Few people have had as good a year as Olivia Rodrigo. The singer-songwriter and star of High School Music: The Musical: The Series created 2021’s first big hit in “Drivers License,” a No. 1 coming-of-age heartbreak tune that explores the backstreets before revving up to a shout-along coda — the kind of built-in drama that understandably inspired a TikTok trend. After, she went experimental on her kaleidoscopic follow-up “Deja Vu,” which became another Top 10 hit and saw her diving into conceptual territory for the music video.
But for all her recent success — yes, that includes passing her road test — she still can remember her humble beginnings: plucking one note on a “terrible, awful little pink guitar” to play along to the opening of Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb.” “It’s legitimately one note. It goes dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, ‘I can almost see it,'” the 18-year-old Rodrigo tells MTV. “I would literally just play that one note over and over again and sing ‘The Climb.'”
Despite her protestations, piano lessons followed at her parents’ insistence, and even though she cried before every session, she’s grateful for the foundation now that she’s writing chart staples with her trusted collaborator Dan Nigro. Rodrigo, who is the MTV Push artist for May, says songwriting inspiration can come from anywhere — a conversation, a poem — but as the self-proclaimed straight-A student also notes, the act of crafting music often works best when it’s treated as a discipline.
“I really think that more or less forcing yourself to write a song sometimes is really beneficial,” she says. “I think you can’t rely on those lightning bolts of ideas to strike you all the time.” But when they do? That’s when the discipline pays off. The end result of that practice finds Rodrigo with a forthcoming debut album called Sour, out May 21, full of songs that stem from a period in her life when “everything that I had that was, like, really awesome and good in my life went really sour.”
You can hear that acrid taste in both “Drivers License” and “Deja Vu,” despite the pop sweetness that covers both songs like a glaze. The work that goes into making that sonic sheen can’t be overstated, she says, which is what makes the subsequent success so wild. “I don’t think anybody goes into [making] a song with expectation like that.” But that combination of sour and sweet is precisely what Rodrigo hopes will connect with listeners.
“I just hope that people see bits of themselves in my songwriting, hopefully, or sort of become engrossed in the stories I’m telling,” she says, “because those are my favorite songs to listen to.” Or as her original inspiration Miley once sang, “Keep on moving. Keep climbing.”
Get to know Rodrigo further in her MTV Push interview above, which also includes a stripped-back, Rhodes piano version of “Drivers License” and a full-band performance of “Deja Vu.”