Olivia O’Brien is reclaiming her own artistry and her own life and is taking us all along for the ride.
Her first major hit was 2016’s darling hate u love u, written and released when she was just 15. Since then, she’s had viral moments (Josslyn), released an album, and collaborated with artists like FLETCHER. With her musical career spanning nearly a decade, she’s explored a variety of genres and sounds, honing her craft to find the sonic space that allows her to express herself best.
Recently separating from her record label and becoming an independent artist, O’Brien is exploring what it means to be a musician on her own terms. Her first independent release, Born With A Broken Heart, is a deeply vulnerable ballad that narrates her mental health struggles. She is no stranger to vulnerability in her music, displaying her heart on her sleeve in every lyric she writes, but Born With A Broken Heart feels a bit darker and grittier than most of her discography. Signifying a new era for O’Brien, this release marks the start of a new chapter where she is able to have the freedom to be in full control of her artistry.
Amidst this next step in her musical journey, Olivia has been on her own personal journey. With exploring sobriety and coping with mental health struggles, she’s navigating a lot alongside her music career. 1883 sits down with Olivia O’Brien and talk about this new era, and where she sees it going.
Thank you for taking the time to hop on here today, I really appreciate it. Before we get into it, I have to tell you that I’m a big fan of your music, I swear your album from 2019 altered my brain chemistry. Purpleworld was my favorite song for so long. So you’ve just released Born With A Broken Heart, which is your first ever independent release. How are you feeling about the response to it?
Thank you so much! It’s been really awesome. I haven’t had any negative response at all, I haven’t seen one negative comment, which is really crazy. I feel like it’s the most overwhelmingly positive response to a song I’ve ever had. It’s been really awesome to see that people have been connecting with it in the way I hoped they would be. It’s also really scary because it’s my first release as an independent artist, so everything is falling on me. I feel like it’s hard to keep the momentum going. It’s been a completely new experience that I’ve never had to navigate before, so there’s good and bad parts about it. I’m really happy with the fact that it’s all been very positive.
Yeah, that’s awesome. It’s such a personal and vulnerable song too, was it therapeutic for you to get all of those feelings out?
Yeah, it typically is with most of my songs. This one in particular for sure.
Was it difficult to release something this vulnerable? You are always open in your music, but I feel like this song is a little darker and diaristic than a lot of your discography.
I feel like I’ve released songs that are similarly vulnerable, maybe not as intense. I feel like I’m used to it at this point. It just feels like that’s what I always do. It’s more so how people are going to react or relate, that’s what I think about.
Yeah, the vulnerability is just who you are as an artist. You’ve expressed that this is your favourite song that you’ve released, what sets it apart from the rest of your discography for you? Is it the independent aspect?
No, I wrote it technically when I was still trying to figure out how I could leave my label. I think I just got lucky that it turned out to be my favourite song. I’ve made a lot of songs for this next project, and at the time I put it out, I felt like it was the strongest. I wanted it to be my first independent release, I put it out first because it’s my favourite. I think it’s my favourite because we worked so hard on it. Like you said, it’s really personal and therapeutic, and cathartic. It was an amazing experience to just write the song, and it was one of the first songs I made with my producer Colin. We did all live instrumentation, we had someone come in and play cello, someone come in and play trumpet… the way that the song was made was just really special. Most of the songs that I’m making, if not all, are with live instruments. Seeing it all come together… It elevated the song so much. It made it so much bigger, more powerful. I just loved the way that it all ended up coming together.
It’s definitely really cinematic in that sense. I love the accompanying music video you did for the song as well, I loved the sort of vintage camcorder style it was filmed in. Can you tell me a bit about how the music video came together?
In the past when I was with my label, I always felt like we were spending way too much money that didn’t need to be spent on music videos that I didn’t even necessarily like. The only videos I can say I like… I love the NOW video, but that was the most expensive video I did because we had a sponsor that gave us a lot of money, ASOS. That video was cool because we put a lot of money behind it, but I don’t think videos should only be cool if you put a hundred thousand dollars behind it, because that’s not typically the case for most artists including me. You have to find people that are willing to work with you and understand budgets. S
o, I found this girl Christina through my friend Drew, and I was like, I’m going to be honest, I don’t have a bunch of money, so we’re going to have to get crafty and creative. She was down, and we completely collaborated on everything. It was the cheapest video I ever made by far. It’s ridiculous how little money I spent on it, compared to my worst music videos that I put out with my label. The way they budgeted the money just wasn’t good, and I always felt like I didn’t have control over it. Just because someone is “the best” doesn’t mean they’re going to do what I want, or what I like, or go along with my vibe. It just wasn’t the vibe. It’s not to say that the people I worked with were bad or anything, I just didn’t have the control. I had full control over this, and it was the best thing ever. It resulted in a product that I love. I can’t believe I wasted so much of my money, or the label’s money… I didn’t need to be doing that, you can make a really cool music video with no money. It was a learning experience for sure.
It turned out super awesome, though. It’s cool that you got that creative control, and were able to see the vision through.
Yeah, a lot of times I would really love the treatment that a director would send over, I would love their other work. But from the treatment, it wouldn’t be fleshed out in a way that I had expected. I wasn’t involved at all in the back end. So being able to control everything, just me and Christina, that was really awesome. I got to have her expertise and creativity, and she just expanded upon my ideas and my vision. It was literally perfect.
You got to be involved in all steps of it, including the execution.
For sure. So shifting gears slightly, I am a loyal @oliviaocrien follower on Instagram. I wanted to ask about your motivation to be open with things such as sobriety and mental health on social media. You’re open in your music, but what is your motivation to be even more open with your audience through this second Instagram account?
If you follow, I’m sure you’ve noticed that sometimes I won’t post for a really long time, and I’ve deactivated the account and come back. I’ve done a lot of different things. For me, social media is just another way to express myself at the end of the day. It can be an outlet, and has always been an outlet for me creatively. The little videos of me singing in my room, like I can’t upload those to Spotify. I’ve used it for things like that. I grew up on social media, when I was in middle school we were all on Tumblr. I just feel like people talked about mental health a lot, at least in the circles I was in on the internet. I just grew up being open on the internet when I felt like I couldn’t be open anywhere else. I didn’t feel like I could talk to people at school, or when I hated going to therapy. I would use the internet as a place to talk to people.
Then, once I gained a following, I was like, if I used the internet like this and was searching for people who related to me when I was younger, I can be the person that can help people. I can be the person that people like me are looking to relate to, so they don’t feel alone. I can be that person, I can talk about that all day long. I have no problem sharing and posting all this stuff. It felt a little too crazy to do that on my main account all the time, because all my friends follow me on there, and some people follow me for only music. I thought it would probably be best to have a space, like a safe space where I could do this and not feel like I’m annoying everyone I know. People who want to tap into it can follow. Also, I’ve posted about this a little bit, but my therapist passed away about two months ago. I’ve had a really hard time finding a new therapist, and by hard time I mean I haven’t been looking because it’s so daunting. So, I have been using the internet as a crutch for sure, because I don’t want to bother my friends. I can go on that account and just rant, and people will share their experiences too. There’s some comfort to be found there, which is really helpful for me, especially now since I’m not in therapy.
Yeah, it seems like a really good outlet. Like you said, you get that sort of community out of it.
Exactly. I wanted to be the person that people can relate to, but I also am finding that comfort in others, because I still need that. When I’m posting about being sad, people will be like “me too!”, and when I share about something that happened to me, people will be like “that happened to me too!” I find comfort in that.
It’s mutually beneficial, it’s helpful to everyone involved. I know that you’ve been exploring sobriety, and alcohol culture is so intertwined with the music industry. How has your sobriety journey impacted your experience as a musician?
I was taking two or three shots before every performance, ever. Since before I was legally allowed to drink alcohol, I mean not when I was 16-17. I vividly remember, at least the tour I did in 2018 when I was 18. It’s what you do. Me and my band would all take a shot before going out. I think it’s not just hard in LA and in the music industry, because I think back to anywhere I travel to… I was just in London, and everything was all pubs. All people do is drink, it’s such a huge part of culture, not just in America but in a lot of places. When I was in Nashville too, I was drinking every single day, going down to Broadway and being crazy. It’s such a huge part of our culture, and so hard to ignore. I didn’t even realize it until I stopped drinking. You notice it so much more when you’re trying to avoid it. And like… my friends… One of my friends has a vodka brand. Another one is doing a brand deal with a wine company right now. And I haven’t been hanging out with them as much, I don’t want to get blacked out and do all the stuff I used to do. I’ve been trying to lightly add alcohol back into my life, I don’t want to be the person who can’t have a glass of wine with my family on the holidays. I did three months of no alcohol, it was amazing, and honestly a lot easier than I thought it would be. I did Coachella with no alcohol, and I ended up not hanging out with my usual friend group. I stayed in a house with my friend and stylist Miso, and hung out with all of her friends. Every other Coachella has been with my friends and we would get super fucked up, I didn’t want to fall back into that. I know they wouldn’t pressure me, but it’s more like internal pressure from myself. It was very interesting to navigate.
My biggest takeaway from those three months is how much I realized about myself, and how alcohol is such a big part of our culture. I think about all the things I’ve done drunk that are embarrassing, most of my embarrassing moments were when I was drunk. So many huge parts of my life were involving alcohol, and not just a couple of drinks but being very drunk. I never want to be very drunk ever again. I don’t have the desire. You see people around you being very drunk and it’s scary. I’m trying to figure out where I want to go next. I don’t think I’m going to be 100% sober from alcohol for the rest of my life, I love wine, I’m from Napa Valley. I’m just figuring out what the next move is, but my relationship with alcohol has completely changed.
Yeah, it’s totally a healing journey. It’s really admirable that you were able to take a step back and prioritize yourself like that. Shifting back to your journey as an independent artist, what are the big changes that have come along with being newly independent?
Pretty much everything has changed! I’ve just had a lot of changes in my personal life as well, and some people on my team have shifted around. It’s a lot of new things, new people. When you’re with a label and something goes wrong, you have people to blame. Now, I’m the only person I have to blame. There’s a lot of pressure on me in a different way than there was when I was with a label. I feel a lot more responsibility. It’s scary, honestly, but I’d rather be in this situation than the one I was in before.
You get the freedom that comes along with the responsibility, yeah.
It’s kind of like being an adult.
In June you’re playing a show with FLETCHER and Upsahl, what are you most excited for when it comes to this upcoming performance? Is there a specific song you’re excited to play?
I’m excited to do Bitch Back, because obviously, FLETCHER! That will be fun. I did a couple college shows recently, but I haven’t done a proper live show in a really long time. I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m doing for my set yet, it’s 45 minutes. It’ll be fun to figure out which songs I’m going to play, figure all that out.
Yeah, that’s super exciting! So the release of Born With A Broken Heart signifies this new era for you as a musician, what can fans expect from this era?
Lots of live instrumentation. It’s not all going to be sad ballad stuff like Born With A Broken Heart, there will be some, but that’s not all. I don’t even know what to expect at this point, there’s no timeline for anything. I’m going to be trying to release music as regularly as I can, but I want to make sure that it’s right. I want it to be as close to perfect as possible before releasing anything. I’m trying to get stuff out there more frequently than I have in the past. I’m working on an album, so I’ll probably release a few songs beforehand.
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