Words and Images by Francesca Ionescu
Stepping through the door of Clwb Ifor Bach, the light suddenly disappears and is replaced by a dark pink hue and pink neon accents reminding you of who you’re about to see. The crowd is young and chatty, it’s full of pink hair, pink shirts, fishnets, and an amazing t-shirt that asks the age-old question: ‘Why can’t I be indie and from London?’. At least they have the consolation that GIRLI, by her real name Milly Toomey, is both of those things, and she’s about to perform one of the first shows of her Damsel in Distress tour. The tour comes after the title EP released earlier this year which features five songs including ‘Dysmorphia’ and ‘More Than a Friend’.
The stage is intimate, it’s level ground and only a few feet away from the bar. The barrier between the artist and the public is the music: thick speakers that the intro act, July Jones, climbs on to get closer to us. There’s a homemade back-drop of a canvas with GIRLI messily spray-painted on it, surrounded by smiley faces and stars. The set is representative, as the whole Damsel in Distress tour is a true indie tour, self-funded with an all-female and non-binary crew.
July Jones, an up-and-coming British-Slovene singer, opens, setting the mood high, performing a few of her unreleased singles, telling the crowd about how this is an all-girls tour, to which someone in the crowd shouts ‘Women!’. The songs are accompanied by stories, mentions of bad exes and anxiety which sets this relatable mood for the evening, preparing us for GIRLI’s act.
GIRLI’s entrance after a quick interval gets the crowd energy soaring, her hot pink mullet perfectly matched with the neon sign in the shape of her name. The visual aspect of the show is impossible to overlook- the change from red light for July Jones to the pink for GIRLI, the ‘VIRGO’ choker on the intro act to the corset and pink satin skirt on GIRLI, even the way the stage feels so full despite never having more than three people on at once.
GIRLI’s live vocals are more than deserving of praise, her music so full of emotion that it feels personal, like watching an old friend perform songs about stories you already heard in her bedroom. She engages with the crowd, cracking jokes about the pandemic, and lovers and her own mistakes. “2019 was a joke” she says bluntly, and the crowd screams back, a shared moment of the loneliness and boredom that we all went through. She moves fluidly from one side of the stage to the other, suddenly still for some performances- ‘Friday Night Big Screen’ is a ballad, contrasting her initial statement of ‘You thought I was gonna sing a fucking ballad’. The song is soft, and as she stands in one spot, she tells us to get our phones out and swing to the music, feel the love she has put into it, and embrace what she refers to as a little ‘cheesy moment’.
She plays ‘Young’, after a quick crying break, where she gets July on stage and the two share an emotional moment. They lived together in London, GIRLI lets us know, and she finds it something special to have two queer women in the industry who see each other as friends and support rather than competition. GIRLI’s music is undoubtedly queer, even when talking about men such as in ‘Not That Girl’, always about the experience of being an outcast, not conforming to patriarchal expectations. My friend, gladly tagging along for the performance, came in knowing nothing about the leading act and left waiting for her data to work so she could download both Damsel in Distress and Odd One Out.
‘Ruthless’, the single featured on the cut-out of her album cover, is revengeful and angry, but empowering, energy vibrating around the room as everyone squats down to the floor, ready to explode on the chorus. She gets the crowd to dance and jump and scream and throw their hands in the air, instructions charmingly threaded throughout her performance. ‘Day Month Second’ gets the room bouncing, and the closing songs perfectly wrap up her discography.
She performs ‘Hot Mess’, her second most listened to song and how I came across her, and everyone sings along, hands shooting up on the title words, her running from one end of the stage to the other, soaking in the audience’s presence. She does apologise and curse the pandemic that shall not be named, for a tour in a different time would have had her in the middle of the crowd, surfing above everyone the way her cut-out has done at other shows.
She disappears behind the canvas, her supporting vocal, Faber, following on her heels, and we all look around confused before breaking into a ‘one more song’ chant. And here comes, her most played song on Spotify – ‘More than a friend’ perfectly ending by bringing us back to Damsel in Distress. The song is static but fills the room, everyone singing along and sharing this intensely queer experience.
GIRLI shows us what true indie music is, and how her first self-funded tour has been so targeted towards her listeners, her audience. The story of how she got dropped from her label and contemplated quitting music is the more emotional when you realise what a breath of fresh air her art is, so personal and uniquely GIRLI, and of course, soaked in pink!