“She wanted the authenticity and the push and pull of the music. I thought, ‘We're going to need to do this live’”: Dan Nigro on recording Olivia Rodrigo’s GUTS

dan nigro and olivia rodrigo
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As anyone who’s ever seen a band play live can testify, there’s something undeniably magical about live instrumentation. Feeling the roar of the guitars or the punch of the drums in real-time, maybe just metres from the stage, can be a near-spiritual experience.  

So, as a musician, when you get the chance to capture some semblance of that experience in a recording, there’s good cause to be excited. This excitement is something producer Dan Nigro delves deep into for an interview with the Recording Academy, reflecting on his Grammy nomination. 

Nigro, formerly the lead singer and guitarist of indie rock outfit As Tall As Lions, is now a celebrated songwriter and producer for the likes of Caroline Polachek, Chappel Roan, and, of course, Olivia Rodrigo. He helped bag the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album on Rodrigo's debut album, SOUR.

Discussing Olivia Rodrigo’s 2023 album GUTS, Nigro explains how the pair decided to record some of the songs live, building on a couple of particularly shaky demos. 

“I remember we went in to record ‘all american bitch’ and ‘ballad of a homeschooled girl,’” Nigro says. “We went into the studio, had the musicians there, and I had it all mapped out in a Pro-Tools sketch, like a really bad demo. But we didn't know if we'd actually achieve it or come back two days later and say, ‘Wow, that was a waste of money and time.’” 

While GUTS-lovers may balk at the idea that either of these songs could have ended their lives as “bad” demos, fellow musicians might be a little more sympathetic to Nigro’s apprehensions. 

Recording live is a notoriously tricky business as there’s much less margin for error - sure, you can punch in the odd vocal take or nudge a guitar here and there, but the musicians need to be far more on point.

Rodrigo herself, describing to her partner-in-crime what she wanted the songs to “sound like and feel like” helped put the focus on live recordings for the album.

I just thought, "We're going to need to do this live." That's fun to do, but I had never done it with her or a big pop artist before

“She [wanted] the authenticity and the push and pull of the music,” Nigro says. “I just thought, "We're going to need to do this live." That's fun to do, but I had never done it with her or a big pop artist before.” It all worked out in the end, though, as Nigro explains - “When I was back in my home studio and listened to it with fresh ears a week later, I was like, "This feels good!" The songs that were the missing links to the record were there,” Nigro says. 

The “push and pull of the music” that the pair were striving for is palpable in the final product, which has a sound that Nigro’s interviewer praises for bringing “actual instruments” back into the charts. 

Where some of the songs allude to the quieter, more morose style of Rodrigo’s breakout hit ‘drivers license’ - take ‘making the bed’ for example, or ‘lacy’, which Noah Kahan covered recently  - many of the tracks on this album have a much more expansive sound.

There’s a contrast to this “push and pull” that renders itself on the album as well which, from Nigro’s perspective, is key. He rejects the idea that all songs should be entirely “singular” suggesting instead that, in certain cases, music should take the listener on a journey between two distinct destinations.  

“I think it's important on a lot of records to have a few songs where you go on a journey. If you listen to the first half of a song you couldn't tell what the last half would sound like,” he says.  

You can hear this idea reflected loud and clear on ‘all american bitch', which blends seamlessly from the light folksy guitars of the verses into the blinding distortion of the choruses. 

Rodrigo and Nigro stuck true to their roots

By leaning just as heavily into a voluminous rock sound on GUTS as she did on her previous album, Rodrigo is shaking off criticisms that her sound is little more than a rip-off of earlier pop-rock tropes.

So what if ‘good 4 u’ sounds a bit like Paramore’s 2007 hit ‘Misery Business’, she seems to suggest - it's merely a sound that both artists are tapping into. 

Musicians and producers have long yearned for the sound of generations past, seeking to give their music some edge by way of a nod to the old school, and everyone appreciates a bit of musical nostalgia - why else would we all have started buying vinyl again?  

It’s not as if Nigro and Rodrigo went completely back to the stone age, either. It's tempting to think that, for such a raw sound, Nigro pared back all his high-end equipment and went full Kurt Cobain, but in reality, the trappings of the modern world are still very much present on GUTS.

“We actually recorded it on a very fancy mic. But it's a plugin in Pro Tools, I think it's called Vintage Vinyl from a company that made it sound like it was recorded in the 60s or something. I wish I could say we used an old vintage mic on that, but we didn't,” he says. 

Nigro doesn’t spill all his secrets though, and one may only wonder as to how he made Rodrigo sound like a chorus of scared children on a rollercoaster at the end of ‘all american bitch’. What he does detail, though, is the importance of the album’s recording space.

"We enjoyed making SOUR, and it felt like a special moment for both of us in our lives, and it was all done in the home studio. So we decided very early on, ‘Why would we want to change that up just because we're more successful now?’” he says. 

We enjoyed making SOUR, and it felt like a special moment for both of us in our lives, and it was all done in the home studio

“But when we worked on SOUR, I lived here while we were making it, but I don't anymore. It's the same place, but now the entire house is the studio. The only thing that's changed is that one of the bedrooms that was my bedroom is the live room with a drum set, organ and piano,” Nigro says.

This homely backdrop seems to go hand-in-hand with Nigro’s ethos as a producer and his penchant for process. Though others might prefer to “record something quickly” and label it the finished product there and then, Nigro prefers to let a project develop more naturally. 

Whatever his secret is, GUTS remains a rocky powerhouse of an album, and one that successfully captures a little of that on-stage magic that the pair set out to recreate. 

Read the full interview with Dan Nigro on the GRAMMY Awards' website.

George Fitzmaurice

Though a full-time tech journalist at ITPro, George Fitzmaurice finds time to indulge his love for music by writing up the occasional piece for MusicRadar. When he’s not keying in a drum pattern on FL Studio or (infrequently) practicing the guitar, George enjoys finding hidden gems on Spotify and going to live shows.