Joshua Bassett cycled through a handful of emotions in a little under four minutes when he first watched the Saturday Night Live sketch that focused on the power of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” and mentioned him by name.
“First, I was in disbelief — [I was] mostly proud of Olivia,” he tells Billboard of the sketch that first aired last Saturday (Feb. 20), which featured a bar full of men bonding over the smash hit. “The fact that they were using her song in a sketch, I was like, ‘This is great. This is incredible!’”
Of course, then the characters in the sketch delved into the much-rumored backstory behind the track, in which Rodrigo was seemingly inspired by her breakup with Bassett to write the single. Eventually, Bassett gets compared to a character’s much-loathed ex-wife — which gave the 20-year-old pause. “I was like, ‘I think I’m honored?’” he says with a laugh. “They poke fun at everyone and everything. That’s the point of the show. I thought it was hilarious.”
Bassett understands why he continues to get mentioned in the context of “Drivers License,” which is spending its sixth week atop the Hot 100 chart, though he stresses that “people are trying to find deeper meanings” to many elements of the narrative. Yet Bassett is also ready to position the spotlight on his own music, starting with his self-titled debut EP, which will arrive Mar. 12 through Warner Records.
Producers Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes), Afterhrs (Maroon 5, One Direction) and Dallas Caton contribute to the debut effort, though Bassett’s own fingerprints are all over the songs — by his count, he’s playing at least three different instruments on every track. The heartwarming outro “Heaven Is You,” for instance, features Bassett on piano, electric guitar, drums and bass.
“It’s the most proud I’ve ever been of a body of work,” he says. “I showed myself that I can really do more than what I thought. It’s got me all over it — people will be able to feel that when they listen to it.”
The 20-minute pop-rock effort finds Bassett telling tales of budding and splintering relationships: he fluctuates between hushed tones, as on “Do It All Again,” and upbeat, strumming tracks like “Telling Myself.” The latter, which Bassett teases has “kind of an Adele vibe with the production,” will serve as his next single, and be accompanied by a music video.
The song’s very inclusion on the project came much to the surprise of his fans, however. When Bassett announced the official release date and track list for his EP on Instagram last Friday (Feb. 19), followers were quick to point out that “Telling Myself” had taken the place of his previously announced and much-anticipated collaboration with Sabrina Carpenter, titled “We Both Know.”
Carpenter, Bassett’s rumored girlfriend and allegedly the subject of a lyrical reference on “Drivers License,” released her own single, “Skin,” on Jan. 22, which became her debut Hot 100 entry and added fuel to the ever-growing gossip. Though both Bassett and Carpenter are “super excited about” the song, he says, “it was a very much a mutual conversation about what is best right now for everybody and this whole situation.
“I didn’t want my EP to be overshadowed by some other narrative that people were trying to make,” Bassett continues. “I really want the focus to be on the art instead of some of the talk and the chatter. You shouldn’t live to please everybody, but at the same time, there are ways to be sensitive to situations where maybe [‘We Both Know’] has a better chance at a different time.”
That internal struggle has become commonplace for Bassett since the “Drivers License” explosion last month — and he concedes that he doesn’t “have any guarantee” that his Carpenter collaboration will ever see the light of day, depending on how things progress. But he’s learning to have more fun with the situation as of late. Following the SNL skit, Bassett took to TikTok, using Kacey Musgraves’ “Happy & Sad” in a tongue-in-cheek response clip that has since garnered nearly 12 million views.
“You have to roll with it and not take things too seriously,” he says. “I’m still navigating it all. I don’t really know what I’m doing, and keep taking it a day at a time.”
In the meantime, Bassett nearing the end of what has been a “wild journey” filming season two of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, alongside Rodrigo, in Utah; throwing “50 ideas a day” at his managers about what comes next for his music vision; and when he gets some free time, completing another re-read of Michael Alan Singer’s existential novel, The Untethered Soul.
But above all else, he’s focused on centering his story around his professional music career, spending his non-filming days in the studio to work on new songs. He’s eager to prove “there’s more to me than just the new Troy Bolton,” and put the public speculation about his personal life to rest.
“In a perfect world, the art would live on its own, and people would interpret it for their own story,” he says. “That’s the beauty to me when I listen to other artists — there’s kind of a universal experience that we all have in a lot of ways. What’s most important is that you’re honest and [creating] what’s true to you. And then, if people want to talk, they can talk.”