Ryn Weaver's Semi-Charmed Life: Why The Internet Is Infatuated with the 'OctaHate' Singer
Benny Blanco thinks she’s a sure thing. Charli XCX is working with her on a top-secret project. She cries easily, loves Samuel Beckett and blew up the Web with her debut single. Inside the rise and inevitable takeover of Ryn Weaver.
Ryn Weaver is sprawled out on the bed in the cluttered makeshift studio in super-producer Benny Blanco's Manhattan apartment, constantly fidgeting in front of an array of pillows. It's a sunny morning in early October, and light is streaming onto the synthesizers and laptops of various lengths and colors populating the small room. The studio is the birthplace of some of Blanco's many hit singles as a producer and songwriter, but he's currently working with a MacBook on the plush couch in the adjacent living room, fastidiously tinkering away on a springy mid-tempo track that sounds a whole lot like Gwen Stefani's soon-to-be-released comeback single "Baby Don't Lie," while Weaver takes the studio room to conduct her first in-person interview.
The San Diego-raised Weaver has been focusing on her debut album and rehearsing for her first live shows in New York over the past few weeks with Blanco, and when asked where in the city she's staying, the 22-year-old singer-songwriter shifts in her off-white tutu and triumphantly points down at the bed she's sitting on.
"I don't have money to be putting myself up at all -- I'd have to get a day job, for sure," says Weaver. "This is where I need to be working, and the rest of the year I'm working on other people's albums and I'm working on my own, and so I'm posted in this little bed. It's pretty nice, aside from when people need to be in here and work in here. They're like, 'Get out!,' and I'm like, 'Where do I live now?'"
Weaver can't sit still; her legs are almost always moving on the miniature bed, her bare feet sometimes splayed out in a split and other times crossed underneath her tutu. Her eyes dart around the room, and her fingers pierce her tangle of brunette hair. She might be a little nervous -- three minutes into the interview, she points at the audio recorder resting on my knee and snipes, "I hate that there's that, because I'm just gonna sound like a tool when I talk." I move the recorder a few feet backward onto the dresser behind my desk chair to keep it out of sight, sort of.
But Weaver's restlessness could also just be excitement. Her debut music video, for the out-of-nowhere viral sensation "OctaHate," was released two days earlier and was roundly praised by the blogosphere. Her first official live show, a performance at New York's Bowery Ballroom during this year's CMJ Music Marathon, is less than two weeks away. She's been working with pop savant Charli XCX on a top-secret songwriting project. And she's preparing a debut album that Blanco says will help establish Weaver as a singular voice in pop. "I definitely think she's going to be the biggest artist of next year -- I'm going down on print saying that I think she's going to be one of the most influential artists of next year, and one of those career artists that can last a lifetime," Blanco tells Billboard. Those are heavy words from a 26-year-old with a hand in some of the biggest radio hits of the past half-decade, and whose name is on three of the top 10 songs (Iggy Azalea's "Black Widow," Maroon 5's "Animals" and Ed Sheeran's "Don't") on the current Hot 100 chart.
Weaver is anxious to tell her story, because she knows the type of assumptions some people have made about her since "OctaHate" was not-so-quietly plopped onto the Internet on June 24. The lustrous, lump-in-throat pop track was championed on social media by Blanco, Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos, Charli XCX and Norwegian DJ/producer Cashmere Cat -- all of whom, amazingly, had a hand in creating the single, and who have a combined 738,000 Twitter followers. New fans Jessie Ware and Paramore's Hayley Williams also tweeted out praise of the song hours after it launched, making another 4.1 million followers aware of "OctaHate." Tastemaking sites like Stereogum and The Fader took notice of the song, which quickly hit No. 1 on Billboard's Emerging Artists chart. Meanwhile, the Internet poked and prodded at this mysterious entity who had made such a loud debut from seemingly out of nowhere. Who was this unknown girl with the hypnotizing pop track and the famous friends? Had a star just been born based on its proximity to other stars?
Weaver flattens that line of thinking as sexism. "The second a new female artist puts something out and it's poppy, people chalk it up to all the people she works with," she says. "I read all these articles that are like, 'how to create a pop star.' That's chill, I guess. People can speculate as much as they want, but I don't really give a fuck."
A few minutes later, Cashmere Cat -- who has recently worked with artists like Ariana Grande and Tinashe -- ducks into the studio room, flashes a smile at Weaver, scoops up a laptop in the pile of laptops on the desk behind me and silently leaves.
Four years ago, Weaver met Benny Blanco (real name: Benjamin Levin) in New York while trying to navigate through another disappointing date night. "I was dating some dude, and they knew each other," Weaver says of Blanco, who studied production under Disco D and was mentored by Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald. "We all went out for Halloween, and we talked that night while my ex-boyfriend was flirting with a bunch of other ladies. We had a really special night of being like, 'Thanks for being my friend tonight.' And then I never saw him again."
The chance encounter occurred while Weaver (whose real name is Aryn Wüthrich) was shambling through a misbegotten run as a student at New York University. She had moved to New York from San Diego with a goal to inject her life with culture -- to "publicly transport myself and go to the theater and meet a lot of people and just be mind-fucked," as she puts it. Instead, she ended up working at restaurants and dating a creep in the music scene (Weaver won't reveal his name). Weaver threw herself into the relationship, and because she was the new girl in town, her boyfriend's friends became her friends. When she eventually suspected that the guy was cheating, however, his friends turned on Weaver and shook her self-confidence.
"It was a long relationship, and the fallout was tough," she says. "It was hard to come back from something like that, when you almost sell your soul to the devil and then they leave and you're like, 'Now where's my fucking soul?'" With her relationship poisoned and the NYU curriculum turning out to be too constricting for her free spirit, Weaver escaped, dropping out of college after two years. She moved back to California, where she roamed the state in order to find a semblance of an opportunity -- working on some music while picking up the occasional acting job, couch-surfing when she wasn't back at her parents' house.
That fateful opening came in March 2013, when Weaver was hanging out with a friend in Los Angeles. Her friend was playing around with her own Tinder account, swiping through various guys' faces when Blanco's visage popped up. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I know him! I met him in New York!'" Weaver remembers. Her friend messaged Blanco, who told the girls that he was having a birthday party in L.A. the next night and that they should come.
Weaver predicted that Blanco's birthday party would contain a who's who of the music industry, and showed up peddling her Soundcloud account. She didn't beguile Blanco himself at the party, but successfully wedged herself into his inner circle. Blanco recalls, "A few weeks [after the party] one of my really good friends hits me up and is like, 'Remember that girl at the party? I think I'm gonna start managing her.' I'm like, 'For what?' He goes, 'She makes music!' And then I kept getting a swarm of emails from him and her. Finally, I listen to it. I put it on, and it's actually pretty good -- just stuff she produced herself, bedroom recordings. I sent it to my managers and a few other people, and every person I sent it to shot me a follow-up saying, 'What the fuck is this? We need to sign this.'"
And then everything, as Blanco puts it, just fell into place. The producer didn't have a record label at the time he reconnected with Weaver in Los Angeles, but decided to start Friends Keep Secrets as a subsidiary of Interscope Records, and signed Weaver to the fresh imprint. As Blanco started to guide Weaver's music, he slowly aligned some of his famous pals for the young singer's first project. Angelakos, who has remixed several songs as Passion Pit but is not known for producing other artists' material, had been meeting up with Blanco in New York to collaborate on new music during breaks in his touring schedule last year; when Blanco showed him some of Weaver's demos, Angelakos was impressed enough to hop aboard. Weaver met Cashmere Cat before his performance at Los Angeles' HARD Fest in August 2013, and claims that she convinced the shy, alcohol-averse producer to get drunk and boogie to Disclosure's "Latch" before his set started.
As for Charli XCX, whom Weaver calls "a goddess and a murderess," the "Boom Clap" star tells Billboard that she met Weaver in Los Angeles at Blanco's birthday party earlier this year -- this time, presumably, Weaver didn't need a Tinder message to make the guest list. "We were both pretty drunk," Charli says of hanging with Weaver. "I nearly fell in the pool with her and I don't really remember what we spoke about. I just remember liking her."
Jessie Ware, Ryn Weaver & Benny Blanco posing for Instagram in April
It's easy to like Weaver: she's intelligent, well-spoken, funny and disarmingly honest. She'll tell you about her favorite lines of poetry and the time she got a little too high at Bonnaroo. It's also easy to understand how she became so engrained in the camp of Benny Blanco, who became an in-demand producer at the age of 22 after finding a home in Dr. Luke's ever-growing collection of studio whizzes. Blanco has always been a fiercely talented goofball — sample tweet: "When I'm old and grey will u wipe my butt so I know it's real???" — whose apparent affability and scruffy charm make him a natural confidant for some of pop's major players. It might sound strange that Weaver is staying in his apartment's studio room during her New York stay, but Blanco points out that Jessie Ware will stay in the same room when she's in town for a promo run later in October. "There's always a hundred people at my house, coming in and out. … It's kind of, without my permission, turned into this commune," Blanco says with a hearty chuckle.
Weaver says that she doesn't get intimidated by collaborators like Blanco until after she's done collaborating with them. "You're in the moment, and in the situation I'm like 'Let's do this shit,' but then I go home and I go, 'Wow, this is insane,'" she says. "I remember I just went to a private show where Michael [Angelakos] was playing, and I was in the audience and just started sobbing. I was like, 'I'm working with this man,' whose music I had found in high school when I was in a pretty dark place." As if to demonstrate that she isn't exaggerating about crying at the concert, Weaver starts tearing up as she tells this story, and pauses the interview to retrieve a tissue from the studio room's private bathroom.
Weaver often wore her emotions on her sleeve growing up in San Diego, diving into different types of art and refusing to define herself through one medium. The daughter of a former high-school quarterback and head cheerleader whom she calls "very religious and conversative" and "really supportive," Weaver dabbled in musical theater as a kid before getting into painting and acting in high school. She won a battle of the bands contest, studied Kabuki theater and became a hardcore Samuel Beckett fan. Weaver was also raised on pop music and digested her fair share of Britney Spears, but she worships David Bowie and returns most often to Fiona Apple's catalog. It's one of the reasons why -- despite the fact that her mentor is most famous for working with artists like Kesha and Katy Perry -- Weaver would never consider herself strictly a pop artist; instead, she wants to learn how to play the harp like one of her folk idols, Joanna Newsom ("Somewhere in my future, when I can fucking afford a harp," Weaver adds with a sigh).
A cover of Newsom's "Peach, Plum, Pear" is one of the first things Weaver posted on Soundcloud last year, under the handle FemFemFem. Two other tracks, "You" and "HEARTBREAKER," also appeared online and were tagged #FairyPop. However, "OctaHate," written over a year ago in separate sessions, was Weaver's grand debut in June, posted on Soundcloud on a Tuesday afternoon with tampered expectations; then, all of its creators and a few other friends posted it online, and in a little over a week, the song had earned 1 million Soundcloud plays (the single has also sold 31,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan). The other artists tweeting about their fixation with the song may have attracted listeners at first, but "OctaHate" was then quickly discovered -- and rightly hailed -- to be one of the year's finest pop delights, a muscular lamentation with evocative lyrics and an authoritative vocal take. When Weaver's debut EP, Promises, was released on Friends Keep Secrets in August, more of her vulernable songwriting was on display. "Sail On" is the flip side of "OctaHate," a powerful new beginning that rejects an ex's negativity, while the title track references Weaver's time spent wandering California after fleeing New York City: "I said I was trying, I really was driving the coast/The fight or the flight, well, I side with the latter most."
"She could be working at 3:00 a.m. on a new idea, or write a hook in the garden whilst having a cup of tea in the afternoon," says Jessie Ware, who met the young songwriter in Los Angeles while Blanco was working on her new album, Tough Love. "You stop and listen to her as soon as you hear that voice. It's commanding and confident, and she's only just begun. That's pretty special."
All of the musical stars who have worked with Weaver stress that her assimilation into their ranks has been a completely natural process. Her signing to Friends Keep Secrets, the making of the Promises EP and the posting of "OctaHate" in late June were not calculated moves, claims Passion Pit's Angelakos, but the result of friends getting together to assist a project about which they were extremely passionate, and without thinking about long-lead major-label rollouts.
"We're there to help her bring this to fruition," says Angelakos. "It's just easy because she's super talented. We do most of the music and everything, the production aspect, but other than that, it's really her vehicle, the voice and everything. People have compared [Weaver] to Lana Del Rey and these other artists that were very weirdly 'put together.' She's not that."
Weaver says that she feels like it's been "a whirlwind" working with her new mentors, and has already begun tumbling down the rabbit hole in their ultra-cool pop life. Apparently she and Charli XCX have been working on another artist's project together in Los Angeles, at Jim Morrison's old house. "It's someone else's album who's a very sassy lady. That's all I can say," teases Weaver.
After the interview, Weaver walks into Blanco's living room; he's no longer working on the couch, and is taking a nap in a bed at the far end of the sprawling area. There's a Nintendo 64 placed on Blanco's TV stand above an exhaustive, ornately arranged collection of Thirty-Three and a Third books, and a "Mario Tennis" cartridge resides in the console. Weaver declares that she always plays as Yoshi; Blanco is usually Donkey Kong.
She's got show rehearsals later that afternoon for her live debut at Bowery Ballroom, and 12 days later, Weaver takes the stage to a packed house at the 800-capacity venue on the lower east side. Angelakos is in attendance, watching from the balcony as Weaver starts her set, and Blanco, wearing a leather jacket and flattened Afro, stands next to him. Also in attendance are Aaron Bay-Schuck, Interscope Geffen A&M's president of A&R, and Jennifer Zellers, the label's head of video. A dozen people on the balcony have multicolored makeup streaming down their faces -- a tribute to Weaver's bright tears in the "OctaHate" video -- but Weaver's face is clean and serious as she rolls through a six-song set.
Wearing a dark jumpsuit with white fringe and an oversized black belt, Weaver pummels through "Promises" and "Sail On," biting into each word and contorting her syllables as she stands fairly motionless onstage. By the time "OctaHate" is unveiled as the set closer, a strobe light is shaking Weaver out of her stationary state, and Blanco is holding up his cell phone and filming the performance like a proud father.
Weaver also performs a new track, "Here Is Home," a piano-driven torch song that would make sense on Jessie Ware's new album. "Even if you stay or you go/Oh, I know you know that here is home," Weaver croons, tearing up as the song comes to a close. "Here Is Home" will appear on Weaver's first album, which Blanco says will likely arrive in the first quarter of 2015. Angelakos says the album will incorporate Weaver's theatrical side, including their shared love of the music of Stephen Sondheim and George Gershwin.
"Benny and I are working on stuff with her now, and will be for the next few weeks," says Angelakos. "Where she was lyrically on the EP, and where's going to be on the LP, I think it's really going to impress people. She's just fantastic, a really amazing lyricist." Although another single may be released before Weaver's full-length drops, "OctaHate" is likely to receive a concerted radio push once the madness of Q4 dies down.
With four songs to her name and the devotion of several high-profile artists, Weaver is currently living a rock-star life. She tells a story of working on a writing project in Los Angeles and then road-tripping to Nashville with Blanco to pen "some country songs" that may never see the light of day. Surrounded by new friends who believe in her talent, Weaver can't help but take a minute to dwell on the one person trying to tether her to the ground: she still faintly detects the comments of her ex, whom "OctaHate" is based upon. When the "OctaHate" music video was released on Oct. 8, for instance, most fans and pop blogs heralded the theatrical clip as another win for the young artist, but Weaver noticed that her ex was disparaging the clip on Twitter.
"Literally the only bad tweet [I saw], the only thing that was mean, was him being, 'Yikes,'" says Weaver, rolling her eyes. "I was like, 'You don't need to do that anymore -- go work on your own career. Don't be a hater. Don't live to hate.'" She pauses, and adds, "And now I'm hating, so I feel like a bitch."
Then Weaver steadies herself, and delivers her next sentence as a message to not just her ex, but to anyone trying to halt her inevitable rise: “When there's a troll, it's like, ‘Leave me alone. I've crossed this bridge and I burned it down, and I’m not coming back.’”
An edited version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.