Image courtesy of Universal Music Group

Olivia Rodrigo on heartbreak, Taylor Swift and her TV obsession

Meet the Disney actor turned “drivers license” popstar that Taylor Swift is calling baby.

by Frankie Dunn
14 January 2021, 11:11am

Image courtesy of Universal Music Group

You probably recognise Olivia Rodrigo. For over a year now, the 17-year-old Filipino-American actor has had a lead role (Nini, who is cast as Gabriella) in Disney’s very meta, High School Musical: the Musical: the Series, for which the performer wrote the gold-certified original song “All I Want”. After an incredibly productive pandemic, just last week Olivia released her debut solo single “drivers license”, an emotionally raw heartbreak ballad of dreams which enabled her to articulate some Very Difficult Feelings.

The song rocketed straight to no.1 across all streaming platforms in the UK and the US, simultaneously breaking the record for the most streams by a female artist in a single day in US Spotify history. That’s 5.688 million streams in 24 hours, btw, and only half of them were us. And as though those accolades weren’t quite enough, Olivia’s favourite artist Taylor Swift -- who declared her a “TRUE TALENT” in late 2020 -- joined in on the mom-daughter thing Olivia started, stating just how proud she is of her “baby”. Not bad for one week on the job.

Having grown up in Temecula, California (which Olivia calls “the most suburban town ever”), she moved to LA with her parents when she was 13 and soon began her acting career, appearing in a series of kids shows, TV movies and an episode of New Girl. “I had a really great childhood in the suburbs though,” she tells us. “I got to sing at a bunch of random venues and talent competitions and made a lot of friends that I’ll keep forever.” 

As a theatre kid, music has clearly long been a big part of Olivia’s life, something that acting alone — even acting in HSMTMTS — doesn’t totally fulfil. “Writing music is completely autonomous,” she says. “There’s no one telling you what to do or how to do it. The total freedom in creativity is my favourite thing in the world. Being able to create something all by yourself, from the ground up, that has the power to touch hearts so intimately is the magic of songwriting for me. That independence is something that you don't have as an actor on a set.”

So, early on in lockdown, Olivia set herself a weighty goal: write at least a verse and a chorus every single day. And, it worked! For the first four months of the pandemic, at least. “It was super challenging but such a good exercise for me,” she says. “Some of my favourite songs came out of the experiment.” Including, we imagine, “drivers license”. The impressive single was inspired by both heartache and the work of one of her young songwriting idols — “I kind of wrote this song with a ‘what would Gracie Abrams do?’ mentality,” she told fans during the livestreamed launch party for her Matthew Dillon Cohen-directed music video.

“After it got produced, I would play it alone in my car all the time, just because I was so proud of it,” she says of her debut. “But, if I'm being completely honest, I didn't even expect it to chart. The outpouring of love and support has been beyond my wildest dreams. I'm so happy that people connect to it the way I do.” 

Fans new and old will be pleased to hear that Olivia has an EP on the way, due for release in late spring. It’ll be “super versatile,” she says, promising “a lot of angst, heartbreak and insecurity woven into the lyrics. I tried to be as honest as I possibly could be. All of my songs are about my experience being a teenager and figuring life out… I think it would be super cool to have my music be in a coming-of-age movie one day.” Honestly, that seems like a very plausible next step. 

Until then — and as you emotionally prepare yourself for a whole EP of feelings — get to know Olivia via the 10 fun facts we discovered when we caught up with her this week.

1. Olivia’s earliest musical memory is of writing her first song aged 8
“The first song I remember writing on the piano was called ‘Superman’. The hook was": “I don't need no superman to come and save me/ come and teach me lessons/ cuz I'm a human being/ and I can clean up my own messes.” I was a very empowered 8-year-old. I remember playing it in my living room and hearing my mom crying as she tried to pretend like she wasn't listening.” 

2. She’ll be 18 next month but has zero plans to celebrate
“Definitely no huge birthday party for me. I guess I'll put on a mask and buy my first lottery ticket?” 

3. What Olivia’s debut single doesn’t document is that passing her driving test was actually a real ordeal
“Technically it took me four appointments and two attempts to complete my drivers test. The first two appointments got cancelled by COVID and High School Musical: the Musical: the Series shooting schedules. When I finally got a doable appointment, the test proctor came out to check my brake lights and turn signals and then told me to honk my horn. I kept trying and trying but for some reason, the horn on my mom’s car wasn't working. The DMV worker told me that my car was unsafe and he legally could not take me out on the road to test me. I literally cried in the DMV parking lot. But when I finally got it a couple months later, I got a song out of it too! So, all in all, no complaints.” 

4. Here at i-D we approve of her go-to driving music
“I'm obsessed with No Doubt at the moment. I play Return of Saturn over and over and over on drives. I think ‘Bathwater’ is a masterpiece.” 

5. When not in lockdown, Olivia’s favourite place to be in LA is the beach
“I love Malibu. Whenever I have a free day, I drive up there and splash around in the water. Something about swimming in the ocean is so enlivening.” 

6. Olivia reckons the fictional duo her and BFF Iris Apatow are most like is…
“I think we’re Carrie and Samantha from Sex And The City. We are dramatic, fiercely loyal, and we both love going to brunch.” 

7. Olivia (who once wrote a song about that time Bella and Edward met in a science lab) says the Twilight OST is one of the all-time greatest albums
“It's definitely a contender. I'm also in love with Taylor Swift’s Red and Lorde’s Pure Heroine. Funnily enough, those were actually the first two albums I bought on vinyl when I was around 11 years old. I would dance around my room to them all the time. I listened to them so much and had the tracklists memorised. Even today, Lorde and Taylor are my biggest inspirations.”

8. Your fave is harbouring a secret obsession with a classic TV game show
“My favourite show right now is Jeopardy. I never get any of the answers right but I watch it religiously.”  

9. In 2020, Olivia learned to not take everything so personally 
“I really tried to remember that what other people say or do has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with them. I think adopting that mindset has helped me get over a lot of insecurity and self-doubt.” 

10. And despite her humble goals, we predict she’s going to take over the world in 2021
“It’s gonna be an exciting year! I'm super stoked to continue making and releasing music! I'm also pumped to turn 18 and graduate high school. There is so much life I can't wait to experience!”

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