Jojo Orme has always known that she doesn’t view the world like other people. “It’s very difficult,” she says, looking down at the ornate Persian rug that adorns today’s studio floor. “When you see things differently, you want people to see what you see - and that’s when it becomes isolating.”
Once a small child raised in Cheltenham, unseen by her peers, Orme is now shining as Heartworms. Soon to tour with The Kills and The Last Dinner Party, Orme has embedded herself in the South London scene, where fans and critics have championed her unique take on post-punk.
For a person in their mid-twenties, Orme is unusually disciplined. She rises around 5am most mornings, relaxes by sketching aircraft plans and casually volunteers at RAF Hendon in her spare time. “I love getting my hands mucky and knowing that these planes have been in history,” she notes. That discipline and perseverance has helped Orme find order through chaos: something she’s had to do most of her life.
Born to an Afghan-Pakistani father and a Danish-Chinese mother, Orme’s music career began amid a gross misunderstanding. Grounded for a year for having a boyfriend, she was confined to the library at lunchtime to prevent her budding romance. “I used to write letters and ask people to pass them on. It was such a love story,” she recalls with a laugh. With time to kill, Orme began to learn the guitar, sparking a lifelong obsession with music. Armed with her love of The Shins and Siouxsie Sioux, she left home in her teens, busking on the streets to pay rent and alternating between foster care, the YMCA and sofa surfing. She pursued a Production and Performance degree at Stroud College, often excluded by men who wouldn’t let her be in their bands.
It was also a period that saw Orme hang around a “strange” friendship group and develop an unhealthy relationship with drugs. “It was every day, weekly,” she says. “I remember blacking out loads of times and waking up like, ‘Well, it’s a new day, go to college’.” Orme managed to pull through, however. She graduated as the college’s Student of the Year and is now sober. Where once her peers doubted she’d even make it through the course, now Heartworms is signed to cult indie label Speedy Wunderground, ready to take on the world.
It’s a world I’m building and I get to design it how I want to, with no one telling me otherwise.”
Contrary to her sweet, shy personality, her approach to art is arresting and engaging. Today, she’s posing in a vintage Moschino jacket courtesy of her mother (who used to work in fashion). It’s a comical take on the dinner jacket, complete with golden cutlery brooches – a far cry from her usual military punk via Michael Jackson influences.
There’s an unmistakable theme of control throughout Orme’s work that separates her from her fellow post-punk peers. Recent EP title track ‘A Comforting Notion’ displays this best, Orme hissing the first verse with a seething sensuality, shackling the listener to her. As her voice grows clearer and louder, she descends into a chant with a soaring, authoritarian tone: “Remove the chains! My wrists are in strain!”
We put it to Orme that she sounds a bit like a dictator. “I think I get what you mean,” she laughs. “I get bored of being the same in a song. I want to be able to be like…” Orme stretches out her arms and starts singing. “‘Yes, I will listen to everything you say!’ I want something powerful, and a lot of operatic singing does that.”
Naturally, that translates into a dramatic performance style, the vocalist death-staring her audience and giving Kate Bush-esque, theatrically wide eyes. “When I normally go and see bands, I want them to know that I'm there,” she explains. “I want people to know I see them, and we're sharing that moment together, because every single person in this entire world wants to be seen. It's very important to me. But I also like to make you feel uncomfortable, like, ‘Why's she staring into my soul?’”
Instead of a linear narrative, Orme creates emotional collages, pairing metaphors with whatever feelings she’s experiencing. “I always like to find meaning after my music so I don't ever realise what I'm writing until after,” she explains. In particular, there’s a dark fascination with feathers, which she used to imagine “dropping hard” on the ground as a child. On ‘24 Hours’, Orme speaks of a “feather in my eye”, and on the surprisingly groove-oriented ‘May I Comply’, there’s a bloodied helplessness in the “clots in your feathers”. “With feathers, I like to do the opposite,” she says. “Sylvia Plath is an example of someone turning dark things into beautiful things. There’s something powerful about that.”
She’s is totally unflinching when it comes to discussing the unusually visceral, uncomfortable nature of her music. “My lyrics are violent,” she concedes. “I have very dark thoughts. I will be honest, it is difficult.
“I haven't really had a normal family life,” she explains. “I had a violent upbringing on my father's side when I was a very young kid. Then I went to my mum, who was also very depressed. As a child, it's so hard to take away all this pain. You can hear it in my lyrics. [But] it can be a beautiful thing, and that's what it is. I don't have to feel this pain and hate it so much.”
Heartworms has evolved into way more than just music. It’s a multimedia project, one where she takes it upon herself to design and sew her own merchandise, along with exploring her interest in fashion. “I don’t even know what the style is anymore,” she says. “It’s very goth, but still military with the control.” The image of Heartworms is all about projecting power: shoulder pads and “collars tight around my neck” are what makes Orme feel the strongest.
She also explains that having her neck exposed makes her “too feminine”, and comes connected to the previous sexism that she’s faced. “It is maybe PTSD from feeling like I was not good enough for music because I was female,” she admits. “Maybe I’ll be more accepted, be respected a bit more [if I do that]. Not saying that should be the case, but that's how I feel.”
You can see why Orme is so keen for Heartworms to be acknowledged as a solo project, when it’s often mistaken for a band. “I always get agitated and angry because they don’t see how much work I put behind this,” she says, impassioned. “It's a world I'm building and I get to design it how I want to, with no one telling me otherwise.”
I want people to know I see them, but I also like to make them feel uncomfortable.”
Orme sees the world differently, and earlier this year she discovered why when she was diagnosed with ADHD and autism. She says her whole family are on the spectrum, too: “We always find it difficult to show love, but we are very emotional people. We always want to be seen by each other, but we would never see each other,” she describes. “I never knew I was on the spectrum until recently. I wasn't able to be seen. I was like, ‘Why am I like this?’”
For Orme, who struggles with eye contact and has had some turbulent school experiences, music expresses her thoughts where traditional communication often creates boundaries. “Words don’t always describe how you see anything, they’re such a filter,” she explains. “I wish I could just give people an emotion. That’s what the music does. You don't have to talk to people, you don't have to confront people, you're confronting yourself. And that was something I was never afraid to do.”
Clearly, it’s paying off. The musician is due to play Camden’s Roundhouse with The Last Dinner Party in April, the same venue where she previously supported Sports Team. She used to work at the space, often dancing whilst scanning people’s tickets: “I always believed that I would play one day, but I didn't believe it would be that quick!” she laughs.
Heartworms is also supporting The Kills in America next year, and Orme can barely contain her excitement for visiting New York. “I can't stop thinking about it,” she smiles. “I hate tall buildings, but I'm so excited to be scared a bit!”
From busking for rent to basking in the South London scene, it’s fair to say Orme’s trajectory has been explosive. But on a personal level, Heartworms has morphed into a unique validation of her personality after years of trying to find herself. “I've always tried to fit in so people could see me,” she says. “That didn't work out, so I was like, well, I just have to be myself then.”
As featured in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of DIY, out now.