If Olivia Rodrigo has a superpower, it’s that, at 18, she already understands that adolescence spares no one. The heartbreak, the humiliation, the vertiginous weight of every lonesome thought and outsized feeling—none of that really leaves us, and exploring it honestly almost always makes for good pop songs. “I grew up listening to country music,” the California-born singer-songwriter (also an experienced actor and current star of Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) tells Apple Music. “And I think it’s so impactful and emotional because of how specific it is, how it really paints pictures of scenarios. I feel like a song is so much more special when you can visualise and picture it, even smell and taste all of the stuff that the songwriter's going through.”
To listen to Rodrigo’s debut full-length is to know—on a very deep and almost uncomfortably familiar level—exactly what she was going through when she wrote it at 17. Anchored by the now-ubiquitous breakup ballad ‘drivers license’—an often harrowing, closely studied lead single that already felt like a lock for song-of-the-year honours the second it arrived in January 2021—SOUR combines the personal and universal to often devastating effect, folding diary-like candour and autobiographical detail into performances that recall the millennial pop of Taylor Swift (“favorite crime”) just as readily as the ’90s alt-rock of Elastica (“brutal”) and Alanis Morissette (“good 4 u”). It has the sound and feel of an instant classic, a Jagged Little Pill for Gen Z.
“All the feelings that I was feeling were so intense,” Rodrigo says. “I called the record SOUR because it was this really sour period of my life—I remember being so sad, and so insecure, and so angry. I felt all those things, and they're still very real, but I'm definitely not going through that as acutely as I used to. It’s nice to go back and see what I was feeling, and be like, ‘It all turned out all right. You're okay now.’” A little older and a lot wiser, Rodrigo shares the wisdom she learned channelling all of that into one of the most memorable debut albums in ages.
Let Your Mind Wander “I took an AP psychology class in high school my junior year, and they said that you're the most creative when you're doing some type of menial task, because half of your brain is occupied with something and the other half is just left to roam. I find that I come up with really good ideas when I'm driving for that same reason. I actually wrote the first verse and some of the chorus of ‘enough for you’ going on a walk around my neighbourhood; I got the idea for ‘good 4 u’ in the shower. I think taking time to be out of the studio and to live your life is as productive—if not more—than just sitting in a room with your guitar trying to write songs. While making SOUR, there was maybe three weeks where I spent like six, seven days a week of 13 hours in the studio. I actually remember feeling so creatively dry, and the songs I was making weren't very good. I think that's a true testament to how productive rest can be. There's only so much you can write about when you're in the studio all day, just listening to your own stuff.”
Trust Your Instincts “Before I met my collaborator, producer—and co-writer in many instances—Dan Nigro, I would just write songs in my bedroom, completely by myself. So it was a little bit of a learning curve, figuring out how to collaborate with other people and stick up for your ideas and be open to other people's. Sometimes it takes you a little while to gain the confidence to really remember that your gut feelings are super valid and what makes you a special musician. I struggled for a while with writing upbeat songs just because I thought in my head that I should write about happiness or love if I wanted to write a song that people could dance to. And ‘brutal’ is actually one of my favourite songs on SOUR, but it almost didn't make it on the record. Everyone was like, ‘You make it the first [track], people might turn it off as soon as they hear it.’ I think it's a great introduction to the world of SOUR.”
It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect “I wrote this album when I was 17. There's sort of this feeling that goes along with putting out a record when you're that age, like, ‘Oh my god, this is not the best work that I'll ever be able to do. I could do better.’ So it was really important for me to learn that this album is a slice of my life and it doesn't have to be the best work that I'll ever do. Maybe my next record will be better, and maybe I'll grow. It's nice, I think, for listeners to go on that journey with songwriters and watch them refine their songwriting. It doesn't have to be perfect now—it’s the best that I can do when I'm 17 years old, and that's enough and that's cool in its own right.”
Love What You Do “I learned that I liked making songs a lot more than I like putting out songs, and that love of songwriting stayed the same for me throughout. I learned how to nurture it, instead of the, like, ‘Oh, I want to get a Top 40 hit!’-type thing. Honestly, when ‘drivers license’ came out, I was sort of worried that it was going to be the opposite and I was going to write all of my songs from the perspective of wanting it to chart. But I really just love writing songs, and I think that's a really cool position to be in.”
Find Your People “I feel like the purpose of ‘yes’ people in your life is to make you feel secure. But whenever I'm around people who think that everything I do is incredible, I feel so insecure for some reason; I think that everything is bad and they're just lying to me the whole time. So it's really awesome to have somebody who I really trust with me in the studio. That's Dan. He’ll tell me, ‘This is an amazing song. Let's do it.’ But I'll also play him a song that I really like and he’ll say, ‘You know what, I don't think this is your best song. I think you can write a better one.’ There's something so empowering and something so cool about that, about surrounding yourself with people who care enough about you to tell you when you can do better. Being a songwriter is sort of strange in that I feel like I've written songs and said things, told people secrets through my songs that I don't even tell some people that I hang out with all the time. It's a sort of really super mega vulnerable thing to do. But then again, it's the people around me who really love me and care for me who gave me the confidence to sort of do that and show who I really am.”
You Really Never Know “To me, ‘drivers license’ was never one of those songs that I would think: ‘It's a hit song.’ It's just a little slice of my heart, this really sad song. It was really cool for me to see evidence of how authenticity and vulnerability really connect with people. And everyone always says that, but you really never know. So many grown men will come up to me and be like, ‘Yo, I'm happily married with three kids, but that song brought me back to my high school breakup.’ Which is so cool, to be able to affect not only people who are going through the same thing as you, but to bring them back to a time where they were going through the same thing as you are. That's just surreal, a songwriter's dream.”