Gracie Abrams and Olivia Rodrigo on the Risks and Rewards of Songwriting
The rise of Gracie Abrams has been swift. The Los Angeles native began sharing songs recorded at the foot of her bed with an ever-growing Instagram following, distinguishing herself with a blend of deep vulnerability and easy charm. A record deal followed, and in just two years, the 22-year-old performer has released an EP, Minor, and follow-up project, This Is What It Feels Like, which offers tantalizing confessionals that render the heartbreaks and confusion of early adulthood in visceral detail. Abrams can currently be seen on her headlining North American tour before hopping on the bill for a string of shows on her friend Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour Tour. But before they share a stage, the two singer-songwriters connected for a conversation about online honesty, making music in the woods, and their upcoming month-long sleepover.
OLIVIA RODRIGO: Are you in New York, with your “I Love New York” shirt?
GRACIE ABRAMS: Oh, I’m not. I’m very much in L.A.
RODRIGO: I love it. Okay, putting my interview hat on. So, I was thinking, “What was my first introduction to Gracie?” And it was through the amazing little songs that you would write and post on Instagram when you were a teenager.
ABRAMS: I remember.
RODRIGO: I was absolutely obsessed. If you look through my bookmarked posts on Instagram when I was 15 or 16, it was all your songs. I was so inspired by them. What made you want to post such vulnerable, raw songs online? Was there a thought behind that, or was it just like, “This is what I need to do.”
ABRAMS: First of all, I did the same thing with your stuff. My introduction to you was through your videos, your clips, and your covers. But your originals blew my mind. I felt the same way about your music before either of us started releasing anything. But my relationship to posting on social media was in line with my somewhat impulsive personality at the time. I was very reactive, versus responsive, to my situation, so I used social media as this big red button that I could hit, and then move on. I don’t know if it’s the healthiest thing to do, but that was my situation. What was your reason? Your posts seemed way more polished and beautiful. Mine felt like a fuckin’—excuse me—mess.
RODRIGO: See, that’s the thing. That’s what I loved about all your stuff. You were literally on your bedroom floor, recording. My favorite part about your songwriting is how vividly specific you are. Your lyrics were always so gripping, and that’s hard to do. It’s a really vulnerable process. I think it’s a certain gift when songwriters can go about their daily lives and extract little details that no one else would notice.
ABRAMS: I think you do that just by breathing, though.
RODRIGO: [Laughs] No. I only learned it from you. What are qualities in a song that make you think that they’re good?
ABRAMS: I love when a song is so specific that there’s not much room for interpretation. Which is unfair, because then it really corners you and can feel less universal. But I really do love it when I feel like I can see exactly what someone’s going through. You did that on every single song on Sour. That’s why, in my opinion, you are such an important figure for not only our generation, but clearly all generations. People are like, “I remember when I went through that exact thing.” That’s what I love about songwriting. It’s why I’ve been obsessed with Joni Mitchell forever. You can place yourself right in the moment that she’s in, and it makes you feel very close to her as an artist. Feeling like you know someone through their writing strengthens your relationship to all their future music, in my experience.
RODRIGO: Completely. I always say that I fall in love with artists, not songs. Even if my favorite artist puts out a bad record, I still stream the shit out of it.
ABRAMS: Exactly, you support it. Every artist I love is a hill that I’m willing to die on for the rest of my life. What’s the most emotional reaction that you’ve ever had to a song? One that you’ve written, or one that you didn’t write.
RODRIGO: Oh, gosh. I remember when I heard your “21″ for the first time. My best friend and I would drive around and scream it. My favorite line ever is, “If it doesn’t go away by the time I turn 30, I made a mistake and I’ll tell you I’m sorry.” I remember hearing that and being like, “What the fuck? Did she just say that?” My best friend looks over to me and goes, “Gracie really went through a breakup, and then wrote all of her music for the rest of us.” We bump all of your sad songs as if they’re club bangers, in the car.
ABRAMS: That’s what I do with your music all day long. It’s fine, we’re fine.
RODRIGO: What’s the most emotional reaction you had to someone else’s music? Did you have a moment like, “This makes me want to be a songwriter.”
ABRAMS: This answer may be cliché, but I remember when I was 13, I heard “Between the Bars” for the first time. I was already kind of an emo kid, and that made me sink down and claim that space for the rest of my life. I felt so sad, and also hugged by that song. It sent me down a spiral of just loving Elliott Smith. His production inspired me massively. It sounded nothing like what was on the radio, and I was very aware of that at the time. I felt like no one else my age was paying attention to his music, and it made me feel like I was on my own planet, which was comforting. It still does. I could listen to him forever.
RODRIGO: Me too. He does melancholy in a way that you have definitely harnessed as well.
ABRAMS: Maybe someday, if I’m lucky.
RODRIGO: You were talking about the sonics of your music. How big of a role is that in your music-making process?
ABRAMS: Now it’s more important than it’s ever been. My career thus far has been a funny, slow burn. In between all these little moments I’ve had the time to digest everything that I’m learning. What I’m making right now is the most thoughtful I’ve ever been with the sonics of an album, and the ways that the production can inform the lyrics. I’ve felt like my attraction to storytelling has trumped, and will forever trump, the way that I feel about production. For the first time, that’s not my approach anymore, which has been exciting, and it makes me nervous for people to hear what I’ve been working on recently. I will send it to you, fearfully, after this. How about you?
RODRIGO: I’m trying to prioritize production more. I listen to music as if it’s spoken-word poetry. I’m a lyric-driven songwriter, so it’s been a learning process to focus on other things. Collaborating really broadens my horizons to other important things about music. I imagine your time with Aaron [Dessner] in the forest, making This Is What It Feels Like, must have been magical. I think people would die to hear [about] that very whimsical time in your life.
ABRAMS: It was whimsical. Working with him is one of the luckiest encounters in my life. Finding clarity in the forest with Aaron, with all of his instruments and toys, going on nature adventures with his kids in the creek, waking up hearing the toads, it was just bizarre. I had an actual open space where I could get out of my head, and I felt more like myself in that situation than I ever have. That was a jarring realization, having grown up in L.A. There’s an overexposure to everything there—the music industry is integrated into people’s social lives, there are all these things that I grew up around and that I assumed would work for me. I may have been wrong about that. Finding a space outside of that world, where I felt better, was both the biggest relief of my life, and also quite scary.
RODRIGO: I assume you write alone a lot of the time, but I remember you saying that when you worked with Aaron, you would wake up and write three songs a day. What’s your songwriting process like?
ABRAMS: Working with Aaron was genuinely unlike anything I’ve done with anyone else. When I was in high school, I was writing all the time, it was such good practice. But I wasn’t writing my best songs. In college I experimented a bit more with how I get stuff down, but with Aaron, songwriting conventions don’t always exist, which is refreshing. How does it work for you?
RODRIGO: It’s different every time. Lyrics and melody come at the same time. I literally write all of my songs right here in my bedroom, looking out the window. [Laughs]. I like having the first seeds of ideas come from just me. It’s hard for me to go straight into a studio with people, even if I’m really close with them. I like having a concept, or a poem, and going in with that. I don’t actually think that I’m a great songwriter—I’m just a really prolific songwriter, and I write so much that some of them just have to be good. Like statistically, some of them have to work.
ABRAMS: You’re a great songwriter. Like, I’d be horrified if anyone went through my Notes app, you know?
RODRIGO: I know, same. You were talking about leaving college at Barnard to come back to L.A. to focus on music. Was that a hard decision?
ABRAMS: Totally. I know we haven’t talked about it, but it was hard for the first two years. I loved Barnard more than anything. I technically didn’t drop out, and I’m on a leave of absence. I intend eventually to return, because I admire and have so much gratitude for that community. It’s wild, my class is graduating this year and it’s just this crazy [deep inhale] time. A lot of young people leave college to pursue something creative because the conventional academic setting is not right for everyone, but I loved being in classrooms filled with people that I knew were brilliant. It inspired me everyday. I felt disconnected from a lot of the people in L.A. once I moved back here, until I didn’t anymore. But, have you ever thought about college? If not I understand. Have you had college-like experiences in your life?
RODRIGO: I guess that’s why I was curious about your time there, and the transition from L.A. to the East Coast, and back. Funny enough, I always wanted to be a Barnard and Columbia girl.
ABRAMS: You can be a new person. It’s definitely scary, but important. Touring will be a completely different version of being on your own. It’s also centered around you, which is very different from college. What are your main feelings about touring now, for the first time?
RODRIGO: I’m excited that you’re coming with me. Thank god!
ABRAMS: Hell yeah. It’s gonna be a month-long sleepover.
RODRIGO: I mean, I’m very nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before. Mixed emotions. I saw you at The Roxy recently, which was magical. I was just in the audience, bawling, it was so perfect. It was intimate and grand at the same time. You’ve told me that you think the best part of being an artist is playing music in a live setting where you can see people’s faces, and hear it resonate in the real world. Can you talk more about that?
ABRAMS: I think you’re gonna lose your mind. But playing live helps the aloneness of writing sink in more—for me at least. Seeing the way an audience reacts to your songwriting is mind-boggling. They react to certain lyrics directly in your face. I can think of a trillion shows that I’ve gone to that have transformed my relationship to the artist.
ABRAMS: It makes me infinitely more grateful for every aspect of what we are lucky enough to do. It’s worth it. What are you most nervous about?
RODRIGO: Gosh, I’m such a homebody. We’ll sleep on the bus, but I am the most paranoid person in the whole world. I get freaked out about staying at hotels. I’m not a germaphobe, but anytime I get in a hotel I worry that I’m gonna get some weird disease or something. I have the weirdest paranoias.
ABRAMS: I understand that.
RODRIGO: What’s the best show you’ve ever seen?
ABRAMS: Lorde at The Fonda. It was right before Pure Heroine came out. I was hearing all these songs for the very first time. It was a formative moment for me. She was alone on the stage with just a spotlight. She had this black gown on, her hair was so big and wild, and she was so still. It was a captivating experience.
RODRIGO: Listening to Pure Heroine for the first time is the moment when I first remember wanting to be a songwriter. I guess this is my last question. Tell me about your new music.
ABRAMS: I’ll send it to you shortly. It’s the most connected I’ve ever felt to myself as a songwriter. Every time I listen to it, I’m hearing it for the first time. Given what I’ve been dealing with internally over the past two years, seeing that reflected in my music in a way that I feel proud of is incredible. I have no idea how anyone else will feel about it. That’s where the nervous excitement comes from. Reminding myself that there are places outside of Los Angeles where I feel great and okay, where there’s the distance from all the noise, makes me feel very lucky.
RODRIGO: That’s so cool. I always say that you can toil away, writing songs for hours, but there are certain ones that emerge from the ether, where you’re just a vessel. You vomit them straight onto the page. Those are some of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written, and I can only imagine how amazing those songs are going to feel for you.
ABRAMS: Lots of vomiting onto civilians. I love you very much.
RODRIGO: I hope I did a fine job.
ABRAMS: You killed it.