Olivia Rodrigo holds perhaps the most famous driver’s license in automotive history. COVID-19 swept the world when she had just turned seventeen. A California girl, home-schooled child actor, daughter of a teacher and family therapist, Rodrigo continued writing songs until she released “Drivers License” a year later. In the blink of an eye, the song, with its direct and heartfelt expression of loneliness, rage and liberation after a breakup, exploded on Spotify, racking up eighty million streams in a week. When the pandemic subsided and Rodrigo began performing in public, she got the Swift experience of watching tens of thousands of fans sing along with her lyrics from her debut album, “Sour,” an explosion of instant fame that is rare even in the world of pop.
Rodrigo, who collaborates with producer and songwriter Dan Nigro, is now twenty years old and has released another monosyllabic album called “Guts”. The most popular single from the album is “Vampire” and it also tops the charts. It’s an angry song addressed to “the bloodsucker, the hungry bastard, / bleeding like a damn vampire.” Jia Tolentino on the cover of a magazine Fashion, gets Rodrigo’s music right, writing, “She didn’t live in bubblegum locker door fairy tale territory or make aggressive statements about being edgy and grown up. She simply captured what it’s like to be twenty, an age when you’re sometimes filled with ridiculous lust, happy to be considered beautiful, and angry at other people’s expectations.”
Rodrigo’s musical knowledge is deep, and her heroes are everywhere: Carole King, The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, Lorde, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent. Having grown up playing leading roles in Disney TV shows—”Bizaardvark” and “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”—she has an unusually untrained command of the stage and press interviews. We recently spoke for an hour on Zoom as part of The New Yorker Radio Hour. Rodrigo joined our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, from her new Manhattan apartment.
You’re kind of new in New York, right?
Yes I. I bought this apartment just a few months ago. I’m still exploring, but I like it; this is the greatest city in the world. There is always so much inspiration here.
So you left Los Angeles for good?
I don’t think so. I mean, Los Angeles will always be my first home, I guess, but I like to come here as often as I can. This is the best.
Is New York more rewarding for you musically, I don’t know, in some ways?
Yeah, I actually think it’s kind of weird, and I remember people always telling me that – songwriters I knew. They said, “Oh, it’s time for you to go to New York. It’s so inspiring.” And I would roll my eyes and say, “Okay, sure, I get it, I get it.” But we actually recorded half of the Guts album at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village.
So you recorded in the same room with Jimi Hendrix?
Yes exactly. All these incredible recordings were made in these rooms and it’s just… I don’t know, you can definitely feel that magic in the walls.
In the old days, the Beatles would come into the studio and within three days the record would come out. How does it work now?
I mean, I can’t speak for everyone, but this Guts record took me quite a long time to make. It took a year or a year and a half to actually work on it. And I had a lot of doubts when I started the process of creating the album. Due to the very unexpected and much appreciated success of “Sour”, there was a huge amount of pressure on what would come next. There were all these voices in my head: I thought people would like it, I didn’t want to let them down. And so it took me a while to get to the point where I finally felt like I could get creative and just start writing songs that I wanted to hear on the radio, and that should always be your first priority when you’re doing something. you do.
Have you ever had a fear of becoming a lone miracle?
Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy. It happened so early in my career. I had this album come out, I won a Grammy, I was nineteen, and I thought, “Wow, I’ve done so much that I wanted to do.” I’m only nineteen. But in a way, this is also a kind of liberation. It may sound strange, but it’s so nice to achieve all this in the latest album cycle. I’m so grateful for everything that happened then and all the doors it opened. But in a way it’s nice to think: now I can just make music for myself. Do you know what I mean? I feel like I can get away with anything now.
You grew up performing at Disney. You were in the shows Bizaardvark and High School Musical – you already had a big career in television as a child. Have you always had the ambition, the desire, the passion to be a solo singer/songwriter?
Fully. I’ve always liked writing songs. It was my first love, my first passion when I was so young. I remember being four or so and writing all these crazy songs about my four-year-old problems.
Do you remember anything?
Oh my God. My mom has a video of me singing about losing your parents in the supermarket, which is a very traumatic experience when you’re four years old. I can imagine why I wanted to write a song about it. But when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I was playing, but I started playing songs on the piano and learning how to write songs with chords, and that’s when things just kind of took off. I fell in love with it and it has been my life ever since. This is simply my favorite part of the job.
You seem to have—and did, even when you were much younger than you are now—a broad sense of listening. A lot of things went into your ears. What were these things and why did you listen to what you listened to?
Yes, I am very grateful to my parents for my musical taste. My parents love nineties alternative rock. I grew up listening to the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and the White Stripes, and fell in love with a lot of female singer-songwriters from a very young age. I realized that this was the line I wanted to follow. I remember going to a thrift store with my mom when I was probably thirteen years old and buying Carole King’s Tapestry for the first time and just playing it to death. I played it over and over again and got all these Pat Benatar records and played them over and over again and Joni Mitchell and, I don’t know, I just remember something clicking in my head when I was really young and like, “Wow, these are the girls I want to emulate.”
Looking back, what was the first song you wrote that made you think, “This anything. This isn’t just a joke – could this lead me somewhere?
I mean, I wrote a lot of songs when I was just sitting in my living room when I was young, but I really remember writing “Drivers License.” I remember exactly this feeling.
Which became a huge hit.
I owe so much to this song. This led to my career skyrocketing in ways I could not have imagined at the time. But I just remember writing it and feeling like I had really expressed something. I felt like there was so much of myself in that song and I remember feeling properly represented and that’s a really great feeling. I remember going into the studio to show the song to my producer and telling him, word for word, “I think I just wrote my favorite song I’ve ever written.” And he was like, “Okay, sit down and play.”