Orla Gartland is a relatively unknown artist–at least in the US–but Lonely People, her latest E.P. released this past January, is substantive, eclectic and, for lack of a less-cliché word, fresh. In this album she situates herself in the present with a youthful energy and the lyrical prowess of artists who insist on complex pop music–music that puts forth meaningful content while evoking a sense of nostalgia through 80s synth and the peppy electric guitar of 60s British rock.
Gartland may be, soberingly, a year younger than me at a mere 20 years of age, but her talent indicates an ability to reach into the past and look to the future at the same time. She’s evolved from her folk singer-songwriter sound to a solo powerhouse worthy of sharing chart space with the likes of Taylor Swift’s 80s-inspired 1989, which was, like Gartland’s work, an extremely collaborative album. Gartland deserves a listen–she’s going places.
Lonely People also speaks to the influence of a history of music streaming from across the pond. In the past couple of decades, a series of artists such as Duffy, Adele, and Sam Smith have insisted on soul-infused vocals, the Liverpool-based The 1975 as well as the more pop Charli XCX have harkened back to classic British rock with their upbeat guitar riffs, and Ed Sheeran has innovated a distinct niche at the intersection of indie pop and hip-hop with bold baselines and the added texture of sampled vocal loops. Gartland draws on these traditions effortlessly, seamlessly blending them together.
The E.P. is demonstrative of a new model of music. Gartland is a product of the generation of artists who start out on YouTube and build on a close-knit fan base. She lacks a label or formal representation, remaining primarily a YouTube sensation with large appeal for young British and Irish girls–after all, she’s one of them, having barely left her teenaged years. And instead of releasing a full-length album, she’s put out two short EPs, perhaps motivated by the adage of quality over quantity.
But after a certain point, it doesn’t make sense to say Gartland’s Lonely People sounds like MisterWives’ Our Own House or Two Door Cinema Club’s Beacon or Betty Who’s Take Me When You Go or Bastille’s All This Bad Blood (although Gartland did open for Bastille’s tour when she was starting out). She has a brand that’s all her own and performs with an impressive maturity. Her voice is like Joni Mitchell’s or Regina Spektor’s, two of Gartland’s cited influences, in the way it floats above the melody and reaches a clarity and strength many mainstream artists do not.
Gartland’s youthful energy and vocal power is matched by her lyrical maturity. The best example is probably the theme she digs into in the chorus of the first track, Lonely People, with a commentary on the fleeting excitement of youth tinged with a culture of indecision: “If we’re brave enough, we won’t save it up for later… Show me what you’re made of. Start the engine up,” she cries. The song turns up the momentum for the entire E.P. and also makes a relevant plea to her generation: “We’re not damaged goods. Maybe we’re just lonely people.” Its music video even features Gartland’s fanbase in clips she solicited, resulting in a cheesy and cheeky comment on this generation’s exhibitionism and self-doubt.
Then there’s the talk of permanence in “Souvenirs,” in which Gartland speaks directly to the Instagram- and Facebook-obsessed: “Stuck in the rhythm. Same every day. Looking at pictures I know I should put away. Building towers to bring them back down. We’re framing the moments, the ties that keep us bound,” she says in the pre-chorus. Gartland could learn to be less obvious– “…we just don’t want to be forgotten,” she bluntly says at one point–but somehow, her straightforwardness doesn’t ruin the song’s playful vibe.
If one is looking for another dance-y, euphoric crowdpleaser, then “Whispers” is likely Gartland’s weaker song, harkening back to her first singles and debut EP, a much more folksy moment in her career. The infusion of a techno undercurrent, however, is reminiscent of Cvrches, with a strong base that offsets the sleepiness and suggests she may head in a more electronic direction in the future.
My favorite track is by far “Get Back” because it demonstrates Gartland’s skill as a singer-songwriter: when you strip away the beat, the melody and lyrics stand on their own. Like Robyn, whose biggest hits can become mellow ballads, Gartland fuses movement with emotion, lamenting, “I should forget, but I won’t sugarcoat this pain. Running wild making plans, in the taxi holding hands, we can never get back. We can never get that back. All our secrets emerge, it’s a whole other world we can never get back…” At the same time, there’s a slight optimism in her tone, as if she’s smiling while singing, as if she’s overwhelmed by her gratitude (videos of Gartland prove she is indeed a smiler, at least when performing live.) This song poses the paradox of a feeling and a sound that don’t quite match up, but one understands the bittersweetness.
Lonely People may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think Gartland has done something incredible. Her expressive sound is at once nostalgic and current, folksy and electronic, and, most of all, it understands its audience. I imagine her someday reaching more widespread success in the US; in fact, she’s slated this year for the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX and will inevitably garner enough attention to line up more performances soon after. I argue she’s an artist to watch, if only for underscoring the fact that you don’t have to be at the top to make important art.