How Clairo Becomes a Classic
Story by Jael Goldfine / Photography by Erika Astrid / Styling by Savannah White29 July 2019
"Babies and dogs don't respect me," claims Claire Cottrill, aka Clairo, straight-faced. "Like, babies don't like you?" I clarify, from over the make-up artist attending to her brows. "No. They like me. They just don't respect me. They see me as their equal. They treat me as another baby, and dogs treat me like another dog. I've just always just had no authority in my body." We're both laughing now, but she's quite serious about the fact that animals and infants see something kindred in her.
After spending a few hours with Claire, I start to see what they mean. Claire is a tiny 20-year-old with Instagram filter freckles, a round face and long reddish-brown hair, that she recently dyed Flaming Hot Cheeto orange in honor of one of her signature songs. She moves her arms and body in the slightly slack, crooked way of a younger person, and favors that particular aesthetic of oversized crewnecks, large sneakers, mom jeans and kitschy jewelry, that you might find many sizes smaller on a child.
She looks extremely at home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where she just moved a few days earlier. That morning, ahead of her PAPER shoot, I was early to the small walk-up where she and her best friend Claud, also a musician, have just moved in. It's her first real apartment and home since leaving Syracuse University after her freshman year in 2017. "It feels so good to be grounded somewhere, to not live at my parent's house," she says. She's already acclimated to the Brooklyn lifestyle enough to be a little late, strolling up the sidewalk from a friend's where she crashed last night. She'll head out in a few days for the summer festival circuit, then a stadium tour opening for Khalid, but she can't wait to return and start building a life here.
Suit: Erdem, Earrings: Lady Grey
Like the viral songs that made her famous, Claire is warm, unpretentious and goofy, but intently thoughtful as she sits cross-legged on her bed, eager to tell me what her life is like, two years after "Pretty Girl" hit a million views in a week. She tells me about how she often flies direct to Syracuse from tour to crash with her friends for a weekend of dirtbag college kid normalcy. She tells me she's been learning Spanish and reading books about science "so her brain doesn't rot." She describes how she's trying to train herself out of the floating, zoned-out feeling she gets on massive festival stages, like Coachella or Gov Ball where she performed a few days earlier. She frequently slips into stories full of laughter and phrases like "and then I was like 'oh, fuck!'" She sees the humor in most of what's happened to her over the last two years. She laughs at the banality of the day she uploaded "Pretty Girl" to YouTube (she went out to dinner with her parents); at realizing she still needs to figure out what she's going to wear on the Khalid tour; at the absurdity of phrases like "and then I was packed up my dorm room to go on tour with Dua Lipa."
It's not that Claire comes off as childish, or like some kind of wide-eyed ingenuous, dazed at her own success. Her levity comes from humility, not naiveté. But her mannerisms make it easy to to see why babies might sense her appetite for silliness, lack of interest in seeming impressive, and claim her as one of their own. Claire's not offended: "I love how upfront and honest children are. I want to be that honest."
That's a high bar, but Claire is pretty damn honest on her debut album, Immunity. Its 11 tracks are a devastatingly well-rendered self-portrait, which lays bare her childhood and adolescence growing up as a lonely weirdo in an overly-idyllic small town outside Boston. Immunity opens with the huge, plunking fluorescent piano chords of a song about the night a friend stopped Claire from committing suicide, calling the cops on her when she was in eighth grade. "I didn't mean to scare you/ just had the thoughts in my head," she mumbles. The experience could be expressed with emotional voice cracks and wailing, but Claire tells her story soberly. She conjures an unspeakably sad scene, that'll send ice through your body from the first verse: "I lay in my room/ wondering why I've got this life." But the song also brims with grace and love: Claire's humbled awe that someone cared for her enough to intervene. At the end, she trails off with a hopeful, mild pronouncement, that makes you want to laugh in spite of yourself: "But you know know I'll be alright/ Eighth grade was never that tight."
"I didn't want to make a sad song," she says. "I just wanted to get those emotions out. I needed to tell this story, about how this person got me out of such a horrible time, and how there are lots of people like her out there."
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With grace, emotional nuance and her signature offbeat sense of humor, Claire explores insecurities in relationships, the depression she's struggled with since she was a kid, and the chronic pain of her rheumatoid arthritis that's made her feel weak and broken in what's supposed to be the prime of her life.
Claire deliberately wanted to write about the most difficult parts of her life on this record, because she feels an acute desire to use the strange power and influence she's found herself with, for good. She's also keenly aware that her fanbase skews young.
"I wanted to write about things that I had never talked about, never told a lot of my friends. Because I think that when I was 15, or when I was in high-school, I would have..." she trails off. "A lot of artists don't necessarily feel like they need to be a role model, they don't feel the need to listen to who is listening to them. Sometimes I wish I did that, because it's hard to let so many voices in. But I also feel really good about taking on that responsibility, and offering support for people, treating them like a younger sibling. If I could be anything to these kids, it's an older sibling."
Immunity is named after the resilience Claire's found in herself, after years of struggle. "It's about the capacity I've found to turn negative experiences and feelings into something positive. I'm honoring the sad songs that need to be felt, and the happy songs that need to be felt" she says.
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Some of the happiest songs on the record are those about Claire's first queer relationships. She recently came out in an interview with Out Magazine. "I'm still not really sure what my sexuality is, but I do know that it's not straight," she phrased it, though in our conversation she refers to herself as bi. She knew she was queer as a kid, but micro-aggressive comments kept her silent until she got to Syracuse. There, she took the approach of pretending she'd always been out. "I haven't had many conversations where I'm coming out," she says, agreeing the whole concept is fairly archaic: "Like, why do I have to sit down for a serious conversation just to let you know I think girls are pretty?"
She laughs and shrugs at the notion that listeners might feel dissonance between her queerness and the hetero-nuclear sensibility of her first EP, Diary 001, like "Pretty Girl"s sardonic address of the male gaze, or the math class hair-twirling crush song of "B.O.M.D." (short for "boy of my dreams"). "I mean, I came out in real time. I didn't plan this out" she says. "It's confusing. I'm not completely gay, and I've been in relationships with guys my whole life. I'm in this in-between, and that's okay. I'm learning to be comfortable with in-betweens."
B.O.M.D. is also G.O.M.D. for ur information— claire cottrill (@claire cottrill) 1527573137.0
Claire's queerness was still a part of her when she wrote lyrics like "You're the boy of my dreams/ It's not so hard to see/ Why you're the one for me" — which, in her first public acknowledgment of her sexuality, she later amended was also about "G.O.M.D"s ("girl of my dreams"). And years of being in relationships with men affect the way she relates to her experiences with women, now. Listening to "B.O.M.D." right after Claire's queer love songs on Immunity is a relatable illustration of the fragmented, inelegant plot-lines of sexuality and attraction most of us experience.
Comfortable in her identity among family and friends ("now pretty much all my friends are gay," she says), Claire's decision to come out publicly came down to her fans. "You start to feel the responsibility when you have young people looking at you," she says. "Once I had all these 15-year-olds probably feeling how I felt when I was in high school, I was just like, 'I'm going to do it, fuck it.' I needed that. So I'm going to give that to them."
Suit: Off-White, Shoes: Robert Clergerie
It's easy to imagine 15-year-olds twirling around in their room to "Sofia," the euphoric, gay Strokes-meets-Robyn track that Claire released last week. "Sofia, know that you and I/ Shouldn't feel like a crime," she sings. It perfectly conjures the strobe-lit adventure of falling love — as well as the particular giddy ecstasy of, she says, "finding beauty in places we've been taught not to."
"When writing about women for this record, I wanted to emphasize how much of a celebration it should be," Claire explains. "It should be happy songs. It should be songs you want to dance to, songs with non-heteronormative pronouns. Queerness should feel like a celebration."
On the other track where Claire sings explicitly about a woman — a flirty country-pop song, plus Vampire Weekend-style guitar runs — she begins by questioning her own emotions. "Is it alright to feel this way?" she sings. It ends on a very different note, using an idiosyncratic technique that Claire designed for Immunity. As her desire crescendos, suddenly everything falls away and a chorus of kids picks up where Claire left off. "I don't care what they say/ I don't care what they say," they warble for two full minutes. The ethereal voices sound like the tears you cry when you finally tell the truth, after repeating a lie for a long time.
The choir appears several times on Immunity — some of its most vulnerable and affecting moments. "The children on the record signify when I'm feeling emotions in full," Claire explains. "When kids are angry, they're extremely angry, and when they're sad, they're bawling their eyes out. They aren't thinking about their surroundings, or how people are receiving them, they are just feeling it. I love that moment, what it's like before they learn they have to repress or filter their feelings to a social setting, that you get as a pre-teen."
Suit: No. 21, Earrings: Lady Grey
Claire's tenderness and admiration for kids — evident in her concern for fans, and choice to speak through them on Immunity — goes back to a personal ritual that helped her survive her childhood. "When I was going through all that shit, and I'd start hating on myself, my mom would sit me down and say 'Claire, you would never say what you're saying to yourself right now, if you were talking to the nine-year-old version of yourself. Nine-year-old Claire would cry and be really upset, and you'd have made a child cry.' That practice was one of the most important things I'd ever learned. It shifted everything." Reflecting on a child's unassailable deservingness of love, helped remind her of her own. "You have to realize you're just a person. I think everyone has a little kid in them. Everyone is just a little kid in a big person's body," she says, laughing.
As skillful and powerful as the whole collection is, there's one song on Immunity that hits a different level. Claire laughs — maybe relieved that it's obvious how special it is — when we discover it's both of our favorites. It's the last song on the album, opening on the same fluorescent piano plunks as the first.
The Immunity closer tells the story of a time Claire spent intensely debilitated by her arthritis, being cared for by her boyfriend, who'd drive her to class and carry her up the stairs to her apartment. With delicacy but brutal force, it registers her shame at not being the "kind of girl" she wishes she could be ("We're young, you're supposed to be frolicking together and being cute"); her unspeakable gratitude; her suspicion that dependency isn't the same thing as intimacy; and her despair at feeling isolated in her pain, despite all her partner's love.
As she articulates all this, she never loses her odd, glib Clairo voice, rebuking herself for trying to pretend the situation is fine: "Baby wake the fuck up/ time for you to grow up/ Don't you know that life is rarely ever fair." She packs everything she feels into the song's backbone, the lyric: "I wouldn't ask you/ to take care of me," which she repeats nearly 20 times, with the kids singing back-up: an embodiment of her helplessness. They also signal the fruitless sincerity of her promise, that she never meant to make her partner her caretaker — their innocence smacking at the adult complexity of the situation.
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While Claire used to pitch or mute her vocals on nearly all her songs, autotune is only used on Immunity as a metaphor, similar to how the children's choir functions. "All the autotune on the record is me talking through this glass wall, where you can't fully communicate, or they just won't listen," she explains. The song begins with her vocals weighed down by vocoder — a gorgeous but unsettling effect alongside the choir's extremely human warble — to signal the isolation and disconnect she feels from her partner. In the second half, "a rebirth," it melts giving way to a luscious R&B beat, over which Claire luxuriates in an alternate universe, in which her arthritis doesn't exist, their intimacy is unimpeded, and she believes the words she closes the song on: "we can be so strong."
It's the kind of song — with so many emotional vectors, so much technical vision — that's going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, despite its specific subject matter. For me, it's the way it captures the colossal, frightening intimacy of an interdependent relationship. For someone else, the casual tone of her lyrics, despite the song's sonic weight, might speak to the comical senselessness of physical suffering and the way it can complicate love.
"It was such a big song for me," Claire says. "I was bawling after I wrote it. I was just so happy, because I feel like I broke through to a new part of myself, to a new level of writing for me."
Claire has grown more dramatically between Diary 001 and Immunity than almost anyone probably expects. It's not an accident. Eschewing the spontaneity of her come-up, Claire was incredibly deliberate and meticulous about crafting Immunity. A music business major who'd always been brutally honest about the chances of failure in the industry — who "didn't think it was in the cards for me" — she had no intention of squandering the chance to release an album to millions of fans at age 20, or relying on the gods of the algorithm. Far from the maverick confidence you might expect from someone who vaulted over the music industry to success, after her EP, Claire realized she didn't have the tools to make an album of the caliber she was imagining. "Your first record is pretty difficult when you don't know how to make an album," she says. So she slowed down, shut her laptop, and decided to get really good at making music.
Suit: Erdem, Shoes: Pierre Hardy, Earrings: Lady Grey
"Over the last year or two, I've just been really listening to the people I respect," Claire says. "I've been meeting a lot of incredible people that I consider mentors. I'm lucky enough to ask them a million questions. Taking that in and applying it to own work has helped me so much. I owe everything to all the people that are older than me in the music world that have offered their advice and support. It was so necessary for me to go away, and to just ask a bunch of questions about how music works."
Claire first met Rostam Batmanglij, a former member of Vampire Weekend and one of indie's most innovative producers (Lykke Li, Frank Ocean, Maggie Rogers, Charli XCX), because he mentioned "Flaming Hot Cheetos" in a Rolling Stone blurb. "I was like 'What?! Rostam! that's crazy!' I love his work, he's a legend. I just messaged him and was like, 'Oh my gosh, hi,' and we started talking." The two met for the first time when Rostam invited Claire to guest at his Brooklyn Steel show where he arranged "Flaming Hot Cheetos" for an orchestra. Shortly after, they booked studio time together with no particular intention. After discovering how much they had in common, both in terms of their tastes and personalities, Rostam ended up co-writing some of, and co-producing all of Immunity.
Speaking over email, Rostam confirms "Flaming Hot Cheetos" is what drew him to Claire. He remembers "listening to the song on loop late into the night." He was also enamored with her voice and lyricism. "I think Claire has a subtly devastating singing voice," he says. "She sings with a lot of clarity and references a handful of vocal styles at once, but it's effortless for her. I also think she has a deeply original songwriting voice. That line 'girlfriend or girl that's a friend' seems simple, but there are layers to it. Her lyrics are deep." Both Claire and Rostam speak about the immediate fluidity of their studio relationship. Claire brought about half of Immunity pre-written into the studio together, but for the songs they co-wrote, like "Sofia," she describes Rostam immediately latching on to her train of thought, and helping her condense it in real time. They liked and disliked the same things, for instance, agreeing the drums should always bang — which they do on all songs, sad and happy.
Rostam ushered Claire into a cohort of indie veterans who became inspirations, if not direct influences on the album. Danielle Haim plays drums on several tracks, and Claire spent time jamming with Vampire Weekend producer Ariel Reichstad. He brought in indie legends like Shawn Everett (Julian Casablancas, The War on Drugs), Dave Fridmann (Tame Impala, The Flaming Lips, MGMT) and Tom Elmhirst (Adele, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie) to mix the record. Claire recalls listening to Fridmann's imprint on her songs with awe: "One of my favorite moments was hearing the first Dave Fridmann mix. He's known for 'producing as he mixes.' He went crazy on this song, and gave it this Tame Impala vibe, it was so cool. Rostam and I just let it happen. That was one of the biggest things I learned on this record. You have to let things happen. You have to not be so in control."
Mentees without album credits include Toro y Moi's Chaz Bear, who Claire met in an Austin studio and picked his brain about autotune. "Why do you use autotune in your music? It's not rap music, what's the significance of it?" she asked. His answer — that "it's easy to make autotune sound cool and distant, but challenging to make it sound emotional, to find the human in it" — shaped the musical language of Immunity. She also assigned herself out-of-studio homework: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, as well as an autobiography of Duke Ellington sit on her bedside table while we chat.
Working with Rostam was the first time Claire ever ceded control over her laptop-sized kingdom, and it upended her process for the better. "You learn to be this control freak, because everything's in front of you, instant and available. I realized things aren't executed on the first try." While "Flaming Hot Cheetos" and "Pretty Girls" were rough demos created in hours, she and Rostam spent months on "Bags," alone. "Every song was so specific. Eighty five million versions of every song, but I've learned that's the way I need to work. I thought I knew how I liked to work, with quick, rough demos, the beauty in the rough demo, blah blah blah. But it's so worth it because I can listen back and I actually don't hate it? I'm still in shock that Rostam took a chance on me and we were able to create something so incredible."
When I point out that she sounds surprised to discover she likes her own album, she laughs, admitting she was scared. "The production is so clean and I'm entering these different worlds that I wasn't in before, I was so scared about how I was going to enter all those worlds in a way that still sounded like me." She shouldn't be afraid. Claire figured out how to make an album that traverses all of her beloved musical worlds, anchored by her vocals, which are newly in-focus, thanks to Rostam's encouragement. "The world really hadn't heard what she was capable of vocally," he says.
Suit & Blouse: No. 21, Shoes: Robert Clergerie, Earrings: Lady Grey
The album, which will simply make the "bedroom pop" debate obsolete, has an irreverent but sophisticated approach to genre. Claire can pair most songs on Immunity with a direct inspiration (Death Cab for Cutie, Kacey Musgraves, Tame Impala, "the Phoebe Bridgers/Snail Mail/Soccer Mommy world," James Blake, the '90s R&B trio Sisters With Voices, D'Angelo, Robyn, The Strokes). But you don't quite hear it until she tells you, because the songs simply sounds like Clairo. "On my first EP, I was really intrigued by the idea of bending genre. I loved the idea of putting Rejjie Snow and Daniel Harle, a PC Music artist, in a room together. It felt really next," she explains. "But there's no features on the record. It's me, trying to get myself in those positions, where I'm twisting genre, not having other people on the songs to show that, like adding tap hi hats where you wouldn't expect them. Or crazy 808's on a piano song, or country guitar on a pop song."
The fact that Claire approached Immunity with a brilliant team and humility doesn't make it any less of a triumph. Most of the cries of "one-hit-wonder" and "industry plant" died out after her EP. However, similar to the way that people talk about Billie Eilish, the narrative persists that Claire's main appeal is as an internet artifact — a timestamp of the moment. Talented sure, but a zeitgeisty symbol. "Clairo songs are the thoroughly modern type — Spotifycore? — calibrated for repeated streaming from computer speakers," reads a New York Times profile from May of 2018, right after Diary 001 was released. "If Lorde was a child of Tumblr's collage of influence, Clairo is a playlist baby."
Immunity will be the end of that story, and suggests Claire will be making music long after Spotify's algorithm is replaced by a chip in our brains, or whatever. She's down for the ride. "I just want to make good records and music that's important to me," she says. "I can't even say what I want my career to become, because it's already exceeded my expectations. If I hope for anything, it's that people will let me grow, and acknowledge the journey."
Photographer: Erika Astrid
Stylist: Savannah White
Set Design: Mat Cullen
Hair: Jenni Wimmerstedt
Makeup: Leilani Sunglao