Since she released her first solo singles in 2016, singer/songwriter Olivia O’Brien has sung about depression, failed and messy relationships, and drowning her sorrows in bad habits. She’s written songs about trust issues, feeling invisible, and learning to love herself as she is—all extremely important and valid life lessons that are essential to being human. It’s hard to believe she’s only 19 years old.
O’Brien first rose to fame after she was selected by rapper Gnash to record a song she had written, “I Hate U, I Love U,” as a duet. The song received significant popularity and reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—so it didn’t take long for talented songwriter O’Brien to sign a deal with Island Records. After a few other collaborations and a series of standalone singles, she released her debut EP in 2017, It’s Not That Deep, featuring five tracks including “Empty,” “No Love,” “RIP,” and “Tequilawine”—the latter about mixing the two drinks to distract from a disgruntled crush. I remember a time when lyrics about drinking and alcohol were taboo for singers under legal drinking age in the United States, but clearly O’Brien has proved she has the songwriting ability and depth as an artist to not play by anyone’s pop music rules.
Over the last few years, a new generation of pop stars have been creating their own rules and trends (as most pop stars tend to do), but something unique about the likes of Camila Cabello, Bebe Rexha, and even Charlie Puth is that they’ve found great inspiration in writing and recording songs about the shallowness of Hollywood and Los Angeles and the empty, surface-level relationships they’ve found with the people there. Olivia O’Brien is most definitely a pioneer of this trend, who has not shied away from channeling such frustrations into her work. O’Brien, who has struggled with depression since she was a child, has no issue with including those relevant struggles in her music, either. “I Don’t Exist,” the second single from her full-length debut studio album Was It Even Real?, is partly inspired by the uptight people she’s encountered at Hollywood parties and clubs as well as articulating what it’s like to feel invisible in general—something that will surely resonate with misfits from all social standings. Another single from the album, “Love Myself”—released earlier this winter—is an ode and reminder to any and all that loving yourself has to come before anything else. The song, which serves as the album’s closing track, is reflective of O’Brien’s hope that people will start listening to the album when they’re feeling down and then feel uplifted by the time they reach the end. “It doesn’t have the same unattainable note that a lot of happier, confident songs have,” says O’Brien of the song. “I should love myself, but I don’t. I should treat myself better, but I don’t … So much other shit is like, ‘I already love myself. I’m confident. I’m great.’ This is more attainable. It starts with being easier on yourself. So many kids are depressed. I wanted to end on a high note.”
Was It Even Real? is an impressive debut that surely places O’Brien in a league of her own. She rants about relationships, feeling like she doesn’t exist, learning the same lessons over and over again, as well as some ballads, anthems, and bops about meaningless encounters and expecting too much from people, such as “We Lied to Each Other,” “Care Less More,” and “Just A Boy.” It also succeeds with acoustic guitars and heartfelt sounds rather than overproduction. Not one song on the album feels like it could be sung by another artist, which is already an achievement in itself. And unlike other pop stars of the moment who may capitalize on the emptiness of living in L.A. for one song here or there, O’Brien has managed to capture that feeling of both emptiness and depression on several different songs—and not one sounds the same as the last. Overall, she just hopes that her music will resonate and help others who’ve felt the same way. “I wrote this in a really dark place, and I hope I can help other people who may be in that same spot,” she says. “My idea was for you to listen to listen to the album when you’re feeling sad and by the end, you’ll feel better without even realizing it.” While her album’s title may have been inspired from questioning whether any of her relationships were real, O’Brien has proven that she definitely is.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Was It Even Real?: “I Don’t Exist,” “Inhibition (omw),” “Just Friends,” “We Lied to Each Other,” “Care Less More,” “Just A Boy,” “Call Me!!!,” and “Love Myself”