Woman on the Internet drops in August...
Lucy Harbron
12:07 22nd July 2021

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Honouring the poetry that goes into songwriting, Close Reading is a series of intimate conversations about all the books, films and thoughts behind some of your favourite songs. Diving into the lyrics and picking apart the lines that make you want to sing along a little louder, Lucy Harbron is sitting down with some of the most exciting songwriters around to hold a magnifying glass up to the lyrical form.

After almost a decade sharing her work online, Orla Gartland’s debut album Woman on the Internet is due for release on the 20 August. Tackling topics like anxiety and comparison, Orla’s lyrics reflect her origins, writing scenes for the internet generation she was born out of. Developing from a classic acoustic singer-songwriter origin into a fuller indie pop sound, her recognisable instrumental energy provides a nest for candid personal lyrics that create big feelings by retelling small moments. 

Discussing Phoebe Bridgers, Wizard of Oz and her love-hate relationship with her own platform, Orla and Lucy took a close look at Woman On The Internet. 

Kicking off, do you want to set the scene for when Woman On The Internet was born?

'You’re Not Special, Babe' was the first track written for the album. I wrote it with my friend Tom who I co-produced the album with, and it was one of only two or three songs on the record that were started in room together and then obviously March hit.

I didn’t love the remote way of writing and found it really difficult, so I ended up going really insular and doing a lot of solo writing. It all really starts with a set chords, a weird lyric in my notes app, or more often than not now I’ll have a drum beat. Coming from a singer-songwriter background, guitar is my obvious choice [of instrument] but I think it can get repetitive and you find yourself going to the same shapes and patterns all the time, so programming a drum beat which is not my usual thing is always an interesting way to start. And that’s really how I did it, writing the whole album between January and July last year. 


You’ve been releasing music since your teens now, how do you find more and new stuff to write about? Do you think the jumping off point of a song has changed?

I don’t think the jumping off point has changed, I get the best ideas when I’m not trying to so the process of sitting down at a blank page and going ‘come on!’ never works well. But if I’m going about my day, or on the bus, or cooking or something else is happening, those are the times I’m most available for good ideas. And it might just be a little line or something small but I’m definitely best placed to have those ideas when I’m not trying. Then once you have that it’s easier to be more deliberate like I’m going to go to the studio today, you know, I’m going to start at 10 and finish at 6, but it’s always getting that initial seed that’s tricky which has always been the case.

But I think the second part of it with writing a second verse and drawing it out has changed, especially lyrically. I think I used to be so comfortable being vague and metaphorical as I think I was honestly just scared to say what I was actually thinking, whereas now I make an effort to be more literal and unguarded with language. 


You say about becoming more comfortable being more literal, are there any artists that gave you the confidence to make that shift?

The first one that comes to mind is definitely Phoebe Bridgers. Her album Stranger In The Alps is a perfect album to me, and it’s so literal in its language. It has the odd metaphor… are you a fan?

Oh yeah, big fan.

So like take something like 'Motion Sickness'. That chorus has one big juicy metaphor you know, “I have emotional motion sickness / somebody roll the windows down”, but it doesn’t go any further than that. The verses are so literal, it’s so specific and there’s no space to misinterpret it. And I think listening to that album made me realise that you don’t have to have the exact same experience as an artist to be able to appreciate and relate to the music.

I used to think that you had to keep your language super general so everyone could see themselves in the song: you know it’s about a break-up but let’s not be specific about what its about. Then when I heard that song and that album, it realised I didn’t enjoy the song any less because someone had never given me $1,500 for therapy, so Phoebe was a big influence for that switch, being the queen of very direct language that made me want to be more straight up.


I can really see that in your work, where the stories you’re telling are all very candid about very specific scenes and moment on a relationship arc for example. But then on this album you’ve merged that with big topics like social media and mental health. How do you balance that introspection with big discussions?

I think it’s an instinctive thing. I love pop music and there’s so much pop in my work that I’ll never get away from it, but equally I need lyrics with depth and I need more to be going on. My favourite thing is a song that works on two levels where it might be super glitzy and catchy on the surface but then you listen to it five times and go 'oh okay, it’s about that'.

And some people will never hear that level, but if you can do something that works for both the casual listener and the person that’s assessing the lyrics trying to find something in it, that’s my favourite thing to do. There’s definitely loads of heavy stuff on this album but I didn’t want it to sound heavy. There’s loads about growing up and anxiety and toxic masculinity but none of it is ballady, you can write about all that stuff in a heavy way but I wanted to have a bit of a contrast.


Even the album title has that double level. I think when people see Woman On The Internet immediately the thought might be about sexism or social media pressures and how hard it all is, but then this character is introduced as a really sweet guide you turn to, introducing her on 'More Like You' with ‘She told me to eat well and try to love myself’. Its cosy…

Yeah! The character in my head is like this kind of Wizard Of Oz figure that you go to when you need something. And maybe it’s kind of seedy, like some online person that’s definitely not qualified to give you advice, but it’s more that person you can turn to when you can’t go to someone in your real life, which I do a lot and did a lot last year and will always do because it’s so integrated in our lives. It’s so much quicker to just do a YouTube search of how to calm anxiety than talk to your friend about it. 


The reference to the Wizard of Oz has that double edged thing with the beautiful magic of the internet having everything right there for you, paired with the darker realities of certain corners and trying to keep up with expectations…

God yeah, and my relationship with the internet over the last ten or so years that I’ve been posting stuff has been like that: it’s been totally double edged. One day I’m like 'thank god for the internet and that I have an audience', and then the next I want to fling my phone into the sea cause it makes me so sad, it’s a turbulent relationship.


Obviously getting famous online is nothing new now, especially with TikTok where musicians get famous from one viral video. But with you and dodie and that age of YouTube, you were really the first people where your musical career has built online. How do you feel about it now and watching people blow up now?

The internet is such a different place to when I started. Back then no one had really made a career from it yet so it was a really wholesome place where no one had an agenda, it more like oh you have a poem to read, a story to tell, a song to sing. There was a pure, show-and-tell vibe where no one knew where it was going.

I really feel for new artists starting right now, I think it’s so much harder and TikTok can propel you to the highest heights in a day but it’s really hard to make those people stick around which is something we all took for granted. We didn’t have the biggest audiences, but I’ve been shocked how loyal they’ve been and how long they’ve stuck around and waited for this album. And had I have built that audience on TikTok I think I’d be having to compete to be remembered by them every day. Whereas I’m so lucky to have a core group of people from that more wholesome time where people were up for being along for the ride and waiting a few years for someone to get their act together.


Do you think having that experience with that loyal fan-base has made it easier to write more personal songs or be a bit more vulnerable in your work?

Yeah definitely, it’s a safe blanket. I’m releasing the album independently which is like doing a trust fall back into your audience, so there’s a confidence I have knowing there’s a core group of die-hard legends that won’t necessarily like everything I put out, but they’ll be there. You lean into that, it makes me want to put little Easter eggs in my lyrics and go the extra mile with the music video, it makes you want to put a bit more of yourself in there.


Even though you say the woman on the internet isn’t you, it’s a nice little nod to your origins…

100%, and even people around me. After last year, there’s people on my team that I haven’t even met yet, and they’re just some little person on the internet to me. It’s so abstract and bizarre and anonymous.


With that residing figure that comes back into a couple of songs, was that something where when you had the character you wanted to create a kind of narrative album?

It was honestly a complete accident; I didn’t even realise the lyric was in two songs. I love the idea of a concept album with a running narrative, but I also love albums like Stranger In The Alps where the songs are tied together by the fact that you wrote it all around the same time, like a diary where the concept is just that time in your life. 

In 'You’re Not Special, Babe', I heard the chorus as this woman speaking to you…

Yeah! Either that or me talking to myself, it’s just about the chaos of your twenties to me. It’s a comforting message wrapped in a kind of blunt message of it’s going to be chaos, but it is for everyone so take some kind of solace in that.


Yeah like you say with the comforting vibes: it’s odd that something so blunt could feel so calming but especially online, there’s so much pressure to be the most individual and the most unique and be going through something absolutely no one could relate to. It’s nice to be reminded that most emotions are universal.

I like that it sounds mean, kind of like the album title. I like that it’s a bit sticky and makes you do a double take. But at its core its meant to be a kind of hug of a sentiment, with a bit of tough love like pick yourself up and cop on tone to it which is exactly what your twenties are about. It’s like a firm hand pushing you out like 'off you go, figure shit out'. 


When you picture the woman on the internet, what does she look like to you? 

I think she is really nameless and faceless. I see her as like the voice of god or the Wizard of Oz: someone who’s spoken about but never seen. Or maybe like a fairy godmother, there’s something comforting and maternal about her so maybe like the fairy godmother from Cinderella when she’s plump and sweet.


Orla Gartland Recommends...

To read - Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls & Educated by Tara Westover

“So much of the album is about growing up & touches on how our early experiences can shape us so reading about these super extreme upbringings was really interesting!”

To watch - Alien

“Whilst making the album I became obsessed with space films - literally any and all space films - and whilst at the studio in Devon we set up a projector and watched Alien which was so fun, so that was a good memory”

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Photo: Karina Barberis