Q&A: Olivia O’Brien Opens Up About Childhood Struggles, Jack & Jack Tour, & Debut EP

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After a surprise jumpstart to her music career from the breakout hit “i hate u, i love u” with gnash, Olivia O’Brien has continued to blossom as she takes her career into her own hands. Making a name for herself with piercing, emotive lyrics and a distinct vocal style set against modern beats and production, Olivia O’Brien is finally releasing her first complete musical statement on her debut EP, It’s Not That Deep.

Only officially entering adulthood this month upon her 18th birthday, this young artist has already her share of life-changing experiences. O’Brien opened up to Ones To Watch during a Q&A, sharing her memories of dealing with bullies all throughout school and being outcast simply for going against the norm to express her individuality. Dodging all the negativity thrown her way as she grew up in Northern California, O’Brien has come out stronger and more self-aware. Now immersed in the perhaps even crazier LA scene, the budding singer-songwriter has even more material to draw from as she learns to navigate the facades of “fake friends” and broken relationships.

Fresh off the first half of a tour with Island Records label-mates Jack & Jack and following the release of her most recent single “No Love,” OTW had the chance to catch up with the rising artist and get the inside scoop on the stories behind her bold new EP.

Make sure to grab your tickets to catch Olivia O’Brien on the last leg of tour with Jack & Jack, and prepare to get all up in your feelings on It’s Not That Deep, her debut EP out today:

OTW: You’re from Napa, right? Born and raised?

Olivia O’Brien: Technically I was born in Thousand Oaks, but then I moved when I was a year old (but I don’t remember it). FamousBirthdays.com reaches out to everyone who has 10k followers on Instagram - it’s really funny, I thought I was so cool - and they ask you where you were born. I told them Thousand Oaks because that’s literally where I was born, and now everyone thinks that I’m from there. People will be ask, “Oh you’re from LA?” and I’m like, “No, I’m not!” (laughs)

So Napa is what you identify yourself with - what is that like? Is it pretty connected, does everyone kind of know each other?

Yes. I mean, it’s small, so everyone knows each other. But everyone’s a fucking asshole.

Oh wow, really?

Yeah, I had a terrible, terrible, terrible time growing up. When I was really little, it was fun. I went to a Montessori School, you know, for all the weird kids. I honestly thought I was so weird for going there - I had an obsession with lockers and school buses and school uniforms, because I thought that was normal. But now looking back, I’m really glad I went there, because that was the only time I really had fun in my childhood. Nobody cares there - we would all sit and have circle time and play the drums and sing songs, and play games on a field. It was just really fun.

And as soon as I started going to “normal” school - well, I went to Catholic school after that, so not exactly “normal” school (laughs) - if you did anything that was different, they just hated you. I skipped third grade too, and I got so much shit for that. They would call me a baby and say, “Oh, you’re a little kid.” I remember the first thing that this girl said to me when I walked into the fourth grade. I asked someone for math help, because, you know, I skipped a year of school, it was only my first day - and I asked this girl for help on a problem, and this other girl says, “Why’d you skip a grade if you’re so stupid?” Literally the first thing said to me. So that was pretty much my childhood.

Wow, kids are rough. Would you say that you’re stronger from those experiences?

Yeah, I’m glad that I got out of there.

How about high school, what was that like?

Oh, way worse. So much worse. I went to Catholic high school, too. I went to my elementary school fourth through eighth grade, but it was made for kindergarten through eighth grade. By the end of my time there I was kind of okay, getting used to it… it was better. But then I went to high school and it just all got worse again.

Oh my gosh, what was the problem?

Well, I can name many things. First of all, I used to try really hard to fit in and be normal and quiet, and then I started making covers on Soundcloud and going on social media more, seeing what people in other places were doing. And so I started getting more into fashion. I remember I wore Doc Martens and people were like, “Oh, are you emo now, are you goth?” And I was like, “No, I’m just wearing Docs.” (laughs) I wore high-waisted jeans and I got called a slut - I don’t know how that correlates to each other.

Do you remember ASKfm? It was anonymous, where people could ask you questions if you have an account. People were so mean on that. I remember too, I wore Adidas Superstars before they were cool, and people called them “nursing shoes.” They would pick on any possible thing.

And of course I made covers, so people would make fun of me for that. I posted an original song, really shitty, I just pressed record and played it on my piano, and uploaded it immediately on Soundcloud. I didn’t really show anyone, but these boys found it. We were on a field trip, and in the back of the bus they were listening to it and making fun of me. People just did not like me in high school.

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Have you heard from any of those people now, after the fact?

Some of them still live there if they didn’t go to college, and a lot of them did go to college, but I still get crazy comments from these people. It was mostly the kids in the grade above me. They’ll comment on my Instagram, just mean things. And that’s the only hate that I get. Still. It’s really sad honestly. Like I left, I don’t live there anymore… we have no relationship to each other. People are mean, and now they’re also just jealous. At first it was, “This girl’s weird, she’s making covers.” And when I started getting actual success, people were like, “What the fuck?” (laughs)

Wow, okay, so obviously I would guess that a lot of those feelings seep into your music, right?

Yeah, definitely. And I’ve noticed that a lot of the times LA can be kind of like a giant high school, too. Not with my close friends - I’ve met amazing people here. But there’s a group of people that’s just such a clique in the scene. It’s just like my high school.

Those are some very serious experiences you’ve had. So what would you say to kids who are maybe going through what you went through?

I would say that, even though it’s really impossible, you have to realize that high school and elementary school, middle school, whatever… in the end, you’re going to be past that and have a completely separate life from that. Yeah, growing up is important and the memories you make are important, but the people that are mean probably aren’t really going to go anywhere in life - because they’re mean and there’s obviously something going on with themselves. So you just have to remember that. Remember that one day you’ll be 35 and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I ever let those dumb people affect my life.”

Very true. Alright, so let’s talk about your music. Your lyrics are very upfront and raw. How did you initially begin developing your writing style? And how would you say it’s evolved since then?

I mean, I never really thought about it as a writing style. It was just something that I did. I just wrote down my feelings. I think it’s evolved with the kind of music I listen to.

What kind of music do you listen to?

Mostly R&B music. But I definitely go through phases. When I was a freshman in high school, I was obsessed with alternative rock, and then I started getting into emo Soundcloud music, like Spooky Black, just really sad, obscure music. Now I’m kind of getting back to that. I listen to Rex Orange County and Joe G. But most of my writing is influenced by Kehlani and SZA. Those are my two main influences.

Cool. When you start making a song, does it start with lyrics first in an acoustic style before adding the electronic production side of it?

It’s different every time. With “i hate u, i love u” I just wrote it on the piano, there’s not much production on that song anyway, I just wrote it in my room. I wrote “Trust Issues” over a beat I found on Soundcloud. It started out as me kind of freestyling the first verse, and then I ended up going in with a producer and finishing it. So sometimes that happens where I have a little bit of a song and then I go in and they’ll have something that I play it over. It’s honestly different every time, you can never know. Lately I’ve liked writing to one instrument and then doing production after that, because I think it just creates a better song that way and you can go in any direction you want with it.

Makes sense. I hear you mentioning Soundcloud a lot. Are you a Soundcloud-to-the-grave kind of person?

(Laughs) I honestly don’t use it as much as I used to. But it’s pretty much how I got my start. I posted things on Soundcloud and used to only listen to the music on Soundcloud. It was like a culture. My freshman year of high school through sophomore year, it was everything.

Gotcha. How old are you now?

I’m 17. Well, I turn 18 this month.

Oh my god okay, you’re younger than I realized! Alright, so obviously “i hate u, i love u” was kind of your breakout, and then you’ve also had collaborations with blackbear and other artists. Are there any other dream collaborations with any other producers, rappers, or anyone else you’d be into?

Honestly, I don’t know. I would love to work with SZA, I would love to write a song with her. Just because the way that she writes is very interesting. You can tell by just listening to her music that she doesn’t write songs like a top-liner or whatever’s typical. But other than that, there’s not really a specific person I want to work with. Because in the music industry most collaborations are, “Who has the most radio play that can put a two-second verse on your song to get it popular?” And I just think that’s so stupid.

My music is about what I want to say. And first of all, if I’m not writing it with the person, I think that’s stupid. People literally have so many verses stored, that if someone wants a verse they just say, “Ooh, send over these ones that might work.” That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life. And with my EP coming out, I don’t have any features on it. Because I can write a full song, it’s not that hard. (laughs) So if anyone that I liked wanted to work with me and write with me, I’d be down, but there’s not someone that I just really want to have a feature with. And most of the people I listen to - would they ever work with me? Probably not. Like would Drake ever work with me? Maybe in like four years. (laughs)

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Maybe! So then how did those other collaborations come about?

Well I’ve only done a handful of collaborations. I used to work with this guy, his name is Jacob but he goes by a couple different names and does electronic music under his project Dapurr. I’ve done some stuff with him because gnash introduced me to him, and he actually introduced me to my best friend and roommate now, Maddie. So I’m thankful for that, but I haven’t worked with him in a while. We used to write together and mess around and released a couple things. With blackbear, I was a fan of him - that’s how I found gnash and everything came about - but I wanted to work with him. So we got in the studio and did that song together.

Cool. So going from being an independent artist, to breaking out and now being signed to Island Records, how was the transition? 

Everything happened really, really fast. I didn’t think that I was going to be a singer at all. That was not anything that I ever expected.

What did you think you were going to be?

I had no idea. I was always really good in school. I was in all honors classes, had like a 4.5 GPA my junior year. I was planning on going to an Ivy League school. And now I didn’t even finish high school, so that’s fun. (laughs)

I never had a passion other than music. I mean, I used to do dance, but what was I going to do with that? I wasn’t good enough to be a professional dancer. But then I also never thought I was good enough to be a professional singer, so there’s that. I was just kind of going through life thinking I was going to go to college like everyone else, and figure out what I want to do.

Do you have a better idea now of what your goals kind of are?

Yeah, I think it’s kind of constantly changing, like everything in life. I feel like I’m a new person everyday I wake up and I have a completely different perspective on life. I think if I didn’t have my label and those people helping me, I would literally still be living in Napa and wouldn’t be doing music. Because “i hate u, i love u” was the only song that I released. So if I hadn’t got on it, and told myself, “I want to do this now,” I wouldn’t be anywhere, and that song would’ve just came and passed. I would’ve just been left behind. So I’m happy that I had the initiative and went for it.

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Let’s talk about the tour. How did you cross paths with Jack & Jack?

I actually used to be a fan, it was so funny. They always make fun of me, but obviously in a friendly, light-hearted way. Johnson was telling me that he was going to make their visuals from my old fan-girl DM’s, like “Oh my god, I love you!” That would have been so fucking funny. But yeah, that’s how I met them. I actually sent them “i hate u, i love u” when I released it. I DM-ed them myself, “Listen to my song!” And then one day Johnson DM-ed me, because they had followed me when I was a fan, and he said “Yo, I didn’t realize who you were, that’s crazy.”

So we started texting and becoming friends. They had parties all the time, so I would go to their house. Then they signed to Island, so that was really cool. I was happy because then we were label-mates, and having your friends on the same label is really cool. It’s just easier to do stuff when someone’s on your same label, it’s an easier connection. And they were looking for someone to go on tour with them, so I was like, “Hey!” (laughs) It was pretty easy and pretty painless.

Let’s talk about your most recent single “No Love.” What’s the story behind that?

Well, there’s a lot. (laughs) A few months back, I was kind of in the whole mindset of “Let’s go out all the time, that’s the only way we can have fun.” I’d be surrounded by all these people, but everyone is exactly the same. They care about the same things, it’s like they’re not even real people. And every week, they’ll have new best friends and stab each other in the back and act fake to each other. It’s just disturbing to watch. These people aren’t your friends, they aren’t friends at all. So, I was just kind of realizing, “Shit, I’m in the Hollywood scene now and this is it. This is really shitty.”

I was just bothered by it. Realizing this isn’t cool, all these people aren’t nice. They just go to the club and sit there and try to look pretty. I want to dance and have fun, that’s what I thought it was all about, but it’s not. And I can dance and have fun by myself in my room if I want to, so I don’t really need to go to your club. I just kind of wrote “No Love” about that and the things I’ve seen here. The shitty people in the industry who just care about themselves and that’s it. They’re willing to literally do anything, take credit for other people, and they just act like they’re the sweetest person on the planet, and they’re just not. They have the whole world fooled, and it’s just really sad.

So I’m assuming you’re out of that now.

Yeah, I’m trying. (laughs)

It’s a transition. So your debut EP is coming out very soon. How are you feeling, and what can we expect?

I’m excited because I’ve been waiting for these songs to come out since forever! But there’s only going to be two new ones since “No Love” came out. So it’s five songs, but “Empty,” “RIP,” and “No Love” are on it. The two new songs are “Fuck Feelings” and “Tequila Wine,” so…

Cool, okay last question. Who are some up and coming artists that you like right now?

Billie Eilish for sure, Rex Orange County, and Joe G. There’s a lot, and I have a ton of friends in music too, like my best friend and roommate goes by DruMaq. A lot of his music is unreleased and super old, but I can’t wait for him to start releasing new music because he’s going to kill it. He wrote “RIP” with me and a couple other songs.

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