Olivia Penalva has watched her latest single, “Love Me,” rack up more than 20 million streams on TikTok, and her pop covers have gone from YouTube to appearing on American Idol and America’s Got Talent, but the Gen Z singer still gets excited by what’s perceived as an older-school achievement.
“The biggest thing for me is radio, actually,” she says. “[‘Love Me’] is rising on pop radio, and CHR, which is so crazy. The numbers keep going up the charts. It’s kind of blown my mind.”
The 20-year-old from Vernon, British Colombia, first heard her voice on the radio at age 13, when her whimsical holiday song “Christmas For Two” hit the Top 30. The track was co-written in the fall of 2013 in L.A. with Sony/ATV writer Andrew Allen, who’s also from the Okanagan region of BC, and had scored his own Christmas hit in 2009.
“It was my first trip to L.A. and we didn’t know what we were going to write, but I remember the topic of Christmas came up,” says Penalva. “You know that around Christmas time, not only is radio always looking for more Christmas songs, they’re looking for Canadian artists who have Christmas songs? I remember laughing, thinking, ‘Okay, it’s not even winter, but I’ll get in the spirit’.”
Her openness to other people’s ideas has served her well as she’s paired up with songwriters of various musical backgrounds on a series of one-off singles and EPs. “Love Me” was co-written by Penalva and SOCAN members Emery Taylor (best known for pop and EDM) and Brian Howes (whose many rock credits include smash hits for Daughtry, Puddle of Mudd, and Skillett). Earlier collaborations include “Ferris Wheel” with Brian West (Nelly Furtado, Maroon 5), and “Forgettable” with Josh Cumbee (Madonna, Nick Howard).
“I think I fell in love with co-writing right away”
“I think I fell in love with co-writing right away,” she explains. “Writing by yourself can be kind of intimidating. Being in a room with other writers, talking to them and sharing experiences, but also leaning on each other for ideas, that opened a whole new world for me. It’s always different, and I just have such a good time doing it with other people. It’s such a fun thing.”
Collaborating with writers also helped address a challenge particular to teenage songwriters: how to write deeply about the human condition when you’re just beginning to have your own life experiences? Penalva admits her early songs like “Ferris Wheel” were trying to “work with” her age, but she soon outgrew it.
“I love creating melodies. I also love writing lyrics, but I struggled with knowing what to say for so long because I was so young,” she says. “After a little while I was like, ‘You know, this is fun, but there’s more depth to me.’ The people I was writing with would help me spark those ideas, and through their experiences give me a little guidance. I think that helped me a lot learn about songwriting. And then the last two or three years, getting into adulthood, something opened up in me. I couldn’t stop after that.”
Penalva says that since the start of the pandemic, she’s been writing non-stop, even if trips to L.A. and Nashville have been replaced with Zoom sessions. She’s preparing to release her first full-length album later this year, and has so many tracks to choose from she needs to consult a list of all the songwriters, so as not to leave anyone out.
Some names jump out: Nolan Sipe, whose “Honey, I’m Good” was a Top 10 Billboard hit for Andy Grammar; SOCAN Award winner Daniel Powter (“Bad Day”); Ryan Stewart (Carly Rae Jepsen); Tyler Spry (of One Republic); and Jessica Mitchell, who co-wrote “The Chase” on Celine Dion’s Courage.
As for what it might sound like, the singer doesn’t give much away. “This year, I’ve just kind of embraced everything,” she says. “That’s what so great about pop music nowadays – as long as you’re true to yourself, you can do anything.”