The process of guts-spilling was the focus of a conversation between Olivia Rodrigo and veteran songwriter-producer Linda Perry at the Grammy Museum Wednesday night, before the young pop champion took to piano and acoustic guitar to sing solo versions of three hits and/or fan favorites from her new album, “Vampire,” “Making the Bed” and “Lacy.”
Although the conversation inevitably skewed more toward the mechanics and philosophy of writing than personal details, Rodrigo kept the fan base on hand in the intimate auditorium rapt with mentions of how she came to write several of the new songs. There were passing revelations, too, like the fact that she took a poetry class at USC last year, which helped generate one of the most talked-about songs on the new “Guts” release, or that St. Vincent is a previously unmentioned collaborator on the bonus track “Obsessed.”
“In this time of music where we’re getting fed a lot of different styles, I’m not buying a lot of it,” said Perry — famous as part of 4 Non Blondes and for her work with Pink, Christina Aguilera and Dolly Parton — in kicking off her questioning of Rodrigo. “It feels a little too put together, like a cash grab. What I love about Olivia is I believe every word that I’m hearing.”
“If I don’t write songs, I really don’t feel like myself,” Rodrigo said. “It’s the way that I process everything. It’s the way I decide how I feel about the world. It just makes me happy. It makes me angry. It’s everything to me… I think there’s definitely a lot of darkness in me, as there is with anyone. I’ve always loved how, in writing melodies and hooks and lyrics, you can express that in a way that isn’t easily expressible in everyday life. Sometimes people meet me and get to know me and they’re always like, ‘Wow, you’re such a happy bubbly girl, [but] you write such depressing-ass songs.’ But I think songwriting is a medium for you to express the inexpressible and just figure out how you feel. And that’s why I’ve always loved it, ever since I was a kid.”
Perry mentioned that she loves the track “Obsessed,” although after she pegged it as a song from Rodrigo’s debut album, the young singer politely corrected her. “It’s actually a bonus track, which is cool. You’re very adept,” Rodrigo said. “That’s a fun one that’s a little rockier. I made it with my friend Annie Clark, St. Vincent, who is just incredible. I adore her just as a person, and she’s one of my musical heroes, so she was on that track. And it’s a very sort of deranged, angry-girl song, which I like.” “Obsessed” was one of four songs that Rodrigo tagged on as hidden tracks on different vinyl variants of the “Guts” album, and without printed credits, St. Vincent’s participation had not been well-publicized.
Perry asked about a key track on the standard edition of the new album, “Lacy,” going into it perhaps innocently and probably not knowing just how obsessed fans have been with who the tune might be about, and whether it is a fellow celebrity, as widely assumed. Rodrigo was not about to give up a lot about the song, but she did discuss its etymology.
Is there a real-life person “Lacy” is about, Perry wondered? “I mean, it’s whoever you want it to be, baby!” Rodrigo snapped back, laughing.
“I took a poetry class at USC last year. I’ve always been really interested in poetry… And so I took this class, and it was amazing. I wrote this poem called ‘Lacy,’ about this sort of all-encompassing envy that I was feeling, for one of the assignments in class. It was like a homework assignment. And I loved it so much that I turned into this song. It’s one of my favorites.” Later, introducing a show-closing version of the song that she performed on acoustic guitar, she said, “I just remember I was sitting at my kitchen counter and I wrote, ‘Lacy, oh Lacy, skin like puff pastry…’ And I was like, oh, that’s interesting, and finished off the poem and turned it into a song.” Let the speculation continue.
In introducing “Making the Bed,” which she performed on the piano, Rodrigo said, “This one I wrote about feeling like I was putting myself in places or putting myself with people who weren’t necessarily bringing me ultimate peace or happiness — and kind of taking accountability over my actions. That responsibility is something that’s a big theme on the new album, ‘Guts,’ and it’s something that I feel like I didn’t really get to touch on on the last album, ‘Sour,’ so I’m really proud of that.”
Rodrigo also discussed other differences between the two albums with Perry, including what she feels is the more aggressive musical feel of the new one.
“Brutal” “was the last track that we added to my first album, ‘Sour.’ We had like a week to turn the album; it was crunch time. And I was like in the car with someone, and they were talking about some traffic or whatever, and they were like, ‘God, it’s brutal out here.’ And I was like, hmm, that’s interesting, we’ll put that one in the notepad. … The verses can be kind of talky, but I wanted to let emotion out (in a simpler chorus). And I think I was 17 at the time; I was so full of angst and rage, and so that song was a great way for me to express it.
“My music, especially in ‘Guts,’ is very rock-leaning. I’ve always been so inspired by those hard-driving, kind of grungier sounds. That’s the kind of music I grew up listening to,” she said — even though at another point in the conversation, she said she also grew up on the storytelling of country artists like Tanya Tucker. “I think I was kind of finding my voice towards the end of the ‘Sour’ album-making process, in the rock space, towards the end. We kind of explore that more in ‘Guts,’ and I’m really happy with the way that those songs turned out… I think that part of my personality got kind of discovered a little later.”
Asked by Perry if she could name a single song she most wishes she could have written, Rodrigo hemmed and hawed before citing Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” For her part, Perry named Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” which she expected most of the Grammy Museum audience was too young to know, although some murmurs assured her otherwise. “I don’t even really like the band,” Perry admitted, “but there’s something about that song that it just makes me, like, a happier Linda.” She quickly added, “By the way, I like your ‘Logical’ song too,” noting the coincidence that Rodrigo has a (non-Supertramp) tune of that name on “Guts.”
Perry read an audience question about advice for young music aspirants, “Gosh, I mean, maybe like, don’t be mad at your dad when he makes you go to piano lessons? That one turned out to pay off really well.”
Perry asked if Rodrigo had a favorite line she’d ever written. “On ‘Sour,’ I always tear up when I think of the line in ‘Enough For You,’ ‘Someday I’ll be everything to someone else.’ … In this record, ‘Guts,’ there’s a line in ‘The Grudge’ that I really like: ‘It takes strength to forgive, but I don’t feel strong.’”
In a “Kids Say the Darnedest Thing” moment, Perry had her 8-year-old son, Rhodes, come up on stage and asked him who his favorite was. Although she was clearly leading the witness to name the company on stage, it may not have gone exactly as intended. “Cher,” blurted her son.