Clairo is growing up in real time

© Michelle Helena Janssen

Words by:

Claire Cottrill is chatty even though she just woke up. On this particular morning at her apartment in Bushwick, the 20-year-old is most comfortable in a ribbed white tank and pink tie-dyed shorts, sitting in the corner of her couch with her legs stretched out on a wooden table. Her speaking voice is gentle, exactly how you’d expect if you’re familiar with the lo-fi pop she releases under the name Clairo. She lets out a big yawn before telling me about how she’s experienced a lot of growth in the year and a half since she accidentally went viral with her 2017 song Pretty Girl.

The breakout single was initially featured on the now-defunct The Le Sigh’s third compilation tape released through Father/Daughter Records. The accompanying video sees Clairo on her bed lip syncing into her laptop with various props from her room. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but that sense of normalcy seemed to be what made it so appealing to the online community. Soon enough, a burgeoning swarm of Gen Z fans whose insecurities resonated with hers followed, and now she has 992,000 of them gushing over her on Instagram. As of today, the video has racked up more than 34 million views.

At the time, she was just another student at Syracuse University making music on GarageBand and uploading it to SoundCloud. There was no strategy aside from putting the tracks out for fun. But after that first semester of college, Clairo began living a double life. On weekends, she would travel to Chicago to record and then return to the isolation of upstate New York for her regular schedule of classes. Online, Clairo was becoming famous, but on campus she blended in amongst the rest of her peers.

“I was feeling a lot of pressure,” she admits. “You don’t really know who you are yet, you don’t know who you look up to or what you want to do with this platform, yet you have it and you have to act now… I didn’t know what I wanted out of it because it was so instantaneous.”

The expectations were high for diary 001, Clairo’s self-produced debut EP, which featured collaborations with Danny L Harle and Rejjie Snow. After completing a European headline tour, she flew out to Los Angeles in January to start working on her debut album, Immunity, which is set for release this August. “I think the moment I left [Syracuse], I had time to focus on one thing, and it’s given me time to figure myself out,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to realise that I made the music. Giving myself credit has been one of the hardest things throughout all of this”

After a successful session with former Vampire Weekend producer Rostam, she decided to have him produce the entire record. Throughout the process, he became a mentor to her, but it was only recently that Clairo started viewing herself as a professional singer as opposed to “an artist that uses her voice to get her point across.”

Identity is something that Clairo has struggled with for much of her young adult life. She’s openly queer, but tells me about how she didn’t “come out” in the traditional sense. Clairo leans in closer on the couch to say how she was waiting for the moment speaking about her sexuality felt right. “It’s something I’ve known my whole life and never felt comfortable enough to vocalise,” she explains. “I’m not trying to talk about it now just because it’s quote, unquote ‘trendy’ or ‘cool’ to be gay. That’s not the intention, but it does help me feel more comfortable now that it’s an open discussion.”

Immunity is also about taking negative situations and turning them into positive experiences. The title is a play on words in reference to the autoimmune disease that she suffers from, rheumatoid arthritis. “[My friend and I] were talking about how sometimes it feels like we’re acting because you can’t see it,” she says. “I feel it, but am I just being really dramatic? Does it really hurt that much? Or do I just want attention? But then you go to the doctor and they’re like, ‘You have permanent damage to your elbows and knees.’” Although it’s not overt, the tracks where she alludes to her invisible condition are about yearning for a person who fully accepts you despite physical limitations.

The album is also about being immune to negativity – acknowledging that it exists, but making sure that these experiences don’t define her. One of the narratives that Clairo was forced to rewrite was the idea that she’s an industry plant. She’s aware of how her family’s connections open her up to criticism (her father is a longtime friend of Jon Cohen, co-founder of The FADER and FADER Label). However, Clairo asserts that she chose to sign with FADER out of the necessity of having a familiar face around that she could trust as her career unexpectedly took off.

“I agree that I come from a more privileged place, but I do think it’s silly to say that [my dad] paid for my career, like he’s the reason I’m doing anything,” she says. “I want people to know that my dad is a dad. If he’s anything in this process, he’s really just a support system for me emotionally.”

As she reflects on the whole debacle, she’s not defensive. Clairo acknowledges that she’s extremely lucky to have powerful people in her corner that want to see her succeed. While the misconceptions about how things are handled behind-the-scenes is frustrating, she’s able to look back at the experience from a place of gratitude because people are watching her grow and learn in real time.

© Michelle Helena Janssen

“I sometimes feel bad that I take up the space that I do,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to realise that I made the music. Giving myself credit has been one of the hardest things throughout all of this.”

But Clairo invites the criticism. She’s conscious that she has a younger fan base and while she hasn’t necessarily set out to be a role model, she does believe in taking on the responsibility of being someone that they can look up to. So, she’s choosing to celebrate the progress that she’s made. “This album is necessary for me to move forward. It’s showing everyone how I want to be. This is the music I always wanted to make,” she says. “It’s who I am.”

For the time being, Clairo just wants to make music that speaks to her truth. She’s living out a dream that she’s been imagining for herself since the sixth grade, but there’s still more work to be done. She wants to get more involved in her local community. Eventually, she might go back to school to get a degree so she can teach art to second graders in the area. After confirming that “we plan and God laughs” is not a Rihanna quote, Clairo goes on to outline how that saying is a representation of her whole life.

“I’ve tried to plan around this viral video, tried to plan my life around what it should be… After this shit happened to me, you just have to run with it,” she smiles. “You don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s the best part.”

Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Art Direction: Ade Udoma
Styling: Dominick Barcelona
Makeup Artist: Mimi Quiquine
Set Design: Mat Cullen

Immunity is out 2 August via FADER Label

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