Earlier this year, there was an article that described Texas teenager Alaina Castillo as an “ASMR singer”. The case was made that the singer was “building her own mini-empire on YouTube’s ASMR community” by uploading hushed lullabies for her ‘Sing U 2 Sleep’ series. In the clips, she plays off the rising trend for precisely-pronounced vocals, whispering about “tacos from Taco Bell” and minimising songs by Billie Eilish and even Elvis Presley.
When NME calls the 19-year-old to chat about ‘the voicenotes’ EP, she diplomatically refutes the tag that has been bestowed upon her. “I’m not just an ASMR singer,” she says down the phone from Los Angeles, where she’s recording during quarantine. “My voice can be powerful and my voice can be soft, I can sing loud and sing quietly it just depends on the vibe of the song. It’s a little part of my voice, it’s not all that I am.”
This may work to her advantage, however. The description stuck for a reason – Castillo’s vocals are particularly astonishing. Her songs are soothing and welcoming, but have the power to extend beyond just whispery tones like on the twirling, stunning ‘just a boy’ – which touches on the impact of gaslighting in relationships – isn’t just proof of her vocal range but the ability to connect.
If ASMR is all about connectivity to those sensitive, repressed parts of the brain, then it explains why her new EP is such an intimate triumph. Inspired by the dictated memories, thoughts and emotions that she would speak into her phone, the four tracks were created in sessions with producer RØMANS [Lewis Capaldi, Disclosure] in the studio. She’d unload those memories while he noodled away on a guitar until they hit on a melody.
“In the past year I’ve grown a lot more confident when singing,” she says. “This EP is taking the friendly parts of ‘antisocial butterfly’ EP and making it really raw. I think artists are approaching vulnerability in their music because that’s what we need right now.” Gone are the bouncing trap beats (‘mentiras’) and the G-funk-inspired bangers (‘no importa’) – this is Castillo’s musicianship reduced to its most primal; a heartbreaking song and an astounding vocal take.
Castillo credits YouTube with helping her build an audience that wanted to hear her voice and her ruminations on the world. She says that the fans there are surprisingly committed to an artist – they invest in people as much as they do the content they produce. “It gave me an outlet to not overthink anything. I was having amazing fun posting covers and then people were kind and helped grow a community and a lot of those people are with me today.”
It’s little surprise that they’re sticking around for more guidance. Castillo is the latest in line of young songwriters that’s embracing their most gutting and intense emotions. Clairo’s 2019 debut ‘Immunity’ is already a cult classic, while the aforementioned Billie Eilish is similarly lauded for her forthright musings on youth culture – its dizzying highs and the plummeting lows. Castillo feels a similar kinship, shunning the bottle-it-up culture of previous generations and laying out her entire emotional spectrum on every song. The hope? That someone else picks up on it too.
“Everyone wants to know that they’re not alone and not going through these things alone or overthinking or stressing, so when they hear music like that they can relate to it,” she says. “We all think that we’re alone or whatever but in reality we’re doing it together. It’s about connecting through the music and the vulnerability.”
To help reach as many people as she possibly could she’s recorded the EP in two different languages. As well as the now-released English version, in May she’ll be releasing one sung entirely in Spanish. EP highlight ‘pass you by’, for example, has already been shared as ‘no vuelvas a mirar atrás’, continuing her desire to embrace her heritage.
The cynic might point out that this is a shrewd move to mop up twice the amount of streams for the same song. Latinx artists like J Balvin and Rosalía are just a handful of the artists who primarily sing in Spanish taking over both on streaming services and in the charts. Spotify’s premium playlist Viva Latino boasts over 10m followers, while in February, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny’s reggaeton album ‘YHLQMDLG’ became the highest-charting all-Spanish album ever in the US charts, landing at Number Two.
Castillo is pleasantly surprised by the reaction in Spanish-language music in the US. She grew up in Texas with her mother and father – the latter emigrating to the US from Mexico. “I thought it might happen because the music is so catchy, but what it is now I’m super happy that all of that is happening – it’s about a bunch of people accepting and embracing other cultures.”
But the forthcoming Spanish release goes further than just a clout-chasing scheme. For Castillo, each song is clamouring to make a connection with the listener – and if there’s a way for her to open up the listening pool to hear her songs, there’s little standing in the way of her doing so.
“There’s a huge audience you can reach by doing that,” she says. “I’d do the same if I could speak French or Croatian or whatever – it might be a lot of work but it’d be worth it. The Spanish language is a part of me. I might not be 100% fluent, but it is something I’ve had in my head so being able to between English and Spanish it will really help connect to people who really need it.
“Doing that adds its own special beauty to it. And if there’s a way I can reach people who don’t necessarily speak English I want to do that.” Connection is what Castillo is all about – she’s cutting straight to the point; no bullshit, no hiding. You get the sense that the language barrier isn’t the only thing she’d smash to make these songs resonate.