Back in 2016, there was one indie pop song that came out of nowhere and, for a time, took over the world with its surprisingly stripped and toned-down approach to heartbreak. Previously unknown musicians Gnash and Olivia O’Brien teamed up to create the infectious “I Hate U, I Love You,” and nothing has been the same for either of them. The tune, which rose all the way to the top 10 on the Hot 100 in the U.S. and performed similarly on charts all around the globe, turned the two into artists to watch, and they’ve been producing excellent music ever since.
Now, O’Brien is getting ready to finally give fans her hotly-anticipated debut album, which arrives at the end of April. I spoke with the young songwriter about what that global hit meant to her and how she’s changed in the years since she broke into the mainstream unexpectedly.
Your debut album Was It Even Real? is coming out at the end of this month. How does it feel to finally be putting it out into the world?
Olivia O’Brien: It’s definitely been a long time coming, and it’s been testing my patience for sure. If I’m being honest, I’m already thinking about and working on my next project because I’ve had these songs ready for so long that I sometimes forget they aren’t all out yet. I think it will hit me really hard when the project is actually out, but for now it still kind of feels like it’s not really happening.
What can fans expect from this album?
O’Brien: A lot of the songs on the album came out before the whole project but I think there are still going to be some surprises. I’d say that each song sounds pretty different from the next, and furthermore, sounds really different from stuff I’ve put out in the past. I drew influence from not only R&B, but also disco, indie rock, punk rock, and even jazz.
What's different about the album from the EP you released a year and a half ago?
O’Brien: This album is definitely more of a cohesive project that tells a story, rather than a collection of songs, as I’d say the EP was. I also have matured in my writing and learned more about what I like when it comes to production and sounds.
It's been two years since you broke out in a major way thanks to Gnash's "I Hate U, I Love U"--what did it feel like at the time to see that song explode in popularity all around the world?
O’Brien: It didn’t feel real at all. I had no expectations for that song whatsoever and it’s probably the reason why I believe life is a simulation because there’s truly no way I could have predicted what happened.
What do you think it was about that song that made it so popular?
O’Brien: I think people are craving realness nowadays. Way too many people are depressed and going through some tough shit, and it helps to have music that makes you not feel so alone.
A lot of people are also starting to see through the facade of contrived bullshit that we’ve seen too much of in pop music and social media. I wrote that song as a heartbroken 15-year-old girl in a small town expecting no one to hear it...
It doesn’t get more vulnerable and real than that. Now that I’ve grown and developed as an artist, I feel like I look at that song as if it was made by a different artist.
It’s like I can almost see it from an objective or outside perspective because I have changed so much since then, which helps me realize why it had the success that it did. I’m happy to see a lot of songs becoming popular lately that have substance and meaning and were written about real-life situations. Things are definitely changing positively for popular music.
How did your life change after that song blew up?
O’Brien: My entire life changed in every possible way. I went from a high school kid to a full-time songwriter and recording artist. It was the beginning of my adult life and it was what made me realize my passion and calling in life. Having a song become popular was the push I needed to pursue my dreams, because I would have never had the confidence to do so without it.
You are in the middle of a tour right now, your first as a headliner, right? How does that feel?
O’Brien: It feels really special and incredible to have so many people coming to a show just to see me. There’s no feeling like looking out and seeing hundreds of people screaming your lyrics.
What does the rest of 2019 bring for you?
O’Brien: I like to take life one step at a time, so who knows? Hopefully more tours, more music, and more fun!