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The Big Read – Clairo: “I don’t rely on anyone else”

Along with Billie Eilish, King Princess, Cuco and more, Clairo is a young, self-made artist who's redefining the pop landscape in 2019, creating lo-fi, leftfield songs that paint her as the big sister to her legions of young fans. Rhian Daly catches up with her in Detroit, Michigan to hear how teenage viral success, a crush on director Sofia Coppola and the support of her fellow Z-pack artists helped her embrace fame.

The kids have taken over. Lil Nas X has the US charts wrapped up in his lasso. Billie Eilish is a bona fide phenomenon across the globe. The alternative sphere is packed with bright young things proudly carving out their own niches, like King Princess, Soccer Mommy, Cuco and Omar Apollo. And then there’s Clairo – aka 20-year-old Claire Cottrill – whose quiet, deeply personal pop feels like she’s whispering secrets in your ear, even as she sings them from arena stages.

So far, this new crop of stars have made being unwittingly thrust into the limelight look effortless. Cottrill was catapulted from the life of an ordinary Massachusetts teenager to internet sensation in August 2017, when she uploaded a video to YouTube for her track ‘Pretty Girl’ – a languid, lo-fi pop song about trying to be perfect for a partner, even if that means not being true to yourself. In the webcam-recorded clip, she sat in her bedroom, last night’s make-up still slightly visible on her face, pulling the kind of moves that are almost exclusively pulled in bedrooms alone. It was goofy, a little awkward, and quickly became a viral success.

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“It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever been through, but one of the best things as well,” she says now of the attention that moment brought her and how it forced her to grow up in public over the last two years. Her eyes wander to her left, her reflections distracted by the arrival of security dogs conducting a pre-show sweep of Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena. She shakes the puppy-enamoured grin from her face as they move on and picks up her train of thought. “I closed myself off for a little bit because I didn’t want to let anyone else know more about me. I felt like they already saw what they needed to see in order to have an opinion, I guess, and I think I was just so pissed off that everyone had to have an opinion about me.”

Cottrill had found herself in the uncomfortable position of having strangers online trying to dig up any information they could about her and her family. When someone discovered her dad was a marketing executive with ties to the music industry, inhabitants of the less forgiving corners of the web put two and two together and came up with five. Their conclusion was that this buzzy newcomer was an “industry plant” whose viral success was a front for a savvy plan cooked up by her father, because young women achieving anything – in music and beyond – is still something that arouses suspicion and sends people scurrying to find a male figure to credit as the secret mastermind behind their achievements.

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Soon the then-teenager realised there was still a positive side to having her life so out in the open and the vulnerability she felt because of that. People had initially connected with her music and propelled her to this position in the first place because of how unguarded she was, and locking away that side of her would only weaken the music she was making. “I could never write a record that wasn’t about something I’d experienced,” she shrugs.

Sharing so much of herself with strangers took some getting used to but it helped that the internet was like a little home for her before she gained any recognition. “It was my place that I almost hid,” she says of her life online during high school. “It was my place where I could just put things I was working on, whether it was videos or songs or ideas, and it was safe because no one was looking.” After ‘Pretty Girl’ blew up, people could Google Cottrill’s name and delve through her earliest tracks or peruse final projects she’d made for school and build up a picture of her. “I’ve grown to love the fact that they can see who I was before it all happened and they can see who I am after, and hopefully that I’m the same person.”

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Talking to Cottrill, there’s a sense of normalcy to her that makes you think she probably really is just as she was when she was just another anonymous teen on the internet. She’s warm and funny, ready to laugh at herself always, and a master of giving contemplative answers peppered with the “whatevers” and “fucks” of a typical 20-year-old.

A trawl through her Bandcamp page reinforces that feeling. It’s like a living archive of two years in the life of a music-obsessed teenager, writing and recording in her bedroom in the small town of Carlisle, Massachusetts, and uploading the lo-fi-to-the-extreme results in the hopes of kickstarting something bigger. The first collection still available to listen to is ‘do u wanna fall in love?’, three bitesize songs from 2014 that sound like they were recorded on a phone placed up against a guitar amp, the chords wailing and buzzing into the red and smothering Cottrill’s soft voice in noise.

“Yikes!” she grimaces when she’s reminded of those first footsteps into the music world. “I definitely did not know what the hell I was doing. I was just writing about relationships that I’d never had and pretending that I knew what that was like. For a while, I was scared about writing my own music. I was afraid it was going to be bad.” By the time you get to the last upload on the page, 2016’s ‘brains a bus station’, you can feel those mists of fear starting to clear, a new confidence in both songwriting and bedroom recording settling in.

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Cottrill has previously described her school experience as one of flitting between friend groups and not feeling like she belonged to any one clique, which perhaps explains the independent streak that runs through her whole story. She didn’t really talk to her school friends about her music-making and, given how diaristic her songwriting has always been (“I have this feeling in my gut/That this could be something good for us/Cos when I see you again/I think of you as more than just a friend,” she sighs on 2015’s ‘Blue Eyes’), adding other people into the mix might have taken away her space to let out her insecurities and innermost feelings – even if they were cloaked in fantasy back then. Her decision to learn how to play guitar, she says, wasn’t based on a love of any band in particular, but more a self-sufficient need. “I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else,” she reasons. “When it came to me wanting to sing a song and perform something, I was just like, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna do it.’” That attitude is one you can see in her peers as well, as if it’s a pre-loaded trait of creative Gen Z-ers to not wait around for someone else to make things happen for them.

She mostly taught herself all her guitar skills, too. When she first picked up the instrument at 13 she took some formal lessons, but her impatience got the better of her and she quickly replaced her teacher with YouTube tutorials. “Instead of wanting to learn the first songs you learn to play, I just automatically wanted to start playing songs that I knew,” she explains. She started copying the hand movements in the videos she studied until she could figure out how to play along with bands like Weezer.

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Despite that youthful determination, Cottrill thought her lifelong dream of being a professional musician wasn’t going to happen for her before that unassuming YouTube smash, ‘Pretty Girl’, changed everything.

She enlisted on a music business course at Syracuse University so she could “at least be involved in music”. Then, her moment came. After a year of juggling fledgling stardom with taking class, she made the decision to drop out. “It took a lot to even convince my parents to let me leave school. But they definitely see this as a career now.”

Free from dorm rooms and lecture halls, she put out her debut EP, ‘Diary 001’, and almost immediately hit the road with Dua Lipa, followed by her own short European tour. “We were all like, ‘Whatever, it’s probably not gonna be anything crazy’, and then it just continued to get more wild,” she says.

Ask her how she’s changed since getting caught up in this whirlwind and the 20-year-old will give you a typically thoughtful answer.

“I’ve tried to be more conscious of how I speak about myself and others,” she begins, harking back to her high school days once again to illustrate her point. Whenever she was going through something back then, she’d confide in her mum about how she was feeling. “I’d be saying all these terrible things about myself – I’m not confident, I don’t like things about who I am or how I look – and she’d say, ‘You wouldn’t say what you’re saying right now to the nine-year-old you. If you did, you’d hurt her feelings and make her cry. Why would you do that? You’re an asshole. Don’t do that!’”

Cottrill laughs at the memory. “As I’ve learned more about how to navigate through this experience as an artist, I’d like to look at everyone as nine-year-olds – including myself – and learn to treat everyone kindly. Talking bad about others and yourself won’t get you anywhere.”

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On her debut album ‘Immunity’, Cottrill plays the sympathetic older sibling to her listeners. As she guides you through her experiences of the last couple of years – some happy, some sad – it feels like she’s sharing these stories to give comfort to anyone going through something similar, as well as to document her life. Regardless of mood, every song is delivered in typical Clairo fashion – low-key, intimate, beautiful.

Some of the record deals with Cottrill’s journey of self-discovery in terms of her sexuality. Although she came out to her fans last year, it’s not something she’s quite finished working out just yet and it’s taken her a while to be comfortable with who she’s attracted to. “I was talking to Mikaela from King Princess one night about what I was going through [with my sexuality],” she explains. “She told me I was having a ‘gay sob’, which I guess meant that I was overly emotional about the whole experience because it had been so pent up my whole life. This record is a good observation of that time where I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m finally talking about this.’”

The infectious Strokes-y banger ‘Sofia’ is one of ‘Immunity’’s number that’s helped her “feel so fucking good about liking women.” It’s dedicated to the famous ladies (Sofia Coppola, Sofia Vergara) she first felt that fluttery feeling of infatuation for and marks a big celebratory moment in Cottrill’s life so far. She says the day she got the demo back is one she’ll remember forever, one where she felt, after all the struggles and anxiety, everything had worked out because “I was able to jump around my room about how happy I was that I had a crush on [film director] Sofia Coppola.”

The jittery pop of ‘Bags’ brings her old feelings of uncertainty closer to home. On it, she tells the story of being into a good friend and tussling with the idea of telling her how she felt. “Can you see me? I’m waiting for the right time/I can’t read you but, if you want, the pleasure’s all mine,” she sings in the chorus, her nerves plainly audible. “The whole song has this nervous energy,” Cottrill nods. “There’s a mix of really calculated parts to reflect the calculated energy you have in a first experience with someone and moments where it feels really playful, like flirtiness.”

Recently, she’s been interested in the idea of “having the songs speak back to the lyrics.” By that she means being able to identify the story of a song even if you’re only given the instrumental parts and a rudimentary description of it. That notion is evident in ‘Sofia’, the moment when everything erupts into this crunchy, fizzing distortion representing the explosive feeling of “finally vocalising things that you’ve kept to yourself”. It’s also the reason behind the lashings of Auto-Tune on the record – a tool Cottrill deploys to symbolise communication in relationships and the obstacles that block that two-way street.

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One such track is ‘I Wouldn’t Ask You’, which details a relationship Cottrill had at university that was affected by her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. There were times when the condition meant she couldn’t walk as fast as everyone else, her arms wouldn’t extend fully, or her knees would swell up. “My partner was constantly taking care of me,” she says, explaining how they’d drive her to class and carry her up the stairs at their apartment. “I always felt so terrible and it really took a toll.”

Arthritis is fairly common in young people, but still is more widely linked to wrinkly old people who are considered to have already seen their glory days. “It changed the way I look at myself,” she says, explaining how it piled even more insecurities into her brain during a time of your life when you’ve already got quite enough of those to deal with. The physical effects of the disease made her feel “less than”. When she wanted to be desirable to her then-partner, she instead felt like a patient or a child that needed looking after. As she speaks about the burden that put on her mental health, the lights in the arena dressing room suddenly go out, as if they’re trying to give a visual aid of how she felt at the time.

The song also features a choir of nine-year-olds, inspired both by her mum’s aforementioned wisdom and how ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ incorporated children’s voices. After the kids had laid down their vocals, Cottrill spent an hour interviewing them, asking them questions about their best friends and how they dealt with people being mean to them. “They were like, ‘I usually call my mum’ or ‘I rely on my friends’,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘You sound like me. It’s not gonna work on the album if you sound like a 20-year-old!’”

Those children aren’t the only guests to play a part in ‘Immunity’. Danielle Haim plays drums on ‘Sofia’ and ‘Bags’, while Vampire Weekend founding member Rostam Batmanglij was recruited to assist with production and writing – a “full circle moment” for a big Vampy Weeks fan. “I remember listening to ‘California English’ for the first time and being like, Whaaaat?!’” Cottrill says with a dramatic gasp. “That whole era was so important for music and so important for my upbringing with music. It’s so funny to think about how important Vampire Weekend is to me and to be able to work with Rostam on my debut.”

Those big names shouldn’t overshadow Cottrill’s own work on ‘Immunity’. She worked on the production of six of the songs herself, including some of the album’s best and most ambitious moments. “I’m not necessarily the most educated on how to do things, but I definitely have the ideas to execute,” she shrugs, adding that, even if she isn’t a ProTools expert, it’s still her that makes all the decisions on her tracks.

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Being in complete control is a quality Cottrill shares with many of the young musicians making waves in music right now, including Billie Eilish, King Princess, Cuco, Omar Apollo, and more. Like her, those artists have all naturally built loyal fanbases of fellow young people, no old school marketing tactics required, by just acting like young people online. They share their random thoughts, likes and dislikes, and funny moments from hangtime with their friends on Twitter and Instagram just like everyone else their age. Even when they’re up on the pedestal of a venue stage, they address the crowds in front of them as if they’re on equal footing. “They speak for the kids,” Cottrill identifies as one reason why so many people have latched onto that group. “They’re relatable people and they have a strong connection with the people who listen to them – they don’t see it as this fan-artist relationship. It’s all about friendship.”

That bond extends to the musicians themselves, too. Cottrill says they all support each other, going to each other’s shows, hanging out at festivals, and chatting online, but she singles Apollo, Cuco, and Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan out as those she’s closest to. Being able to talk to them about what she’s experienced over the last two years has been important for her, even if she thought no one would get what she was going through at first. “It can feel like such an individual experience, you can feel pretty lonely,” she explains. “No one’s going through the exact same thing as you – some things are kind of similar but not entirely the same. But then I’ve had so many conversations, whether it’s with Cuco or Lindsey or Mikaela, and they’ll understand. Having that community is something that I hold really dear to me.”

While everyone in that group is doing exceptional things, Cottrill says their goals have a shared simpleness. “I just want to maintain the relationship I have with the people who listen to my music and continue to make full records,” she says of her own specific aims. “I’m more inspired now than ever to make music.” Backed by her gaggle of talented pals and growing increasingly comfortable in her own skin, her future looks as bright as the fiery orange ponytail that bobs into view as she waves goodbye and heads off to get ready to befriend another legion of new mates at tonight’s show.

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