South London’s Heartworms creates tunes that are unshakeable, powerfully dark and always in control.
Words + Photos: Jamie MacMillann
It’s hard to tell whose idea it was now, but Dork and Jojo Orme, the artist much better known as Heartworms, have popped to a graveyard in Streatham for a quick photoshoot while a squirrel is stalking us from the branches above. All a very normal situation for a Hype chat with one of the scene’s most exciting new artists, then. She may only have a couple of tracks out so far, but Jojo has been making ears prick up all over town with a live show that burns brightly with a dark intensity of sound and a stage presence that is both magnetic and captivating. On the cusp of her Dan Carey-produced debut EP, it was high time we caught up with her properly then.
Dripping with atmosphere, the four tracks on ‘A Comforting Notion’ make for a confident statement of intent. ‘Consistent Dedication’ is a slow-burning gothic beast of a track, erupting from the shadows as Jojo bursts into furious screams. Meanwhile, ‘Retributions Of An Awful Life’ leans more into an electro world and splashes vibrant colours over its jet-black heart. Elsewhere, influences from as varied forms as computer games and The Communist Manifesto are liberally sprinkled into a heady and intoxicating mix. It’s all pretty exciting really, and makes for a huge leap out of the ‘four lads with guitars who like a bit of The Fall, cheers’ sub-genre of post-punk that has dominated over the last few years. “The bands you get in post-punk are a bit samey, yeah”, Jojo agrees, “And with this, there is so much of my soul in it, different inspirations from so many different styles. But also very gothic, which I love.”
With control over everything, from all aspects of the music through to the black-and-white colour aesthetic, Heartworms is very much a solo project for Jojo (the name was taken from the title of a record from The Shins). “I’m a solo artist,” she says. “I have my band, and they’re all close friends. Because I like it that way and we respect each other. But I want it to be solo for as long as possible because I enjoy it really, and I know that I can do it.” She laughs as she describes previous projects, including one called, wait for it, ‘Gloomy’. “Oh my god!” she remembers. “It’s so embarrassing, but when you’re young, you’re just like, ‘oh I want to be something cool’.” The name Heartworms jumped out at her, she says, a perfect name for something that could be both fun and dark. Pretty spot on, then.
Jojo has spoken in previous interviews about her experience at college in Stroud, where she studied Production and Performance. Today, she describes that time in her life as a form of “a systemic kind of sexism”, one where she was undervalued by the men on her course. “Coming from a small town, there wasn’t a lot of understanding or respect,” she explains, “I don’t blame anyone for it, but to experience it was very annoying because I knew what I was capable of, the music I could write.” Thankfully her tutors could see the potential too, and she was eventually awarded Student of the Year. “That was crazy because all of the guys were like…” she says with a side-eye before laughing. “If I can’t get something, then I make sure I fully get it, no matter how painful it is.”
Looking back on it now, she says that it trained her “not to depend on anything or anyone around me when it comes to reaching my goal”, an attitude that she still carries with her today. Eventually, London came calling as she describes waking up one morning and just knowing that it was time to move out of the small-town world.
Inevitably finding herself spinning around the South London scene, The Windmill in Brixton soon reared into view. “I remember going there for the first time and meeting Declan McKenna there,” she grins. “I used to listen to him all the time going to work on my bike, and there he was just pissed out of his face. I was like, The Windmill is SICK!” That first gig, with The Murder Capital and Italia 90 on display, lit a fire. “The South London scene got close to me, and I got closer and closer to South London,” she says. “And from then on, I was just obsessed with all the new music that was coming out.”
Writing the EP began just after lockdown ended, a period where anything and everything was poured into song. For example, ‘Consistent Dedication’ has a Rottweiler barking over a snare drum, to add some ‘bark’ to the song – Dork is trusting that this actually happened and isn’t a ‘and then Phoebe Bridgers walked into Shame’s studio’ type scenario. The title track began life as a poem that was itself inspired by the Communist Manifesto.
“Not that I believe in it,” she states quickly as she explains where inspiration strikes from. “The original guitar line to ‘Retributions’ reminded me of a weird Playstation game called ‘Dynasty Warriors’,” she says. “But the songs themselves are all from my personal life and then things like historical metaphors. I do want to grow from the kind of military attire that I wear, though. I love it, I’m obsessed, but it can cause problems…”
Jojo’s love of all things military-history (she volunteers at RAF Hendon to look after vintage aircraft) extends to her stage outfits, where she will often wear a beret or Scottish Glengarry cap. Obviously, this sort of thing ‘forces’ Guys On The Internet to voice their opinions. “As a female wearing that, well, men find it quite an easy target,” she says. “They don’t really understand why I’m wearing it, or they say they find it disrespectful that I’m wearing it. I’m doing it because I love it! The uniforms are beautiful, and I’m not spitting on anything, am I?”
Whether these Guys On The Internet were similarly outraged when male-only bands like The Libertines regularly wore military jackets is unknown, obviously.
“It’s just way too early for me to be dealing with this kind of stuff right now,” she says. “So I might just stick with the songs and tone it down with the military, maybe. I’m quite a sensitive person, and I know when it comes to being exposed to the world, there’s always gonna be people pointing, and I keep forgetting that that’s a thing that happens.”
Her posts on TikTok have also been gaining the attention of Guys On The Internet. “Guys don’t own subjects,” she says at one point. “They think they do, but they don’t. I think at the moment, I just want a chill growth, but I guess it was very rare for that to happen, especially when you’re a female in some of these areas. The world can be very cruel sometimes.”
As we move on, she talks about how inspiration can strike at all times, describing it at one point as like a sensory overload. She is about to move to the seaside for a writing period, so can we expect some peaceful beachside vibes to the next Heartworms material? The happy sound of a carousel, perhaps? “Yeah!” she nods. “But with someone screaming on it. And it’s going really fast!” Oh. Already inching towards her debut album, plans are slowly forming. As we chat, she brainstorms out loud to nobody in particular what she wants the record to sound, to feel like (classy, black and white, clean, but also messy – if you’re interested, which you very much should be). That mix of clean and messy is the perfect example of the contradiction that makes Heartworms so exciting. It’s present in how Jojo laughs her entire way through our chat (and later, the photoshoot), before instantly turning into the fearsome stage presence that has lit up so many shows (and again, the photoshoot). Taking her lead from people like Black Honey’s Izzy and Aldous Harding, it is a conscious act of making “the crowd feel something they wouldn’t feel if they met me for real.”
There’s a desire for a theatrical edge that your boys in The 1975 have been delivering on these latest shows. “Matty is incredible and also insane,” she says with a grin. “I saw a lot of myself in him. In that, he’s so aware of what he does, but he is also doing really stupid things. It’s great because it’s him, and it’s authentic, and that’s exactly what I want to do. I want it to be exceptional, and I want to be me. And I want to make people feel how I want them to feel.”
She laughs again as she describes the sort of intro music she wants from these next shows and starts to manifest a riot at her own show. “Something quite boomy, a low drone, something scary. I want it to be so intense that when I come on stage, people are like throwing… No, no, actually, please don’t throw anything at me.” She is so passionate at this stage that words come rolling out at high speed. “I want to keep making it better,” she states. “I don’t just want it to be artists making music; I want it to BE everything. It’s the thing that I have in my life that I put my whole soul into. I want to plan everything and make it beautiful. And bring in the right fans who actually see me for me. I don’t want to lose myself. My main thing is just to go hard.” Prepare yourselves; you have been warned. ■
Taken from the March 2023 edition of Dork. Heartworms’ debut EP ‘A Comforting Notion’ is out 24th March.
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