I was first introduced to singer and YouTuber Orla Gartland by my very own mum – they met while volunteering at Ealing Soup Kitchen. On one of our nightly phone-calls, mum told me that she’d started volunteering with a girl my age who she thought I’d like, who was also, supposedly, *kind of a big deal* on the internet.
At first, I thought mum was exaggerating to try and make volunteering sound really cool and therefore encourage me to go (I’m a terrible person), but then she sent me the link to one of Orla’s songs. I was going through a particularly bad bout of anxiety at the time (which I thiiink I’ve just about emerged from) and she sent me this song called Overthinking, as she thought it might help. Not only did the lyrics so accurately describe the feeling of being unable to escape your own brain, it was so beautifully sung and produced. Before I knew it, I’d fallen into a hole of watching all her YouTube videos, becoming one of her 162k + subscribers. I quickly realised she wasn’t just mum-level cool, she was actual, legit, millennial cool, and I was shocked (and embarrassed) I hadn’t discovered her first.
I asked mum if she could put me in touch with Orla and we met at the beginning of summer (I am this late getting it up because, I repeat, I’m a terrible person). But it was pretty fab – we chatted all about life on t’internet, how hard it is being a millennial (obvs) and why we all struggle to feel truly satisfied. Since our conversation, she’s been on tour and released an absolutely banging single, I Go Crazy . Seriously, it’s an absolute bop – basically she’s smashing life even more than she was before. And as well as being mega-talented, I discovered that she’s interesting, smart and compassionate (I mean, the girl volunteers with the homeless and doesn’t even brag about it on Instagram, what more do you need to know?!)
Make sure you give her choons a listen if you haven’t already, and I hope you enjoy our conversation!
A: When did you first start making music?
O: I played violin first, which was definitely a mistake. My mum was desperate to have music in the family and I was the oldest child, so when I was around four, she said, ‘you’re going to play an instrument, so pick one’. We went into this music shop and I pointed at a violin, thinking you held it like a guitar. I think I thought it was Spongebob’s ukelele. But by the time I worked out what it actually was, we’d bought it, so I ended up playing it for like eight years. But when I was 12, I decided to pursue the original dream of the guitar. I did lessons for a while and then just got impatient so taught myself. And then I started writing songs when I was 14.
A: When did you start posting on YouTube?
O: Shortly after writing my first song, aged around 14.
A: Surely no one knew that posting on YouTube would be a thing?
O: Oh no it wasn’t at all. I’m from Ireland, and it’s weird because we were about a year behind Britain when it came to the internet and Facebook, and Twitter. I was really geeky when I was young and I was watching people over here starting to do acoustic covers and sing in their bedrooms, and I thought it was so cool. I wanted to invite myself to the party because I was such a huge fan.
A: I used to be obsessed with watching people sing in their bedrooms. But you see so little of that these days.
O: Yeah, I miss that. I try not to be too nostalgic but the production value was so low and that was the norm. I remember for years never knowing how to work a mic and that never mattered. And now everything is quite produced in order to stand out because the site is a much more saturated place than when I began. It’s now kind of expected that you’d have a film crew, and produce new music, whereas I miss the days of people just sticking their phone on the table. It was so raw by default.
A: And I suppose if you start now, you have to go in on that high level.
O: Yeah, because it’s known now that you can get discovered that way. But I used to play with friends and we’d go busking and make videos – at that stage no one had got big from YouTube so there was an innocence to it. No one really knew why they were uploading apart from getting themselves out there in some way, and the novelty of someone from the Philippines commenting on one of your videos, it was so cool. But no one at that stage was trying to get signed or noticed. It was a very different kind of platform and I definitely miss it being like that.
A: When did you start realising it was going really well?
O: I never had a viral video or anything. It was a super slow build, it was never overnight, which I think was good. I’ve seen what that can do to people. When you have been making stuff for years and then suddenly something goes viral, you’re introduced to loads of people that don’t know you. You get an influx of people who have no context of you. I remember everyone used to want to get featured on the YouTube homepage. You couldn’t pitch yourself for it, but YouTube would choose people to go on it. I remember a few people who got their videos on the homepage and it was like the best and worst thing that could happen to you. You’d get hundreds and thousands of subscribers but also so much hate, so many people tearing you apart. In that way, I was going upwards but I had a sheltered growth. When I finished secondary school, I came over here and did a mini-tour. I spent the money that I would have spent going to Magaluf or something after my A-levels doing this little tour thing. This is probably where I realised it could be a thing. It’s very abstract on YouTube, your fans are all numbers on screens, so unless you see physical people in a room it’s very hard to compute that. I did this little tour and all the dates sold out and all these people were singing the songs back. They weren’t huge rooms but that was so much more impactful than getting x amount of views, and that’s when I realised it could really go somewhere.
A: What made you come over to London?
O: I’ve been living here for like four years, and I basically followed my friends over who I used to busk with. I had no understanding of the music scene, but I was sort of on my own little island with it. When I came over, most of the people that were around me were getting signed or aiming for that, they were getting out releases with the intention of getting attention from record labels rather than build a following. So I think for a year I thought that’s what I should do. The problem with music is, there’s no structure. There’s no promotion, or bonus. It’s quite comforting when you’re younger to aim for something like getting signed because it gives you a focus. But now, I care less about that. The music industry is so different now. It’s so much pressure and it’s a slightly broken model. Music is at such a weird point in how we consume it, that the idea of chucking hundreds of thousands at someone to try and break them doesn’t work. It’s almost like the labels haven’t caught up with how people make music.
A: I really struggle with comparing myself to what others are doing. Is that even harder because there aren’t defined milestones with music?
O: Yeah, I’m such a sucker for an Instagram stalk. It’s so awful. It’s the worst possible thing you can do. I have friends who have done the major label thing and they have a picture of them signing the contract with champagne and then they release albums, they do tours, and if you were to look at their social media you’d be like, ‘oh my god you’re having the time of your life, you’re only 20’. But then I know a lot of people who are doing that who are extremely sad or anxious. I try and take the comparison thing with a pinch of salt because I’m such a sucker for it, because I know that beneath all the ‘look at me, look at me’ there’s a lot of insecurity. That’s not what you think though when you’re scrolling though, you’re like, ‘aaaah’. When I notice that I’m getting caught up, I have to remind myself that you don’t know what’s going on with anyone, really.
A: There’s always going to be someone who’s a step ahead.
O: Yeah, I don’t know where it becomes satisfying. That’s the danger with something like music. You’re like ‘I’m going to be happy when I’m playing Shepherd’s Bush Empire’ and then you’re like ‘Now I’m going to be happy when I’m playing Wembley’ and it’s always growing.
A: It’s never ending…
O: There’s a fine line because it’s good to be ambitious. You need to want those things otherwise you’re never going to do anything, but there’s a weird line. Anyone that does anything creative and undefined and freelancey needs to figure out what success means to you on a really basic level. So if it’s living off the thing you’re doing, you need to be able to pat yourself on the back for just that. So it’s maybe not that you’ve made five albums, it’s just about creating your own lifestyle, I suppose. Everyone is in their own lane. But I think our age group so easily fall into that trap of looking at what everyone else is doing. Like, oh how old is she, what’s she doing, oh she’s 25, ok I have a couple more years. It’s so bad that we do it – it’s so stupid.
A: Obviously we get a lot of that from social media – but of course, it helped you become the artist you are now, so do you think the benefits outweigh the negatives?
O: In my experience, the impacts in a career-y musician sense, have been undeniably positive. I wouldn’t even live over here if it wasn’t for YouTube and the internet. But for me as a person, as a day-to-day person, it’s probably not good.
A: We all moan about it, but we all love it too.
O: I think if I didn’t have music to promote and something to uphold, I’d be very tempted to remove it. I can’t imagine anyone launching themselves as a musician now without it. But I think that’s actually a shame because it’s not for everyone.
A: When you were starting and you moved over here, were a lot of people from your school going down conventional routes and going to uni?
O: We call it college, and uni in Ireland is free, so it’s a very unusual thing not to go, because why wouldn’t you? So almost all of my friends went straight into uni and I came over here and was dipping my toes and would say, ‘I’ll give it a year and then we’ll see where we’re at the end of the year’.I’d always think, well I’m not going backwards, it doesn’t need to shoot up overnight and absolutely go nuts, but as long as I’m not plateau’ing then I’ll give it another year. I’m basically on my fourth gap year now.
A: Did people think it was weird? When you’re doing creative things, there’s always scepticism.
O: Irish people as a humour, I think, are actually really bad at being happy for each other. It’s sort of funny, but sad too. So with wanting to do things like music, there’s a bit of, ‘oh who does she think she is, she wants to be on stage, look at her’. I think that was part of the reason I wanted to move away. There’s an assumption that if you want to put yourself out there that you think you’re great. But that attitude just doesn’t make sense because most of musicians and creatives I know are some of the most self-conscious, insecure people I’ve ever met.
A: I suppose it’s difficult to measure how good you are at anything creative – you’re just putting yourself out there and hoping it it’s good enough.
O: But you don’t always believe you’re good enough. I don’t put videos up because I think I’m god’s gift to the world and everyone should hear me. I sometimes just need validation of people telling me it’s good for me to believe it’s good. Sometimes it’s really selfish. So it’s a bit weird. Then again, there are people who do think they’re the shit and you get lumped in with these people.
A: You must have a lot of people who call themselves fans – do you ever get told you’re someone’s role model or they’ve gone into music because of you?
O: Sometimes people come over at the end of shows and say they started making videos because they saw my videos. I can’t get my head around things like that. It’s so nice. There’s definitely people who would insinuate the role model thing, but I still feel like I’m figuring it out. I still feel like I’m getting my shit together so it’s nice, but it’s also like, don’t base anything on what I’ve done. I never know what advice to give people. People do ask for advice – like, ‘I’ve just written my first song, should I put it out on YouTube?’ I’m kind of useless because I’m like, ‘nah!’ YouTube is so different from when I started. I was lucky that it was an unusual thing at the time. Not to be really self-deprecating, but I genuinely think that if I put my first videos up this year, they wouldn’t poke through at all.
A: Can you talk to me about the song, ‘Overthinking’ – were you nervous about posting it? I can imagine that feeling quite vulnerable.
O: I wrote it two years before I posted it, and had loads of different versions. Lyrically it is vulnerable but stylistically it didn’t really fit in with anything else that I had because it’s quite rappy and talky. I started playing it in a few shows and people would come up in the end and always point that one out, calling it ‘the anxious song.’ Especially when you do support slots, it’s hard to be memorable at all. So when people do come up and go, I specifically liked this song, and I specifically liked this lyric in the second verse, that’s cool. That’s what convinced me to put it up at the end. I think with a lot of music, if it’s not honest to the point of being a bit uncomfortable to sing, it’s probably not honest enough. It’s meant to make you go a bit bleugh. It’s weird, it’s almost like the more specific you are about your own situation, which at the time seems like only something you feel, the more other people connect to it. When you write lyrics, there’s a temptation to be vague so that it’s universal, but actually it’s the opposite that makes people connect more.
A: Do you think people are surprised to find out you have anxious thoughts because you put yourself out there?
O: Probably less so after putting that song up. Yeah, I think other musicians and other creative people get it. By virtue of making music or writing, you’re just a thinker generally. Not necessarily an overthinker, but you think very deeply and you’re usually quite self aware. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that loads of creative types suffer from anxiety and depression. People who don’t do music and see people who put themselves out there as these kinds of untouchable ever-confident beings, they probably think that’s weird, like, ‘oh you like getting on stage, how can you be an anxious person?’ That doesn’t make me nervous at all, performing to thousands of people. But if there’s some kind of conflict in my life, it’s awful.
A: I remember seeing Zoella talking about anxiety and I was thinking, how the hell is that possible when you’re putting yourself online? That seems like the scariest thing to me, but it seems like a lot of people who live online seem to have it.
O: Looking back, the fact I wanted to spend most of my teens in my room making videos versus going out and being social definitely says something about the kind of character that I am!
A: What are you working towards next?
O: I’d like to write and record an album, and play more headline shows. Long-term, I’d like to live off music forever. I’d like to exist somewhere in music when I’m older. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to play Wembley or whatever, but it’s just not as much about smashing the charts for me. I’d rather retain my audience that are really into it, and actually connect to it. That means so much more to me than grand numbers.
Listen to Orla Gartland’s latest single, I Go Crazy, on YouTube or Spotify