Olivia Rodrigo on the Meanings of “Guts”

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Olivia Rodrigo is the owner of arguably the most famous driver’s license in the history of automobiles. COVID swept the world when she had just turned seventeen. A California kid, a homeschooled child-actor, and the daughter of a teacher and a family therapist, Rodrigo kept at her songwriting until, a year later, she had produced “Drivers License.” In no time, that song, with its direct, soulful expression of post-breakup loneliness, fury, and liberation, had set Spotify ablaze, with eighty million streams in a week. When the pandemic eased and Rodrigo began to perform in public, she had the Swiftian experience of seeing tens of thousands of fans sing the lyrics from her début album, “Sour,” along with her—an explosion of instant fame that is rare even in the pop-music world.

Rodrigo, who collaborates with the producer and songwriter Dan Nigro, is now twenty years old, and has another single-syllable album out, called “Guts.” The biggest single on the album is “Vampire,” and it, too, is lighting up the charts. It’s an angry song directed at a “bloodsucker, fame-fucker, / Bleeding me dry like a goddamn vampire.” Jia Tolentino, in a cover story for Vogue, gets Rodrigo’s music precisely, writing: “She wasn’t dwelling in the territory of bubblegum locker-door fairy tales, nor was she aggressively making statements that she was edgy and grown. She’d simply captured what it was like to be twenty, an age when you’re sometimes blazing with ridiculous lust, thrilled to be seen as beautiful, enraged by other people’s expectations.”

Rodrigo’s musical knowledge is deep, and her heroes are all over the map: Carole King, the White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, Lorde, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent. Having grown up playing leading roles on Disney TV shows—“Bizaardvark” and “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”—she has an unusually uncoached command of the stage and of press interviews. We spent an hour talking on Zoom recently for The New Yorker Radio Hour. Rodrigo joined our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, from her new apartment, in Manhattan.

You’re kind of new to New York, right?

Yeah, I am. I just got this apartment a few months ago. I’m still exploring, but I love it; it’s the greatest city ever. There is just so much inspiration here, constantly.

So you’ve left Los Angeles behind forever?

I don’t think so. I mean, L.A. will always be my first home, I think, but I love coming here as often as I can. It’s the greatest.

Is New York more musically, I don’t know, fertile for you in some way?

Yeah, I actually think it is in a weird way, and I remember people always used to tell me that—songwriters that I knew. They’d be, like, “Oh, you have to go to New York. It’s so inspiring.” And I would roll my eyes and be, like, “O.K., sure, I get it, I get it.” But we actually made half of this album, “Guts,” at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village—

So you were recording in the same room as Jimi Hendrix?

Yeah, exactly. All these incredible records were made in those rooms, and it’s just—I don’t know, you definitely feel that magic in the walls.

In the old, old days, the Beatles used to go into the studio, and, three days later, out would come a record. How does it work now?

I mean, I can’t speak for everyone, but I took quite a long time making this record, “Guts.” It took maybe a year or a year and a half of truly working on it. And I had a lot of reservations when starting out the album-making process. Coming off of the very unexpected, very appreciated success that “Sour” had, there was so much pressure on what would come next. I had all these voices in my head—what I thought people would like, not wanting to let people down. And so it took me a while to get to a place where I finally felt like I could be creative and just start writing songs that I wanted to hear on the radio, which should always be your paramount focus when you’re making anything.

Did you have a fear of being a one-hit wonder?

Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy. It happened so young in my career. I had this album that was out, and I won Grammys, and I was nineteen, and I was, like, Wow, I’ve done so much that I wanted to do. I’m only nineteen. But, in a way, that’s also sort of freeing. Maybe that sounds weird, but it’s so nice to have accomplished those things in the last album cycle. I’m so grateful for everything that happened then, and all of the doors that that’s opened. But, in a way, it’s kind of nice also to think, Now I just get to make music for me. You know what I mean? I feel like I can get away with doing anything now.

You grew up performing on Disney. You were on the show “Bizaardvark” and on “High School Musical”—you already had a big TV career as a kid. Did you always harbor that ambition, that desire, that passion to be a solo singer, to be a songwriter?

Completely. I always loved songwriting. That was my first love, my first passion when I was so young. I remember being four years old or something, and making up all these crazy songs about my four-year-old problems.

Do you remember any?

Oh, my gosh. My mom has a video of me singing about losing my parents in the supermarket, which is a very traumatic experience when you’re four years old. I can imagine why I was moved to write a song about it. But, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I was acting, but I started playing songs on the piano and learning how to write songs to chords, and that’s when everything kind of took off. I fell in love with it, and it’s been my life ever since. It’s just my favorite part of the job.

You seem to have—and had, even when you were much younger than you are now—a wide sense of listening. A lot of things were going into your ears. What were they, and why were you listening to what you were listening to?

Yeah—I give my parents a lot of credit for my music taste. My parents love nineties alternative rock. I grew up listening to the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole and the White Stripes, and, also, from a very early age, I fell in love with a lot of female singer-songwriters. I realized that that was the lineage that I wanted to follow in. I remember going to the thrift store with my mom when I was probably thirteen years old and getting “Tapestry,” by Carole King, for the first time, and just playing it to death. I’d play it over and over and over, and get all these Pat Benatar records and play them over and over and over, and Joni Mitchell, and, I dunno, I just remember something clicking in my head when I was really young and being, like, Wow, those are the girls that I want to emulate.

Looking back, what was the first song that you wrote that made you think, Now, this is something. This isn’t just kidding around—this could bring me somewhere?

I mean, I wrote many songs when I was just putzing around in my living room when I was young, but I actually remember writing “Drivers License.” I remember that exact feeling.

Which became a huge hit.

I owe so much to that song. It skyrocketed my career in ways completely unimaginable to me at the time. But I just remember writing that and feeling like I really expressed something. I felt like there was so much of myself in that song, and I remember feeling properly represented, and that’s just a really beautiful feeling. I remember coming into the studio to show my producer the song and saying to him, verbatim, “I think I just wrote my favorite song that I’ve ever written.” And he was, like, “O.K., sit down and play.”

Tell me about the experience of writing. How did it work? Because one of the things that I love about it is that it begins so directly. It sets the age, it sets the mood, it sets where you are, right in the first line. How did this happen?

It’s very specific. I mean, I quite literally got my driver’s license a few days before I wrote the song, and I was loving my newfound freedom. So I was driving around in my neighborhood and listening to sad songs and crying and thinking about this relationship, and I just sat down at the piano—and I was a very emotional girl, as I am now—and I just cried at the piano and I wrote that song. I do believe that creativity sometimes is kind of something beyond you. It’s like a magic that we as humans with egos can’t control. And that was a really magical moment in my career, in my creative life.

What made you feel that sad in the car when you had just gotten your license? I’m a Jersey kid; you’re a California kid. Something about driving—I don’t know what it is. It unleashes something.

It really does. I thought about this a lot when I first got my driver’s license. I think driving is one of the only times you’re truly alone, especially as a teen-ager, when you’re living at home with your parents. But I love it to this day. You can do anything in the car. You can listen to whatever you want. You can literally scream your head off, and no one will hear you. Your neighbors won’t be banging on the walls telling you to shut up. I think it’s that isolation that brings out those feelings in you, maybe.

You performed “Drivers License” on “Saturday Night Live” how long after the release?

Oh, my gosh, really soon after. “Saturday Night Live” was one of my first performances. I think I released that song and I performed at the Brits in London and on “S.N.L.” Those were my first two performances in my singer-songwriter career, which is pretty wild, looking back.

So that’s when I first heard about you. I was watching “Saturday Night Live”—and I looked back at the tape today. What was going through your mind when you were about to step onstage to what you had to know was an audience of untold millions? Are you shaking? How are you feeling? What’s in your head?

I was terrified. I’m not even going to put up a front. I was being brave. I was so terrified. I remember being in the dressing room—and the dressing room at “S.N.L.” is the coolest place ever. There’s all these pictures of all your heroes on the wall who have performed on the same stage that you’re performing on. I just fully had a breakdown. I was so nervous and so scared.

What do you mean by a breakdown? Because you did make it out onstage!

I did make it out! I was crying. My producer was there, thankfully, who I love and trust so much, and I was crying to him. I’m, like, “I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can do it. I’m so scared.” He’s, like, “You got it. I love you. You can do it.” So his support meant a lot to me in that moment.

Once you open your mouth and the music starts coming out, do you calm down? What does that feel like just as a human being, as a human body in front of the cameras, knowing what you know?

Performing shows and performing songs on TV are so vastly different. I love performing shows so much more. I think you can kind of get into a flow, and there’s energy that’s being exchanged. When you’re performing on TV, sometimes it’s a little hard because it’s just one or two songs, and you just have to be in it from the get-go, and it’s just a different experience. But I’m still learning and growing, and I feel lucky to get to perform to this day. And lucky that people want to sit in the crowd and listen.

Your first album struck me as attached somehow to the time of the pandemic.

Yeah. I actually wrote most of it during the pandemic, and I credit a lot of the songs to that isolation, like we were talking about earlier. I actually told myself I’d write a song every day as long as the pandemic lasted—because, you know, we thought that the pandemic was going to be two weeks. So I’m, like, I can do it. Turned out to be, like, forever.

That’s fourteen songs!

[Laughs.] Yeah. But I did that for maybe five or six months, and it really helped me to hone my songwriting craft, and have discipline in my writing. Also, I think that people maybe wanted to hear all those sad songs during the pandemic. I think we were all, as a collective, facing emotions that we hadn’t processed because of our new surroundings, where we couldn’t distract ourselves. So, yeah, I think that the pandemic definitely is a big part of that album.

When you’re writing a song, sad or not sad, how much of it is just straight from your soul, or how much of it is sometimes a character? It seems to me that it can be both. Songwriting can do both things.

Yeah, I think it can be both. I think it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. I think that I am very multifaceted as a person, and some days I feel like I want to be super sarcastic and satirical and I feel angry and pissed. And, other times, I’m feeling really sentimental and want to write a guitar ballad. I think that it’s fun to play with different aspects of your personality, but I always try to make it seem genuine and true to who I am on a soul level, too.

What does it feel like, physically, when you’re onstage in front of a huge crowd and you’re singing a ballad like “Drivers License” in front of an immense audience?

It’s really crazy. I think that feeling will probably never get old. It’s just the power of music. You write a song in twenty minutes in your living room, and then a year later you’re in front of ten thousand people and they know every word. It’s just—music is so magical. It touches humans on a level that I don’t think any other medium does. I feel so grateful that I get to do that for my job.

Does your heart race? Does the top of your head fly into the crowd when you’re singing something like “Vampire”?

Yeah. I mean, you know what’s really cool? My favorite songs to sing are the really angry ones, especially on tour. I love looking out in the audience, and sometimes I’ll see these girls and they’re so young, they’re seven or eight, and they’re screaming these angry songs and getting so hyped up and so enraged, and I just think that’s the coolest thing ever. That’s not something you’d see on the street, but it’s so cool that people get to express all those emotions through music.

If you had to think of one moment, or one image, from your last tour that’s seared into your memory, into your brain, what might it be?

Glastonbury. Performing at Glastonbury was incredible.

This is the big outdoor festival in Britain.

Yeah. It’s actually the first music festival I’d ever been to, and I got to play it. It’s just awesome. And it was the most people I had ever played for.

How many people were there?

Oh, I think it was, like, sixty thousand or something like that. Pretty crazy to think about. That was a really great moment in my career. And the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade the day before I went onstage, and Lily Allen and I dedicated “Fuck You” to the Supreme Court that day. I remember feeling so angry, and being around so many of my friends who were so angry, and didn’t know what to do or what to say. In that moment, music was such an outlet for us, and looking out into the crowd and seeing everyone who felt the same way—it just reminded me what the true purpose of music is.

You mean as something of release and emotional force?

Of everything: of protest and of release and togetherness. Seeing an entire crowd sing that, and share that emotion in that moment, is just transcendent.

Let’s talk about your new album. When you wrote your first album, “Sour,” you had so much that you wanted to express and get off your chest and get off your mind as a young person. How is the Olivia Rodrigo of now different from the one who sat down to write “Sour”?

Oh, my gosh, she is worlds different. I’ve changed so much just between the ages of seventeen and twenty. In that time period, you grow. I feel like I grew twenty-five years in three years. So, yeah, she’s vastly different. But I definitely remember the fear of sitting down and trying to write this second album, and thinking, Oh, my God, I’m not a seventeen-year-old girl going through her first heartbreak anymore. That’s such a universally relatable experience. How am I going to make something that people can get behind?

Is it the pressure of writing something to match and maybe even outdistance what you’ve just done? Or is it that your life has gotten two hundred per cent weirder because of all that comes with stardom and all the rest? What was the conversation like in your head?

Yeah. I think a mix of both. You know how people always are, like, “Your only competition is your past self.” And I don’t know if that necessarily works for me. I don’t know how I could ever follow up such crazy, unexpected success. I put that pressure on myself for a long time. Jack White is a big hero of mine—I met him for the first time maybe a year ago—and he wrote me a letter with a few pieces of advice. One of them was that your only job is to write music that you would like to hear on the radio. I was really struggling with all the pressure: Are people on Twitter going to like what this song sounds like? There was all this gunk in my head. And I remember reading that, and it really ignited something in me. That really helped.

You said before that sometimes you write a song in twenty minutes. Leonard Cohen took years to write “Hallelujah.” How does this work for you? Do you keep a notebook around? Do you knock it off really quickly? What’s the creative process?

I love that Leonard Cohen story so much. For me, every song is different. I mean, there are some songs that come so easily, and you’re, like, Wow, thank you, universe! This just landed in my lap. Thanks! So appreciative. And other songs kind of take some polishing. On this album, “Guts,” I really learned how to look at songwriting as a craft, and not just this pouring my heart out at the piano like I was doing when I was seventeen. These songs definitely took longer to write, and we just sat with them for a little longer.

You took a poetry class at U.S.C.?


When was that, and why did you do that?

That was last year. I mean, I was homeschooled my whole life. There’s a song on the album called “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl”—it’s about me dealing with the consequences of that. I was homeschooled my whole life, and I always wanted to go to college. I was always very curious. There’s so much that I want to know in this world. I really enjoyed taking that class. I’ve always been super interested in poetry, and I’ve been writing it for a long time. It was really informative, and I feel very grateful that I got that opportunity. We actually turned one of the poems that I wrote as an assignment in the poetry class into a song on the album, called “Lacy.”

Are there any poems or poets that you read that are helpful to you? Not just as a human being but as an artist?

Yeah. I mean, you brought up Leonard Cohen. I read lots of his poetry while I was making “Guts.” I think he’s incredible. That’s an endless well of inspiration. And I wrote the poem “Lacy” with inspiration from the poem “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath.

On the show “Girls”—which . . . I don’t know if you’ve watched “Girls.”

I haven’t watched it yet. Everyone’s been recommending it to me, though. I really need to.

So Lena Dunham is the creator of it, and she’s also the star of the show, and she’s a searching young woman. She wants to be a writer, and at a certain point she announces to her parents, “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” And now you’re being branded, whether you like it or not, the voice of a generation, the voice of Gen Z. What do you make of all that?

I tend to not think about it, just because it’s kind of a scary thought. I don’t think of myself that way. I just try to be as much myself as I possibly can, and try to do the best work I can. I mean, it’s obviously super flattering when people say that. I love my generation. I am proud to be a part of it. So I guess it’s a good thing.

Social media makes its presence known in your songs. Do you also look at social media to see how people are perceiving you? It seems like a big burden.

Yeah, that’s an understatement. It’s definitely a burden. I’ve gotten better at it the more that I’ve been on it. It’s a part of this job that I think is a necessary evil. There are some parts of social media that are awesome. I love connecting with people who I normally wouldn’t have gotten the chance to, but it is weird. And I feel like I’m growing in front of people, which is really strange. I’ve been in front of people for a long time, and sometimes it can be stifling to feel like you’re always being seen. But I don’t know. I have a good relationship with it these days.

Tell me about that burden.

I think for a long time I felt like I couldn’t make mistakes, or I felt pressure to be a good role model. I grew up on these kids’ shows where being a good role model is very important—as it should be. And I always felt like I couldn’t be a normal kid and go out and do stupid things and make mistakes and learn. At the end of the day, making mistakes is the only way you do learn. But in this album, in particular, I’m grappling with those feelings and talking about the mistakes that I did end up making, and am being open and honest about them. And that was kind of cathartic for me.

Like what, for example?

I mean, there’s a song, “Making the Bed,” that I really love. One of the lyrics is “Sometimes I feel like I don’t wanna be where I am, / Gettin’ drunk at a club with my fair-weather friends.” That’s the chorus. And I was kind of nervous to say that—I’m twenty years old, which is not “of age” yet, I guess. And I was nervous to put that one out there. I’m always so conscious that young kids are listening to my music, and people’s parents are listening to my music. But, at the end of the day, all of my heroes are my heroes because they are unapologetically who they are, and they express themselves without fear of being criticized. So that’s what I try to tell myself.

There comes a time with a lot of artists that you idolize—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan—they get sick of hearing about themselves being described as the voice of a generation. They rebel at that, and then they want to do what they want to do, and an audience doesn’t always like it. Do you feel that for a third album, and a fourth album, you have to fulfill the expectations of your fans, of people that are out there in the crowd and buying records and all those things?

It’s a really great question. I suppose I won’t know until I embark on making my third record, but I think one of the biggest goals in my career, a real point to emphasize, is that I always want to be challenging myself. I want to make music that’s ever-evolving. And even if people don’t like that, well—all of my favorite artists are people whose every album is a choice, and something ambitious. So, if I can do that my whole career, I’ll be very happy.

Are there particular artists that you look to and you say, I like the way that person evolved not only as an artist but as a person and as an independent being?

Yeah, I mean, I really idolize Alanis Morissette. I think she’s amazing, and I think her records are so human and perfectly capture what it is to be human. And I think they’re really healing.

Have you ever met her?

Yeah, I’ve met her a few times, and she is wonderful. She’s one of my inspirations on a human level. I think she’s handled her career with such grace and warmth, and has a groundedness to her that I really appreciate. She’s a bit of a guiding light for me.

On this album, on “Guts,” you seem to be reaching back even further in history. The opening track, which is about the impossible standards of being a woman in America, starts out kind of Joni Mitchell but then turns abruptly midway into a song that sounds like the riot-grrrl scene. How do you position your music in a longer tradition of rebellion?

I love that question. I think female rebellion music, for lack of a better description, is my favorite music ever. I’ve been obsessed with the riot-grrrl punk scene for a while, and “All-American Bitch” was my stab at trying to write a song like that. I feel a lot of kinship toward women, and I love writing songs about these female feelings of anger and resentment that aren’t so easily expressible in everyday life. It’s one of my favorites on the album.

How do you look at your now reasonably distant past? You read about a lot of women who were on TV as kids, and they look back on their early careers and feel sad about the experience, and exploited. Do you feel that you got through all that and were decently treated, and that it was a healthy experience, or there were downsides to it as well?

I do. I can certainly see how people wouldn’t have that experience. I think it’s a very strange way to grow up. I feel really lucky that I was surrounded by wonderful people. My parents are wonderful and so grounded, and are always looking out for me. I just owe everything to them. I don’t think that I would have the attitude toward it that I do if it wasn’t for them. But, yeah, it is really strange, and you sacrifice a lot. I didn’t have a normal childhood, so that I could have that career. I’m really grateful for everything that happened. But it’s definitely—it’s a give-and-take, just like everything in life.

What did you miss most?

I actually realized this year how much I missed—or I feel like I missed out on—going to high school, and being around people my own age. That camaraderie feels important to me. I grew up on sets where I was around forty-five-year-old guys all the time. So I had a relatively lonely childhood. Which is O.K. I mean, that’s why I turned to writing songs and making music and all of that. But that’s definitely one of the pitfalls.

And fame at the level that you’re experiencing it now, which is pretty rare—is it lonely, or is it something else?

I don’t know what it is. Gosh, I feel incredibly lucky to have great people around me, but it certainly is trickier navigating social life and relationships of any kind. It’s definitely something that I have to put more thought into. But social life and relationships are hard regardless of what your career is.

And how much do you care and not care about the kind of fame that’s outside of you, but very present? You had to deal with this kind of back-and-forth about Taylor Swift, for example. Can you brush it off pretty easily, or does it get to you?

It depends on the day. I think that, ever since “Drivers License” came out, I’ve been keen on separating Olivia the person and Olivia the persona—the person that people criticize even when they don’t know me. And that’s really helped. That keeps me grounded.

Is there a theme that does connect the titles of your two albums, “Sour” and “Guts”? They’re some of the bluntest album titles that I know.

I know. They pack a punch.

Maybe indigestion or something.

[Laughs.] Yeah, I love four-letter words of all kinds. I love swear words, too, clearly, which is very evident in my albums. I think they’re cool and succinct. And I’d actually had the name “Guts” for a while. I had it when I was writing “Sour.” I thought it was a cool word that meant a lot of things. “Guts” can mean bravery, and “trusting your gut”—intuition. And “spilling your guts” is telling everyone your secrets. So it’s a word that I’ve always really loved.

When you’re making these records, do the songs that eventually take off—are those the ones that you’re expecting to take off? Do you know when you have a hit?

You never really know, especially in today’s pop landscape. I feel like so many of the biggest pop songs are songs that maybe wouldn’t have been a pop hit fifteen years ago. And I love that. I love that people are itching for something a little different. But, yeah, I think you don’t really know until it comes out. I’m always surprised by which songs people gravitate toward. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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