How Daniel Nigro Went From Indie Rocker to 'Drivers License' Co-Writer

The former As Tall As Lions frontman talks Olivia Rodrigo's record-breaking hit and how being in a band informed his pop songwriting.
JT
Chicago, US
March 3, 2021, 6:41pm
Daniel Nigro by Rachel Artime
Photo by Rachel Artime 

The week Olivia Rodrigo dropped her now-ubiquitous, chart-dominating, Saturday Night Live skit-worthy song "Drivers License," the song's co-writer and producer Daniel Nigro was freaking out. The fan and critical response to the track was overwhelmingly positive, and Spotify announced that it broke the record for the most-streamed song in a single week ever. "I was literally having a panic attack for the first few days it came out," said the 38-year-old Los Angeles-based musician. "My neck was almost pulsing because I was like, 'What the fuck is going on?' I was so shocked. Absolutely not in any way did we think it'd have this impact." 

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Now, "Drivers License" has dominated Billboard's Hot 100 with a seven week-and-counting stay at No. 1. In Billboard's 62-year-history, the track is the 48th ever to debut at No. 1, which is a feat that's even more rare once you factor in that this is Rodrigo's debut single. While the success belongs to Rodrigo, the song's primary songwriter and performer, it's also validating for her collaborator Nigro, who's had a journeyman career that's taken him from bandleader of the influential pop-rock act As Tall As Lions to freelance songwriter and producer for pop acts like Rodrigo, Conan Gray, Caroline Polachek, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sky Ferreira, and dozens more. 

"I realize I'm okay at navigating my job because I played in a band for 10 years with three other very emotional, crazy people—myself probably being the most emotional crazy of the four of us," said Nigro. "Having those experiences with my bandmates has really helped me work with so many different artists, because I'm able to understand what they're going through and get them to feel open enough to be who they actually are." 

Growing up in Long Island, New York, a fan of both pop music like TLC, Mariah Carey, and No Doubt, as well as grunge acts like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Nigro started a band with his childhood friends called As Tall As Lions. Their anthemic pop-rock made him and his bandmates outlier to the region's dominant emo and hardcore scenes. Despite this, the successes of local bands in the genre like Taking Back Sunday and Brand New led to label feeding frenzy in the area and a record deal with Triple Crown Records. "When we signed we were 19," said Nigro. "Even though my favorite bands were Radiohead, Coldplay, and Bjork, and wanted the band to make atmospheric rock, we were lumped in with all these emo bands." 

While As Tall As Lions' 2004 debut Lafcadio was soft and scrappy rock with explosive choruses and Nigro's soaring falsetto, they really found their sound on their gorgeous 2006 self-titled follow-up. That record boasted expansive and adventurous rock arrangements anchored with truly pristine vocal melodies. It received rave reviews from Stereogum and Alternative Press, garnering the band a sizable following and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. "I loved touring and seeing new places, but by the time I was l 23 or 24, I was really not happy," said Nigro. "I learned after doing it for a few years that I don't like being on tour and being away from my friends and my family. I'm not that person: I'm very much a homebody who likes routine." 

The band released an EP in 2007, and their last album, You Can't Take It With You, in 2009. That LP was markedly more experimental and showcased the four members of the band's diverging tastes. "Everyone wanted the band to go in different directions," said Nigro. "Because we were so tired from all the touring and were all creatively at different points, I was the one who came in and brought up the discussion about the band breaking up." In 2010, after nearly a decade together, the band amicably split. "It was a really hard moment because when you're younger your identity is wrapped up in your career," said Nigro. "So it's like, ‘if you're not the singer of this band, then who are you?’" 

After attempting to start a solo project and a period of soul-searching, Nigro moved to Los Angeles in the early 2010s to write music with his childhood friend Justin Raisen, a songwriter and producer who worked with then-rising producer Ariel Rechtshaid's songwriting company. "When I wrote a song with Justin, it literally just clicked in my head," said Nigro. "I realized this is what I want to be doing. I want to be writing songs with the freedom to just do it myself." Raisen and Nigro began working together relentlessly, developing song ideas and recording short demos. Though Nigro said that their first couple of years collaborating provided "no success whatsoever," their break eventually when Sky Ferreira enlisted them for a handful of songs on her 2013 debut studio album Night Time, My Time in singles "I Blame Myself" and "You're Not the One."


The critical acclaim from Ferreira's album opened the door for Nigro to work with more artists and on his own, but it came at a cost. "It was very similar to when I was in the band where all of a sudden everyone's paying attention to you and you get so excited you're not actually focusing on the things that you should be focusing on," said Nigro. "I just started doing random sessions and would end up with a crappy song." He said it wasn't until 2017 when he had a realization about how he works best. "What I'm good at is helping facilitate an artist's ideas into fruition," he said. "I started to gravitate towards people who had really interesting voices with great perspective on what they wanted to say. If they come in with a great song concept, I can help them flesh out the lyrics, the melody." 

Nigro began working with rising artists like Empress Of and Chairlift's Caroline Polachek, co-writing and producing with the latter on 2019 singles like "Door," "Look At Me Now," and "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings." He also began a fruitful collaboration with fledgling Republic-signed pop singer Conan Gray, producing and co-writing several of his singles and the majority of songs on his 2020 album Kid Krow. "To break down a normal writing session, usually when I work with an artist like Conan or Caroline, 95 percent of the time, it's just me and them in the room alone," said Nigro. "That's how I work best. People write their best stuff a lot of times when they're alone and I want them to feel completely unguarded."

According to the New York Times' "Diary of a Song" on "Drivers License," Nigro saw a video of Rodrigo singing on Instagram, was floored by her songwriting and voice, and asked to collaborate. During one of their writing sessions, Rodrigo played Nigro a piano-based song idea about getting her driver’s license, which was originally sung entirely in falsetto. Nigro convinced her to belt the lines instead, saying in the video, "I felt like we were on fire because we wrote it so fast." His main contribution to the track comes in the explosive bridge. "My proudest moment with 'Driver's License' is the fact that the bridge is what it is," he said. "Maybe wanting to add bridges into pop songs comes from being in a band wanting to be like Queen and Radiohead or even Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson to write songs that take you on adventures." 

The instant, world-dominating success for the song surprised Nigro. "I genuinely thought it was like something really special because of the fact that it was downtempo and sort of a piano ballad so I was just hoping people liked it too," said Nigro. Now that it's been the global No. 1 hit for weeks, he sees his world changing. "Obviously there are new people who are interested in what you're doing who want to work with you, which has happened on such a crazy scale that it's becoming actual comedy," he said. "I'm 38 years old, and it took me until recently to actually realize what I was good at doing. Now, I don't want to change."