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Woman of the Year Olivia Rodrigo Is Writing New Music (And Reuniting With A Big Collaborator)

With the biggest hit of early 2021, the singer-songwriter was just getting started.

When Olivia Rodrigo scored the first big hit of 2021 with the heartbreak ballad “drivers license” — which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent eight weeks on top, a nearly unheard-of level of achievement for an official debut single — it seemed fairly likely that it would end up towering over the rest of her breakthrough year.

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By the time her rookie season came to a close, however, “drivers license” was firmly in her rear view. With the scorching post-breakup missive “good 4 u,” Rodrigo scored a second Hot 100 No. 1 that proved just as culturally pervasive, with a shout-along chorus, searing guitars and pulse-racing drum fills that proved the pop-punk revival percolating just below the mainstream had officially emerged aboveground. And the album both tracks were on, the rapturously received and Billboard 200-topping Sour, became one of the year’s biggest full-length sets, earning an album of the year nod for this year’s Grammy Awards — one of seven awards Rodrigo is up for in April. Merely a year into her solo career, the 19-year-old singer-songwriter isn’t a one- or even a two-hit wonder; she’s simply Olivia Rodrigo.

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“When people from all walks of life and all over the world really connect with an album and artist this powerfully, you don’t stand in the way,” says John Janick, chairman/CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M (IGA), whose Geffen label announced Rodrigo’s signing three days before the release of “drivers license” in January 2021. “You do what feels right and what is authentic to the artist and project. You also think long term.”

In the short term, that means preparing for her Sour tour — Rodrigo’s first time hitting the road — which begins in April and will take her across America and Europe through early July. But while Rodrigo’s early blockbuster success would undoubtedly allow her to fill arenas, she’s instead visiting mostly smaller amphitheaters and concert halls. “I think it’s important not to skip steps in my career,” she says of the underplay strategy. “And also, I’m just really excited to play these more intimate venues and get to know my fans on a deeper, more personal level.”

At the same time, Billboard’s Woman of the Year will also get reacquainted with herself, as she lays the groundwork for her next album — and she’ll do it with a significant new addition to her team. Rodrigo recently signed with Aleen Keshishian and Zack Morgenroth of Lighthouse Media + Management, joining a roster that includes Selena Gomez and a slew of A-list actors. (She parted ways with longtime manager Kristen Smith of Camp Far West in January; Rodrigo declined to comment on the change.)

“Olivia is a once-in-a-generation singer-songwriter,” says Keshishian. “We were blown away by her preternatural intelligence, work ethic, sensitivity and vision. It has been so impressive getting to know her and seeing firsthand how grounded and down to earth she is, as well as how much gratitude she has. Not only is she collaborative, but she is respectful and appreciative of her collaborators. For an artist to be able to take suggestions and synthesize them, while still making sure their vision is implemented, is an extremely unique quality and something at which Olivia excels.”

It’ll be a different process this time around for Rodrigo than when she was a high-schooler better known as a Disney TV star than as a singer-songwriter. But she has already reunited with a familiar face in Sour co-writer/producer Dan Nigro, and she says their work on that album’s follow-up is underway — and they even have a title already.

Olivia Rodrigo
Sami Miro Vintage jacket, skirt and top, Thom Browne shirt. David Needleman

I’m sure there were countless moments in the past year when you thought, “I can’t believe this is happening to me” — but is there one that stands out as particularly unbelievable?

One of the craziest moments in my life was getting to go to the White House and meet President Joe Biden and support vaccination in America. The whole time I was in the White House having this incredible experience, I was just thinking about how I got to do it because I wrote a bunch of songs in my bedroom. That was just a real “pinch me” moment.

Sour was one of 2021’s biggest and best-reviewed albums, but once it was out, you sort of left it alone musically — no deluxe editions, no bonus tracks, no official remixes, no collaborations or one-offs last year to augment the “Sour era.” Was it important to you to just let the album stand on its own?

I chose not to do any bonus tracks or special editions because Sour just felt like such a distinct era in my life, and I felt like I wanted to give the songs and album time to breathe. And yeah, I’m excited to create a new era of my music. I really like the way the album existed as a body of work.

You’re about to head out on tour almost a year after the album came out. Do you find yourself connecting to the songs in different ways after all this time?

A really beautiful thing about songwriting is watching songs that are so personal to you go out into the world and kind of take on another life. So performing the songs now is even more special than it was when I was writing them in my bedroom, because they now have so many other people’s stories intertwined within them, too. I’m really excited to experience that firsthand on tour.

I know you never really stop writing songs, but have you been able to write any music with a new project in mind yet?

I have a title for my next album and a few songs. It’s really exciting to think about the next world that’s coming up for me. I just love writing songs. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself. [I want to] just sort of explore and have fun right now.

Olivia Rodrigo
Chanel vest and skirt, Thom Browne shirt, Koi boots. David Needleman

Have you been getting back in the lab at all with Dan Nigro, your primary artistic collaborator on Sour? Do the two of you feel committed to working together again on whatever the next project may be?

I absolutely love working with Dan. We have such a good groove together. We are always sharing ideas back-and-forth and have been carving out time to work together in the studio. The craziness of Sour being out in the world was something that really only Dan and I could relate to, and I think that has brought us closer together. I trust him so much and really enjoy the music we’ve been making.

The explosive success of “good 4 u” seems to have played a large part in pushing the pop-punk revival that had been percolating under the mainstream. Do you feel connected to that?

I absolutely love pop-punk and emo music. I think more than anything people are longing for those super emotional, less polished moments in music, so the aggressiveness of punk is really enticing.

What makes you most excited about popular music in 2022?

I love how increasingly genreless pop music is becoming. Pop music can mean so many different things, and I really love hearing so many different flavors of it these days. I am also just really excited about female singer-songwriters and how honestly and truthfully they’re speaking up. That’s always really inspiring to me. It’s so exciting to me to watch young women’s voices be heard and appreciated and celebrated in the ways that they have been lately. I just can’t wait to cheer on the future, my peers and future generations of female singer-songwriters.

Does songwriting feel different now after “drivers license”? Are you able to still write with the same kind of abandon?

It’s definitely a different experience writing a second album after having a debut that was so well received. I still write so much of my music in my bedroom though, and I don’t think that experience will ever change. Writing songs will hopefully always be an outlet for me to process my feelings before anything else.

This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.