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Doing it her way

Orla Gartland tells David Hennessy why she always steered clear or break-up songs, how her family are slowly realising she’s not going to college or getting a ‘real job’ and why it is heart breaking to meet Irish people who have fallen on hard times while volunteering at a London soup kitchen.

Orla Gartland has come a long way since her YouTube covers, filmed simply in her bedroom, brought her to people’s attention racking up millions of views. Although she was only 13 when she started posting her performances online, she impressed with her guitar skills and creative versions of other people’s songs amassing a large following.

Often calling herself a ‘music makin’ ginger nutcase’, she was once also referred to as ‘Ireland’s most influential teenager’.

While she is a teenager no more and much more likely to be seen singing one of her own songs, she continues to make music on her own terms as an independent artist.

Her new EP Freckle Season sees Orla writing about a relationship break-up for the first time ever.

Orla told The Irish World that while she had steered clear of a subject matter that had been done to death until bitter experience forced her to write about it: “Honestly I steered clear of that whole lyric world until it felt like I needed to write about that. Not because it’s not interesting, just because I felt like, ‘What could I possibly add to the world of break up and relationship music that hasn’t already been said?’

“When you make pop music, that can be the default subject but I guess I tried to avoid until it felt like I just had to write about it.

“Whatever’s in the song does end up being what I’m going through. Whether I like it or not, it always creeps in.  In the music I listen to, that’s what I like as well: When people are clearly telling their own stories. I think you can kind of tell when it’s not the case. It just feels much more visceral for whatever reason.

“It’s definitely cathartic. It’s good to get it out.”

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However, Orla admits she is not as open outside of her music: “I think us Irish people, we’re bad at opening up sometimes. I don’t think we’re good at just saying when we’re not feeling great or being open and talking to friends and family about difficult things.

“Despite all the music, in my day to day I’m quite a closed book. That’s what’s good about music. Apart from being my job, there’s a real need for it for me as a person whether or not I share it, I write a lot of stuff that never comes out and that’s equally cathartic as well. It’s good in a lot of ways for me, I think.”

After releasing her debut single Devil on my Shoulder which entered the Irish singer/songwriter iTunes chart in 2012, Orla followed it with EPs such as Roots, Lonely People and Why Am I Like This? The Dublin singer-songwwriter has been compared to acts like Imogen Heap and Regina Spektor with her tendency for catchy hooks and dark emotive lyrics.

When she left school, Orla auditioned and was accepted to Dublin music college BIMM but decided to defer her application for a year. However, the success she has had has seen the 25-year-old still not take up her place.

“I nearly went to BIMM in Dublin which is a really good course but I think I just had an opportunity. I knew a few people in London. It was either stay in Dublin and practice being a musician and then go out into the thick of it or see what it’s like to go straight into the thick of it, take a bit of a chance, move over, try and burrow my way into some part of the music industry but still stay independent. It was scary at the time but I think for me it was the right decision.”

Despite her growing success, does Orla still get relatives badgering her to go to college or perhaps get a proper job? “Definitely. I don’t know when that ends. A couple of years ago I played The Late Late, the holy grail of Irish media, and I invited my granny along and that was a big deal for her. I think everyone around me has different gauges of what it means to make it.

“For some people if you just put your music on a CD, that’s making it. When you can make a living from it, that’s making it to other people.

“For other people, it’s chart positions and being on the radio. That for some people is a real moment as well.

“My granny, once I brought her to The Late Late, she was so happy she stopped nagging me about going to college at that point.

“I think everyone has different markers of when they stop bothering you.

“A few years my parents came to see a Manchester show and I think for them seeing a couple of hundred people in a room that wasn’t in Dublin singing the lyrics was a moment. I think they were like, ‘Okay, after being so worried, when is she going to have arrived as a musician? Maybe she’s been doing it this whole time getting there in slow, steady increments’.

“It’s funny, everyone has different markers of when they stop bugging you about getting a real job. And then some people will never stop. I think it’s well meaning.

“I always get at Christmas, ‘When are you going on X Factor?’ I’m like, ‘I can’t think of anything worse’. For some people, that’s the way.”

Since she has brought it up, what does Orla think of reality TV as a launching pad? “If you want to make your own stuff, I don’t think it’s the right platform.

“The music industry, long before I was around, really was a world of scouts going to gigs and finding people on the live circuit and giving them opportunities.

“People were waiting for opportunities all the time whereas now, I get The X Factor thing a lot less from people my age because we’re much more used to a culture of people who are more self-made and who don’t necessarily wait for people to discover them.

“They get on with it. They make YouTube videos, they put music straight up on Spotify or Soundcloud. I think now when people start a band or a project, they’re not having to wait for a big opportunity to come to them. They can get started and they can start building an audience.

“There is a YouTube stigma, I don’t think it’s very cool but I am grateful for the fact that it’s self-made. I would rather be regarded as ‘the YouTube girl’ than ‘the girl from The Voice’. The connotations that come with it are still not very cool but at least it’s something I’ve done on my terms. At least it’s something that came from me and not relied on some higher power to give me their approval.

“All of it is well meaning, I never snap at anyone for suggesting it anymore because for some people it is the way. If you have a certain kind of voice and you’re not that fussed about playing your own songs, I think it probably is a good opportunity.”

In London now almost five years, Orla is certain she will return home to Dublin but feels she had to make a move here to kick start a career: “It’s not home. I don’t think it ever will be. I never really wanted that from London. I honestly felt discouraged with the music scene at home. I didn’t really feel like I fit in with it. I find the opportunities are- and this isn’t me having a moan because I have really made my peace with it- largely given to guys at home.

“I just couldn’t see anyone in the scene that I could look up to. The Script, Kodaline, Walking on Cars, where are the girls? I can’t see myself in any of these people. Even though their music is great and I’m sure they’re nice, they’re not examples for me to follow.

“Not that London is any easier. I think everyone and their mother wants to be a creative (here). It’s even more competitive but it does feel like more of a level playing field. I will return home, Ireland is still home.

“I felt not forced but a little bit of a pull to come here just as a career thing.

“Interestingly there are Irish musicians who live over here. They don’t publicise it, they don’t want Irish people to know they live in London. They know Irish people hate people who leave, and it’s true. I would never open a Ruby Sessions set with ‘Hey, I live in London’. There would be crickets in the room. We just don’t like it. We don’t like people who go and come back, (we) assume they’re full of themselves or whatever. It’s a very Irish thing, I think.

“Sometimes I run into Irish bands and I say, ‘What are you doing in London?’ They say, ‘We’ve lived here six years but we don’t put it on the press release and everyone assumes we live in Dublin’. It is interesting.”

Freckle Season has been very well received but Orla feels she is ready for a step up. Although she has been recording a long time, Orla has still not released an album.

“Always EPs, never LPs: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. The career I’ve built has been slow and steady in growing increments and I kind of think it’s funny: If I had told myself when I first moved to London, ‘You’ll be there for five years and still not have an album’, I probably would have been quite disheartened. I thought that was the marker of starting whereas the EP thing, especially being independent, has been great. I’ve just churned stuff out, kept growing slowly. It’s all very manageable. That’s exactly why I need to do a bigger thing now. You could stay in the safe land of EPs forever but I think it’s time.

“As a writer, I just feel so much more ready for that then I would a few years ago.”

When she is not recording music, Orla has volunteered with Ealing Soup Kitchen, an organisation we have featured in the past, as Britain is gripped by a homelessness crisis.

The Dublin songstress tells us the volunteering gives her a chance to give back and puts things in perspective for her: “I just feel like music, while it’s a really fun job to do, is very self-serving. I’m not a doctor. It’s very much me singing about my feelings all the time so I think that planted a real urge to do something that wasn’t just about me. I’ve been volunteering there for a couple of years. They’re just really nice people. What they do is so incredible, the amount of people they feed for the amount that they have to work with is crazy.”

Orla with some of her fellow volunteers at Ealing Soup Kitchen.

Andrew McLeay, Manager of Ealing Soup Kitchen, was asking for Orla’s help but probably didn’t anticipate Orla to come and help out in a hands-on way: “He didn’t know I was based in west London or anything. He just reached out and said, ‘Is there any way you could donate a CD or a bit of merch to this raffle that we’re doing?’ I just responded, ‘I’m really not that far from you guys, I would love to come down’.

“I think since I started numbers have doubled which is really sad but also amazing to see that they can handle that.

“I think anyone who went down there would just remind themselves of how lucky they are. It’s really heartbreaking because a lot of people in the soup kitchen are Irish. A huge amount of Irish people who came over in the 60s and 70s are on the streets now. The amount of people I’ve met in the soup kitchen from Galway or from Wicklow or other counties… It’s really horrible to see. I think anyone who went down there would have a huge perspective shift for sure.”

Freckle Season by Orla Gartland is out now. orlagartland.com/.

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