a full album can shapes the writing and production behind all of the tracks.
“If it’s the single, it’s got to have a big chorus, it’s got to be upbeat, it’s got to be three-minutes-30 – it’s got all these things we cage in,” Orla observes.
She’s just supported Hudson Taylor on their UK and Europe tour, and from February to March 2019 she’ll be opening for dodie on her UK and Europe tour. This will be followed by Orla’s own tour in April.
“That’s all I know so far, but even to know so far ahead is quite rare for me. Usually you don’t get the privilege of planning that far ahead.”
We ask Orla if she had any advice for upcoming musicians. She warns against getting caught in the game of self-promotion and to focus on putting out music that you want to exist in the world.
“The amount of people I know that have record deals, money put into their music, with huge backing and teams of people, and they look back at the albums they’ve released and they’re not even proud of them.
“Trends come and go. Everything will change,” she concludes. “The only constant thing, that you will have to look back on when you’re granny-aged, is your music. That’s the only thing that will last, so make sure you like it!”
Photos by Rebecca Need-Menear.
Want more from Orla?
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