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Olivia Rodrigo wants you to decide what her songs are about

Olivia Rodrigo's second album, the follow-up to her 2021 breakthrough <em>Sour</em>, is called <em>Guts.</em>
Photo by Nick Walker/Courtesy of the artist
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Illustration by Jackie Lay/NPR
Olivia Rodrigo's second album, the follow-up to her 2021 breakthrough Sour, is called Guts.

For any young person, the handful of years that compose the transition from teen to young adult are bound to be awkward and emotionally fraught, even if they're a little exciting too. For Olivia Rodrigo, those gap years have been stranger than most, after the explosive success of her first album, Sour, turned an 18-year-old songwriter into much more: the youngest artist to ever debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, a three-time Grammy winner, billion-plus streaming sensation, Vogue cover girl and the artist The New York Times dubbed "pop's brightest new hope." All of which meant that her second album would, too, be more than an album: Whatever she delivered next would be her response to the discovery of her own talent, her relationship with success and, perhaps above all, a brand-new kind of pressure.

"I definitely had a chip on my shoulder the whole time. I remember for the first few months of sitting down and trying to write the album, I had all of these intrusive thoughts in my head: I would sit down at the piano and just think about what people would say, how people would criticize it," Rodrigo says. "Maybe halfway through making the record, I kind of had to shift my perspective into trying to write songs that I enjoy, trying to write songs that I would like to hear on the radio — not trying to beat what I did last time or please anyone. And that's sort of where the real magic happened."

That album, Guts, arrived earlier this month, and is by any measure another success, debuting once again at No. 1. NPR's Ailsa Chang caught up with Rodrigo, now 20, to talk about the growing she's done in the past two and a half years, and the few rare silver linings to be found in caring what others think. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Ailsa Chang: Guts has been out for a little over two weeks now. What do you think of the response so far, after all of this buildup? Has anything about the feedback surprised you, or taken you aback?

Olivia Rodrigo: It's always interesting to see which songs people gravitate towards. You know, you can make predictions, and your record label can have a song that they think is going to be a hit, but you never really know. Especially in today's pop landscape, I feel like people are really hungry for songs that sound different — songs that aren't traditional hits, as you'd say.

Is there a particular song on Guts that you were really surprised audiences reacted so strongly to?

There's this song called "lacy": It's sort of about this mysterious feminine figure, and there's a lot of envy involved. I've seen so many girls who are like, "That's my older sister," or "That's my ex-best friend." I saw something the other day that was like, "I'm envious of my past. 'lacy' feels like my past self." It gives so much color to these songs that I never could have thought of. And that's why I think it's really important to never specify who exactly a song is about — because I just love watching people have their own interpretations of it. I would never want to take that away.

I do wonder — and I'm thinking about myself, too, when I'm planning what to say on air — as you're writing music, are you ever thinking, "Maybe I shouldn't say that, because people are going to take it the wrong way on social media"? Do you start thinking about that as you're writing the words?

[Sighs] You know, I have such a big mouth, honestly.

You're unfiltered like me.

Yeah. When I'm writing a song, I block everything out to the best of my ability, and just try to describe the feeling as best as I possibly can. It isn't until a few weeks before I put out the record that I'm like, "Huh — people are really going to hear all of this crazy stuff that I just said in my living room, at my piano." The two weeks leading up to the album's release day, it was definitely hitting me a little bit.

How fascinating — you hear your music differently closer to the album release?

Yeah. I mean, I think it's probably best as a creative person to keep your creative process pretty insular and not think about the way that it's going to react in the world. That's kind of the antithesis of creativity to me; I think it should be for you first and foremost, and that's how the best songs get made, in my experience.

But it's a totally different mindset being an artist that writes songs, and being an artist that puts them out. Like now, I'm in a different headspace than I was six months ago, excavating all of these feelings and writing all these songs. I didn't do interviews like this six months ago. It's just a different part of your brain getting worked.

How did you want Guts to be different from Sour? Did you want people to hear you evolving away from the woman they heard on your first album?

I wrote Sour when I was 17, and I wrote most of Guts when I was 19 and 20, and those few years are probably some of the most formative in your life. I grew so much just as a person, as a young woman, entering young adulthood. I think that I'm a little bit more self-possessed and more confident, and know what I want to say more. I think the record is also a little cheeky at times, and that was a side of me that didn't really get showcased a ton on Sour.

You come from this long line of singers whose stories started with Disney: Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato — and back further, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera. Being a child star did help launch each of you. But have you found that that past kind of limits you, too, as you're trying to develop your own unique voice as an artist?

That's a great question. I often think about that lineage, and I'm very proud to be a part of that group of women; I think they're incredible. I have always been very steadfast in my desire to have complete creative control over my career. And I think there's this perception, this archetype of a Disney girl, as the sort of pop star who maybe sings other people's songs, or something like that. That was always something that I resented growing up, because writing songs is my first love — it's my biggest passion in life. I just always wanted to have autonomy over what I said and did. And I feel really, incredibly fortunate that I've been able to forge a path in the music industry that feels completely my own. I write all my songs; I have so much creative say over what I do. It's not something that I take for granted.

What about the fact that you do have some pretty young fans? Is there a lot of pressure to live up to some image you cultivated years ago, when you were a teenager? Are you thinking about how to keep those young fans, but give voice to the things that you are living through in your adult life?

I think about that a lot. I've certainly gotten some side-eyes from concerned parents over the swear words in my songs. But I've grown up with so many incredibly strong, talented, inspiring role models, women songwriters that I've looked up to for a long time. And when I look back, I think they were my heroes because they were exactly who they were, and didn't cherry-pick parts of themselves to present to the public. I think that the best role model is the most true version of themselves.

You do have a beautiful way with swear words, and one of the things people really do seem to access in your music is the anger, the sharp edges to your personality and your sound. Do you think you write your best stuff when you're in pain, when you're angry?

This is a loaded conversation; I've had this conversation with my therapist many times. It's a strange thing to be a songwriter, where, you know, I'll be going through something hard, and I'll be sad or heartbroken over something — and someone will be like, "Well, you'll write a really good song." Sometimes that feels kind of like ...

Like, why do I have to live this kind of life to write this kind of music?

Yeah, and why does everything have to be monetized? But I've framed my thinking on this in terms of personal growth: I actually think that I write my best songs when I'm growing a lot personally. And often you're growing a lot personally when you're going through heartbreak; you're very introspective at times like that.

How do you feel about the fact that that part of you, the part that is angry or hurting, is what's reaching so many people?

I mean, I love music that is dramatic and angry and enraged. I grew up listening to music like that. When I played shows for the last tour, I would look out in the audience and I'd see all these young girls screaming these angry songs, just crying and feeling so many emotions that they could just let out at this concert. That's not something that girls are encouraged to do on an everyday basis — or, you know, people in general. That's part of why I love music so much. You can talk about these feelings that aren't so easily expressed in everyday life.

It must be an amazing feeling to have a stadium of people repeating your words back to you. I can't imagine anybody doing that with an NPR story.

You never know! But I think about that all the time — music touches people's souls like nothing else. An author could be writing a book for like five years, and write 400 pages, and someone could read the book and not remember a single line. But a songwriter could write a song in 15 minutes, and there's a stadium of people who know every word. Music is just just magical in that way.

You're reaching people not just with your lyrics, but with your sound — and I'm talking about people of all ages, because I hear influences in your music from artists who were big before you were born: Alanis Morissette, Blink-182, Avril Lavigne, Green Day, Bikini Kill, '80s new wave. How did you acquire that taste in music? Are we hearing the stuff your parents would play when you were growing up in Southern California?

I give my parents a lot of credit for my music taste. They are huge music lovers, and there was always music playing in the house; they loved '90s alternative rock. But also, my grandma got me a record player for Christmas one year — I was probably 12 or 13 — and my mom and I would go to the thrift store and pick out records that we thought looked interesting. That's how I fell in love with Carole King and Pat Benatar and Joni Mitchell, all of these female singer-songwriters that I just thought were the coolest and wanted to emulate.

Speaking of growing up in Southern California, are you still bad at parallel parking?

Oh, this is a great question. We were talking about growth — you know, from 17 to 20 — and on my first album, I talked about how I was bad at parallel parking. And actually, I think I'm OK now. It's my crowning, my highest achievement; I'm so proud of myself. I worked on it for a while.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kira Wakeam