“If you describe something as ‘girly’, it’s not necessarily the strongest,” says 22-year-old Milly Toomey, from underneath her razor-sharp neon pink fringe. “It’s kind of derogatory. I wanted to take that back, and be like, Why? I wanted to make pink punk again, and reclaim the word ‘girl’.” That feminist impulse has driven the defiant, brash electro-pop music Milly has made under the name GIRLI since she was a teenager in 2016, earning her plaudits from the Guardian, NME, and i-D, for hit singles like “Hot Mess” and her 2019 debut album, Odd One Out. Along the way, she crafted a persona for herself that was as hard as the word ‘girl’ is soft: “I built this thing up as GIRLI, like, ‘I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks’. But actually at that time, I really did. Figuring that out, and learning that it was okay to be vulnerable, was so big for me.” It was only after losing her record deal, relationship, and friendships that she was able to rediscover who she actually is, underneath the tough cybergoth facade – and along the way, she made the best music of her career yet.
Before she was GIRLI, Milly grew up in north London with her performance-loving family, both parents being actors. As a young kid, her rebellion was not being artistic: she was a science nerd, and later deeply into politics and her school debate society, even briefly serving as a Youth MP for Camden. She was bullied at school, and retreated into a fantasy world of reading and writing fiction. Then, during her GCSEs, she discovered music. Inspired by her favourite indie bands, like the Arctic Monkeys and Peace, she’d spend lunch breaks hanging out in the music department, playing guitar and singing, and eventually found herself two bandmates on JoinMyBand.com. It didn’t faze 15-year-old Milly that her bandmates were 18; she confidently took charge. “Music was my obsession,” she remembers. “So we had to rehearse five times a week, just so we could play these shit gigs at pubs. I was so determined.” Even after her bandmates decided they couldn’t hack Milly’s pace, she wasn’t deterred. She enrolled at ELAM (East London Art and Music), where she kept on honing her own voice: a kind of Gen Z emo rap take on Lily Allen, with the anger of Hole or Siouxsie and the Banshees remixed by the sheen of PC Music.