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Clairo: ‘This industry drains young women until they’re not youthful any more’ | Music

Exuding all the effusive pride of a new parent, Claire Cottrill is showing me photos of Joanie, her rescue dog and the muse for her forthcoming album, Sling. “She’s actually really bossy,” the Massachusetts-raised artist better known as Clairo chuckles over Zoom, holding her phone close to the laptop screen so I can see the Instagram post more clearly. “But she’s so funny. We have such a special bond.”

According to a DNA test, the sandy-furred pup is mostly chow chow and great pyrenees, with a little bit of boxer and lab in the mix, which accounts for the fact she has tripled in size in the six-and-a-bit months since her adoption. “She was a little wolf baby; a peanut!” the 22-year-old singer-songwriter exclaims, mooning nostalgically over one particular image depicting the then seven-week-old puppy peeking out of some bushes.

Dog ownership might have become quite the ultimate lockdown cliche, but for Cottrill committing to a pet represented a rare opportunity to lay down some roots. Certainly, pre-pandemic she hadn’t had much chance to pursue a life of quiet domesticity; not since the autumn of 2018 at least, when the lo-fi bedroom pop of Pretty Girl went viral, just weeks after she started college in Syracuse.

Its winningly DIY video racked up more than 1.5m YouTube views pretty much overnight (it now stands at almost 75m), and Cottrill was heralded as a vital new voice, and part of a wave of creatively autonomous, emotionally articulate Gen Z artists, alongside the likes of Billie Eilish and Rex Orange County.

Pup idol ... Clairo and Joanie.
Pup idol … Clairo and Joanie. Photograph: Adrian Nieto

Cottrill’s rapid rise – not to mention her signing with the Fader label and Chance the Rapper’s management team – was not without controversy. A small but vocal subset on Reddit circulated the rumour that Cottrill was an “industry plant”, a conclusion they arrived at following their discovery that her father Geoff was previously chief marketing officer at Converse and co-founder of its affiliated recording studio Rubber Tracks. She has recently addressed the allegations directly, telling Rolling Stone, “I definitely am not blind to the fact that things have been easier for me.”

Largely though, Cottrill has sought to prove her detractors wrong through the quality of her compositions. First came Diary 001, an esoteric, six-track set mining skeletal hip-hop and the wipe-clean grooves of PC Music-inspired pop. That was followed in August 2019 by Immunity, the full-length debut she co-produced with ex-Vampire Weekend man Rostam Batmanglij. More revelatory than Diary 001, it detailed a suicide attempt (Alewife) and her struggles with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (I Wouldn’t Ask You) with striking candour. Sonically, it paired tender, electronics-tinged introspection with swooning guitar-pop. Sofia, which now boasts 280m streams on Spotify, catapulted Cottrill into another league of fame entirely, leading to collaborations with Charli XCX, Mura Masa and Arlo Parks, plus arena tours in support of Khalid and Tame Impala.

Cottrill was busy with the latter when Covid hit the US. On hearing the news, she headed straight to Atlanta, Georgia, to see out lockdown with family, a period of isolation originally scheduled to last a fortnight but which went on for eight months.

Just how intense was it spending the best part of a year holed up with her parents? “It was awesome,” she insists, now back at the Brooklyn apartment she shares with fellow musicians and former college pals Claud and Josh Mehling. “My older sister came home as well. And I found it interesting that no matter how much you’ve progressed as an adult in your own life, the family roles revert back to exactly how it was as a kid.”

First and foremost, enforced confinement provided the opportunity for Cottrill to deepen her relationship with her mother.

“The conversations I had with my mom about motherhood, and the things she sacrificed for us, are really important to me,” she says. “Also, it’s like you don’t actually know who your mother is before she’s Mom, before she’s Wife, because there isn’t a huge documentation of who she was as an individual. And I realised that I might be in the period of my life now where I’m in my individual phase: before I am Mom, before I am Wife, or whatever I end up being. It was a bit scary to recognise that I could eventually have a family, and then this whole identity that I’ve had on my own for a long time can, in some ways, disappear.”

These existential ideas form the basis of Cottrill’s much-anticipated second album. Recorded in the autumn of 2020 at Allaire Studios – situated on a mountain top in upstate New York – Sling finds Jack Antonoff co-producing. Perhaps more significantly, the record also features backing vocals from Lorde – on Reaper as well as the lead single Blouse – an alliance that led to Cottrill returning the favour on the New Zealander’s latest, Solar Power.

Major keys ... Clairo in the studio.
Major keys … Clairo in the studio. Photograph: Adrian Nieto

“I met Lorde [when I was] on FaceTime with Jack,” she says of the link-up. “He was like: ‘Hey, I’m with a friend, can we say hi?’, and it was Lorde. And I freaked out, of course, but she’s the nicest person ever.

“We talked a lot about how cool it was in the Laurel Canyon era, where people would secretly do background vocals on each other’s music – like Joni Mitchell with Carole King – rather than as a way to benefit the business side of things. Back then it was just like: ‘I love your voice: will you lend your talent to my song?’ So that’s what I asked her, and I was just lucky enough that she wanted me on hers as well.”

The legacy of Laurel Canyon looms over Sling, which swaps the sparse electronic flourishes of Immunity for lush, acoustic folk, often embellished with swooning vocal harmonies, delicate strings and the warm swell of brass. Reference points for the record included Hejira-era Mitchell, the Carpenters and Harry Nilsson, alongside less obvious touchpoints, such as cult jazz musician Blossom Dearie. Most influential, perhaps, was Innocence & Despair by the Langley Schools Music Project, which features a choir of 1970s school kids covering hits of the day, and has since been hailed as a significant piece of outsider art.

“To me, that record merged my two worlds for Sling,” Cottrill explains. “I wanted that warm 70s feeling, but also I was thinking so much about kids, and especially the clumsy, sweet kid that Joanie embodies.”

There is a darker side to the record too, as Cottrill grapples with the reality of life navigating an industry that she memorably describes – on Bambi – as “a universe designed against my own beliefs”. On Blouse she describes her experiences being sexualised by record execs, while on Management she parodies the industry’s fascination with youth in lines like “She’s only 22”.

Producing the goods ... Clairo with Jack Antonoff.
Producing the goods … Clairo with Jack Antonoff. Photograph: Adrian Nieto

“[The attitude is] ‘There’s a lot more that we can squeeze out of her before she’s done.’ Because I think that what this industry does a lot is drain young women of everything until they’re not youthful any more.”

For Cottrill, as much as Sling is an album, it is a document of her endeavours to reassess what it is she wants from life. And adopting Joanie was only the first step: in two weeks’ time she plans to move into the house she recently purchased, in a tiny Massachusetts town in close proximity to both the Berkshire and Catskill mountains.

“It’s so awful that it took something like lockdown happening for me to reevaluate how I wanted to move forward. But it’s now about putting my mental health first, because I deserve to have nice things that I do care about. [Things] outside of music, like a house and a dog.”

As we say goodbye, I get another glimpse of Joanie, who has been snoozing throughout the interview. Sprawled on the floor at the end of Cottrill’s bed, blissfully unaware of her significance in our conversations, it’s a pretty fitting encapsulation of the pace of life that Cottrill has finally embraced.

Sling is out on Friday 16 July





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