gnash On “I Hate U, I Love U,” Feelings & Collaborators: Interview
gnash caught lightning in a bottle with “I Hate U, I Love U.” A frank reflection on a failed relationship, the stripped-back track became an online phenomenon (it has been streamed 30+ million times on SoundCloud) and then proved its commercial chops by topping the charts in Australia. The genre-defying song is now taking off stateside, recently debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 93.
I recently caught up with the unintentionally-mysterious 22-year-old to discuss his breakthrough hit and trio of EPs, which document the various stages of a break-up. Needless to say, gnash isn’t afraid to talk about his feelings and the way he uses music to document his life. The LA-based wordsmith also explained how he met his duet partner Olivia O’Brien and opened up about paying it forward with collaborators. Get to know him a little better in our Q&A below.
The song is just taking off over here, but it’s been huge in Australia. What happened? People heard it and people loved it. Something connected in Australia and that made it so everybody else was like, “Wow, this thing is on radio level… on a bigger level.” You know, it’s been an internet thing for a long time. Huge thanks to the entire country of Australia because without that like, none of the markets in America would trust that it would work. None of the markets in wherever else it’s about to pop. I can’t really explain how it started, but I’m thankful for it nonetheless.
You’re a bit of a mystery. Why is there so little information about you online? I think that I’ve just been a little hesitant to do interviews. I’ve been very good with my words my whole life. My parents used to call me the mayor of the street that I lived on because I would go and introduce our family to the new neighbor. I’ve never been afraid to talk to people. I just think that I wanted to let the personality of the music get out to the world first. Then let out my actual core personality, which isn’t different from the music.
The music that people know as gnash right now is a very specific feeling and a vibe. I wanted that to get conveyed via the music because what I say in the songs is so specific and it’s so detail-oriented that a lot of the story gets conveyed if you just go and listen to the other stuff. I wanted to let people enjoy that journey with me and learn about who I am as a person by listening to all of my stuff. If they find “I Hate U, I Love U” first, great.
I wanted them to feel how I feel when I discover an artist that I’ve never heard of before, that nobody knows about yet. That’s a really gratifying feeling. Like when I discovered Lorde. Granted it was on Hype Machine, and I’m sure there was 10,000 other people discovering her with me, but that’s not the millions and millions. I heard “Love Club” first and I showed my friends. I was like, “Yo, ‘Love Club.’ This is a crazy song.”
Everybody was like, “No, ‘Royals’ is a hit.” I was like, “Cool, but I really like ‘Love Club.'” That’s kind of how that developed for me. There’s something so cool about not knowing anything about an artist but knowing everything about them because you feel like you’ve studied their lyrics. Now I’m starting to do interviews. The biggest thing I’m looking forward to in interviews is just saying, “First of all, you can say my name however you want, but the G is silent.” I just want to get that across.
Are you excited to start telling your story? It’s super exciting to me. The only reason I’m hesitant is because I’m hesitant on every question I answer on interviews. Anything that’s going public I have to really think about everything I say because things get so heavily scrutinized, as they should. Picked apart. I’m super excited about people learning more about me. I just hope that they listen and they say, “Hey, I like this guy,” because I have this huge thing with people not liking me, as everybody does.
You know what I mean? That’s the only reason that I would be even like, a little bit hesitant about people learning more about me. Because the more that people know about me, the more they have to draw an opinion on me. Right now I like that people just like my songs.
Did you suspect the song was going to be huge when you first put it out? First, any amount of success I’ve ever had is more success than I thought I was going to have. That’s a poor quoting of a Kanye West quote that I saw in an interview right in between College Dropout and Late Registration. I really identified with that. The only inkling that I had towards “I Hate U, I Love U” is that it’s a beautiful song. It means a lot to me and when I wrote it it was very cathartic and expressed exactly what I needed to. Everybody started to relate to it.
When I make a song, I drop it the same night unless it’s for a project or an EP that I’ve been working on. With “I Hate U, I love U,” I made it and put it on SoundCloud and I went inside — I made it in the garage — and I woke my mom up. I don’t usually do that, so that was a good sign. I said, “I just put out the biggest song that I’ve ever put out. I just dropped the biggest song I’ve ever released.” She was like, “Okay, honey. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
How did you find Olivia O’Brien? Super cool story. Olivia enjoys my music quite a bit. I don’t want to call her a fan by any means. At the time, she just looked up to me big time. I put out two covers “Suga Suga” and “CoCo,” and then I put out my first original song called “Disposable” in February of last year. Because I had put out a couple covers, I was really excited about the first people that were going to cover my stuff.
She dropped a cover of “Disposable” that was just her on a voice note playing on a piano in her living room. I was like, “Yo, this is really dope.” I sent it to my mom. My mom really liked it, so that’s when I knew that it was cool. There was no like, tuning. There was no way for her to have morphed this at all. It was clearly a voice note and she had a really nice, true voice. I really liked it.
I played it for everybody on the tour I was on. Everybody was like, “Yo, this is actually really dope.” I followed her on Twitter and DM-ed her. I was like, “Yo, I really love your cover. Would love to have you at a show at one of these tour stops if there’s still one that’s close to you. She’s like, “Oh, I live in the Bay. I can totally come to the San Francisco one.” She told me she was 15 and I was like, “Yo, I found the next Lorde.” Well, I didn’t find her. She found me.
At the show, she took pictures with me and stuff. I was like, “No, no. You don’t understand. You’re a superstar. You need to like, send me some original stuff whenever you write it.” We talked about where my songs come from for the next couple days. Then, the communication kind of fell apart. About a month later she hit me and was like, “Yo, I don’t really trust anybody else’s opinion. Here’s this voice note that I did. Let me know what you think.”
It was the chords and the intro and the hook for “I Hate U, I Love U.” She had a second verse in there as well. I was like, “Yo, this is amazing. I would love to help you with this and fine tune this and make this great.” I made the beat out of the chords, sent that to her and we went back and forth a bunch of times. Eventually, she came down to L.A. and cut the song. I got really, really attached to it because it was just so pretty. I was like, “Yo, would you be down with me dropping this?” We dropped it as me featuring her, and the rest is history.
How did you come up with the concept for your EPs? The three EPs are called U, Me and Us. That’s a journey through a break-up, finding yourself and finding something new. Also the universality of that, of how everything circles back. The whole thing is continuous and it has one consistent production style and one consistent writing style. I wanted to make the guidebook as I went through that journey so that when people did it in the future they know they aren’t alone.
All of my stuff is to let people know that they’re not alone. I made the three EP series so that people can go back to the jump and be like, “Yo, I feel this way right now.” Start, play, and hopefully by the end of the 21 songs… maybe not the first listen, but maybe 10th or however many they want to stream it because please do, they’ll understand that somebody else gets it. Somebody else understands. Yeah, I’m there for them.
You feature so many new artists on the EPs. Where do you find these people? I don’t know where songs are going to come from, but when I hear them and I like them I use them. The idea was that the whole thing was going to be duets. That was my idea from the beginning, and then it just so worked out that my biggest, most successful song was to be placed on the last EP of duets. It worked very concisely. All of the songs I made at different times throughout the process.
In regards to finding people and making songs, Goody Grace is my little homie that I met through my big brother Cisco Adler. He basically was like, “Yo, you should work with this dude.” We wrote that one song together three years ago when he was 16. Now we’ve continued to collaborate. I’ve seen him grow as an artist and as a songwriter, and then we keep working together.
Wrenn, I met through mutual friends. Liphemra, I met through 4e. They showed me a song that had her on it. I was like, “I want to work with this girl.” Then I worked with her, with them on the production. I find something online or whatever. It’s just about reaching out. The coolest thing about it is there’s nothing more I enjoy in the world than putting other people on.
What is my success if it’s not to be shared? I think that there’s no point in having money or having fame or having success if you’re not down to do good. Those people all came to the table with the best that they possibly can and that’s what I respect them for. “Fragile” for example, I had the guitar riff ready, but Zoe, the first time we hung out, she had that cool “You haven’t seen me shake yet.” Then I just mashed it and that was a song.
They all come together super organic and there’s no finessing. There’s no like, “If I work with this person then I’ll meet this person.” Me and Alex Hope right now. I’m not in with her to meet all the people that she’s worked with. I brought Alex in because I’m like, “Yo, you’re one of the first people I’ve worked with in a long time who understands how my brain works. I would like to make hundreds of songs with you if I can and see which ones float to the top.” That’s what we’re doing right now.
All good music comes out of a great place. Not a business place. I’ve never connected with anybody over like, “Yo, we could make a lot of money off of this,” I guess is what that comes down to.
I’ve seen you referred to as a hip-hop artist and an indie singer/songwriter. How do you view yourself? To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it. Everybody can keep trying to categorize me however they want. There’s no answer to that, really. The best answer I can give is, the first placement I had before I even started putting out music, was with my friend G-Eazy. I sent him a bunch of things and I produced the song “Think About You” on his album. They added to it and it’s amazing.
He was like, “Yo, you just have these chords that are so happy sad.” Then I kind of ran with that. My label is called Happy Sad and my genre is happy sad. That’s kind of become the whole thing. When people say, “What kind of music do you make?” I just say, “It’s happy sad,” because it’s all about balance and it’s all about finding a medium. Yeah.
Genres are all bleeding into each other these days. Yeah. I mean, yo. The coolest songs, my favorite songs… take Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me.” Is that a rap song? Is that a singing song? It’s just a dope song. It’s just a hit. They can play it on whatever radio station. Twenty One Pilots. That’s another one. There are deep house songs on that record. There’s like, full-on reggae songs and then they’re getting on KROQ right now.
I think the blogosphere totally broke that wall down and was like, “Yo, music is music if it’s dope.” That’s what blogs were and that’s why that changed everybody’s mindset on it. Now that has filtered to the artist level where we’re like, “Yo, nobody wants to put us in boxes anymore? We can do whatever we want? Thank you, Internet. Let’s just go do it.” You know?
How far along are you with the album and who are you working with? I mean, first and foremost, I’m working with myself and it’s going great. [Laughs]. I’m working with new people and working with old people that I like. Not old people, like some old people, but old people. The album is going to be like my other projects. It’s how I feel when I’m making it and it’ll be out of context of like, that point in my life. This one is going to have a story and it’s going to have a message that is hopefully going to change a lot of things. Like how people look at their phones too much and have given up on kind of talking to people. That’s what I’m trying to convey with the album.
I just think that it’s going to make a difference in people’s lives because that’s why I make music in the first place is to help people. That’s pretty much all I know about my album right now. The thing is, when I have a new song, you’re going to hear it immediately. I might just drop my whole album before it’s out and then just be like, “Oh, that was the album.” You know what I mean? You never know.