I meet up with Olivia in the basement of The Cuckoo Club, ahead of her exclusive debut album listening session at the iconic central London venue. The slender and elegant 19-year-old is sitting on a leather sofa, cross-legged and scrolling through her phone. She gets up and shakes my hand the minute she sees me, before amusingly adding, with a linear and slightly nasal tone: “that was awkward, let’s hug”. Her laid-back and straightforward personality emanates a sweet feeling of empathy. It’s refreshing.
In conversation, Olivia tells me about her early days as an artist, which mainly consisted of her writing songs in her bedroom and uploading them on SoundCloud. Her career as a musician properly kicked off in 2016 with the release of her monumentally successful single “i hate u, i love u” that she wrote in direct collaboration with American hip-hop artist Gnash. This joint effort turned out to be highly rewarding, and acted as an effective jumpstart for the artist’s progress into the music industry: the song reached number ten on the Billboard hot 100 charts in the United States, leading to a record deal with Island Records. Since then, Olivia has been building a steady blueprint for herself by dropping her well-received debut EP It’s Not That Deep, and a bunch of critically acclaimed singles and features after that.
Having spent the last few years experimenting with different sounds, Olivia will return with her debut full-length Was It Even Real later this spring — a project she’s been longing to bring to life: “I’ve released a few songs and a short project but I haven’t had like a full-length album out yet, so this album coming out is like kinda what I’ve been living up to the entire time”, she comments on her creative journey. The album will include the previously released I Don’t Exist, Love Myself and Care Less More, amongst other poppy, promising and emotional titles.
Despite her young age, the rising star shows the unique ability to provide a wise and profound commentary on society, judgment and self-esteem. Throughout her music, Olivia depicts the struggles of evolving as a teenage girl in an individualistic and not-so-flawless world, in which she’s been dealing with depression for the past eight years. Paradoxically, she perceives her condition as a blessing in disguise, since it represents her main source of inspiration: “I started writing when I was in school and didn’t really fit in, I was just bullied a lot. Now I’m kinda grateful for it because I spent a lot of time alone in my room, like writing about how I felt, it was my escape for everything, like my therapy” — she pauses — “I think if I had had a great, happy childhood and teen years, then I probably wouldn’t be writing, so it’s kind of a silver lining”, she says with a hint of irony.
Similarly to other artists of her generation — such as Billie Eilish and Bea Miller to only name a few —, raising awareness about mental illness resides at the center of Olivia’s creative project. “I ended up being helpful to the people who can’t put their emotions into words. You know, I can do that for them”, she says while mentioning the strong relationship she has with her audience. However, further down the conversation, she explains that putting the spotlight on such topics was never an intentional decision: “I’m not like “oh I don’t wanna raise awareness”, but again, it kinda happened as a happy accident, like, I just wanted to express my feelings”, she clarifies.
Does saying her feelings out loud help to heal the wounds from her childhood and adolescence? “I don’t know if it helps to heal anything from the past, but if I’m feeling it at the moment, like if I’m feeling upset or whatever, I can go and just write about it, and I’ll be able to move on with my day a lot better because I have all my feelings written down”, she says. “Writing is for sure like a therapy for me. Even if I can’t say how I feel, I can somehow write it in a song”.
Even though bringing such important issues to the forefront represents an opportunity for the public to better understand them — and therefore, care — the artist believes that it can also have an adverse effect sometimes: “some people will perceive mental illness as a trend to make more money, so that’s like the downside of it”, she claims.
Fairly active on social media, the artist tends to receive huge amounts of messages and comments from fans dealing with similar issues. Aware of her impactful position, she perceives this as an opportunity to share empowering advice with them: “I say this a lot but we’re all humans, we all have the same emotions. Now, some people don’t feel things to a certain extent — like not everyone has clinical depression — but everyone gets sad, everyone can be happy, feeling left out or feeling like they don’t fit. Everyone goes through that”, she says, before adding “I think talking about it helps people be like “oh this is normal” and makes them feel better about it, I guess”.
Ready to go and hit the stage, Olivia pauses and quickly confesses: “it’s for the people who relate, like the one in ten or the one in twenty that hears the song and it really speaks to them. That’s what it’s for, really.”
You can stream Olivia O’Brien’s Care Less More, below.