Olivia Rodrigo, the guest on this episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast, is a tremendously gifted singer-songwriter who is, at just 20, arguably the biggest pop star in the world.
The New York Times has called her “Pop’s brightest new hope,” “a modern and somewhat signature pop star,” “the promising new voice of her generation” and “the most important new pop starlet of the last few years.” USA Today has described her as “a hero among Gen Z listeners.” Rolling Stone has labeled her “One of pop’s biggest, brightest, most fascinating and most brilliant stars,” “an artist with her own voice… who is definitely here to stay” and has “managed to put together a one-of-a-kind catalog already… both of her albums sound like other artists’ greatest-hits collections.”
With her 2021 breakout single “Driver’s License,” Rodrigo became the youngest artist to debut with a single that hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and two subsequent singles, “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U,” also went to No. 1, staying there for eight weeks, two weeks and one week, respectively. Both of her first two studio albums, 2021’s Sour and 2023’s Guts, went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. In 2023, she became just the 16th artist to simultaneously hold the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s three most important charts, the Hot 100, the 200 and the Artist 100.
She is also a Grammy darling. In 2022, she was nominated for best new artist, album of the year and best pop vocal album for Sour; record of the year, song of the year and best pop solo performance for “Driver’s License”; and best music video for “Good 4 U.” She ultimately won best new artist, best pop vocal for Sour and best pop solo performance for “Driver’s License.” Ahead of the Grammys ceremony that will take place on Feb. 4, 2024, she is nominated for record of the year, song of the year and best pop solo performance for “Vampire”; album of the year and best pop vocal album for Guts; and best rock song for “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl.”
Plus, on Jan. 23, 2024, she may also pick up a best original song Oscar nomination, as well, for the first tune that she has ever written for a film, “Can’t Catch Me Now” for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.
Over the course of an interview at the Los Angeles offices of The Hollywood Reporter, Rodrigo reflected on her path to performing, and how acting gigs on Disney Channel TV shows ultimately led to a record deal and “Driver’s License.” She also opened up about what it was like creating and releasing her first album in the middle of a global pandemic and her second in the immediate aftermath of mega-fame; how she approaches songwriting generally; and how writing a song for a movie is different than writing one for herself; plus much more.
You can listen to the conversation (above) or read a lightly edited version of it (below)!
* * *
Olivia, thank you so much for making the time to do this. I really appreciate it.
Oh, thanks for having me.
Absolutely. Let’s go back to the very beginning: where were you born and raised, and what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Temecula, California, which is about two hours out of L.A. My mom is an elementary school teacher, and my dad is a therapist, so I was very nurtured growing up. My mom was a teacher at the school that I went to, and I was a child actor when I was young. I was very driven and really wanted to succeed in this acting world, so my parents would drive me to L.A. and back three times a week. That was sort of my interesting upbringing, but yeah, my parents are wonderful.
Your dad is Filipino-American, your mom is white. Was being biracial something that you were conscious of — or that other people made you conscious of — when you were a kid?
It’s funny, I actually don’t think I was particularly conscious of it until I made my way into the industry. The schools that I grew up going to were always very diverse, and I had a lot of Filipino friends growing up. But yeah, it wasn’t until I sort of started making music and being more front-facing that girls would be like, “Oh, wow, it’s so nice to see Asian representation in music!” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool. Yeah, I’m that.”
Was music a big part of your life growing up? Were your parents into it? What were you listening to?
Music was a huge part of my life growing up. I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with it or where I didn’t write songs even. I was writing songs since I was 5 years old. My mom has old home videos of me just babbling. There’s this video that I watched recently where I was writing a song about being lost in the grocery store, which is a very 5-year-old issue to have! And I did musical theater in school and was in the choir. My parents listened to a lot of alternative rock, and I remember falling in love with that when I was maybe 12 or 13, and that’s definitely a big influence on me, as well as just female singer-songwriters. I remember I got a record player for Christmas one year — my grandma gave it to me — and so my mom and I would go to the thrift store, and we’d find little records to put on my record player. One of the records — she was like, “Oh, you’d really love this” — was Tapestry by Carole King. I remember hearing that record, and life just kind of changed after that. So I’ve always really revered female singer-songwriters.
I think I read that ’90s stuff was particularly big for you — Alanis Morissette and people like that?
Yeah, Alanis Morissette, No Doubt, The White Stripes, the Smashing Pumpkins, bands like that, I just was so obsessed with in my teenage-hood and still am now.
I try to read everything that’s out there about my guest before an interview, and I recognize that sometimes things are inaccurate, but I was wondering, is it true that you lost some of your hearing? If so, that makes it even more amazing that you’re so gifted at music…
Yeah, it’s kind of unusual. I am half-deaf in my left ear. I never knew until kindergarten or so when they’re doing the tests on all the kids, and they were like, “Oh, you’re a little hard of hearing.” It’s interesting. One of my friends is this great photographer, Petra Collins, and she has really bad vision, and so we always joke that I make music because I have bad hearing, and she takes photos because she has bad vision.
What came first, the desire to make music or the desire to act?
I always loved music so much. Funny enough, the reason that I got into acting was I had this singing teacher who was really lovely, and I would sing all these songs with such passion and fervor, and my singing teacher was like, “Oh, you should maybe do acting lessons. You really love expressing yourself while you sing.” So, the singing kind of always came first. I was on set when I was 14 or 15, and I just remember being so excited to go home so I could sit at my piano and write songs. It’s always been my first love. I love acting too, for totally different reasons. But yeah, writing music has always been first in my heart.
In singing, you’re pouring out your own heart. In acting, you’re inhabiting someone else’s heart. With the exception of writing a song for a movie, it’s just a totally different ballgame, right?
Yeah, it totally is. In some ways, I feel like my experience acting growing up has really helped me in my career now. I mean, for starters, I think when you’re working on a set that young, you really are taught professionalism and work ethic — it’s just ingrained in you — and I’m so grateful for those lessons. And I think it taught me to never be ashamed of feeling big emotions. I’ve never felt like I needed to make myself smaller or censor myself because I just grew up where it was an environment that fostered that sort of emotion. So I think that that sort of helps me be brave in my songwriting maybe.
I think you do bring a performative element to your singing, putting an additional sugar on top with a little extra snarl or something when you’re singing. I guess the skills bleed into each other.
What’s so funny is my producer, Dan [Nigro], who I made my last two records with, if he’s not getting a vocal take that he really likes, he’ll turn on his camera on his iPhone and film me, and suddenly I’ll do a take that’s super emotional and perfect. I think it’s just, I don’t know, in my bones — the actor girl in me just has to have the camera on.
I particularly feel that with “Can’t Catch Me Now,” your song from The Hunger Games film — you sing it like someone who’s being mischievous.
Writing that song for The Hunger Games was such a cool experience. I got to put myself in another character’s position while writing the song, so it is sort of acting — it’s character work for sure. I write lots of my songs from a very diaristic place, and when you sit down to start an album that’s full of diaristic songs, it’s sort of like the world is your oyster, there’s just so much that you can do, and sometimes it’s a little overwhelming. But having these parameters to work in as an artist are sometimes really inspiring — it’s nice to not have every color on the palette and as big of a canvas as you want. Sometimes it makes your brain work differently to have restrictions. So it was a really awesome experience. I’m lucky that I got to do it.
In terms of your acting career, it seems like it almost didn’t happen because, from what I was reading, your early auditions were not quite panning out. Did you have a conversation with your parents about potentially stopping?
Yes. It’s so crazy. It was so long ago. My parents are so not stage parents whatsoever. It was always me being like, “I need to go to these auditions! I really want to book this role!” They were so hands-off and so zero-pressure, which is nice. But I remember one September or something, my mom being like, “OK, well, we should just try until Christmas, and if nothing happens ’til Christmas, then we’ll do something else and you can just do school. You love school, it’ll be fine.” I was like, “OK, fine.” And lo and behold, as the story always works, you get something on Dec. 24, or something like that!
And, for you, that was the lead in an American Girl movie?
Yeah. I did an American Girl movie when I was 12 years old.
Only a year later, you got your first Disney Channel show, Bizaardvark, which was a big part of your life from 2016 through 2019. It was for that that your family moved to L.A.?
Yeah. We took the two-hour drive up and moved here, and I learned guitar actually for the show. My character had to play guitar, so that turned out to be very fruitful as well. It’s a skill I use all the time now. But yeah, that was kind of the start of my working girl era.
Your parents and you picking up and moving to L.A. — that must have been a big change for all of you, no?
My parents were really supportive, and I thank them to this day for making that sacrifice for me. But yeah, I mean, everything changed then, even beyond moving to a new place. I got out of school and started being homeschooled and just spent my time around a lot of people that were a lot older than me all the time, and that certainly affected me in my life. And I think it made me feel comfortable being alone, and I think that probably was good for my creativity.
How did you get that first — but not last — show for the Disney Channel? Was it through a regular audition, or did they see you in American Girl or something else?
Oh man, I can’t remember too specifically. I think it was just a regular old audition. I just walked in with my little sides and did my thing, and fate had its way.
As you mentioned earlier, it was while you were working on that show that you started writing songs for the first time. Do you remember what inspired you to do that?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think I really started taking it seriously around 14 or 15. I was sort of alone on these sets, and at 14 or 15 you have big emotions — there’s lots of angst going on — and I think I needed someplace to put that. I needed to have some medium that helped me feel understood. It sounds so cliche, but it’s so true — especially when you’re that young, it’s like you’re talking to a friend. I was so dramatic. I remember sitting on my piano in my room and just crying. I needed to get it out.
One of my favorite quotes of yours that I came across prepping for this was, “I literally wrote breakup songs before I’d ever held a boy’s hand or even remotely dated someone.” So you had your genre from the beginning?
Oh my God, yeah. It’s so funny how that’s so innate in us sometimes. I was writing these devastating heartbreak songs — never had my first kiss. I remember the first song that I wrote on a piano — I was probably like 9 years old — and it was this feminist song about how I don’t need a man. I’m now like, “What kind of sexism were you enduring at 9 years old?!” I don’t know.
So you go from Bizaardvark almost directly into — I’m going to just take a big breath before I say this — High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
It’s a hard name. It’s a hard title.
Was that another audition?
Yeah, it was another audition. I remember going in and doing chemistry reads, and I remember singing for the audition — it’s a big singing music show, obviously, I mean, it’s in the name — and I remember that being really exciting for me at the time.
The guy who cast you, Tim Federle, has said that he didn’t know that you were as passionate about or talented at singing at the outset. But you wound up writing a song for the first season’s fourth episode, “All I Want,” which made it all the way to the Billboard Hot 100 back in 2020. Do you remember how that came about?
I am very grateful for Tim. He’s given me so many amazing opportunities. I don’t think I’d be where I am right now without that, but yeah, that’s so true. When I got onto High School Musical, I was writing all these songs, but I was so shy, and I’d just keep them to myself. I think going on that show and having music be such a big part of it kind of emboldened me to be more open with it. I remember I posted a song on my Instagram — I forget what the song even was or how it went — and Tim really liked it. They were doing pitch sessions, trying to write a song for this episode, and I guess they referenced the song that I put on my Instagram, so Tim was like, “Well, why don’t we just have Olivia write it? If we’re trying to make a song that sounds like Olivia wrote it, let’s just do it.” And for the life of me, I don’t know why he took a chance on a super green 16-year-old like that. But I wrote that song “All I Want,” and it did really well. I think TikTok had just started becoming a thing when that song came out, so it was one of the first songs to get traction on TikTok. We were like, “Music on TikTok? Wow!” Now that’s our whole world. But yeah, that’s how I got my record deal, and everything sort of happened off of that one song, so I’m very grateful for it.
Is it possible that the song that he saw you put up on your Instagram was an early version of “Happier”?
Oh, that might be right. I think there were a few, actually. The version of “Happier” that’s on my Instagram is how I found my producer Dan. Dan actually saw that video and was like, “Oh, I really like her,” and sent me a DM.
So which came first: the record deal that you signed shortly after “All I Want” or Dan? I wondered if it was the record label that suggested you and Dan work together, but you’re saying that he reached out after you already had a deal in place?
I think that I had a deal set up. But I met him on this very fateful day — it was the last day before the world shut down for COVID, and I remember I went into Interscope and met everyone. I think I knew I was going to sign there. And then right after that I went to Dan’s studio and played him all of my demos on a little guitar. And so that was one of the most important days of my career. It’s just so funny where a little Instagram DM can take you.
You probably get a lot of random DMs. What made you say about Dan, “This guy is somebody I would like to explore the possibility of working with”? I know he has his own background in music, but was that something you knew? What did you know about him?
I didn’t know much. I knew that he made my friend Conan Gray’s album, and I really liked that album. I was obsessed with it at the time, as I am still, so I was a fan of him for that. I think I was following him because I was just a fan of his work. But yeah, he’s really incredible. He was in an emo band growing up, so I think our tastes are very similar in certain types of music, and he’ll definitely send me so many references that I really resonate with. It’s a good match.
Now, many people have come out of the Disney Channel and had some degree of a music career, certainly not many at the level that yours has gone to, but almost all of them first signed with the Disney label, Hollywood Records, and as a result, were very managed. Let’s just say “fame-fucker” would not have been possible.
Yeah, that’s for sure.
You seem to have figured out, in the aftermath of “All I Want,” that there’s an alternative to just going through the Disney pipeline. And the other thing, which is even more amazing, is that you knew to fight to keep your masters, which is not something that too many people do or get. What went into those decisions?
I just think I’ve been so incredibly lucky. I’ve really had the privilege of having people work with me who are really, actually looking out for my best interests. So I could sign to whatever label I wanted to — I had that carved out of my Disney deal — and getting my masters. In every aspect of the business, I’ve just always wanted to forge a path for myself that will never infringe upon any of my creative decisions. I’ve always wanted to make every business decision that will allow me to do whatever the hell I want with my music. That’s always been my main prerogative besides money or any of that stuff. I feel very fortunate that people around me have been so accepting and have let me do what I want to do for so long.
You mentioned that you signed your record deal and started working with Dan just before the world went into chaos. So how did that work? Because you essentially made “Driver’s License” and then Sour, which really introduced you to the world, during lockdown, right?
When lockdown started, I made a promise to myself that I would try to write a song every single day. I was like, “Well, I’m not going to set anymore. I got to have something to do.” So, I wrote a song every day for six months or so, and it was such a good exercise for me as a songwriter. I think I was really starting to find my pace as a writer, and Dan and I were both like, “Hey, I’m not going anywhere.” Dan’s like, “I’m just hanging out with my wife,” and I’m like, “I’m just hanging out with my parents. So I feel like it’s safe for us to come and work in the studio.” So those were really magical days. I think I found out so much about myself and about the music that I liked writing through those studio days with him.
I hope I can tee up some questions about specific songs because I think it gives a little window into your creative process. The first one obviously has to be “Driver’s License,” which is the first one that anyone heard beyond “All I Want.” It came out on Jan. 8, 2021. Billboard called it, “A brilliantly detailed tear-jerker.” The New York Times called it, “Razor sharp, damningly intimate songwriting” and “one of the great singles of the 2020s.” It debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100, partly thanks to TikTok, and so you, at 17 years and 338 days old, became the youngest solo artist ever to debut at No.1 on the Hot 100. The song spent eight weeks at No.1 and set a new record for Spotify streams for a debut single by a female artist. Just unbelievable stuff. What first gave you the idea to do that song, and did you ever imagine that it could take off even a fraction as much as it did?
Absolutely not is the short answer. It’s insane thinking about it. I mean, I was just so heartbroken at the time. I was 17 going through my first heartbreak, and I was literally just writing songs to survive and feel better. I wrote that song one morning after driving around through my neighborhood — after literally just getting my driver’s license. I remember feeling like it was really special, though. Sometimes when you write a song, it feels like it’s just coming through you. It doesn’t happen very often — it’s very rare — but when it happens, you get super excited. It’s really special. And I remember that being one of those moments, and I was really excited. I remember I walked into Dan’s studio a few days later, and I said, “Dan, I think I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written.” He’s like, “OK.” So, I played it for him and we wrote the bridge together and kind of fixed things up. It’s insane, you reading all those statistics, it’s so strange. I was 17m and I just remember all of that happening, and I was doing my statistics finals in my house.
That’s where I want to go next. From the moment it first went out to the public, let’s say, can you just give me a little idea of how your life changed in the next week?
I think I didn’t fully realize how much my life was going to change after that song. I was just like, “Wow, people really like it!” I’m like, “Billboard charts? What’s the Billboard charts?” I was kind of just learning about all of this stuff, and I was taking my finals. I was a senior in high school. The only thing that changed is that people started sending me flowers and stuff. I was like, “Oh, that’s nice.” It was lockdown, so you couldn’t really go out into the real world and see it. I couldn’t play a show. I couldn’t go meet people who were listening to the song. So it was very insular in a way that I think was actually really beneficial for my mental health. I think that’d been really overwhelming if I got the full brunt of it.
And you were smart enough to know to get off of social media, right?
I just deleted my TikTok and Instagram, and other people posted for me, or I’d redownload it to post and then get back off. I think I knew myself, and I knew that I would get in my head. I was finishing up making Sour at the time, and if I was on social media and could see everyone’s opinions of me all the time, I think I would’ve made a record that was pandering to them or something like that, not exactly what I wanted to make. But yeah, I’m proud of my little 17-year-old self for doing that. It’s a tough thing.
Now, a week later, I believe, you went back to work on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, only now as the biggest thing in music. Was that weird? Did they treat you differently?
People were really wonderful. I mean, to me, I didn’t feel different, and no one really treated me different. I think that I didn’t fully realize the breadth of that song. I was just like, “It’s just another day. It’s just a song that I really love. Wow, cool. People like it.” I don’t know. It sounds funny to say now, but at the time I just didn’t really grasp it all, I don’t think.
The other two singles that came out before the full album were “Deja Vu,” on April 1, 2021, and “Good 4 U,” on May 14, 2021. You became the first artist in history to have their first two and their first three singles in the top 10 of the Hot 100. Sour became the first debut album to score two No.1 singles on the Hot 100: “Driver’s License” and “Good 4 U.” So, if anyone thought that “Driver’s License” was a fluke, that was quickly put to rest. Why was the album that they were ultimately all part of called Sour?
I really love four-letter words — I mean, obviously I love explicit words too, but I think I was trying to write a song called Sour for a long time about, yeah, milk gone sour, a relationship or something like that, and it was just a bad song. But I was like, “‘Sour’ is good though.” And yeah, I don’t know, it just felt like angsty and brokenhearted, which is what I was feeling at the time.
When you and Dan started putting that album together, did you sit down and say like, “Hey, this is going to be the theme of the album: it’s primarily going to be about heartbreak”? Or did you just write songs, which coincidentally turned out to have some things in common?
At that point in my career, I was writing songs just to get through life. They were all to personally help me. I didn’t think that they were even going to come out, which I think is maybe sort of the beauty of some of those songs. There’s an innocence to them. But yeah, I remember not being happy that it was a breakup album, though. I was really dead-set like, “We have to put a love song on there, Dan. Let’s put a love song on!” But I was just nowhere even close to being in love. So that obviously didn’t work out.
I think it’s hilarious that people are like, “Why do you write so many breakup songs or heartbreak songs?” And you were like, “What do you want me to write about, income taxes?”
I know! I’m like, “Why are you listening to all heartbreak songs?”
The other thing that many of these songs have in common, as you and others have noted, is that they are dealing with emotions that many times are sort of frowned upon for a girl to express — anger, jealousy, spite, sadness, etc.
I think on a personal level, I’ve always felt more comfortable showing sides of my personality in my songwriting, sides of myself like guilt and shame and jealousy and anger and all of these feelings that I talk about a lot in my music that I try not to express in my daily day-to-day life, maybe for good reason. It’d be bad if I was just ashamed all the time in my regular life. But I think that’s sort of the beauty of songwriting, is that it can help you access those sort of hard-to-articulate emotions and give them somewhere to go, as a songwriter and also as a listener.
You said about “Good 4 U,” at one point, that you probably wouldn’t say those words to someone’s face, but it felt nice to be able to get them out in another way.
Completely. Writing songs is just getting stuff off your chest. That’s all it is.
“Deja Vu” was one of the first times that people noted how specific your songwriting is — with references like Billy Joel and “Uptown Girl,” etc. — while still feeling universal.
Thanks. Yeah, I try. I mean, I love specificity in songwriting. I think all of my heroes are really good at using specifics to get their message across. And so yeah, it’s always been something that I’ve really tried to achieve, so thank you for saying that.
Sour spent 52 non-consecutive weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. It was Spotify’s most streamed album of 2021. It went four times platinum. And then came the Grammy nominations. You got seven nominations, one in each of the big four categories, which is something only 12 other people had ever done — album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist — and you end up winning three, including best new artist. Can you talk about the significance of the Grammys? Not just being there, but the fact that they, as much as anything, are sort of an indication of the music business that you were entering essentially embracing you.
That was one of the craziest days of my life. I had always followed the Grammys from a very young age. My mom and I would watch together. The Grammys usually happened in February, and I always said, “February’s my favorite month, first because of the Grammys, and second because of my birthday [on Feb. 20].” But yeah, I loved it, and my mom and I would always make predictions of what we thought was going to win song of the year, so it was just so fun even just go as a fan of music.
Had you ever gone before? Sometimes people buy tickets or whatever.
No, I’d never gone, but I loved going to the Grammys Museum in downtown L.A. I would go all the time when I was a kid. I used to live near there, and my mom has a funny story of taking me there when I was 14 or 15 or something, and I told her, “Mom, one day I’m going to win a Grammy.” And she remembers saying to herself like, “OK, that’s not going to happen.” But she was like, “OK, I believe in you, Olivia!” So I maybe did her proud on that one.
I don’t know for sure, but I imagine best new artist might have been the one that you wanted the most, and you got it.
Yeah. I mean, it’s so exciting to even be in the running for something like that. It just is so cool to be included in that community of musicians. You sit in the Grammys, and you look around and it’s like, “My God. Joni Mitchell’s over there. Brandi Carlile’s over there,” and all these people that you just grew up being so inspired by, it gives you chills.
And now they all knew who you were, right?
You talked to Joni Mitchell, right?
Oh my God, yeah. She said she liked my dress. I was like, “Thank you!!!”
I recently had on the podcast somebody who I know you recently did our songwriter roundtable with — Dua Lipa. You and she were the two breakouts of lockdown. You both put out a great first album that everybody loved and then faced the big question: What do you do with your second? Do you kind of double-down on what worked the first time? Or do you take this opportunity to show that you can do other things? But what if that doesn’t work out? Take me into your thought process.
It was incredibly daunting to start out writing Guts. I had so many voices in my head, and there was so much pressure. There were lots of days where I’d walk in the studio, and me and Dan, we jokingly called it, “the dread.” We’re like, “I can see the dread in your eyes, producing that song.” “I can see the dread, writing that verse.” “I can see the dread in your eyes.” So it was a really challenging experience for me as a songwriter to try to tune out all that noise and just try to make something that inspired me, because, at the core of all creativity, that’s where it should come from. It shouldn’t come from trying to make a song that you think is going to do well on the charts. That never actually does well on the charts, if you just try to make something like that, I think. But yeah, it was a lesson, I think, in discipline and perseverance for me, just showing up every day and sitting at the piano, even if you feel really overwhelmed and scared, just showing up and sharpening your skills as a musician or a songwriter.
You went into the first album not unknown but at a very different level of being known. Going into the second one, you were very known, as you reference in “Vampire” and other songs on it. After releasing the first album but before writing the second, did you have time to go experience life? Even with people behaving very differently around you?
Yeah, I definitely did experience a lot of life. I mean, the albums were two years apart, two fairly formative years for me. I made Sour when I was 17, 18, and I made Guts when I was 19, 20. I feel like I’m a completely different girl than I was back then. Lots of personal growth. I did talk about how my life has changed in regards to success or public attention. But I don’t know, I like to think that if you boil any of those songs down, they’re about betrayal or heartbreak or anger, all things that are very universal. And so I think if you just try to concentrate a feeling into the most essential parts, that’s sort of what I tried to achieve.
With Guts, you leaned into rock much more. Is that just how the songs you were writing happened to turn out, or did you consciously set out to write an album that was more rock-heavy than the first one?
I wanted to do something more rock. I’d always loved rock music, like we were talking about before, but I never quite knew how it fit into my voice and my style and my style of songwriting. And I think we were just starting to figure that out towards the end of the Sour process — we added “Good 4 U” and “Brutal” last in the track listing. So I think I just wanted to expand upon it more on this record, and it was so much fun. I am really excited to play all those songs live. They feel very much like me.
All 12 of the songs on Guts were very well-received but particularly “Vampire,” which debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, fell out and then came back to No.1, which doesn’t happen very often. That one seems to be about heartbreak, like songs on Sour, but also about being taken advantage of as a famous person, right?
I think it’s about betrayal. It’s a very angry song to me. I think that it’s also about me taking responsibility for putting myself in those positions. I think that was a big theme on this record, is growing up and realizing that you’re not always the perfect victim in every situation. Sometimes you are, but most of the time not. I think it was just me maturing and realizing the part that I had in all of these situations that I was writing about.
It’s a song that starts out quiet and then builds to a rock operetta — it really explodes. What came first, the words or the music?
I wrote an early version of that song by myself on the piano, and I wrote [sings] “Bloodsucker, fame fucker,” and that was the part that Dan was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s good!” So I wrote the verse in the chorus, and we kind of fixed it up together and wrote the song on piano to begin with. The production took so long. God bless Dan, he was the most patient man in the world. I would just go crazy. I really wanted a song like “Come On Eileen,” where it gets faster and then there’s like tempos all over the place. So if you listen to the song, it gets faster towards the end, but oh my God, we were stressed over half of a BPM and like, “Oh, this voicing of this chord isn’t right.” It was really a labor of love. So that one took a while, but I really love that it shows.
“Teenage Dream,” which seems to be about your apprehension about following Sour, is a very different genre. I believe you regard it as one of your personal favorites. What is it about that one?
That was the first song that we wrote that made it on the record. I wrote that song when I was in the studio and I was experiencing “the dreads.” I was 19 years old, and I was like, “Wait, is all my best work behind me?!” Which is a crazy thing to think when you’re 19 years old — your whole life is ahead of you, like the song says. But I think it just succinctly captured not only my fear of making a sophomore record but my fear of just growing up in general. The line that’s my favorite is, “They all say that it gets better the more you grow. But what if I don’t?” I remember writing that and being like, “Oh, that’s exactly how I feel.” It just always feels nice to have your anxieties and fears put into a song. It feels like more manageable when you can listen to it and be like, “That’s exactly how I feel.” It makes everything kind of feel smaller.
The last of the songs from that album that I want to bring up, and I think you have said that this is your favorite, is “All-American Bitch,” with a title referencing Joni Mitchell’s The White Album. It starts out with you sounding angelic, and then it just goes nuts.
Yeah, that one’s my favorite on the record. I really love it. I’ve always been fascinated with this sort of duality of being a woman and feeling all of this rage but also feeling like you’re in this box and you have to be classy and gracious and never complain and all of this stuff. I feel like that was always a struggle that I was pushing against when I was younger. And so it’s just always been at the top of my mind, and I always wanted to write a song about it. And in this song, I feel like I kind of addressed that. It’s very dynamic. Like you said, the verses are really small and sweet, and the choruses are super enraged, and it’s just really fun. It just captured something that I’ve been feeling for a while, so that’s always a nice feeling as a songwriter.
So this brings us to an undertaking that was different from anything you’d done before, as far as I know: being asked and agreeing to write a song for a movie, as we started to talk about earlier. How was the request presented to you? Was it, “We would love a song,” or “We would love a song for this specific moment in the movie,” or “We would love this specific kind of a song,” or “We’d be thrilled with anything you care to contribute”?
Someone just asked me, “Do you like The Hunger Games?” And I’m like, “Of course, I like The Hunger Games! Duh.” So they’re like, “Oh, you should watch [the new one] and see if you’re inspired. They’d love a song for it.” And I was so honored to watch the movie and really resonated with the main character, Lucy Gray. I think she’s a really interesting, fascinating, complex character. And so after watching that, I did a few iterations of the song that ended up coming out, but it was so much fun to kind of challenge myself as a songwriter to do something like that. It feels collaborative. Someone gives you the character and the plot, and you just kind of inject your own personal feeling into it and paint with your colors. It was so much fun, and I feel really honored that I got to do it.
You have said that there’s a scene in the movie that sort of inspired the song you wrote for the film, “Can’t Catch Me Now.” Which scene was that?
Well, if you haven’t watched The Hunger Games movie, don’t listen to what I’m about to say right now, turn off the podcast. But it’s the scene where Lucy finally leaves — she just disappears — and Coriolanus is looking into the sky and shooting, and there’s all these mockingjays around in her voice speaking words that she said, and it was just so fulfilling to watch her finally kind of disobey him and stray from the pack and break away. But there’s always still this mystery about her, which I think was reflected in the song.
Once you agreed to do the song, how long did it kind of take to come together? Is it something that just poured out, or was it a real process?
Dan and I wrote it. We wrote the chorus one day and then came back to it. We’re like, “Oh, that was pretty good,” and wrote the verses. It was just a real fun challenge, and it was so fun to sing from another person’s perspective. It’s not every day that I get to do that.
Rachel Zegler, who stars in the film, is also a talented singer. Did you guys meet before the premiere?
Yeah, we had actually. I randomly met her in the bathroom at the Grammys. It was like some dingy bathroom, and she was like, “Hey, I know you.” And I’m like, “I know you.”
The film has proven to be a huge blockbuster. Do you have a theory about why particularly young people are so into the franchise, generally, but especially this latest installment?
I think that The Hunger Games is so great at portraying wonderful, complex female characters, and I think that that’s something that we all are craving. Just a great concept. Great books, great movies, great soundtracks. I love all the soundtracks.
In our last minute or two, here are some sort of assorted, random, big-picture questions. Who are you listening to the most right now?
Oh, OK! My Spotify Wrapped just came out. I think my number one artist was Chappell Roan. She just put out her first album, and Dan, my producer, produced it, and it’s amazing. So I’m listening to a lot of her. And I think number two was Simon & Garfunkel.
You performed in some very intimate venues after Sour. Now, for Guts, you’re going to be performing in stadiums and arenas starting Febr. 23, 2024. What are you most excited about or most curious about, as far as that level of a production?
I’m so stoked. I think it’s going to be so much fun to play those kinds of rock songs in an arena too. I’m so excited to feel that energy. I’m so excited to go places that I haven’t been before. I’m really excited to go to the Philippines — I’ve never been — so that’s going to be fun. And I love my band. I have an all-girl band, and they’re so wonderful and such great musicians. It’s going to be fun.
Do you know who’s opening for you? Does it change from place to place?
Yeah, there’s a few. Chappell is opening, The Breeders are going to open for me, which is really cool. PinkPantheress is going to open for me. A few others. It’s going to be fun.
What are you most excited for about the Grammys, which will happen just a few weeks before the tour, on Feb. 4, 2024? You’re going in with six nominations, including a bunch of big ones.
Wow. I get butterflies in my stomach even just answering this question. It’s a very nerve-wracking night. I just think it’s so fun to get to see all the songs that get performed. It’s just like you get to see some of the greatest artists perform some of the greatest songs, and it’s just an honor to be in the audience and witness all of that. So very excited. Yes.
I’m sure they’ve asked you to perform. Do you know if you will, and, if so, what you will be performing?
I don’t know if I will yet. I haven’t had the conversation, but I mean, I would be honored.
If you could do one of your songs, would it be “Vampire”?
Yeah, probably. That’s a fun one to sing.
OK. Favorite line of a song that you’ve ever written?
I’m going to say a crazy answer. It’s actually a bonus track that’s on Guts. There’s a song called “Scared of My Guitar.” If you buy a vinyl, it can be on the vinyl, but it kind of exists on TikTok, little snippets. There’s this line that says, “How could I ever trade something that’s good for what’s right?” And I think that was a big thesis for what I was going through in my life these past few years. Things were good and things were happening, and I had so many people around me, but lots of things just weren’t right for me and weren’t in alignment with who I was as a person. And so writing that line kind of made things clearer for me.
I heard another favorite is a line from “The Grudge”?
Oh, yeah. I mean, “It take strength to forgive, but I don’t feel strong.” I was listening to The Smiths on my way to the studio, and there’s a song, I forget which song, where he goes, “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” And I remember being really angry listening to that song and being like, “What if I don’t want to be gentle and kind?!” And so I wrote, “It takes strength to forgive, but I don’t feel strong.”
And then just one other potential contender, I think — was there something in “Enough for You”?
Oh yeah. It’s such a sad song. I listened back to it, and I was like, “Oh, you were so heartbroken.” I really loved writing the line, “Someday I’ll be everything to somebody else.”
If the world was on fire, and you could only save one of your songs, which song would it be?
Oh my God, that’s so hard! Maybe “Driver’s License.” I really love “All-American Bitch,” too. So one on each album.
I heard that you took a class at USC.
What inspired you to do that, and is that something you might do more of?
I hope so. I had never really gone to a brick-and-mortar school — I mean, I stopped going to regular school when I was 12 years old — and I always had a desire to do it and always had a desire to learn in a classroom about all these things that I was really interested in, in an environment that was a little more structured. So yeah, I went to USC for one class, and I took a poetry class, and it was wonderful. I had a great professor, and I wrote a bunch of poems and learned so much — and I actually turned one of the poems that I wrote in the class into the song “Lacy.” That’s on Guts.
And were the kids cool?
Yeah, kids were super cool in the class. They were so sweet. I actually — have you watched Legally Blonde?
I had a very Legally Blonde first day there. I actually walked into the wrong classroom and sat there and was like, “Oh, I don’t remember this on the reading list. This is strange. Maybe they’re just all really advanced.” And then I walked into the right classroom, and I realized that everyone had iPads, and I was like, “Oh, iPads. That’s what kids do these days.” I just had a little notepad, and everyone was typing on their iPads, and I was writing down little notes with my pen. But yeah, everyone was really sweet and welcoming.
Are you interested in continuing to act while making music, or is acting now in the past?
I’m open for whatever. I think acting’s so fun. It’s so nice to be, I think, a part of a community that’s collaborative and creative like that. With music sometimes it’s very individualistic. I am writing my songs and making a lot of the decisions by myself, and that’s wonderful and so much fun. But sometimes it’s nice to kind of have some people to lean on.
Are you open to doing other songs for films?
Yeah, I think that’d be so fun. I had such a great time writing this Hunger Games one, and it’s just such a nice challenge as a songwriter. It really stretches you.
And lastly, if you go to karaoke, what is your go-to karaoke song?
OK. Really hard one. If you want to be really advanced, you do “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is always fun if you’re with a group of people because then you can each do the little part. But usually, without fail, it’s “Dancing Queen.”