Clara La San, In Control

Clara La San, In Control

Jun 13, 2024

While preparing for my interview with Clara La San, I realized I didn’t know where to begin. The largely anonymous British singer's music has floated around the internet for years, becoming synonymous with an ethereal R&B that has one foot in the early 2000s and the other in a time that doesn't exist yet. But there’s little information available about her online, and she has rarely shown her face since she started releasing music ten years ago.

Still, Clara La San has managed to amass a sizable fanbase who convene across TikTok, YouTube and SoundCloud to commiserate over her heart-piercing lyricism. Sometimes you need little else than the music to reach the masses.

“I’m definitely really private,” Clara La San tells me over Zoom, her camera turned off, just a week before her debut album, Made Mistakes, was set to be released. “I like to isolate myself. I take time to write music.” Her words read as resolute when written down, but when she speaks, she sounds as breathy and wavering as in her songs. “I don’t write just because I can or for the sake of it. There always has to be a reason.”

For years, the only Clara La San songs that were readily available were “Let you Go” and “In This Darkness.” Both are defined by a spellbinding quality, yearning odes that sound as if they’ve emerged from some digital void. The closest sonic analogies to her work are the earliest tracks by The Weeknd, back when he was the veiled purveyor of sultry cyberized R&B, but Clara La San’s sound is singular. Her voice is effortless, slippery. Her lyrics have the unique quality of being disarmingly direct, moving between the confessional and meditative.

She admits it’s hard to recall just how her music began to spread across the internet, but she remembers “Let You Go” as being the first to gain steam on SoundCloud after she released it in 2014. She was at a university and in her early 20s at the time. “I got really into synths and pads,” she tells me. “I was just like, ‘Well, it sounds nice, so maybe I should just see if anybody else likes it before I stop doing it.’”

They did. “I had no followers when I put the song on [SoundCloud],” she says. “I think I put a hashtag and I asked my sister if she could take a photo [for the art]. Everything transpired from there."

Quickly, she started receiving interest from the industry, but the prospect of signing to a label seemed strange and unthinkable. “Creating music means so much to me. It’s such an important part of my life,” she says. “It’s how I express and understand myself. That being taken away from me would leave me feeling alienated.” She pauses before doubling down. "I've just always wanted to be in control of my music,” she says. “That’s what’s made this possible.”

That early interest from the industry and public continued, but releases have been sparse in the years since. She did put out one mixtape, 2017’s Good Mourning, but took it down herself. “I love that mixtape, but it didn't feel ready,” she says. “I don’t think I was personally ready either."

Whether she was ready or not, “In This Darkness” and “Let You Go” continued to accrue her fans on SoundCloud. She was increasingly receiving messages asking for her to make the songs available on streaming so three years ago, she did. TikTok and YouTube skyrocketed both songs to heights few artists can ever dream to reach.

"I'm not an avid poster, but my sister told me ‘I’ve been watching videos and I'm sure this is your music,’” she recalls. Today, there are tens of thousands of videos of people reacting to her music and lyrics, often mimicking tears and offering their own meditation on her yearning poetics. “It's amazing to see people interpret the lyrics in their way and see their different emotional responses,” she tells me. Similarly, on YouTube, a whole culture has emerged around her music, where sped-up and slowed-down versions, edits that use her music against clips from movies (for some bizarre reason, Avatar is the most common), and even unreleased demos all have hundreds of thousands if not millions of views.

It’s all added up. As of today, “In This Darkness” has over 138 million streams on Spotify and “Let You Go” has north of 41 million.

In lieu of this spiraling success, she went full-time with her music three years ago, and set upon finishing her debut album, Made Mistakes. Clara La San is still doing things her way, though. She’s independent and when it was time to make her first music videos — the perplexing, slow, yet utterly hypnotic videos for album singles “Don’t Worry About It” and “Talking To You” — she partnered with Sega Bodega and Eartheater collaborators Claire and Rick Farin (Actual Objects). “We wanted the videos to have me on my own, not surrounded by other people, because that's how I write music,” she tells me. “We wanted people to put themselves in the [song’s] situation and not have a story in front of them, to imagine how the lyrics would relate to their life.” That reflective posture, one that constantly points the listener away from herself and towards their own perspective, is rare, but it explains why her music has touched fans so deeply.

“When I'm writing, the feeling that I get from the songs is like, ‘Oh, this is doing something.’ If I feel a certain way, somebody else out there is going to feel the same way,” she says. “I've always had a strong self-belief in what I create.”

Many artists who have experienced online success similar to Clara La San would be likely to cave to industry pressure and shift their sound to align with their broadening horizons, but Clara La San had an enduring faith that this all would work out if she kept things going on her own terms.

You can hear such assuredness throughout Made Mistakes, like on “Don’t Worry About It” which moves like a circle over trap drums and layers of washed-out pianos. “I can’t control how I feel/ I get so lonely at times/ Try to look up and not down just to open my mind,” she sings with her signature directness. On “All I Wanna Do,” a dark piece of bass-forward R&B offset by her sweetly loving lyrics, “All I wanna do is settle down with you/ Spending every day/ Just rolling ‘round with you,” she coos.

Though the machinations of public life may be a novelty for the reclusive artist, there’s a pride she has in this body of work, and a gratitude for the fan’s deep connection to her words and work. “I wanted to let everybody know that I do exist,” she says. “I'm not going to stay in the shadows forever. I just wanted time to hone in on the music and have a full body of work.”

Her life is still quiet, largely shifting between Los Angeles and London. She still writes her songs solo, though on Made Mistakes, she partnered with producer Yves Rothman to finalize the arrangements. With shows on the way and an album that, if history is an indicator, is set to expand her world considerably, the once-veiled Clara La San is inching toward the limelight. Thankfully, though, she’s still in control of her spotlight. She’s adjusting the brightness.

Photography:Claire Farin