In 2015, Milly Toomey emerged online with her the debut GIRLI single "So You Think You Can Fuck With Me Do Ya?". Toomey was seventeen, clad in a pink tracksuit and platform trainers, with bright pink and blue hair in tiny braids, causing havoc around London.
The song’s beat incorporated both video game and notification sounds – a true child of the internet – and was intro’d with the line “You thought I was gonna do a ballad? Fuck off! Never ever ever ever!"
Four years on, Toomey has grown up a lot. For a start, she’s made a ballad, she’s no longer in all pink, and she’s ready to finally release an album.
The trailer Odd One Out, released this week, featured Toomey introducing important landmarks from her youth – an indication of how this debut record gives us a good look at her personal life – and I meet her at The Old Ship in London's east end, a pub just around the corner from where she lives.
“I love places that combine old and new generations," Toomey tells me. "It’s just such a lovely place, and whenever I come here, I just feel so unjudged and welcome and any evening there’s just really nice locals hanging out. It feels like a really nice vibe, and they have really fun parties and drag and stuff so."
Talking with Toomey att lunchtime on a Monday, it’s hard to imagine the antics she describes that go on in the otherwise unassuming British pub - but the more she details her nights out, the more it mirrors the ethos of the whole Girli persona: “The music, the don’t give a fuck attitude – my best nights out have been with gay friends at gay clubs. I just find there’s a lot more of an accepting vibe about it, and you feel like you can be a bit more crazy.
“Not that non-gay clubs are all shit, there are some amazing clubs, but I just feel like clubs that are open about whoever comes in and what they wanna express themselves as, end up being more fun because it’s more fun to dance and express yourself when you feel like no one’s gonna be looking at you like “why the fuck are they doing that”, because that’s what night life is about, having fun.”
Toomey has lived in London her whole life, and moved out from her parents’ house in North London at 18, just as her musical career was taking off. She didn’t go to university, and hated school, leaving as soon as possible to pursue music at college. Prior to taking up music she was part of the local youth parliament, and “cared so much about everything” – a symptom of her OCD. “I think when I was a teenager I was just trying to escape from school if I’m honest, just trying to do loads of shit outside of school because I just dreaded it," she tells me. "Y’know it wasn’t all bad, I liked my teachers and my classes, but the social element of it just freaked me out. I was the girl at lunch time who was like ‘fuck where am I gonna eat my lunch’, so I definitely didn’t breeze through school. It was difficult and I think that’s why I turned to music, because I just needed something to do to get this frustration feeling out.
"I just remember being so restless, like I cannot fucking wait for this to be over, all this school bullshit, as soon as I was 16 I was like, right I’m gonna go to music college and I’m gonna do music and I don’t care!
“When I was a teenager I was very self-conscious and anxious. When I went into secondary school, I have OCD and it started to show, like the transition from primary to secondary school just like fucked me up, and I think I just freaked out. Primary school was like a little home, like a warm hug, and then secondary school, I went into the school of like 2500 students and it was pretty rough.”
As Toomey talks about her teen-hood, it’s not hard to see why she’s titled her debut record Odd One Out. She’s spent most of her life as an outsider – not in a cool, wallflower, ‘people don’t get me’ way, but in the way that took its toll on her mental health, social relationships, and trust in others. “I got bullied in year seven and eight. It was just really nasty people, and the jump between friendship groups. All of that made me quite an anxious person, although I didn’t really see it as anxiety at the time, I just really cared about certain things, and I think it’s part of how the OCD expressed itself in my personality and still does. I get very obsessed with things.
"I really cared about school work, I really cared about doing as much as possible. I wanted to go do that club and then that instrument, and get A grades. I put so much pressure on myself.
“I have a little sister who’s 16, and she’s having this crazy fun: she goes to parties every week, and she’s been doing that since she was 14. When I was 14 and in the youth parliament, I was going home every night and watching TV with my mum and doing homework. I really didn’t have a great social life, and I think I was quite lonely to be honest.
"I had a best friend who I spent a lot of time with and she really introduced me to things like music...but I kind of jumped from friendship groups a lot, so I think I lost a certain level of trust in people at school. I didn't know whether people were real, because I didn’t have that one friend from when I was like seven years old to now, where I think a lot of people I meet have those childhood friends...”
Toomey turned to music at fifteen as an outlet for her frustrations. After being in choirs in her earlier years and playing trumpet, guitar and piano in school, she wrote short stories that soon turned into writing lyrics. “I went onto a website called JoinMyBand.com and found two bandmates - two girls, a drummer and a bassist - and we just started making music after school and every weekend. We'd do gigs that I’d find at random pubs - like this - and that was kind of my escape really. It’s weird because I was fifteen and they were both like eighteen, so they were a lot older than me and I was kind of the boss. After a year they were like: 'okay we’re fucking done with this 15-year-old bossing us around' because I’m such a control freak when it comes to my music, and also because I was the kind of person who wanted to do gigs every week."
Toomey's cousin encouraged her to go it alone, and that became the start of Girli.
Her debut album has been a long time coming and wasn’t really meant to be an album at first. The tracks came about as a result of various writing sessions in LA with Mark Ronson-collaborators MNDR and Peter Wade, and former-Dirty Pretty Things member (and co-writer of Gaga/Cooper-hit "Shallow") Anthony Rossomando. Sticking with the same writers on every song was what she needed to feel more comfortable doing “proper pop writing sessions”.
“We were just making songs together, us three, and then [with] these guys called Fast Friends who are this awesome trio. I’d gone to LA before and I’d done the whole ‘lets do pop writing sessions’, had some good ones and had some terrible ones where it was like I feel like a product right now, this isn’t creative, this isn’t fun, so I went back and I just worked with these two people and it was so fun.
"I worked with a few other people as well but the main songs on the album come from these two groups of people. So I went back in may for another month and wrote most of the songs on the album.
“There’s a few songs on there that I’d written before, like ‘Hot Mess’, and it all kind of came together last year and by summer we had an album. I’m not a band so it’s not like I write the songs and go into the studio for a week and record them all, I’ll write the songs and come up with the concept, go into the studio with people, work on the song together, then we’ll just record it on the day. All the songs on Odd One Out were just recorded the day they were written, then worked on afterwards. I went back to LA for two weeks to finish them all properly.”
Toomey used writing the album to fight some of her personal demons and pull herself out of some dark place, a process which delivered a sense of catharsis: “There’s a song on the album called ‘Up and Down’ which is just about having mood swings, but this is me and if you want me around you can take it or leave it. Basically like euphoric, that song – I get up and I get down but I love myself for it, and actually at the time, I fucking hated myself for it. I felt like I was ruining everyone’s life around me for being so erratic and ruining my partner’s life and ruining my friends’ life and my family’s life, so that song actually comes from so much pain.
"But when I performed it live for the first time I was like ‘oh this actually a really happy song’, weirdly, I think a lot of the time that happens, when you go in with a sad subject but it comes out sounding happy.”
“It’s definitely a more mature me,” she says. “I think what I did when I started Girli was I had this very narrow minded idea of who I wanted to be, I was like ‘I only wanna wear these kinds of things, I only wanna write this kind of music’, and I think in the past year I’ve really opened up more to kind of taking in more influences and trying out new things. I think that’s just a natural progression of entering your 20s, to just start thinking ‘who actually am I?’ In your teens you always wanna have this set way about you and you’re like ‘this is me, I’m not changing’. I was limiting myself before, even just the fact that I wore all pink, I was limiting myself in that way too.
“I definitely became a better songwriter on this album. There’s the kind of songs that before I thought ‘I’m not the kind of artist that’d write a ballad’, and I wrote a ballad. You know, my first ever song has me saying ‘so you thought I was gonna do a ballad?’. And there’s a massive ballad on the album called ‘Friday Night Big Screen’, which is just about falling in love and how it’s like the movies. That’s probably my favourite song on the album – the ballad. It’s ironic.”
Odd One Out is about reintroducing Girli as an artist. Early material such as ‘So You Think You Can Fuck With Me Do Ya’, ‘Fuck Right Back Off To LA’ and ‘Girl I Met On The Internet’ underplayed how smart and eloquent Toomey actually is: “I think a lot of people made a decision about who I was, especially in the media and radio and industry, but also just music listeners, and I think people just put me in a box as being this kind of irrelevant, kind of childish artist, who made these silly 'fuck you' songs. Even though I feel like that phase of me was centuries ago, I think a lot of people still think ‘Girli, oh!’.
“It’s funny like, my song was being played on the radio and I was intro’d as the girl who wears all pink. I haven’t worn all pink in over a year - but you forget that when you realise things about yourself, it takes everyone else ages to realise those things [too]. So I think the album for me is saying: look, this is who I am, I’m a lot more than you thought I was, and I don’t just make childish, bratty songs. I’m a serious songwriter and I wanna be taken seriously."
“A lot of pain went into the album but it’s meant to be happy, it’s meant to make people feel euphoric...and I think the title, Odd One Out, comes from a place of feeling like an outsider or a freak, or why do I feel like this, what is this emotion, and hopefully people can listen to it and feel proud to feel like that, instead of ashamed.
“I hope that people can kind of see I’m not a completely different artist. If I wanted to do that I’d have changed my name and started again. I’m still me but I’m more mature, more aware...I’m really happy it's my debut, because it's like all these singles and EPs were just me testing the water and now this is me now. I’m so proud of these songs!”