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Olivia Rodrigo: Connecting the World in Song

Olivia Rodrigo is taking the world by storm. The songs she writes and sings are personal, vulnerable, and poetic. Whether she’s scribbling in her notebook or next to the President of the United States, Olivia uses her voice to speak out about inclusivity, women’s rights, and emotional truth.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Rin Araneta. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

There once was a girl named Olivia who was sitting in her living room feeling lost and alone. A lot of people were. The year was 2020, and the covid pandemic was new and confusing.

But then, Olivia sat down at the piano and started sounding out all her fears, hopes and questions. As her fingers stepped across the keys, she found new melodies and riffs. She sang about things she didn’t even realize she was feeling — heartache, jealousy, a longing to connect. It was like she was opening up a whole world inside her, through song.

A world where she could truly be herself.

I’m Rin Araneta. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Olivia Rodrigo — singer, songwriter, actress, and activist for racial and gender equality.

Olivia was born and raised in sunny Temecula, California. With palm trees stretching into the sky and the sweet smell of lilacs and honeysuckle all around, Olivia had plenty of parks and trails where she could go on adventures. Even though she was an only child, Olivia kept herself entertained. She spent a lot of time making up silly songs in gibberish and performing for whomever would watch. 

“Olivia! Lola’s here!”

“Yay! Lola!”

Olivia especially loved when she got to see her Filipino grandmother and eat lumpias with her. Being Asian American became very important to Olivia. She saw how proud her dad was of his Filipino heritage and the traditions they shared as a family. She realized early on that her hair and skin were darker than her friends’. This only made her stand up taller, smile brighter, and get louder.

She started singing lessons when she was five, acting lessons when she was six, and piano lessons when she was nine. Sometimes, she even convinced her parents to drive 90 mins each way to Los Angeles, so she could audition for tv shows.

One day, when Olivia was about eleven years old, she bought herself a vinyl record of one of her favorite singers, Lorde. As she put the needle onto the first groove of the album, her whole body flooded with a rush of color and sound. She felt like these songs were meant especially for her. The lyrics were so soulful and intimate. 

“I can actually see myself in these lyrics,” Olivia thought. “This is what I’m meant to do.”

Soon after this, Olivia got a phone call that changed her life. And her family’s. She was cast as one of the main characters on a new comedy television series called Bizaardvark. Taking the job meant that she and her parents would have to relocate to LA and Olivia would have to say goodbye to all her school friends. But it also meant an amazing opportunity to perform. Plus, her character was a musician so she’d be learning how to play guitar for the show!

The decision was pretty clear to Olivia, and her parents were excited for her too. Olivia had a blast on the show and became best friends with her co-star. Then, three years later, Olivia was cast in another hit series, called High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. This time, her character was a high school singer and songwriter. Olivia was thrilled to write and sing original songs on set. She was also very proud to be representing her heritage on screen. Her character was the daughter of an interracial queer couple and had a great relationship with her Filipino grandmother.

Everything seemed to be going so well for Olivia. Her acting career was booming. She was finding her voice as a singer and songwriter. She even signed with a record label.

And then…the pandemic turned everything upside down.

Those first few months were lonely and bleak for so many people. Olivia wondered if life could ever go back to normal again; if there’d ever be a way to celebrate simple joys together or find love.

She sat down at the piano in her living room and began to experiment with new chords and progressions. The piano pedal was squeaky and she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say, but she kept plunking out notes and trying to put all her confusing emotions to song. She sang about isolation and longing; about comparing herself to others and searching for approval. 

Olivia’s lyrics were honest and vulnerable. When she posted some home videos of herself singing on social media, people commented about how much they loved her voice and appreciated her courage. 

So she kept going. With the help of a supportive producer, she composed a ballad that was very personal about feeling betrayed by someone she loved. She knew it could embarrass her to have her real feelings out there in the world for everyone to hear, but she had to give it a try.

In January of 2021, Olivia released her single, Drivers License. She had no idea what to expect when it came out. She had no clue that she was about to make music history.

The song debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it broke multiple records for downloads and streaming, and it catapulted Olivia into worldwide fame in just a matter of hours.

Listeners raved about her clear voice and creative integrity. It felt like she was singing not just about her own heartbreak, but maybe everyone’s during this difficult time of so much collective grieving and loss.

Olivia was stunned by all the attention. Here she was, singing about something deeply personal, and it resonated with so many people! It connected them.

In the short span of a few months, Olivia worked thirteen hours a day to release her debut album — Sour. And when it came out, it was a huge hit! Olivia was soon nominated for all kinds of music awards and the following year, she won best new artist, best solo performance and best album at the Grammys. All before the age of twenty.

It definitely has been a wild ride for Olivia. She sees the impact of her voice and feels a lot of responsibility as a young artist and Filipino woman to stand up for important causes. She speaks out about the importance of voting and gender equality. She met with the President of the United States to promote vaccinations. Olivia says she  had to pinch herself when she stood next to him. It seemed unbelievable that just a few months before she was trying out notes on the piano and now…she was in the White House.

Through it all, though, Olivia tries very hard to keep her head and heart aligned. She limits how much time she goes on social media so she can’t get caught up in other people’s opinions of her. She tries to find stillness so she can listen to her thoughts and find new melodies.

Whatever she creates next, Olivia hopes it helps people stay connected. And if they’re feeling lost or alone, she wants her voice to be a soft place where anyone can land.