For singer/songwriter Olivia Rodrigo, one of the greatest joys in life comes from deliberately tapping into her deepest heartache. “There’s nothing like sitting at the piano in my bedroom and writing a really sad song,” she says. “It’s truly my favorite thing in the world.”
With that, Olivia’s debut single via Geffen Records, “drivers license,” is a modern epic and brilliant balance of unfiltered outpouring and graceful specificity. With its radiant harmonies and kinetic percussion, the piano-driven, alt-pop song spins a vivid portrait of driving aimlessly through the suburbs and longing for an ex-love, a sentiment Olivia precisely conveys in her pensive lyrics (“You said forever, now I drive alone past your street”). “When I came up with ‘drivers license’ I was going through a heartbreak that was so confusing to me, so multifaceted,” she recalls. “Putting all those feelings into a song made everything seem so much simpler and clearer—and at the end of the day, I think that’s really the whole purpose of songwriting.”
On “drivers license,” Olivia showcases the nuanced vocal command she’s honed since taking up singing as a little girl. Growing up in Southern California, Olivia first discovered her love of songwriting at the age of 12, when she’d spend hours sketching lyrics in a notebook she’d won at an arcade. “I was making up songs before I could even form coherent sentences,” she says. “I was always so obsessed with it and sang about the most random things, like getting lost from my parents in the supermarket.” When she was seven Olivia began playing piano, though not completely by choice. “My dad made me take lessons and I hated every second of it—to the point where I’d cry before every lesson—but now I’m so thankful,” she notes. After landing a role on the comedy series “Bizaardvark,” Olivia added guitar to her repertoire and soon immersed herself in learning the craft of songwriting, in part by studying the lyrics of Taylor Swift (her number-one influence). “Once I started taking it seriously, I’d just write all the time,” she says. “I have a lot of trouble focusing on schoolwork and in other areas of my life, but when I’m working on a song it’s like time stops and I can’t think of anything else. It’s magical.”
Though Olivia mostly kept her songs to herself at first—occasionally posting snippets on social media—she experienced a major turning point during her first season as the star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” After showrunner Tim Federle heard a song she’d shared on Instagram, he enlisted Olivia to create a track for the show’s fourth episode. “I remember it was the last day of my sophomore year and I was in the middle of finals, and I had to go write a song based on this prompt they’d given me,” she says. The result: a heart-on-sleeve piano ballad called “All I Want,” a gold-certified hit that cracked the Billboard Hot 100, emerged as the show’s top-streamed song, and amassed more than 200 million global streams.
“For me the goal of all music is to take these complicated feelings and externalize them in a way that makes people feel seen—but then when someone tells me that one of my songs resonates with them, it makes me feel seen too,” she says. “It’s so inspiring to see my music affect people and maybe help them to feel less alone, and I just want to keep doing that for the rest of my life.”
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