Olivia Mae Graham Talks About Writing the Songs She Needed to Hear Growing Up

An interview with Olivia Mae Graham

Olivia Mae Graham’s new single “Red Rose” is an anthem sung to red flags. In her new single, Olivia’s skills as a songwriter and artist are on full display through her quick witted lyrics, powerhouse vocals, and swinging melodies.

RELATED: Read more about Olivia’s new single “Red Rose” in our previous coverage of the song …

As this emerging artist continues to develop her grassroots sound, she took the time to sit down with us on the Front Porch and have a candid conversation about what’s inspiring her new music, working in the industry, and how she overcomes fear through vulnerability.

Our Interview with Emerging Artist Olivia Mae Graham

Taylor: Hey Olivia! Thanks so much for joining us today. Can you tell me about a song that made you want to be a songwriter?

Olivia Mae Graham: “Fast Car by Tracy Chapman. I know this song is having a resurgence now that Luke Combs is doing it, but back in the day, when I was like 11 years old, and heard this song for the first time, it just struck a chord with me. It was the first time I was like, envious, listening to a song because I wish I wrote that!

“I had started songwriting – it was always a really natural thing for me. There was never a moment when I decided to take up songwriting. It was just something that I was always doing –  making up melodies and writing lyrics.

“But that song was the first song that I listened to and was like, I can make music that makes people feel something. Holy smokes, I wanna do that.”

A lot of your songs are heavily grounded in vulnerability, sharing things that maybe you’re uncomfortable with in yourself or uncomfortable with that you’ve done in the past. Is it scary to release something like that, something so honest and personal? And if so, how do you work with that fear? Do you make friends with it or do you try to push it away?

“Yeah, when you’re an artist, everything you do is a reflection of who you are as a human being. So if somebody doesn’t like a song I put out, it means that they don’t really like me. It’s extremely vulnerable.

“But I think for me, the coolest thing has been realizing when you put a  song out there that fans listen to and connect with, it becomes less about me. I can be super vulnerable and people are gonna find their own pocket within that, that they relate to.

“I think the more vulnerable you are, the easier songwriting is because you’re not making something up in a songwriting room, you’re just saying it like it is. When people find comfort in my truth, it’s not just about me anymore.

“Take ‘Pretty Different,’ that is by far my most vulnerable release yet and my team didn’t know if anyone was gonna like it. But I said, I like it and I know that I needed to hear this when I was 12. So I’m putting it out there for the 12 year old girls that need to hear it now.”

Listen To “Pretty Different”

When you’re writing then, do you feel like you write for yourself or you’re writing for other people?

“It’s different every time. I think for me, right now where I’m at, with the album that we’re writing towards is, I’m trying to write the songs that I needed, ones that I didn’t have growing up, knowing someone else probably needs them too.

“When I get a message from someone saying ‘I was having a bad body image day. I was getting dressed this morning and your song, ‘Pretty Different,’ came on my playlist and I just said no. I’m good the way I am.’ That’s it for me – 12 year old me is screaming. She’s like, oh my God. Yes! That’s awesome!”

Do you wanna tell me about your greatest inspiration in your life?

“The first concert I ever went to was a Taylor Swift concert. When I saw this girl on stage from Pennsylvania, from a small town in the States, playing music that she wrote about girls being mean to her at school and boys she was falling in love with, my mom looked at me and her face just said ‘oh no.’ That was the moment for me. I was gone. I knew this is what I wanted to do – write songs, tell stories, make a crowd feel like I was.

“So I would say that moment was definitely an inspiration for me, but I’ve been really blessed to have had a lot of mentors along the way, like my music teachers from age five to the team that I’m working with now.”

Why don’t you tell me about your favorite performance of your career so far?

“I think one of the coolest performances I’ve done was definitely being asked to sing the national anthem for the Blue Jays. I’m not a huge sports fan, but my family is, so it was very cool to be able to bring them there and have my little brother be like, ‘that’s my sister!’

Watch Olivia Sing the National Anthem For The Blue Jays

“But for me, when it comes to a show, my favorite part is the connection with the fans afterwards. We just did our ‘Red Rose’ release party which was insane. We put little red flags on the tables and the girls were upfront, with their flags, singing along and I just wanted to cry because I’m like, you’re getting it. You’re getting the message. But it’s the conversations afterwards, when people have connected with a song, that’s my favorite part.”

What was it like performing an original song for the first time?

“It’s funny cuz that’s always been a really natural extension of who I am. So I never really second guessed playing something that I wrote. I will tell you the first song that I ever wrote based on an experience that I’d had. I was like 11 at the time and these girls were talking about the birthday party that they were gonna plan and whatnot. They had their guest list and then they had a backup plan list. Like if so-and-so can’t attend, then Olivia can. So I was on the backup list.

“I was sad when I went home and I sat in my room and I wrote a song called ‘Backup Plan.’ I got the chance to play it at a school assembly and those girls came up to me after and said something like, ‘Oh my God, that song you wrote is so cool. That’s so relatable to so many people.’

“It went right over their head and I thought, that’s really cool. I can be vulnerable in the experience that I had, and it actually offended nobody. They also found comfort in it.”

What is the best advice you’ve been given?

“It’s gonna sound cheesy, but just be yourself. I did a Masters in songwriting where I was schooled in all the technicalities of writing music but they forgot to teach me to just be myself.

“For so many years I wrote songs that I thought people wanted to hear but I didn’t want to put any of them out. Finally, I just sat down and stripped away everything I’d learned and that’s when I wrote ‘How to Love a Girl.’ I realized writing songs about who I am and my own experiences is way better than trying to be edgy and cool. What I was writing before, although they might have been great songs, wasn’t authentic and I couldn’t sell that to people.

“Just be yourself and be authentic. You can’t care about what other people think about you. I used to be paralyzed by the thought of somebody not liking me, and now I realize, it’s okay. If they don’t like you it’s not the end of the world.”

You touched on it a little bit there, but getting your Masters in Glasgow, tell me a little bit about your time there and how that helped you grow as an artist? What did you take away from that experience besides a Master’s?

“I’m a nerd when it comes to learning. So I did two years in Toronto, where I did the music business and audio production program. I just wanted to have a knowledge of what I was talking about in the industry because as a female you do have to work harder and you aren’t taken seriously. I wanted to know what I was talking about. Then went over to Boston for a semester before going to Scotland where I got my Masters.

“It was an incredible experience. The people there are so lovely. I entered my second semester of university in March, 2020, and you know what happened there… So I had to come home.

“As a songwriter, before that program, I was probably writing like one to two songs, maybe more, a month but in Scotland, I was writing like two, three songs a day. So that’s where my writing really amped up. And then when the pandemic hit, being locked in your house as a creative and having the ability to zoom with anybody across the world that I wanted to write a song with, really opened up a lot of doors for me. That period lit a fire under my butt. It was incredible.”

How would you describe your sound, or the sound that you’re evolving into, in three words?

“Real is a big one. When we go into the studio now, we have a whole band and it’s as live as it can be. We’re all playing simultaneously on the floor and it feels really authentic to me, the sound we’re building. ‘Red Rose,’ and the next few songs that are coming out, are all real, authentic, grassroots.

Listen to “Red Rose”

“At the beginning, when I first started getting songs produced, it was a more big, polished, sound but there’s a disconnect there. I can’t perform that live if I don’t have the tracks and I don’t have that kind of band.”

“My band today is incredible. They just walk into the studio and come up with these incredible ideas. We’re only a team of like six people and we’re all putting in our ideas and I’ve just never made music like this before. The guys I have are so great, I’m so lucky.

If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?

“How much time do you have?” Says Olivia with a chuckle.

“I think the biggest thing is explaining to artists that it’s a business. When you’re your own business, who is the last person to get paid? The business owner and unfortunately, that’s the artist.

“When you start, if you have the expectation of making tons of money right out of the gate, It’s like, your team is, they’re gonna get paid, but you are not. You gotta put in the work. So I think it’s having the expectation that this is a business you’re starting. You’re investing in yourself.

“Someone is an artist. They create art, yes, but if you want to work in the commercial space, if you want it to be your income source, you have to treat it like a business. When I took on that mindset, that’s when things finally started to work. The music industry is an industry. So I guess my answer is I want to change the mindset of people in the industry.”

Last question. It might be the hardest one and the most personal yet. “Teardrops On My Guitar” or “Love Story”?

“I’m gonna have to say ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’ because I cried to that song way more than I cried to ‘Love Story.’

“But I think the coolest thing about ‘Love Story’ is that Taylor had to fight for that song. Her label didn’t want her to put it out. Her parents didn’t want her to put it out. And that’s probably been one of her biggest songs to date, especially in her first four or five albums. So the fact that as an artist, she believed in that song so much that she fought tooth and nail to put that out, I think is incredible.

Olivia, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for joining us on the Front Porch!

Have A Listen To All Of Olivia’s Music

Taylor Preston - a contributor for Front Porch Music
Taylor Preston

Any man of mine knows I’m a lover of anything involving music, writing, and beer.

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