Olivia Penalva Lights Up With Star Power In “Ex’s” Video

Olivia Penalva is typically the sort of songwriter to write from deeply personal experiences, but with “Ex’s,” she stretches her wings to tell a seductive story about lust and betrayal. “I know so many people who have been in situations like this. Based on those experiences, I could find myself relating to the message,” she says.

“Tonight, I’m kissing my ex-best friend’s ex-boyfriend,” the singer-songwriter purrs over sleek R&B beats. Much in line with her single “Love Me,” released earlier this year, Penalva harbors little regret about succumbing to temptation. It’s all a character, of course; when she first released the track back in early summer, the initial response was mostly good — except for several comments calling her integrity into question. “Some people didn’t take too kindly to the idea of the song,” she says. “The biggest message is that this happens, and it’s unfortunate.”

Penalva is simply doing what most songwriters do: telling a story. “I totally understand where people are coming from. I don’t vibe with every song and not everyone’s gonna vibe with [my songs]. But at first, it was hard for me, because I’m like, ‘These people don’t know me, and this is just a song,'” she continues. “I have so many other kinds of songs that are more personal… female anthems, all sorts of stuff. Not every song is going to be like that. You want to say something and let them know, but it’s not like those people are going to take the time to find out who you are. I have just accepted that this happens. Everyone has different experiences, and not everyone is going to love the song. And that’s totally okay.”

Despite the negativity, she has found her songwriting greatly benefitting from such bold thematic moves. “It’s so important as a writer to be able to tell other people’s stories and other stories, in general,” she says. “It’s a fun experience for me, too, because it’s a way for me to get out of my head. That has been such an asset in my songwriting, to be able to put myself in those shoes. As much as I love personal, honest songs, it’s also fun to write those cheeky, catchy songs that maybe you wouldn’t expect.”

In the music video, helmed by director of photography Ben Meserve and art director Juan Rivera, Penalva directs the viewer into a literal reading of the lyrics, while also showing off some dance moves (courtesy of choreographer Mandy Jiroux). “The biggest thing early on that we had talked about with everybody was that because this song has such a story, it’s kind of laid out for you there from beginning to end. So, it was really about implementing that in the video and showing that story,” says Penalva.

“I had such a fun day on set with everybody, and it was just fun to see it come to life and put faces to names. It was also a new experience for me,” she adds. Penalva began building her fanbase by performing Justin Bieber, Finneas, and Olivia Rodrigo covers on YouTube, so stepping out in the spotlight with her own music still feels fresh (and a little nerve-wracking). “As far as acting out my own storyline, I was so nervous. But it ended up being so much fun, and I’m really really glad with how it turned out,” she says.

Penalva stars as herself in the clip, alongside actors Faith Archer (as her BFF), Wilber Velazquez (her boyfriend), and Hadi Hajomar (her BFF’s boyfriend). Even though she had no hand in casting, there’s a tangible chemistry among the group. “A funny story: I hadn’t seen [their] faces. I know that [Ben and Juan] had found a few people they liked, and two days before the shoot we all went out for drinks and over maybe a little too much wine, I asked them to show me the pictures of the cast. I was super happy. The people that played the parts were just perfectly,” she recounts.

Penalva released her first single when she was only 13, and through the years, she’s dabbled in a smorgasbord of styles, from jazz and R&B to country (as evidenced with her 2018 Covers album). It’s only with “Love Me” and “Ex’s” that it appears she’s finally locked in her sonic pocket, the crossroads of R&B and pop music with a glittering magic draped over her voice.

“When I was younger, I really wanted to be writing about much more mature content and things I hadn’t lived through. It was kind of weird having a 14-year-old singing about having a broken heart. At the time, I didn’t understand it,” she reflects. “Somewhere along the line, I started to experience life and go through things that also helped my songwriting. My biggest battle at first was wanting to write about things that I couldn’t really relate to. As I went through life and experienced things I was able to learn about myself and implement that in my writing and also learn about other people’s experiences.”

She may not make country music anymore (or have plans to revisit that genre any time soon), but storytelling remains at the root of her craft. “You’ll write with writers who will be like, ‘Well, it’s a pop song, and it doesn’t have to make sense and doesn’t have to have a storyline.’ For me as a writer, I’ve always been a storyteller,” she says. With Ed Sheeran as one of her greatest influences, Penalva always keeps a sense of story and character at the center, even if the production and arrangement goes big and explosive. “That’s the hard part — trying to make those stories fit in and have a hook that people get right away when they listen.”

For now, she looks ahead to a forthcoming, yet-untitled, full-length album. “Everything is so diverse,” the singer-songwriter teases. “The stories are all different, but they connect. And it’s all based on everything I went through in the past few years. The songs are like puzzle pieces that fit together.”

Having written 82 songs last year alone, the LP will span themes of body positivity, self-love, and “also losing yourself and finding yourself,” she says, “and realizing there’s no rush to any of that.”

Though Penalva has been doing covers since she was 14 years old, she admits that it’s time to close that chapter for good. “As much as I love other people’s music… and to do your own version and find yourself in it, I feel like I’ve done my dues there,” she says. “That doesn’t mean I won’t put a few out there, maybe little short ones on Instagram or whatnot, but I think this next chapter is really focusing on my work and sharing that with the world and showing them who I am.”

Follow Olivia Penalva on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

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