Clairo: “I was too scared to think domesticity could be something I crave”

How the singer-songwriter – with the help of an adorable Chow Chow-Pyrenees puppy named Joanie – came home again on breathtaking new album ‘Sling’

When Clairo retreated to her family home in Atlanta at the start of the pandemic, she didn’t expect it to be such a revelatory time for her. But, as for many others across the world, our era inside saw the musician going through a seismic, existential shift that saw her question her future, past and present, and formed the foundations for her breathtaking second album, ‘Sling’.

“Albums are usually made when you’re on the brink of discovering something about yourself,” Claire Cottrill reasons, propped up against a stack of pillows in her New York apartment. By the time you read this, she will have left this home for her new “mountain house” in Massachusetts, a direct result of the things she unearthed about herself in 2020 and the start of 2021. “That couldn’t have happened without my time spent at home with my family,” she notes.

‘Sling’, co-produced by Jack Antonoff (the Bleachers frontman has become something of an uber-producer for the likes of Lana Del Rey and Lorde) at upstate New York’s Allaire Studios, is snug and ornate, full of strings and woodwind, piano and the fluid curves of notes played on lap steel guitar; a classic ’70s singer-songwriter album made in the here-and-now. It continues the 22-year-old’s tradition of “penning lyrics that make you feel like you’re listening to hushed secrets from a friend”, as NME put it in a five-star review of her 2019 debut album ‘Immunity’. That openness and vulnerability is part of what’s made her such a beloved artist; a relatable shoulder to lean on when you’re going through your own struggles.

NME Cover 2021 Clairo
Clairo on the cover of NME

It’s a feeling that’s always been present in Cottrill’s music – from the simple, sweet crush story of 2015’s ‘Bubble Gum’, to the loss of identity in a relationship in the lo-fi pop of her 2017 viral breakout track ‘Pretty Girl’. But ‘Immunity’ refined the theme, bringing bonafide success to the young artist. Despite her dreams of becoming a professional musician coming true, she still “always felt like something was missing”.

At home, she began to figure out what that was, landing on a surprising conclusion: domesticity. It wasn’t a realisation she came to straight away, but one that unravelled with time. When she adopted her dog Joanie – named after Joni Mitchell, but spelt differently “just so it’s not entirely creepy” – last December, it suddenly clicked. “By getting Joanie, I realised that domestic life is very comforting for me and a huge chunk of what was missing,” Cottrill smiles.

Did it come as a revelation to recognise that responsibility for another living creature – and having to be in one place to fulfil that duty – could fill that void? “Of course!” she exclaims, eyes widening below her choppy fringe and cosy blue hoodie. “If anyone ever came up to me and presented the idea to me, I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy – I’m young, I’m gonna be all over the place’. I was too scared to even think that domesticity could be something I crave.” Now, she’s settling into the idea that enjoying her youth and creating a safe, comfortable space for herself aren’t mutually exclusive.

“It’s easy to confess things when you’re writing. There’s no embarrassment – it just is what it is”

Caring for Joanie was her first experience of “mothering”, a concept she’d already been playing over in her head before the adorable Chow Chow-Pyrenees puppy came into her life. While back with her family, Cottrill had begun to look at her mum differently: “The lack of knowledge I have about who my mum was before she was married or had children is really interesting and it made me think, ‘Am I in the period of my life before I have the relationship and the children? Is this the part of my life that my children won’t know very well?’”

Although the musician is quick to point out that, for her, it’s far too early in her life to actually have children, intrusive thoughts still started to flood her head. Would she be a good mother? Does she even want children? Will motherhood strip away her individuality? Becoming a dog mum made her realise that matriarch role could be one she’s meant to inhabit, one day. “There’s a claw on my shoulder,” she sings on ‘Sling’s swooning, folky jewel ‘Reaper’, translating her pet’s touch to mean: “You know eventually you’re going to have to be a provider too.” There’s a feeling of inevitability, but still hints of concerns about the erosion of her personhood when she murmurs: “I’m born to be somebody and then somebody comes from me.”

NME Cover 2021 Clairo
Credit: Adrian Nieto

Joanie’s introduction into the Cottrill family brought with it a big “reality check” as well as those new domestic ambitions. “I realised I was creating so much space for this animal to feel safe and secure and doing everything I can to do so, thinking about how I’d do that for my kid,” she says. “But also realising I hadn’t been doing that for myself.”

As part of her parenthood pondering, she realised that to be a good mother, she would need to prioritise herself now too and give herself room to heal. The artist has always put her struggles with mental health at the forefront of her work. On ‘Immunity’s opener ‘Alewife’, she recalled a time when she was 13 and felt like she couldn’t go on. “I didn’t mean to scare you – just had the thoughts in my mind,” she told a friend over melancholy twinkles. “Swear I could have done it, if you weren’t there when I hit the floor.” In the comments section under a YouTube video of the song, a space has formed for fans to share their own similar stories. “This is the most hopeful song about suicide I’ve listened to,” reads one. “So powerful.”

Healing forms the very backbone of ‘Sling’, which takes its title from both the cloth used to wrap and support a baby (“I could wake up with a baby in a sling / Just a couple of doors down from my backyard,” Cottrill imagines on ‘Zinnias’) and the bandage that’s used to support an injury. Writing the record’s contents was Cottrill’s metaphorical sling, offering her a “judgement-free zone” to work through her problems and process her thoughts and experiences.

“It’s easy to confess things when you’re writing,” she explains. “There’s no embarrassment – it just is what it is. It’s the same thing as not being embarrassed to tell your problems to a therapist because they can help you understand why something happened, or work through things with you.” When she shares these musings with the wider world, there’s still no feeling of discomfort or shyness – letting other people into her confessions gives them “a point”: “Most likely there is somebody who can relate [to what you’re writing about] in even the smallest sense, so getting that off your chest is important for music.”

“Quarantine was just really strange and terrible for [people with] mental health issues”

Depression is something the 22-year-old says she’s dealt with for “virtually” her whole life and one song on ‘Sling’ finds her making big strides in her relationship with it. “‘Little Changes’ is a big deal to me because it was the first time where I acknowledged that I had depression, that it was a huge part of my life and that it may never go away,” she explains. The poised, elegantly building track also finds her getting comfortable in an in-between space sandwiched in the middle of people who are in her life now, those who will be in it in the future and those who no longer are.

“Being OK with grey area is something very new for me,” she says of that blurry territory. “And being happy in [a] grey area – I think it was always hard for me to be OK with feeling neutral.” She relates this to her depression and taking antidepressants. “They don’t make me happy, they just control the sadness for a while. [When I first started taking them] I was like, ‘This just sucks because I just feel neutral and it’s not making me feel better.”

It’s a common misconception that treatment for mental health issues will fix you and suddenly make you happy once again. Psychologist Carl Jung once explained it’s not about the pursuit of “an impossible state of happiness” but helping someone to “acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering”. “It’s a tough blow when you realise that,” Cottrill says, shaking her head. “It’s just giving you a small tool to eventually find happiness yourself.”

In January she shared, via Instagram, a home recording of a new song called ‘Just For Today’, which has had its own striking impact on her followers. “Mummy, I’m afraid I’ve been talking to the hotline again,” she sings on the arresting acoustic track, referring to a night when she joined the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s online chat during a panic attack. In her caption on the video, which featured an impatient Joanie interrupting her owner’s backyard performance, she said she felt there was “no real reason I should hold onto it”.

“If I can’t provide [security for female fans] on tour, then I won’t tour”

Today she says: “It felt weird to hold onto something so personal and wait for my record. The response was really beautiful and nothing that I ever expected.” That reaction saw listeners thank her for “normalising mental health struggles” and share how her honest songwriting gave them renewed strength.

“Quarantine was just really strange and terrible for [people with] mental health issues – no one really knew what to do and I think that made it even worse,” Cottrill sighs. “Writing that song helped me and I’m glad that people enjoyed it because I don’t think it would have ended up on the record unless people asked for it.”

Although she still struggles with her depression and anxiety, the musician is making progress on her path to healing. “When I was diagnosed I was like, ‘What now?’,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any motivation to actually seek out experiences or the right kind of environment for myself to feel happier.” Now, a combination of finding that force and knowing herself better are helping her “create a happier experience in a neutral space”.

NME Cover 2021 Clairo
Credit: Adrian Nieto

Building that space isn’t just about surrounding herself with positive things, but standing up against the bad too. On the quietly devastating ‘Blouse’ – the first and only song from ‘Sling’ to have a proper release before the full album drops – Cottrill takes us into a scene where she realised a male colleague had spent their whole conversation looking down her shirt. While she admits the song is “defeating”, she also views it as coming from a position of strength and self-awareness.

She compares it to a fan favourite, unreleased track called ‘Favoritism’, on which she sings about being in love and not quite being able to believe the other person likes her back. “That song almost put me in the passenger seat and the delivery makes me feel like I’m not in control,” she explains, adding that “the difference between” that song’s lyric “I can’t believe you like me” and ‘Blouse’’s lyric “If touch could make them hear, then touch me now” is that “they’re both equally as defeating but one is way more aware of the situation and more well-equipped to deal with it.”

Finding the resilience ‘Blouse’ possesses in herself was important to Cottrill, given some of the other themes on this record. “When I’m writing an album about potential motherhood or healing my own wounds, that’s a huge issue and a huge part of my experience,” she nods. She felt that this had to be the first thing she said after two years without releasing new music, because men crossing boundaries concerning women’s bodies “is happening all the time and it’s not OK and I’m done with it”.

Although ‘Blouse’ might be the first time a Clairo song has tackled something like the sexualisation and objectification of women, she has been vocal on similar issues outside of her music. Last year, when another slew of sexual assault allegations came out against musicians in the indie scene – including The Buttertones’ Sean Redman and Richard Araiza, SWMRS’ Joey Armstrong, The Growlers and more – she shared her support for those affected and the seed of an idea she hopes will make live music safer for all. “A few bands and I are working on hiring a specific group of people to look out for assault, harassment, any uncomfortable situation that happens at shows,” she tweeted. “We want this to be a new normal and my headline shows will be doing this from now on.”

“We’re talking to some companies right now,” she confirms today. “We’ve made extra room on our tour bus for at least two more members of security.” The finer details are still in the works, but Cottrill promises there will “most definitely” be someone on all her future tours – who isn’t affiliated with any of the venues she’s playing – to act as a “point of contact for any misconduct that goes on within the crowd”.

Ensuring fans feel comfortable and safe at her shows is a priority for her tour next year, as she believes everyone should be able to experience gigs in the same way she did growing up. “I’m lucky that [misconduct] never happened to me, but experiencing some of that in my adult life, I can’t believe how brave I was to go to shows by myself and be so carefree,” she says. “If I can’t provide this [security] on tour, then I won’t tour – that’s my mentality at the moment.”

NME Cover 2021 Clairo
Credit: Adrian Nieto

It’s easy to be cynical about plans like Cottrill’s – many others have tried to make nightlife safer for women and minority communities, yet issues still persist. The musician is optimistic that change is coming, though. “I really do feel in my heart of hearts that there’s going to be a wave of tours that are really stamped as the ‘safe tour’ and provide all this,” she insists. “Touring is one of the only things that hasn’t changed much. Granted, a lot of things need to change in the industry, but this is definitely one of them.”

Community is at the heart of what Clairo is about, be that in building one with her fans or with her peers in music. One look at her Instagram – or those of Arlo Parks, Claud, Mallrat and more – and you’ll see them leaving messages of friendship and support for each other. Collaborations are also rife, with Cottrill featuring on the likes of Parks’ ‘Green Eyes’ and Sassy 009’s ‘Lara’.

“I think that’s probably one of my favourite parts about making music – being able to share experiences and have some camaraderie together,” she grins. “I didn’t know how to go about that for a long time, but I’m really lucky to have met so many amazing musicians.”

There’s been two new additions to Clairo’s gang lately – Taylor Swift and Lorde. She crossed paths with the former at last year’s NME Awards, where she took home the award for Best New Act In The World. “That was definitely a crazy, crazy night,” Cottrill recalls. “I don’t remember any words I said on stage because I was so nervous, but it was such an honour. And then I met Taylor and cried uncontrollably.”

It was Swift who initiated contact, crouching down next to the newly crowned award winner’s chair to chat with her. “I was so shocked – but instead of us both standing up, I crouched down with her, so we were both on the floor talking to each other. It looked so ridiculous. No one could talk to me after that happened, I was crying so much.”

“I feel lucky Lorde wanted to work on ‘Blouse’ and even more lucky to sing on ‘Solar Power’”

Meanwhile, the Kiwi superstar sings backing vocals on ‘Blouse’, while Cottrill returned the favour on the New Zealander’s comeback single ‘Solar Power’, both of which were released on the same day. They met on FaceTime with Antonoff – a meeting that made Cottrill “not know how to act” because she was so nervous. Later, Lorde asked her to work with her. “My head was just spinning; I did not believe it for a long time,” she laughs. “But we became friends and I feel really lucky to know her.”

Their exchange of vocals was inspired by a conversation about “the Laurel Canyon days”, the 1970s California scene that saw the likes of Joni Mitchell and Carole King part of a symbiotic community. “When you find out that Joni Mitchell sang background vocals on [King’s] ’Tapestry’ and you’re like, ‘What?! Where? Why didn’t they say more about that?” Cottrill says. “We both really liked that kind of relationship. I feel really lucky she wanted to work on ‘Blouse’ and even more lucky to sing on ‘Solar Power’. We just did it for friendship; nothing else.”

Mitchell has had more influence on Cottrill than a mere vocal swap. You can hear her spirit all across the lush, warm, rich ‘Sling’ – as well as King, Carly Simon, and the lesser-known Judee Sill. It feels like a new generation of artists are discovering the iconic singer-songwriter and being inspired by her in their work.

“I think that [Mitchell] is absolutely one of the most brilliant songwriters ever,” Cottrill says emphatically. “The intricate songwriting and the weird chords, the experimentation… She’s an icon.” She cites ‘Coyote’ as not only her favourite Joni Mitchell song, explaining that it gave her the confidence to write ‘Blouse’: “She’s talking about somebody who’s a bit of a player, but she comes in with such quick wit and amazing metaphors. I also love that she pretty much made up her own tuning for it. That song is just wild.”

Like Mitchell, Cottrill has been labelled a voice of her generation for her honest portrayals of modern youth. “It’s always very hard to be labelled that just because I don’t necessarily think I am,” she says. “There are a lot more people who are miles better at being a spokesperson for this generation. I’m definitely not, but I’m happy and grateful to be part of it.”

Despite her insistence to the contrary, it’s a title that doesn’t feel like it will be going anywhere just yet – the introspective, existential work of art that is ‘Sling’ seems like it will only cement that status.

Clairo’s ‘Sling’ is out now

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