olivia o'brien interview

Olivia O’Brien: No Commercial Breaks

The quintessential Gen Z musician talks episodic experiences and real-life growing pains.

Photography
Jones Crow
Styling
Tina Arandjelovic
Hair
Caylee Jolene
Makeup
Eros Gomez

Much like the musically diverse and realistically disjointed nature of the first iteration of her latest body of work, Episodes: Season 1, few things about Olivia O’Brien’s journey from mainstream up-and-comer to queen of pop virality are entirely linear. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; much of the upward climb relied on artistic character development and lingered on cliffhangers while O’Brien — maybe without meaning to — forged a path destined to build an unbreakable foundation for a budding social artist. 

And there is no hiding that the road to 2021 has left O’Brien reigning victorious in her ventures as a musician. Though algorithms are hardly predictable, O’Brien seems to have distilled them somehow into a musical science. 

Her first radio hit, “hate u, love u” with gnash created new artist buzz and a slew of heart-wrenching covers by the likes of social stars such as Sam Tsui, and when snippets of tracks like “Josslyn” or “Now” hit social platforms, they didn’t just generate presaves. They bloomed into full-scale trends, bringing with them high-energy dances and dramatic POV-style content while practically shouting O’Brien’s name from the rooftops.

olivia o'brien cover

Now six years in the making, O’Brien’s rise is anything but traditional by old-school industry standards, but continues to unfold precisely how Gen Z’s typical consumption habits might infer: expeditiously. 

Episodes: Season 1 is part of the puzzle-esque culmination of the timeline, however out of order, that brought O’Brien closer to becoming the artist she strives to embody. But that certainly doesn’t mean that she is ready to stop growing.

“It definitely took me a while from [‘hate u, love u’] to really find my sound and it’s still obviously changing, as you can tell by how different this stuff is from my past releases,” O’Brien explains to EUPHORIA. “I feel like I’m constantly changing my sound because I didn’t have a thing. I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I’m doing this now, and here we go.’”

In their own unique array of duration and intensity, those songs and stages that built O’Brien as an artist were episodes, too. But, unlike a primetime television show, O’Brien carries on without commercial breaks — there is no second take, and that is perhaps what inspires her most.

Episode 1: The Beginning Is “Complicated”

Technically, The Olivia O’Brien Show — at least, in the mainstream sense — begins in 2015. Adaptability to trends and relatability in writing are traits that stood at the forefront of O’Brien’s trek to acclaimed artistry, so it feels right that a soft pop rendition of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” would mark the somewhat unofficial beginning of O’Brien’s break into the music industry.

The synthy, soft pop vibe that O’Brien’s cover of “Complicated” brought to the table was the result of her therapeutic experience making cover songs. “It was kind of my little escape,” O’Brien says. “I would look forward to going home every day and making little covers.” 

And, like many teens taking on cover song music-making in their bedroom, it truly wasn’t that deep. Outside of the typical young person’s dream to become famous (in particular, before we know the implications of fame), O’Brien didn’t take herself too seriously when it came to her hopes of becoming an artist. Unsurprisingly, part of the repression of that dream came from the way it was prodded at by skeptical peers throughout her adolescence.

“I don’t think I ever thought that I would become a professional singer,” O’Brien says. “I definitely thought that when I was really young. I was like, ‘Yes, I’m going to be a pop star.’ But I think every kid feels like that. You get to high school and middle school, and everyone’s kind of not very nice, so I just was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s never going to happen for me, whatever.’” 

Until it did. “Complicated” sparked something of a domino effect for the early stages of O’Brien’s career, skyrocketing her to new heights when her first original song, “hate u, love u” got production treatment from gnash and became the pinnacle of “sad girl pop” on the 2016 radio air waves.

olivia o'brien cover

As one might expect from having all eyes or ears on you so abruptly (as “hate u, love u” shaped itself as somewhat of a sleeper hit), O’Brien hadn’t prepared for what would come next. What she did know, however, is that the momentum was too propelling to quit — and that she had much to learn.

“I was like, ‘OK, well, now I guess I make music. So, what do I do?’” O’Brien says. “I had never even been in a studio when that song came out. I had never even been in a studio session. But I already wrote the entire song itself. I never collaborated with anyone on it, you know? So after that, I had to go figure out what it was like to even be in a writing session.”

It is those glimpses of inexperience — sort of musical growing pains — that make her first full-length EP, It’s Not That Deep, such a charming body of work. Listeners didn’t need an elaborate narrative or spicy inspiration tale for the project to thrive; rather, O’Brien brought just enough variety in her pop sound in tracks like “Fuck Feelings,” along with some serious heart in “No Love” (and angsty heartbreak in “RIP”) to the EP that introduced her to the world as an artist to watch.

“I was just writing to write because I didn’t have any songs,” O’Brien says. “And we wanted to put out a project, [but] I didn’t have the name of the project. I didn’t know what exactly it was going to be.”

O’Brien continues, “It was not a super official process, but I think it was a nice little first project and it wasn’t too much pressure for me to come up with an album or do anything too crazy. It was just a little like, ‘OK, here are my four best or five best songs.’”

Similarly, Episodes: Season 1 takes a fragmented approach to the modern pop project, focusing more on the embodiment of realism in moments rather than a narrative throughline. It could be argued, though, that the evolution and callback to her earliest days is precisely the story that shapes her most recent artistic effort.

olivia o'brien cover

Episode 2: Character Development

Fast forward to 2019, two years after the release of It’s Not That Deep — Olivia O’Brien had released a few singles, including a G-Eazy and Drew Love-laden remix of “RIP,” but another project didn’t seem to be on the horizon — yet. This juncture, however, might be one of the most formative times in O’Brien’s discography.

If a listener really wants to get to know O’Brien, their best bet might be listening to her 2019 and 2020 micro-mixtapes and compilation projects — It Was a Sad Fucking Summer, The Results of My Poor Judgment, Hope That It Was Worth It, and Maybe We Would Be In Love Right Now — all of which are packaged according to both sonic similarities and narrative snapshots without the pressure of creating an entire artistic era.

Essentially, O’Brien recognized that full-length projects are not the sole means of showcasing a story, and the micro-mixtapes and compilations created an outlet for her to tie together tracks that wouldn’t fit on a more traditional track list and blend songs in her early discography with new releases that carry a related tone. Two, three, and sometimes four songs graced the track lists of the short-form works; It Was a Sad Fucking Summer was a standout, using only “Sad Songs in the Summer” and “Almost in Love” to create a pair of heartbreak anthems fit for a young adult movie montage.

It’s a practice that she carries into her present work, despite the micro-mixtape and compilation projects coming to a halt in 2020. Episodes: Season 1 acts in a similar manner, combining the musical power of the poignant “Call Mom” with the angrier, more pop-punk sound of “No More Friends” featuring Oli Sykes. 

Though O’Brien considers Episodes to be somewhat sporadic, it practically defines the quintessential Olivia O’Brien project. Early fans will understand the impact of sewing together a broad spectrum of sounds and experiences to develop a snapshot of O’Brien’s story, making Episodes a welcomed addition in the absence of the mixtape moments that encapsulated some of her most intimate writing.

“These songs in my album, still, by no means go together, but I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to embrace the fact that they don’t go together,’” O’Brien explains. “Because that’s just my personality, that’s my style. That’s what I do.” 

There is an emotional plot twist of sorts in every track on Episodes: Season 1, staying true to its inspiration as a character-driven television show, but it is most impressive in its lyricism — undoubtedly one of O’Brien’s greatest strengths as a pop artist, the first part of the album showcases a transformation largely unseen until now.

Her maturity into adulthood and her growth as a songwriter have a bit of a symbiotic connection; her evolving strengths as a lyricist can be largely attributed to the confidence in relationships and self-realization she experiences as she gets older, allowing for fans to “grow up” with her despite O’Brien keeping her personal life largely private over the duration of her mainstream tenure.

olivia o'brien cover

“I think I’ve just grown up as a person and experienced more life,” O’Brien explains. “I used to be really scared to say my ideas or to do anything different. I was just really embarrassed and I didn’t ever think I was good. And then as you grow up and you can just keep doing stuff, you gain confidence. Yeah, I think I just grew up a little bit.”

Her career still hinges on a battle with impostor syndrome in her adult life, likely due (at least in part) to the fact that O’Brien is acutely aware that all eyes are on her following her 2019 debut album, Was It Even Real? In terms of notoriety, O’Brien is a different musician than she was when that project released, thanks to the several mega online hits that propelled her from social media artist to playlisting pop star.

And O’Brien is feeling the internal impact of that growth as she waits to see the reaction from listeners to her latest effort. “I feel like there’s almost more pressure on this because I’m a bigger artist now. I have more fans and more eyes on me, and I feel like there’s just more pressure for this to do something,” O’Brien says.

Really, the pressure is on from practically all angles. With a growing fanbase and rising stardom, O’Brien faces constant incoming messages and comments about who her songs are written about (and why they hurt her). It’s territory that comes with writing about relationships, but the flimsy boundaries online can become a point of frustration, particularly and especially when assumptions are involved.

For tracks like “Josslyn,” it became an opportunity for commenters to speculate about who “Josslyn” was, despite the clear implication that the song was about the hurt and irritation that the man in the song created. On other tracks, it becomes a wave of comments all playing the blame game with the one person that O’Brien did date publicly, though O’Brien says “most, if not all, of the songs” she has written about her love life were individuals that no one outside of her friend group knew about at all.

“The one that I did date publicly, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, every song must be about him; he must have really ruined her,’” O’Brien explains. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ I don’t want people to feel bad for me. I know exactly what I’m doing with relationships. I’ve had my fair share of heartbreaks, but I’ve also done the heartbreaking part a lot and sometimes people don’t like you back because sometimes you don’t like someone back. That’s just life.”

O’Brien’s writing, whether about relationships or self-worth or growing up, is cathartic — and her story is far from pitiful. She is 21 years old, and the normality of coping with heartbreak, becoming the heartbreaker, becoming emotionally mature, and some combination of all of the above seems to get lost in the limelight for those on the outside looking in. 

olivia o'brien cover

Fortunately, Episodes: Season 1 is a distinct reflection of O’Brien’s ability to balance all of those experiences without holding back on the rawness of it all (even at its painful peak). More than anything, this iteration of O’Brien’s discography provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the later seasons of her stardom; still the same person, but with a little more life under her belt.

“I’m allowed to be dramatic about [breakups] and write songs,” O’Brien declares. “But it’s not like I’m sitting in my room fucking crying all day long. Maybe when I was 16, but that’s not where I am anymore.”

Episode 3: Tuning Into Episodes: Season 1

Olivia O’Brien has always been the main character, and the post-pandemic creative surge on the horizon in 2021 certainly won’t allow her to step away from the role. In a letter to fans and, really, herself on Instagram, O’Brien asks the question: “If I were to erase an episode from the story of my life, the plot would no longer make sense. Right?”

The answer comes in the form of a no-holds-barred, two-part storytime, and Episodes: Season 1 is a brilliant reflection of O’Brien’s acknowledgement that being the main character isn’t always a happy-go-lucky success story.

“You have the power to be so dumb and do dumb things and make your life into a movie,” O’Brien explains. “Also, if you’re really sad and horrible things are happening to you, that’s also like a movie. The main characters always have horrible shit happening to them. That’s always what happens. You can be the main character of a fucking sad movie. You’re still the main character. What’s the point of being here if you’re going to fucking die one day and you’re not taking advantage of the time that you have here?”

On Episodes, O’Brien unpacks the layers of being center stage in her own life, beginning with upbeat pop-horror crossover hit “Sociopath.” The track explores the aftermath of falling in love with someone who seems incapable of emotion as O’Brien sings, “Got an empty expression / Blood on your hands / You should feel something / But maybe you can’t.” In alignment with its visual, it takes a vintage horror approach to sound, using classic slasher film sound effects in its bridge to soundtrack the damage done by the song’s antagonist.

The second song on the track list, “Call Mom,” takes on a different kind of heartbreak: loneliness. “I’m too young to feel like my life’s already over,” O’Brien performs, using the writing as a therapeutic approach to unpacking the pressure that comes with life in the spotlight. 

olivia o'brien cover

It’s O’Brien’s version of tapping her heels together three times to be taken back to where she was happiest in her youth, as well as a subtle love song for her mom whose voice is featured in voicemails throughout the track. With its rawness and dripping sadness in the recording, it feels hard to believe that the song was written two years ago for its 2021 release.

“I still feel all the emotions that I felt when I wrote that song,” O’Brien says. “Even though I wrote it so long ago, I still am able to connect with it because it is really emotional, versus if I’m writing about a guy, then I probably am fucking over that by two years later. I don’t care anymore.”

But “Call Mom” is evidence of Episodes replay value; the moment doesn’t need to be fresh to be impactful, a parallel that stays true to the real-life implications of being a main character. Much like the flow of human emotion — particularly in the way O’Brien experiences it — Episodes moves effortlessly through a stream of consciousness, even hitting on a touch of nihilism with “We’re All Gonna Die” and the big question of what’s next with “What Happens Now.”

That final track, O’Brien explains, acts as a cliffhanger between the seasons of Episodes; what will appear next in her cinematic universe?

“‘What Happens Now’ is the cinematic kind of song, and for me, it represents the ending credits. It’s very Breakfast Club, where the guy has his arm in the air and he’s walking off to the edge like, ‘What’s going to happen after this?’ That’s what it represents to me.”

It isn’t the first time that O’Brien has kept fans waiting, but the following iteration is always worth the pause — and if the visual promotion for the album is any indicator, there won’t be any shortage of O’Brien as the main character throughout the break.

Episode 4: Epilogue (and Coming Full Circle)

The cliffhanger of Episodes: Season 1, in this case, also marks the beginning of the epilogue while kick-starting a new era of Olivia O’Brien’s artistry. She gets to be front and center, all the time, through the most literal definition of introspective thick and thin.

The first major step in this era is adjusting to “the new normal” post-pandemic, which may be the catalyst for newfound creativity and motivation for her art. Right now, though, the prospect feels rather daunting after more than a year of decreased inspiration.

“I’m going to be able to do stuff again and feel like a normal fucking person again, and I think that’s going to really contribute to my creativity,” O’Brien says. “Because everything is based off of my own life, and nothing was happening for me. I was so fucking bored. Like, what am I supposed to write about? And I would try to write about other people and things but, if I’m not connecting to it, I’m not going to want to put it out even if it is kind of good.” 

Part of the transition back to life as usual for the musician is live shows. Having just announced her rescheduled shows on The Olivia O’Brien Show tour, she is looking to the horizon for an in-person reminder that people are listening. 

Here’s a spoiler: they are.

“You forget that people give a fuck about you,” O’Brien says. “Even if you see it on the internet, it’s a lot different than being there in person and seeing people in front of you and people coming up to you and crying. That really reminds you, ‘Okay, people give a fuck about me.’”

Live and within the bounds of the album, Episodes: Season 1 is a reflective piece of work; while it does mirror who O’Brien is as an artist in the present day, it also dives into flashbacks of a musician who doesn’t need to be a role model to find strife, but who still battles with meeting her own expectations for herself (and those that others impose) without burning out.

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And recognizing that part of herself is just one piece of the puzzle that adds up to O’Brien becoming the artist she wants to be. “I just want to be able to make whatever I want, whenever I want, [and] be confident in it,” O’Brien explains. “To me, it’s all about confidence. I was so insecure for most of my life.”

Today’s O’Brien, though, was shaped by that insecurity, the aforementioned growing pains that raised her from making covers in her bedroom to writing songs about some of her most sensitive and sentimental experiences. 

Perhaps it is those years of baring it all and finding herself on her own that make her idolize the “before times,” when she was a blithe, airy kid who just wanted to be a “triple-threat singer, actor, dancer… fashion designer” who was definitely going to marry Justin Bieber. 

That version of O’Brien, frankly, didn’t “give a fuck.”

“You grow up and you meet all these fucking people that just tell you what you can and can’t do, especially in high school. Everyone’s shitty,” O’Brien explains. “Your confidence gets kind of knocked down. You have to be a special kind of person to not get affected by all that shit, and I am not that person. I will go home and cry. So, I’m trying to get back to like how I felt about myself as a kid and just not giving a fuck about things [and] just doing whatever I want to do.”  

O’Brien continues, “And not in a selfish way. I mean, maybe it’s a little selfish, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be a little bit selfish.”

Episodes: Season 1 allows O’Brien to do just that: she gets to set the scene, choose the stories, and create a “show” that feels authentic to who she is and who she strives to be. It resembles both a television show and a photo album, and what better time to start from the beginning than after finishing the season?

For our main character, the time is now. “I want to be her again,” O’Brien says. “I miss her.”