Far from the usual winsome girl with a guitar, she cites Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry as “a couple of women I completely adore”. She grew up on everyone from Alison Krauss to Alice In Chains, she was more likely to have a poster of Kurt Cobain than Christina Aguilera on her wall as a kid, and she thinks Elvis Costello is “the king”: her favourite of his lyrics is the one from Watching The Detectives (“She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”) and her favourite of his songs is Alison, which she believes is about a prostitute and she once performed, aged 11, for a school singing competition. “My dad was, like, ‘You can’t sing that, you’re 11, it’s totally wrong!’” she laughs.
Olivia’s mum is a pretty English hard headed business woman and her dad is an Italian hot rod enthusiast who practises kung fu and is covered in tattoos. She spent her whole childhood and adolescence at the same all-girl school. “I was the grunger with the Rage Against The Machine patch on my school bag for most of my early school life, the freaky one with no friends in the corner,” she admits. “On non-uniform day I’d braid my hair and wear big baggy jeans. Everyone else was into Britney and the Spice Girls.” She found the experience very isolating and struggled to ever be her true self. ”One day people would be lovely and the next would completely cut me out like I didn’t exist. To have that constantly for years really hurts. You start to wonder if there is something wrong with you”.
She began writing songs around this time, and they were, as you can probably imagine, quite characterful and vivid. One of the first was B-Movie, “about failed actresses, or maybe failed musicians”. “I had read about [R&B producer] LA Reid forcing Pink to do things she didn’t want before she began working with Linda Perry,” she says. “It was good subject matter.” She is especially proud of her lyric to B-Movie: “So here’s the love of your life / Buttercup lips and jeans a size too tight / Telling you how you light up his meagre little low life / Till you catch him at the mixing desk buried so deep in a wannabe’s treasure chest / He had so much love to give he thought he’d share it out a little bit.” It is, she explains, “about a girl who has fallen in love with a director or producer, and they have this wonderful chemistry till he moves onto the next wannabe and she gets shoved aside because she’s not pretty enough, or too fat / too thin.”
Over the next few years the songs just poured out of her, addressing all manner of issues, from the suffering endured by immigrants in the almost grungey Despite The Day to Radiant Breech, which concerns “the bravery of the people” during 2011’s Arab Spring. She wrote the latter because, typically forthright, she didn’t believe anyone had penned a decent protest song since punk.
She wanted the accompanying video to Rose of Stone (see above) express the sad subject matter of the song (loss), so she chose a place where she spent much of her youth. “The director asked me where the most haunting place for me was, so I said the chapel at my old school,” she says. She has already solely written the 12 tracks for her debut album, which will be called Pebbles “because pebbles are all individual but still pebbles, which sums up the songs: they’re all individual but they’re still all me.”
Pebbles has been produced by Dan Weller, who has worked with Enter Shikari, and will feature her band – Sam Rothon (bass), Sam Hopper (lead guitar) and Aaron Graham (drums) – who give her the confidence and freedom to reach poetic heights or rock out, and who she describes variously as “like my big brothers” and “my support system”, drawing a comparison with Chrissie Hynde and her Pretenders. Much to her delight, Hynde’s ex-husband, the legendary Ray Davies of The Kinks, is a fan of Olivia’s music. “He came up to me after a gig and told me my songs were hauntingly beautiful,” she says. “That’s quite a feat coming from him.”
Olivia doesn’t consider herself to be an acoustic female singer-songwriter – “what I do has a much fuller sound,” she attests. She also believes herself to be a storyteller more than she is a songwriter or a performer. And the songs on Pebbles, arranged chronologically – i.e. in the order in which they were written – tell a story. Of rise and fall and rise again. And they are all sung in that rich, huskily emotive voice. “For me it’s about emotion,” she declares. “I can’t do vocal gymnastics, but even if you’re not technically brilliant, it can make a heart bleed the way you sing.”
Olivia – who is freaked out by iPods and loves vinyl – is 19 going on 32. She is a poetic, rocking, lushly melodic level above her so-called peers. “What I do has depth,” she decides. “I have a very individual lyrical style. People say it seems older than its years – I guess that’s because I read so much, especially poetry.” What do her poetic flights of fancy express? Rage? Despair? “No,” she says. “Confusion.” She’s not confused about where she wants to go, though. Her ambition is to play all over the world, and to move people with her music.
“This might sound cheesy, but if I can make one person go, ‘This song helped me through’ or ‘this song changed my life’, that would be amazing,” she says. No doubt about it, it’s going to happen. What was that name again? Olivia Sebastianelli. Remember it. You’re going to be hearing it a lot.