Do you remember your first heartbreak? If not, 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single, Drivers License, may awaken some dusty memories. The story of passing her test and driving past the house of the ex she had planned to celebrate with, it filters Adele-scale devastation through Taylor Swift’s wit and Lorde’s mysticism, balancing hangdog self-pity (“I’ve never felt this way for no one!”) with stinging indignation: “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me!” she belts at its climax. Perhaps being called out as a phoney songwriter is even worse than being a cad.
Released in January, Drivers License sprang (almost) out of nowhere like a heaved sob. Four days later, it broke Spotify records for the most single-day streams (Christmas songs exempted). The next day, it broke that record again. After 10 weeks at No 1 in the US and nine in the UK, it has been streamed 1.9bn times. Next Tuesday, the California-born songwriter makes her live debut at the Brits; the following weekend, she does Saturday Night Live; a week later she releases her debut album, Sour, a grippingly well written – all by her – collection of balladry, pop-punk, bitter diatribes and euphoric taunts that dwells on this romantic treachery. Even in an era when virality powers pop, Rodrigo’s is a fast rise.
Quarantine restrictions mean arriving 10 days pre-Brits, so we speak on Wednesday morning, just 24 hours after Rodrigo landed in the UK. She is isolating just outside London. Mild hoarseness aside, she shows no trace of her terrible jet lag and is more alert and composed than any human I’ve encountered since March 2020. She supposedly just woke up but her eyeliner is tidy, her skin glowy. This week inside is a chance to nail some homework – “economics and English, all the good stuff like that, and environmental science, ugh, gross” – so she can graduate high school this year. In the first song she ever posted online, I’m More, she sang, “I care way too much about getting into college”, but notions of further studying (psychology, English or history) are on hold.
Rodrigo was homeschooled long before the pandemic. She has been a Disney star since 2016, first in Bizaardvark, about two oddball vloggers, then High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (HSM), a mockumentary where the “real-life” teenagers attending the school where the original movies were filmed stage their own musical of HSM. The stars learn on set; fake Disney high school is as close as they’ll get to the real thing. Rodrigo questioned whether her unconventional life would make her songwriting unrelatable. Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, inspired her to get serious about it at age 12. “She talks about driving to the suburbs and going to school and all her friend-group drama,” says Rodrigo. “I remember feeling so seen: she’s taking this normal experience that we all go through and turning it into something really beautiful and artful. I always wanted to write a record like that, but never felt like I had that normal life experience.”
Then normal life – that pesky shattered heart – intruded. “It’s interesting, heartbreaks when you’re 16 or 17,” says Rodrigo, “because you don’t yet have that perspective of knowing that life goes on and you’re gonna meet other people; that it wasn’t the only happy experience you’ll ever have.” She recounts a day on set where the cast was filming “a really poppy, happy dance number”. Between takes, she was squirrelled away with her acoustic guitar, writing “this sad-ass song” called Happier, wishing her ex well and admiring his new girlfriend. On the piano-led album version, the verses spill over beautifully; the chorus awkwardly, earnestly strains its crescendo, showing the effort of her beneficence.
Much analysis of Drivers License’s wild success concerned a rumoured relationship between Rodrigo and a male co-star (and the alleged third wheel), which you can read about in asinine detail elsewhere. There is no way the majority of listeners cared about this; the song’s appeal is its musical familiarity and the cinematic lyrics laying out Rodrigo’s eviscerated-but-still-beating heart. (Even her best friend, Bizaardvark co-star Madison Hu – who steered Rodrigo through the breakup in real time – said she only really understood her anguish when she heard it.) And for all the media obsession with gen-Z culture shifts, she is reassuringly traditional: the eternal lovelorn teenage songwriter. Rodrigo’s songwriting also subtly distills the passing of innocence. Her second single, the gleefully accusatory Deja Vu, ribbed her ex for repeating their rituals with his new girl (Billy Joel songs, Glee) but also acknowledged “everything is all reused”. Losing first love, she says, “feels sort of earth-shattering in a way that’s obviously heartbreaking but really beautiful, too”.
When Rodrigo meets someone new, she always asks if they have any ghost stories: Sour is its own collection of them, I suggest. “Oh, I’m literally obsessed with that!” she says effusively. (She is, enjoyably, “literally obsessed” with many things during our conversation, including Dua Lipa – whom she wants to meet at the Brits – Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder and the recording studio.) “I never thought about that but I’m going to use that now! Yeah, I feel like that period of my life is sort of over now, like dead,” she says with relish. “It’s fun to look back on those memories and know that they’re not real and happening right now, but you still experienced them.”
Was the obsession with the supposed relationship drama sexist? She sighs. “I try not to look at it or take that stuff super seriously.” But she has noticed “sexist criticism of songwriters like me being told that they only write songs about boys”. She watched it happen with Swift, her favourite songwriter, “which is just BS in my mind”. She has never understood the argument. “I’m a teenage girl, I write about stuff that I feel really intensely – and I feel heartbreak and longing really intensely – and I think that’s authentic and natural. I don’t really understand what people want me to write about; do you want me to write a song about income taxes? How am I going to write an emotional song about that?”
Sour feels “intrinsically young”, she says; the point was to honour those acute teenage feelings. “Something I’m really proud of is that this record talks about emotions that are hard to talk about or aren’t really socially acceptable especially for girls: anger, jealousy, spite, sadness, they’re frowned-upon as bitchy and moaning and complaining or whatever. But I think they’re such valid emotions.” The seven songs I hear are also rife with deep insecurity: Rodrigo brutally comparing herself with the new girlfriend, defeated by a boy’s impossible standards, scrolling social media and feeling sick with envy.
Obviously, beauty and success aren’t everything, but it shows how absurdly poisonous social media is that the pretty, accomplished Rodrigo feels that way. “I think there’s a lot of strength in saying: I don’t know anything and I feel so insecure and unwanted,” she says. “If I were a younger person looking up to my favourite songwriter, I’d be really moved by that so I hope I can provide that.” Rodrigo is Filipino American, which created another point of comparison. “It’s hard for anyone to grow up in this media where it feels like if you don’t have European features and blond hair and blue eyes, you’re not traditionally pretty. I felt that a lot – since I don’t look exactly like the girl next door in all these movies, I’m not attractive. That actually took me a while to shake off. It’s something I’m still shaking off now.”
She has been online much less post-Drivers License. “You can create your own reality sometimes with social media,” she says. “What you see just becomes your reality, and it’s totally not at all.” On the cacophonous Jealousy, Jealousy, she sings, “I think I think too much about kids who don’t know me”. To cope, now that she’s more open to criticism than ever, she remembers her mum’s words: “Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.”
Really, though, Rodrigo is her own worst critic. She started meeting labels about a solo deal in early 2020, after a song she had written for HSM, All I Want, went viral on TikTok and charted respectably. Then aged 17, she wasn’t patronised by label executives, she says: the opposite. “People tell you things they think you want to hear. I really appreciate honest opinions and people who won’t compliment me in order to get what they want.” She chose Interscope/Geffen because the CEO praised her songwriting, not her potential star quality. “I want to be a songwriter,” she says. “I don’t want to be the biggest pop star that ever lived.” (Inspired by Swift’s fight to own her music, Rodrigo has retained control of her master recordings.)
Rodrigo became wary of praise at Disney. “From a younger age, I would get insecure because I felt like people weren’t being honest with me. I started to have that voice in my head being like: ‘That’s not good enough, don’t listen to them’, so I swung the opposite way of thinking everything I do is bad.” Writing music alone made “that pendulum reach equilibrium again”. She made most of Sour with Daniel Nigro, the first producer she tried out with who told her a song wasn’t good enough. (“I think that’s a testament to really caring about the music and the artist.”) She originally planned to release an EP called Sour, then decided it didn’t showcase the extent of her abilities and told Geffen she wanted to make an album. “They were like: ‘All right girl, if you think you can do it’,” she says. So she worked 13-hour days, seven days a week to finish it.
One side of Sour is about turning on yourself, Rodrigo says. “As a younger child, I was confident almost to the point of being vain!” (There’s brilliant footage of her on YouTube as an eight-year-old singing Mötley Crüe.) “I remember turning 16, 17 and suddenly having all these doubts about myself and where I sit in the world and if people liked me. That felt like a distinct souring of that relationship.” She is trying to remember that doing her best is enough. She started therapy partially because of the breakup, and has been working on prioritising herself instead of trying to fix someone else, a recurring lyrical theme. “It has to come from you first: an empty pitcher can’t pour.”
Rodrigo’s parents – Mum a teacher, Dad a family therapist – don’t pressure her, she clarifies: they are proud, but they’d be proud whatever. They lived in Temecula, California. She pushed to attend auditions. An only child, she calls her parents her “BFFs” and has never rebelled. “I’ve always been a real goody two-shoes. My music can be my form of teenage rebellion. There’s songs that are so angsty and intense.”
Some Disney stars revolt as soon as they’re out the door; others come to terms with how it affected them years later. Does she feel looked after by them? “Oh, ho ho ho, these are hot topics,” Rodrigo says playfully, then pauses. She skirts the question, worried that she might “get my foot in my mouth” and upset people. She is committed to HSM for two more years, which will make for a challenging parallel career. “You’re telling me,” she says. She wants to focus on music. “I think it’s really hard to split time between the two and there are very few artists who do that efficiently, because acting is based on being a good liar and presenting a version of yourself that’s believable, and being a songwriter is the complete opposite. It’s like, here are all of my deepest, darkest secrets and I want you to know me so personally.”
Rodrigo is not sad to leave this part of her life behind. “Resounding no!” she says. Nostalgia isn’t her style. “I always wanted to grow up because I feel you get better with age and figure out who you are. I feel like I get happier as I get older.” She cannot wait to write it into albums, too. “It’s one of my favourite parts about songwriters like Taylor Swift, because you get to grow up with them.”
Rodrigo recently had what she calls a “crash course in adulthood”, turning 18, having the biggest song in the world, finishing her album and moving into her own place within a few weeks. “It’s like a soft move out – my parents are there a lot of the time,” she says, with a kindly eye roll. “But I love being alone. And I love my own solitude.” As she stares down a year that will undoubtedly leave her on first-name terms with the public, you sense it will become a precious commodity.
Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, is out on 21 May on Universal.