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Orla Gartland: “I did all of my years in the garage online. There's this trail, for better or worse, of me improving at singing and playing”

Orla Gartland
(Image credit: Karina Barberis)

Orla Gartland grew up playing traditional Irish folk from the age of four. 10 years later she posted her first guitar-based originals on YouTube. Now she’s 26 and has 270,000 subscribers. If we’ve learned anything in recent years, though, it’s that online numbers mean nothing on their own and there is much more to Gartland than an online profile. 

Her forthcoming debut, the knowingly titled Woman On The Internet, is part diary, part social commentary. It’s full of huge songs, intricate indie geekery and dry humor. 

Her writing captures the hard-won perspective of a life sandwiched between the online extremes of hatred and hero worship with an ironic awareness that she – like all of us – nonetheless still falls for all the snares of self-comparison. The temptation of measuring yourself against the infallible facades of success and beauty portrayed by others in profiles and pictures – the mythical men and women of the internet.

We talked to Gartland about how she went from being “a cocky little shit” to making her debut record, YouTube’s punisher dudes and why she made a synth from a Silvertone…

You were the first in your family to play an instrument, picking up violin aged four. How did it happen?

“I think both my parents were, not musicians, but definitely music lovers. I was four, maybe five and they just kind of brought me into a music shop and said, ‘Pick something!’ And I picked violin. But I was totally convinced that it was played like a guitar. I thought it was a small guitar until my first day of violin lessons and then I like came out bawling my eyes out, like, 'You hold it under your chin!'

“I did that for years and years. The way Irish trad music is taught is so ad hoc. It wasn't like grades or theory. It frustrated me for a while because I was playing for ages and I was like, ‘Why can’t I read a stave?’ But it's actually really sweet and I think with trad music the idea is just to be really inclusive.

“There's really only about 30 to 40 songs that you can learn, passed down through the ages and you learn the most basic version of each song on your instruments. Then if you stick with it long enough, you go back and start learning the same set of songs in a more advanced way. So it's very very un-intimidating and unpretentious. You could be playing for a couple weeks and walk into a bar in Dingle and join in on DADGAD because you know just enough to get by.”

When did the guitar enter the picture for you?

“I started picking up guitar around 11/12. It was back to pursuing the original dream – the instrument that I thought the violin was when I was much younger! I think at that point, I felt like I had nothing to show for all the time I put in [on violin]. I could see my friends doing grades and I was like, ‘Why can’t I do any of that stuff?’

“But I have an appreciation for that basis, way more now. Because I have a good ear and I have enough understanding of things to get by in a writing session or live. But I also have a total naivety and curiosity to it as well, because I still don't have that theory…

“So it’s a good or a bad thing on certain days. But I think the musicians that I know that are totally A++ on the theory, when they go to write songs, they often wind-up over-intellectualizing the whole thing. And I think that can actually really inhibit you.”

YouTube has been a key part of your story. How do you feel that shaped you, as a musician and writer who developed under that lens?

In the beginning, I was writing songs and I just wanted to put them up somewhere – and I was too young to play any of the open mics in my area because they were all in pubs

“When I started putting stuff on YouTube, I was a cocky little shit! It was like, ‘Everyone needs to listen to me play this Coldplay song…’ [I think now] I'd been playing guitar for two weeks, like, 'What were you talking about!?’ Give me an ounce of that confidence now! It's just so funny to me. 

“What it did for me is – if you take the traditional ‘band in the garage’ stereotype – I did all of my years in the garage online. So there's this trail, for better or worse, of me literally improving at singing and playing. So I think it was good in terms of me starting to slowly build an audience even though that wasn't the intention. In the beginning, I was writing songs and I just wanted to put them up somewhere – and I was too young to play any of the open mics in my area because they were all in pubs.

“That was the vibe of YouTube at that point, too. There was this real kind of show-and-tell kind of purity to the whole thing, because no-one had really made a job out of being online at that point. It wasn't like, ‘Let's build an audience. Let's build a team…’ It was, ‘Here's a song that I wrote!’”

Orla Gartland

(Image credit: Press)

As a result of writing and recording on YouTube, you have put out far greater amounts of material than most musicians about to release their debut album. So why now for the album? Why not two years ago?

“It could have been two years ago. There were definitely a couple of milestone moments then, but I wanted to get all my ducks in a row first, behind-the-scenes. I wanted to have a good team around me. I wanted to have a good band that I've been playing with for a couple years before we did the album. I really wanted the band to be playing their own parts and to delegate those roles with trust, but building up that trust takes ages. So that was a big thing. I wanted to get better at production and better at playing, which I think I did.

“I came to London when I was 19 and I'm 26 now, so if you had told me, ’It’s gonna take you that long to get your debut album together,’ I would have been so disheartened. I thought that's what I was there to do straightaway. Then there were loads of points that I felt I wanted to do it, but I was seeing people around me who could be signed really early and have to do things before they were ready. And ultimately, who were left with something that they weren't that proud of. I didn't know then that I had to get all these things sorted [to avoid that], but I did know that I wanted something that I was proud of.”

It’s interesting, given your initial output as an acoustic singer-songwriter, that the guitar does not dominate things in your production. How do you think about the guitar’s role in your music these days?

When I put my first set of songs out, and they had some production on them and they weren't just guitar and vocal, I got a whole wealth of comments from these punisher dudes

“Something I noticed very early on with YouTube stuff is that, when people find you early on, there's a huge sense of ownership and loyalty, which is really great when it's great. But what it also means is when you start to move away from what they know you as, it's like, 'Pfffft!’”

The ‘Dylan goes electric’ thing…

“Yeah! And people hate it! When I put my first set of songs out, and they had some production on them and they weren't just guitar and vocal, I got a whole wealth of comments from these punisher dudes being like: 'Hey man, I just wanted you to play acoustic guitar forever. And I thought you could tour around living rooms in a Volkswagen Beetle. And that's what I wanted for you. And now you're not that and I hate it.' 

“But there's a point where every single time you make a decision – whether it's a production thing or a music video or a live show – where you just have to be like, 'Who am I really making this for?' If I'm going to please these YouTube purists then yeah, I would have just made this like super-folky, stripped-back guitar/vocal thing. But I decided early on that the point wasn't to please those people, the point was to make something I enjoyed and that was instinctive.”

Sylvan Esso have reportedly been an influence on your production style. Who else do you admire in that respect?

“Yeah, I love, love Sylvan Esso! The people that I listen to, they operate within like soundscapes. There are a few people that I love that have very little production, like I've always loved Laura Marling. Even Regina Spector, although she has some production around her piano as well. So I think it just came from my own tastes and getting really into people who did produce themselves. 

“Imogen Heap is a big one. That was a great blueprint for me – someone who is really pushing the bar out and trying weird things, but ultimately, she can still do a gig that is her and piano. That's kind of the duality that I want. To be able to have intricate production, but if someone asks me to do an acoustic gig, I want that to hold up on its own.

You have to make a decision, especially when you're a solo act, not a band. Are you a guitarist? Are you vocal and guitar with other flourishes? Or is your guitar part of the soundscape?

“But I know exactly what you mean about those times where the guitar is just like 'the front'. So I think you have to make a decision, especially when you're a solo act, not a band. Are you a guitarist? Are you vocal and guitar with other flourishes? Or is your guitar part of the soundscape?”

It seems to me a lot of songwriters don't always consider how to best use the guitar in their recordings. There’s an in-built default to it being the central ‘slab’…

“It’s really hard. I remember talking to a producer that made such a good point. He was talking about guitars and how you produce them. He was like, ‘It’s really hard working with songwriters who don't understand that what's great about acoustic guitar when you play live – that it’s your only instrument – is also what makes it a nightmare in a production scenario: because it’s harmony, it’s melody, it’s rhythm. It's like all these things in one. 

“That's great when you're busking, but that is also what makes production really hard, because you lay an acoustic songwriter down and then you're just like, ‘Oh my god, nothing fits around this… drums don't feel right. Bass doesn't want to go in and then you end up freaking out and like leaving it as a stripped-back thing.’”

What have become your go-to guitars for the record and live?

We brought loads of guitars down with us but ultimately didn't end up using any of them because the guitars at the studio are so much nicer!

“I demoed most of the album in my little room down the road last year during lockdown one. That was a bleak, bleak time, but I found a nice rhythm with going down there every day and did sort of 70 percent of the album by myself, writing-wise. Then we went to a studio in Devon [in the UK] called Middle Farm to do the fun bit: like summer camp, go for three weeks, bring the band, bring the co-producer Tom and replace all my demo bits with better sounding things. So we brought loads of guitars down with us but ultimately didn't end up using any of them because the guitars at the studio are so much nicer! But my Tele is definitely my go-to. I just love it so much.”

What is it about the Tele that you bonded with?

“There's just something about the tone – like a nice DI'd Tele – that I just think is the perfect sound. I do like a hollowbody as well. It's like something I would love to add to the live set at some point, I think a Gibson 335 or something will be my post-album treat to myself. Playing with the band, the Tele cuts through in such a great way, but when you're doing a solo thing and you want to play electric guitar, it can be a little thin.

“What's kind of solved that for me is having a couple of different Teles. One of them is a like a double-humbucker, American thing. It’s sort of grey, with so many paint chips: it’s been dropped so many times it's actually pretty ugly at this point. But it's kind of cool and having that humbucker/thicker thing has helped if I do have to play solo. Then I have just a regular single-coil, American Tele situation. So for a lot of my gigs at the moment, I'm just going between those two really. Teles all the way!”

Is that a Silvertone acoustic in some of your videos?

“It is but it isn't mine! I wish that it was. I play guitar live for my friend, Dodie, who has this Silvertone with a rubber bridge. To be honest, I think everyone in the world probably wants one of those now because they are all over the Aaron Dessner/Phoebe Bridgers world. That cooler side of the LA/alt folk scene have been on it for years. 

“There's one guy in LA [Reuben Cox of LA's Old Style Guitar Shop] that makes them and they're all over the Taylor Swift [Folklore] album. He just takes tons of old guitars and and gives them the rubber bridge and an extra [piezo] output and modifies them in the same way. That Silvertone is one of those. 

“I was so desperate to have it on my album, but couldn't borrow it from Dodie for that long, so I sampled a couple of notes and I made some keyboards out of it. And there's a couple of bits on the album where I'm just like 'playing' that guitar, but not playing the guitar!”

You've waited a long time to make this album and that’s before considering the themes on the record about validation and doubt in the face of online life. Against that backdrop, what does success look like with this record?

“I think the last, strange year and a half or so has changed the goalposts for me and a lot of people. When I first came to London, I was so bullish and I was like, 'I want to play Wembley! And I want to do this...' And, you know, of course, I wouldn't turn that kind of thing down.

“But to me, success now is not playing massive venues and being all over the radio because I understand now that you have to adapt your music in a certain way if you if you want to do that. And I'm not willing to do that. I think understanding that has helped me make my peace with being in my own lane. Success to me now is being able to do this for a long time. That's all that I want.”

  • Woman On The Internet is out now via New Friends. All album purchases from Orla's official store include a chordbook for the record – and the chance to win dinner with Orla herself.
Matt Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.