Raised to Irish parents in Belgium, ORLA returned to Dublin a few years ago to attend BIMM, and immerse herself in the Irish music scene.
After years of playing in other bands, she’s turning to her debut single ‘Close To Me’ to launch her own career with a single that wears its heart firmly on its sleeve.
I spoke to her about the launch, and how she’s got to this stage…
I’d imagine it’s a life-changing move, releasing a debut single. What took you to this point?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I moved from Belgium to study songwriting at BIMM Dublin in 2015. I loved living in Dublin, loved the course and constantly being surrounded by other musicians. It was so exciting. At the same time though, I felt a pressure to be at the same level as some of my peers. There were those with experience touring whereas my only experience was school performances. On top of that, I had rarely performed my own songs outside of my bedroom!
In the years I was at college I performed a lot as a backing singer and keyboard player in other bands. At the same time though, I was writing and performing at ‘open mics’. Eventually I left the other bands, and I’ve spent the past two years performing my own music, just me and my guitarist. It took me a while to believe my songs were good enough but performing live and talking to the audience after shows really showed me that people were connected to my music.
In the past year I have been trying out my songs with different producers and looking for the right sound. After working on ‘Close to Me’ with Sam Stevenson it just sort of clicked and I knew that was the one I wanted to release. Even though I still don’t think I’ll ever feel 100% ready, I threw myself into it!
Why ‘Close To Me’ as the debut?
‘Close to Me’ is a very vulnerable song for me. I wrote it in one sitting and I always find those songs are the most honest. I wanted it as my debut as I feel it is a good introduction to my sound. I tend to draw influences from multiple genres, electric, soul, pop and R&B. I think the song gives me the opportunity to go in other directions with the following singles. Also it’s a song I’ve always loved performing live.
I understand the main story behind the song is one of vulnerability and lost love. How did you find putting life to music like that, and does it feel weird making it public?
I feel more comfortable sharing my feelings through my songs rather than any other way. Writing ‘Close to Me’ was cathartic, it put my feelings into words before I even understood them. That’s the beauty of songwriting. I never feel uncomfortable listening to an extremely revealing and honest song from another songwriter if I connect to what they are saying. If anything, it’s reassuring, it makes me feel less alone.
How did you find the production process?
The song was recorded and produced by Sam Stevenson one day at his home studio in Kilcullen. It was such an enjoyable day, I think you know when you’ve found a great Producer when you feel totally comfortable in the studio bouncing ideas off one another. Sam was great at suggesting things I never would have thought of while also being really respectful of my opinion and vision for the song.
Very soon after our recording day, Covid-19 hit Europe and I moved back to my parents’ house in Brussels. Sam sent me a few mixes and we tweaked things back and forth for a while. Approaching summer, I decided the song still needed a small bit of work so I contacted Michael Heffernan. I spent one full day in the studio with Mick, recording vocals and working on the mixing. My favourite part of recording is always the vocals. I’m very specific about how I record them. It’s easy to focus on sounding ‘perfect’ but Michael was really helpful in reminding me to convey the emotion of the song in the vocal takes.
Can you tell me about the singles that are on the way in the coming months?
I can’t share too much right now! I will say that there is a great variety coming. As I said before I draw influence from many different genres and I think that’s reflected in the following singles. They also show different parts of my personality and life. It’s not all heartbreak!
Do you have a lot of music behind the scenes, ready to go?
Yes! Though I am still writing and am open to changing my plans for releases and my sound. That’s the beauty of being an independent artist, I can decide when and how to release. Even though I have a lot of songs written I don’t just want to put anything out, I always want it to be something I’m really proud of and want the songs to keep getting better.
How did you feel about releasing a debut single into the current scenario?
When we went into the first lockdown I thought to myself, this is it, I can’t release now until gigs start up again. It definitely is harder, live shows give you the opportunity to promote yourself, talk to others, build excitement. That being said, I think there is still a desire for new music. As a listener, I’ve been so excited every time there is a new release during lockdown. You have the time to listen and it’s a welcome distraction. I think no matter what state the world is in we will always need musicians and people want to hear new music. That’s what I’ve been telling myself anyway! It’s also been great for me, it’s given me something to focus on in particular during this second lockdown.
How do your mixed roots play into your music – are there Belgian and Irish sides to it?
Both my parents are Irish, they moved to Belgium in their 30s and have been there since. I was born and raised there but I have no Belgian relatives. Growing up I always felt Irish when I was in Belgium and Belgian when I was in Ireland! I’ve lived in Dublin for five years now though and feel very connected to Ireland, in particular the Irish music scene. Dublin was my first home as an adult so I feel very comfortable here.
I think having the influence of both countries and being exposed to so many nationalities and languages in Belgium has kept me open-minded. I also follow the music scene in both countries so it’s really interesting for me to see and be influenced by their differences.
What are you listening to that feeds into your music at the moment?
I’m always listening to a mix of different artists. I only recently started listening to Gemma Dunleavy and I adore her music. In the past few months, I’ve completely fallen for FKA Twigs, in particular, her album MARY MAGDALENE. From her lyrics to her videos I think she’s a wonderful artist and she has a special way of making you feel heartbreak. Listening to her album brought me right back to that feeling. I think it takes a really skilled writer to make you return to a feeling you thought you had buried. I have been learning her songs, listening to them over and over and I’m sure that her influence will seep into my writing.
You’ve been building your reputation live, mainly, so far. Do you miss that?
Oh God, I miss it so much! Live streams have been good to keep us going, I think there have been some really creative ones and great pre-recorded shows but they are incomparable to the feeling live music brings. I will never take for granted being on stage again. Not only for the feeling of joy it brings me as an artist but for the connection it gives you to other people.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hopes are to keep writing and releasing songs I am proud of. To grow my audience and to collaborate with other musicians. The goal is to be touring with my own music (when live music is back!) and releasing an EP this time next year.
Listen to ORLA’s debut single ‘Close To Me’ here.