When Olivia Rodrigo went into the studio to start the production process for her debut album, “Sour,” she was a little intimidated.
For as long as the 18-year-old could remember, it had just been her voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar or piano — as was showcased often on her Instagram account and her “High School Musical” breakout single “All I Want.” Now that she had the opportunity to do something more, what would that be?
“Going into the studio and being like, ‘What do I actually want this to sound like?’ and ‘What does big production sound like, is that my thing?’ was a learning curve and a little bit of a challenge at first,” Rodrigo, who is one of the cover stars of our Young Hollywood issue, tells Variety.
Luckily, Rodrigo had the production expertise of Dan Nigro, the former frontman of indie band As Tall as Lions who has worked with Conan Gray, Carly Rae Jepsen and others. Introduced through Rodrigo’s publisher and A&R team at Interscope Geffen A&M, the two met just one week before the COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. Nigro had watched an Instagram video of Rodrigo playing her song “Happier” and “was blown away,” he says.
“I remember getting the chills when she sang the line ‘I hope you’re happy, but don’t be happier,’” Nigro recalls in an email. “There was this beautiful intensity in her voice that I fell in love with immediately.”
What Rodrigo brought to the table in raw talent, Nigro matched with a keen ear for clean yet creative production. “I just really appreciated the way that he was really constructive with my songs,” Rodrigo says. “He just kind of takes my songs and elevates them and polishes them up and makes them better. I think we work really well together.”
Thus their sonic partnership was born, one that formed Rodrigo’s debut album “Sour,” which won over critics and charts alike (the album had the biggest sales week of 2021 to date and spent four weeks on top of the Billboard album chart). Nigro produced the entire album and shares songwriting credit with Rodrigo on all but three of the 11 songs. Rodrigo says the duo wrote three tracks together entirely from scratch: “Brutal,” “Deja Vu” and “Favorite Crime,” with Nigro contributing structural and melodic changes to the rest.
“I do tend to want a little more structure melodically, so I’ll interject here or there when I feel like there are too many words in a stanza or too little for that matter… and then we’ll symmetrically [or] melodically work it out,” Nigro says of their songwriting process.
Ultimately, the album’s three singles – the record-breaking “Drivers License,” alt-rock “Deja Vu” and pop-punk tinged “Good 4 U” – provided a pretty solid overview of the musical landscape of “Sour.” But the album’s opening track, “Brutal,” kicks the project off in an unexpected way with seven spoken words: “I want it to be, like, messy.” Placed after a cacophony of strings that soon crash into high-voltage guitar, the phrase captures the essence of the record – they are both a warning and a welcome; a preview of the vulnerable, brutally honest songwriting to come.
“It is sort of a statement of intent,” Rodrigo says of the opening. “I think ‘Brutal,’ just as an opening song, is very much ‘This is what the album is going to be like. This is the state of mind I am in while I am writing this album.’”
But that now-iconic first line wasn’t exactly planned.
“I wanted there to be crazy, weird drums at the end of ‘Brutal,’ like it was sort of falling apart. Dan was recording me playing all these weird drums, and I couldn’t get it right, so I was like, ‘No, Dan, I want it to be messy,’” Rodrigo explains. “And he just sampled that and put it at the beginning, which I thought was so brilliant. So it was an accident, but yeah, I love that being the first line that you hear on the record, because I think it’s so indicative of the record as a whole.”
The anecdote is a perfect example of how Nigro and Rodrigo complement each other in the studio, often finding new ideas in unexpected ways.
“I think the balance lies in the fact that Olivia is so lyric-focused, while I’m more melody- and texture-focused,” Nigro says of their dynamic. “Her main objective while we’re working on each song is making sure that every word hits exactly how it needs to, while I obsess over each chord and which inversion of it to play, or how much low-end to introduce when a chorus hits to make sure the impact is right without taking away from the vocal performance.”
Nigro says that during the making of Rodrigo’s debut single and smash hit “Drivers License” – a piano ballad that eventually crescendos into a grand, glittering bridge – is when the duo really found their stride in the production and songwriting process.
“The verse and chorus are super minimal, which is what Olivia was gravitating towards at that moment and the bridge was maximalist, which was something I was more into,” Nigro says. “I think it took a little time for each part to grow the other. I remember feeling the need to add more stuff to the verses, and remember her thinking there was too much in the bridge. After us both stating our cases to each other, we lived with it for a few days and agreed to keep it as is.”
Indeed, though Rodrigo’s bright-yet-rich voice stands out on the track, it’s the song’s cinematic-sounding bridge (“Red lights / Stop signs / I still see your face in the white cars / Front yards…”) that really made an impact, even being featured in a “SNL” skit in February.
“I remember listening to ‘Drivers License ’for the first time… and being like ‘Okay, maybe I do like big production, maybe I can produce a song out and it doesn’t have to feel unnecessarily poppy or big and doesn’t have to feel saturated in the way that I thought it would,’” Rodrigo says.
Rodrigo – who has co-producing credits on two tracks from “Sour” – also started to explore her own ideas in production when making “Drivers License.” In fact, the seatbelt warning sound that the song’s lilting piano morphs into at the very beginning was her idea.
“I was in the studio and was almost nervous to bring up that idea because I thought [Dan] was going to think it was super stupid and weird,” Rodrigo remembers. “But I said, ‘What if it sounds like a car in the beginning and then it morphed into the piano?’ And he was like, ‘That sounds really sick, let’s try it.’ I had my mom, who was at home while I was in the studio, record the noises to her car and she sent it over to me and we put it on the track.” Nigro says he then used pitch correction software “to make the seatbelt beep into the same note as the piano so it would flow seamlessly.”
Another track on which production shines through is the pop-punk homage “Good 4 U,” which starts out with a throbbing bass line before diving into a fluttery, guitar-driven chorus. The song also debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, making “Sour” the first debut album in history to have two singles land at the chart’s top spot upon their release. It’s safe to say that pop-punk is having a revival moment right now, with Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker shepherding in a new era of the genre with talents like Machine Gun Kelly, Jxdn and Willow Smith – but the fact that Rodrigo bounced from ballads to pop-punk so effortlessly, and topped the charts in the process, is something entirely new.
Rodrigo says the duo “worked really hard to make the production fresh by coming up with ideas with the instrumentation that might not be expected.”
For Nigro, that meant — somewhat surprisingly — using computerized instrumentation.
“‘Good 4 U’ was definitely the most fun song to make in the studio,” Nigro says. “I think the fact that the song kinda feels like it’s one thing in the verse and does a switch-up in the chorus is kinda the most exciting thing we accomplished with it. But also little things like using a synth bass in the verses instead of a real bass, and the fact that all the drums in the song are programmed and not played (with the exception of the hi-hats in the second verse), give the song a twist to me.”
Though production remains an important part of the album, especially in its genre-shifting moments, Rodrigo’s minimalist tendencies still found a place on cuts like “Traitor,” “Enough for You,” “Happier” and closer “Hope Ur Ok.” After all, oftentimes the most vulnerable songs about heartbreak require a sparse sonic landscape to let their lyrics truly shine through. And despite Rodrigo’s songs being extremely personal and close to her heart, she recognizes the importance of collaboration when it comes to finding your sound as an artist.
“I write the majority of my songs, but I’m not afraid of collaborating with people,” Rodrigo says. “I think that’s something that great artists that I look up to do; they collaborate with people and share ideas, and that’s one of the most important parts of creativity.”
Nigro, too, says he learned a wealth of lessons from co-writing and producing “Sour,” including the value of time and patience.
“I think because of the pandemic we were oddly very fortunate to have as much time as we did to make music. I’m not sure if I could say the same if life was running at a normal pace,” Nigro says. “With less distractions we were really able to work on a song… take time off from it, go back and redo things about it if it didn’t feel right and grow together as a team and find a real groove.”