Olivia O’Brien On “I Hate U, I Love U,” Solo Songs & Being Real: Interview

Olivia O'Brien's "Find What You're Looking For"
Olivia O'Brien gets emo (again) on new single "Find What You're Looking For." Listen.

Olivia O’Brien established herself as one of 2016’s break-out pop stars with a career-making feature on gnash’s “I Hate U, I Love U” — a song that racked up astronomical streaming numbers, cracked the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold platinum. It didn’t take long for the 17-year-old to be snapped up by a major label and her first solo single, “Trust Issues,” arrived in August via Island Records. Since then, the singer/songwriter has showcased her versatility with bouncy Blackbear collaboration “Root Beer Float” and moody break-up anthem “Find What You’re Looking For.”

I recently caught up with the newcomer in LA and she explained the very organic way “I Hate U, I Love U” came together after she brought the idea to gnash. Olivia also opened up about the ways her life has changed since the song broke big, from becoming more confident to meeting her idols. (Keep your fingers crossed for a Kehlani collaboration!) The talented teenager also spoke about the need to keep it real and speak her mind. Get to know the rising star in our Q&A below.

How did “I Hate U, I Love U” come about? I did a cover of one of gnash’s songs, he only had one song out at the time, one original song, and I posted it and he gave me free tickets to the show he was opening up for Black Bear. I went and he asked if I had any original stuff and I sent him the beginnings of “I Hate U, I Love U,” and it kind of just happened from there.

How far along was the demo? I’m pretty sure I sent him the lyrics first and then he was like, “Oh, do you have any melodies or anything?” So I sent him a voice note of me singing it and I had the chorus and all that stuff, but it was pretty rough.

Were you surprised how the song turned out? The production on it is super basic and simple so it wasn’t too much of a crazy difference, but it was pretty cool because I never really recorded anything before that, I did it all on my phone, so it was cool to hear my voice in that way because I had never really done that.

What was the inspiration for the song? It was about a boy back home. I liked him, he liked another girl, typical. At the time I was really sad about it, but I honestly haven’t thought about him in over a year probably… life changes. I still relate to things I said in the song, so those feelings are kind of universal and interchangeable and even though I felt it for that guy a long time ago, I’m feeling it for someone else now. It goes to show you how relatable it really is. Nowadays in the industry it’s impossible to find a song that authentically and organically gets on the charts, but it happened for us and it just shows you how real it is. It’s pretty crazy.

How weird is it to hear the song on the radio? At first it was weird, but now I’ll turn on my car and they’ll be playing it. It still hasn’t really hit me, I still don’t really understand how big it is. Yesterday I was out and some guy came up to me and he was like, “Oh my God I’m a huge fan, can we take a video of us singing ‘I Hate U, I Love U,’ together?” And we took a video of us singing and it was just so crazy to me. I was like, “You know who I am?” I was probably more excited about it than he was.

Has the journey been exciting or stressful? It’s definitely stressful. I have a lot of anxiety when it comes to performing, I just have a lot of anxiety in general. I think I’m a lot happier than I was when I was in school. Not to say that I’m super confident now because I still feel like I have trouble with that stuff, but I’m definitely better off than I was when I was in Napa. I was just afraid to be myself, I was afraid to dress the way I wanted to and say the things I wanted to and post the things I wanted to and now I’m much more open, much more accepting of myself.

Did you always want to be a singer? No. Not at all. That’s the crazy thing. I was good in school. I took honors classes, AP classes, I got straight A’s. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college but I wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to a good school and I wanted to have a career and make money. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, though. It’s not that I didn’t always dream of it when I was a kid. When I was really little I wanted to be a dancer and I wanted to be an actress, but I always wrote songs. I always wrote songs in my room, and I didn’t think anything of it. I was like, “I couldn’t make it as a singer, I couldn’t do that,” and then it kind of started happening.

What inspired you to cover gnash’s song in the first place? I got a keyboard for Christmas or my birthday or something. My dad bought it for me because I wanted to start writing more songs. I actually had played guitar before that. My dad’s totally supportive, I don’t live with my mom anymore. She’s in Napa. She didn’t really want me to do any of this, but my dad’s really supportive. He’s my business manager, he handles all my money and does everything for me. He travels with me. But yeah, he bought me a keyboard and I was like, “I’m going to start doing this.” I did covers of a lot of different songs and I just enjoyed it. I think it’s fun to do a lot of different things with my voice, like try singing stuff different ways.

How did you settle on your sound? I haven’t really settled on a sound, honestly. I have a lot of songs and I think when you listen to them all through it’s like, “Was this all the same artist?” Because it doesn’t sound like it. I work with a lot of different producers also, so every beat is super different and I like that. I like a lot of different genres. I like alternative rock and I like hip hop. I don’t see any reason why I can’t put both those genres on my album.

Do you have a bigger body of work on the way? I want to release an album because I have a lot of music and I just want to have stuff out. I want to be able to do shows and I want to spread my message. I want everyone to hear what I’m doing. Hopefully I’m going to release an album at the beginning of next year. I’m excited about it, but I don’t want it to all sound alike. There are a lot of artists where I’ll listen to their albums and every song is exactly the same — is this the next song or is this the same song I was listening to before? And I don’t want that.

You have casually released a lot of songs this year. They’re just to put stuff out there, honestly. Technically they’re singles because I’m releasing a single song but they’re not like… I’m not trying to take over radio or anything. I just wanted people to hear my music, I wanted to have stuff out, and I wanted to make sure that people didn’t think that “I Hate U, I Love U” is the only style that I can do because I know that all my music already is very different from that.

How do you feel about getting famous? I mean, it’s a little concerning. I just want to kind of hold on to not being famous for awhile because it’s cool to me right now, I’m in a good place because if you ask anyone, do you know the song “I Hate U, I Love U,” they’ll be like, “Yeah.” But when I tell them that’s me, they’re really surprised. No one knows who I am, they just know the song. I think that’s so funny and cool but I know if I want to have success in my career, you know, it comes with fame. I’m accepting it as something that has to happen but I’m not really forcing it. I’m not trying to speed up the process. If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

You have no filter on Twitter. Can you see that changing? I don’t think so because that’s my whole platform. I’m real and I say whatever I feel, whatever I want to say. That’s what is so relatable about it. No one’s being real anymore. I feel like I’ve heard the same lyrics a million times. That’s why I like rap music so much, because rappers are so real, they talk about deep stuff — their lives and what happened to them when they were young and their songs are really lyrically driven and really wordy and just tell a story. That’s what I like and that’s what I want to do.

Who do you look up to, artist-wise? Definitely Frank Ocean. He’s just incredible, everything he does is incredible. I don’t think he’s ever had a bad song. He does things that no one else does, that’s the only thing that really matters to me. You have to be your own person, you have to be your own artist. If you’re not, then what’s the point of doing something everyone’s doing? Then it’s literally just to make money and just to be famous. It’s mind-boggling to me that someone would want to do that.

It just doesn’t make any sense but Frank, he’s just one of those people who’s really authentic and doesn’t get caught up in anything and is clearly himself and really raw and it’s great. Also, I love Kehlani, she’s really cool. I absolutely love her. She’s just a great person. I recently became friends with her and she’s the sweetest, most amazing, caring person ever and her music is incredible. Me and my friends are literally her biggest fans, like we know every single word to every single one of her songs.

Is it weird to become friends with someone you looked up to? I mean, at first. When I first started meeting famous people, I felt really weird about it. But now it’s almost kind of normal. I actually really like it because even though they didn’t know who I was, I knew who they were and I feel like I already knew them and it’s great to be able to text them, talk to them, and be in their lives. When you look up to someone, the ultimate goal is to be their friend.

Will there be any collaborations on this album? I’m definitely hoping to collaborate with Kehlani. I’m so excited about it. We have some stuff in the works right now. I’m really, really, really, really excited about that, it’s like a dream come true. Yeah, I want to collaborate with other people. I just saw Blackbear, he’s another one of my favorite artists and that’s how I met gnash. I have a song with him. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll have a song with Frank Ocean, that would be crazy.

Will there be another song with gnash? I think we both are kind of doing our own thing right now and, obviously, we’re friends and we do shows together, but he has his career, I have my career and we have to focus on our own stuff. I think our sounds are really different. It could happen, it might not happen. I wouldn’t be opposed to it but I’m not like, “I have to do another song with him, you know?” I think if he wants to do another song, if we have a good idea and we work on something together and it’s good, then yeah, but I don’t feel like I need to force anything to happen. It’s kind of a once in a lifetime hit song.

Is it exciting to almost start from scratch again? Yeah. You know, I wrote that song when I was 15 and I turn 17 next week. It’s only 2 years, but when you’re a teenager… I’m a completely, completely different person than I was. Especially with everything that’s happened, I think it’s made me a better person. I’m just so different and I have a lot more to say.

Do you ever feel you have to censor yourself because of your age? I used to be afraid that my dad would hear it and be mad at me but I don’t care about that at all anymore, so now I just do whatever I feel like. I mean I don’t want to ever lie about stuff. I want to be completely, 100 percent authentic in everything that I do. So like I go out and party with my friends and I drink and I smoke weed sometimes. Everyone does it, it’s not crazy. I’m not doing anything that harmful. Why lie about it, you know?

If I did ever get really famous and I was in the club, people would take pictures of me and people would find out. Either way, why lie about it? I don’t see the point and people can relate to stuff that is real and stuff people actually do, which is the stuff I sing about, so I don’t have any censor. I don’t understand how there are still scandals when an 18 year old artist is drinking in the club or something. Like of course. Of course they are.

Do you a favorite album or song of the year? I think Rihanna’s album was one of my favorite projects ever, so definitely of this year. She’s incredible and I think she’s doing really great because she’s been like a pop star, she’s always done cool pop with hip hop and R&B influences and really cool stuff, but she’s getting weirder, which I love. Like “Higher,” that song is crazy. Absolutely crazy. It’s really incredible, and there’s a lot of variety in the album — think about “Higher” and “Woo.” They are completely different but somehow on the same album and they work and I love that, I love that. She’s a huge inspiration to me.

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