Orla Gartland just released her second EP, Lonely People. The 20 year-old, quirky, independent musician, sat down to talk with us about music, her creative life, and her upcoming UK/US tour.
When I sat down to get to know Orla Gartland a little better via Skype the other day, I had a few assumptions. After listening to her new EP Lonely People a few times, I anticipated that this 20-year-old was probably going to be a bit beyond her years. Gartland’s lyrical skills are hard to deny, and I was really impressed. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect to dislike her. I just didn’t expect our conversation to make me want to work harder, but that’s exactly that happened.
First, I asked her some questions about her upbringing. As she began to speak, I was immediately struck by how easy it was to root for Gartland. It stands to reason why she has developed such a successful presence on YouTube. She’s soft-spoken, but not in a shy way at all. She’s very engaging. She has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor, which makes her very easy to relate to, and I never for one second felt as though she thought she was smarter than me–which she most definitely is, but that’s not saying all that much. Sorry, Orla.
The story of how Orla Gartland got into music is about as charming as you might expect it to be if you happen to be a fan of hers:
When Gartland was five, her parents made the big decision to bring music into their home. The deal was that Orla could choose whatever instrument she wanted. Her parents would buy whatever she chose, and enroll her in lessons. This was an interesting decision for her parents to make considering the fact that they, by Gartland’s account, weren’t the typical “artist” family. “I feel like when you watch these celebrity profiles, they all say that they grew up in these ‘musical’ homes. They say, ‘I was brought up on Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell…’ All these amazing people! So they got to soak up all this great stuff without even trying! But I had a very un-cool musical upbringing. All chart music.”
So, when the big moment came, Orla Gartland chose the violin…by mistake. She admits that she made her choice based on what she thought was a violin being played on a popular children’s cartoon show. “I confused it with a ukulele I had seen on Spongebob Squarepants. I got to the lesson and that teacher said, ‘No! You hold it like this!’ And I cried through the whole lesson. I cried to my parents, but they told me I had to keep going.”
So, like it or not, Gartland began her life in music by learning to perform what’s called Irish Trad Music, or “Traditional Music” (think Riverdance) on a grumpy violin. And she kept at it. For seven years, Gartland played an instrument she didn’t like in a style that was a far-cry from anything that’s ever been played on Spongebob Squarepants (I actually don’t know if that’s true. That show is a little weird, so it’s possible Spongebob Squarepants sampled some Trad). But like all the lessons in life, formal or informal, good or bad, fun or scary, her lessons in Irish Trad proved to be very helpful later on when she picked up the guitar at age 12. “The Irish Trad way of doing things is very laid back, so I learned most things by ear. So, while I hated (the violin lessons) quite intensely, looking back it was a good thing. It was a great foundation, having a good ear.”
“All my fans genuinely seem like good, really well-rounded people. I always meet people at the end of my shows and I have never once been creeped out, or anything. Everyone is just really nice. We all have the same sense of humor. I feel like my little corner of the internet is really wonderful.”Orla Gartland
A few years after picking up the guitar, around the age of 15, Gartland decided to create a YouTube channel and she has been consistently uploading videos ever since, and by doing so, she created a really wonderful body of work that is fun to go back through. This ability to go back through someone’s videos and watch them progress is one of the best things about YouTube culture, in my opinion. I puts their career in context. One of her first videos is a cover of the Beyonce’ song, “Halo.” On paper, the idea of a young, redheaded, Irish girl covering a Beyonce’ song sounds almost laughable. But if you watch the video, Gartland seems to tap into the vulnerability of the song. Instead of a powerful ballad, through Gartland the song seems softer, sweeter. At least that’s what I saw. Considering the video now has over 328,000 views, there must be something that draws people in.
When she was about 17, Gartland received an email from another young talent in the UK, named Dan Goudie. You might recognize his name from a variety of different projects. Goudie is a multi-talented producer and songwriter in his own right. He’s produced and co-written several EP’s for singer-songwriter Lauren Aquilina; he’s a co-founding member of Astronaut, a Drum and Base group that is starting to make their way into the US; he co-founded the dubplate producer collective, Mediks; and at some point in 2015, he’s going to release a musical with his dad in London. You know, just to name a few things.
Goudie told Gartland that he was a producer, not a manager, but he had watched a lot of her stuff online, and thought he’d like to try and manage her. Gartland still had two years of school left, and knew that she and her mother wouldn’t be able to fly out to the UK. “…But Dan offered to fly out (to Ireland), and we ended up meeting for the first time in a Burger King with my mom. It was great!” A meeting in a Burger King. Very Orla Gartland!
The two found time to work together during the breaks Gartland had in school. Goudie wanted to make sure that Orla Gartland had ample time to get accustomed to working in a bigger environment. “We went back and fourth. He was really patient. He let me work on songs that I knew were bad, and he probably knew they were bad too, but he really wanted me to be comfortable in the studio.”
All of the hard work that has gone into developing Gartland’s talent is paying off. In the time between the creation of her channel and now, the Orla Gartland channel has gathered close to 93,000 subscribers, enough of a fanbase to justify planning a very-exciting US/UK tour later this year. It wouldn’t be out-of-turn to assume that she’s well on her way. Still, I was curious about what her plans were (or ever have been) for school. She was quick to answer: “It’s not even out of the question now.”
In 2013 Gartland had just wrapped up high school, and she was planning on pursuing what she called her “other love,” graphic design. When she spoke of it, I could definitely tell that she’s truly serious about this alternative creative path. She lit up a little as she talked about how much she loved fonts, layouts, and even the joys of “geeking out” over album covers. It didn’t seem like this would have been a bad choice for her. But then, Gartland says, she turned on the X-Factor one night.
“I was noticing that at the initial audition phases of the show, there was this influx of people in their 50’s and 60’s coming on. Usually the show has a bit of a laugh at them. Sometimes they are really good, other times they are horrible, and very few of them see it to the end. And you hear them tell their stories, and they say, ‘I really, really wish I had pursued this when I was younger, but this and that happened. Now that I am retiring I am trying to get back at my dream.’ And I just thought, Jesus, that’s great for them, but maybe it’s easier to just give this a go first. I don’t have any strings attached. I was lucky enough to have a little following already that would come to shows, and I didn’t feel like I was completely starting from scratch. So, I felt ashamed to not to give it a go. But that’s still what it is. There’s no certainty by any means. But I am glad I did it in hindsight, definitely.”
I’m glad Orla Gartland gave it a go too. It was exhilarating to hear someone talk about their creative life in such a balanced and sincere way. Perhaps it was even more exciting to hear such a thoughtful response from a young girl, who happens to write really great Pop Music. So often, Youth Culture and Pop Music are spoken about in such a smirking, condescending way. YouTube gets lumped into that sometimes too, even though 18-34 year olds make up 34% of the site’s searches.
But listening to Gartland talk about Pop Music just made me happy, just like her “Halo” cover did: “Pop music can be very tastefully done, but it’s also very simple. It can actually be quite good. I have friends that have studied music, and I have friends that can only string chords together, not even knowing what they’re called. They are ones that generally write the best pop stuff. They are not going out of their way to make things crazy-dynamic.”
Gartland just released her second EP, Lonely People. I think that the title track perfectly embodies what is so refreshing about Orla Gartland. Technically, there is nothing surprising about a young girl writing a song called “Lonely People.” But once you listen to it, all of your assumptions are shot to bits. The song is vibrant, alive, even happy. A wonderful opportunity to cleanse your pop pallet.
“(Lonely People) started at a party, which is probably why it’s a bouncy song. I don’t know if this makes sense, but: I went outside to get a call, and then I went back into the party. And you know how sometimes when you are in a room but you’re also kind of not? Just looking at it, and you are feeling a bit disconnected from the people inside. It’s almost like you’re alone, and looking down on yourself. Even in a room filled with people I suddenly felt really isolated. Not in a negative way, but in an interesting way. And I had this in my head while I was talking to people. This made me wonder if other people felt like this. What if we are all feeling like this, and just not saying anything.”
“I thought, we can’t just email the guy from Panama Wedding. He’s obviously going to say no. I am sure they have a label and a super-important manager, and all that stuff. But then Dan emailed him, and within like 10 minutes, he said, ‘I love the song. Let’s do this!’ In the end, this guy in New York ended up producing the whole thing from the stems that we recorded in London! I thought, ‘That’s amazing!’”Orla Gartland
The “Lonely People” video itself is another positive gust of Youth and Pop Culture. It’s also a testament to Gartland’s fans. Originally intended to feature Gartland herself, the video ended up being a wonderful compilation of fan-submitted footage. This exciting and thoughtful nod to Gartland’s loyal fanbase was dreamed up by manager Dan Goudie and SITC co-founder, Scott Tolleson, who produced the video. The final cut features clips from literally all around the world. “I mean, YouTube will give you facts and figures, but it doesn’t really sink in until you see the faces of the people that support you. It made me really emotional. In a good way.”
Gartland works very hard to keep her relationship with her fans. It’s not uncommon for a larger artist to let companies take over their social media accounts. I asked her if that was something she had ever considered, and she very protectively (but sweetly, because it’s Orla Gartland) let me know that isn’t going to happen any time soon. She revealed that she doesn’t think twice about turning to them for inspiration for a new song. “I’ll find that sometimes I will really want to write something, but I’ll really need something to kick it off. A buzzword, an idea, something. And in a lot of cases I have done something really silly and posted on Facebook or Twitter. ‘Hey what’s everyone’s favorite word at the moment’ or ‘Anyone have a random situation that I can write about?’ And a lot of the time, people have responded really well.”
Her fans don’t just support Orla Gartland, either. They help each other out. Case in point: Recently, one of her fans shared via twitter that she would not be able to make it to one of Gartland’s tour dates because she didn’t know anyone in that specific city. Gartland re-tweeted the message, and within a few hours, a few of her fans had rallied together, making sure this young girl would be able to go to Gartland’s show feeling like she was surrounded by friends! “All my fans genuinely seem like good, really well-rounded people. I always meet people at the end of my shows and I have never once been creeped out, or anything. Everyone is just really nice. We all have the same sense of humor. I feel like my little corner of the internet is really wonderful.”
I like the idea of a “little corner” in the internet. The Internet, as a whole concept, seems so vast and anonymous. It was comforting to hear someone talk about it as though you could carve out a slice, then build something bright and cozy. Not a “a subculture,” those have always been around, but a developing mode to improve the way we define community and create real relationships through creative expression. People naturally crave community, and over the years, Gartland has been very intentional in her approach towards giving her fanbase an authentic connection: “There is an awareness of selling-out. There is sort-of a ratio in my mind. Super-sales stuff, like tickets and merch…’thank you’ posts…honesty posts…I would like to keep a good balance. Also, in gaps between releases, and I spent ages on this last EP, it’s been good to be able to just be myself in the mean time.”
Maybe she does such a good job of relating to her fans because she’s still a big fan herself. When I asked her what has changed since her last EP Roots, and now she gushed about other artists: “A friend recommended I listen to some Cyndi Lauper, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Fleetwood Mac. So I did, and it just totally blew my mind! I mean, I knew their hits, but really listening to them made a big difference. I loved Cyndi in particular. She can sing something super-poppy, like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and then turn around and sing “Time After Time,” which is such a sweet, beautiful, poetic love song. Its great to see those songs under the same name. I don’t have to make just pop, and I don’t have to make just super-deep singer-songwriter things. I can do both.”
And just like her fans, she marvels at the connectivity that the internet can bring to the creative process. When she and Goudie set out to produce “Lonely People” Gartland had been listening to a band called Panama Wedding. During one of their Skype chats, Goudie had the idea of reaching out to the producer of the band, just to see what would happen. “I thought, we can’t just email the guy from Panama Wedding. He’s obviously going to say no. I am sure they have a label and a super-important manager, and all that stuff. But then Dan emailed him, and within like 10 minutes, he said, ‘I love the song. Let’s do this!’ In the end, this guy in New York ended up producing the whole thing from the stems that we recorded in London! I thought, ‘That’s amazing!’”
Honestly? Orla Gartland’s story is amazing, and it has exciting implications. First of all, Orla Gartland is already successful, by any dreamer’s standards. She makes quality music, and it’s clear that she’s already really happy with all that she is experiencing right now. No matter where he career goes, all of this progress has been a direct result of the magic connections that are formed when a talented, hardworking person puts herself out there for the world. No mom-agers. No marketing machines. Just real fans connecting to what Orla Gartland puts out.
“There was a point when I realized I could be making a lot of progress by just covering chart music really quickly. I tried it once or twice, and it just didn’t feel like me at all. I was covering songs I didn’t even like. Why bother? At that point I stopped having a game plan, basically. I was much happier. Even though I wasn’t getting the views others were getting, it would have been a big mistake. It comes down to being true to yourself.”
What character in a book or a movie do you identify with most?
“Have you seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? I don’t really know why, but I really identified with Ferris. I see a lot of myself in him. I used to do that kind of stuff. Making fake vomit and making my hands clammy. And a lot of the way he carries on, and breezes through things, I get. Like with music, you just can’t be a worrier. If you are a worrier by nature, and you want to do something risky or unpredictable, you need to train yourself out of being a worrier. Otherwise, what is the point? I mean, as an example, I have this UK tour, and then my US tour, and I am really excited. But I do that, and then after that, I literally have no idea what I am doing. None. I can’t stress that enough. But I feel like the Ferris Bueller take on that is more of an exciting thing than a daunting thing.”
Like I said, it’s easy to root for Orla Gartland.
Q: If you could have dinner with 3 people, alive or dead, who would they be?
A: I love Emma Watson. She would be fun, and introduce a good note of intelligence. I am a super fan or Taylor Swift. She has managed to present herself has everybody’s best friend, and I think that is amazing. I love that. And…Michael Jackson.