Olivia Rodrigo arrives to our Zoom meeting two minutes early. She is wearing a baby blue fleece sweater over a striped tank top, and with her glossy hair over her shoulders, winged eyeliner and radiant skin, it hits me again that she is only 18. Rodrigo is effervescent and says a sprightly hello once we’re both connected to audio—and we delve quickly into conversation. For the most part, she is deliberate and composed. I catch brief glimpses of the teenager whom she is at moments when she is unaware—she laughs merrily when I tell her I love her nails (a different colour for each nail, from hot pink to pastel green, for a vinyl promotion she has on later that week).
It has been a whirlwind of a year for Rodrigo, who has Filipino, German and Irish roots. While she was a familiar face as female lead Nini Salazar-Roberts on Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, nothing could have prepared her for the exponential success that was to come. In January, her debut single ‘Drivers License’, a poignant ballad about young heartbreak, broke a string of records—including Spotify’s for the most single-day streams for a non-holiday song. “Never in a million years could I have expected the response that it got. It completely changed my life forever,” admits Rodrigo with a small smile. “It was an incredible experience to write a song that you feel accurately expresses intense heartbreak, pain and longing, and watch all of those sad feelings resonate with other people.”
In May, Rodrigo followed it up with her debut studio album Sour. If critics were still debating her talent and potential greatness at this point, it would all be quashed after the beautifully chaotic album was met with chart-topping results and an appeal that transcended generations. Packed with a vibe that has pop princess meets melancholy soul all over it, Sour was a goal Rodrigo set for herself to cement her position as an artist and songwriter, and have audiences globally resonate with an entire body of work.
Now, with a dream-like last 10 months behind her, Rodrigois back to writing while maintaining some normalcy in her life in her summer after high school—having fun and spending quality time with friends. Only time will tell what lies ahead for the rising star, but one thing is without question—Rodrigo is undoubtedly the trailblazing voice of her generation.
Tell us more about your childhood and how your parents are handling your current fame.
I had a wonderful childhood. I’m an only child. My mum is a teacher and my dad is a therapist. In middle school, I was home-schooled and started working on sets, which adds to the unique thing about my upbringing. I spent most of it surrounded by 45-year-old men on a set and not with kids my own age in a school. But I’m lucky to have amazing friends and family who have kept me grounded.
My parents take all this craziness in the best way. They always say, “We are so proud of you and all these achievements are incredible, but we would be equally proud of you if you were in school in your hometown.” They’re the best and that’s a really important attitude to have.
Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be in entertainment?
There was never a moment where I had an “Aha, this is what I really want to do moment”. My grandfather, who is really into astrology, held me as a newborn baby and said, “She’s going to be a performing artist.” That has sort of been the course of my entire life. It’s what I’ve always felt the most passion for.
What’s the songwriting process like for you?
Songwriting is a craft and discipline and requires a lot of work. Sometimes, you think have a lightning bolt idea and you can write one song in 30 minutes. But it’s not about those 30 minutes; it’s about the hundreds of songs you write before that to practise for a 30-minute song. It’s just like anything. It takes a lot of practice but usually the best songs are the ones that come naturally.
What’s the most surprising thing about fame?
It was surprising to see who was genuinely supportive of me and who wasn’t. Sometimes when you have a lot of success really quickly, it can scare people and make people feel different. That was an interesting thing to learn. I’m figuring it all out.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding how a rapid rise to global stardom can affect mental health (cue: Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles). How do you feel about that, given you’ve had a blistering year and are now a well-recognised superstar?
I’m taking it one step at a time. It can be really tough on your mental health, though. I’m grateful for the people who like me for me, and keep me separated from all the noise and tabloids or what people are saying about me on social media. That’s always been a top priority. It’s funny how recognition changes everything and also changes nothing in your life. The problems I was having a year ago are still the problems I’m having now, and things that brought me joy a year ago are still the things that bring me joy now. It’s just another aspect of life that you need to learn how to deal with, but it doesn’t change who you are as a person.
What’s a personal trait that you are proudest of?
I’m comfortable being vulnerable with people, and many times people associate vulnerability with weakness. From a young age, I realised that vulnerability equates to strength, and that’s so true in my songwriting. If I wasn’t so comfortable in my emotions, I wouldn’t have made Sour and it wouldn’t have had that same result.
Gen Z has done so much in terms of speaking out and championing causes that they believe in. What are some of challenges growing up in this generation?
It’s hard to grow up on social media. Even now, I still struggle with it. You look at social media and see the perfect parts of people’s lives and it’s so hard not to compare your life to theirs. It’s even weird for me to see my Instagram page; that’s what people think of me but that doesn’t feel like me. I wish they knew the real me.
That’s a strange identity thing to grow up with. Who I am can be represented on this tiny little screen. However, Gen Z and social media have put such an emphasis on positive change, education and inclusivity. There’s good and bad to everything.
What would you say is your musical style at the moment? What’s on your Spotify playlist?
My musical style is constantly changing. I don’t even know what it is on Sour—I’m inspired by so many different genres of music. The through line in all my music is my point of view and my perspective, and when that’s constant, you have more room to play around with other things. It’s really cool that you are starting to see less of someone being in one genre, like they’re a pop or jazz artiste. It’s becoming less linear.
I’m into a lot of rap recently, a lot of J Cole. I’m also obsessed with Cardi B. I think her Invasion of Privacy album is fantastic and I can listen to that all the time.
Who is Olivia Rodrigo? Do you think you’re set in your identity at this point in your life?
I don’t know who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing in life. I don’t think anyone really knows, but you get more comfortable with that uncertainty as you get older. It’s super fun to be constantly changing and figuring stuff out. I never want to stop learning and growing as a person.
You’re definitely living a part of your dream at the moment. What are some other dreams you’ve had, whether in the past or looking towards the future?
I wanted to be a doctor when I was younger. I watched so many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and played really grotesque surgery games because I was so obsessed with human anatomy. When I got to high school, I hated science and biology, so I knew that was not going to be the route for me. I did a lot of ballet when I was younger, but that didn’t pan out.
Now I feel like I’m living my dream and that’s so incredible. Who’s to say what my dream in five years will be? It’s always changing. I have so many things that I want to do in this life, and I’m only 18. Writing songs is a small fraction of what I want to do.
Editor-in-Chief: Norman Tan
Photography: Peter Ash Lee
Styling: Coco Cassibba
Hair: Clayton Hawkins/A-Frame
Make-up: Molly Greenwald/A-Frame
Manicure: Vanessa Sanchez McCullough/Forward Artists
Photography assistants: Sam Williams, Yolanda Leaney and Maya Sacks
Styling assistant: Nicole G
Producer: Paul Preiss
Production assistant: Jacob King
Set designer: Priscilla Lee
Casting director: Jill Demling/CCA
The October ‘Dreamers’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for sale online and in-store from 5 October 2021.