Magazine Feature

Singer-Songwriter gnash on How He Was Clueless That His Song 'i hate u, i love u' Would Be a Hit

Casen Ruiz

The 23-year-old California native (real name: Garrett Nash) blew up on SoundCloud before hitting the Hot 100.

gnash sits on a porch after landing in Delaware for Firefly. The airline lost his luggage, which means he's stuck with the clothing on his body. gnash the optimist just sees this as a squad marketing opportunity.

"We got our merch with us -- I was gonna say we might put a bunch of merch on us," he proposes. "I feel like it's a good squad move, like if Drake has everybody in the OVO stuff then maybe everybody should do gnash."

gnash has managed to sneak up on the Hot 100 charts with his hit "i hate u, i love u" featuring Olivia O'Brien. The bare piano-driven conflict stands out in a sea of club-ready summer songs like "One Dance" and "Don't Let Me Down." With a quintessentially millennial social-media presence, the singer-songwriter has created a strong fanbase of Dreamers who relate to his straight-from-a-diary lyrics and #positive tweets.

As he waits for pizza to arrive at his temporary abode, gnash talks to Billboard about emotions, emojis, and what a hit is in his eyes.

Does your stage name come from your real name?

Yeah! So my real name is Garrett Nash, so G is just the g and nash.

And you're 23.

Yeah, I just turned 23 yesterday!

Happy belated birthday!

Thank you so much! It was a really good one. It's kind of continuing through the weekend, 'cause I just got to Firefly. I'm playing this weekend here and Death Cab for Cutie is one of my favorite bands ever, I've never seen them live and they're playing on the same day as me. So the birthday keeps rolling all the way through.

Would you say that Death Cab for Cutie is one of your influences?

Yes, totally. Definitely one of the biggest influences on my music is the music that Ben Gibbard's associated with, so Death Cab and The Postal Service. I'm a huge The Postal Service fan, I would say that [Give Up] is my favorite album ever. So he's made a huge impact on my life as a songwriter.

Who are your influences from other genres?

I've been a DJ since I was about 13, and I started out as a hip-hop DJ. So I was always playing records that would just get people going. I was just doing parties and high school dances and whatever, and then progressively I started making my own music, writing little songs here and there but it was never anything crazy. Towards the end of college I started producing covers, but over time I winded up make covers so I could play them as a DJ set almost as like a joke. So I made one of "Suga Suga" [by Baby Bash and Frankie J] and one of "Coco" [by O.T. Genasis] and then people really liked how they sounded because they were so different, and then I was like, "Oh, I think I have a sound here." Outside of that, who am I inspired by? Kanye. I love YG's new album. I'm a huge Jack Johnson fan. That's kinda my spectrum.

Why did you pick "Suga Suga" and "Coco" as your covers?

The first couple I picked were because "Suga Suga" is just like a classic, and "Coco" I knew it was about to go to radio because I could tell it was starting to roll -- people were starting to play it everywhere. The day I put out the cover, it happened to be the day it went out to radio in L.A. and New York, so as the song popped off, my cover got success as well, so it's a pretty cool story.

How do you know what's going to be a hit on the radio before anyone else?

As a DJ, you start to just learn little cues of how people react to music. There's different reactions to different things, and people -- their faces change or they jump different -- there's just different ways people get going about things, and I could just tell. Sometimes I can just tell. Like "Coco" was just a hit from the jump, it was a cultural movement. "Empire State of Mind" is another one I called when I was really little because it wasn't a featured single on the Jay Z album at first. He had "Death of Autotune" and whatever on that album. And I listened into that album and I was like, "Yo, Empire State of Mind is cash," so I started playing it, and then sure enough that one is the one that popped off. You have to have a good ear for it. When you hear so much music and you're inspired by all these different things, you just get an ear of what's really great and what's just a good song, you know?

Did you hear that when you finished “i hate u i love u”?

That's a good question. I think that the first time I thought that is actually when [featured vocalist] Olivia sent me a voicemail with the chords and the hook and the structure. I was like, "This song is amazing," because I knew...a hit to me is something that connects with people. And so when I heard "i hate u i love u" I said, "I identify with this. I have some things to say about this." So I went in on that record with her and I helped produced everything else, and then by the time it was done as a package I was like, "This makes me feel good. This is a cathartic thing that I got something off of my chest." And I think to me that's what a hit is. It's something that makes you feel like "I'm doing something here with this song that's gonna help other people feel a certain type of way, and it's gonna make people connect with what I'm saying, and people are gonna want to connect with what I'm saying." But that's the only indication I had that it was a hit. The only other thing is that when I went in after putting it out -- I mixed it, finished the verse, fixed it, and put it out on the same night -- and I went inside to my house 'cause I work in my garage, I make all my stuff out there -- and I went into my mom's bedroom like, "Mom, I just put my biggest song ever out," kinda joking, and she was like, "Go back to bed, honey." That's about the extent of what I thought the song was gonna be.

What was the first moment that really cemented its success for you?

It was getting a lot of love and a lot of traction, but I think the first person that put it on really hard that I was like, "Whoa, this is crazy" is my friend Andrea Russett. She put my whole verse on her Snapchat and then at the end was like, "Hey, I just love that song, it's my friend gnash's new song ‘i hate u i love u,’ go check it out." And the next day I went from getting 30,000 plays a day to 80,000 plays a day. I was like, "Wow, this is so crazy." Then it went on the SoundCloud chart, and then it went on the Spotify viral chart, and then all the charts on Spotify, and it kept getting played everywhere. Super crazy. But after that moment, I was like, "Wow, this could be like a cultural movement," because it just takes one voice to change the world, and with somebody who already has access to so many people and so many people love her...She just said, "Hey, I like this," and then all those people were like, "Whoa, we like this too." And now look at what happened.

You've topped the charts in Australia -- have you had the chance to visit?

I haven't been to Australia yet, that's one thing that I'm looking forward to. I learned that it's summer here so it's their winter, and I never really thought about that, so we're holding off on going there until about their spring going into their summer, because I'm gonna be doing a lot of international stuff in fall and end-of-summer type of things, so I'm very excited to go to Australia, I got the ARIA trophy and everything. It was so crazy that it already went No. 1 there. I couldn't believe it. It was like, "Wow, how did that even happen?" And then I realized it's just 'cause there's so many people out there supporting it in Australia. It's a dope place, they embrace records really quickly, and they were like, "We love this, we love this!" I was doing interviews all of a sudden and it was crazy. [Australia] and Germany were the first two countries to really show super love on the radio. But everywhere [else] has shown love on the internet for so long. My Dreamers are out there showing love to my music all the time, so I gotta show love to them.

Is Dreamers the name of your fan club?

Yeah. They named themselves that. I gave them some options on Twitter and -- this was way early on, way early on, like the real real ones -- and I was like, "Yo, I want everybody to have a name," and we just stuck with it. So shout out to them. As a whole and individually, I love them.

Going off your social media presence, you come across as free-spirited and approachable. Was it a conscious decision to make yourself accessible to fans, or are you simply doing what comes naturally?

I just tweet whatever feels right because to me. I used to be really sad. I went through this period in my life when I was super sad, because like I said I was going through a breakup and I made this EP called u, and then when I was going through the EP called me. I was finding myself, and I was like, "I can't live like this anymore, I gotta be happy." So I just started being more positive and encouraging positivity, and my fans started to shift with me. The Dreamers really saw that and were like, "We can be happy too, good vibes." And my whole thing is happy sad. My label, my genre, my everything is happy sad -- I do a smiley face with eyes on both sides. So basically to me, it's totally okay to be happy and sad at the same time, it's totally okay just to be sad, it's totally okay to be happy. Whatever you wanna be, just at the end of the day, if you're being a good person, which is not hard to be, and you're putting positive energy into the world, and you're appreciative and loving to the people around you that care about you and everybody in general, then it'll work out. It's just super important to do that. 

What do you listen to when you're happy sad?

I think that the cool thing about all the music I make too is that it's all kind of a melting pot of all the other music that I find to relate to, and I'm kind of trying to just create a quick guide to all the feelings that people need to hear about when they're feeling a certain way in my opinion. And I guess when you really look at it, that's what music is as a whole. It's just a bunch of people listening to stuff growing up, and they decide to start writing music and it's kind of just a melting pot of everything they've heard, what they liked the most and what they related to the most. But what I relate to the most is Death Cab for Cutie and Ben Gibbard, like I said. I also really like this band called Real Friends -- they're amazing. I was on Warped Tour with them three years ago. I've listened to a lot of Brand New lately -- I'm supposed to see them at the Forum in L.A. Yeah, it's Modest Mouse with Brand New, I think that's gonna be crazy. The most important thing, though, is that you listen to artists that you actually relate to, you don't just try and force yourself into liking music that your friends like. If you like weird and different music like I did growing up, like all my friends were into hip-hop and stuff, but when I was alone, I just wanted to listen to Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco, which I still do; I just wanted to listen to Blink, I just wanted to listen to Sum 41, and that's totally okay. You should never be embarrassed or ashamed of listening to a particular type of music. My sister just finished high school this year and her favorite band is My Chemical Romance. I think that's so awesome. They haven't made music in so long and she's still a super fan. It's so cool, you know?

I loved The Bee Gees growing up. There's no expiration date on a sound.

There you go! That's the other side of it. There's people that probably grew up that are my age and their favorite band is The Beatles just 'cause The Beatles are incredible. I listen to a lot of Beatles. I have a very specific Beatles discography that I go to. I also love Eminem, but mostly on his emotional shit, like "Mockingbird" and "Lose Yourself" and "Stan." The ones where he really tells stories, I love that shit from Em.

You seem very in touch and open with your emotions when that's typically discouraged in young boys and men from the very start. Have you always been in touch with your emotions, or did you have to work to get to that point?

One of the biggest things growing up that my dad taught me is that if I was okay to talk about my feelings and express how I felt and not get angry, then he would listen to me. If I had issues, I would just tell him, "Here's how I feel, this is what I'm feeling," either with him or with my mom. And so I would just express how I felt and in that way I kinda learned how to talk about my feelings really well. And then I got to a point where I was like, "I'm gonna start writing these feelings down in songs because I'm having a lot of feelings and it feels like a good way to get them out." After a certain point in your life -- my dad's awesome, but I feel some things he doesn't understand. He's 40 years older than me; so I was like, "Maybe people will understand if I put music out." So then I started putting music out to try and get people to be like, "Yo, I feel you," and then a lot of people were like, "Yo, I feel you." So that's how I've always been.

One final question: what's your favorite smiley and emoji?

I was just gonna cop out and say the happy sad logo, which is eyes on both sides of a smiley face. But if I had to go to an emoji, I would say the sleeping guy is great, 'cause I feel like I really connect with him, and then my other favorite emoji is the red heart, because it's just so real, and when people see that on a screen, it just feels good. I love that there's something in technology that actually makes people feel good and not just bad all the time. I love that.

This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.