Olivia Rodrigo is a perfect storm of talent, charm and ambition who seemingly came out of nowhere this year and exploded onto the national stage – the girl who turned pain into platinum.
For starters, her very first album, "Sour," which debuted last spring at #1, was hailed by critics as "revelatory." Four of the tracks hit the Top 10, and one – "Drivers License" – was for a time the most-listened-to streaming song on the planet.
At 18 – 18! – Rodrigo is on a run most singer-songwriters can only dream about, and it all started at her childhood home in southern California, in the bedroom where she wrote so many of her songs.
Correspondent Tracy Smith said, "Every song on 'Sour,' or at least most of the songs are these cauldrons of emotions set to this beautiful music. Where does that come from?"
"I've always been obsessed with heartbreak songs," Rodrigo said. "I wrote heartbreak songs before I had ever had a boyfriend, honestly. And I've just always been obsessed with that feeling. I think there's nothing sort of more painful as, like, a human being than that feeling of loss."
The only child of a teacher and a therapist, Rodrigo was comfortable enough at age seven to sing in front of a crowd, and at 13 she wound up in the Disney TV orbit – first on "Bizaardvark," then on "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."
"I think there's something really cool about being, like, a young 13-year-old girl on a set and having to emote in front of a bunch of people that you don't know," Rodrigo said. "I think that got me really comfortable with my emotions and expressing those emotions. And I think in hindsight it's probably one of the reasons why I, you know, am so comfortable emoting in my songwriting."
Music, she said, has become her emotional safety valve (heavy on the emotional), and few of her songs express that better than "Drivers License," a wrenching lament from a teenage girl who got her license at the same time she lost the love of her life.
And I know we weren't perfect but I've never felt this way for no one
And I just can't imagine how you could be so okay now that I'm gone
Guess you didn't mean what you wrote in that song about me
'Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street
Rodrigo said, "I just remember writing it and feeling like it actually was like a page ripped out of my diary, 'cause it was so intimate and vulnerable."
In fact, the song seemed to strike a chord with all ages, and even inspired a sketch on "Saturday Night Live":
She said the song is rooted in real pain about a real breakup, but it's not who she is.
Smith asked, "Was there a part of you that thought, maybe I don't want to share that with the world?"
"I just think there was no other option for me," she replied. "I had to write it. I had to write it for me. I had to, like, get it out. You could, like, feel sick if you, like, kept all of that in. But you know, really at the core of it I had to do it for myself."
"How dark did it get for you?"
"I mean, I was very sad. I was a 17-year-old girl going through my first real heartbreak. But I think a lot of people also think, listening to my music, that I'm really, like, a sad, depressed person, and that couldn't be farther from the truth! Definitely not at all, you know, crying on my bedroom floor all the time.
"But yeah, it's fun to write about stuff like that, you know what I mean? Like, if I was just writing about how, you know, happy going get my iced latte every morning, like, nobody would listen to it. It wouldn't be interesting!"
The spotlight on Rodrigo is a bit brighter now. She went to the White House in July to support the vaccination effort, and has been on her share of red carpets of late. But she seems remarkably centered, and for that she credits her strong relationship with her parents, and her therapist.
"When did you start therapy?" Smith asked.
"I hadn't really started going 'til I was, like, 16, and that was a really big life-changing moment," Rodrigo replied. "And I've learned so much about myself."
"Was that something that you said, 'I need to go do this'?"
"Yeah, yeah, it was. But yeah, I think there's sometimes a stigma around it, too. Like I was saying, I think, you know, sometimes people are like, 'Ooh, you don't need that. You have so much. Your life so great. What are your problems?' And I think that's definitely a thing that sometimes older people can do to younger people, too, is kind of trivialize what they're going through – 'Ah, they're fine, they're just kids. They'll get through it' – but it feels so real when you're in it. And it's so valid. And just because it's not, you know, an adult problem where you don't have to pay taxes yet or whatever, doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt."
A few years ago Rodrigo could only stand outside the Grammys as a fan; she's now earned a seat down front. The song "Traitor" is only her latest Top 10 hit, from a teenager who reminds us how to take the pain and turn it into something powerful:
You betrayed me
And I know that you'll never feel sorry
For the way I hurt, yeah
"I remember coming up with those lines first and being like, 'Oh, yeah, that's exactly how I feel.' After you write a song, there's, like, no greater euphoria than that. So I'm like, 'Oh, I accomplished something. And I did really good. And I did my best. And I took these, like, messy feelings and hopefully made something beautiful out of it.'"
You can stream Olivia Rodrigo's album "Sour" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):
For more info:
Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Karen Brenner.
for more features.