DIY 'til she dies
Tomorrow, Orla Gartland releases her debut album, Woman On The Internet. In the decade since the Irish singer/songwriter began uploading tracks to YouTube as a teen, her DIY efforts have fostered a dedicated and enthusiastic fanbase. Woman On The Internet sees Gartland’s sonic vision fully realised throughout these years of honing her craft.
To some degree, artists like Gartland are the antithesis to what the music industry has become. Major label deals do not interest her, and handing over creative control would offer more stress than relief. Finding yourself is such a cliché, but it’s a pleasure to learn that the woman behind this album – loaded with honest, open perspectives on carving out your identity through your early twenties – has reached a point of such self-assurance and self-knowledge.
In conversation about the journey or her career, Gartland offers a healthy balance of humility and cynicism. Whilst she’s grateful to have reached this high point with such an engaged audience, she is clear that, without doubt, it is a result of her own graft and adaptability in an industry oftentimes found hostile. Woman On The Internet is released through Gartland’s own record label, New Friends, and the singer herself remains fiercely DIY in her approach.
Gartland isn’t shy about her self-confessed control freakery. The journey from YouTube teen managing recording, uploading, promotion, and beyond has given rise to an adult who is more than competent keeping a hand in every aspect of her career. Whilst the record’s songs are its most important element, Woman On The Internet showcases the impressive extent of Gartland’s hard-earned production skills alongside a cohesive visual identity. One only needs to take a peek at her social media to see a very real, very funny artist connecting on an individual level with friends and fans. This is an artist who knows herself, and we’re luck enough to be brought along for the ride.
BEST FIT: How did your album come to be called Woman On The Internet?
Orla Gartland: I accidentally wrote the line into two songs, one called ‘Pretending’ and one called ‘More Like You’. I didn’t notice I was doing it! I wrote so many of the songs by myself last year. It was fun, but it was such a solitary process making songs without a lot of outside influence. I didn’t have that until the end of most of these songs. I went to a studio called Middle Farm in Devon in October/November and that was where we finished the album. I demo’ed most of it on my own, and I was hellbent on having three weeks that were the fun, summer camp, album-making experience of my dreams! It wasn’t ‘til then that someone was like, ‘oh, you name Woman On The Internet in two songs!’
Lauren [Aquilina, artist and Gartland’s housemate] was helping me with the name. I was going to call it Things That I’ve Learned for a while, because that was a track name that kind of hit on the growing up, coming of age, adulthood vibe. It just seemed a bit boring! Lauren suggested Woman On The Internet. I liked that it had a duality to it: on the one hand, the person that I’m singing about in the song is no one in particular, it’s just this character in my head – this Wizard of Oz person that I turn to when I’m feeling lost and no one in my real life can help me. I like to picture that she’s someone who gives totally unsolicited advice and self-help nonsense!
I knew that it would also sound like I was talking about myself, and that doesn’t bother me. In my head it is this weird, guiding, fairy godmother nameless faceless figure, but it also encapsulates my weird journey of making music and putting it out. I also liked that it was a bit shticky! It made me a do a double take.
It was Lauren’s idea originally, and she made me this big banner with it on! She was in LA for the day that I announced it, but she had it all planned out as some P.S. I Love You shit. She was like, ‘check the drawer in your room!’ and it was this big, gold banner with the album name on it. So sweet!
A lot of people presumably assume it’s self-referential, given that you started as a teen on the internet out of necessity, and ten years later the pandemic has forced you back into the same situation!
100%. It’s a time where we’re all grounded and everything has been turned upside down. It’s been a humbling couple of years for everyone, especially musicians!
The third prong of the name, although this is something that I thought about after – is that it spoke to the anonymity that feels so present in the last year. I don’t have a big team, but there are a couple of people who I’ve never met in person who’ve been working on the project and helping me with the album. To me, they are just a person on the internet; a nameless, faceless, abstract figure. It’s humbling, realising that we’re all so small.
Have you found that starting your career on the internet and being very digitally literate has stood you in good stead for the challenges of releasing an album in a pandemic?
I think so. Less so with the online stuff, moreso that I feel very DIY to my core – and sometimes to my detriment! I can micromanage my project, and I struggle to let anyone do stuff for me.
What stood me in good stead was being self-sufficient: being able to record myself, knowing a bit about how video editing works. That stuff doesn’t come easily to everyone, but when you’re a DIY artist you have to wear a lot of the hats. You have to be doing a little bit of the management yourself, and a little bit of the social media stuff – a complete different skill to how to write songs, how to gig. You’re scrambling to fill a lot of roles that would be filled in a bigger setup.
Last year was definitely a bit of a shock to the system, but a lot of those dormant skills kicked in! I was I survival mode. Some people are truly just performers, they don’t have or want any of the other skills. In any other world that’s fine, but last year it was really hard for people to keep their thing afloat.
You have always had a lot of fan engagement on social media, and you’re obviously on there as yourself, not just advertising.
Yeah, not just CEO Woman On The Internet! To be honest, doing an album campaign does feel like a lot of that. I was typing out a mailing list today and I was like, ‘oh my god, this is just four paragraphs of me trying to sell a cassette!’
Speaking of cassettes, why did you choose that as a format for Woman On The Internet’s release?
They’re totally coming back! Not everyone has a vinyl player, vinyl is expensive, but if everyone accepts that the majority of the time they’ll be listening online, it’s a really affordable physical thing to own. They’re really cheap to make, they’re sick, and really retro! If you have a player, you can actually play them. I think for a lot of people they’re a kind of souvenir. People are making them for a reason.
It’s interesting seeing certain formats make a comeback. I’d never made cassettes before but I’ve been really, really encouraged by how they’ve been received. The fact that they’re so affordable is nice – like, five or six quid, usually. It is something I care about a lot. I’m really lucky to do this as a job – it’s a great privilege – but I’m also not fucking massive. I know the names of everyone who tweets me! I read my messages – I’m not, like, Lady Gaga or something! I feel very engaged with the people that like my music, but it also means that if I was putting out really expensive merch, I would feel a real guilt to it! I know that [my fans] are not really old, and not everyone has loads of disposable income. Being able to offer a version of the album that’s affordable is important, I think. Vinyl is so expensive, and they’re so expensive to make as well – it’s not just artists hiking the price up!
The format for me that’s truly, truly on its way out and has been for a long time is the CD. CDs are just being kept alive by people who drive now! I noticed that Lorde isn’t doing CDs, which I thought was sick. She’s doing an equivalent – around a CD’s price, but more the paper and the booklet with the lyrics and stuff, and a download code.
Lorde’s album Melodrama used the setting of a party to explore identity, something that also occurs on your album track “Pretending”. Given that parties have been few and far between recently, what was it that inspired that song?
A little imagination was needed to imagine/remember what parties like, but I’ve been in London for a while now, and – in the first couple of years especially – parties were just a place where I met people. Gigs, and parties. I’m not in uni, I don’t have an office to go to, how do you make new friends!? You go to parties and meet the friends of your friends.
There’s so many great albums set at parties. It’s the perfect arena for all of the social cues. It can be so anxiety-inducing or so joyous and free. It can be funny, it can be dancing, it can be drinking… it’s a perfect backdrop for drama of any kind.
I started ‘Pretending’ at the start of 2019, when partying was a thing you could do, and then I finished it in 2020, when it required quite a lot more imagination. The first version of the song was actually way more niche. It was about being at a party and pretending to be more sad than you actually are, to be interesting! I was thinking of the trope of the tortured artist, the romanticisation of sadness as a tool and as inspiration. I can totally fall prey to that, but the song definitely had a bit of a ceiling to it – it felt so niche! When I revisited it, I was like, ‘let’s just crack this open a tiny bit! I think it could be way more general.’ It’s about hearing yourself, as if you were floating above your head, and being like, ‘what are you talking about, you fool? Shut up!’ – as I did so much in my first couple of years in London!
Sometimes it’s fun trying on different versions of yourself, there’s nothing wrong with it, but using a space with lots of new people to pretend that you’re something you’re not is sort of dark, as well, if you’re not being true to yourself.
There’s one line in there – ‘all of my heroes are way more sad than me ,” – that was a remnant from the first version of the song that I kept because it was funny. It’s a little bit schticky, but I’m glad that the whole song wasn’t about that!
You’re planning to be in Dublin the day of your album release, where pandemic restrictions are still a little tighter. How are you going to spend release day?
Even now I’m trying to think of ways to make album release week feel exciting. It’s hard! I’m just going to make a nice thing of the actual day with my fam – it’s a big deal for them as well! It was like sending me off to war, sending me off to London a couple of years ago to be a popstar! They were obviously really terrified, so for me to get to a stage where I’m not panicking for money and am able to make an album, they’re really gassed!
I’ll keep it simple: go for dinner with them on release day, and maybe go to Tower Records with my dad and buy [the album]! I’ll keep release day like Christmas day. I come back the next week and do some instores. It’s not like all the work stops, but I’m very set on the 20th itself having a kind of purity to it. I’m excited! I was really hellbent on being in Dublin, even though it makes no sense because the restrictions mean I can’t do instores, I’m glad.
In “Things That I’ve Learned” you’ve got a great refrain – “these are the bridges that I’ve burned, these are the things that I’ve learned”. I love that burning bridges is on a par for importance with learning new things. How did you come to realise that burning bridges was a necessary skill for you?
By living! Burning bridges can be anything from leaving London to taking people who are toxic and manually removing them for your life. I’m a people-pleaser by nature, and that can really work against me when it comes to trying to grow in any way. When I first came to London I was trying to keep all my school friends afloat, feeling a lot of responsibility about keeping friendships alive, making new ones, doing music all the time…
The further you move into your twenties and beyond, it’s just as valuable to know what to not do, and what to say no to, and who to say no to.
What have you learned in the process of releasing your debut album that you’d want to impart to the Orla of five years ago?
No one cares! This is going to sound strange, but no one cares about your thing as much as you do. It sounds sad, but it’s actually not.
The other day I was filming these lyric videos to come out on album release day, and I had burned through every single speck of my visuals budget that I set aside for myself. I had zero to make these, so I got a camcorder, and went to the park. I was filming myself dancing, and there were so many people walking by, dogs walking around… I really wanted to give into the embarrassment and go home, but I was like, ‘no one cares that I’m dancing in the park in a bright yellow suit and filming myself. It’s fine.’ They might like the look, but they don’t really care. No one’s really looking at you. You’re not special, babe!
I care in so many aspects, and some that are way more important than dancing in the park. I care so much about what other people think of me, and I was way, way more aware of it five years ago. I used to care so much about putting YouTube videos up when I was at school – I hated that people knew that I did that, I was so embarrassed. Now I’m so glad that I did that. Without even really knowing, I was slowly, slowly building something for myself. I wish I could be like, ‘no one cares!’ The important people care, but everyone else doesn’t.
Woman On The Internet really showcases the growth in your production styles – there’s such a broad variety of textures – “Zombie” sounds unlike anything you’ve released before. How did that song come into being?
In the live room in Devon, there’s a guy that runs the studio – I can only describe him as a Gandalf of sound. He is so unpretentious about making music; he just wants everyone to grab stuff and get involved. He creates the most unintimidating space you can imagine to make music, which is really nice. I have this really chaotic video of us all stomping on the ground and shaking, hitting the fire extinguisher – it took a lot of tidying up to make it all sound good!
As a self-confessed control freak, did you struggle with letting other people take control throughout the recording process, or are you finding it easier as time goes on?
Not finding it easier, but starting to see the value in it as time goes on! 80% of the album was me alone, programming every little drum sound. Everything was me, me, me. That was good – it means that I’m very close to it all, very involved. The last bit, the chaos of that, was necessary. I did know that, as well. I’m learning that you need feedback and input when you’re so close to something – there comes a point where you’re like, ‘I can’t objectively listen to this at all!’ As long as the people you’re surrounding yourself with are people that you trust, that really care about your thing, then it’s good to open stuff to the floor. To answer your question, no, I don’t find it easy at all! Really necessary, but really hard.
A big part of this album for me was trying to find the balance between self-sufficiency and delegating roles. It’s important to me that my band play their own parts in their own songs – they have never done that ‘til now! I’m used to giving them the song completely finished; me playing them the bass part and then giving it to my bassist Pete like, ‘play that!’ This time I was like, ‘Pete’s really good at that instrument, I should just let him do that.’ I shouldn’t be trying to micro-manage the bass! It’s a battle! All of it comes from a really good place, and unfortunately for me the control freak element isn’t just spread across the music, it’s spread across the visuals, it’s in the live show! I care – probably too much – about every aspect of my project! I definitely need to chill.
Do you think this tendency to control freakery is why it took you several years to get to the point of being ready to release an album?
It takes really long to build skills! I could’ve made something when I was 19 where I handed the production off to someone. Because I knew I didn’t want to make it like that, I was staring down the barrel of years and years of work. If I want to take up space as a producer, I have to be a good producer. It’s definitely a blessing and a curse! It means that I’ve made something that is very me.
The other day I was like, ‘there’s so much to do, I feel so overwhelmed,’ and my manager was like, ‘that’s only ‘cause you care so much!’ She’s had bands that she’s managed where they’ve just done the music and she’d be like, ‘okay, what about the artwork?’ and they’d say, ‘just pick something, we don’t care.’ What does that even feel like, to be so detached? That’s more traditional, pre-internet artist times! That’s what you did! You didn’t have to dip into all the other things. I just don’t know any different.
So – how did you choose your album cover?
I have a friend called Greta Isaac who does music, but is also a visual artist. When we lived together she was always drawing and painting. She’s so talented, and has nurtured both the music and visuals. I’ve always admired how linked they are for her. She’s very quick, when she writes a song, to think of what the music video is. For me, that was very separate. Up until doing stuff with her, I felt like visuals were such a chore and such an afterthought.
Last year I woke up to the fact that, without gigs, visuals are the only other thing that you can do to build a world around the music. I asked her to help me art direct the whole album: artwork, photos, videos. She’d never done that for anyone else – we were figuring it out in real time, and the whole thing was incredibly bootleg! We did most of the press shots in the park beside where we live.
It’s so nice to work with someone who intimately knows what I like, without having to explain it. She also knows my limits! Knows what I’m up for, but also knows where to push that. She got me to dance in a video, and I don’t think anyone else in the world could actually get me to dance.
[The album cover photo] is a backdrop. When I put up [the album cover], a few people were like, ‘oh, I thought that was Ireland behind you.’ I’m glad that we fooled you, but no. We intentionally lit it to try and make it look like golden hour. It’s somewhat realistic, but also kind of hyper-real. I like the double-take simulation of it. Originally we were just going to super-impose me on a background like that, but there’s a bit more of a fun challenge trying to do it in person. There is a tiny computer behind me that sort of links in with the title.
Because it was a debut, I wanted it to be a portrait. Future albums, I’d be way more comfortable going with something much more abstract. A debut album for me is so vulnerable by default – here I am, here’s the first big body of work. In my head the artwork wants to be the same: here I am. I’m not really styled that much, I’m not in some fancy costume. I’m just here.
It’s funny; you talk about being a control freak, but there’s such love in the way you talk about the experiences of working with your friends.
People help in all sorts of different ways. There’s people I wrote with, and people like Greta, but also I remember texting Matthew [Kent, friend and Best Fit writer] about the album name, there’s loads of people around me where, when I couldn’t pick the tracklist, I was like ‘here’s a SoundCloud demo, can you trip this 16 down to 11?’ It really does take a village to do this stuff! It may be a small village, but I don’t think any solo artist is an island. You find your tribe.
“Over Your Head” is a song that speaks to several different relationships in your life. Can you tell us a bit more about the track?
‘Over Your Head’ was almost a single, and then it wasn’t. It’s about ego, really. A lot of people I know in London are musicians – I think that’s how this stuff goes! You end up being around people who do what you do, but being around people whose jobs can be so self-facing and indulgent is a special hell of its own. It’s a lot of strong characters, and I’ve definitely been in social situations where I’ve had get-togethers, parties, been at gigs where everyone is really loud, and everyone is speaking about themselves.
That song is speaking to a couple of specific people – different people in each verse – being like, ‘you need to chill. You need perspective’.
A couple of years ago, a lot of people around me were signing record deals. I thought I’d really fucked up by not doing that. Now I’m really glad I didn’t do that, but at the time I felt like I’d failed by not being absorbed into some big record company. I also saw what that did to people’s egos, and it just freaked me out. ‘Over Your Head’ is speaking to someone coming down from a high and entering a low. Those are the moments where people’s egos are really volatile; when they’ve had a lot of success or something amazing has happened, but it’s starting to dwindle. It catches people at this point where they’re totally insufferable. That one is a big angry song basically saying, ‘get over yourself!’ A lot of the songs are very humble, about anxiety and my brain, but that one is just ‘fucking get yourself together, man!’
Previously, you’ve said that you’d love for people to come away understanding you more after listening to the album, “even if it's the odd lyric here and there, I’d love it if people felt more understood.” It’s very refreshing hearing someone not aiming for 100% relatability! How did you manage to steer clear of that aim?
A massive wakeup call for me as a writer was how attached I felt to Phoebe Bridgers’ first album. I was completely obsessed. The language was so specific and the experiences were so hers and not mine, and that didn’t take anything away from it for me. In ‘Motion Sickness’, she sings ‘You gave me fifteen hundred / To see your hypnotherapist’ – I don’t need to have that experience to get it. That, to me, is what good writing is. You’ll project your own experiences anyway. Writing songs with language that’s so vague and open that anyone can see themselves in it is totally counter-productive. That’s how you end up with songs with lyrics like, ‘I just can’t stop holding on’ or some fucking vague shit!