Say What You Want About Olivia Rodrigo
Pop’s next great singer-songwriter writes super specific love songs and makes grown men cry. No wonder people are talking.
The most talked-about teenager on the planet is sitting on a bed, 3,500 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, looking impossibly chic in a rented house in London. The room is immaculate in the manner of high-end Airbnbs — pressed linens, botanical wallpaper, fluffy green pillows. Hair pulled back sharp, she’s wearing a velvety leopard-print bomber jacket atop a nondescript black crew neck long-sleeve and black pants, like a behind-the-scenes musical theater hand might. Fitting, considering that before Olivia Rodrigo became an overnight sensation for her monster-hit torch song “drivers license,” she was best known for her role as theater nerd Nini Salazar-Roberts in Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Except, of course, this is real life and she is center stage.
“I’m so excited!” says the 18-year-old, leaning in towards the computer monitor the way you might IRL. She is excited to be in the U.K., excited to perform at the 2021 BRIT Awards, excited to meet her hero Taylor Swift, excited to release her first album, SOUR, out May 21, excited that her music career has brought her here, to this moment.
And why wouldn’t she be? Nobody is having a better year. In January, “drivers license” debuted at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and eviscerated Spotify’s record for the most song streams in a week. Her first ever performance of the song was on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. Her follow-up single, the psychedelic pop “deja vu,” scored 20.3 million streams in the U.S. in the first week of release. Then there was the Saturday Night Live sketch where the show’s male talent (Kenan Thompson, Pete Davidson, Bowen Yang, and crew) were moved to tears by “drivers license.” Less than three months later, and she’s the show’s musical guest, performing her third song as a soloist, the dance-y pop-punk barn-burner “good 4 u.”
You could call it quick, but you can’t say it’s without merit. Rodrigo’s talent as a songwriter is so apparent, it has nearly eclipsed the teen star drama that accompanied her debut. (In short: Rodrigo’s costar and rumored ex, Joshua Bassett, was spotted with fellow teen star Sabrina Carpenter, who sounds a lot like the older blonde of “drivers license”; Bassett and Carpenter released what fans believed were rebuttal songs.) Although Rodrigo sings about her insecurities, during our Zoom interview she talks about her craft and production with the self-assurance of someone who knows we’re going to be talking about it for years to come. “There are therapeutic benefits to songwriting,” she tells me. “Whenever I’m feeling upset, I go to the piano. I go to the piano before I call a friend.” But she still marvels at the power that music — her music! — holds: “You can literally create a whole song in your bedroom, and it can affect millions of people.”
On the eve of SOUR’s release, Rodrigo tells NYLON the stories behind the new songs, what she thinks about the gossip, and how she’s breaking the Disney teen star mold.
Olivia! How’s England?
I haven't seen anything other than the backyard and the drive over, but I'm still in awe. I feel like I'm in a fairy tale. The birds are chirping and everything's so green. I'm not of age in America, but I'm of age here to drink so I'm going to go to a pub because the pubs just opened up. I'm so excited.
As a self-described spicy Pisces, are you feeling sensitive about your newfound fame?
It has been super mundane. I’ve been in my house or at the recording studio or on set. I've always been on [TV] shows, doing something in the public eye, but it's really awesome, now, to be recognized for my music, something so much more indicative of who I really am as a person. I feel a lot more seen. I feel really understood when people come up to me and they're like, “Oh, I love your song” because it's an extension of my heart. It means so much more.
One thing that did change a lot is the pride and how empowered I feel when I listen to “drivers license.” Before, it was like, “Ah, it's a sad song that I wrote to manifest what I was going through,” and now, after seeing the reaction that it had, I feel like that vulnerability is really, really powerful. It makes me happy, and not depressed.
After “drivers license” came out, the public dug into your romantic history. “Who is the ex? Who is the other woman?” When you write a song like that, do you start with your experience, then some ornamentation happens? Like changing brunette to blonde in the verse?
I'm a super specific songwriter. I always have been. I think the most impactful songs are specific. Broad storytelling just isn't fun in any art medium. So yeah, there have been some songs where I've gone back and made revisions to make it a little less specific because sometimes, I think, the drama takes away from the songwriting. I completely understand people's curiosity. I get so curious about my favorite songwriters and the meaning behind their songs. But songwriting and singer-songwriter music in particular is so special because you can be as specific as you want, but there's still [space to] fill in the blanks. And lots of the time, people will fill in the blanks with details from their own life. If they don't want to, they can fill it in with details of my life and if that's what makes it impactful to them, that's fine. As long as the song means something to you, it’s all good.
I guess I would prefer people to relate it back to their lives. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to somebody's song and been like, “Oh my God, they wrote that for me.”
“I don't take the gossip personally, really. I completely understand. It's none of my business. I write my songs and people can say whatever they want to say about it.”
I love Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well.” It’s the best song, but then I'm still like, “Does the sister have that scarf?”
I do that too! I'm looking at her lyric book... Have you seen in the CD booklet, “maple lattes” is spelled out in capitals?
The photo with the maple lattes. I'm so invested in that. I'm creating a spreadsheet in my head. But at the end of the day, I'm like, “No. She wrote that song about me going through my breakup. I relate to that, and that's impactful to me.” I wouldn't ever want to take that away from somebody by saying, "Oh, it's about this, or this is what it's about.” Music is so special in that way. It’s not lost on me, the impact that music can have. Authors can write a book for 10 years and publish it, and people might remember a word or a plotline. You can write a song in an hour and suddenly millions of people know every line and can sing it back to you at a concert. It's really crazy how memorable it is.
Does the gossip ever get to you?
I don't take it personally, really. I understand. I completely understand. And you know, lots of times, it isn't malicious. Most of the time, I guess. It's none of my business. I write my songs and people can say whatever they want to say about it. [They can] think whatever they want to think about my life and that's just part of it. It doesn't really bother me. I also try to stay off of social media and not look at that stuff.
I did a deep dive on your Instagram and found a big post about Black Lives Matter from June 2020. You’re biracial, Filipina, did those conversations surrounding race make you consider your own background?
Yeah. During that time I learned a lot about “the model minority myth." It’s something that I heard in Asian communities around me, which is this untrue idea that, "Oh, well, we're Asian people and immigrants and we're doing fine. Why can't other disenfranchised groups be like us?" It is complete BS, when you consider the hundreds of years of institutionalized, internalized racism that they had to overcome. That was a big thing I learned about and educated myself on during the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd. It’s something I'm constantly still reminding myself of, and educating myself on, and I'll never stop.
“You can't empower one woman in another country at the expense of another woman in another country. It doesn't make any sense to me.”
Are there other causes that you're passionate about?
I’m really into sustainability, it’s so important to me. I'm big into sustainable ethical fashion, too. I used to be a big shopaholic for a long time. I would use it to fill a void. I watched this documentary, The True Cost, and I was like, "Oh my God, people are getting paid below minimum, living wages for me to wear this T-shirt." It's so stupid. You can't empower one woman in another country at the expense of another woman in another country. It doesn't make any sense to me.
Do you shop secondhand?
Yes. I am a big vintage shopper. My favorite thing to do is to trade clothes with my friends, too. It creates no excess consumption, and it's super fun. Sometimes you just get bored of your clothes, it's not like they're bad or anything, and it's time to switch it up. Me and my friends do that all the time; we'll give each other gifts of clothes that we don't like anymore and that's super fun.
Let’s talk songs: "deja vu" compares your ex’s new relationship to your own without pitting two women against each other.
I am obsessed with the concept of déjà vu. I had in my Notes app, "When she's with you, do you get déjà vu?" My producer and collaborator Dan Nigro and I were sitting at the piano; we were writing a sadder, or more down-tempo song. He was like, "Eh, this is not very good. Let's try something else." I was scrolling through my Notes app and that [line] came up, and we were like, "Oh, that's a clever play on déjà vu." And so we built this whole world. [Pitting women against each other] is just not something I subscribe to or think about in my daily life. Ever. It's not something that I'm like, "Oh, I can't write songs about that because that's bad." I really don't genuinely feel that way. I mean, obviously I compare myself to people all the time, and lots of my songs are about that, but it's never a competition. So yeah, I'm really happy with it. I'm also really happy with how much of a departure it is from the "drivers license" world, both in attitude and in sonics. I hope that I can keep showing versatility in my songwriting.
A lot of social psychologists think déjà vu is common with people who are stressed-out or anxious.
Really? That makes so much sense for me. It's just the coolest, weirdest experience ever. It's so trippy, the song itself.
It’s so trippy, and so is “jealousy, jealousy.” The bass intro, the harmonies with yourself, the fact that you sing the word “slowly” slowly, the Fiona Apple-esque alternative piano — you shout!
That song was one of the first songs that I wrote on the record with this wonderful writer named Casey Smith. In this time period, I was super obsessed with social media. I would look for things that would hurt my feelings all the time and compare myself to everyone. I felt like my life was only what I showed to others. I didn't feel like my life was any deeper than my Instagram feed. That’s a really troubling mindset to be in as a teenager. And so I guess I wanted to write a song about that. It isn't sad or "Oh, I don't feel like I'm enough,” it’s "Oh, God, I'm so jealous." It’s tongue-in-cheek, and a little funny to me. But the sonics on the song are the reason why we put it on the record. There’s this piano in the bridge that's so convoluted and almost atonal. Sometimes it just doesn't go with the music and it's so chaotic. And I love Fiona Apple. I'm obsessed with her new record and she is definitely a big inspiration of mine. I remember thinking that I wanted to make jazzy music like her when I was younger, so I would play these jazz chords, and be like, "Nobody can do it like her. I'm not going to be able to do anything even half as good as [1996’s] Tidal was." But yeah, she's so incredible. I'm obsessed with her lyricism. She has such a good vocabulary, too. She wrote Tidal when she was 19, which is crazy to me. Just the words that she uses, she's like, "sullen girl." I'm obsessed with her.
Like in “deja vu,” there’s an endearing self-awareness in “jealousy, jealousy.” You're comparing yourself to others, but you're not villainizing them.
That's not an inclination that I have. I've been pretty good at realizing [that] when I feel insecure, the best option is not to tear that person down, as soon as you feel less than. I was watching some interview, I can't remember who, [but they said] something along the lines of “when you talk shit about another person, all you're doing is showing everybody how insecure you are.” I think about that all the time. I try not to do that in my life and definitely not in my songwriting.
That’s a cool thing about the record, too, is that it talks about some things that are uncomfortable to talk about, especially as a young woman. You're not encouraged to talk about how insecure, and jealous, and angry you feel. Music is an awesome medium for people to get to express those feelings without the fear of judgment, or being viewed as bitchy, or whatever sexist thing people want to say.
“I was super obsessed with social media. I would look for things that would hurt my feelings all the time and compare myself to everyone. I felt like my life was only what I showed to others. I didn't feel like my life was any deeper than my Instagram feed.”
And then “good 4 u” rocks — you’re going to inspire so many girls to pick up guitars. Is this your kiss-off?
The song has a lot of unbridled anger and spite in it. I struggled for a really long time in learning how to write an upbeat song that people could move to and just not cry to, I suppose. I love writing ballads, but I wanted to obviously make a record with more than just ballads on it. For a while I thought you have to be in love, and happy, to write a dance-y song. I'm proud that I figured out how to write a song that was high energy, without sacrificing what I was feeling. Also, I was super inspired by pop-punk writing that song. I love that angst and aggression, but Dan and I really tried really hard to make sure that it wasn't just like a Green Day song from the 2000s. We wanted to put a 2021 twist on it. I love that kind of music.
In that 2000s era you’re referencing, the Disney stars were Miley, Demi, and Selena. They acted and made music, but it always seemed like their music careers were tethered to their Disney work. Your music feels very separate. Like, you curse on songs, and they could never! Is this a new era of pop stardom?
I’m very aware of that classic “Disney pop girl” archetype. My music is definitely separate from my acting in a way I always dreamed would happen. When “drivers license” came out, everyone was like, "I have no idea who this Olivia Rodrigo girl is, but I love this song." That is the absolute dream for me, because I've always wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter. Being an actor can interfere with that, just because being an actor is based on telling lies, and being a songwriter is based on telling the absolute, whole truth. And people always ask me, "Oh, did you say fuck in ‘drivers license’ to show that you aren't just a Disney star?" It’s cool that people might think that, but I’m just making music that I love and that I feel passionate about. It’s who I am. I have a dirty mouth. It was what felt natural and good to me, and people resonated with that. If I am ushering in a new generation of pop stars that aren't afraid to speak their mind, that's so cool. I'm just doing my thing, though.
This is ultimately a conversation about how the media treats young women starlets. Have you seen the Framing Britney Spears doc, or the Demi Lovato series on YouTube? What did you think?
I saw the Britney Spears one. I haven't watched the Demi Lovato [series]. I actually had no idea about any of the Britney stuff before I watched it, so I was experiencing it all for the first time. The stuff she went through was so awful, and we've come so far. But we haven't really come that far, you know what I mean? It was eye-opening to see the sexist, awful things that people would say to her that were deemed OK back then. And that wasn't even that long ago. I can only imagine how utterly devastating all of that must be.
For musicians now, you could just walk out of the room. You could just close your computer.
I know. I was thinking about that. There was a clip of someone asking her about her boobs, and she had to grin and bear it. It was normal back then, which is crazy to think about. I just hope that this next generation of women don't get asked those questions, and don't think that that's OK. I hope reporters don't think that that's OK. It's just disgusting.
And hopefully past-tense. What are you looking forward to in the future?
My life is really great right now. It's so awesome to do music, and feel seen in that way. I’m going to graduate high school soon, which is going to be fun. I’m so busy. We'll get a cake or something.
You are so busy! What do you do when you have some downtime?
I actually hung out with Conan [Gray] a couple days ago. Conan's the best ever. It’s really fun to start getting more artist friends who really understand the weird niche parts of being a young person in the music industry. But when I get time off, I sleep, do school, normal teenage things. I don't know. I talk to my friends a lot. My best friend in the world, her name's Madison [Hu], and I did a show with her [Disney’s Bizaardvark] when I was 14. We're just soul mates.
So when you go to the pub, what's your first drink going to be?
I don't know. Somebody told me Guinness is very British. Is that like a beer? I think that's a beer, right?
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Top Image Credits: Givenchy top and pants, Mary Young bra, Chanel earrings, Paris Texas shoes
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Hair: Clayton Hawkins
Makeup: Molly Greenwald
Manicure: Vanessa Sanchez McCullough at Forward Artists
Set Designer: Kelly Fondry
Bookings: Special Projects
Videographer: Sam Miron
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