In between stops on a U.S. tour, Irish pop singer Orla Gartland found some time in her crazy schedule to chat with Motley Deputy Editor-in-Chief Laurie Shelly about her newest song, the changing face of YouTube, writing for K-pop boyband BTS, and why people should care about pop music.
People on the internet speak nostalgically of a golden age of the video-sharing website YouTube. They speak of a time before cheap clickbait, a time before vicious beauty guru feuds, a time before Tide Pod-eating. During this golden age, they say, independent creators crafting original content were at the centre of YouTube, making videos about things they loved. People wistfully recall the bad sound quality and low-resolution of these earnest, early videos, and lament how the website’s algorithm now favours high production value, petty drama-fuelled diss tracks and shallow, attention-seeking antics.
Orla Gartland is the kind of artist people think about when they think about the YouTube of old. The Dublin-born, London-based 24-year-old started posting videos on the site when she was only 13. She caught people’s attention with how adept she was on guitar, her creative cover versions of well-known songs and the undeniable talent that shone through in the witty songs she wrote herself, and quickly gained a vast number of devoted subscribers (at the time of writing, her subscriber count stands at over 228,000).
When I catch up with her, I ask Gartland if she still thinks YouTube is a good platform for aspiring musicians to use. “It feels important to have some kind of presence on there, but it’s so saturated now,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the place for brand new artists to break anymore. I think the internet is really craving a new, music-focused, MySpace-type platform right now.
If YouTube has indeed changed or declined in some way, this has by no means signalled the end for Gartland – her talent transcends trend and reaches far beyond the scope of a viral video. Since the release of her first EP, Roots, in 2013, Gartland’s writing has become highly astute and she has honed her own unique brand of punchy, introspective, guitar-laden alternative pop. A steady stream of brilliant singles over the past year led to the release of her Why Am I Like This EP in May, a mixture of zingy, upbeat tracks and spiralling songs on which she narrates her anxiety-ridden thought processes.
Gartland played sold-out shows all over Europe on a headline tour earlier this year, including a hugely popular gig here in Cork in Cyprus Avenue in April, and she will return to Irish soil for a show in Whelan’s in Dublin this November. It is early October when I speak to her, and she is touring the U.S., playing guitar in her good friend Dodie Clark’s band. “It’s been amazing,” she says. “We’ve been out here for 6 weeks now so I feel properly immersed in the culture, which is cool.”
The little images Gartland inserts into her songs are arresting; she remembers a girl she saw crying on a train and kicks herself for not asking her if she was alright; she comes to the depressing realisation that getting all nicely dressed up in your “Sunday best” can’t make you feel better or different, and might actually make you feel worse, pathetic, silly; she sings about the “half-light.” She has an eye for detail – it’s just one of the many qualities of hers that make her inarguably one of Ireland’s most exciting young artists.
Her latest release, “Did It To Myself,” is the lead single from an upcoming mystery project. In an Instagram caption, Gartland writes that the song is about experiencing real, soul-crushing heartbreak for the first time and “instantly understanding why so many songs have been written about how it feels to suddenly be on your own.” The song viscerally represents that sick ache with a snarling bass line and ricocheting vocal harmonies.
Gartland has said “Did It To Myself” marks a new chapter of her career, a new beginning. Why was “Did It To Myself” the song she thought should open this new chapter? “I went through a break up last year that brought up every emotion under the sun for me over a series of months,” she tells me. “I had a lot to say and I wanted to run the writing tap, so in May I challenged myself to write something every day; a verse, half a song… just something. “Did It To Myself” came on May 1st. Something about churning it out right away felt cathartic, like I wasn’t thinking too much and just wanted to get the feeling out of my system. When I later finished the next set of songs and picked my favourites, this one just felt like the right opener.”
The song’s music video shows a broken, expressionless Gartland staring straight into the camera, unresponsive to all the cheery friends who try to get through to her. They eventually get fed up with her and stamp red paint love hearts into her white t-shirt (if my description is too vague and you can’t visualise this, I recommend you watch the video, it’s good).
“I was drawn to the broken heart symbol as a simple emblem to represent these songs and the video idea grew around that,” says Gartland. “The tone of the song was almost unemotional… the feeling of acceptance, of disengaging and letting everything fall apart around me was something I felt really summed up the end of this relationship I wrote about, so the director Zoe Alker and I started there. The broken heart became a symbol for love lost, and each character throughout the video tries their best to seek out some kind of love or affection from me, to no avail.”
She has also dabbled in writing for other artists; last year, she co-wrote a song for the massive K-pop megastar boyband global sensation BTS, the track “134340” from their album Love Yourself: Tear. “I was sent some backing tracks, instrumentals, and my friend Martin Luke Brown and I wrote a topline on top,” she says, explaining how the crazy situation came about. “It was a chill day, we lived together at the time and just recorded the ideas in Martin’s bedroom. We sent the instrumentals back with our ideas on, forgot all about it, and got a call a year later to say the band loved a part of our song idea and would be translating it into Korean and vocalling it for the next album. Wild.”
Gartland is a true lover and advocate of pop and indie music. “Right now, I’m loving Clairo, Phoebe Bridgers, Cavetown and MUNA – their new album Saves The World is incredible.” What would she say to those who (foolishly) dismiss pop and say it’s not a worthwhile genre, I ask? “Good pop is accessible, relatable, interesting yet simplistic in the best way. It’s a good singalong chorus or an irresistible groove, it’s a musical hook or lyric that sticks in your head for a month straight,” she enthuses. “To those who say they hate pop, pop is more than top 40 tunes on the radio. If you say you hate pop, you probably just don’t know quite how far that genre can stretch… chances are there’s some pop out there for you. Promise.”
Can she tells us anything about her upcoming music? “Yes,” she says. “There’s a bunch of songs coming, “Did It To Myself” is the beginning of this new chapter, and it’s all the most honest, close-to-home music I’ve ever made.”
Orla Gartland plays Whelan’s, Dublin, on Friday November 15th. Her new single “Did It To Myself” is out now.
Photographer: Bjorn Franklin