On Monday night (Oct. 9), Olivia Rodrigo decided to spill her guts all over The Theater at Ace Hotel. For the spontaneous and intimate concert (held for American Express cardholders), the 1,600 capacity venue in downtown Los Angeles was transformed into Rodrigo’s own world complete with decadent floral arrangements, photo opps at every turn, mini lipsticks disguised as pill capsules (think Spy Kids) her favorite Midori matcha on hand — plus a custom taco truck on standby for a post-show bite.
As fans eagerly took their seats, at promptly 8:15 p.m. an announcer reiterated that all funds from the night’s ticket sales would be donated to Rodrigo’s newly launched nonprofit, Fun 4 Good, which supports women and girls globally. The voice then introduced Dan Nigro – Rodrigo’s co-writer and producer – and the star herself.
“We made this entire album together over the course of a year,” said Rodrigo, taking in the crowd. “We haven’t played these songs for anyone, really.”
“And we get to tell stories that will make Olivia very uncomfortable…” added Nigro with a laugh.
During the hour-long set, the pair did both – not only performing songs off Rodrigo’s acclaimed second album Guts (plus one track from her debut album Sour) and recalling how each one came together, but also answering previously submitted fan questions read from purple notecards.
Rodrigo’s biggest reveals included that she’s most excited to play “All-American Bitch” on tour and that “Love Is Embarrassing” was a last-minute addition to the album, forcing Nigro to complete it in just five days. As for him, he confessed to being “on an island” when it came to choosing a lead single, rooting for “Bad Idea Right?” since it shows Rodrigo’s more sarcastic side.
Given the high-pressure situation of following up a breakout debut like Sour, it makes sense that one word kept popping up in their dialogue: “toil.” Which, considering Rodrigo’s self-noted proclivity for choosing four-letter album titles, could very well be in the running for her third.
Below are the stories behind each song she and Nigro performed.
Nigro said choosing the lead single for Guts was “one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make together…once we chose it, trying to finish it [became] that much harder.” Rodrigo added that it came down to the smallest of details, like the beats per minute, estimating they made “20 versions of different BPMs” before finishing the song in January at New York’s Electric Lady Studios.
One day in New York, Nigro and Rodrigo hit the streets in search of inspiration. They ended up at a bookstore, where Nigro estimates he bought at least eight books, including Wading in Waist–High Water: The Lyrics of Fleet Foxes. Written by Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold, it consists of lyrics to 55 songs — many of which, Nigro learned, started as poems. It was a lightbulb moment for him and Rodrigo, as she had just taken a poetry class at University of Southern California. It was there she wrote a poem called “Lacy,” which she and Nigro ultimately turned into the intimate album track of the same name.
“Ballad Of a Homeschooled Girl”
One of the album’s most woefully relatable tracks came about from a series of unfortunate events. One day when Rodrigo and Nigro were set to work, Nigro’s wife tested positive for COVID. Not wanting to get exposed, their nanny could no longer come watch their then five-month old baby Saoirse. As Nigro was explaining his situation to Rodrigo, she had a simple solution: she would babysit. Saoirse ended up joining their session, bouncing to the beat of what ultimately became “Ballad Of a Homeschooled Girl.” However, after she had eaten, Rodrigo bounced the baby a bit too much… and Saoirse ended up puking all over her. “But the silver lining,” says Rodrigo, “was getting this song out of it.”
Nigro shared that he and Rodrigo fought over what songs would make it onto Guts, and that “The Grudge” was one of the few up for debate. Rodrigo said they kept going back and forth on the melody for one particular line that came to her while driving. As she recalled, she was listening to The Smiths on the way to the studio and felt inspired by the lyric, “it takes courage to be kind” from “I Know It’s Over.” Channelling her frustration at the time, she told the audience she remembered thinking, “What if I don’t want to have courage and don’t want to be kind.” But ultimately, the sentiment inspired her own lyric, which she quickly typed into her Notes app at a red light: “It takes strength to forgive, but I don’t feel strong.”
To discuss the Guts closing track, Rodrigo sauntered over to the piano on stage, taking a seat next to Nigro. “Last time we made Sour, we ended on a Rhodes piano…” she said, explaining that they wanted to make it a little tradition. And so, “Teenage Dream” is in the same key as Sour closer “Hope Ur Ok” — creating a moment of intimate familiarity for the album’s grand finale. (Nigro also noted that Saoirse is featured on this one, though didn’t get credit — to which Rodrigo replied with a knowing laugh, “Uh oh… there’s gonna be some issues there.”)
“Get Him Back!”
As mentioned, the word “toil” often came up when Rodrigo and Nigro were discussing the making of Guts. So naturally, it makes sense that the pair coined a term for their particularly bad studio days: The Dread. “On this day, I was definitely full of The Dread,” said Rodrigo, recalling when she wrote “Get Him Back!” in New York. Prior to heading into the studio, she and Nigro had been chatting with his dad, who told them, “A lot of the best songs are written with two chords only.” According to Nigro, “We tried and failed — but wrote something we really liked with three chords.” After what ultimately became a successful session, he and Rodrigo went out to celebrate — but when she asked him to order her a glass of wine (she herself was only 19 at the time) Nigro refused. But that didn’t stop her from getting exactly what she wanted anyway: “We got a drink — and this song,” she said proudly.
Like “The Grudge,” Guts‘ opener “All-American Bitch” was another last minute addition. Rodrigo said she was “always obsessed” with the concept of “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” saying her mom would tell her stories about sleepovers in the 80s where she and her friends would lift each other up using just one finger. “[It was the] perfect way to encapsulate impossible standards as a girl and woman,” said Rodrigo.
She wrote the song on piano and sent it to Nigro, who called his first listen a “holy s–t” moment. “[We had] super fun uptempo songs with super serious songs,” he said. “I was confused as a producer, ‘How do I bridge this together?’ When she sent me [“All-American Bitch] I was like, ‘This is it — you just wrote the opening song for the record.’”
Bonus ‘Sour’ Track: “Traitor”
Rodrigo ended the night with a throwback, closing with Sour standout “Traitor,” which she performed on piano. She recalled writing the song on her bedroom floor in Salt Lake City just days after her debut hit took over the Internet. “When ‘Drivers License’ came out I called Dan and was like, ‘We gotta make an album,’” she said. “I was just going to make an EP.”
Nigro said that call came just four days after “Drivers License” was released. Given that Rodrigo was filming in Salt Lake for the immediate future, he packed up his studio equipment, rented an Airbnb and headed there himself. He said that because it was so cold, they had to keep the heat on while working — something he has since come to regret. Rodrigo’s first vocal take of “Traitor” ended up being so raw that it couldn’t be topped — the only issue, according to Nigro, is that he can hear the heater whirring in the background. “Go home and listen,” Rodrigo instructed the audience, insisting that to this day, she can’t hear it herself.