Clairo has had the musical trajectory that anyone who grew up in the age of Vine celebrities and Justin Bieber's YouTube discovery could only dream of. She was catapulted into the public eye after her music video for "Pretty Girl," went viral. In the video, she lip syncs into her photo booth camera while sitting alone in her bedroom. The song addresses the ways women are expected to silence and diminish themselves to be pretty for someone else.
As is often the case with viral content, the success of the video was a surprise to Clairo. A song spontaneously filmed and intended for a only few thousand eyes was suddenly being seen by millions and written about by major publications.
"I wish I knew how "Pretty Girl" blew up," she says, adding, "Viral fame is weird because its so unpredictable. At first it's just a bunch of numbers, so its hard to realize it's an actual thing that's going on. I wish I knew it would become something like this, I would have tried to look a little cuter! I haven't watched the video since it came out, pretty much because I just can't look at myself. Blogs would screenshot the video and put it as the header of the write up and I'd be like, 'Please just use another picture!'"
Of course, that rawness is what makes the video so relatable and endearing. So much of being a young woman feels like a never-ending race to make yourself visually flawless for someone else's pleasure while also shutting up when they want you to, so it feels like a sigh of relief her own narrative over the pressure to be perfect. Clairo acknowledges this as well, jokingly adding, "I guess that's the whole point of the video. But I still think I'm ugly in it."
The video hitting a million views was a turning point for her, she says, as she felt more legitimized as an artist with staying power rather than just a fleeting trend. It happened this fall, as she was starting her freshman year at Syracuse. She recalls, "The program I'm in is 25 kids a year, so all the freshman were hanging out about to go to a party, and the video hit a million views. I was kind of quiet but I was like, 'Oh my god, my video just hit a million views.' My two best friends were like, 'Holy shit!! Oh my god!' Everyone else was just like, 'That's not normal.' I remember thinking, 'What am I supposed to do?' and everyone around me was saying, 'What are you doing at school?' That was the moment that people, myself included, started to think differently about what it could be instead of just thinking, 'Internet fame is different from real fame, it's not going to happen.'"
Today, Clairo released her debut EP, diary 001, an amalgamation of 7 short songs totaling 14 minutes in total. Her voice is light and effortless, flitting through various electronic arrangements marked by slinking synths, drum machines, trap elements, funk, and radio pop. She sings mostly about love in all its iterations – nostalgic, unrequited, content, and allows room for contradicting feelings and diverse sounds. The EP gets its title because Clairo conceived it as a collection of distinct but relating pieces, the way the subject matter and tone of entries in a diary may vary radically day-to-day, but are still unified by the voice and perspective of the writer.
She feels pressure make a mark with her first release, but also emphasizes her desire to remain firmly in control of her artistic vision and to make music that it defies classification. In fact, she dislikes being described as a bedroom pop singer, saying "I think I would have a problem being pinned to any genre, it doesn't have to do with bedroom pop specifically. I feel like I'm always changing, so I don't want to disappoint people when I make something that's not necessarily bedroom pop. It's worth it to put out music that you like even if it's not your traditional self. You're an artist, you're not a product. You're the one calling the shots."
Though her rise has been meteoric, and millions of views on videos certainly legitimaze her presence as a rising indie-pop star, her trajectory not as fleeting or novel as a one-off viral video. She's been making music since she was 14, posting songs on SoundCloud under her full name, Claire Cottrill, which are still all online.
Her background as a teenager posting songs on SoundCloud gave her a strong sense of community too. She met most of the people she's collaborated with on the site, and says it helped get her through high school. She tells me specifically about her friend and fellow musician, 18-year-old Sophie Meiers, with whom she runs a group called 'Production Princesses.' It has girls from across the world in it who want to learn about music production.
"'Production Princesses' is Sophie and me and 20 girls on Twitter who want to learn about production but don't want to have to go through a guy who's belittling them when they have a question about something that's valid. It's been a really cool experience. It's cute and nice to talk to these girls that are making music in their room and doing what I was doing a few years ago. They send their stuff and its amazing.
Sometimes I'll message the group and say, 'Guys, what do I do about the Internet being a great place but also just so hateful? How do I deal with this?' These girls will take time out of their day to send me paragraphs saying, 'Don't listen to them,' or whatever. There are paragraphs of girls giving advice to other girls. It's so special to see. It's necessary. I want to make this something bigger."
Many female musicians discussed the struggle to be perceived as an author over their own work. People often ask them who wrote or produced their music, even when they created it entirely themselves. Clairo tells me this ingrained misogyny in the music industry is largely why the group exists, saying, "I always felt like I need to apologize when I asked a question about Ableton to a guy, so I definitely needed something like this group when I was trying to learn. I just turned to YouTube so I didn't have to talk to a person. That's why I feel the need to talk to artists who are just starting. I've produced my own music for a while, but there will always be the person who asks 'Who produced this? Let me send you beats.' The constant act of having to prove yourself in all music fields is frustrating."
I guess I never really expected sexist behavior to happen to me. I heard about it happening to other artists, and then I got thrown into this, and then it started happening for real. It took me a second. I don't know why, I just thought it was obvious that I did my own stuff, that it was obvious that was my idea. But no. Guys will always think that there's another guy behind your shit."
The power of the woman-dominated group chat truly cannot be overstated. The kind of validation groups of my female friends give me via Facebook Messages or Twitter gets me through awkward social encounters, fights with my family, and tense online encounters. Though many of my group chats are populated by people I went to school with or otherwise know in real life, there was a time in high school when I met lots of friends online, finding the same Tumblr posts hilarious and following the same writers on Twitter. Internet friends felt like fairy god parents, existing outside of the specific identities I had formed, or that had been pushed on me, in high school.
I wonder if Clairo, whose career has been so tied to the Internet, has had similar experiences. We're only five years apart in age, but the Internet has quickly transformed since I was in high school. It is now unavoidable, defined not so much by niche Tumblr pages, but by social media influencers. She tells me, "Any kid who has an iPhone has at least three Internet friends." For both of us, the Internet has also served as a refuge. Clairo relied on friends that she met on the far corners of the Internet when her immediate social environment was limiting.
She says, "I had a lot of trouble in middle school. I moved to a really small town outside of Boston in third grade and I had a lot of trouble making friends and there were all these friend groups that had been friends for years. It's almost impossible to break through those. I moved around a few times, so I kind of knew that was going to happen, but it was hard. I didn't know where I was going to fit in, so I turned to the Internet. That continued in high school. I would meet up with Internet friends in New York, and that was a huge deal for me. They got me so well.
It would always frustrate me so much because I knew I wasn't crazy. I knew there were people like me out there, I just was in the wrong place. It was a matter of me being so ready to get out of there but also being a sophomore in high school. The Internet really helped me pass the time. Once I moved to Syracuse I met my best friends the first day. Everyone is the new kid at college. People come from all over. I'm great now, but the Internet has done a lot for me. It's amazing and scary all in one."
Clairo has now made a number of close friends, whom she gushes about by name, revealing the specifics of their social dynamics and inside jokes. Since the success of her recent songs, she is taking a break from that world to go on tour with Dua Lipa and work on her own music. Before leaving school, she knew she wanted to memorialize her friendships in a tangible way. She made a music video for her song "4EVER," that captured the joy of her college experience before she transitions to her new life as a musician. She told me, "I knew that I was taking time off school, and I was like, 'My life is seriously about to change and this is the last moment I have where my life is going to be normal. This is the last moment I have where people don't know me. So I'm just going to film all of it.' I just asked my friends to star in it, and they were like, 'Of course!' We just did it. I just filmed on the home video camera my parents used. It still works like a charm. I tried to edit it in a funny way. It had an intro that was like Full House. What's cool is that I was barely in the video but I expressed myself a lot through the vision and the editing and the production, which I'm trying to emphasize more. I'm more than just a songwriter. I'm trying to show that producing is in my heart."
At the beginning of our conversation, Clairo mentioned that this is her first press tour and that she's still learning exactly how she wants to present herself. It's clear that things are about to change for her, and that she is grappling with understanding her newfound fame, friendships, and position as an influential woman in a male-dominated industry. Rather than coming across as inexperienced or uncertain, though, she is open, emotionally intelligent, and exceptionally earnest. It's no wonder YouTube viewers by the millions have been drawn in and that her group chats are so active. She's the kind of friend those of us used to pouring out our emotions on the Internet could only dream of.
Stream the EP here:
Photos Courtesy of Brooks Sproul