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Olivia O’Brien Reveals How She Turned Her Songwriting Hobby Into a Pop Career

Olivia O'Brien
Courtesy of Emily Tan

Olivia O’Brien never thought she would grow up to become a musician, but one day, DJ and producer gnash reached out to the California teen to collaborate on a song called “i hate u, i love u.” Once it hit the airwaves in 2016, the song became an instant hit, and Olivia’s life changed forever.

Since then, the rising artist has been writing nonstop, raking up the streams on Spotify and SoundCloud and building a fan base online. “I’m excited to share my new music because it’s more me and about things that I actually care about,” the 17-year-old shared with us before her first-ever performance at Mercury Lounge in New York City last week (August 14).

Below, Olivia opens up about her music video for “RIP,” how she got into songwriting and why maintaining honesty on social media is so important.

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What was the first song you wrote about?
I was five. I can’t remember!

Most people know you because of your collaboration with gnash, “i hate u, i love u.” How did that song change your life?
I didn’t have a career path before I did that song. I didn’t consider music at all. Then the song went on the radio, and I was like, “Oh, I should probably be a singer.” So without it, I wouldn’t be doing music at all. It was always something I did in my room. But it wasn’t something I thought would be a career. As I said, [songwriting] was something I did since I was five. I didn’t really even write them down, but I would sing and make things up. But when I was seven and actually learned how to write words and took a family guitar lesson, I started writing things like “verse one” and acted like I knew what I was doing. So it’s something I’ve always done but never thought would be a career.

How does it feel having your songs out there and all the attention you’re getting?
I don’t know. It’s not like I’m super famous or anything. I think I have some of the benefits, like I have an audience on social media. So when I have something important to say, I feel like they are willing to listen to me. And I love that, but I’m also not famous to the point where there’s paparazzi or I get bombarded by fans when I look ugly or something. I feel like I have the perks without the downsides right now, which I really like. I don’t really want to be super famous. Although I know if I want to have a successful career, it’s something I’ll have to deal with. Right now, I’m just enjoying being in a middle ground.

You’re not afraid to talk about anything in your songwriting. How honest do you feel you get with your songs?
I try to be as honest as possible. The songs I have out right now… people still relate to them or whatever. But I’m as honest as I am now, so there are songs that no one’s ever heard. I’m excited to share my new music because it’s more me and about things that I actually care about.

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You have a strong following on social media. Is there anything that you’ve ever regretted saying online?
I feel like people are really sensitive to that sort of thing, and I try to be really conscious of that. Sometimes I just word something slightly wrong, and people will think I mean a totally different thing. Especially I have to remember that for some people, English isn’t their first language on the Internet. When I use certain slang, it can get super confusing for [them]. But I try to be conscious of that for the most part. I’m not going to say anything offensive. I’m not that kind [of person]. I just wouldn’t. If I do say anything that I regret, it’s usually a misunderstanding. I know I tweet a lot about Donald Trump and what’s happening, but I don’t regret that stuff because it’s my opinion.

Can you talk about “RIP” and how much input you had when it came to the video?
Well, actually I co-directed that video. I came up with the treatment for it and gave it to Chandler [Lass], who directed “Empty,” which was my first video ever. I sent her my written treatment, and she made it a real treatment and got everything together. It was really cool because I pretty much came up with the concept. So I’m really excited about that.

Dream collaborations?
SZA. I love SZA. She’s my favorite artist. Her new album is my favorite album ever. I could listen to it on repeat for the rest of my life and never get tired of it. I listen to it practically every day. I think she’s amazing. She writes her own stuff. She is an amazing performer. She’s an amazing vocalist. She’s beautiful, and she’s all around amazing. She’s the coolest person ever.

Let’s talk about your upcoming EP. You said it shows who you are. What else can you tell us about it?
I didn’t get to put too many songs on it. Two of the songs, “Empty” and “RIP,” are already out. I think two, or possibly three, more songs will be on it, and they’ll be more mature than other songs that I’ve put out. Then again, by the time music comes out, it’s kind of old. So I pretty much wrote most of the songs last year, like the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017. But it’s still fresher and newer than the stuff I’ve put out. I’m more and more excited about the projects I’m going to put out after that, too.

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