Back in January, Olivia Rodrigo dropped Drivers License, unleashing a single that would resound throughout 2021. Her debut album, Sour, did much the same and the year unfolded as an avalanche of sales, streams and broken records. Now, she ends 2021 an international superstar, with no fewer than seven Grammy nominations. Here, we meet Music Week’s Artist Of The Year – alongside Interscope CEO John Janick, Polydor co-presidents Tom March and Ben Mortimer, producer Dan Nigro, and her team – to tell the story of a breakthrough that set the world ablaze…
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Let’s be honest. This time last year, who among us had heard of Olivia Rodrigo? Perhaps if you were a parent to a teenager. Perhaps. But for most adults, in December 2020, it was more a case of, ‘Olivia… who?’
Fast-forward 12 months and the situation couldn’t be more different. Rodrigo has picked up seven Grammy nods, including Album, Song and Record Of The Year, plus Best New Artist. Her debut single Drivers License went straight to No.1 in the UK and now has 1,256,757 sales, according to the Official Charts Company. It did the same in the US. And in Ireland. And Australia. It was the fastest song in Spotify history to surpass 100 million streams and now has 1,179,789,461 streams on the platform, where it was the year’s most streamed track globally. Her debut full-length Sour (364,458 UK sales) went to No.1 around the world and ends the year as Spotify’s most played album. Rodrigo has appeared on countless magazine covers, soundtracked millions of TikToks and been invited to the White House. She’s this year’s superstar. And she’s also Music Week’s Artist Of The Year.
“It’s so cool,” she beams over Zoom from Los Angeles, where she’s taking some time out as a whirlwind year draws to a close. “I’m really honoured. It’s always amazing to feel the love from overseas.”
Before we look back at the rollercoaster ride that got her here, Rodrigo lets us in on what she’s doing to unwind and keep grounded. She’s currently reading the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None and “trying to have some semblance of a social life” with her friends.
“It’s nice to have girls around me that support me intrinsically for who I am,” she smiles.
Rodrigo does pilates with one friend, and also enjoys shopping and “just driving around, going to the drive-thru and driving through the rich neighbourhoods”.
For Rodrigo, it was a case of fourth time lucky when it came to passing her test, but what happened next was beyond worth it. Drivers License was released in January, and by February, she was a household name. So, how did it happen and where did she come from?
Olivia Isabel Rodrigo was born in 2003 in southwestern California, an only child in a middle-class family. Her parents weren’t famous or rich or connected in the entertainment world. Her father is a family therapist. Her mother is a teacher. Rodrigo grew up being encouraged to do well at school, care for her pet snake and take an active interest in hobbies. Music, unsurprisingly, was the hobby that eclipsed all others.
“I’ve been writing songs since I was five years old,” she says. “Just gibberish, stuff about getting lost in the grocery store. My mom has a lot of them on VHS tapes.”
When she was nine, her parents made a reluctant Olivia take piano lessons: “I was not going to be a classical pianist. It was not my jam to learn songs that other people wrote and then play them. But I’m glad my parents forced me, because playing piano is a skill I utilise every day.”
She used her piano playing to amp up her songwriting.
“And I think the first proper song I ever wrote – the first one I finessed and that was a complete song – I was probably about 12 or 13. It was called Naive Girl and I put it on my Instagram. It’s probably still out there somewhere, in the depths of the internet.”
The family moved to Los Angeles when Rodrigo was cast in the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark, as a guitar playing teen who makes internet videos with her best friend. Her next acting role, in the mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, also drew on her musicianship. The producers were looking for a song to use in the show, a song that Rodrigo’s character was supposed to have written. They used All I Want, one of Rodrigo’s own. The episode aired on November 29, 2019 and things started to move.
“I saw a video of her singing and playing the piano, around the middle of last year,” says Tom March, co-president of Polydor, Rodrigo’s UK label. “We’ve worked with other Disney stars before, but there was something about her voice. She was a cut above the other artists coming from the Disney space.”
“I think we’d all be lying if we said we knew the extent of what was coming with Olivia,” admits Ben Mortimer, his fellow co-president. “Her being named Artist Of The Year is amazing. It’s great and I think she deserves it.”
In 2020, Rodrigo had signed in the States with Interscope/Geffen, headed up by legendary exec John Janick.
“I remember going to see a bunch of record labels and they were all wonderful,” she says. “But Interscope was the only place where they said, ‘We really love your songwriting abilities, we think you’re a really great, classic songwriter.’ And that was special to me and the start of a great relationship.”
“Interscope are a brilliant, brilliant partner to have,” says Mortimer. “We had inklings of a new signing they were really excited about before Christmas in 2020. Then when we came back after Christmas the world of Olivia had gone completely mad. It became apparent, very quickly, that they had signed a wonderful artist who was riding on the wave of a cultural phenomenon.”
“The second I heard Drivers License I knew it was special,” says March. “I did not, obviously, assume it was going to be one of the most impactful global songs of the year. Not going to lie, I did not know that. But there was something magical, something that hit you. Then when the song came out, we knew within hours how fast it was moving and that there was something unique and spectacular happening.
“You could see the conversation online and it was organic and it was audience driven. I was at home on a Saturday morning emailing Sulinna Ong at Spotify and saying, ‘Look at this, it’s really going.’ And we then had a very fast reaction from all of the DSPs, who jumped on the record.”
By mid-February, Olivia Rodrigo and Drivers License were part of the cultural conversation. The song appeared on Saturday Night Live, not with Rodrigo doing a new artist showcase as you might expect, but as part of a sketch. A group of regular guys are hanging out in a sports bar, the song plays on the jukebox and the blokey banter breaks. “I got my driver’s license 55 years ago,” says Kate McKinnon in character as an elderly man, thumping her chest. “Why is this hitting me so hard?” By the end of the sketch they are singing into pool cues and crying, arms around one another.
The gag worked because it was recognisable. Here was a teenager singing about a heartbreak that was specific to her, but it was hitting people of all ages very hard. After all, who doesn’t remember the excited chatter about learning to drive in their late teens? Who has never been heartbroken? Rodrigo, in talking about her own life, had created something with much wider appeal. She wasn’t just a teen star anymore. The grown-ups were waking
up to Olivia Rodrigo.
"I’d like to think that I’m making songs that are just as honest as you can possibly be,” says Rodrigo, when asked about her cross-generational appeal. “I think we, as humans, share so many experiences with each other. And so by being honest, you immediately connect with other people on just a human level. So yeah, when I was writing I was trying to remember that.”
Behind the scenes, the team around her were working hard to make sure she wasn’t pigeonholed as a teen star.
“Teenagers across the planet had been aware of her for a while, with High School Musical and Instagram,” says Mortimer. “But we needed to pivot really quickly and fan the flames of what was happening.”
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted that the fanbase was so vast and Drivers License would move this quickly – TikTok can never be underestimated,” says Polydor’s Hannah Flaherty, who led the marketing campaign. “At first, we locked out the core youth audience to drive awareness. However, we quickly realised they were fully engaged and that going through your first heartbreak is a universal moment. The track had awakened some dusty memories for the whole nation and struck a chord for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. We had a wider audience to discover and convert.”
“The young kids online are not the media gatekeepers,” says March. “Our job was to convert the people who were old enough to have jobs. You’ve got to guide people, bring them to this artist who hasn’t come through the usual channels. If you haven’t seen an artist building over a couple of months, it can be quite confusing. She was already a superstar for kids and young people. The rest of us were just catching up.”
“I think, nowadays, a label doesn’t often create the cultural moments,” says Mortimer. “I think they happen naturally, or through something happening with a brilliant artist, an idea or viral moment. But then as a label, you have to know how to really zone in on that and how to help enhance it. In many respects, Olivia was a massive schooling moment for us. It was when we realised the true extent of how powerful social had become and how there was a narrative outside of mainstream media. What we learned with Olivia we’ve now put into our other campaigns.”
On May 11, Rodrigo’s visibility grew even further. She appeared at the BRITs, walking on stage, draped in red with giant digital butterflies illuminating the darkness around her. It was her first live TV appearance (“It was just such a wonderful experience,” she says). The footage on Rodrigo’s official YouTube channel has now been watched more than 15 million times.
The BRITs show was a triumph, a TV debut that delivered on all the hype and underlined her status as the pop star the whole world was looking at. And, although it seems ridiculous in hindsight, initially, booking her for the event took some persuasion on the part of Polydor.
“There were some nerves about it, because she had never done live TV before,” says Mortimer. “But she absolutely nailed it. Her vocal performance on the night was so brilliant. I think that’s when everyone really understood what an amazing artist she was.”
Tom March recalls placing a call to EMI president Rebecca Allen, who was running the show alongside Universal Music UK EVP Selina Webb.
“I was saying, ‘This is unprecedented. This is a huge artist. She would be amazing on the show this year,’” he says. “And to Becky’s credit she listened, but I think it took a bit of persuasion to convince the committee. At that point, Olivia had only put one song out. So it was quite a brave booking from Becky, but it turned out to be inspired as Olivia has gone on to define the year. The spotlight the BRITs put on her was one of the things that really helped solidify her as an artist, not just a song, on a global level.”
It marked the first time, thanks to pandemic restrictions, that the UK team were able to meet Rodrigo face-to-face.
“Or mask-to-mask, as it was then,” says March. “It was great to see her and her team, including her manager Kristen Smith who has been really great to work with throughout.”
“At that point, people weren’t really coming into the country,” adds Mortimer. “So that added to the pressure and the strangeness. But she completely got through it.”
Just days after the BRITs, Rodrigo’s next single Good 4 U dropped, with debut album Sour following a week later. Good 4 U was an instant smash and spent five weeks at No.1. It has since eclipsed Drivers License to become her biggest UK hit with 1,314,263 sales to date.
Sour was just as impactful, proving emphatically that Rodrigo had more songs, more hits. It spent two weeks at No.1, two weeks at No.2, and then went back to No.1 again. Sour kept on hitting the top spot. For 14 consecutive weeks, it posted more than 10,000 OCC sales. Part of this was growing awareness, but the Polydor team had also chosen to treat the vinyl release as a launch in its own right.
“It was a couple of months later,” says March. “But we gave it its own release date. Olivia created some amazing content, she was sat on the floor with a record deck. When fans see an artist connect with a product like that, then they want to own that product. She has so many fans who just want a piece of her, that I’m not at all surprised that she inspires collectability among a younger audience.”
Sour went back to No.1 in the 14th week of release, driven by a spike in sales of physical copies. When it topped the charts alongside her third single Good 4 U, the singer became the youngest solo artist in UK chart history to do the singles and albums double.
Sour had an unusual sound for a modern pop album, rockier, and more guitar-driven than most. Some of this was down to Rodrigo’s producer and co-writer, Dan Nigro, who had played in the indie-rock band As Tall As Lions. But a lot of it was also down to Rodrigo herself, who has very wide-ranging taste.
“Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of hyperpop,” she says. “And rap music. I like J. Cole’s new album a lot. I love anything that makes me think about how music is put together.”
She grew up on Taylor Swift, but was also influenced by the artists her Generation X parents played her, such as Fiona Apple and The Smashing Pumpkins.
“We ran a modern pop campaign,” says Flaherty. “And from that we learned the UK still has an appetite for guitar music.”
“Look at the two other singles,” says Mortimer, referring to Deja Vu and Good 4 U. “Drivers License was one of those rare ballads that resonates with the entire planet, and they are always important moments. But what’s exciting about the other two is that they are fast-paced and rockier. With Olivia, and what’s happening with [Polydor act] Sam Fender… Something has happened in the last 12 months with rock – there’s a desire for rock music. I don’t know if Olivia created that or reflected that, but it’s interesting, it’s a sea change.”
Dan Nigro pins it on Rodrigo’s attitude.
“One of my favourite things about Olivia is how bold she is,” he says. “We were on the phone a few days after Drivers License came out and she was telling me that the last thing she wanted to do was create the same song again, even though she felt that people were expecting that from her. She was on to the next thing and that was inspiring for me to hear. Most artists fall into the trap of giving the audience what they think they want, especially when they have a huge song. Olivia just wants to do what feels natural and great for her.”
Rodrigo and Nigro met, as he describes it, “just a few days before lockdown in March of 2020”. The two had spoken before, but never in person. It took until July of the same year before they were able to get into the studio.
“When we started working it took us a little time to get our footing, especially with the pandemic and everything,” he says. “I think the first song we wrote together that felt really interesting was Jealousy, Jealousy. I got really excited about an off-key piano part that I put in the bridge and I did wonder if maybe she wouldn’t like it.”
Rodrigo told him it was her favourite part of the song. A few weeks later she brought in the idea for Drivers License.
“It was about then that I started to feel things were really clicking, that I was starting to understand her taste,” says Nigro. “I think part of the reason we gel so well is the yin and yang of it. Olivia’s lyrics are so real and vivid. I like to add a bit of abstraction here and there. I think it makes for a great balance.”
A warm glow comes over Rodrigo when she reflects on the album.
“It’s funny,” she says, before pausing for a moment. “I sometimes think, ‘If I were an outsider looking
in on my career, what would I think about it?’ I’ve always admired women that are really vulnerable and honest in their music, it’s a hard thing to do. And, you know, all of my idols do that. So I’d appreciate that about my music, hopefully.”
Given the choice, Olivia Rodrigo would always define herself as a songwriter, rather than a pop star.
“Writing songs always comes first,” she says. “More than performing them. It’s what I think about the most and what I’m most passionate about.”
She continues: “I definitely tried working with other writers at the beginning of my career. But I think what makes me special as an artist is my perspective and the way that I say things. As a listener, you can always tell when someone is kind of speaking from the heart or if they’re saying stuff that they feel like other people want them to say. So, I kind of attribute that to my success a little bit. I have to remember that the reason I have all of these opportunities is because I love sitting at my piano in my bedroom writing songs. That’s the crux of it, everything else is just icing on the cake.”
Rodrigo has added writing credits to three of her songs. Taylor Swift is credited on the album track 1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back, which is officially described as being inspired by Swift’s track New Year’s Day, and also on her Deja Vu single. Deja Vu is influenced by Swift’s Cruel Summer, which was written with St. Vincent and Jack Antonoff, who are also credited by Rodrigo. In August, Paramore singer Hayley Williams and former guitarist Josh Farro were added to Good 4 U. Brutal also drew comparisons to Elvis Costello’s stomping 1978 classic Pump It Up.
Rodrigo received the backing of Costello who, when quizzed on the comparison, said, “It’s how rock and roll works.”
Today, Rodrigo stresses the point that it’s what she does as an artist, personally, that makes her special. “I don’t think that I would be in the position I am if I didn’t write any of my own songs,” she says, simply.
By now, she is well accustomed to the intense levels of scrutiny that the limelight can bring, as fans analyse the lyrics to her every track. So how does Rodrigo feel about complete strangers picking apart her love life on the internet?
“It’s very strange, obviously,” she says. “But I completely understand the curiosity and I was definitely guilty of doing the same thing to other songwriters when I was younger. But in my head, I just think that who the song is about specifically doesn’t really have anything to do with the integrity of the song. I think the coolest thing about songwriting – and art in general – is you’re given this kind of framework of emotions, and you can fill in the blanks with pieces of your own life. And then that piece of art just becomes even more impactful and resonates with you even more. So I would hate to tell people, ‘This is what it’s specifically about,’ because I think that just completely defeats the purpose of art and emotion.”
Rodrigo emphasises the value of the opinion of those closer to home, her loved ones and her team.
“I feel like everyone in my life has been so supportive over the songs and me expressing my emotions and my truth. I’m grateful for that.”
In business terms, that support has also come from Sony Music Publishing, where she signed in August.
“Olivia has a rare skill set as a songwriter,” says Thomas Krottinger, the company’s vice president, creative. “She writes songs that are relatable on a deep level, conveying emotions and thoughts that often go unspoken but are universally felt. Working with her over the last year has been an amazing experience, and it has been incredible to watch her develop her craft. Her work ethic is unstoppable: she wrote Sour in the midst of lockdowns and film shoots and was the breakout artist and songwriter of 2021.”
Still only 18, Rodrigo unsurprisingly describes the past year as “surreal”. In July she visited the White House, having offered to help with a campaign to boost vaccination rates amongst young people, and did a press conference alongside President Joe Biden and chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci.
“I feel very passionately about vaccinations, especially youth vaccinations, in the US,” she smiles. “It was really such an honour and something I’ll be telling the grandkids about.”
She also got a tour from Biden himself, who she describes as “very, very kind”.
“I got to sit in the Oval Office,” she continues, with genuine glee. “There are so many priceless artefacts and you just get to look at them, which is super-cool. It was like being in a museum.”
Right now, Rodrigo is focusing on herself more than anything else, but as the anniversary of Drivers License approaches, the world is itching to know what’s next. Really, it feels like anything is possible, not that she’s about to say so, though.
When asked about future plans, the star initially thinks in the longest of long terms. “Well, I still want to be writing when I’m 75...” she offers.
Dan Nigro will only comment that his “lips are sealed” in terms of what they’re working on next. At Polydor, though, March and Mortimer’s eyes light up when they talk about what’s to come.
“We have still got so far to go with her,” says March. “She hasn’t done that first tour yet [which takes place in June and July in the UK]. Sometimes having somewhere to go after your first record is a good thing and I think it will work to our benefit.”
Rodrigo is dying to tour, or more specifically, and like many other 18-year-olds, dying to travel. “I have that itch,” she says, her voice sparkling with intent. “I’m looking forward to coming back to the UK, obviously, but I really want to see Italy. I’m a massive fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, so I’ll be so excited to finally see Italy.”
Before we part ways, she has one final word on Sour, the record that, out of nowhere, came to define 2021.
“I’m very proud of it,” she says. “And I’m just excited to bring the honesty and vulnerability that was in those songs into my future albums, too.”