London-based pop anarchist GIRLI proudly wants you to know that she is a hot mess. In fact, she considers the label aspirational. “To be a hot mess, for me, is being completely messy but also super in control of your own self,” she explains to me over the phone while travelling to the British seaside town of Margate for a writing session. “For a lot of people, I think the term ‘hot mess’ is used to describe women in a negative way. They’ll be like, ‘She’s sweaty and out of control and all over the place.’ But I want to reclaim the term. I want it to be like, ‘Yeah I’m a hot mess. I’m dramatic and I’m mental, but I love it.’”
Part of this reclamation comes in the form of the singer’s latest EP, appropriately titled Hot Mess. It’s a continuation of two years’ hard work that has seen GIRLI the moniker for Milly Toomey disrupting what you might expect from a young pop upstart. Her music doesn’t shy away from topics of sexism and bigotry (“Girls Get Angry Too”), youthful nihilism and anxieties (“It Was My Party”), and relatable tales of drunken parties and modern takes on finding love (“Girl I Met On The Internet”).
Nearly always dressed head-to-toe in pink (and always sporting her signature hot pink hair), GIRLI’s mission isn’t to be confrontational. But if the themes that her music touches on makes people feel uncomfortable along the way, that’s okay with her. “If I’m singing a song about fancying a girl and you’re a homophobic person, then fuck yeah, I want you to feel uncomfortable,” she says. “I don’t go out there being like, ‘I want this song to make people feel really uncomfortable.’ But I also think it’s important to be open-minded because I know people in the past have responded to my songs going, ‘Ew, what the fuck is this?’ I kind of relish that. If I’m making songs that are polarizing like that then I know I’m doing the right thing.”
The songs might be polarizing thematically, but sonically they bang, often leaping from incredibly memorable pop hooks to the electronic and abrasive skittishness of PC Music or Major Lazer. It’s all tied together, however, by GIRLI’s rap-pop hybrid, delivered with a British nonchalance reminiscent of early Lily Allen or the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. In fact, the observational and satirical element those two artists exemplified is fundamental to GIRLI’s music. “Humour is one of the most relatable things,” she explains. “It’s a great way to connect with people.”
Take, for example, the happy-clappy and extremely pop “Mr 10PM Bedtime,” an attack on “anyone who gets at people for being young because they can’t remember what it was like” that arose after GIRLI had a few confrontations with a neighbor. “This guy was a complete twat. We would have one small gathering on a Friday or we’d have a party and let everyone know, and he’d still complain,” she recalls. “I remember feeling like this guy didn’t remember what it was like to be scared and confused and to want to party with your friends. In a way, I was feeling sorry for him more than anything. He clearly has lost some sort of light in him.”
If GIRLI’s humor and fuck-you attitude come across as arrogant, it’s on purpose. Even when she’s grappling with her own self-esteem on songs like “Neck Contour,” a track written after she made a list of all the things she aspired to be like, she’s doing it with her tongue firmly in her cheek. Although, she admits, it doesn’t make these insecurities any less real. “With GIRLI, people look at me and I’m wearing all this pink and I’m really opinionated and loud and they assume that I’m confident and that I must be totally fine with loving myself. But actually, it’s not really like that,” she confesses. “Like everyone else, I get nervous, I doubt myself, I have insecurities. A lot of the time the way I speak, make music, and dress is a retaliation; I’m saying, ‘Go on, look at me.’”
As “Neck Contour” suggests, many of these insecurities come from our intense and ever-growing co-dependence on social media and the internet, something that GIRLI describes as a “mind fuck.” She details the internal struggle she has with the internet, lamenting how we can “become numb” to something as horrific as Donald Trump’s election and how, even more bizarrely, it has become a meme. “If we used all the energy that we’re doing making memes and laughing at him to actually do something about it…it’s kind of crazy,” she adds. But of course, being a pop star means that you can’t log off and forgo digital communication; it’s an essential way to interact with fans. Although as GIRLI says, “I’d much rather be making music in the ‘90s where you didn’t have to deal with all that shit.”
The battle about the internet’s worth becomes apparent when we discuss things like the increased liberalism of millennials and Generation Z. For her, the internet has opened up essential discussions about gender, sexuality, and race. “I remember that things that are now accepted in my friendship group, like everyone’s pronouns or being trans, or the issue of race, or sexism, weren’t even discussed at school when I was there,” she states. “Sure, there were the more obvious things like, ‘are you being sexist? Are you being homophobic?’ There are so many complexities to things now, which I think is good because it means that we are questioning everything that we know and saying, ‘Why do we say that everyone has to have one gender?’ Or ‘Why do we say that there are three sexualities?’” It’s something that, she argues, older generations struggle with, even people as liberal as her parents. “You do forget that it can be a total mind fuck for an older generation to think about things that a younger generation growing up with the internet who would just say, ‘Yeah, that’s a thing.’”
The internet and social media, GIRLI says, have helped facilitate a new celebration of self-expression. “It’s a movement that the internet has helped spread that has then been picked up by artists or bands,” she explains, adding that young people she meets are unlikely to identify as just straight. “But I think the whole labels thing is weird because why do we need labels in the first place? I’m a human being and I fancy who I fancy,” she finishes, pointedly.
Lyrically, GIRLI’s music might be very relatable and songs like the incredibly catchy “Feel Okay” and “Can I Say Baby” have a universality about them as they addresses the anxieties about new relationships (even if the latter is about a boy GIRLI fancied who often wore women’s clothes). However, there is an inherent British quality to the music, from the references to the delivery. Does she ever feel the need to Americanize her sound to appeal to a wider audience? “I think not,” she replies, before listing off acts like Amy Winehouse and David Bowie, who remained quintessentially themselves while conquering the U.S.
“If someone wants to change their music because they think it might appeal to more people then that’s their choice,” she continues. “But I think what appeals to more people and what makes people stick around and listen to your music is if they know it’s genuine and if they know it comes from you. I’m not American, so why would I make American sounding music?”
Indeed, if there’s one thing that is fundamental to who GIRLI is as an artist, it’s that being true to yourself is the most important thing you can do. “If I look back at all the music I’ve released over the past two years, I can see how I’ve changed,” she says, our time together ending. “I think there’s a lot that I’ve learned about the type of music that I want to make, the kind of person I am, that I couldn’t have learned unless I’d released that material.”
“That’s one of the most interesting things about being an artist, “she adds. “You put stuff out and then you learn about yourself retrospectively.” Now isn’t that the truth.
GIRLI’s new EP Hot Mess is available now.