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Olivia Rodrigo: “It’s Important for Me to be Taken Seriously as a Songwriter”
May 14, 2021 -  159 

When do you know a song has become a true, lasting cultural phenomenon? When it reaches Number One all over the world? Or perhaps when it’s the soundtrack to thousands of TikTok videos, or racks up more than 724million Spotify streams – and counting – in just a few months? In the case of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single ‘Drivers License’, it was a Saturday Night Live sketch that confirmed the 18-year-old Californian songwriter had hit the big time.

The sketch, which aired in late February, just over a month after the song was released, opens with a bunch of blokes shooting pool as guest host Regé-Jean Page loads up “his song” on the jukebox. And what might the Bridgerton heartthrob’s musical selection be? Rodrigo’s epic pop ballad, of course. Initially his gaggle of pals are dismissive of the song, claiming to have never heard it before. “Sounds like it’s just some teen girl singing in her room to her piano,” comedian Pete Davidson’s character shrugs. But as the song builds to its euphoric climax – where Rodrigo depicts messy post-breakup emotions that flit between heartbreak and anger – their façades crumble.

“It’s like she ripped a page out of my diary,” one whispers. “It’s got me thinking about my breakup… Maybe I’m Olivia,” another adds, the skit ending with the men stood shoulder-to-shoulder singing the song’s exultant bridge: “Can’t drive past the places we used to go to / ’Cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe”. With over 4million views on YouTube, it remains one of the show’s most-watched sketches of the year. In an excitable tweet on the night, Rodrigo called it “the best birthday present ever”. She echoes this statement today, enthusing that she’s “so obsessed” with SNL and that she “idolises all those people so much”.

Rodrigo’s song may, on the surface, be about the overwhelmingly teenage milestone of passing your driving test, but, as the cast of Saturday Night Live demonstrate, it’s a universal anthem that details the confusing aftermath of a relationship, when you can’t quite untangle yourself from an ex. Rodrigo concludes the song with the immortal line: “’Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street”. It’s the sort of pop moment song that everyone – even some macho blokes playing pool – can relate to.

In January, ‘Drivers License’ became the fastest song to reach 100million streams on Spotify, and valiantly fought viral sea shanty ‘Wellerman’ off the top spot in the UK charts for nine consecutive weeks. It is, by some distance, the biggest song of the year and appears to have an insurmountable lead.

The rapid success also means that Rodrigo’s first ever live gig wasn’t some pokey backroom, but at London’s O2 Arena for this year’s BRIT Awards. The magnitude of the event, which took place earlier this week, isn’t lost on her. “It’s absolutely mind-blowing to me”, she tells NME over Zoom, quarantining in a cottage just outside of London, a week ahead of the ceremony. “I was so nervous rehearsing for it and my team were like, ‘It’s fine, there’s just going to be 45 people’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah but the 45 people are going to be Harry Styles and Dua Lipa; that’s so scary!’”

By the time you’re reading this, she’ll have performed to 4,000 BRITs attendees – not to mention the millions of viewers at home – before hopping on a flight to New York to prepare for her very own Saturday Night Live; she’ll perform on the upcoming May 15 edition of the long-running show. She laughs off questions about whether she’ll smash a guitar à la Phoebe Bridgers (whom she “loves”) and says she likely won’t star in any of the sketches: “I’m so nervous to sing, so I don’t know how much I can put on my plate”. You sense that she’s already done enough for that show.

Next week, too, we’ll see the release of her hugely anticipated debut album ‘Sour’, which boasts both pop-punk riffs and mosh-pit inducing choruses, alongside some tender acoustic moments. It’s a warm record, filled with witty and honest lyricism that covers fractured relationships (‘Enough For You’), social media envy (‘Jealousy, Jealousy’) and messy breakups (‘Good 4 U’, ‘Deja Vu’).

Work on the record first began last year, with initial plans to release a debut EP in 2021 – though this understandably changed after the response to ‘Drivers License’. “I was like, ‘I wish that I can make a project that fully encompasses who I am as an artist’,” she says. “And I feel like the EP wasn’t my strongest work.” Keen to fully showcase who she was as a songwriter, she called her label, Geffen, and asked to extend the project to a full album. They, of course, said yes.

On ‘Sour’, Rodrigo collaborated with producer Dan Nigro (who’s worked with the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Sky Ferreira), largely recording in his home studio. “I was really inspired by ’90s alternative rock records with ‘Sour’, especially alternative rock girls,” she says, and references Alanis Morissette as a particular inspiration. “I think the albums from that time were so brutally honest and angsty, and I wanted to make an angsty record about me growing up and going through heartbreak.”

“I didn’t want to make an entire record that sounded like ‘Drivers License’. There’s no fun in that”

You can hear that on ‘Good 4 U’ and its Green Day-indebted chorus. “We wanted to take an early 2000s pop-punk song and sort of twist it and find a way to make it 2021,” Rodrigo reveals of the slick tune. “I hope people are surprised. I love pop-punk music; I love grunge music; I love country music and folk music. I think, honestly, you can see little influences of all of those genres in my album. And I didn’t want to make an entire record that sounded like ‘Drivers License’. There’s no fun in that for me – and probably not for listeners, either.”

There’s one constant in Rodrigo’s music: her astonishingly open songwriting. She’s a thoroughly Gen-Z creator, wearing her emotions plainly and pouring her own experiences into her songs. That’s in keeping with her peers such as Madison Beer and Girl In Red, the latter of whom recently told NME: “Gen-Z crave and expect more honesty, intimacy and almost a rawness.”

Rodrigo adds: “I’ve always been such an oversharer. I’ll tell my Uber driver all of my deepest traumas and insecurities, and so I just think songwriting for me is an extension of that aspect of my personality. I’ve never really been so terrified of people learning about the intimate parts of myself; I think that’s what makes songwriting so special.”

This honesty goes hand-in-hand with a shift in the relationship between fans and artists. In the past, an artist would have built up intimacy with fans through initial live shows. It was once a badge of honour to say you were at an act’s early gig, which music lovers who discovered ‘Drivers License’ in a pandemic won’t exactly be able to do. But Rodrigo’s not worried.

“I feel like social media is taking that role,” she says, explaining that the shift was already underway. “I used to brag that I followed Billie Eilish when she had 200,000 followers on Instagram, and that’s sort of the new ‘I was there at their first show’.” She’s a big fan of Eilish and says that she was “so moved” by the star’s recent British Vogue cover: “She’s so intelligent and I think it’s so awesome that girls can look up to somebody like her, who’s so brave and intelligent.”

Rodrigo’s parents are both “music heads” and encouraged their daughter’s artistic endeavours. Rodrigo started to audition for television and film acting roles at seven years old, something she recognises as a brutal process: “I think auditions are really rough for anyone. I know people who’ve gone into their first audition and booked it, but that definitely was not my experience”. There were times that she almost sacked the whole thing off. At one point she made a pact with her mum: if she didn’t get a job by Christmas, they’d call it quits. She booked her first gig in November of that year.

In 2016 she joined the Disney Channel, first as a lead on comedy series Bizaardvark, and since 2019 she’s had a major role in mockumentary TV show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, with the second season of the series airing later this year. Other artists who have similarly come up via Disney have tried, in their solo work, to distance themselves from that time in their lives. Miley Cyrus, for instance, overhauled her image with 2010’s risqué ‘Can’t Be Tamed’ and actor Bella Thorne has discussed no longer needing to have a “innocent Disney appeal” when she wrapped her work on the channel.

Now her music is taking off, was Rodrigo nervous about being pigeon-holed as a Disney channel artist?

“Yeah, totally,” she says. “That’s not to knock Disney Channel artists. Some of my favourite artists came from Disney Channel… But yeah, I always wanted to do something different. I never wanted to be a pop girl; that was never my prerogative.” She adds, diplomatically: “I always wanted to write my own songs.” While Rodrigo has written a handful of songs for High School Musical, she’s largely performing songs that she won’t have written herself. “It was super-important to me that I told my own stories in my unique voice.”

“I’ve looked up to Taylor Swift since I was five years old. She’s so business-savvy”

Growing up on television sets initially made Rodrigo anxious about her lyrical content: “I remember worrying that I wasn’t going to write songs that were relatable because of how weird growing up on a set was.” She adds, laughing: “Like, what was I going to write about? ‘Ah, gotta do this table read!’”

The success of her gargantuan breakout song has helped to tame these fears, though: “With ‘Drivers License’, there were a lot of people who were like, ‘Yo, I’ve never heard of this girl before but I really like this song’, which to me was the dream – to get a brand new introduction to people just as a songwriter. I consider myself a songwriter first and I’m really happy that people are starting to recognise me as such.” Elsewhere in our conversation, too, she insists that it’s important to her to be “taken seriously as a songwriter.”

That’s surely the effect ‘Sour’ will have. Follow-up single ‘Deja Vu’, released in April, is a witty eye-roll that sees her scoff at an ex who’s repurposing their romantic moments with a new partner: “So when you gonna tell her that we did that, too? / She thinks it’s special, but it’s all re-used,” she slams in the chorus. On album track ‘Enough For You’, Rodrigo lays out the power imbalance in a flawed relationship: “I wore make-up when we dated ’cause I thought you’d like me more.”

With this level of ownership as a writer, though, comes negatives. As ‘Drivers License’ picked up pace, there was huge intrigue as to who she’d written the song about, with sites speculating about a “love triangle drama” involving her High School Musical co-star Joshua Bassett. “To be completely honest, it was really hard,” she says of the endless online speculation. “And, yeah, sometimes it wasn’t always the kindest or the most respectful. But I understand why people are curious and I’ve been curious about who my favourite songwriters wrote their songs about, so I completely understand.”

This level of commentary is almost exclusively reserved for female artists, with lyrics by women undergoing an extra level of scrutiny from the media and listeners – just look at Taylor Swift’s songs being dissected for details about her love life. “It would be a bald-faced lie if I say that I didn’t face any misogyny in the music industry – especially being a young girl,” Rodrigo tells NME. “It’s a weird place to be. But I feel like I’m surrounded by people who really respect me and treat me with kindness. I’m really lucky in that regard and I hope that my generation of artists can really forge a path for younger artists.”

She also insists she would let the scrutiny lead her to self-censorship: “I’m not going to sacrifice me being vulnerable and writing songs that I feel like are true to what I feel… I’m just always gonna write about what I feel the most intensely because that’s the best sort of songwriting.”

And, luckily, the 18-year-old is not going through the maelstrom alone – a host of pop superstars have reached out to Rodrigo to offer advice in recent months. Cardi B tweeted her support (“She’s super cool and I hope to meet her one day”), One Direction’s Niall Horan told her he “loved” ‘Drivers License’ and Rodrigo’s songwriting idol Taylor Swift sent her a handwritten note of encouragement.

“It would be a lie if I say I didn’t face misogyny in the music industry”

In recent years, Swift has spoken publicly about her battle to own her master recordings, which has resulted in the unprecedented re-recording of her first six albums, and previously clashed with streaming giants Apple and Spotify, fighting for a fairer deal for artists who put their music on the platforms. As a young songwriter, has that impacted Rodrigo’s decisions in the music industry? “I’ve always looked up to Taylor since I was literally five years old,” she says. “Obviously I think she’s the best songwriter of all time, but she’s so business-savvy and she really cares about her career in that regard too – that’s been really inspiring for me to watch somebody take control of their career and their life like that.”

As Taylor Swift re-records her old albums, she’s also letting fans further into each era, completing never-heard-before songs and teaming up with current musical pals to complete them. US singer Maren Morris, for example, provided backing vocals for ‘You All Over Me’, a song that Swift first penned in 2008. If Rodrigo could be on one of the re-recorded Swift albums, which would it be?

“My favourite Taylor Swift album is ‘Speak Now’,” she says. “I would love to be on a ‘Speak Now’ song. I’m just so excited to listen to them, though. I love listening to the vault recordings and stuff like that. I’m gonna own my masters, but I’ll listen to songs I’m not putting out and be like, ‘Maybe I’ll do a vault thing when I’m Taylor’s Swift’s age.’”

When NME first spoke to Rodrigo back in January, she spoke excitedly about the records she had broken and the “surreal” experience of surpassing her heroes. Positive and polite, she recognised that it was perhaps “a little bit daunting” to have your debut be the biggest song of the year. ‘I just really enjoy writing and feel so proud of the stuff that I’ve created, so that’s all I can do,” she said. “I don’t have control of the other stuff.”

She echoes this sentiment today. Speaking proudly about the work she’s created, she brushes off questions about any nerves as to how the album will be received: “I made a project that I feel really proud of and that’s the only thing that I set out to do. I try not to write songs through the lens of hoping that they’re commercially successful. I just feel that takes away some of the magic of the songs. Success in my eyes would be making music that I feel really proud of, and I feel like it challenges me and excites me and hopefully makes people feel understood.”

Maybe this is why Rodrigo’s songs have such universal appeal. They’re not created to go viral on TikTok – even though they do – and she doesn’t jump on musical bandwagons. Even when her songs are filled with personal details or – as on ‘Deja Vu’ – niche references to Glee and discovering the music of Billy Joel, it’s easy for the listener to feel themselves in her songs of heartbreak and relationships.

It’s an impressive skill, and one that sets an artist up for longevity in a world of viral smashes. ‘Drivers License’ may be the biggest song of the year, but you sense Rodrigo’s defining moment is further down the road.

Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ is out May 21


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