On her sophomore album Episodes, Olivia O’Brien shares a collection of songs with a cinematic intensity, encompassing everything from high-drama intrigue to the dark thrill of classic horror. “I like to look at life like it’s a movie,” says the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter. “You have to act like you’re the main character in life and enjoy everything to the fullest.”
Referring to her own life as a “messy, scattered, genre-bending saga,” O’Brien fully immerses her audience in that mercurial world onEpisodes (a two-part album). While each track centers on the magnetic vocal presence first glimpsed on the viral smash hit “i hate u, i love u” (her five-times-platinum 2016 collaboration with gnash), the album is endlessly animated by O’Brien’s refusal to box herself in. “In the past I’ve put pressure on myself to make everything cohesive, but my life is not a cohesive project,” she says. “For this album I wanted to let everything live in its own unique space—sonically, lyrically, melodically, visually, and every other possible way.”
Made with producer/songwriters like The Orphanage (a duo known for their work with Kehlani and Demi Lovato), Rogét Chahayed (Drake, Halsey, Zayn) and Ajay “STINT” Bhattacharya (Santigold, Kesha), Episodes follows O’Brien’s debut album Was It Even Real?, a 2019 release praised for its raw emotional honesty. This time around, the 21-year-old artist brings her unaffected truth-telling to songs like the scathing lead single “Sociopath” and its equally combustible follow-up “No More Friends”—a wildly cathartic anti-love-song that shows her affinity for pop-punk in its snarling guitar riffs and explosive chorus featuring Oli Sykes from Bring Me The Horizon. And on “What Happens Now,” Episodes illuminates her more indie-rock-leaning sensibilities, setting her subtle expression of longing to a dreamy backdrop of delicate guitar work and gorgeously sprawling textures.
Ranked among the “100 Women Revolutionizing Pop Music” in PAPER Magazine, O’Brien first found her love of songwriting as a seven-year-old kid in her hometown of Napa, and soon began playing guitar and piano. By the time she was 13 she started posting covers on SoundCloud, when she was 15 she wrote “i hate u, i love u” and, a year later, would go on to catch gnash’s attention and team up with the singer/songwriter/rapper on the hit single when she was just 16. After signing with Island Records, she made her debut with the 2017 EP It’s Not That Deep, and later delivered a series of micromixtapes including The Results of My Poor Judgement—a 2020 project featuring her viral hit single “Josslyn,” a tongue-in-cheek and instantly iconic revenge anthem. Naming Amy Winehouse among her main inspirations (she’s got a tattoo of the late soul singer on her right arm), O’Brien points out that she finds the most pleasure in creating her more emotionally charged material. “My favorite songs are the ones that I wrote because I needed to get something off my chest,” she says. “It’s really like a form of therapy for me.”
In creating the visual counterpart to Episodes, O’Brien played up the album’s cinematic quality by referencing a series of movies and TV shows (as seen in the horror-movie-inspired video for “Sociopath”). And by inhabiting so many different worlds with an undeniable ease, O’Brien is fully embracing her chameleon-like nature for the very first time. “The thing that makes me most confident is that I can do whatever I want and reinvent myself whenever I feel like it,” she says. “I spent so many years of my life worrying about what other people would like and trying to fit in, but at some point I decided I didn’t care anymore. Now I’m just exploring and figuring things out for myself, and I want to represent every part of who I am and what I love.”