Strawberry ice cream (one spoon for two), Glee on repeat, jackets that don’t fit, and Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”—these are the sights and sounds of Olivia Rodrigo’s “deja vu,” out now. Like her debut record-breaking “drivers license,” the singer-songwriter’s latest single transforms the everyday into the extraordinary with the same hypnotizing vocals that earned her an eight-week reign over the Billboard Hot 100.
“I really like descriptive, narrative-based songwriting, so we tried to do that in the verses and paint pictures of all the specific things that you do in a relationship,” Rodrigo told American Songwriter over the phone about “deja vu,” produced by her frequent collaborator and co-writer Dan Nigro. She arrived at their session last fall with a standout line saved in her phone’s Notes app—“When she’s with you, do you get deja vu?”—and that question became the song’s resounding chorus.
“I get deja vu all the time,” Rodrigo explained, adding, “I thought it’d be interesting to write a song, using deja vu, about how sometimes when somebody moves on in a relationship and they get with a new partner, you watch it and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, that was all of the stuff that I did.’ I think that’s a really relatable, universal thing.”
This concept evolved into a story set in Malibu, with Rodrigo imagining vivid details— often “completely made up,” she said—to build out the plot and immerse the listener in her scenes.
A longtime country music fan, Rodrigo credits the genre and artists like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift for inspiring her narrative-based approach to songwriting. It’s important to hear “people telling stories in their own words,” she said, “and [be] able to feel the air that they’re feeling, see the things they’re seeing, and smell the things they’re smelling.”
“Deja vu” engages many of these senses; you taste ice cream melting under Malibu sun, hear Billy’s piano notes, and feel the intimacy behind a couple’s inside jokes. (That was our place / I found it first / I made the jokes you tell to her is Rodrigo’s favorite line.) The more specific the lyrics, the more the track resonates, because the details bring the emotion to life.
“Every little feeling for me is always very heightened,” Rodrigo said about finding magic in the mundane. “That’s sometimes a blessing and a curse, but in my songwriting, I feel like it definitely helps… paying attention to little things and being like, oh, maybe that could be a song. Getting your driver’s license, it’s very menial. Everybody does it, but after a long time you realize little experiences can be translated into art… I’m learning how to observe the world through a songwriter’s lens.”
Some songs come easy to her. “deja vu” was not one of them. Its bright synths and melodies were challenging to perfect, because they’re so different from the sad breakup ballads she’s known for. This was “out of [her] comfort zone,” she admitted, but it was a chance to try new sounds and see where her powerful voice could take her.
“I love pop pop music, like down the middle, absolute bubblegum pop music… I would love to write a big pop song,” Rodrigo said about what she’d like to explore in the future. “Maybe it wouldn’t even be one that I sing, but I love catchy, anthemic pop songs, and I want to learn how to write one.”
Collaborations bring a fresh perspective to Rodrigo’s songwriting. Her music career began in her bedroom, where she’d pen songs by herself—a process “you can only learn so much from,” she said. In 2020, she started teaming up with other artists to take her “bedroom piano songs” up a notch. Max Martin and Joel Little are two Grammy-winning producers she’d like to work with someday, simply to watch them do their thing and learn from their expertise.
For now, “drivers license” and “deja vu” serve as promising preludes to Rodrigo’s growing catalog of original music. Her debut album is due out May 21, and though details are under wraps, something tells us she’ll be singing stories worth listening to.
“When you’re writing something and you finish it and you listen back to it and it’s exactly where your head is at… you feel so seen and understood, even if it’s just by yourself,” Rodrigo said about why she returns to songwriting time and time again. “That’s a feeling that I love. Songwriting’s just like therapy, I think.”
Photo by Stefan Kohli