NME Radar: Breakout

Olivia Rodrigo: inside the Taylor-endorsed mega-hit ‘Drivers License’

The Californian musician has already broken several huge records in recent weeks with the success of 'Drivers License'

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

What would you do with a spare hour? After all, we’ve got an abundance of time on our hands right now. Time to attempt to teach your Gran how to use Zoom? Pretend you’re going to do that job you’ve been putting off for weeks and then spend 60-minutes doomscrolling on Twitter instead? The possibility are, quite literally, endless.

If you’re 17-year-old Californian singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo, you can use an hour in a far more productive way. Speaking to NME down the line from Utah about her megahit debut single ‘Drivers License’, a Lorde and Taylor Swift-evoking pop power ballad, Rodrigo reveals, nonchalantly: “I wrote the verses and the chorus in an hour.” Show-off.

‘Drivers License’ was released into the world on January 8, and it’s since become the biggest song on the planet. And that’s no exaggeration – it’s currently Number One in both the UK and the US, holds the record for most streams for a song in a week on Spotify, and beat Ed Sheeran’s record for the highest single-day streams in British history for a non-Christmas song. The sea shanties never stood a chance.

We caught up with Rodrigo to discuss the reaction to her first ever release, her love of Taylor Swift and getting advice from Niall Horan.

The response to ‘Drivers License’ has been, quite simply, ridiculous. What was it like to smash all these records?

“It’s absolutely surreal, I truly don’t feel like my brain can process all of it, I see all the numbers, but it doesn’t really sink in totally, I’m sort of in a state of disbelief. But the craziest thing to me is also seeing the song being heard in real life. People send me videos of them driving and they get to a stoplight and the person next to them is blasting ‘Drivers License’ in their car, and I’ve got a couple of videos of people who’ll be on walks around their neighbourhood and a specific house will be blasting ‘Drivers License’ through the windows!”

The thing that comes with that is you’re surpassing your heroes and people you grew up listening to…

“I mean, that is just everything. All the recognition the song has got is beyond my wildest dreams. Taylor Swift – is my songwriting idol and I wouldn’t be half of the woman and a songwriter I am today without her – reached out and was so supportive of the song. I just found out the other day that Lorde likes it, Halsey likes it, all of these people that I have grown up listening to are saying they’re liking the song. It’s absolutely surreal to me – as I put little bits and pieces of their songwriting into the songs I’ve written.”

Has anyone reached out to offer advice for handling the success?

“I’ve been talking to Niall Horan from One Direction, who’s such an icon, and he said really loved the song. He was like, ‘This is crazy, if you ever need any advice just let me know’. So yeah I’ve been chatting with him, but it’s been such a crazy rollercoaster ride and I’m definitely excited to have artist friends that know the ins and outs of the music industry.”

Tell us about writing ‘Drivers License’ – how long did it take to write?

“I wrote the verses and the chorus in an hour. I was in in my living room, and it was a really emotional, cathartic experience for me. I wrote it, and I remember putting my head down on the keys and crying as it was so emotional, and it really evoked that reaction out of me. Then I took it to my producer Dan Nigro, who’s an incredible songwriter and we collaborate a lot. I was like, ‘What do you think about this? I think it’s a really great song that I wrote.’ And Dan is very hard to please ­– if I play a song he doesn’t like he’s like, ‘I don’t like it, write a better one!’ So when I took it to him and he really loved it, I knew that it was something special. We then wrote the bridge together and fixed up some of the verses and the chorus, and polished it up together, and he put his master production on it and there you have it.”

Olivia Rodrigo – Credit: Press

Were there any musical touchstones or artists who inspired it?

“I was super inspired by Gracie Abrams when I was writing the song. Before I sat down to write ‘Drivers License’ I was driving around listening to her EP ‘Minor’, and it’s all these break-up songs about a relationship and I was just crying to her EP. When I got home, I had all these emotions bottled up, and it brought up all these knots I’d been trying to push down for a long time, and so she definitely inspired me to write this song. And I think some of the production is sort of referenced a little bit in my song too.”

“I’m obsessed with Taylor Swift, and I talk about her all the time as an inspiration. The way she narrates stories and is so articulate and clear, and the way that evolves as her career goes on, and she still stays true to herself is really inspiring. I’m obsessed with Lorde, I remember hearing ‘Pure Heroine’ for the first time and that was the first record that I ever heard where I felt like there were pieces of myself and my experiences in it. She always has a special place in my heart. I love Halsey, I love the honesty that Halsey portrays in her music. I love Phoebe Bridgers’ style of songwriting, and I’m obsessed with Baby Queen, I think she’s so badass and I can’t wait to see what else she does in her career.”

And how did it feel to release it?

“I was so nervous about putting this song out. I remember the night before ‘Drivers License’ came out I was driving home from a friend’s house and my foot was on the accelerator pedal, and my leg was shaking so hard that the accelerator was going in and out, so my car was chugging along going fast and slow. I was really terrified, but it turned out to be one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever had. It’s so powerful to see how other people are moved by my vulnerability. I think vulnerability, especially in art, is where all of your power lies.”

As always happens when somebody achieves a level of success so quickly, people throw around the term “industry plant” to belittle any kind of success. Have you had people throw that at you?

“That’s actually the that I’ve heard that. I’ve been working on writing songs since I was nine years old, I write songs in my bedroom, or I wrote ‘Drivers License’ in my living room. It’s very much a really vulnerable story about my life that I feel like is really raw, which is one of my favourite things about it. And I’ve definitely kind of grown up in the industry, and I’ve benefitted a lot from the platform that Disney have given me, but this song is a look into my personal life and a really vulnerable take on an experience that I was going through which I think is kind of the opposite of that.”

What’s up next, then?

“You know it is a little bit daunting to have such a big song as your first song you’ve ever put out, but I really love all the other songs I’ve written too, and there’s a song that’s coming out soon and I think there’ll be a project sometime later. So yeah, I just really enjoy writing and feel so proud of the stuff that I’ve created, so that’s all I can do, I don’t have control of the other stuff!”

Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Drivers License’ is out now