By Carson Mlnarik
With 26 years under her belt, much of which is crystallized in an uncontrived social media presence dating back to 2009, Orla Gartland has gleaned a lesson or two about life. It’s especially apt that the Dublin-born singer-songwriter opens her debut album Woman on the Internet, out Friday (August 20), with “Things That I’ve Learned,” a laundry list of directives derived from her odyssey through twentysomething chaos. Don’t compare yourself to others, take up space, say what’s on your mind — and, as she sings, don’t buy the jeans that you’ve never seen. “You’ll regret it.”
There’s a universality and wizened edge to her words over a staccato beat and the chorus of her own voice, coupled with a douse of winking quirkiness, like she’s reciting from your diary. But it’s also her diary, recounting late night anxieties, fallen friends, and lying lovers. And it resonates profoundly with fans (like her 269,000-plus YouTube subscribers) who’ve seen themselves reflected in Gartland since her start.
The release of her debut album marks a “surreal” moment for the London-based performer, who found herself itching to create something bigger after releasing her third EP Freckle Season last year. “Having these milestones, it’s the only thing that gives you shape between one year and the next,” Gartland told MTV News. “It feels like a big thing.”
Though she has been a go-to “woman on the internet” since her teens, the record’s eponymous character refers to someone slightly more nebulous — one of those virtual self-help types who’s advice we turn to for party planning, makeup tricks, and the motivation to get up in the morning. “I like the idea that she’s this nameless, faceless [person] I turn to when I feel like there’s no one in my real life that can help me,” Gartland said. “She’s like a seedy influencer. Not the best role model, but there’s some comfort in turning to her.”
Written over lockdown in 2020 and recorded last October, Woman on the Internet is not a quarantine record but a meditation on the life we’re getting back to. Throughout its 11 tracks, Gartland swings big and small both sonically and lyrically, dialing up the reverb to investigate the harm in a relationship on “Codependency,” letting out a warlike cry against toxic masculinity on the thumping “Zombie!,” and losing herself in the weightlessness of synths and self-comparison on “More Like You.” Blending elements of alt-rock, folk, and synth-spangled indie pop, she celebrates the bond of collective mediocrity with a palpable euphoria on “You’re Not Special, Babe,” while confronting the guilt of leaving home on “Bloodline/Difficult Things.” To that end, she interpolates audio from her own home videos between heavy-handed blows of unflinching honesty, like when she sings “I keep it all in / ‘Cause we never talk about difficult things.”
Loneliness, impostor syndrome, and regret in the age of Instagram-optimized life events and unread texts are through-lines on the record. But Gartland sought to create a body of work that spoke to the totality of her twenties rather than a concept record, taking inspiration from Phoebe Bridgers’s first album — already a certified “classic” in her mind. “I wanted, kind of like Stranger in the Alps, for it to be just a collection of stories that are bound together by a time in your life,” she said. Its breadth is a testament to her evolution as both a writer and producer after recently taking on a bigger role in the production process, scrutinizing details down to every last handclap and guitar strum. “I worked for a long time with other producers and expected someone else to understand what was going on in my head and know how to execute it,” she explained. “I’ve got a long way to go, but I find it so satisfying to just have an idea and be able to execute it myself after so long of staring at the back of dudes’ heads in studios being like, ‘Come on, just do it.’”
Her flair for creativity spills into the album’s intricate videos, where she took inspiration from Netflix’s Sex Education to craft a feel that’s “British but [with] a very American aesthetic.” From the dreaded indie fuckboy with a Smiths mixtape in the Moonrise Kingdom-inspired “Zombie!” clip to her bathroom POV at a party in “Pretending,” Gartland and co-director Greta Isaac have created a visual world that speaks to the record’s cynical but sentient themes. Their most recent clip for “You’re Not Special, Babe” finds Orla confronted by a crew of dancing clowns who eventually convince her to give into their choreography — both a metaphorical and literal example of Gartland stepping outside her comfort zone. “The only two times I have danced were in [the “More Like You” and “You’re Not Special, Babe”] videos,” she admitted. “I would consider myself to be extremely physically awkward. If there’s a dancing situation, I’m not in the middle of that circle at all.”
Mastering the violin and teaching herself guitar at 11, Gartland turned to YouTube for songwriting feedback as a youngster who couldn’t get into open-mic nights in Dublin. A move to London acquainted her with a group of likeminded DIY musicians, including fellow YouTuber Dodie, who helped in sharpening her sardonic wit and unfiltered honesty. Though she owes the start of her career to the video platform’s primordial early aughts era, Gartland admitted her relationship with social media has changed as her follower count has grown. As likes have become weaponized and TikTok algorithms dictate success, she feels nostalgic for the way things used to be. “I try not to be boomer about it,” she joked. “TikTok is good for some people, but I think it’s really quite a dangerous thing for some music because it’s all just about grabbing people’s attention so quick. The whole platform moves so fast.”
While the internet has come a long way since the early days of YouTube where “people were given space to grow” — and Gartland occasionally wants to toss her phone in the ocean a la Lorde — she acknowledges its pros and cons. “I’m grateful for what it’s done to me, but then sometimes I’m like, ‘If I didn’t have music to promote, I would delete this shit so quick,’” she said.
Perhaps what’s kept her at bay are the fans who’ve shown up to live-stream concerts in droves and leaned into Gartland’s grassroots approach, changing lock screens at the Apple Store to her face, crafting fan art, and utilizing a parent’s popular teddy-bear Instagram account to promote the record. After a packed performance at Suffolk’s Latitude Festival in July, her next big jaunt is a tour through the United Kingdom and Ireland, kicking off in October. Despite the “unglamorous” conditions that come with touring at her level — think heavy gear, late nights, and “hilariously gross” buses — she’s excited to get back to gigging. “The focus that having a show gives everyone, the camaraderie of it, the common goal and the teamwork, that’s what I just absolutely live for,” she said.
With her first full-length album out in the world, a newfound confidence in the studio, and a big year ahead, Gartland has come into her own. Still, even as her music stays flecked with self-deprecating honesty, balancing her public and private lives is a priority. Her decision to come out as bisexual at the end of Pride Month was not one she made lightly, having grown up in a Catholic community. After living “with the thought for a couple of weeks,” she decided to tweet it out as a means of shaking off “the remnants of that upbringing” and learning to “own it a little bit more.” (“I feel like celebrating by screaming it from some virtual rooftop,” she posted.) “It’s both a big deal and also not a big deal at all,” she said. “And it gave me an excuse to talk about it with my parents, which is important to me. I needed to create that for myself.”
Although Gartland starts her album off with the things that she’s learned throughout her twenties, she’s hesitant to declare any guiding advice for her younger self. As an artist who’s followed her own impulses for the last 12 years, perhaps her secret is that she doesn’t overthink it: “Sometimes I need to do a bunch of writing to realize what’s at the front of my mind.”
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