Olivia O'Brien, the purple-haired, emotionally intelligent pop singer (who loves texts in lowercase letters), drops her debut album today. Was It Even Real? is a seamless 10-song collection that pulls from of-the-moment pop trends — minimal, trap-inspired arrangements, precise runtimes, and confessional songwriting — to inform a voice that is smart, sexy, and singular.
The story of O'Brien's swift rise is also ultra-modern: she started singing at age 7, then over the years, wrote lyrics and taught herself to play guitar and piano. At 16, she guested on Gnash's 2016 single, "i hate u, i love u," and the track went viral and peaked in the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Soon after, she inked a deal with Island Records.
Now 19 and on a major label, O'Brien still writes her own lyrics, only with the likes of mega hitmakers like Teddy Geiger, Max Martin-affiliated Anton Hård af Segerstad (Iggy Azalea, Fifth Harmony, JoJo), and Tobias Frelin (Jessie Reyez). And she's still telling the truth about the messy intricacies of teen romance, depression, and her journey toward self-love.
Judging by O'Brien's huge following — nearly 700k Instagram followers, 1.5 billion streams and counting — her message is definitely resonating. For PAPER, she tells the story of her debut album. Did you know that "Florida Kilos" by Lana Del Rey, Fleetwood Mac, and Drake also played roles in the album's creation? Find out how and stream each track, below.
this song started as two parts, which became two videos of me singing over different acoustic guitar instrumentals that i posted on instagram separately. i knew that i wanted to record them at some point, so i decided to combine them and finish writing the song at a session with anton and tobias and my best friend/cowriter drew. as i started working to fit the two pieces together, i realized that i had so much to say about the situation i was in and how i felt at the time. my words and thoughts were too much to have any parts repeated, hence the song having no hook. i wanted to essentially just rant for 3 minutes and get everything off of my chest without having to worry about song structure or format. i thought that this song was a perfect intro to the album because it best describes how i felt about the person i wrote this album about and what happened between us. i held nothing back, writing this song was like a therapy session.
i don't exist
this was the first song i wrote for this album. it represents the beginning of it all. before i wrote it, i was going through a period of writer's block that lasted for a couple of months. during that time i felt hopeless and incredibly depressed, not only because i felt sad and alone but because i could not find a way to put my feelings into words. writing was normally my biggest coping mechanism, and to be feeling so down with no way to let it out was disparaging. i went into the session telling everyone that i was probably not going to be able to write anything and that we'd most likely leave with nothing. it was my first time working with anton and tobias, and as soon as tobias started playing guitar i was instantly inspired. drew and i started writing and the first verse just seemed to pour out of me. all of my frustrations and the things on my mind spilled across my iphone notes as if i didn't even have to think, like the flood gates of my mind had finally opened up again. i'd never been so happy to write a sad song. by the time we came to the end of what is now the first verse, i finished it off with "like i don't exist." i then looked over to drew and asked him "what if it's just that? what if that's the hook right there? and that's the song? i don't exist." it seemed impossible that after months of feeling hopeless, i had just written a song with such ease. sometimes it just takes the right people and the right circumstances to break through that wall.
this was the third song i wrote for this album, after i don't exist and udk in that same week with anton and tobias. after our first two days in the studio, they cancelled their sessions for that weekend to fit two more days in with me while they were in LA. the night before we wrote inhibition i went to a huge beverly hills mansion party, where i knew that a guy i thought i liked was gonna be. i got to the party and he didn't even talk to me. i wasn't upset by this, however... it just made me realize that i didn't even really like him or care what he did. i just wanted someone to like. i wanted to feel something again. i got drunk and then realized that i didn't even wanna be there, but i didn't wanna go home because everything in my life felt wrong and off including the place that i lived. nothing i did could make me happy and i couldn't shake my overwhelming feeling of self hatred. i kept doing things i knew would only hurt me in the end, just so i could feel something or feel anything at all. i ended up calling an uber and going home alone before all of my friends, crying the whole way. i woke up the morning after, dragged myself to capitol hungover and discouraged, and wrote this song.
this song was written in stockholm, again with anton and tobias. this time drew wasn't with me. if he was, maybe he would have stopped me from texting the boy i liked and rekindling our relationship via text from 5,515 miles away. this boy and i had gotten into a fight a week or two before i left for my trip. i was distraught and had no idea what went wrong other than that he wanted to be friends and i wanted to be more... because of this difference, we became nothing at all. about a day into my trip i reached out to him, and he replied. we ended up talking all day every day despite the time difference. i told him i was okay with just being friends, and even sent him the song when i finished writing it the morning after we got back in touch. we made plans to go to coachella together when i returned, and we did. it felt like everything was falling back into place... except it was all a delusion. i told myself i didn't want a relationship, i convinced myself i was content with being "just friends." i guess i always thought in the back of my mind that if i told him that's what i wanted, he would eventually like me as much as i liked him and that maybe one day he would want me back... but it never worked out like that. he was still in love with his ex girlfriend and he really meant it when he said he wanted to be just friends. i didn't.
we lied to each other
i wrote this song in early june of 2018 with just me and teddy geiger in the room. the concept came to me when i was driving on the 101 freeway... i pulled out my phone and immediately wrote it down in my notes with one hand on the wheel. i know it's reckless and dangerous to do that but i knew that this idea would become something great and i had to remember it. the words i wrote were just simply "we lied to each other," followed later by "i lied when i said i don't care, and you lied when you told me you did." the rest of the song was written in the session with teddy, and it seemed to come so naturally to me. at the time i wrote it, this boy who broke my heart was the only thing i could think or write about. it was inspiring me so much that i almost had too much to say about it. it felt like every second i was coming up with new ideas, new ways to tell the story of how and why i was so hurt. that's essentially what the majority of this album became.
udk was the second song i ever wrote with anton and tobias. it was the first day that we didn't have drew in the room with us. we talked about how i had been recently inspired by fleetwood mac, and had been exploring a lot of older music in different genres rather than just r&b (which has been my favorite genre for as long as i can remember). we decided to combine a few of my favorite genres into one track, with fleetwood mac inspired guitar and different drums reminiscent of SZA and Drake. the lyrics were something i'd just had in my notes from a past session and never ended up using. it's a simple concept with no hidden meanings... i just have had a lot of experience with internet trolls and real life gossipers and i wanted to call them out in a song. although the message is definitely important to me, the session overall was much more fun and lighthearted than ones where i am writing about more personal, emotional, or sad subjects. it was fun to experiment with new sounds and try to make something different than anything i'd made before, without having to get deep into my feels and cry about things.
care less more
i wrote this song about the same guy that most of the songs are about, and also wrote it with drew, anton, and tobias. this guy was still in love with his ex girlfriend the entire time we talked, and i knew that but somehow convinced myself i didn't care. i always thought of myself as someone who was too independent for a relationship, but i liked this guy so much i would have set that rule aside for him. he wouldn't have set it aside for me, so i told him (as well as myself) that i felt the same way just so i could keep him in my life. i thought that if i acted like i cared about him even less than he cared about me, he would like me more. the hardest part was that every time i thought there was no hope he would say something sweet to me or give me an ounce of hope that he wanted to be more than what we were. no one's ever complimented me the way he did, but his words mean nothing now that i know what his true intentions were. i learned the hard way that playing games never works out.
i wrote this song with teddy geiger and matt parad. i had been listening to so many different genres of music from every different time period at this point, and i was eager to start experimenting more with different sounds. i had definitely already been getting more and more out of my comfort zone when it came to production but this was the first song i wrote that i truly pushed my boundaries with. the little "uh" before the hook was inspired by me listening to "cause i'm a man" by tame impala in my car on the way to teddy's studio. i thought it was so cool, and then i remembered that prince also did something similar in one of my favorite songs, "kiss." writing this song with matt and teddy felt very natural while also somehow challenging me creatively. it was definitely something i'd never made before but i really love it. i think it's also special because it was written when i was sad, yet it has an upbeat and happy vibe to it. i wrote it when i wasn't speaking to the guy i liked at the time, before i had left for my trip to stockholm. i was very upset but i didn't want to make another sad sounding song, so we combined my sad lyrics w a fun beat and this song was born.
just a boy
this song was also written in stockholm with anton and tobias. this is probably the only song on the album that isn't really written specifically about one person or situation in my life. i wrote it about a made up boy who embodies everything i hate about guys my age. it was kind of a combination of all the shitty things guys have said and done to me and my friends in all of the different experiences we have had. we started with just a funky bass line and built the track around that. i think it's probably one of the most fun and empowering songs i have ever made. performing it is the best because it is so danceable and fun to groove to.
this was the last song i wrote in my sessions with anton and tobias in stockholm. the guitar track was inspired by "florida kilos" by lana del rey, one of my all time favorite songs. i was trying to figure out what to write, and i just immediately came up with that hook. i was quietly singing "i need to — i need to love myself — i need to" over and over again to myself trying to decide if i liked it. then tobias stopped me and was like "what is that? what's that you're singing?" so i sang it louder. he looked at me and said "that's it. that's the song" so i finished writing it in about an hour and then passed out on the couch because i was so ridiculously jetlagged. we spent the rest of that day playing the songs we had written together over and over again and talking about how excited we were to have just made an album. love myself comes last on my album because i want people to leave feeling better than they came. when i'm sad, i like to listen to sad music. i wouldn't want to start off listening to some dumb girl telling me to love myself. i almost am tricking people into listening to happy music... we start off with the saddest and most emotional songs and slowly ease the listener into ending on a happy and uplifting note.
Photography: Amber Park and Lauren Dunn