You may not know her, but you will know her song.
‘hate u love u’ is the club anthem that provided the soundtrack to last year’s summer. Though most people will be familiar with the song and its heartfelt lyrics, less will be aware that they were penned by a 17 (then 16) year old girl. That prodigy is California’s Olivia O’Brien.
Brought into the spotlight after being discovered by famed producer, Gnash, Olivia’s lyrics and vocals on the track were spread with an R&B veneer by the producer to create her first breakout hit. ‘hate u love u’ charted around the world and went to number one in Australia. Since then, Olivia has released a string of solo work, most recently the break up anthem ‘RIP’. The maturity of her songwriting is bringing O’Brien success at her tender age, and demonstrating that with over 1 billion streams to her name, she is ready to become one of the most sought after singers and songwriters in today’s music industry.
My chat with Olivia takes place on a usually sunny day in Los Angeles. She laughs that she’d rather swap places with me in cold and wet England to escape the “torturing” heat she’s currently enduring. Moments like this reveal that at heart, Olivia is still an ordinary teenager. She often giggles in an endearing and almost embarrassed way after answering my questions, despite her surprisingly mature responses. Nevertheless, her answers reveal that despite her age she’s well aware of her place as an artist in today’s industry, and that she’s going to stop at nothing to ensure that success comes on her terms.
The first inkling of O’Brien’s commitment to becoming an established solo artist comes when she tells me that her and Gnash have since parted ways professionally. “We both have a different music style now. We helped each other a lot in terms of getting each other exposure, and its really great that “hate u love u” was such a success for both of us. He’s a really great guy but at the moment our artistic visions just don’t meet.”
Perhaps this is the key to Olivia’s success at such a young age; her commitment to controlling as many aspects as her musical production as possible. She makes clear to me that she writes all of her songs, in case people suspect that she’s only there to sing other people’s work. “My music is my art and I guess that’s what makes me different to similar artists who are creating music in the electronic/ R&B genre. I try and exert 100% creative control, even over my album artwork; I’ll say to the artists “I want this”and we will work it around my vision. I will never be an artist controlled by managers and producers in terms of the work I put out there; they’re going to have to trust me with what I want!
“At the end of the day, its my vision and artistry that brought me success in the first place, and I always want to keep it as individual to me as possible.”
The interview catches Olivia in the middle of a photo shoot. This is another indication of one of the many facets to her image; her sense of style. Like most teenagers, she remarks that fashion and the clothes she wears are extremely important to her; almost as much so as her music. Furthermore its clear that once again, she won’t let anyone control her in this department. “In high school I was made fun of for the kind of clothes I wore. My school had a dress code, but I’d still try and bend the rules and be as individual as I could! In my freshman year I wore high-waisted seams and I’d regularly be branded a “slut” by other girls as a result; I was considered crazy if I tried to do anything different. Now I’m in LA I’m able to wear whatever the fuck I want. I’ve got nothing but positive press so I’ve got no plans to change that anytime soon.”
Olivia remarks that one her favourite and most recognisable outfit choices, camo pants, came after a browse through an army surplus store. She’s also convinced that the trip has made her a trend setter; “I started wearing them a few months ago and now I’m convinced literally everyone has started wearing camo pants!”
O’Brien retains her mixture of bubbliness and assurance as she talks me through her most recent release, the aforementioned track ‘RIP’. As is her style, the track is accompanied by a cinematic music video which she co directed. Her songwriting tackles the issue of a loved one becoming distant and unrecognisable, so much so that they may as well be “six feet in the ground.” “I tried to portray the song’s sentiment in the music video as literally as I could. I also wanted the video to be a little bit shocking for example, where I start smashing up the funeral scene. It probably wasn’t the kind of visual material people were expecting from a 17 year old girl but I’m always trying to break down people’s presumptions.” Olivia doesn’t reveal too many details about who the song was written about, but does say that the guy in question is aware her hit is about him. “I even asked him to appear in the music video, but he said no!”
Striving to not be pigeon-holed however, O’Brien’s songwriting is tackling more than just relationships. “Recently I’ve been writing a lot about my experiences of living in LA since I moved here from Napa Valley. Everyone seems to put up a front and nothing feels real or genuine. At the moment, that’s what my songwriting is preoccupied with. Those tracks will be coming out soon and I can promise that my new music is much better than my previous releases!”
An EP will be released by O’Brien over the next few months and she hopes to release an album next year. Until then its time to witness the embryonic stage in the fast developing career of this talented singer songwriter, whose youth and vibrancy is proving to be an asset more than a burden in her ascent to mainstream success.
Words by Paige Tracey