Olivia on Overnight Fame, #FreeBritney and the Therapy of Depressing Songs

Sunday, Aug 8, 2021

GQ Magazine conducted one of Olivia’s first in–person interviews, and it’s quite the read! Check out the entire article sourced from their August 4 website posting below!

Olivia Rodrigo hasn’t made much progress with decorating her new apartment, but she did manage to hang up one prized piece of artwork in her bedroom. Inside a white frame ceremoniously sits a single printed-out tweet. Specifically, a tweet about her by Cardi B that reads: “You doing sooo good for your age. Don’t let no toxic shit get to you and don’t let nobody restrict you from your voice.”

“I honestly bawled. I literally saw it and cried,” Rodrigo says. “I was like, ‘Thanks, Cardi. I’m not going to listen to bullshit.’ ”

On a hotel rooftop in late June, with Beverly Hills sprawled out below us, Rodrigo points to her building in the distance. “I love living alone,” she says. “I also just don’t know how to take care of myself, though. I don’t know what to buy from the grocery store or how to clean up after myself, I realized. It’s been a learning experience.” She’s been navigating many of the typical markers of nascent adulthood during the past few months: moving out on her own, turning 18, graduating from high school. And some of the less typical ones too, like becoming the biggest new pop star in the world.

Her first single, “Drivers License,” a mournful and melodic ballad about young heartbreak, dropped in January and took root on TikTok before fully taking over the zeitgeist. She chased it in May with her debut album, Sour, a genre-skirting collection of lyrical breakup anthems, each song more pointed than the last. The specific and teenage was suddenly universal: Sour smashed streaming records and reigned at the top of the charts while being enthusiastically lauded by critics. It possessed major cross-generational appeal, drawing plenty of listeners who were statistically more likely to be experiencing daily back pain than adolescent longing. (It also inspired more than a few memes about how ancient millennials seem when trying to relate to Gen Z.) A few other stars aligned—that spark of social media virality, a captive audience stuck inside and primed to be swept away in a wave of capital-F feelings—and Rodrigo went from teen actress to household name in no time at all.

Raised in Temecula, California, by a Filipino American father and a white mother from Wisconsin, Rodrigo is an only child, though there was a pet snake named Stripes in the picture. (“They kept it in my bedroom when I was three years old. I’m like, ‘You kept a fucking snake in my bedroom?’ ”) Lorde and Taylor Swift soundtracked her youth, along with the Cure, the Smashing Pumpkins, and her mom’s favorite riot grrrl bands. That ’90s influence bleeds into her look today: a thrifted purple floral overall dress and T-shirt paired with Doc Martens creepers. Her artistic impulse for songwriting was seemingly ever present. “Olivia loved making up ‘gibberish’ songs almost from the time she could speak,” her mom told me in an email. “Once she learned how to play instruments, that’s when her passion for music really escalated.”

Before “Drivers License” made her a phenomenon, kids too young to drive or date were already familiar with Rodrigo from her work on the Disney shows Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. She wrote and performed original songs on the latter, eventually signing with Geffen Records and connecting with producer Daniel Nigro, formerly of the early-aughts emo band As Tall as Lions. (That musical background could be part of the reason why Sour burrowed into the brains of 30- and 40-somethings in the same way that certain frequencies are audible only to dogs.) “She’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever been with in the studio,” Nigro said of Rodrigo in an email. “Most singers that come nowadays want to lay down three or four takes and then have the attitude of ‘oh, you can fix it later right?’ ” But Rodrigo is a completist, someone who will try every possible iteration dozens of times. “We’re both so hyper-critical,” Nigro says, “about vocal performances and go over every detail and inflection.”

Rodrigo may have taken a ride on the Disney-to-pop-star express, but she’s breaking out in the midst of the #FreeBritney era and the attendant cultural reckoning around how young female artists are treated. Perhaps as a result, she’s both assured and self-protective. When speculation around the inspiration behind “Drivers License” began, she opted to stay off TikTok for six months. She deflects certain topics with the ease of Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix—if he had been doing that since he was 12. This includes the accusations of plagiarism leveled at her by Courtney Love (“To be honest, I’m just flattered that Courtney Love knows that I exist,” she says with a smile) as well as a question about her HSMTMTS costar Joshua Bassett, whom the album was rumored to be about. I ask her if the two had any conversations about Bassett’s coming out in an interview with this publication back in June. “I know nothing about it, and it’s not my business to speak on it,” she says.

Otherwise, Rodrigo is brimming with earnest, fast-talking energy. Between bites of avocado toast with poached eggs, she asks me more questions than any other subject I’ve encountered and is eager to discuss image-making as a pop star and why she stays off social media. Because her meteoric rise came in the midst of the pandemic, this also happened to be one of her first in-person magazine interviews.

GQ: Was it surreal becoming globally famous while everyone was locked down?
Olivia Rodrigo: Oh, my God. Totally. I think it was actually awesome, because there was this lack of pressure. If there was a concert and I could see that “Drivers License” was being sung by thousands of people, I feel like I would’ve gotten in my head more than I did.

What was your first brush with celebrity once things started to reopen?
Someone came up to me the other day and was like, “Sorry if this is weird, but I had sex to the entirety of your album.” And I was like, “What the fuck? That’s crazy.” That was the weirdest experience I’ve ever had. I was flattered, of course.

Definitely an interesting choice!
I appreciate that she was bold enough to come up to me and tell me that too. I was like, “You want to have sex to the breakup songs?” It’s just really cool to go out and have people be like, “I really like your music—that got me through a hard time in my life.” People would come up to me and be like, “Oh, I love the character they put on the show,” and that’s so awesome. But it’s a totally different experience when someone’s like, “Oh, it’s a vulnerable piece of your heart.”

Who was someone you were very starstruck to hear was a fan of yours?
Ed Sheeran the other day was like, “I love Olivia Rodrigo.” And like, “I love that she writes her own songs, like rocks out.” And I was like, “Oh, my God—that’s so cool.” I think he’s one of the best songwriters ever. It’s weird to think about people like that looking at my Spotify and turning on my songs. That’s so crazy. But yeah, I’m excited to meet my peers too. I haven’t met many people, so that will be fun.

Your producer, Daniel Nigro, has said that you specifically told him not to watch High School Musical. Why was it important for you to keep those two worlds separate?
I’ve always just wanted to be taken seriously as a singer-songwriter – not that being an actor takes away from that at all. I wanted him to know me for me and not the side character that I was playing. I also just get really self-conscious about stuff like that, on a human level. I hate it when my friends listen to my songs or watch anything related. I’m just like, “I don’t want you to. Just talk to me.” I get insecure about it.

Do you still want to act going forward?
Not sure. I really don’t know where my career’s going to go in the next five years or in the next 10. I’m really grateful that I get to be doing both now. I just think it’s about finding projects and writing songs I feel really passionate about.

If you had to envision your life 10 years from now, where would you be?
I’ll be 28. I think it’s really strange how there’s a finite amount of time women can be pop stars, you know what I mean? I feel like men can be making music and having it be successful and popular until you’re super old, but I feel like women, the second you turn 30, it’s hard to keep people’s attention. But hopefully I’ll still be putting out music that I like, and it’ll still resonate with other people. I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter that writes songs for other people too.

What was the first song or album you heard that inspired you to do this?
The one that first comes to mind is Lorde’s Pure Heroine. When it came out, I was like 11 or 12 or something like that. I had the vinyl record of it. I got it from Urban Outfitters. I remember listening to the lyrics and thinking, Oh, my God—I can actually see myself in these lyrics.

You came up through Disney, which has been the path for so many of our biggest pop stars, but we’ve also seen the conversation around those stars and the treatment of them shift. Right now, for instance, we’re in the middle of the Britney Spears conservatorship conversation. Were the challenges she faced something you were aware of and tried to consciously avoid?
Yeah. The Britney stuff was just horrific, and I’ve been following it very closely. I think it’s just so awful. I think, as an industry, people are getting better at not taking advantage of and manipulating and bullying young women. But it’s still so apparent, and I witness that too. Not near at the level that Britney has, obviously. I think that’s an important paradigm that I hope that we’ll be able to break in the coming generations. I’ve definitely seen corporate dollars be prioritized over people’s mental health. That’s always been something that I’ve been really conscious of in my own career, and I’m really lucky I’m surrounded by people who are conscious of that and conscious of my mental health being the most important thing. You can’t make art and have a good career if you’re not there.

I saw you also have a photo wearing the “Dump Him” shirt that Britney wore.
Oh, my gosh. Yes. Me and my best friend, Iris [Apatow], we’re obsessed with early-2000s culture. We love Paris Hilton and The Simple Life. We love cool Britney shirts and stuff like that.

That was when I was a teenager, so I’m very curious about the stuff you find appealing from that era.
I love The Simple Life. I just love looking at throwback pictures of people from then and Kate Moss. And I love Winona Ryder—she’s my favorite ever. I’ve watched all her movies and look at all of her style references and stuff like that.

Do you have a vision board with all these things? Are you just saving photos on your phone?
Yeah, Pinterest. I Pinterest it up.

How does the actual image-making process work? You Pinterest your stuff and just go to your label and say, “Okay, this is what I want”?
Yeah. Which is so fucking cool. I’ve been working on sets for so long, where you go and you’re told what to say and told what to wear. The fact that when you’re making a music video or something, people just come up to you and they’re like, “What do you want to make to the song that you wrote?” I’m like, “You guys are going to give me resources and time to make whatever I want?” That’s the coolest thing ever.

I read something you said about how, when you were 14, you were in rooms with all these adults asking you what your brand is. How did that shape how you thought of yourself and your identity?
It was not fun. I just remember being 14 years old and being like, “I literally have no idea who I am. I don’t know what my personal style is. I don’t know what I like. I don’t know who my true friends are. How am I expected to cultivate an image?” That was always hard for me. Even now, I have no idea. I try, but my image today is not going to be the image that I’ll probably like tomorrow.

And I think that’s also the fun part of being an artist, that you get to create images that evolve over time. But as a young girl, that was really daunting to me. I felt like if it wasn’t able to be seen by other people and it wasn’t consumable over the internet or over other mediums, then it wasn’t worthwhile. That’s increasingly more prevalent in people: the constant desire to always need to share so much of yourself. You’re not a cool person if people on the internet don’t think you’re a cool person. That was a mindset that I had to get out of, but I’m definitely out of that now.

That is rough. How did you get out of it?
I was so sheltered for a really long time, and I think it takes real-life experiences to realize, Okay, this is the real world. Taking a picture of this isn’t real the way that existing in the present moment is.

A good lesson to learn at 18. The themes in your songs are pretty universal, but there are many lyrics that I think speak specifically to what Gen Z is facing right now. What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about your generation?
Oh, my God. I’m not quite sure. Isn’t it we’re always sad or something? I feel like that’s always represented in the media. But I’m so proud of my generation and the way that people have come together and not put up with bullshit that has been put up with for so many years.

Were you surprised to get so many fans in their 30s and 40s?
So surprised. And so many people that weren’t straight girls too. I just think that speaks to the universal nature of heartbreak, which was so cool. Literally the week after “Drivers License” came out, I was still on set for High School Musical and P.A.s that I never really talked to, older men, they’d come up to me and be like, “We just went through a breakup, and this song is just changing my life—this song is exactly how I feel.” I was like, “Oh, my God—that’s so cool. You never confided in me before, but this is so cool that it has affected you.”

So much fandom plays out online now and obviously that’s been huge for you. But then the flip side of that is there are these massive groups of people overanalyzing every move you make. How do you work through things like that?
I try not to look at stuff like that, to be completely honest. I like to think that if there’s actually something that I should know about, my team would tell me. It was really hard for me to watch people on TikTok and stuff that dissects my 17-year-old love life. That was really weird. But again, I think I understood the curiosity. It doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect my songwriting and my life.

Do you remember the first time you stood up for yourself when making a creative decision?
I’m very much a people pleaser. I’m getting out of it as I grow up. But when I was younger, I was like, “Oh, if that’s what you think, great.” But that’s the worst. That’s the kiss of death in music. I remember for “Deja Vu,” actually, there’s this post-chorus that was initially going to be this vocal chop, which I thought was so pop-y and not my thing. And I really wanted it to be that synth sound. Every time I listen to it, I’m like, “I’m glad that I stuck to my guns on that one.”

Where do you think the people pleasing came from?
Being a girl. I think women are praised for always being nice and kind and helpful. And that’s something that I’ve had to sort of outgrow as I grew up as a young woman in the world—that notion of being sweet is the end-all. That sort of mindset got me into a lot of situations where I just didn’t stick up for myself. I didn’t advocate for myself or treat myself well. There’s a lot more adjectives to me than sweet.

I feel like when you work on a set or you make music or whatever, every little action that you do is magnified. So I think that’s another reason why I was always a people pleaser. I was scared if I was like, “No, I actually don’t like the way that you’re treating me,” people would be like, “Oh, she’s a diva.” People are so quick to call successful women divas or like, “Oh, they were a bitch to me.” And so anytime anyone says something like “Oh, I met someone’s daughter and she was awful.” I’m like, “Is she just like a cool woman that’s really successful?” I always take stuff with a grain of salt.

You have such a bubbly, outgoing persona, and yet your songs are so sad. How do you reconcile the two? Is the songwriting your way to exorcise those emotions?
I’m the happiest person ever, which people might not guess from my songs. I love drama in songs, and I just love really depressing songs. I just love songs that move you. It’s also, I think, a medium for you to express feelings that aren’t fun or socially acceptable to talk about. Like, “good 4 u” is so angry and petty. I would never go up to somebody and say stuff like that, but you can in the song, and it’s really therapeutic that way.

We ride the elevator down from the rooftop and linger outside the hotel while the valet goes to retrieve her [redacted luxury vehicle]. As we wait, Rodrigo is curious about my life in New York City and peppers me with questions: What kind of car do I drive? (Not a [redacted luxury vehicle].) Have I ever had cacio e pepe? (It’s one of the only things she knows how to cook.) Do I like going to the beaches there? (Hell yeah.) Do I live in a loft? (I laugh to myself about that last one, then soberly remember that when I was 18, I too envisioned myself living in a loft, but on a magazine writer’s salary.)

Rodrigo is now suspended between getting preposterously famous during lockdown and being able to actually tour. Discounting the whole “global pop star who gets invited to the White House” bit, her summer is playing out much like many high school graduates’, in that hazy, liminal stretch of months before they embark into the real world. She’s planning to take her first vacation with friends in a while. She can finally read for pleasure rather than for schoolwork, so she started The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho’s mystical allegorical novel about a young shepherd boy who follows his dreams, because her friends are “obsessed” with it. Dating, Rodrigo says, is less of a priority. “I had Raya for a second, and it was so vomit. Like, I could not,” she tells me. (Later that week, photos of her with the producer Adam Faze would surface.)

“I’m so happy for the first time in so long, I just don’t want to fuck with it, you know what I mean?” she says. “I just love my girlfriends and love my job and am exactly where I’ve always wanted to be. Everything else is just icing on the cake.”

I write this well aware that I can feel the wrinkles on my face forming and a handful of Werther’s Originals spontaneously appearing in my pocket, but Rodrigo has what would traditionally be called a good head on her shoulders. Take, for instance, her reply when I ask her about how she balances her various public identities.

“Something that I learned very early on is the importance of separating person versus persona. When people who don’t know me are criticizing me, they’re criticizing my persona, not my person,” she tells me. “But that’s really difficult, though, too, because my persona is being as genuine and honest as I possibly can, so it’s this weird dichotomy.”

She’s landed on a good solution for now. “It helps to not look at that shit,” Rodrigo says. “That shit” would be social media—a friend of hers set up a child lock on her phone a while back and then forgot the password. As a result, Rodrigo can log in to the apps for a maximum of only 30 minutes a day. “Which is honestly the biggest blessing,” she says. “You’re literally not meant to know what everyone is saying about you at all times.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue with the title “Most Likely to Succeed.”

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