Hitmaker of the Month: Interscope Geffen A&Ms Co-Head of A&R Sam Riback on Olivia Rodrigos Economy of Words

Sam Riback knows a hit when he hears one.

Take Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single “Drivers License,” for instance. Though no one could have fully predicted its success — reaching No. 1 on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon overnight, breaking the Spotify record for the biggest debut single by a female artist and topping the Billboard Hot 100 for eight consecutive weeks — Riback, EVP and co-head of A&R at Interscope Geffen A&M (IGA), says that he and his team knew they had something special on their hands.

“It was one of those moments where we all were like, ‘We have one here, and this is a special, special song,’” says Riback, Variety’s Hitmaker of the Month for August, says of hearing the track’s final mix. “And we were kind of doing the premature high five before we actually released it into the world, and it became even bigger than we ever could have imagined.”

But Rodrigo is far from Riback’s first success. After landing a job as an assistant to Craig Kallman, Atlantic Records co-chairman and CEO, out of college, Riback rose up the ranks at the label, eventually becoming senior vice president and head of west coast A&R. At the Warner Music label, Riback signed left-of-center acts like Charli XCX, Bloc Party, Santigold and Fitz and the Tantrums, and also worked with the likes of Lizzo and Janelle Monáe. Riback moved to IGA in 2016, where he has helped develop the careers of some of the biggest names in the business: Billie Eilish, Imagine Dragons, Selena Gomez and Blackpink, to name a few.

Riback ended up signing Rodrigo to Geffen Records during the pandemic, through which she released her mega-successful debut album, “Sour,” in May. Here, Riback speaks with Variety about Rodrigo, the overnight success of “Drivers License” and why the 18-year-old is one of the most talented songwriters he has ever encountered.

When did Rodrigo first come on your radar?

She came onto the radar for me personally around when “All I Want” came out into the world during “High School Musical.” It was flagged to me by the research team as a song that was kind of moving. I was really impressed by how it was crafted and how put-together of a composition it was, which led us to reach out to her and her team and see if she had more music behind this one moment. We really got a chance to dig into some of her sketches and demos. And as soon as we did that, we realized that we’re dealing with a pretty special songwriter, aside from just her star quality and the general information that was already out into the world via the “High School Musical” platform that she had.

What was your first impression of her music?

What impressed me was just her storytelling and the economy of words that she used in her songwriting, where it was like giving you such a vivid picture of what she was trying to portray in each song. I was just really impressed with how she was able to get across these things — so you could not only hear them, but visualize the whole picture of what she was trying to paint.

When did you know that you wanted to sign her? What made her stand out from your perspective?

So we met her for the first time pre-pandemic, and we had a great initial hang with her. We started to get some of her reference points and what she was trying to work toward with her project that she was going to be working on. And she was really approaching pop music from a left-of-center point of view, and that really got us excited. There was an edge to it — definitely something that we felt like were the seeds of what “Sour” inevitably became. We met once and then we kind of kept the dialogue going through the pandemic — there were some more Zoom conversations and various sort of things — but we ended up signing her during the pandemic, which was bizarre. We had a masked signing moment in in Pan-Pacific Park in Los Angeles, which was pretty funny.

Did you expect “Drivers License” to be as big of a hit as it was?

Hindsight’s always 20/20. We knew the song was a special song, that’s what we knew for sure. And we knew that it was an impressive first step to the music that we were going to be releasing for her. Did we know it was going to be this global smash that would break all these records? No, but we did know it was an incredible song and the perfect first step for what we were trying to paint for this album campaign. It’s proven to be one of those timeless copyrights.

What do you think it was about “Drivers License” that struck a chord with so many people? 

That’s a really good question. How it related to so many people I still can’t put my finger on. What I can say is I just think that narrative and that story and that feeling that you get from that vocal performance, as well as just the climactic nature of how it was produced and put together, it’s something that I think everyone has felt via relationships at some point in their life. The thing that’s special about that song is not only the song itself, but how she delivers that song vocally and the performance of it. Because it’s something that you definitely feel as much as you hear, and I gotta imagine that everybody has felt that way in their history of significant others.

Take us back to when “Drivers License” started breaking streaming records — what was going through your mind? What was your strategy in setting up the DSP rollout for the song?

There was definitely some long-lead strategy to it of making sure we have the right visuals, the right social media engagement, all of those things you do when you’re releasing a record. But then sometimes songs just take on a life of their own, and this was definitely one of those cases where you can set it up all the right way, but then the song went on to perform in ways where it just hit every corner of the internet pretty quickly.

How did the plan for her album rollout take form from there? I know it was just supposed to be an EP, how did the transition to an album go down?

We were originally thinking along the lines of an EP and we kind of had a tracklist in mind, and then when “Drivers License” started to really explode, she was feeling really inspired and she’s always constantly writing. There was a moment where we were like, “Do you feel like this is an EP or an album?” and she’s like, “You know what? I feel like I wanna go for an album. I’ve always thought of myself as an album artist and you know, how I wanna be seen in this world.” And credit to her, we just hunkered down, she grabbed the pen and just got going on the writing and she just challenged herself and “Sour” came to be. I’m just so impressed she could challenge herself to complete a full body of work and she pulled it off.

“Good 4 U” has been another major chart-topper. What do you think has made that song stand out as a potential song of the summer?

I think with this song, it’s just again the feeling you get. I don’t know, I’m attached to all the songs and I feel like they all kind of stand on their own as works, but this one, it’s just the energy of it. I feel like I can literally hear everybody in a room or a concert or getting ready to go out or in a car or at a party — there’s such a communal, chanty nature to what that chorus does and the sentiment of what “Good 4 U” means.

Who first connected Olivia with Dan Nigro and how did that relationship take form?

In the early days of when you sign an artist and you’re trying to develop a sound, there’s kind of this dating period of trying out different producers and collaborators. We’re always looking for, as A&R people, when you start to hear some seeds of some magic being created. Dan, I think got introduced to Olivia through her publisher and Matt [Morris] on my A&R team. And we heard some initial sessions of them creating together, and as soon as we heard some of what they were working on, we were like, “There’s something going on here.” And then we talked to Olivia, and she was really excited about what they were doing creatively. I think Dan also really challenged Olivia, which was great. They just found a nice yin and yang that allowed them to create a great creative partnership. I think “Jealousy, Jealousy” was the first song we heard that they did together, where I was like, “There’s something really cool going on between these two.”

What has it been like seeing the overwhelming response to “Sour” as a whole?

Honestly, it’s just been so awesome to watch Olivia navigate this new world of everything’s this album has brought her — and she deserves every minute of it. Nothing prepares you for these kind of rocket ships that take off, and Olivia has risen to every occasion. I’m just so proud of as the stage keeps getting bigger for her, she just keeps rising to it. Whether it was the Brit Awards or the “SNL” performance or now going to the White House and using her platform to speak on such important issues of youth vaccination. This is literally just the beginning of her career, and she’s really handling every step of it like a professional. If this is where we’re at now, I’m so excited to see where we’re going.

What has been your favorite part and what has been the most challenging part of seeing Olivia grow into such a huge sensation and rising pop star?

I think my favorite part is just how she keeps maintaining the core of who she is as all this is happening. She has experienced fame before this happened, but this is definitely on another level. I think as we continue to watch this all go down, she just is still the same Olivia that we met the first day. Obviously there’s changes and she’s evolving and growing, but I think the core of who she is hasn’t changed one bit and she’s just a special person. As far as the tough thing, it’s just time. When you’re breaking on such a massive global level, you get pulled in so many different directions. I think as a team and as people around Olivia, we want her to enjoy every moment of this but we also want to make sure she carves out some time for herself to just reflect and stay cool in what this crazy world will bring you as this is all happening.

What do you hope for Olivia’s future?

I honestly just want her to keep living life, and keep documenting it in only the way she can. I think as that happens, this career is going to be a very long, successful, fruitful career. Because I think she is, probably — you know, I’ve been doing A&R for 20 years — and she’s potentially one of the most, if not the most talented songwriter I’ve ever been around. And it’s pretty effortless for her. I think that’s always why I’m like, “Liv, you just gotta live more life so you can write more stories and add more fuel to that writing fire.” There’s artists that write because they’re trying to complete something, and then there’s artists that need to write just to release all the things that are going through in their head — and she’s definitely one of those artists.

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